photo caption (above): Sofia Silva, ‘Ego support #2’, from the project ‘The Orchestra’, 2011. Fine Art print, 60x70cm.
I started teaching soon after finishing an MFA in Glasgow. Since then, I’ve often remember something one of my tutors told me before I came back to Portugal. He warned me that choosing to teach could be tricky and that I should be careful not to sacrifice my artistic practice for the job. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought. I don’t think about myself as an artist, neither as someone wanting to have an artistic practice, so it didn’t really make much sense to worry about that. Now do I understand what he meant!!!
The year after I started teaching I also enrolled in a PhD. I wanted to pursue the research on “authentic making” started at GSA. I was (and still am) obsessed with authenticity. I kept making photographs for a year or two and then stopped. I attributed that change to the commitment assumed with the research work, but I’ll never know if that was the reason and today I’m inclined to think it wasn’t. Maybe teaching was, even though the most likely culprit is a sum of things in which life played the major role.
Throughout the entire time I stopped creating photographs with a camera, I never ceased working with thread and creating objects out of recycled materials. In the way I approach photography, I tend to include that passion for creating objects, so I often make things and then use the photographic medium to transform them in an image of something that has been. Throughout the entire time I stopped using the camera, I kept reading and writing about photography and learning a huge amount of technical conundrums in order to teach them. Now I believe that process of acquiring and structuring knowledge (stressful, under pressure, badly payed, in bad working environment, with very little time to experience and take pleasure in it) was a huge part of the reason why I stopped making photographs. Having to deconstruct the technical part of the process of creating images to such a degree killed part of the fun I have making them.
Was this a problem when I was a student? Not at all. I photographed a lot. Sometimes I hear students justify not researching or caring about history and other photographers with the argument that they don’t want to copy. It’s a poor excuse for not learning about what others do. Finding one’s own language (style, originality, etc.) has nothing to do with pretending we are islands. Maturity is the key here and that comes with working with the medium and thinking about its contexts. If we dive into photographic references, those influences will not take over; they will share their space with thousands of other things that matter to us and influence the way we think and act.
* * *
In the past couple of years a lot of changes came into place and I began photographing again. I finished my PhD, left one of the schools where I was teaching alternative processes and saw my life turned upside down (in private matters). I bought a beautiful plastic camera, an Agfa Optima 1982, and started having fun with it. In the months that followed I bought a lot of different point and shoot cameras – digital and analogue, the simpler the better – and started documenting my daily life, with no expectations.
In October 2018 I decided to join a course (at Oficina do Cego) to learn some other printing techniques and make a project. I’d been attempting to go back to image-making and that course pushed me to confront my fears of not being able to create original work and, since then, I’ve been enjoying the process of image-making a lot. Fear feeds on itself; it’s a monster we need to avoid.
Expressing oneself needs to be a pleasurable endeavor, even if at times anguish, transference, resistance and other forms of avoidance enter the play. Pleasure and play keep things moving forward. As a student, I remember always trying to make assignments meet my needs. Every challenge was an excuse to experiment with photography and be creative. My colleagues were not that different. Though we might approach things differently, we all executed with excitement. I fail to see that in students these days. It’s like everything is just an assignment they need to work through to get to the end. We’ve spent dozens of hours in meetings trying to understand what’s happening and why the majority of our young students has such a difficult relation with experimenting and knowledge. One reason, I believe, is the way they relate to information – not structuring it – and the way they relate to language – mostly thru social networks, message apps, games and tv series. They talk less than we did, spend less time together and they don’t read. That affects the way they structure their thinking processes in a profound manner, as I’m sure many neurologists have been able to study thus far.
* * *
I came to understand authenticity as a trace of truthful artmaking. Of course that’s not easy to identify. Another way to describe it would be to say that authenticity is present whenever truth in ethics and aesthetics are in sync. Furthermore, and although I don’t remember using this word in my thesis, now I think authenticity could also be described as a trace of organicity. But this is a borromean ring, since organicity requires knowledge of the self and that meeting cannot take place without maturity.
This week one of my students, accessing how the academic year had developed, said that everything learnt at school could be found on the internet. An acidic hole invaded my stomach as the student uttered these words. Navigating with that piece of information makes for a bumpy journey. Is one of the consequences of having so much information available online that we get students who think they know it all? I’m sure that’s not so simple. What I can say for sure is that newer generations have no faith in the process. They want it now. They want results. Believing that the process of experimenting and questioning can take them to better and brighter shores is something foreigner to them, so we insist on it, on developing critical awareness, on setting them unexpected challenges, but still most of them fail to see the point of engaging with the process.
Photography has always been experimental to me. Fortunately, mature students naturally develop that faith in the process. As they engage with photography, they strengthen their bond with the medium and they fall in love. That’s when the magic happens and learning from them, from that energy, is a special feeling. As the academic year comes to the end, I’m happy to come to the conclusion that although it’s becoming ever harder to teach photography to younger students, my focus needs to be more on those whose eyes still sparkle when experimenting with photography and less on those who think they know it all.