My Year Back At University

It all started in September 2017 when I’d been out of university for three years. I decided to go to a postgraduate advice event at UCLAN (the university of central Lancashire), looking into studying a master’s in photography.

A few days later I applied hoping to start straightaway. However, I was a little late applying so I waited patiently until September 2018 to officially start my course.

I walked into my first term not knowing what to expect and realising the next year of my life was going to me my biggest challenge yet.

In the first term I studied three modules, two double modules entitled socially engaged art and space, location and territory which both would continue into the second term. The third module was visualising the inviable which was a singular module. The first term all my subjects required me to present my projects in a self-reflective way.

I’m going to start by talking about socially engaged art. “Socially engaged art projects are those that involve forms of social engagement where the participants are directly involved in the creative process” by Stine Marie Jacobsen. For my project I chose to work with fencing and identity and as you may know from one of my previous posts, I am a fencer. This involved a questionnaire and then compiling a pdf with my participants information embedded. In this pdf I had to discuss the concept and talk about my work.

My project focused on a community of fencers at both Preston Fencing Club and UCLAN Knights Fencing Club. The sport of Fencing is the catalyst to examine the key theme of identity and how participating in fencing contributes to that sense of identity. This included showing that fencing is not just a sporting activity, it is very importantly, also a social activity that brings people together and creates a sense of community. and has a positive impact on their everyday lives, including helping them to deal with among other things, their own mental health issues.

It can be argued that all art is socially engaged because it is created to be communicated to or experienced by others. It is community based, collaborative, participatory, dialogic and public art. It involves working with groups of people in a professional capacity. It is an art form that connects with the world around us. It is either politically or socially motivated and can act through the representation of ideas and issues. Social interaction and connective experience ids the key to this type of project. Socially engaged art uses the arena of contemporary art to engage with communities to produce collaborative or participatory projects based around an identified social issue. Pablo Helguera states that “Socially engaged art is a form of performance in the expanded field and as such it must break away from self-referentiality.” You need to engage with others through conversation, collaboration, antagonism (make it confrontational), performance, documentation and trans pedagogy (blends education and art).

This project allowed my subjects to be involved in the process of taking pictures and recording their stories through the questionnaire.

To start I looked at the work of Paul Floyd Blake Paul Floyd Blake’s Personal Best Project.This project focused on young prospective 2012 Olympians.He got them to create Journals to document their thoughts and feelings and photographed them partaking in their prospective sports. He involved his subjects in a participatory way by spending 5 years with them collecting their stories. I tried to do this over about 3 months but used questionnaires where I asked:

1. What Does Fencing Mean to You? 

2. How Does Fencing Shape your Identity? 

3. Can Fencing be used as a tool of escapism from day to day life in your opinion?

4. What is the most important reason why you fence? 

5. Is there anything you take out of your fencing that you can apply to your daily routine? 

6. Is there anything else you’d be willing to discuss that might fit into the project? 

7. Feel free to add any questions and answers that might help me form this project. 

• Blakes images pay tribute to the long slog towards glory that is not usually seen or celebrated, whilst excerpts from the athletes own writings offer insights into their personal hopes and fears. Blake’s approach emphasises the individuals own story and motivations beyond the values and structures of competitive sport, as the title ‘Personal Best suggests’.

Then I looked at Anthony Luvera who worked with the LGBT community.

He worked collaboratively with groups of marginalized people to explore issues related to identity,community, locality and self-representation which is what I aimed to do with my fencing group.

So how did I execute this project:

I started the project by collating questionnaires and getting each individual fencer to fill them out as part of the project. The first person I used in this project was myself as in order to understand photography you must first become the photographed. I am also a fencer, and this is a great way of understanding my own identity through fencing. After collecting the questionnaires from each of my fencers I did some portraits of them to showcase who each person is. I then showed my fencers how to take photographs on their phone and on my camera. At the end of the project I asked a few of my fencers to send me some images that reflected their fencing identity with an object that means something to them. I also had the fencers take photographs of each other in fights and in the way they wanted. One of my fencers even had a clever idea which was discovered late on to do a photo of himself.

No project would be complete without challenges and this one provided me with many. I really struggled with this project as I had trouble getting the questionnaires of the participants and finding the time duringclass to do the images as the majority of my participants were coaches. I also wasn’t allowed to use anylighting due to it being a distraction for the fencers and had to rely on only my camera and natural light. I also had some fencers agree to participate and others not so had to organize it so those who refused wouldn’t appear in any shots at all. 

I initially also had issues with getting the fencers to agree to take photos themselves, so I took them in the beginning but as the project developed the fencers got more and more involved. Images played a very important role throughout this project because they helped the fencers to find strength in community and escape from the challenges, they face in their day to day lives, whether it be mental health, divorce or other issues. 

I think that if I were to do the project again, I would reread the concept of socially engaged art to ensure I fully understood it and find more clarity in whether I could take the photos or whether my participants had to. I should have made my participants aware earlier on that they may have to take the photos and think of other ways to get them to participate in their busy working lives. Given more time I also would have gone to their homes, favorite environment or places of work to discover more aspects of their identity.

The second module was space, location and territory. We started of with two presentations on micro landscapes and urban landscapes where we had to take pictures and discuss them using a PowerPoint. Then for part 2 we had to use a concept called the Anthropocene to shape a 6000-word essay.

I believed that the Anthropocene is about how humans interact with and change the space around them. It is largely man’s footprint on the world that is destroying g the landscape which is resulting in a collapse of the natural world into the manufactured world. Photography has charted this footprint. Professor Will Steffen, who gave the opening lecture at the geosphere biosphere conference in 2000, offered the following definition: “the term Anthropocene suggests that humankind has become a global geological force in its own right.” In the age of the Anthropocene the ancient distinction between natural history and human history, between culture and nature collapses. We are woven together, intertwined in each other’s fates. 

My project was about human relationships with public space. What did it used to be used for and what is it used for today? I focused on one particular area of Preston called the flag market where the Harris Museum is situated. I spent time both interacting with people in the space and documenting events that happen in the space. I also looked at the history of the space and discovered that the big events from the 1800s to about 1950s had crowds of around 40,000 people compared to the minimal crowds of today. People use the space for varied things, necessary activities such as going to work, social activities and communal activities.

For visualising the invisible we had to create a pechakucha which is a slideshow of images with minimal text and then write and article of our choice. I chose the representation of women in magazine advertising. 

During the second term my singular module was titled the independent project. For this one I had three ideas. First was childhood memories, second was lost in books and third was the seven deadly sins. In the end I went with childhood memories, so I started off with a couple of images in the studio but then later it became a project about homelife and past times.

As I chose to do my course fulltime my final project which was about identity and performativity using the studio as a stage to obtain some natural and some performed imagery of my subjects. I worked with a lot of performance students and told their stories which I will discuss in more detail in my next post because I feel that this project has more than a short excerpt to discuss.


To conclude in facing these challenges through the year I became more confident in talking about my work. I also am proud that I can say that I have achieved a master’s in photography. Even though the last year was a rollercoaster with some success and failure I believe that it helped me to improve my work. But I would say my favourite part was my final project and I can’t wait to discuss that in my next post.


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