We talk to Jo Howell about leading the Look and Inspire Project which aims to involve the community with their environment as well as photography.
Tell us a bit about your project…
I started to develop the Look & Inspire Pinhole photography project in 2014 alongside The Art Studio Sunderland, an Arts and Mental Health Charity based in the City. Using an artistic system to encourage the people of Sunderland to engage with their City and surroundings in a visual way.
My work has always been concerned with themes of authorship in art. As a photographer, you have to collaborate with the real world in order to create an image that conveys your message.
The pinhole photography project took this notion a little further. By making a simple but standardised system, and inviting many people to create artworks using this system, has allowed for the production of a fantastic array of very different and unique perspectives of the City.
Since 2015 Look & Inspire has offered free or low costs workshops for people of all ages and abilities. There have been over 35 workshops, with over 360 participants, 3 exhibitions, and over 700 pinhole photographs produced!
In the workshops the participants learn how to build their own camera, how to process images using traditional chemicals, and each year we have held an exhibition that has collated the work for public display. The project has invited collaborations from many different art practices by allowing the public to use the photographs produced as resources in their own work. This made the resulting exhibitions a dynamic display of varied art practices; all stemming from the same unified aesthetic of the pinhole photograph.
My part as lead artist means that I have nursed the project from its inception. This includes sourcing funding, staff, venues; teaching all workshops, editing and presenting all works, and all advertising. As part of the project the aim is to involve as many people as possible, Look & Inspire project has used social media to share the photographs to people across the world. I see myself in the capacity of Artistic Director, much in the same way that Andy Warhol was the director in the context of the Factory, (though I am certainly no Andy Warhol yet!). The project has the ability to record in a unique, and personal manner, the changing social landscape of our City in the midst of regeneration drives by the local Council and corporations.
Why pinhole photography and cameras?
I chose pinhole photography because of the unique nature of the images. Each camera built creates a specific style of photograph, and helps to change the scene so it has another world quality.
What is your favourite and least favourite aspect of this project?
The administration of any project is always a chore! And, is also one of the hardest aspects of the funding bids. I work many hours on the projects for free, mainly on the social media marketing, writing funding bids, or press releases and advertising. I’m lucky in the respect that I don’t find this side of the work particularly hard, but it is nevertheless far removed from the creative process of actually making the work.
I suppose the best part about the project is the fact that I get to work with so many different people. We are building a small community of fine art pinhole photographers and that definitely has its rewards. Many of the people that I work with have never had the chance to work with the materials in an artistic sense, or have never been part of a larger art project. I can see the benefits straight away, and I get a buzz from the positive responses that the participants have given across the board.
Can you tell us what attracted you to this specific project and how it is different from your other work?
I have worked on large scale public engagement projects in the past, including The Big Picture 2012, where I got over 500 people to collaborate with myself and two other artists in the production of a public artwork to mark the Olympics, now displayed in the Sunderland Aquatic Centre.
Other projects have included designing school magazines about fuel poverty and energy efficiency with low literacy schools, in collaboration with National Energy Action. This project ended with an exhibition at the Discovery Museum for the schools involved.
I have worked with the British Institute of Human Rights with learning disabled adults to demonstrate the necessity for the protection of such Rights. This resulted in an exhibition at the Centre for Life in Newcastle.
Outside of project work I have my own studio and continually develop work that I will create in series for commercial galleries and art competitions. The project work allows me to ease gently into the commercial realm, allowing me to fully investigate my themes without the added pressure having to make it commercially viable in the first instance.
Have you studied photography or art? If so where and when?
I studied photography and fine art from leaving school at Sunderland College and University. I completed my BA in 2009, and started my own business the same year. I’ve worked in commercial photographic studios, on various projects, as a workshop leader, curator, project developer, magazine editor… the list is never ending! In my particular case it made sense to diversify my practice to enable me to make my living solely from creative endeavors.
What is your connection to the North East?
I have lived in the North East all of my life. I believe the best art is produced when an artist understands their subject intimately. So, my main bodies of work look at themes of the self, authorship, nostalgia, and fantasy- through the manipulation of imagery or light to create hyper realities in the camera. Working on a grand scale with the public helps the work to speak for many people all at once, and when displayed in a coherent show, this demonstrates in a visual way the many interpretations of our heritage and the changing landscape.
I work teaching photography, film, animation, and fine art at The Art Studio Sunderland several times a week. This has given me a fantastic community group that can lead the way throughout the project.
What is it about the north east that attracts you?
I’ve always wanted to remain in the North East. I have a possibly naïve but very strong principle that I owe the community that nurtured me. It can sometimes very hard because the creative opportunities have traditionally been very sparse in our region, hence, my move into project work and sourcing my own funding.
I’m a great believer that if there are no opportunities then we should do our best to create our own. The other artists in Sunderland are similarly proactive and steadfast in what is turning out to be a very unstable social and political landscape. I hope that the City of Culture bid will attract more arts investment to the area, but I also hope that this filters down to the artists who have been courageously working for many years in the name of our common cultural identity despite many adversities.
Where can people find out more?