Exhibitions

JOURNEY TO EDEN @ DIGITAL WINDOW GALLERY

6 May - 12 May 2024

Events

MARRIAGE (IN)EQUALITY IN UKRAINE. Screening and a panel discussion

9 May 2024

Events

Casey Orr artist talk and SEPN North West meet-up

18 May 2024

Events

Poetry reading: Coast to Coast to Coast

11 May 2024

Exhibitions

National Pavilion of Ukraine @ Venice Biennale

20 April - 24 November 2024

Exhibitions

Open Source 28: Sam Patton – Room to Breathe @ Digital Window Gallery

10 April - 18 May 2024

Exhibitions

Forward, Together @ Wigan & Leigh Archives, Leigh Town Hall

23 March - 28 September 2024

Exhibitions

As She Likes It: Christine Beckett @ The Rainbow Tea Rooms, Chester

1 March - 30 June 2024

Exhibitions

Shifting Horizons @ Digital Window Gallery

27 March - 31 March 2024

PLATFORM: ISSUE 6

26 March 2024

Past Events

Saturday Town: Launch Event

10 April 2024

Exhibitions

Saturday Town

11 April - 18 May 2024

Past Events

PLATFORM: ZINE LAUNCH EVENT

21 March 2024

Home. Ukrainian Photography, UK Words: Tour

4 March - 28 February 2025

Exhibitions

Home: Ukrainian Photography, UK Words @ New Adelphi

4 March - 8 March 2024

Past Events

CREATIVE SOCIAL: IN THE ABSENCE OF FORMAL GROUND

2 March 2024

Exhibitions

We Feed The UK @ Exterior Walls

8 February - 31 March 2024

Past Events

Contrail Cirrus: the impact of aviation on climate change

7 March 2024

Exhibitions

Tree Story @ Liverpool ONE

16 February - 1 May 2024

Open Source #27: Saffron Lily – In The Absence of Formal Ground @ Digital Window Gallery

6 February - 31 March 2024

Past Events

Contemporary Photography from Ukraine: Symposium @University of Salford

4 March - 5 March 2024

Past Events

Is Anybody Listening? Symposium: Commissioning and Collecting Socially Engaged Photography

29 February 2024

Past Events

Different approaches: Artists working with scientists

15 February 2024

Past Events

LOOK Climate Lab 2024: All Events

18 January 2024

Exhibitions

Diesel & Dust @ Digital Window Gallery

18 January - 31 March 2024

Events

Tree Walks Of Sefton Park with Andrea Ku

21 January 2024

Past Events

Artists Remake the World by Vid Simoniti: Book Launch

31 January 2024

Past Events

Shift Liverpool Open Meeting

6 February 2024

Past Events

We Feed The UK Launch and LOOK Climate Lab 2024 Celebration

8 February 2024

Past Events

Cyanotype workshop with Melanie King

17 February 2024

Past Events

End of Empire: artist talk and discussion

22 February 2024

Past Events

Book Launch: What The Mine Gives, The Mine Takes

24 February 2024

Past Events

Local ecology in the post-industrial era: open discussion

14 March 2024

Past Events

Waterlands: creative writing workshop

23 March 2024

Past Events

Plant a seed. Seed sow and in conversation with Plot2Plate

16 March 2024

Past Events

Erosion: panel discussion

9 March 2024

Past Events

Waterlands: an evening of poetry and photographs

23 March 2024

Past Events

Force For Nature Exhibition

27 March - 28 March 2024

Voices of Nature: Interactive Performances

28 March 2024

Past Events

Sum of All Parts: Symposium

27 February 2024

Exhibitions Main Exhibition

LOOK Climate Lab 2024

18 January - 31 March 2024

Past Events

MA Socially engaged photography Open Day event

1 February 2023

Past Events

Tish: Special screening and Q&A

13 December 2023

Past Events

Book Launch: A Look At A New Perspective

23 November 2023

Past Events

Community workshops @ Ellesmere Port Library

6 November - 5 February 2024

Past Events

Book Launch: ‘544m’ By Kevin Crooks

30 November 2023

Past Exhibitions

Bernice Mulenga @ Open Eye Gallery Atrium Space

17 November - 17 December 2023

Past Events

Bernice Mulenga: Artist Talk

18 November 2023

Past Exhibitions

Local Roots @ The Atkinson

14 October 2023

Exhibitions

Community @ Ellesmere Port Library

26 October - 11 April 2024

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Safina Kauser. She's a lecturer in Business & Law, and also a female Councillor for the Manningham ward where she grew up.
Kimia and Keyhan come from a family of filmmakers. Though they look the same, their ambitions are different.
Kimia is a filmmaker and peer researcher of youth violence in Bradford. Keyhan is a Photographer and Videographer. She's also completing her Masters in Psychology.

Women in Uniform – A Spotlight On… Shy Burhan

This month the Socially Engaged Photography Network coordinator Liz Wewiora spoke to photographer Shy Burhan on her national (yet close to her Bradfordian heart) project, ‘Women in Uniform’.

Liz: Could you introduce yourself, Shy? How did you get into photography? What does the term socially engaged practice mean to you?

Shy: My name is Shy, I’m a photographer based in Shipley, West Yorkshire. I would class myself more of a studio, conceptual photographer, but there are certainly projects that I’ve done where there has been socially engaged practice. I’m a very proud, Bradfordian, Northern working-class photographer of British, Pakistani and Muslim heritage. 

When I was growing up, there were very few or there weren’t any Pakistani female photographers that I knew of. I had no idea I wanted to be a photographer, it just didn’t seem an option, but I was always very much into local art and literature. And then, you know, I just got on with it. I went on my travels and somebody gave me a camera when I was in Italy because I couldn’t speak the language. I started taking photos, and I was thinking, okay, this is a pretty cool way of relaying the visual narratives that are around me, without me having to learn the language there too quickly. 

I came back to Bradford and I studied photography as a mature student at Bradford College, (the course doesn’t exist now). I remember I started to think differently. I started to really think about what we’re seeing in the subtext, and I took some shocking pictures in the meantime. But you know, that’s part of the practice, isn’t it? Then, in the late noughties, I started working for a studio franchise. This is where the studio element came in. It was a studio franchise that was UK-wide, they were taking family and children’s portraits. This is still relevant to the studio practice I do now. One of the things they always had were props, so this is where my love of props comes in. I still have this love for using props, albeit in a more thought-out way, as opposed to just having a prop to make a kid look cute or something like that. 

So I did that, then I had my own studio for a couple of years. After that, I took a break and started working for a third-sector organisation. Through that, I got into more documentary-style photography, and even then I wouldn’t call it socially engaged practice. Socially engaged practice to my mind is more collaborative. I always think it’s more about engaging a community group or groups to relay their own narratives, rather than me coming in and saying, right, this is how you should shoot, this is how it’s done. It’s about affording them the agency; giving them, facilitating them, and teaching them the skills to be able to do that, but in a way that’s comfortable for them. The outcome isn’t necessarily as important as the actual imagery itself, and it is the learning and the processes as you see them develop into photography that really matters. That’s what I think of as socially engaged practice. 

In 2021 I did a project with a lovely community of refugees and asylum seekers here in Bradford called Local Focal. That was, from what they fed back, quite a life-affirming experience for them because we were still just literally coming out on the tail end of the lockdown. So a lot of them just couldn’t do anything anyway, they couldn’t work, they couldn’t travel, they couldn’t study and all the rest of it. But then on top of that, you hit them in the middle of a pandemic, where their movements are further restricted. It was just horrendous for their mental health. 

Liz: I am glad you mentioned health actually. It is one of the crossovers we see time and time again in socially engaged practice – the role it plays as an approach in supporting people’s well-being or discussing difficult subject matter in relation to mental health. 

Shy: Yes, I think this is another thing I see with socially engaged practice. It really feeds into well-being. It gives the participants the autonomy and the freedom to relay their own stories, but in a way that feeds that as much as it does about making a really cool picture, saying that there was some really compelling, beautiful imagery they created. 

I did it again this year with a similar set of workshops with two groups of inner-city young people in two parts of Bradford. In the inner-city communities there just aren’t the resources, or the opportunities, or the mentorship. I remember when I was growing up, I didn’t know I wanted to be a photographer, but the arts in general for people of colour (for everyone, but certainly for people of colour), when you’re living in areas that are classes deprived or disadvantaged, just don’t exist. You have to carve your own path, and I suppose I did that. 

I always wanted to take that practice and that learning that I had back to the communities in which I grew up, but also always encourage them to make work with smartphones, because not everybody has access to a camera. I find using smartphones more democratic, it levels the playing field more. Even if you have very little, everyone has a smartphone. Even as a teenager, you just always have a smartphone. It’s something you’re comfortable with, it’s safe, as opposed to me giving you a new camera and saying: “Let’s learn this”, which can be quite daunting. 

So I suppose that’s where I am in terms of socially engaged practice. It’s more collaborative, it isn’t as focused on the outcomes, it’s more about the processes, but it definitely does feed into that. It can unite communities, it can give them a sense of belonging and pride in the area they grew up in, whereas they may not have felt that as much before. 

It empowers them and encourages them to think that actually they can go into a gallery space. Everyone goes on a gallery trip when they’re in one of my workshops, whereas they may not have felt that they would have necessarily been welcomed before. So it is as much about access to the artistic provision and cultural provision in a safe way and in a legitimate way as anything else. 

Liz: You’ve discussed how your photography sits within quite a few different genres or styles, so there’s the studio photography, there’s your documentary work, and then the socially engaged practice. I wondered if you could talk about the Women in Uniform project, because to me, the project brings those three things together. 

Shy: I would agree with that, yeah. Let me tell you how the idea of Women in Uniform came about. 

For any project, I start thinking about it two years before you even see an image. The idea and the process always start two years before. Back in 2019, I had a very successful exhibition just about to launch in Bradford, but I remember thinking, where are the women that look like me? You know, where are they? I know they exist. I exist, so where are more people like me? 

As we went into the pandemic, we had the horrendous murder of George Floyd in the USA. We’d already had huge conversations on Me Too and when George Floyd was murdered there was this globalisation of support, and rightly so, for Black Lives Matter. I remember thinking: I’m going to actually start this project. I don’t even know when we’re getting out of this pandemic, but I’m going to start a project which massively celebrates women of colour. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to start doing the research and development. I already was thinking about careers, and it’s not something that has always invoked a fire in me. 

I thought, what’s a safe way of approaching somebody and saying, would you like to be part of this exhibition? In a way that really celebrates these pioneering women? Because they are, they’re pioneers. 

I got a chunk of Arts Council funding, just doing the research and development, which involved finding the participants, the right venue, the right partners to work with, the right aesthetic. There was a lot of experimenting in the home studio that I have here to see how I would make this work. So I found the right venue and found a fantastic dynamic duo, who head up the Health Art gallery in Accrington. It didn’t feel tokenistic, to work with them. It didn’t feel like a tick-box exercise, which was really important to me. This is the place, this is what people want and where I want it to be.

I really like Greek mythology. I was reading a book on Greek mythology, I was watching Troy with Brad Pitt (because why would you not?!) and I remember thinking: I like this idea of Aphrodite floating in a cloud. I wonder if we can do that with these women. How can I create this in the studio? And I like a challenge! 

There was a supplier that I worked with for different coloured backdrops, they had this star backdrop. I tried projecting different colour gels and thought about what I could do to create this image of floating on a cloud. I contacted another supplier for anything that can make people float in a cloud, and they said it has to be like a low-lying fog. Then I had it – the aesthetic was there. 

Women in Uniform is a celebration of women of colour who work in industries where we are traditionally underrepresented, and it came about for all those previous reasons. Reasons as to why there wasn’t enough positive representation of women like me, often global majority communities, but also because of the support for Black Lives Matter, and because of all the huge global conversations that were happening during the pandemic. 

We’ve done all the test shots and I found the participants, just over 50 women at the time, and I started photographing them last year. I had the setup, I had another set of funding to pay for their travel expenses and to deliver the project, so then it was a case of asking them to come over to me in Shipley. 

There was an element of certainly socially engaged practice in the sense that without them, none of this would have happened. I had to do the engagement in terms of a zoom meeting prior, when I asked them a series of questions. Out of that, I was able to elicit the idea in my head, and this is where my studio practice came in. There’s always an element of having a prop because I like a prop. Certainly with Women in Uniform, it emboldens the person and makes them look statuesque and iconic, as opposed to detracting from that. I find that’s quite important.

Women came to Shipley, from all over the country, all over the UK. They got to discover Yorkshire, a lot of them stayed overnight and they really liked it. Then I delivered this huge exhibition at the Howarth art gallery in Accrington. So there’s obviously the studio element, there is a socially engaged element in the sense that you have to invite them in, you’re engaging with them in the first place. They always have a say as to whether or not they like it. I always show them the image as well, so they might say, “Oh, we like it better that way”, or “Can we change this?” For me, that was really important, as opposed to just making a portrait out of them where they have no control. 

In terms of the documentary, the themes are all as topical as they are going to get. They are very much part of the zeitgeist, aren’t they? Women, women of colour, having that representation. There’s still a lack of representation, certainly in the arts, of women and women of colour. So pooling all these conversations together, and the challenges and the joys they pioneered and paved their way in their careers and their career trajectories. That’s all very topical. I do feel that there were definitely elements of all areas of my photographic practice involved. 

Liz: So in terms of the exhibition or sharing the images online, is there a text of their story that sits alongside it or extracts? How do you present that story, as well as that image? 

Shy: When I share every portrait, I always send it out via a newsletter, and it’s put onto my Instagram and social media feeds. And then there’s usually a barcode next to the image which takes them straight to an Instagram page where they can find each lady and their story.

I like to tease the audience. You can tell them so much, but for me, it’s important that they do some of the work themselves as well, so that they actually look at the image and consider the profession or wider narrative around that person. There might be a prompt to encourage them to know what that person is about. There might be other reflections of their own individuality that I’ve incorporated into their portrait that only I and the participant know about, and I think it’s up to the audience to then delve deeper. 

Liz: You mentioned that you do these little teasers every month for the newsletters (which is a really nice touch, like revealing a woman each month), but where is it next due to be showcased physically or online? 

Shy: It will be showcased at the Cartwright Hall in Bradford. I used to go to St. Joseph’s College, which is a stone’s throw away. I used to walk through and from Lister Park where their gallery’s house is, 30 years ago as a teenager, to and from school. And I used to nip in there during my free period, and also not-so-free periods. Sorry but not sorry! 

I used to go and have a look at some of the exhibitions there. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever, ever imagine I would be asked and invited to host my work there. As someone who is from Bradford, who is a woman, who is working class, who is of Pakistani Muslim heritage, that’s hugely important in terms of representation when you can’t be what you can’t see. 

So it is on now and it will be there until May 2024. 

Liz: I love that the relationship with the venue has come full circle for you. 

Shy: Yes, and the museum and gallery said that it feels very much like coming home. Well, yeah, because for so many years, when I was growing up, there wasn’t a sense of belonging there, there wasn’t a sense of how I fit in. I am British, but I’m Muslim, I’m Pakistani. In that area, we had the riots happening, and I remember walking to and from school and just standing there, “Oh my god, there are riots happening, right on my doorstep”. Now it’s changed, and it’s just so much more of a celebratory air, but it’s gone through so many different chapters. As someone who is as Bradford as it comes, to be invited to have an exhibition in my own home city is so important to me. 

Just being able to reinforce and advocate for people to have photography in their lives, and profiling it as an accessible medium, particularly from the workshops and socially engaged side of what I do, is important. It’s important that I go out and continue to spread the gospel of photography and encourage other people to come on the journey, especially younger people who don’t have the opportunities. It’s important that we do give them these routes in.

Images: Shy Burhan 

 

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