Nigel Bennett_bird portrait_



BIO: I am a British/American artist working primarily in the areas of photography and social practice. My photographic work has been shown in galleries and museums across North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and has been honored with several important international awards. Likewise my short films have screened at festivals such as the Festival de Cannes in France, the Rotterdam International Film Festival in the Netherlands and Kinoforum in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

My artistic practice is largely inspired by contemporary issues in philosophy, cognitive science, linguistics and the humanities, and relies heavily on community-collaboration: most projects require several months of data gathering and intensive fieldwork before any photographs can be produced.

While the Objectivist claims of documentary photography have long been discredited, I do not take this to mean that a valid form of documentary is unachievable, but instead that until now the tool has been inappropriately applied to the task. Consequently, although much of my photography may be storyboarded, artificially lit and even scripted like cinema, I do not accept the argument that such working methods necessarily render the resulting images any less effectual as carriers of information than other forms of photography (i.e. I don’t believe my images are less “truthful”, yet I prefer to avoid the word truth altogether). Indeed, much of my recent practice is motivated by a desire to breath new life into the rotten corpse of the documentary genre: by expanding the space in time between the moment of selecting the subject and that of pressing the shutter, I am able to fill this void with the subjectivity of my collaborators in the hope that the end result reflects something more than just my own narrow world view.

I have been invited to stage major community-collaborative photographic projects, usually lasting several months, in countries such as Colombia, Australia, Japan, Spain, Thailand etc.

Additionally, I have conducted lectures and workshops with students in both university and community settings from Latin America to Europe and Asia. Subjects range from an Ontology of Photography: the photograph and the photographed from Kantian Metaphysics, through Peirce’s Indexicality, the Phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, and on to contemporary advances in the field of cognitive science; Photography between Art and Social-Science (the shared histories of photography and Anthropology in European colonialism, the employment of the photograph as a documentary research method, 1980s “writing culture” and contemporary art’s anthropological turn); to more practical workshops on studio lighting, visual storytelling and dramatic lighting with ‘motivation’.


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STATEMENT: Perhaps it could be viewed as somewhat misguided that I begin a statement about my work by apparently aligning myself with precisely the genre of reactionary photography I most seek to disrupt and offend. Nonetheless, if by ‘documentary’ we are to understand the practice of producing photographic imagery that informs the viewer about events, states and conditions that have objectively occurred or existed in the physical world, then I could indeed be considered a documentary photographer. However, I prefer to distance myself from both the naive Objectivism and unreflexive and irresponsible indifference to, or perhaps just ignorance of, complex ethical issues surrounding the representation of others (and the relations of power underlying such representations) so often exhibited by a sizable proportion of documentary practitioners. Given the enormous influence photographic imagery is capable of exerting over human thought and action, the capacity and self awareness required to decode messages and social values communicated by and contained within photographic representations – and both the primary and collateral effects these messages may have upon individuals and society in general – is not merely a skill or personal interest that ideally may be cultivated by a photographer over the arc of their career, but might more properly be considered an ethical obligation of the first order. One that should be addressed before even beginning to work in the field.

While such considerations have constituted the foundation of my practice almost from day one, in the last few years I have tried to develop methods by which to actively overcome, or at least more overtly underline, these ethical issues by means of the work itself. Perhaps the most effective tactic I have found is simply to involve the ‘subjects’ of the photographs in their creation. While I would not claim that such a process magically resolves the representational bind, I do believe that it can go some way towards shifting the balance of power. Furthermore, even if this endeavor were a total failure, I would consider the acknowledgment of said failure an important statement in its own right.

Although the participatory principle behind my work is quite straightforward, I have devised fairly elaborate methods to guarantee the participation of more than one (other) individual in the making of each image (even if perhaps only one, or even none, of these participants might actually appear in the final work). So while I would describe much of my photography as ‘scripted’, this script is collectively authored. The idea being that the greater the number of people invested with a degree of control over the creative process, the more the work becomes representative of a collective way of thinking, and, conversely, the less it merely reflects my own subjective viewpoint and prejudices. What this means in practice is that sometimes the data that informs an image will have passed through three or four people before it comes to be interpreted in visual form as a photograph, with each participant adding and subtracting idiosyncratic color and detail according to their own experience of events as the information passes up the chain. I have now arrived at a point where this collaborative, intersubjective and dialogical method is becoming more important to me than the photographic outcomes that justify and motivate employing said method in the first place. I.e. the production of photographic images is now almost just an excuse for engaging in the process of their creation.

Almost, but not quite: for all my interest in employing photography as impetus for collaboration, communication and exchange, I still consider myself an artist with a particular vision – rather than, say, a social-worker – and naturally my own objectives do not always coincide with those of participants (as indeed the participants themselves are no more likely to constitute a homogeneous unit than would any other social group). However I do not view this conflict of intention as an obstacle that must be overcome, but rather believe that the work gains considerably from the friction this generates within the images themselves. Indeed, irreconcilable tensions such as those between Self/Other, phenomena/noumena, cosmos/polis, concept/form etc. underlie all my work.

Unless otherwise noted, all text and images copyright Nigel Bennet, 2015.