As students prepare their degree shows, we talk to photographer and University of Brighton lecturer Simon Sandys. At this busy time, he is just one of those on hand to help them cope with the pressure.
How did you get involved in teaching?
I moved to Brighton to be with my girlfriend at the time. I needed work and the job came up with uni, I applied and got it (in the end)
In fact I think that it was the only time I got a job through just applying to an ad in the paper!
The teaching part has just evolved through the years. I had taught on some photography adult education courses and run some workshops but it has definitely become part of the main focus of work now.
What have been your biggest challenges and biggest highlights?
That’s difficult to answer because in some ways the same thing which brings joy can also bring the challenges.
Setting up for a shoot which involves lots of challenges in terms of the subject matter or lighting which I had no control over at the time can reveal something you didn’t expect later when you see the results.
That really puts the joy back into it and makes it all worthwhile, even if at the time it sometimes felt like a nightmare!
These days highlights also come from when I see students get inspired by a subject and they blossom and gain confidence during their time at uni.
I also learn a lot from speaking to students and their different approaches. That to me is the core of what education should be about, this two-way exchange of ideas and development of confidence and self esteem through a creative and experimental approach.
You encourage a mindful approach in your students, what does this mean?
I guess encouraging a ‘mindful approach’ simply means asking the students to be aware of what they (and for that matter ‘we’) are doing and not being scared to ask fundamental questions like ‘why are you doing it?’
That might sound over simplistic, obvious or confrontational even but it’s not meant like that.
I think that because contemporary photography practice is so competitive it can take itself very seriously and can get a bit complex and heavy at times.
So I think just reminding the students to look at the wider picture of why they are working on a particular project in the first place can be a good way to refocus what they want from study. It can also bring a new appreciation for what they do.
Can you tell us more about your exploration of Wet Collodion photography?
About three years ago I found that teaching aspects of digital, with its options to control almost every aspect of the image, took away a lot of the random joy that you get when you only have 10 shots on a roll or one sheet at a time on large format.
So I signed up for a Wet Plate workshop and immersed myself in that world for a bit.
For me it was the missing link that every photographer should explore.
Creating a Wet Plate is like that magic you get when you produce your first black and white print and see the image emerge before you in the tray – but on steroids! It’s like a 100-year-old polaroid on glass.
For me it also brings photographic history alive in a way I never really understood when I was first learning.
It gives you a full appreciation for just how sophisticated and revolutionary the photographic process was in the 1850s.
It’s no surprise that it has become increasingly popular in recent years. It is a very tactile, fun, expressive and unpredictable process in an otherwise ephemeral ‘screen-based’ digital world.
It has taken me back to being a student and learning the fundamentals of photography again.
I also love that it requires a resourcefulness to make the image work; you need to carry all the equipment and darkroom with you just to capture an image.
Yet you can use a 100-year-old camera, cobble together a DIY darkroom and still get a result! It kind of sticks two fingers to the idea that ‘upgrading’ to a newer, shinier way is the only path you can take.
I have been running workshops at festivals and plan to expand this for alternative and Wet Collodion workshops.
How do you think social media has impacted on the meaning and value of photography?
Bearing in mind that the internet as a mass medium has only been around for about 18 years and many social media platforms less than 10 it makes it hard to discuss this subject with any real perspective since its all evolving and unfolding too quickly to get a handle on it.
Photography used to be a clear, specialist and defined art form to some, or a craft and trade to others. Now it has had its boundaries blurred beyond recognition, in light of social media.
For so many of us who are immersed in this culture all day, the value of an image no doubt has fundamentally been changed by the speed, ubiquity and accessibility of images. Yet despite this, we are still not showing any signs of fatigue for our consumption of the photographic image.
Much has been and will be written about this fact.
Wave after wave of developments in digital technologies combined with the blurring of boundaries between the personal/private and public/social online presence means that, at some point, everyone may have a public profile of themselves; and this has a currency through the circulation of images which are used on social media.
How you view this and if it’s a positive or negative thing depends on where you are standing?
Certainly if you were a freelance photographer previously then you may now struggle to get work due to the fact that everyone can become a ‘photographer’ or ‘artist’.
The specialism people used to pride themselves in gets lost in the weight of images.
However, in many ways social media has created a more democratic playing field. It has also fundamentally changed how we can look at the photographic image, maybe the subject itself is being redefined?
Simon Sandys is a photographer with a wide-ranging portfolio of interests.
His work ranges from large-scale print installations to the use of projected images and light in experimental performances.
He teaches within the photography and moving image courses at the University of Brighton. He works on both the BA and MA courses.
Copy editing by Sheena Campbell.