Projects

Mccoy Wynne to exhibit at COP26 Universities’ Innovation Showcase

18 October 2021

Events

Holding Time: Launch Event

19 November 2021

Events

The Mutual Respect Manifesto by Glow Creative Learning

25 October 2021

Events

Joseph Lee: Mindful Photo Workshop

4 December 2021

Events

Who’s Left Behind? Part 2: Tadhg Devlin, staff from Community Integrated Care, and Mersey Care NHS Foundation Trust in association with Liverpool SURF group

25 November 2021

Events

Who’s Left Behind? Part 1: Liverpool Cares and MA SEP graduate Vilija Skubute

24 November 2021

Events

Today, Tomorrow and Somewhere in between

11 November 2021

Events

One Day at a Time Boys: Introductory talk and workshop

6 November 2021

Exhibitions

DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY: CROSSING SECTORS

30 September - 7 November 2021

Exhibitions

Just Between Friends: Runcorn Public Realm

30 September - 12 December 2021

Events

LATE NIGHT OPENING: COLLECTIVE MATTERS

15 October 2021

Events

Collective Matters: Meet and Greet

22 October 2021

Events

Holding the Baby: Banner making workshop

16 October 2021

Exhibitions

Digital Window Gallery: Tabitha Jussa

17 September - 6 November 2021

Main Exhibition

Collective Matters

1 October - 12 December 2021

Exhibitions

Polly Braden: Holding The Baby

30 September - 31 October 2021

Past Events

Open Rooms #16: Agency of Women

23 September 2021

Projects

PLATFORM ISSUE 04: CROSSROADS

10 September 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Digital Window Gallery: Our Lands

23 August - 19 September 2021

Exhibitions

Imagining Disaster: Essay Series

30 August 2021

Exhibitions

Rivers of the World

6 September 2021

Past Events LOOK Events

Open Rooms #15: Common Ground

8 September 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Instagram Residency: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

30 August - 5 September 2021

Past Events

PLATFORM: Issue 4 Launch Party

10 September 2021

Past Events

Imagining Disaster: Contemporary Art X Science Fiction

2 September 2021

Past Events

Launch Party: One Day At A Time

19 August 2021

Past Events

Open Eye Gallery book club presents: Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray

9 September 2021

Past Exhibitions

Sam Batley: ONE DAY AT A TIME

18 August - 19 September 2021

Exhibitions

VR: Wirral Hospitals’ School and MaxLiteracy Award

10 June - 3 September 2021

Past Exhibitions

Return To Nature

30 July 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

VR: First Light New Northern Graduates Exhibition

22 May - 4 July 2021

Past Exhibitions

We Are Nature

30 July - 14 August 2021

Exhibitions

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival — Jessica El Mal: Grounds For Concern

16 July - 15 August 2021

Exhibitions

Digital Window Gallery: Who We Are

8 July - 31 July 2021

Past Exhibitions

Whose Land Is It?

8 July - 19 September 2021

Exhibitions

VR Student Exhibitions: UCEN

9 June - 13 June 2021

Exhibitions

VR Student Exhibitions: Youth Culture by Whitby High School

23 June - 27 June 2021

Exhibitions

VR Student Exhibitions: Arc with Hugh Baird

16 June - 20 June 2021

Past Events

First Light: Photography Writing Now – Tilt Launch Party

9 July 2021

Past Events

OPEN ROOMS #14: Separated Together

24 June 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Student Exhibitions: Whitby High School

23 June - 27 June 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Student Exhibitions: UCEN

9 June - 13 June 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Student Exhibitions: Arc

16 June - 20 June 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

Digital Window Gallery: HOMETOWNS

10 June 2021

Exhibitions Main Exhibition

Digital Window Gallery: Postcards from us x

10 June - 20 June 2021

LightNight 2021: Play

21 May 2021

Heavy Gardening Art Trail Photowalk

21 May 2021

OPEN ROOMS #13: A BALKAN JOURNEY WITH CHRIS LESLIE

17 June 2021

Exhibitions Past Exhibitions

First Light New Northern Graduates Exhibition

22 May 2021

Past Events

Open Eye Gallery book club presents: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

3 June 2021

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Siblings, Simon Bray, 2019
Loved&Lost, Simon Bray, 2016
Ambient 4 On Land, Simon Bray, 2018

A Spotlight On… Simon Bray

This month third year UCEN photography student Michael Collier spoke with OEG’s current Artist in Residence Simon Bray. Simon shares the developments of his new collaborative project with learners and their families at HMP Thorn Cross – in partnership with NOVUS. Simon also discusses his journey to becoming a photographer and how his personal experiences have shaped his projects. 

Michael Collier: You’ve had a busy year being on The One Show, making the cover of The Guardian Weekend, and now you have your new book out this month, Siblings. Tell me about how that whole experience has been and how it fits into your year. 

Simon Bray: Yeah, it’s been a nice varied year with some lovely surprises! The One Show feature was about my project Loved&Lost, which I’ve been doing for eight years or so, and stems from me losing my dad when I was 22. I wanted to find a way to engage with the experience of losing him, so the project involves re-staging an old family photograph and revisiting a location with participants. There’s around 25 stories which I’ve worked on over the years and been shared through a book and various exhibitions, the largest of which was at Weston Park in Sheffield. We filmed the pieces for The One Show last summer in that little gap when everything opened between lockdowns, we filmed in three locations and got to revisit three of the  stories. It was an amazing thing to do.

It’s a project that the media seemingly want to engage with because it’s a subject matter that they otherwise might struggle to cover. It’s very emotionally poignant with ready-made personal stories. For it to go out to four million people in one go is pretty mad considering it’s just been me in my spare bedroom chipping away at it over the years.

I think with a lot of my work, and this is a balance which I try to strike, not to worry too much about notoriety in the photography industry. I’m not someone who has published books with big publishers or had exhibitions in notable festivals, but what I do try to do is make sure that it’s seen by an audience who will engage with the subject matter more than the notion of photography. 

The Siblings project stemmed from me exploring my relationship with my younger sister, who passed away in 2018. I didn’t want to revisit the loss stories, I wanted to find a new way of engaging with what I had experienced. The project includes five sets of siblings that I invited to come together, and I took photographs of them in a location of their choosing that was important to their childhood. It’s very different to Loved&Lost in how it was made, far less based in documentary and more staged poses and portraits, trying to demonstrate the connection or in some cases slight disconnection, between siblings. I’m self-publishing that at the moment and a couple of the guys have written some short essays and poems to go in the book. I like to get work out into the world, and doing a book is an excuse to get some press and find an audience for the images. 

That sort of work leads to the editorial commissions. So shooting the Guardian cover earlier this year for the hugging poses came because the picture editor at the Guardian weekend had seen my Siblings project. The adage that you’re only ever going to get commissioned to photograph something that you’ve already done is so true. It was a really intense week or so, we shot it in January when it was snowing and everything had to be outdoors because of COVID, but it was really gratifying to make, and to get the cover of the Guardian Weekend was a really huge thing. 

You just never quite know what’s going to appear; some things you do to pay the bills, and then some things are more public facing and you get some notoriety for it, and that’s really nice. I’m always juggling a lot of different bits and pieces and spinning a lot of different plates, but I’ve been very glad through COVID to have had some nice editorial jobs.  Two weeks ago I was photographing the Queen at Manchester Cathedral for their 600th anniversary of the building, which was such a privilege. I shot something for the Washington Post a few weeks ago on a farm in the Lake District and, you know, what better way to spend your afternoon than taking some pictures in the Lake District as your work. I feel very lucky sometimes.

Looking at your past projects it seems that there is a clear authorship to your photography with your focus on memory and loss, but your education is in music, right? Tell me about how you got into photography, and how your experience with it has changed as time has gone on? Do you notice a change in yourself as well? 

That’s a good question. I studied music at college and university and moved from Hampshire to Manchester and that was a big shift. Where I grew up is a relatively small town, there was a lot of open green space and moving north was a shock to the system. I always thought I’d do music; I studied and played in bands, toured, and then worked in music management. I really enjoyed all that stuff, it just never quite landed as a career. What moving to Manchester enabled me to do was to explore somewhere new for the first time with whatever camera I had. To start with, that was literally just my dodgy camera phone, 3.2 mega pixels or whatever it was. I never got the bus as a student, I always just wanted to walk, explore on my feet and sometimes I’d go out at night and just and see if I could walk all the way into town and back to take pictures – and I probably walked through some parts of town that I shouldn’t have walked through at that time of night, but it meant I could take it in for myself and map the city out in my mind. That led to getting a film SLR and understanding the basics of exposure, working with film, and enjoying seeing images from those films and thinking ‘there’s something in that one image, what is it that resonates with me?’ Then people started asking me to do jobs, and that’s when I moved to doing digital. People started paying me to do things and then I thought, ‘OK, I can make this work’.

I was managing a coffee house for three days a week and then working on projects the rest of my time, collaborating on projects like The Edges of These Isles with an artist called Tom Musgrove and doing landscapes, which is my real first love with photography. It got to the point with commercial work where I thought, ‘I don’t have to be working in the coffee house anymore’, and it’s just sort of evolved. 

Over those years I’ve used photography as a means to explore these questions that I’ve had within myself and understand more about whatever life is throwing at me. I’m a very external processor, and although I find working on my own energising, I need to go out and have these conversations with people, and photography is my way to enable that. Particularly the Loved&Lost and Siblings projects, I’m using the visuals in order to cultivate something a bit deeper.

I’m working on something which will come out next year, which is a bit more based in exploring place and landscape in an aesthetic sense, but with a deeper individual expression and not externalising it onto other subjects. That’s been a good process for me to go through, I think in terms of understanding myself a little bit more. Photography has always been the vessel for that which I’m very grateful for. I still make music, but that’s just a very different process for me.

It seems you have a lot of interests outside of photography too; focusing on long form written work with your site Taking Time, you’ve given talks on poetry, and you have your EP ‘Yield’ available on multiple platforms. How big a part of you are these projects and how do they fit in with your photography? 

I suppose it’s using different points of inspiration for different projects and bodies of work. I did a fellowship with Manchester International Festival in 2017 and worked with a multidisciplinary artist called Samson Young. What his practice taught me was that there isn’t necessarily one medium in which to express an idea. You can express an idea or project or a thought or narrative in lots of different ways. I wouldn’t regard myself as a multidisciplinary artist, but it was the notion that if I’ve got an idea for a project, that the best means of expressing that idea isn’t necessarily me going out with the camera to take some pictures. Sometimes it’s just about finding a different stimulus, so the Ambient 4 : On Land project was inspired by a Brian Eno album. Some of the tracks are inspired by places that Brian had a strong connection to, so I just thought, ‘well, what do these places look like?’ I had the music in my mind as I explored those places, and it’s very surreal music, it’s very layered, it’s very analogue, and so, I used a camera and film stock that were released around the same time as the music and that gave me parameters for making those pictures.

The poetry project was a collaboration with one of my very good friends who is an English teacher. There’s an inherent connection between poetry and photography, and we chatted and thought about what it would look like to work with these kids and see if we could match up the poetry they’re writing and the images that I’m taking. What might that inspire in them? What might that inspire in me? One of the kids who wrote a poem; he’s been in care for a lot of his life and he’s now being nominated for a creative writing award for kids in care, which is a wonderful thing to have enabled. 

So much of my work is based in collaboration; the Ambient work is me collaborating with the music, the poems were me collaborating with those kids and with poetry. Taking Time is a whole different entity. It’s a website about the concept of time, with one article a week from different writers around the world. There’s no photography basis for that at all. It’s all sharing ideas and it’s about me collaborating with my designer friend, Andy, but also collaborating with 52 writers throughout 2021, and that was something I thought I could do through the COVID times. I wanted to explore the notion of time and I wasn’t sure how to explore the notion of time with my photography; I didn’t have a means for sharing that in a structured way, so actually inviting people to contemplate their perspective on time and sharing those ideas once a week felt like a really engaging thing to do. It’s about finding the best way to explore an idea and giving it some structural parameters and seeing where it takes you.

Your new project is associated with Open Eye and with NOVUS, working with learners in a local prison.

It wasn’t something I had ever really considered but it’s one of those things you see the opportunity and you think wouldn’t that be a great challenge. It’s a new environment to work in and I was really excited to be offered the chance to run these workshops. 

I’m working in an open security prison in Warrington, and with the producer, Emma Case at Open Eye, we’ve developed a series of eight sessions which we are trying to deliver through the summer in order to engage the guys in photography. Obviously, there are certain boundaries with that, certain parameters which you have to ask questions and see if you can cross. The premise in a broader sense was that we would engage the prisoners and their families, which is a really lovely idea, and my intention was to get the prisoners taking portraits with their families and vice versa. That’s proving quite hard because of COVID restrictions. I think in normal times it might have been slightly more viable, but actually, at the moment it’s pretty tricky. I’ve managed to run two and a half sessions in the last month or so, but the session that I was running on Wednesday got cut short because COVID tests came back, they all got called back to their cells and that was that. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to go back in or not at this stage, but we’ve had a really good first few sessions and it has hopefully laid a good foundation and understanding which we can build on.

In the first session we gave them small digital cameras and in the education space, invited them to do a photography treasure hunt using single word stimulants. I wanted to try and get them thinking about how they can express themselves through imagery. They then shared these images with the group, and we tried to interpret what the individual might have seen. It was amazing for them to acknowledge how the viewer will engage with the image differently to the photographer and that it will stimulate different emotional responses for different people. I’m inviting them to engage with some of their own personal images; family images and annotating those, exploring their relationship with pictures. At this stage I potentially need to reframe what I’m going to try and do with the guys based on whether I can go in or not, but they’re very engaged and excited to be working on something different. I suppose it’s not something that any of us have had the chance to do before and I like that we’re exploring that together.

I was going to ask what your plans are for the final result of the project, but at this stage, do you think you have one or are you just waiting to see what happens?

I think from the start I’ve tried to hold it all quite lightly. With each session I appreciated that things would shift. We might get more done in one session, and less in another, and so to not be too rigid with ‘this is what we have to achieve at the end’. Part of it is wanting to engage the men in photography at a level at which they are comfortable with and I didn’t know what that level was going to be. I didn’t know if they’d have some experience or whether they’ve been inside for fifteen, twenty years and never touched a digital camera. It’s very hard to say. 

It’s a case of trying to engage them each time in something that’s of interest to them, whether that’s annotating an old family photograph or discussing ‘What is the medium of photography? Who looks at pictures? Who generates pictures?’ and all that sort of stuff. I’ve given them all notebooks so that they can engage with some deeper thought, not necessarily as homework, but so that in between sessions they can make notes and process things.

At the end of it all, I’d really like for their relationship with photography to have been opened up, and if to any degree I could have allowed them to engage with photography and cultivated some different thoughts, then it would have been a success. I really don’t want the project to be based on whether it was successful based on what we are or are not able to put on a wall at the end of it to show to whatever audience they decided to present to. I wanted to give the guys the autonomy to dictate what gets displayed at the end. All this material that we’re generating, I can’t possibly be the guy that swans in and says ‘Can you make all the stuff for me?’ Then take it away and put it on a wall. It has to be a dialogue; it has to be a relationship and it has to be something that I’m enabling for them. Sort of in a teacher role, someone that hopefully is giving them some insight and encouragement.

By the end it will be a case of ‘Well, how do we want to show this? What do we want to show? Is there a page in your notebook you want to show? Or is there something which, as a group, we want to show? Are we doing this as individuals? Are we doing this as a group? Are we showing it within the prison to people who come into the prison? Are we showing it local to the prison so that the community around the prison and maybe family members can come and see it? Or are we putting it in a gallery that’s quite a few miles away from your context, in which your community and your families may not engage with it, but it will be seen by an external audience, which might be an education for people in terms of how prisoners create artistic work?’. Or we could do all of those. It’s a case of making sure that it is a collaboration. 

The world of socially engaged photography has to come with a level of empathy and ideally some compatibility between whoever is running the course and whoever is engaging with the course. There are lots of community groups which I would love to work with, but I feel like it would be disingenuous with me to be the middle-class white guy swinging into a community and say ‘let’s do this’ – because you need that affinity.

It’s difficult with the prisons; I’ve done workshops in prisons but, I haven’t been ‘inside’ a prison. At the same time, I’m not going in and asking them to tell me what it’s like to live in the prison or exist in the prison. That’s not the idea, it’s a more external thing and hopefully the basis of my prior work and projects shows that I have an ability to find an affinity and emotional understanding with people. You have to tread carefully; you have to use your own human nature to ensure that you’re not exploiting the people you’re working with and not just trying to strip them of artistic and emotional content that you’re going to present as your own. It has to be very considered. 

I’m really enjoying it. It’s a real challenge for me. It’s a pleasure to be working with the guys at Open Eye and Novus. It’s both a surreal yet down to earth environment to work in, but hopefully by the end of the year we will have a form of collaboration which we can present.

As if it isn’t enough that you have all of this going on; are you working on anything else at the moment, too? Do you have anything else in the works right now, or coming up on the horizon that you want to talk about? 

That is a good question. There are a few bits which I probably can’t say much about, they’re not fully formed yet. I suppose the one thing I’m trying to work on is a broader project about the notion of faith and listening to a higher power. I’ve always had a level of faith in my life and it’s something that I have questioned and grappled with in recent years, and so, I suppose, again, I’m trying to use my photography as a means to ask questions and explore. I’m collaborating with another photographer on that, and he’s coming from the outside in, not having had any concrete experience of faith since he was very young, and wants to engage with that, while I’ve been on the inside of it for a long time and maybe looking further in. Again, COVID has made that a bit tricky, but we were having lots of conversations about that and developing that work together. 

There’s always stuff I’m juggling, but most of what I’m doing is the commercial work and editorial stuff and you know, keeping on shooting, challenging myself with that sort of work and new scenarios and enjoying never quite knowing what next week will bring!

 

Simon Bray is a photographer based in Manchester. His work has been shown across the UK, including at The Southbank Centre, Manchester International Festival, The Whitworth, Sheffield Museum, Brighton Photo Biennial, Oriel Colwyn and HOME and featured by The Guardian, The One Show, BBC Radio, British Journal of Photography and National Geographic Traveller. He has worked with Martin Parr, Manchester Art Gallery, Guardian Weekend, Washington Post, The Telegraph. His latest book ‘Siblings’ has just been published. 

 

Michael Collier is a third year photography student currently based in Manchester.

Images: Siblings, Simon Bray, 2019

Loved&Lost, Simon Bray, 2016

Ambient 4 On Land, Simon Bray, 2018

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