Collective Photography - The Book


Over the last few months I’ve been slowly getting my head around what happened last year when I applied for, and received, my first Arts Council grant to run some photo walks in Birmingham. I went in to the process as someone who was probably capable of being an artist but didn’t have the confidence to call themselves an artist. I came out of the process as someone who, when asked by the registrar what to put in the occupation box on his wedding certificate last month, said Artist.

In March I half-joked that I’d got so much stuff in my head that I needed to write a book to get it straight. And then I looked at the sketchy notes I’d written and realised there was a book there. So I wrote it.

The book is called Collective Photography and it’s free to read/download in various ebook formats from Leanpub. (You can pay for it if you like but there’s no obligation).

The meat of the book is 10,000 words long, which isn’t that bad, and I’ve tried to keep it light and readable. It’s not the evaluation report, though I did need to write the book to get my thoughts straight for it.

The rest is a huge slab of appendices including blog posts, the funding application, questionnaire answers and a couple of interviews. You don’t need to read these unless they’re of interest.

Amongst other things I’m hoping this book is useful to other people like me who might not come from an art-school background and want to see how the Grant for the Arts process could work for them.

Please note that it isn’t 100% finished. I will be taking on board some feedback and tweaking the text in places, as well as adding some images and the evaluation over the next few weeks. I might even ask someone to do a not-shite cover! But if you go through the Leanpub process you’ll be notified when updates are available. I’ll also extract some of the newer pieces for this blog.

Please do let me know what you think of it and, for the next few weeks anyway, any comments on improving bits.

Download / read it here

New Art-Walks in Birmingham this Spring

Summary: My new walks start this Sunday. Book here.

As many of you will be tired of hearing, I’m still digging myself out of the ideas pile that fell of me last year thanks to my Grants For The Arts award. It’s nearly over, though. Here’s the end-game.

  • A book about what I did, what I discovered and what I learned. Not a massive book but certainly a few chapters. This is the “exhibition” and will be released via Leanpub once it’s finished, hopefully in April.
  • An artwork based on the photos that were taken. I have a pretty good idea about what this might look like but am keeping it under wraps for now. Again, April.
  • A package of photography-based workshops and walks which can be offered by arts and culture organisations, integrated into their general offer. This is the bit where I become a resource to the arts industry in my region, paying back the Arts Council’s investment. I just need to write this up, so maybe this week but probably April.
  • A brand new series of eight walks developing the experiments in 2013 into a coherent package resulting a new work.

The new walks start on Sunday and are being run through Photo School. You can buy tickets and read my description of them there.

One of the big disappointments with the walks last autumn was how few “normal people” they attracted. Because Photo School does well on Google, a significant number of people who come to the classes and walks are not from my word-of-mouth circle and the mix of people I know and people I’d probably never meet otherwise is a great thing.

Despite being sold through Photo School, the November walks didn’t get my usual mix of people. I knew nearly everyone who came on them and many were from the art/culture community. Which was great from the sense of showing the world in which I wish to work what I do, but not so great for the work.

I think the reason for this is the word “Art”. The culture wars in this country have loaded it with meaning, both positive and negative, and it can make people feel uncomfortable, or at the very least provide a small barrier to bothering.

I was in somewhat uncharted territory, running events directly funded by the Arts Council, and one of the requirements was that people be made aware they’re participating in “an artwork”. I didn’t have a problem with this, but maybe I pushed it a bit too much. I also didn’t think about why people came on my walks. Their reasons would be myriad but they probably wouldn’t be about helping me develop my art practice.

With these new walks my artistic approach is finely attuned. I’ve done the research, thought the thinks and gathered inspiration from other artists. I’ll be doing LOADS of art on the walks and that’s what makes my walks unique to me.

But I’m not selling them as art. They’re Photo Walks with an emphasis on an educational, enjoyable experience exploring the city with cameras. I bring my artistic nous as a service but it doesn’t dominate. The overriding context is photography. Any art is a byproduct and a bonus.

Interestingly this isn’t a problem when I work for someone like the Ikon where they’re employing me as an artist. If anything I have to hide the teachy side and push the Hero Artist stuff. It’s all about context.

So, to summarise:

  • I’m producing a new work this Spring / Summer.

  • It will exist as a series of eight walks and a single piece of work informed by the walks. (digital/physical/other).
  • Participants will be recruited through Photo School.
  • It builds on and continues my research from the last 6 months.

If you’d like to come on one or more of the walks, book now!


Today was the launch of the first stage of Rich White‘s Viaduct, a study of the derelict Duddeston Railway Viaduct in Digbeth which was never used and has been sitting there, like a monolithic bluebrick slug, since 1846.

2014-03-15 12.21.26

This stage of the project consisted of Rich recording conversations with various people as he walked around the base of the viaduct, conversations which he then edited into a single dialogue printed in a newspaper. (I have copies of the newspaper if you want one.)

I was one of the people who Rich took on a walk. I quickly forgot he was recording me and when I got the transcript I was delighted at how I came across. He really managed to get the good stuff out of my brain.

I asked Rich if I could use the unedited transcript of my walk and he said fine, so here it is. Thanks again to Rich for the opportunity and to Trevor Pitt and A3 Project Space for putting us together. Here’s to part two of the project!

Continue reading Viaduct

Interviewed at Imperica

As part of speaking at Bees In A Tin about my photo walks last month, I was interviewed along with Holly Gramazio for Imperica, an online magazines for digital arts and stuff. I feared I was rambling a load of old nonsense but it all came out rather well, I think. Thanks to Paul Squires for enabling coherence.

A sample:

How does the appreciation of a given space change over time? How is a new appreciation sought, and how do your own views help to build a re-interpretation of what public space is or could be?

PA: I’m a big fan of returning to the same place over time, and it always disappoints me that when someone has come on one of my routes, they don’t feel the need to come on it again. Over-enthusiastic planners aside, cities don’t suddenly change. It’s a gradual process of entropy, decay, maintenance and redevelopment. Every time I walk through Birmingham I see a new building, or a changed building. Something burns down, somewhere else is given a new lease of life. Every day life happens in the city and it leaves a mark. These marks accumulate, and the story of the city is told.

Revisiting a given space is more than seeing the same place over and over. It’s a different place each time. My interpretation of it is unique to me. There are a million Birminghams, one for each person who lives here, not to mention all those who visit. Each is as valid as the other. We make our own sense of place. I guess that this is why private ownership of apparently public spaces, while interesting, doesn’t overly concern me. We make the city in our own way, regardless of what the “owners” want. Dhruva Mistry’s fountain-sculpture The River isn’t called The River. It’s called The Floozie in the Jacuzzi and there’s nothing Mistry can do about it.

How my Walks are Art


I’m preparing my presentation for Bees In A Tin on Friday about the walks I ran with sound artists last November which will form the core of my documentation of those events. At the Spaghetti Junction photo walk on Sunday I got talking to one of the participants about how leading these walks was really my “work” in an artistic sense. This evening I submitted an idea to a performance arts festival looking at the connection between performance and photography. Meanwhile the Walk On exhibition, which I blogged about the catalogue for last year, has finally made its way to the MAC arts centre down the river from me, though I haven’t had a chance to visit yet.

So it’s probably a good time to explain how leading people with cameras on walks through Birmingham is, for me, a Work of Art.

When I lead people on a walk it’s very obviously a performance. I have a script, both in terms of the route I plan to take and the manner in which I present that route. I have a role, that of the expert, the guide, and I play that role as a character quite similar to Pete Ashton but different enough that friends have commented on it.

The whole event is mediated by my decisions. The participants have their experience directed and informed by me. I decide what they see and, more critically, how they see it.

This second part is the most interesting and I’d like to address it on a number of levels.

Spaghetti Junction photo walk Feb 09

Firstly there’s the photographic aspect. The Photo Walk is sold as a chance to experience the city as a “photographer” rather than a normal pedestrian. We walk slowly. We look up and down. We use the camera as a tool to record but also understand the environment. Mindful photography is a creative endeavour and we are creatively engaging with the environment, making small rectangular artworks from our experience. Sure, most of these artworks aren’t going to set the world on fire, but that’s the same with everything. The point is I am asking people to think about what they are walking through in these terms.

Secondly there’s the narration. I tend to be quite hands off on the walks, letting people drift and discover on their own, but I make a point to bring people together for key moments. Some of it is historical context (Curzon St Station always makes for a good story), sometimes it’s a creative exercise (really look at an object and count to 50 before photographing it), sometimes it’s drawing attention to details (I like to point out the rusting metal embedded in buildings as evidence of previous uses) but often it’s more subtle that that.

I also, and I guess this is Thirdly, set a vibe. When leading people through Digbeth or Spaghetti Junction I am often taking them to places they haven’t been to. There’s a sense of an adventure into the unknown and it’s something I have to be very careful to manage. Being photographers with relatively expensive equipment my groups often have a middle-class privilege bias to them and I tend to take them to industrial and post-industrial areas. I am constantly aware of the spectre of class tourism and ruin porn and try my best to mitigate this by showing respect for the areas we’re in. On Sunday I tried to emphasise that people live in the shadows of Spaghetti Junction and that this definitely isn’t an abandoned wasteland. Indeed, the structure looks like it does so as to cause minimal destruction underneath. It should be seen as a monumental piece of architecture which offers fantastic opportunities for photography, but also as a part of this city that, for good or ill, informs the lives of the people that live in it.


Of course I can’t control how someone sees these things. When I commented on a women wearing an incredibly striking yellow dress on a Sunday lunchtime in Digbeth I was told by one of my walkers she was definitely a prostitute, something which had never occurred to me and for which I saw no evidence. And even if she was, so what? Another time an older man found my tour of the more run-down areas around Bradford St to be depressing, which was a perfectly valid viewpoint which I sympathise, particularly as he’d worked in Birmingham when these areas were vibrant and alive. I wanted him to see it from my perspective, that there was beauty in the history that was revealed by this decay, but his feelings were too strong.

Still, not being able to control your participants is not a failure. If anything I welcome these challenges because they make me reconsider my prejudices, my perspectives. But even if they reject my framing, the framing still dominates. This is MY walk.

So, that’s the performance bit covered. But what about the artwork? Where does that fit it?

There’s a view that the walk itself is the work. I perform for 90 minutes to a small participatory audience and then we all go home. I think this view has merit, but I don’t think it makes for very interesting art. For a start you could say teaching is an artwork. People gather in a room where the teacher performs and they leave with their worldview slightly changed. Is this fundamentally any different to seeing a play in a theatre? I don’t know, to be honest, so I’ll leave that one for the “theatre in education” folks to answer.

I do know I play the same character when I’m teaching as when I’m leading a walk, and that my ability to be “a photographer” is diminished when I’m in this role. Photography, for me, is a personal process that edges into meditative at times. I find I cannot take decent photos while I’m running a workshop or a walk because I cannot get into the right mindset. (Amusingly I have no decent photos of Curzon St Station despite telling over 100 people how to take decent photos of it.) So I’d be happy to go along with the notion that my taking people through this process is, in some way, a “work of art”.

Spaghetti Junction photo walk Feb 04

But these are more than guided walks. They are more than classes. People are taking photographs, engaging in creative activities which have outcomes in the form of photographs. This is where I think I am being an Artist creating a Work, not as the producer of a walk but as a director of other people’s photographs.

I like to think of a Photo Walk as a group of cameras attached to people over whom I exert an amount of control. I use the methodology of the tour guide to broker a situation where people are prepared to let me control their lives for a short period. As such any photographs that emerge from this process are, in some way, informed by me. I can consider the mass of photos that emerge from these walks to be “the work”. That is, if I can get hold of them.

Photography, for me, is about working with constraints. There are obvious physical constraints such as where you can place the camera. Natural constraints of light and technical constraints of the equipment used. There’s also the constraint of photography itself - the issue of thinking in terms of a rectangle of coloured dots instead of with your eyes. All these problems serve to make photography a vibrant and exciting artistic medium.

So the idea of attempting to influence a dozen or so autonomous agents in how they might take photographs and the results being “my art” is not a strange one. An important part of art, for me, is understanding when to exert control and when to just let it be. When to influence and when to not. It’s about developing an understanding of the subject and developing a relationship. My subject is the areas I lead walks in but also how those areas are perceived. Evidence of that perception is often the work.

Or at least that’s the mental framework I’m currently approaching these walks with. It’s working so far.


Photos by Fiona Cullinan, Steve Cooper and Myself.