The Dave Lewis Interview

September 3, 2009

Back in the late 1980s Dave taught me photography at the Hammersmith and Fulham Community Resource Centre. At the time I was still in secondary school. Dave lived locally, in fact just down the road from my Mum and Dad’s. He continued to school me in photography, encouraging me to go out there and practice taking photos and think about photography.

He was also instrumental in my successful application to study photography at degree level at the University of Westminster (formerly Polytechnic of Central London).

I passed Dave Lewis recently on an escalator in the London Underground station at Chancery Lane. He was going up and I was going down. It’s quite a funny situation when you pass someone you haven’t seen for years like this because conversation is so obviously short!

I since looked him up on the net and through the wonders of E-mail asked my old mentor and friend to contribute an interview to this blog.

1. For you, what’s it all about? with reference to the field of photography and your practice in it.

For me photography was initially about trying to decipher or deconstruct the world from my position i.e. as a black subject in the world but specifically London. Most of the images I had seen from day to day tell a story largely from a white middle-class European/North American perspective. You could argue that little has changed. Therefore photography was a tool that I could attempt to be literate with and explore other stories about individuals and place. My practice until relatively recently has therefore concentrated on the ‘constructed image’; images that are largely created within a photographic studio or in a site that has particular relevance to the issues I am discussing with an audience. I like to think that 20 years on my practice has changed. My approach is more sophisticated and subtle. Because of the college I attended (Polytechnic of Central London) I consider research to be a vital strand in my photographic practice. Here I’m not talking about research and theory in terms of photographic technique (which is vital to learn) but rather in terms of semiotics, psychoanalytical theory, visual studies etc. I try and use these disciplines (if and when I choose) but not be stymied by them. So I like to consider my work as adding to the visual language of contemporary social and historical issues although I also make photographs just for the sake of making photographs.

2. Can you supply 3 images and tell me something about why these ones. (favourite ones, significant ones).

This image of this door handle is important to me. It is one of a series of images from an exhibition called ‘Wall’. The concept of a ‘Wall’ is used as a metaphor for a social/political structure that you cannot pass through. The images center around the Stephen Lawrence Report and the sites featured were all involved in the public hearings in London. The door handle is the entrance to the Crown Prosecution Service building in Ludgate Hill. It is a ’wall’ in that it is an obstacle to rights and justice – at least in this particular case at a certain period in British social history.

I photographed the building a few times before focusing on what I thought was significant in terms of a referent. Seeing this handle (we all know) is more than likely to be a public building than a private one and hopefully, within the series, the implications of law, justice and race, in this case as well as others, will provoke the viewer to think about the relationship between the individual and the State.

The image of the golly in the snow was from a series called ‘In the Palm of My Hand’. The images consider the collection of black figurines (negrobilia). I have tried to recontextualize them through additional text. This image is called ‘Second Worst Nightmare’. I used the figure to play around with the idea of a being a black policeman and representing a non-negotiating force no matter what the circumstances. Throughout my youth, like countless other black people, I was stopped and searched constantly. From the few black policemen at the time the experience seemed so much worse to be ‘pulled’ by them. I’d like to think that this image within the series enscapulates many different ideas to do with race, authority and assimilation. When it was reproduced on the cover of Artists Newsletter I had a little chuckle to myself.

This image of a black man lying naked on a table, ‘Untitled, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland’ beneath a portrait painting was in a group show at The Photographer’s Gallery, London. I visited post the private view night just to see attendance and how it looked amongst the wider exhibition. I ended up standing next to two men. One was explaining to his friend what the picture meant. It was something on the lines of the modern black person turning his back on the establishment. Which wasn’t a bad attempt. His friend burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the statement and said ‘it’s taking the ****ing ****. How is it art?’ Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion I supposed.

The image was made in the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. The portrait is of A.C. Haddon who was a president of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. The model is my mate and fellow photographer Ajamu. I wanted to explore the site of ethnographic production by having black subjects explore the archives where ‘their images’ were held, classified and archived. I hoped it would make viewers think about the history of representation and colonialism as well as ongoing debates about who has access to archives and artifacts and who determines the future of these objects.

3. Photography can make you scared. It’s almost akin to being in a running race. Can you comment on the demands, the fears of being a photographer.

I think you can get over precious about taking a photograph – not that it should not be taken seriously but you also need to relax and enjoy the act. Whole canons of theory and criticism have grown around photographic practice – not too mention curators, galleries and collections. I also realized some years ago that too much research and ‘theory’ can freeze spontaneity and you can become quite fearful about what you are putting ‘out there’. I recalled one reknowned writer and lecturer saying to me ‘ your desire, you can edit it later’. So I just try and shoot whatever I feel I need to and put fear aside until later. Easier said than done I know.

But it’s funny you mention ‘being in a running race’. In some ways this analogy works on different levels. One is fear of being ‘beaten’ by your competitors. That is seeing others being awarded commissions and exhibitions that you have gone for but have not been successful in attaining. There are only so many commissions and jobs out there (especially now) so it’s something you have to come to terms with. And sometimes these competitors are close friend’s. The other thing (in my personal experience of athletics) is that there’s a deep psychology involved in running against a field of athletes who have personal best times whose differences are a second or less. In other words there are great photographers out there all producing wonderful images – all having prepared themselves. So, I think all you can do is prepare as well as you can by being ready and equipped to shoot and mentally having thought through what you want to do.

The demands of being a professional photographer can be stressful especially if there are no other forms of income like teaching, a part-time job or a private income. It can also be lonely and calls for constant vigilance in pushing yourself – just like any other business. However, I also believe that photography is so myriad in it’s processes, forms, applications, content and reception that there is enough space for everyone to enjoy the act of making photographs. This is of course very different from the ‘business of photography’. It is also differs to the fears of producing exhibitions. You are probably only as good as your last show and fear of some sort pervades the everyday working life of the photographer/artist. It may be just a personal fear in not achieving what you believe you can or a desire to have positive criticism of your work. I’m sure there are some who have few qualms such as these working in photography but I haven’t met them yet.

4. What’s left for you to do?

I don’t feel I’ve really started yet! I don’t expect to fulfil my picture making desires until I reach my mid 50’s! When I look through the grand photographic bibles and see the same names coming up again and again I realize I’ve done very little and have a lot more to accomplish. I’d like to travel more and take on issues that are important to me world-wide making images in any form that I think best suits the subject. Lately this has included working in video from an ethnographic perspective.

I wanted to be a fashion photographer when I started photography and have always looked up to corporate photographers because they deliver high quality products for a client on time. I would like to pursue these areas and see if I can use these techniques to comment on issues I care about. For me it’s all about learning more and more in order to express myself.

5. Do you have any regrets in your life as a photographer?

Yes. I would like to have taken more pictures growing up in 70’s Britain. It wasn’t pretty (and I was fairly young) but it was an important time in terms of recording growing black consciousness in black British youth. Definitely less arguing (in obviously no-win situations) about the essence of photography, how it should be shown, where it should be shown etc. Although sometimes it’s necessary and fun! I regret not going for the ‘edge’ enough but I suppose there’s always time to do that now.

Dave Lewis

September 2009


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