Article in Offline Journal No.7, Autumn 2021


In a brief essay in Offline #001, October 2018, I suggested that “There has never been a time like now for photography, particularly here in Wales”.

Three years later that comment can be repeated, but now the dynamics are very different indeed. As the devastating impact of both the pandemic and Brexit plays out, we are presented with a very different context for photography in Wales.

Perhaps remarkably, a sense of ‘community’ has continued to emerge over the last couple of years thanks to the hard work of those who developed formal and informal activities, often serviced by the pandemic’s ‘Zoom-boom’. Through extraordinary serendipity we have, for the first time in Wales, three photography festivals running in parallel in North, Mid and South Wales, each providing varying flavours of commercial and cultural photography in international contexts. If it had been planned this way, it probably wouldn’t have happened. The post-pandemic National Museum Cardiff is back to its own advancement of photography with its next Swaps exhibition, building on its pre-pandemic successes that included the impressive ‘Photography Season’ in 2019. Our other galleries and photography-related organisations are re-emerging too, dusting themselves off and facing the new challenges that we are all now living with. This sense of a new start seems compounded by the news that Ffotogallery’s Director will soon leave the organisation after well over a decade in the role.

Change can be good; it can also be dangerous. This is why I believe it’s time for all of us who claim to have some serious engagement with photography in Wales to get positively involved in facing the challenges coming our way. Perhaps I put ‘Wales’ and ‘photography’ in the same sentence too often but it is because I strongly believe there should be recognition that there is a specificity to photography in and of Wales. Whilst this can be imagined as being separate from forms of British/European/International photography it certainly could not exist without an ongoing engagement with all of them.

The very real dangers faced by photography in Wales include future support and sustainability. Many of our smaller independent galleries have really struggled during the last couple of years and have had to find imaginative ways to sustain interest (and income) in what they do. Some organisations have been supported by the UK’s Cultural Recovery Fund depending on their business modelling and staffing arrangements. However, many of Wales’ cultural organisations working with photography will soon be facing the delayed Arts Council Wales (ACW) Investment Review. The fallout from the pandemic and Brexit means organisations cannot assume business as usual in the future.

Previously I have written about Ffotogallery’s important role in the development of photography in Wales. As it moved to establish a National Centre for Photography in the 1990s, Ffotogallery encouraged the idea of becoming the national development agency for photography in Wales. Unfortunately, this complex project was not realised despite the best efforts of the organisation and its partners. This notion of being a development agency for all photography in Wales has become difficult to sustain as the organisation’s priority has largely engaged with photography in the contemporary arts. This has largely excluded other forms of photography including the more commercially orientated practices such as those related to advertising, fashion, science, industry, journalism, etc. It has to be hoped that Ffotogallery will continue to receive ACW support as part of a refreshed publicly funded portfolio of organisations. To receive this support, it is necessary for organisations to clearly demonstrate how they will respond to the cultural, social and economic challenges now and in the future. This is another indication of the shifting cultural landscape in Wales.

So, what can we do as individuals? Firstly, and importantly, keep making photographs and/or writing about photography – there is certainly not enough of the latter and the published word is essential in raising an awareness of what we do. Whatever you do, do it with seriousness and integrity. Secondly, support the photography community in Wales through engagement with others (and where possible through purchases and making gifts). Thirdly, communicate your thoughts to others and be equally prepared to listen, comment and respond. Fourthly, never lose sight of the collective enterprise – photographers often work alone but there is strength in being part of something shared. Finally, remember that each and every one of us can shape the future of photography in Wales – keep engaged and imagine what you would like to see and share those thoughts with others.

Over the last couple of years, I have put forward some suggestions of what I believe could work in the future (see the essays ‘A Thirsty Dog in a Puddle’ and ‘New Vision, Photography and Wales’, both now available on my website). In brief, I believe that there should be a more joined-up approach to the development of photography in Wales, one that emphasises learning and encourages better visual literacy in our society, both essential in our post-truth world. Perhaps a move to develop opportunities for acquiring skills and knowledge whilst also disseminating work widely across the country could work to energise local engagement and engender a meaningful national discourse around photography and its role in society. This needs a clear strategy along with a funded organisation/entity to co-ordinate photography-related activity across the whole of Wales on a regular basis.

With all the changes and challenges we currently face, perhaps there is no time like now for each and every one of us to contribute to the future development of photography in Wales.

©Paul Cabuts 2021

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