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Any Answers: Ken Grant

Ken Grant © Tracy Marshall

Starting out in his father's carpentry workshop, Ken Grant first pursued his interest in photography through a two-year technical course, studying with unemployed shipyard labourers in the mid-1980s. He's now a respected documentary photographer who also teaches at the Belfast School of Art; as his work on New Brighton goes on show alongside his early mentors Tom Wood and Martin Parr, and BJP caught up with him on his approach to pedagogy

Teachers I respect barely distinguish between photography and the rest of their lives. They stay close to their work and ideas, no matter how heavy the day. Students pick up on that energy. To lose that excitement is to lose everything.

The best students meet you head-on with their ideas and commitment. They are able to shape their own singular responses. They make pictures that speak with their own voice.

It’s important to help them become authors of their own work. Otherwise they run the risk of echoing or pastiching the prevailing styles of the day. Drawing out what they’re most concerned about can shape a way forward, but that means I have to listen and learn as well.

I share an office with Donovan Wylie and Paul Seawright. We’ve always helped each other. It isn’t uncommon to look at book dummies and realign pages with Donovan before the rest of the world has eaten breakfast. Paul is more interested in the gallery wall. He’s one of the most astute thinkers I know. He can distil the most uncertain conversation into the clearest approach. That energy can be so affirming for students.

We always talk to students as we talk to each other. We speak honestly and with candid directness. You figure out the best way to connect and enable those you’re supporting. Some teachers fall at that particular hurdle. It soon becomes a job like any other. That saddens me. To share a student’s hope for a piece of work needs humility and respect.

I’m careful not to neglect my own photography. Teaching a class and then working into the night isn’t uncommon. In fact, it’s a joy.

I was taught by Tom Wood. We’d go out on the bus to the football, working long days. He would rarely break stride and always seemed to teach by example. Martin Parr came later. He’d go through my proofs with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. But never ‘maybe’.

They both taught through the act of making work. Even now, they seem tireless. They’re both commanding in their own way – how they work and how they see the world will dominate a room. It would be easy to fall under that influence, but it’s important to find your own way.

I’m printing for a show in New Brighton with Tom and Martin. It’s the first time the work we each made in the town over several decades will be shown. I know we’ve photographed in the same places. I think those distinctions will be evident.

I photograph the same places repeatedly. I always imagined it would be easier to photograph somewhere I don’t know – an escape from all obligations. But I rarely felt the need for that. When you’re conscious of the rhythms of a place – the way it feels, the way it sounds and smells – it’s harder to make a picture that can reach that, but sometimes you get there.

Early on, I worked with labourers and craftspeople in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Their working lives were unstable and sometimes erratic, but they were able in spite of it. It was a life of feast or famine, a little like photography.

You can learn a lot from listening to conversations around a workshop table. You start to understand so much about what’s urgent, about how a family ticks, about keeping on, about money, football, love. It must have influenced me to photograph close to home, to work over the threshold. I’ve spent most of my life trying to get that close in all I do.

I was influenced by Raymond Carver. His stories illuminated evolving tensions between people as they work out ways to be with each other and keep going. They were set in the kind of modest settings I recognised. It made me think a lot about narrative, metaphor and suggestion when I put pictures together and work out the possibilities they hold when next to each other.

If I could give my younger self some advice? I’d send myself Christer Strömholm’s rules for photography. “Be out of step with the times,” he said. “Learn to say no.” And, “Be a poet in your own country.” They are lessons I worked out myself, but he’d figured them out a lot earlier.

ken-grant.info Read BJP’s interview with Ken Grant, Tom Wood, and Martin Parr about New Brighton Revisited www.bjp-online.com/2018/07/new-brighton-revisited This article was first published in the August issue of BJP, which has a special focus on education www.thebjpshop.com/product/aug-2018