Celia Jackson is a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of South Wales and the co-founder of Phrame, a collective focused on promoting and supporting the work of emerging female photographers in the South Wales area. For nearly three decades, Celia has been involved with the lens-based practice and the use of text in the broadest possible terms, from pinhole photography through collage, artist’s books and creative writing. In her work as a photographer and educator, Celia is passionate about challenging the gender inequality within the photographic industry, while firmly advocating a student-centred approach to learning and teaching. We caught up with the “accidental academic” to learn more about the milestones of her career in photography and education, her work with Phrame Collective and what are her thoughts on the state of photography in Wales.
Celia, what were you like as a child? What did you want to be or become?
My family moved to upstate New York in late 1967, when I had just turned six, and this had a profound and lasting impact on me. We lived in a beautiful rural area in the foothills of the Adirondack mountains, in a large and isolated house. I spent a lot of time out-of-doors, and my love of being in wild places dates from this time. I was also an avid reader and, again, my love of books has stayed with me to this day.
In terms of my childhood ambitions, I had my heart set on being an astronaut! From 1966 to 1969 the original series of Star Trek was broadcast on NBC, and my sister and I were allowed to stay up and watch it as a special treat. I had a friend called Karen who, like me, was obsessed with the programme, and we made a pact to keep in touch and to be the first female astronauts on the International Space Station. Of course, this wasn’t even in existence on paper at this point, but we ‘dreamed big’ nevertheless. (I also had my first ever girlhood crush on William Shatner, who played Captain James T Kirk – a secret I’ve never previously revealed!)
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I spent hours roaming the fields and forests near our home in the US, catching frogs in the nearby streams and deliberately trying to get lost (not permanently) in the beautiful landscape. It was a childhood of freedom and of immersing myself in nature, and despite being a solitary child I was never lonely. When I think of the wildness and beauty of that part of the world I feel what I can only describe as hiraeth, even after all these years. The UK feels very crowded and claustrophobic by comparison with the miles of open space we enjoyed there.
What about your first memory related to art and photography?
Our nearest big town, Utica, was about twenty miles away, where there was what I now realise was a very forward-thinking art gallery called the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. My parents took us there quite often and, as well as the delicious refreshments on offer (!), what made a lasting impression on me was an exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s work. It was my first encounter with Abstract Expressionism and, despite my initial frustration at not being able to ‘understand’ the work, I soon became immersed in the relentlessly febrile life of his paintings. It strikes me now that this immersion was not unlike the sense of being surrounded by trees, grasses and flowers, evoking in me what van Gogh described as “the love of life in nature”.
We gather that you trained in Fine Art and multidisciplinary printmaking, but we’re curious to know how did you make the transition from Fine Art and printmaking to photography and education?
I spent the three years of my BA degree working with photography of all kinds, from simple photograms through to 35mm and medium format cameras, including pinhole cameras that I made myself from a range of containers. I also worked with text throughout my degree, because I love writing – what I’d describe as the ‘plasticity’ of words is an enduring joy, as well as a challenge. I created a collection of studio books whose importance to me was such that I exhibited them alongside my final major project at the end of my degree. This combining of text and image continued through my MA, of which a key element was bookmaking: I studied at UWE in Bristol, which has a fantastic collection of book arts resources at its Centre for Fine Print Research.
As for education, I always describe myself as the “accidental academic”, because I never even contemplated the notion of teaching until I was invited to do so by someone who is now a dear friend as well as an ex-tutor: Dr. Ian Walker. I began (with extreme nervousness) in 1993, by running seminars in the History and Theory of Photography part of the Documentary Photography course at Newport. To my astonishment I loved the experience! Sharing my enthusiasm with eager young – and not-so-young – folk was as rewarding then as it is now, and I continue to learn from my students every single day. I think this is also what keeps me feeling young…!
Was there a decisive moment or an existential turning-point that drew you to the lens-based practice?
In the first year of my BA (1990) the photography module was taught by a wonderful man called Steve Atkinson, who was a real pinhole photography buff. From him I learned all the basics of film photography (no digital in those days), and my love of everything pinhole-related is thanks to Steve. I was enchanted to discover that a photograph could be made with nothing more than an empty container with a tiny hole at one end and a piece of light-sensitive material at the other. The appeal of this purity and simplicity, qualities belied by the complex visual and psychological content of the resulting images, has only intensified with time. Also, using a pinhole camera means that the final image is largely the product of guesswork and is always something of a surprise. This mixture of the planned and the haphazard, of intent and accident, is one of pinhole photography's most appealing qualities for me.
What are your thoughts on the state of photography in Wales today?
I’m particularly excited by the work being produced by women in Cardiff and South Wales, where a number of young and/or emerging female photographers are creating powerful and provocative work around a range of pertinent themes. Two examples are Megan Winstone’s fearless exploration of female sexuality in contexts that include menstruation and pregnancy, and Tracey Paddison’s long-form documentary project involving a range of women in Valleys communities. A number of project proposals by Phrame members have been submitted for consideration by a review panel for our next major exhibition, Everywoman, to take place at the Senedd through February and March 2020 in celebration of International Women’s Day – so, watch this space!
You are also the co-founder of PHRAME Collective. How this initiative come about and what are its core values?
I am passionately committed to working towards true gender equality in the field of photography. Despite women’s progress in key areas of contemporary life, photography remains stubbornly male-dominated at the top, and there is a lack of equality on a global scale between the selection of men and women for the exhibition and publication of their work. Everyday sexism is pervasive: almost three years ago I was loudly insulted by a male photographer (a household name) in a public meeting to discuss the future of photography in Cardiff. His attack was wholly unprovoked and, in my embarrassment and my fury, I resolved to mount a challenge against such behaviour. Thus the idea of a collective to offer support, friendship and opportunities to women practitioners was born, although it took some time to come to fruition.
Phrame was actually co-founded in 2018 by myself and Lisa Edgar (Deputy Keeper of Art at National Museum Cardiff), with the support of Lydia Pang (then Creative Director at Refinery29 in New York). Our collective, while female-focused, is open to everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, class or creed. We are a creative and enthusiastic bunch of people who are united in wishing to promote and support the work of emerging female photographers in the South Wales area. This is partly to address the imbalance that currently exists: the collectives that have formed in our area are largely male-dominated, and women can find it difficult to find their voice in such environments. Our aim is to raise the profile of all the exciting work that is being created by Phrame members through exhibitions, online promotional activity, and mutual support and encouragement. We also continue to ask important questions about the place and value of women’s practice, and to push the boundaries of photography in terms of process as well as artefact.
On a personal level I remain highly vocal in my efforts to challenge unhelpful stereotyping and the inequality faced by many women photographers. Thanks to another Phrame member, Natasha Hirst, I was invited to speak at last month’s Women in Photography conference in London, convened by her in her role as the first female chair of the National Union of Journalists’ Photographers’ Council. This aim of this event was to examine the discrimination and barriers to success faced by many women photographers, and to explore strategies by which to tackle these. There is no question that, as the TUC puts it, “to remain relevant and authentic, the photography industry must seek to become more diverse to fairly reflect the communities it reports on.” Collectives such as Phrame (based in Cardiff), Redeye Network (Manchester) and Fast Forward in London are excellent examples of people rolling up their sleeves and taking positive action at grassroots level to create greater equality of opportunity for women photographers.
What would your advice be for someone wishing to pursue a career in photography?
Your number one priority is to keep using your camera, every single day. I am tired of hearing students say things like, “We’re not in [university] today,” or “There’s nothing on all through the summer”. Practice, practice, practice should be your mantra! Beyond that, be proactive and resourceful; seek out exhibitions to visit and events to attend, including Phrame’s free portfolio reviews! – see @phramewales on Instagram; network – see Ffotogallery and Creative Cardiff for starters; work on personal projects, whether or not you are studying, because it’s these that will set you apart at interview time. Get used to working very hard (then harder, and harder still); be punctual, friendly, helpful, enthusiastic and kind; when seeking a placement or internship, ask yourself firstly what skills you can offer to others (rather than how much you would love to work with them).
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
I absolutely love my job but it can be very intense, so my most important strategy for unwinding is to go for a run. In the evening it helps me clear my mind, calm down and review the day – I describe this as “untangling myself” (after Carly Simon’s song, Loving and Free, dating from a very long time ago!). In the morning, especially after a few hours of desk work, it helps me to sharpen my focus and regain concentration. I also go to the gym for functional strength work and stretching, plus cycling and walking when possible. I gather inspiration all day every day, from books (fiction and poetry), films, billboards, fashion, architecture, journals, magazines and newspapers, and of course online platforms (Twitter and Instagram) and websites. Words are integral to everything I do: a single line from a song overheard on someone’s radio or rediscovered in a book can lead me to create an entire body of work.
And finally, when you think about the future of photography and visual arts in Wales, what are you most excited about and why?
At present I am really thrilled by the news that Ffotogallery has been successful in finding a new home in Cathays, Cardiff: The Old Sunday School in Fanny Street. The staff and the activities of Ffotogallery have been part of the fabric of my life ever since I moved to Wales to study photography in 1989. Therefore, I’m so pleased that, having celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018, this crucially important institution has a secure future for at least the next ten years.
Director David Drake writes: “The ambition is not simply to create a home for Ffotogallery, but a home for photography in Wales… Our aim is to build on established partnerships – local, national and international – and develop new relationships with a wide range of arts, creative industry, education and community organisations in delivery of our future programme.” David has been one of Phrame’s most loyal – and vocal – supporters from the outset, and I’m delighted that our collaborative activities will be expanded and developed further in the years to come.