Cameras as Permission Objects

I’ve aways liked to think my photography teaching and my art practice are nicely interweaved. When I teaching photography I’m showing people how to use a tool to create pieces of visual art. What they then do with that tool is entirely up to them, but the fundamentals of the tool are universal. I also show them what I call “compositional tricks”, simple things like the rule of thirds which can radically improve their photos. This all leads, within the confines of a beginners course, to thinking about photographs not as reflecting reality but as evoking an idea or a feeling through the arrangement of shapes and colours in a rectangle. In other words I take them to the edge of thinking about art but don’t push them if all they want to do is take nice holiday photos. But sometimes they take the bait, and that makes me happy.

On Saturday I ran a beginners workshop at a horse riding school where some members had clubbed together to hire me for the day. It was a very different environment but I effectively did my usual course, adapted to a five hour afternoon. Feedback was good and I left happy. And then today this appeared in my stream.

I’ll excerpt the key bit.

Permission Objects & Photo School Birmingham

I can’t even remember the context of the rest of the conversation, but Pete explained that a friend of his (Nikki Pugh) uses ‘Permission Objects’ in order to help people ‘get into character’ within a theatre/performance setting. A ‘permission object’ could be anything – when you are wearing this hat you have ‘permission’ to be as grumpy as you like, when you are holding the umbrella you have permission to dance like a ballerina.

Having or wearing the object allows us to bypass our inbuilt human instinct to avoid feeling uncomfortable. It appeases that feeling of ‘being other than ourselves’ or feeling self conscious when stepping outside societal norms, thus promoting a ‘safety’ and freedom to wholly commit to the experience. With a clearly defined ‘start and end’ point, (while you have the permission object) our brain has an ‘acceptable reason’ for being or doing ‘other’.

The camera acts as a form of permission object. It encourages us to see the world differently, to walk slower or sit still, crouch down, look up, crawl through mud, stand on chairs; whatever we need to do to ‘get the shot’. The very nature of photography is to adjust our viewpoint, change our perception, to find order or observe chaos to better tell a story.

It encourages us to ‘see’ other people as objects of beauty, of interest, shape and form instead of feeling frustrated or intimidated by them. It challenges us to tell the story of how we perceive the world, to have the confidence to decide and highlight what’s important, by our own unique choice of focus. We can concentrate on the capture and the share of how a something moved us, how it made us feel, in that moment; trap it in amber.

Somewhat amusingly I’ve been struggling to articulate Nikki’s permission object concept in relation to cameras for a while now and just drop it in to classes occasionally to try it for size, so to see it emerge in this form was delightful. It’s exactly the sort of thing I encourage on the photo walks and want to explore with cameraphones and other ubiquitous image-making devices.

Significantly, taking my camera out with me forces me back ‘into the moment’. For me, the camera as my permission object leads me back into the state of being I want to be in – The Now. It funnels me into seeing what is, instead of worrying about what might be. It affords me ‘permission’ to enjoy the complex experience of life as a human, to truly see and appreciate colour and texture from an almost macro perspective, when life feels too huge.


AK Dolven photography masterclass for Ikon


On March 21st I ran a photography masterclass for Ikon in Birmingham. This was the third such workshop I’d done with Simon Taylor, head of Learning, where we ask participants to respond to a current exhibition with their cameras.

The format is simple. After a brief introduction, Simon leads us on a tour of the gallery where he talks about how the artist approaches their work, both technically and intellectually, and picks out themes and issues to consider. We then return to the classroom and discuss what we’ve seen, developing it into a framework for photographing Birmingham. Something this is a simple case of aesthetics, sometimes it’s a little more conceptual.

With out framework in place, and after a break for lunch, we spend two hours walking around Birmingham with our cameras taking photos. Finally we meet up again at Ikon, load the photos onto a computer and talk through them as a group.

The aim is for the group to have gained a better understanding and appreciation of the Ikon exhibition alongside developing their technical and aesthetic skills in photography. By working within a narrow constraint they are forced to stretch themselves and try things they wouldn’t have considered. The hope is when they return to “normal” photography they bring this with them and are pleased with the results.

This particular masterclass was using AK Dolven‘s exhibition, Please Return, a wide ranging retrospective of her work. These shows can be quite daunting to get a hook into so we started with the obvious – how she practically makes her photographic work – and let that lead us to more nuanced things.

A lot of AK Dolven’s work involved using her cameras wrongly, deliberately defocussing or “badly” composing the shots. This is a very interesting approach to apply to photography in the modern age where an off the shelf camera is engineered to take a “perfect” photo with by default. Switching off this perfection and getting things wrong is the challenge of our age.

To illustrate this I called back to my Through The Viewfinder days from 2006-10 where I found myself bored with “perfect” photography and started sticking random stuff in front of the camera to distort and enhance the image.


I then emptied a bag of old camera bits and, to be honest, translucent rubbish, onto the table. From broken lenses to flash-bulbs to dirty mirrors to plastic bags and the packaging of the snacks we’d been provided with – anything that could go in front of the lens and distort the image was fair game. We tried out a few of these and then went out on the walk.

Interestingly the snack packaging was the most fruitful. The bases were crinkled and refracted the light in nice patterns, whilst being opaque enough to smudge the details. The image at the top of this page was taken with one.

The walk was amusing to watch as a group of grownups wandered around holding rubbish in front of their relatively expensive cameras. We got some looks and comments which just encouraged people to go further. It was nice to see this playful approach to photography, a discipline that is usually serious and exacting, embraced by adults.


Feedback at the end of the workshop was great. People enjoyed themselves but also learned a lot about their cameras and how to develop their photography. And from my perspective it was a lovely chance to mix my teaching with my artistic practice within the context of an art gallery.

My photos taken during the walk are here. Workshops with Ikon tend to come around every 6 months and I will announce them in the Photo School newsletter.

Some more photos:

Inspired by AK Dolven 04

Inspired by AK Dolven 06

Inspired by AK Dolven 17

Inspired by AK Dolven 22

Three Spring Shows

I have three exhibitions of my art in Birmingham over the next couple of months, which is delightful.

BOM Fellows Showbom_logo_small2
March 9th – April 30th
Birmingham Open Media

Since November I’ve been a Fellow at Birmingham Open Media aka BOM. On the most prosaic level it means by working there I help inform the direction this new space develops in. There are 10 of us, from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, and this two month show sees us shake out why we’re here and what we can do together in a public forum.

My initial contribution will be documentation of Sitting In Stagram which ties together a number of my interests and reached at least 750,000 people over the last 10 days, which is insane. This will be on show from March 9th. Following this, a month later, will be an installation which tries to take this from Instagram and into the gallery space while attempting to retain what makes it interesting by collaborating with my fellow Fellows and others.

Miniature Camera Obscuras for Flatpack FestivalFFF9_pass3
20th/21st March

While the Kickstarter-funded Birmingham Camera Obscura is being constructed by professionals, Jenny and I will be making our first outing of the year, hanging mini camera obscuras in the window of Home Cafe Deli on Church St as part of the Flatpack Film Festival. The idea is these devices will show miniature movies directly sourced from outside the cafe, and we’ll be running workshops where people can make their own from cardboard and tracing paper. Ours will be rather splendid, though, and we hope you’ll enjoy them.

Cross City Walks for Flatpack Festival
27th – 29th March

On the second weekend of Flatpack I’ll be showing the fruits of a different collaboration in a completely different venue. Upstairs from the lovely Polish Expats centre Centrala I’ll be installing a screen showing the timelapse photos taken on Andy Howlett and my Cross City Walks where we walk across Birmingham is as straight a line as possible. In front of the screen will be treadmill which controls the speed of the film. But run too fast and things might take a strange turn.

Our initial four walks will be on show along with copious information about this project which we plan to develop over the next year in collaboration with others. The installation is part of the Video Strolls strand of Flatpack, curated by Andy.

More info about all three to come as I inevitably document the process.

Many Rooms, Much Sitting

This weekend I finished my latest in a number of riffs on Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room. This latest, reposting the same image over and over to Instagram, achieved a lot of what I’ve been searching for lately so it feels like good point to stop and take stock of who else has been using “the room” as a method of exploring iterative decay and its effects.

The Original

MP3s on UbuWeb


Patrick Liddell: I Am Sitting In A Video Room

Guy Evans: Out Of Space


Mary Lucier: Polaroid Image Series


“Between 1969 and 1974 Mary Lucier made a series of slide projection works titled Polaroid Image Series, begun as a collaboration with the composer Alvin Lucier and based on the structure of his composition for voice and tape, I am sitting in a room. In this sound work, Alvin Lucier recorded himself reading a text describing the making of the work. The recording was played back into the room repeatedly, rerecorded each time, until the original statement became unintelligible as a representational form, leaving only the resonant frequencies of the room and the rhythm of speech. Following the same structure, Mary Lucier introduced an original Polaroid photograph through a Polaroid copier, thus beginning a sequence of 50 images in which each subsequent generation becomes itself a copy of the one before it. As in Alvin Lucier’s sound work, small errors that occurred during the process were incorporated into the work and amplified as it progressed. The resulting 50 black and white slides were projected sequentially, along with the original thirteen-minute audio work.”

Charles Calloway: I Am Instagramming In A Room

Text to Speech

Sebastian Tomczak: I Am Sitting In A Room (MacSpeech and TextEdit Version)


Antonio Roberts: I Am Sitting In A Room

Any more?

Let me know by email or in the comments.