“As part of Taking Part Residency at Photofusion I am hoping to continue working with marginalized communities in London affected by processes of ‘urban regeneration’, using participatory photography as a tool to create counter narratives to the prevalent mainstream narrative. While forces of displacement are pushing people to migrate, more and more walls are being put up limiting freedom of movement. The ‘migration crisis’ relates not just to those fleeing war, poverty and environmental degradation in the developing world; it can be seen also much closer to home.” – Eva Sajovic
Post-Residency Artist Q&A
What is the Elephant’s Trumpet about?
The Elephant’s Trumpet (ET) is an attempt to mobilise the community in the face of regeneration. It is a response to the situation in Elephant and Castle at a time when the developer Delancey is submitting a planning application and there is a lot of unhappiness about what is being proposed. We knew that in order to push against and argue with the council for a more community minded proposal we all needed to unify and engage as many people as possible. In particular the traders needed to get involved and fight for a better relocation / compensation deal. Thus we created the Elephant’s Trumpet, a collaboratively produced community newspaper that aims to organize, promote and share resources, ideas and concerns about Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre, at the heart of an area undergoing a massive regeneration. The newspaper brings together the voices of traders, local organisations, residents, local artists and users of the shopping centre in mutual support and solidarity.
The funding comes partially from my residency (Taking Part) at Photofusion and the Arts Council England. So far two issues were published and we have funds to print one more which we are currently working on and hoping to make available from the beginning of July.
How did you engage participants?
ET comes out of a long-term (10 years) working in the area through various artistic initiatives that responded to particular moments in the regeneration process. I started in 2007 after I first moved into the area as a way to better understand the place I felt I could belong to, especially as it was very different to anything I knew before. The first project was Home From Home a book of portraits and stories I initiated and later completed in collaboration with writer Sarah Butler. Studio at the Elephant, the People’s Bureau, Collecting Home and the UnEarthing Elephant followed, in collaboration with Rebecca Davies and Sarah Butler.
This ongoing engagement and being a local resident meant that at the point we started the ET, I was familiar with issues present in the area, already knew a lot of the locals, some of whom became involved in the newspaper.
I presented my initial idea for the paper to Jerry Flynn of 35%/Elephant Amenity Network (EAN), (a campaigner for social housing and for regeneration that would benefit the local people) and one of the traders based at the shopping centre. Next, we discussed it at an EAN meeting with the members who were present and decided to go ahead. We sent out emails to let more people know and as an open invitation to take part and organised an editorial meeting through which the group of collaborators formed. Some of the contributors were invited at points when we needed an article to be written on a specific issue.
We collated the contents on the google doc platform to which the editorial board had access, which became an important tool for organizing, sharing in a transparent way and facilitating flexible involvement according to people’s availability.
Tell us about the methodologies or approaches you used to work with participants?
The basic contents list was shaped collectively at editorial meetings which took place either in the meeting room lent by one of the tenants or at a local café both in the shopping centre. Anyone present could suggest and provide ideas and content for the paper. It was less straight forward to collect all the materials and often meant having to delay design and printing deadlines. Considering that the paper was produced on the voluntary basis this is understandable yet it required determination, flexibility and patience from all of the involved, especially designer Alistair Ramage who had to work through many amendments and several versions of the paper.
Although the intention was for the newspaper to become fully collaborative, where issues and tasks get shared equally, in reality that is very difficult to achieve. Even if the roles are delegated in agreement with everyone, to achieve the end product someone still needs to be in charge of overseeing and managing the timeline, production (chasing for content, several iterations through the design process, proofreading, attention to all the consents and acknowledgments being in place and correct), printing, delivery (organizing where to send the delivery, making sure somebody is there when it arrives), dissemination, promotion and budget. This is the role I shared mostly with the writer and editor George Kafka.
The paper has an overall template that organizes contents into three sections: organize, share, promote. The most important article featured on the front page is always the update on the planning application and political issues present in the area. Materials are a mix of written and visual contributions, transcripts from interviews, photographs that I have printed from archival slides of the area and my own photographs and excerpts from the film we finished in 2017 called the UnEarthing Elephant. Every issue invites contributions and explains how one can get involved, which brought a few contributors.
The newspaper is disseminated in print and digital forms. Local networks assisted in sharing information and stored copies, for example, Southwark Notes who also helped organizing volunteers to give out copies of the paper. At the time of the publication, my collaborator Rebecca Davies and I were commissioned to deliver two Tate Late events, which became an additional dissemination opportunity through which we reached out to a wider audience. An important bit of learning was that the dissemination itself can be a useful point of contact and an opportunity for a conversation about the situation in the Elephant.
What has surprised you about the work created during the residency?
I was surprised how important the darkroom became for me; An important space for the exploration of issues that arouse through my participatory practice over the past few years.
Experimenting with the printing process was the starting point that led me to think about the role of the image, production and audience.
The starting point to this what the exploration of what ‘participation’ in photography means. For me it is about equal involvement of the subject to that of the photographer, the two together constructing a photograph’s meaning. It is about who controls the means of representation.
I was questioning whether this is also about who holds the camera? Which in itself can become an important tool for engagement and, I observed, to counter certain voguish academic/art critique of, in particular, photography that makes displacement visible.
This question, I understood, was connected to Solomon-Godeau’s concern about aesthetization of catastrophic events which are prone to turn subject into victim. And Rosler’s theory that the photograph’s inherent desire to see and show can spawn voyeurism and careerism.
I got to understand that although in participatory photography one often considers the site of the image (composition, colour, … the aesthetic qualities) and the site of production (the role of the subject and the photographer in the production process, which often is difficult to translate into something tactile, hence the importance of documentation) – which the conversations with the other resident artists and mentors largely focused on. What is often forgotten is the site of the audiencing: the role of the viewer in the meaning- making. If we consider the photographic act as a tripartite relationship of meaning-making between the subject, the photographer and the viewer, we get to dig beyond the aesthetic versus real attributes of photography. Of course what Solomon-Godeau and Rosler are saying can happen, yet not all images (of the displaced) are the same. There are those that aestheticise (Ranciere) and allow viewing to be a leisure activity and others that require accepting the pain of images, internalizing them and as a result taking action that they demand from us as citizens on behalf of others. As per Azoulay, becoming part of the Citizenry of photography. Hence critics who place all the images without investigating the three different sites (of the image, of production and of audiencing) into one basket I feel are complicit in exactly what they are trying to avoid.
I revisited some of the classical theory texts, from Sontag, Berger, through Ranciere to Azoulay and initiated a number of project to test my findings and get to the answers through practice: research and production around climate change and displacement in Jordan related to the drought in Syria resulting in Photographic Communities of Displacement; Happy New Year, New Year Dreams Come True, a participatory project in Italy, through which assisted portraiture and writing explored the role of self-representation and identity in places of immigration); an MA dissertation entitled Photographic (Communities of) Displacement resulting in the production of an artist book.
Although the project that I formally presented as part of the Taking Part was Elephant’s Trumpet, the process, the outcomes and outputs of the residency as described above were invaluable for my general artistic development and fed into the production of the ET.
For the duration of nearly 18 months the residency acted as a framework for my work. It validated the importance of spending time on reflective critical evaluation. Time which with the hectic tempo of London, going fast from project to project I never felt I had or could afford. It also gave me a sense of belonging which was very stabilizing in particular as I normally work free-lance, in precarious ways between different projects, teaching at university, with different collaborators and without an institutional backing and hence no one to share, not only the things that go well, but also the things that go wrong or fail.
What challenges did you face and how did you deal with this?
Working in socially engaged practice requires ongoing accountability from the artist to the collaborators, participants and communities they work with. Through working on long-time socially engaged projects I, over the years, learned that the more one is involved, the more public the work, the more one is also called upon to act. This can come from different directions, which can be challenging and requires a strong focus on the objective of the work. The calling can be justified which can help direct the work. It is more difficult when it is not justified, but rather an attack. This can change the direction of the work and be even detrimental to it.
During the ET I had received two such challenges, one from a local resident and one from a twitter quasi-academic. Both feel a lot of ownership, the resident over the Elephant area and the twitterer over socially engaged practice in areas of urban regeneration (feeling the entitlement to reduce it to artwash just because it is related to regeneration and writing about it without ever experiencing it).
At first it felt devastating but with the support I received from the collaborators in the Elephant, from the residency and fellow colleagues defending me on twitter I gained perspective. As time went on I realised that a lot of what that meant was the two people dealing with personal issues and no matter what I do it will be considered wrongly and challenged.
How do you think you will take your experience of Taking Part into your future work?
Having spent time in the darkroom I realized how important it is for me to have the time on my own to properly reflect on the process by working with materials. I will seek to continue finding the time for this which I feel qualitatively impacts on the work and collaboration with others.
I will continue merging social actions with photography. I want to further explore documentation as an important tool to a meaningful and democratic engagement. I would like to push my thinking about the role of audience in the meaning-making. And further test what methods could work successfully to affect perception through conscience raising and the use of photography as a tool for challenging ideology and not only voicing/visibility. Related to this are experimental methods that I started using as part of the residency, aimed at challenging ‘how we see’, like for example, printing from positive transparency to achieve a negative image; big enlargement of negatives to make the grain visible as an important element of the image; printing tiled images, etc.
As part of the commission At the Human Library in Bootle, Liverpool, where I currently work with my collaborator Davies Rebecca, we introduced a community darkroom and studio. We are working across photography and ceramics to explore issues related to representation and place, looking for ways to merge these in the object we are producing.
As part of a research and development commission by Create London in Park Royal, the largest industrial site in Europe, where we have just started working, we are further investigating some of the questions around participatory practice including the connection between art and displacement, how to manage expectations of others, including participants, funders, commissioners and our own.
Digital copies of the Elephant’s Trumpet are available to view on ISSU and for download by email request.
Eva Sajovic is a Slovene born artist photographer, living and working in London. Her focus is on socially engaged, participatory practice working with issues of identity, displacement, be-longing and representation.
For Sajovic participatory art is a tool to create platforms from which people can speak for themselves and self-represent. It is a political process since once the personal enters the public domain it becomes political and creates opportunity for art to act as a counter and a challenge to the mainstream narratives.
Recent commissions and awards include: Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Whitechapel Gallery, The National Archives, Ffotogallery, Cuming museum, 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning, 47/04 (QuarantaSetteZeroQuattro), Photography Archive Research Centre, London College of Communication, Siobhan Davies Dance, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England, the European Commission, Darat Al Funun Foundation Jordan, University of The Arts and the Ministry of Culture Slovenia.
Sajovic is an Associate Lecturer at UAL’s Central Saint Martins and Theory Lecturer at Chelsea College of Art. In 2015 she became Tate Exchange Associate with the People’s Bureau project.
Originally posted photofusion.org/resident-artist-eva-sajovic/