Venetia Menzies is a photographer and journalist. Through her work she seeks to reveal a mosaic of human realities, all components of our globalised and diverse world. In this article she discusses her own work and reflects on the situation faced by recent graduates.
Photography attracts people from all disciplines. My post-graduate class was comprised of photographers who approached the medium from various angles, with diverse academic interests, cultural roots and career goals. A simple Google search of ‘jobs in photography’ will prove that the variety of photographic career paths is equally multifarious. Right now, there are photographers turning their lenses to many subjects: commercial photographers envisioning brands’ ideas, documentary photojournalists seeking to highlight overshadowed issues, fashion photographers fighting for front row seats, celebrity photographers waiting in the rain outside ‘The Ivy’ in hope, and the incongruously-intriguing cattle photographers taking portraits of prize-winning bulls.
Studying photography involves an education in the theory and history of photography, as well as the development of personal practice. Approaching a Master’s in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at the University of Westminster, I was equipped with an undergraduate degree in Economics, and a photographic practice that was self-taught and improvised. My documentary work had shepherded me towards an array of unexpected encounters: from discussing daily life on the uniformed streets of North Korea, to learning how to drive in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert whilst tracing the Silk Road overland, and, unforgettably, witnessing the world’s largest human gathering in India, where 150 million pilgrims, many of whom, naked, shared a holy bath amid floating candles on the Ganges.
Understanding the legacies of the photographic movements that had come before me, however, was largely uncharted territory. In spite of my ignorance, these histories had bequeathed me a mixed inheritance: an instrument of marvel, which through technological innovations has become more affordable than ever; lessons from pioneering photographers who have pushed the medium’s boundaries and applications, often risking their lives and their freedom; and yet also a history of representation that demands analysis, critique, and reform.
As well as offering an insight into the history of photography, which provides a contextual understanding that encourages reflective practice, studying photography granted me unrivalled access to facilities that have radically transformed my relationship with the medium. Upon enrolment I was able to purchase, develop, and scan film at cost-price, book fully-equipped studio spaces and rent digital and analogue cameras of all shapes and sizes, completely free of charge. These facilities, and the dedicated staff that manage them, support students to experiment with their practice using a range of formats.
With my mother’s timeless 25-year-old Leica R6 generously entrusted to me, I was offered a chance to fall in love with the slow, meditated, and grounding experience of shooting film. Despite the obvious advantages of digital photography, using analogue methods invaluably improved my practice, and is something I would recommend to every photographer. For those, like myself, who first approached photography using digital methods, film encourages you to mindfully savour every exposure, and demands, in our fast-paced modern world, that you patiently wait for the results.
However, the University’s assets, such as these facilities, are being threatened by changes to education policy that have actively hollowed out the overall quality of institutions. The management of Higher Education in England and Wales, across all departments, has been radically transformed by the Conservative government’s near-total eradication of public funding. Government subsidies have been replaced with high tuition fees and loans contingent on the university’s income, which incentivise universities to prioritise profit over student satisfaction or intellectual and artistic discovery. This leads to funding decisions that earmark six-figure salaries for fabled Vice Chancellors instead of paying for staff to run the dark-rooms and equipment stores during the busiest months prior to our final deadline. Whether in biochemistry or photography, this is sure to reduce your degree’s value-for-money and should provide a compelling lesson for Higher Education institutions in Scotland to avoid such myopic policies.
London is a city that has a story around every corner, but with a cost of living akin to daylight robbery, studying there is a serious financial commitment. However, with the penny-pinching skills of any born-and-bred Scot, it is possible to get by through balancing work and studies. For those unable to cover tuition fees, funding opportunities do exist, but are increasingly competitive. The Stationers’ Company, the livery company of the media and communications sector, generously sponsor one individual every academic year to enroll on the Documentary Photography and Photojournalism Master’s programme at the University of Westminster. Their financial support has been fundamental to my development as a photojournalist, and I am grateful for their continuing philanthropy in providing further students with this opportunity.
Politics and finance aside, the indisputable advantage of the Master’s programme, specifically in comparison to my undergraduate, was its flexibility. The open nature of the course provided me with the opportunity to self-steer my direction of study in both the theoretical and practical aspects. Reading Economics had highlighted to me our society’s vast inequalities, and moreover, the ways in which they are systematically perpetuated. A storyteller from a young age, I was acutely aware that the power of individual narratives can awaken empathy, facilitate mutual understanding, and motivate action that surmounts cultural and geographical confines. Using photojournalism to interrogate some of humanity’s most pressing social issues, my in-depth research into the ethics of representation prompted a greater insight into the importance of a photographer aiming to instill solidarity between global citizens when picturing the fates of those less fortunate than ourselves.
A desire to test the conventional boundaries between photographer and subject drew me towards collaborative methods, an approach that I experimented with throughout the course. This was prompted by a belief that an authentic portrayal of any human story is unlikely to emerge from methods that privilege the photographer’s conclusions above those on the other side of the lens. In documentary photography, where the subject is so much more than a model, the photographer is entrusted with their most intimate possessions: their memories, their experiences, and their secrets.
Participatory practice asks the subject to become a collaborator, joining the photographer in the process of storytelling and adding various inputs that, being an outsider, the photographer cannot garner alone. The first series I produced during the programme, 21st-Century Bedouin, is named after its protagonist and narrator, and explores the transformation of nomadic life in Algeria through the history of an individual family. The youngest member of the family begins by entrusting to us revered words of wisdom endowed by his grandmother, a Bedouin witch who lived to be one hundred and thirteen: ‘We are not like trees. We do not die in the place we are born’.
Throughout the years of French colonial rule, the brutal independence struggle, and the turbulence of the ‘Black Years’, the generations shared a common fate: the need to migrate to survive. Returning to each place they had called home, I photographed traces of their presence, and coupled with the narrator’s memoir, we recount a story pertinent in today’s world of unprecedented mass movement. 21st-Century Bedouin provokes us to remember migration’s perpetual history, its presence everywhere in nature, and its necessity for our survival throughout the human story.
A different approach was taken in my final degree project, where both myself and the collaborator played the role of the photographer. After fleeing political persecution on the eve of his execution date in Nigeria, this unidentified individual sought refuge upon arrival to the UK. Rejected, destitute, and with nowhere else to go, he lived on the buses of London for over twenty years. ‘The Mirror Man Named [Redacted]’ offers a window into the reflections of a man who now strives to restart his life after two decades of waiting. Despite his anonymity, through both his own words and photographs, we are offered an invaluable glimpse into the world through his eyes, and through this practice of storytelling, he attempts to process the traumas of his past. Offering both an insider’s and onlooker’s perspective, his account is accompanied by my own photographs. These portraits use a mirror to obscure his identity, whilst projecting the absence of his image back onto the audience. Infusing elements of both staging and performance art, the mirror serves as a symbolic prompt, asking us to consider how his fate reflects on us as a society.
These methods not only produce layered insights into social experiences but offer a chance to share the rewards of photography and storytelling with others. Managing weekly photography workshops at the British Red Cross refugee centre in London, I am working to support participants from over fifteen countries to use disposable film cameras to document their experiences. Their coaching in the importance of gratitude, acceptance and patience, however, far surpass my offerings in photographic instruction. Usually the subjects of documentation, these individuals relish the chance to narrate their own stories, and bravely seek to visually document their fates, be it living on the streets, waiting in limbo for Home Office approvals, or dealing with the trauma, insecurity and mental health problems that come hand-in-hand with displacement.
A formal education in photography has equipped me with the confidence and capability to run projects such as these. However, with costs rising and gains dwindling, my message to prospective students is that it is more important than ever to make the most of your time in education, as you’re only going to get out what you put in. After all, a successful career in photography will not be handed to any of us on a plate, and the faster we learn to how to motivate, develop and market ourselves independently, the better.
You can see more work by Venetia Menzies at venetiamenzies.com.