The Gaze: the PartB Interview with Artist Mark Neville

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Mark Neville’s work is currently on show in the Atrium Gallery till the 23rd of January. Additionally, he is speaking as part of a panel on the 13th of January. The panel will discuss effective ways of communicating and changing inequality, centring on the work of artist Mark Neville and feature several academics and journalists.

by Jade Jackman

Flickering, presence, thoughts and a sense of potential are wrapped up in the filmmaker’s gaze. If you have the pleasure of sitting down with a skilled one, you won’t notice. From MARK NEVILLE’s list of highly acclaimed projects, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that he surely is one of those. However, sincerity and intensity are not skills – they have to flow from the person holding onto the camera and it is these attributes that distinguish him as an artist. His thoughtful and considered attitude is reflected in his working methods; he described how he aims to spend long periods of time within communities in order to provide an deeper understanding of their circumstances. Although commonly defined as a photographer, his in-depth approach to his work aligns him with social scientists who seek to embed themselves in their communities. This sense of richness allows his work to visually communicate the kind of changes in society that are more frequently documented by academics.

How would you describe your own work?

I am commonly defined as a documentary photojournalist or a photographer and that is absolutely wrong. I do make photographs but I also make films, I publish books and distribute them. It feels very strange for me to be described as a photographer because taking the photo is only part of what I do… I am far more interested in how images end up being disseminated and the way that certain images are presented to us by the media. My work is about those structures and I sometimes use photography as my medium to question them. The work I produce is about challenging those frameworks, thinking about the audience and considering the ways art can have a direct effect on society. It makes it conceptually far more interesting!

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So, what do you think the social function of art should be?

Art should aim high! …Even if it misses it is better to aim high and fail rather than stoop low but succeed. I definitely take that attitude with my own work… My project ‘Deeds Not Words’ was an incredibly long project that aimed to change the government’s environmental policy. We sent it out to the councils and got a couple of letters back but nothing happened. All the time I had been asking myself: can an art book change policy? No, it couldn’t. It seemed like it failed but then a few years later things started to develop with the project in terms of impact… Personally, I am interested in wealth inequality, war and injustice so these are the topics I will try and address in my work. I also think art should have a direct impact on communities. For example, the Port Glasgow Book Project, I asked members of the local boys football team to deliver copies of the book to all of houses of the local community. This idea was generated a direct response to the people I was working with.

Is that what you meant by ‘empowerment of the subject’?

I regret using that word now… It sounds like I am calling them oppressed and that I see it as my duty to lift them out of their oppression! That isn’t what I meant… What I wanted to say is that we, as artists, should make our subjects part of the process on all levels. We should make them our primary audience and not restrict our vision to the art world. I usually begin my projects with a community. My work on the on the Isle of Bute is a good example of this. I lived there for a couple of years and the output of the project was a film and slideshow dedicated to the farming community – not the London art crowd! Nevertheless, the Scottish Parliament later bought the photograph of Annie with the goat in the kitchen. I arranged in the contract that they should send a chauffeur-driven jaguar to take her to Edinburgh for the launch of the photo! It was the first time she had left the village for fifty years, it made sense to me that she should go. More often than not it is just common sense, I get a lot of my ideas from the community that I work with. It isn’t me having a brilliant mind – just a pragmatic response and a desire for them to benefit from the photo as well. People seem to want to separate their audience and their subject matter as much as possible!

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How do you manage to achieve such intimate shots?

Experience! I have been taking photos in pubs, clubs and discos for about ten years now. It might sound obvious but I always get permission. On top of that, I always make sure that I give a few days notice because a key part of what I do is about making people feel comfortable. As I said before, it relates to me spending months and years in certain communities – it is about building trust. That is completely the same with pubs and clubs. I also bring a big flash unit… People are drunk and dancing and so they don’t mind… and I’m usually drunk and dancing as well!

Had you been interested in war before your work as the United Kingdom’s official war photographer in the Afghan province of Helmand?

No, I had never been interested. It had a huge impact on me and I was in an absolute mess when I came back. The whole experience had left me with so many ethical questions… I came back and there was no sense of continuum. Pavements greeted me, there was chocolate, gin and tonic… It was a terrible experience that I had been so ill prepared by the museums. They’d promised me a major exhibition and a platform of my series of work. It didn’t happen till three years later when we were pulling out… I’d felt robbed. Not from the personal perspective of my career, I’d wanted to feel like my work would challenge the misrepresentation of war in Britain. I was also frustrated by the contextualisation of my work at the war museum. Tanks and rockets flank your route, building up this theme park of war and then you’d arrive at my work. After coming back, I really believed they could do much more to engage with issues. British people have a very sentimental relationship with war and we need to try and address that in society.

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Can you fully address those issues without sending artists to conflict zones?

That is a very good question… and, truthfully, I don’t know. Something needs to change in the way war is reported but I don’t think that is down to the reporters. I know plenty of amazing journalists and photographers who have amazing stories – amazing stories that also represent a different side to war. But it doesn’t matter. Our news channels already have a format for the six o’clock news – ever wonder why you never hear about the people who lose arms, legs and other limbs everyday?

What is your favourite piece of work?

I think I have three. To me, there is something deeply attractive but also sentimental captured in ‘New Born Lamb’. However, I also love the photograph of Betty dancing at Port Glasgow Town Hall… we put up so much rigging to get those shots. The photo of the boy at Somerford Grove Adventure Playground in Tottenham has something very Dickensian about it and I also enjoy how it looks much more like a painting.

Editor