Seeing and hearing the stories of others: BPF18 Trainee Curator Idil Bozkurt interviews Les Monaghan
Posted 5 December
Many artists commit to create art that focuses on social issues and generates changes in the way we perceive the world. Art might not be enough for practical social change but it helps us to rethink, pay attention and even sometimes open our eyes to ignored subject matters. One of the biggest social issues we face today is homelessness. According to Rough Sleeping Statistics Autumn 2017, Brighton and Hove saw one of the highest numbers of rough sleepers in the UK last year. If you’re a Brightonian you won’t need these statistics to understand the warning red issue, not just in Brighton but across the UK. We Are All Connected (WAAC) challenges us to see and hear the stories of others, who are living on the streets of Brighton today.
Les Monaghan was selected for this year’s Brighton Photo Fringe OPEN18 Participate to create his project for the Outdoor Hub, located next to the i360. The installation is formed of nine layouts, each of which contained three photographs, with written content. WAAC almost irrepressibly made you hear Jacinda Arden’s words on homelessness: ‘What’s the point of economic growth when we have some of the worst homelessness in the developed world?’.
Les and I had a chat about the formation of his project for BPF18, his ongoing process-led photographic project Relative Poverty, and ‘difficult photographs’.
Q: Can you tell us about yourself? What’s your background?
A: I was brought up in the RAF so moved every couple of years till my dad left in 1985, arriving in Doncaster four months after the Miners’ Strike ended. I say that I’m from Donny as I’ve lived there off and on for more than half my life since then. I was born in Yorkshire, though my family are from Hartlepool. No one went to University or even college. My dad can draw but it was never apparent or obvious that I should do anything in the arts. I can empathise with one of the participants in We Are All Connected (who incidentally is also from Donny) who speaks about being a daydreamer and a moocher. I didn’t go to university till I was 27, we got tiny grants so I worked three jobs till the final year when I let one go, I still remember waking up at an Aphex Twin gig after a run of night and day shifts. I studied History of Film, Photography and Graphic Media, taking up ‘practice’ in year two. Critical for me was two years studying with John Taylor on his ‘Uses of Photography’ courses. I was inspired to see photographs taken for reasons other than selling stuff. I managed to take enough decent photographs to be taken on as a trainee press photographer back in Doncaster in 1999. It hasn’t been a smooth run from there to here.
Q: How would you describe the content of your work?
A: I oscillate between telling the story in the frame by packing in details and making what Urs Stahel called ‘difficult photographs’, I hope to leave space for the viewer.
Q: We Are All Connected was selected as the OPEN18 Participate project for this year’s Brighton Photo Fringe, How did the project originate? What made it necessary or compelling to make?
A: The proposal was my response to the call-out. I built on my previous experience of working with those in destitution - where I’d deliberately omitted those living on the streets as I wanted to make a point about visibility. As everyone in Brighton, and many around the UK, tells me, we are shamed as the sixth wealthiest nation the world has ever known by the numbers of our fellow citizens living on the streets.
Q: We are All Connected has strong connections to and a sense of continuity with your ongoing process-led photographic project Relative Poverty, how did this ongoing project resonate with We Are All Connected and its moment of creation? How does it fit into the present?
A: In many ways We Are All Connected is a continuation of Relative Poverty. We all live in the same neoliberal society with the state since 2010 offering less and less protection from its predations. The destitute are those for whom poverty has become all consuming. If you choose to spend your diminishing funds on food rather than rent or mortgage you become homeless. With both projects participants’ voices are foregrounded. WAAC was a project with a fast turn around and I applied the methods used in Relative Poverty to get rapid results. Everything is predicated on listening.
Q: What made you choose photography to create your work? Has there been any particular moment or event which has influenced your decision to use photography as your primary medium?
A: I didn’t feel there was a choice. Photographs still have power. We live through stories, and words and pictures still work.
Q: As you mentioned, your project starts with ‘Dean’. How did you meet with Dean and what was your process of creation and composition?
A: My initial plans were instantly scuppered as ‘Dean’ was admitted to hospital at the start of the project. I never met him and our mutual contact couldn’t locate him so I had the slightly harder task of starting from scratch. By the end of the first day, I met ‘Isaac’, who features in the first nine layouts.
Q: What were your expectations for OPEN18 Participate and what does collaboration mean in your work?
A: With any project I want to make a difference. Working backwards from the ideal, which is that the United Kingdom houses its homeless, I think we can look at what a public facing project that highlights the personal within a societal problem can achieve. It could (and should) resonate with individuals, create empathy, combat misinformation, point to problems and solutions, and perhaps stir enough within viewers to activate them. The people I work with place a great deal of trust in me to represent them fairly. There is recognition on their part that I have the expertise in photographing, note taking, editing and presenting to a standard that might make the public take note. But I have nothing without their collaboration - they give themselves up for scrutiny. Photographs facilitate judgement, I have a duty of care to present others in a way that shields them from negative repercussions.
Q: Where can people follow news about your current work and upcoming projects?
A: Relative Poverty can be followed at www.relativepoverty.org and www.facebook.com/relativepoverty I intend to start using my blog more - www.lesmonaghan.blogspot.com and I tweet fairly regularly @lesmonaghan My Instagram output is fairly sparse, but I can be found at @lesmonaghanphoto
Idil Bozkurt was one of four Trainee Curators who worked with BPF this year to realise the festival. After her bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Kocaeli University in Turkey, she travelled to the UK and completed her Masters in Film Studies at Sussex University. She is a visual artist and the founder of New Grounds collective.