Welcome to an Interview with Denise Felkin, Tutor at Photoion Photography School.
Denise is a freelance Creative Photographic Artist with extensive experience in public visual art installations. She has over twenty years experience in working with the public and photographing a variety of subjects; fine art, portraits, music, arts and festivals, landscapes, and installations.
She’s also tutor / lecturer / trainer in photography and has spent the past eight years working for the City College in Brighton and four years working for Photoion Photography School. She has also delivered workshops to community groups and organisations such as the BBC, Brighton & Hove City Council, Phoenix Brighton, and Sussex Wildlife Trust.
Hi Denise, why photography?
Maybe because my grandfather was a photographer, and my father a printer, although both of them died in my early years.
I feel photography is in my genes. If it wasn’t for photography, how would I know how my father looked like?
I had a slow start; my first camera was stolen at the age of ten, from Butlins, Barry Island. My second camera was stolen age 18, from Glastonbury Festival. I later went to Art College, where I discovered my passion and talent for photography.
I stick with photography because it makes me feel alive and has helped me get through some dark moments in life. It has always given me access to places I would not normally be able to attend.
What is a photographer?
A photographer gets creative with light, captures the moment, organises chaos into order. In a way the photographer is a solution provider: he/she makes the best out of what is put in front of him/her.
I’ve always called myself a “photographic artist”, and at present my work fits somewhere between documentary and art photography.
Very importantly I’ve learnt not to pigeonhole myself: it does not matter what I call myself because I’m still wearing all the hats.
In my own practice, I spend very little time taking photos. Most of the time I am researching, reading, visiting shows, talking to people, editing, location finding, etc.
I do wear at the same time many non-creative hats: from accountant, to cleaner to social worker, secretary, PA. I am an educator, facilitator, self promoter, and job hunter.
I am also still a student myself. I have been studying photography for 25 years and I am still learning. It is such a massive subject, which will take me to the day I die to master it and maybe that day I will still not know everything.
Pick a photo in the world. Which one and why?
It’s the only image I have of me and my father.
I am in a pram, he is photographing me, his shadow falls on my pram. I believe it kind of maps out my destiny. I once showed it to Rosy Martin and she said it was a very powerful image.
May I ask you, what does that shadow represent to you?
With my dad dying so young it really had an impact on my whole life. The shadow represents my destiny: my father photographing me and then me being a photographer in later life. It’s ironic that the only photo I have of him shows my career, aspirations and life path.
Your father and your grandfather were in the photography field: have you ever thought to start a personal research for meaning, for family history, for understanding, through their photography archives?
My father was an offset printer. My mother told me his ambition was to go to art college but he never did. My grandfather was a photographer. It is impossible to see and work with what they have been doing during their life time because there aren’t traces of any archive.
Is the family album something that has ever interested you?
Yes. During my first degree (in Fine Art at the University of Sunderland) I explored the family album for meaning. I used my own family album and used found and reconstructed imagery and created an alternative album that showed not so celebrated events such, as death and divorce.
I also wrote a dissertation on Jo Spence and Diane Arbus. Comparing the two photographers, I argued that they created their own alternative family album: Spence by involving doctors in her therapy of cancer and Arbus treating her subjects of marginalised people as if they were her own family.
“The camera reveals movements and a beautiful layer of what is to disappear.”
How would I have known what my father looked like if I had not seen a photograph of him? My memory is too blurred to recall his face.
As children we had very few photos in display in our house, our family photos were hidden away in a shoebox. On rainy days, my siblings and I would take adventures into memory by excitedly diving into the array of family photos. We made our connections with the documentary evidence of our identities and historical events. Within our imagined space, we resurrected our past, our memories, grabbing glimpses of joy by reuniting with our loved ones and that were no longer with us.
Can you talk about your current project and the making of it?
Two years ago I was awarded a scholarship to deepen my photography research at the MA Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at University of Westminster. I am now working on my Major Project, and I have decided to make work in the form of a book about non voters.
Through my teaching in Brighton, I have a track record of working with homeless people. In the six years I spent teaching photography in the homeless hostel, I had always encouraged them to take photos and I didn’t photograph them at all, as I felt it is not right to stick a camera in the faces of somebody who is having a bad experience.
By the time I had started my MA, my photography students from the homeless hostel, got housed.
When I came back to them and into their new homes was for WOW, a women’s magazine I was working on. First I focused on women, and by the time the magazine was complete, I went on to photograph men in their homes too and tried out some new ideas based around the inspiration of Manet. I wanted to bring together fine art and photojournalism.
The images were quite successful, exhibited by galleries and applauded by the university. I was encouraged by my tutor to look at these pictures and find a more focused issue and make a new project.
I knew I did not want to make another body of work about homelessness and I kept looking at these images to see if a common more focused theme existed that would not lose the original context or change their meaning. It was not easy, then it came to me:
Non voters, British people that choose not to vote.
At the start of the project, the number of non voters was 25 %. After the recent European elections, the media said it is about 60%. The project is nowhere near completion. My deadline is 20 August. I keep producing images and my tutor sends me in all sorts of different directions, doing what he does best which is pushing you as far as you can go, out of my comfort zone to get the best out of me.
The result will be exhibited at Ambika P3, Marylebone Campus at the end of August.
Would you read us a page of your diary?
That’s difficult, I do not keep a detailed one. My work pattern is so varied; its rare two days are the same.
I spend time commuting between London and Brighton: I usually wake up trying to work out what city I am in, where I am.
Often the public believes that photographers are spending most of their time photographing, but professionals have actually so many other activities to follow up around their photography.
I spend a lot of time around education. In how many creative environments I’m in? Only this week I’ve been to Westminster university, I worked in Brighton, curated and hung a show for my students as part of Brighton Fringe. I had a mindfulness class at Cavendish, spent time in my London studio, in my Brighton studio, I spent 4 days making photographs, location hunting and model scouting for my project.
I have a day off today so my head will be in my books researching and developing my major project and resting too because tomorrow I am teaching at Photoion and I have to prepare myself as I want to put 100% of myself in it and respond to my students needs.
What do you see in your future?
It’s difficult today to make a living solely from photography, especially as an artist. Through my teaching I have learnt a lot, especially editing and selecting pictures.
In the future I’d like to get more into picture editing and creative commissions.
Thank you Denise for sharing yourself so generously with us.