May 6, 2014 by Amy Ryall
Nigel Cavanagh, a student in the History department, writes about his involvement in The Image Speaks an Arts Enterprise funded project in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
The project brought together 10 PhD students from across the Faculty with photographer Andy Brown and Jon Cannon, Catherine Carley and Chris Woodhams from design studio The Cafeteria to produce an exhibition of photographs of PhD research. Over a series of seminars, students explored the processes involved in producing a photography exhibition and worked individually with Andy to compose work which was then displayed in Jessop West Foyer, the main Arts and Humanities building at the University of Sheffield.
When I first heard of the Image Speaks project, the central premise seemed to me to be both intriguing and unlikely. I doubted that it would be possible to sum up three years of hard, rigorous research in one or two well-chosen images and yet the idea seemed so novel that I had to find out more. Naturally, I signed up!
Initially, my trepidation was not allayed by meeting the other PhD students who were participating. All were engaged in a range of exciting and diverse research projects that covered fields such as linguistics, religion, philosophy and history and architecture, but it seemed to me that many of the concepts and ideas behind their research did not easily lend themselves to visual representation.
However, as the workshops progressed the obvious enthusiasm of both the participants and the convenors for the project began to convince me that it could work. Over successive weeks we learned how to think about the content and presentation of information, the design of graphics and visuals and ways of putting together these diverse elements in the most dynamic and striking way. Working with the design group The Cafeteria, we went through the practicalities of staging and designing the exhibition itself, learning to work with both the opportunities and challenges of the Jessop West lobby area as a venue.
Working with the photographer Andy Brown was fun. He outlined the kind of things he was interested in and the kinds of photography that he was not. Picturesque sunsets, cute animals and Photoshop effects were definitely out. Instead, Andy showed us some of his own work, which was challenging, controversial and raw. His wonderful portraits of patients at the Sheffield Children’s Hospital, for example, raised as many questions as they answered. With Andy on board, it was very clear that the final images would be far from obvious and banal depictions of research.
With the theory and practical considerations of staging the exhibition worked out, the process of tracking down an image itself proved relatively straightforward. My PhD explores the social history of the 19th century industrial community at Elsecar, near Barnsley and I was fortunate in that substantial remains of the former industrial infrastructure still exist within the village. With this in mind, Andy and I wandered around the site for a morning, looking for likely locations and visually interesting elements. My first choice of image, a boarded-up graffiti-covered derelict building, seemed have something to say about the relevance of heritage in the modern world, but didn’t really indicate the depth of my PhD research. Andy took some interesting shots of incongruous juxtapositions of modern signs and historical buildings, which again said something interesting but were probably a little too obtuse to do the project justice.
Finally, we both settled on a really good photo of part of the 18th century ironworks, an important part of the industrial story at Elsecar. Andy’s closely cropped image of crumbling brickwork, devoid of obvious reference points was, I think, a pretty good example of the unsettling and challenging aspects of his work. For me, it depicted a key element of the historical story that I am exploring in the PhD, but also acted as a powerful visual metaphor for historical interpretation in a wider sense.
The final exhibition , in the foyer of Jessop West, was wonderful. It was great to see the culmination of everyone’s hard work and the final photographs and illustrations really succeeded in their aim of encapsulating the various research projects. In conclusion, participating in The Image Speaks was for me was a challenging, interesting, illuminating, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately very rewarding experience.
Nigel’s accompanying essay, along with the work of the other 9 students can be seen here. This online publication also features short essays by each student which accompanies their image/s and provides some context for both their research and involvement in the project.