Interview with Matthew Pontin, Founder of the South West Graduate Photography Prize

Fotonow’s South West Graduate Photography Prize (SWGPP) is launching Thursday 28th November at the Old Truman Brewery, London. Ahead of the opening, previous finalist Megan Wilson-De La Mare caught up with founder Matthew Pontin, to find out about the prize’s 10th anniversary, this year’s finalists, and to ask his advice for graduating students. 

Interview by Megan Wilson-De La Mare

Megan Wilson-De La Mare: Now in it’s 10th year, tell us about how the SWGPP began, and how it has evolved?

Matthew Pontin: I recently reflected on this for the introduction to this year’s catalogue. The prize was set up for two reasons, the first being that I had taken part in a similar initiative in Wales (in 2002) which really helped develop my path after graduating. Secondly, in establishing Fotonow (in 2009) as a space for photography in the South West we wanted to support graduates emerging from universities and colleges, as at the time there weren’t many platforms for their work. We developed it organically, moving the show from Vyner Street Gallery to Truman Brewery five years ago and the format has stuck. We do plan to tweak things next year as after 10 years we’re interested in supporting practice more widely in the region – offering one residency to the winner feels a minimum at the moment.

© Ellen Stewart

Previously the projects have been exhibited in London during Photo Month, with the additional opportunity of a paid commission at Fotonow in Plymouth for the winner. What does Fotonow and the SWGPP aim to provide for photography graduates in the South West?

We’ve always linked in with either PhotoMonth or PHOTOBLOCK which has brought some additional interest to the exhibition, this year neither events are happening but we felt that the location on Dray Walk and scope to get people to see the work in London still justified the space to showcase the artists we have shortlisted. Every year we see the show build confidence and networks for those that are involved – its interesting to see that past participants are doing great things (Luke at Loupe included). Fotonow aims to be a platform for photography in the South West and we often informally support individuals that are at various points in their career, from young people pondering study through to established practitioners looking to exhibit or publish work.

© Thomas Beck

This year you have shortlisted graduates; Archie Wells, Ellen Stewart, Evelyn Havinga, Isobel Percy, Jasmine Bruno, Lily Miles, Peter Flude and Thomas Beck. Can you tell us a bit about the range of work selected, and what we can expect from the 2019 exhibition?

It’s a really diverse show this year, from quiet story-telling to bold graphical work. One year the show accidentally was very monotone and often it’s not until all the images are on the wall you see what connects. The shortlisting happens through pulling out work that challenges, is well considered in terms of context and also made with diligence and creative craft. We’re really excited to see how the gallery looks and think that this show will be a really strong mix, we get more applications every year so the standard is always rising.

© Evelyn Havinga

Similar to previous years, the finalists represent a broad spectrum of visual artists, working in different genres, styles and mediums. Is this an important factor of the SWGPP and the judging process?

We don’t look to pull out a deliberate mix of work, some years we’ve had a lot of portrait works in one show – the selection is through the nature of deciding what series are the strongest. But we agree that this year does look to be a really vibrant gathering of approaches in using photography, which is really exciting. We’re hoping that the artists on show will find means to collaborate and share learning as there are clearly a lot of different voices in the show. The final prize winner is decided by industry professionals, which also brings some really helpful dialogue around the work and next steps for all involved.

© Isobel Percy

What advice would you give to photography students coming into their final year, and to those just graduating?

I would say enjoy the experience, the time with friends and being immersed in the space that university provides. Graduating comes as a shock and the world after appears like a wall (which is climbable) for some. I’ve always thought of a creative career in terms of a set of scales… where at times the balance isn’t there, but you can have a long-term plan around the work you need to do, and the work you want to do. I’d also advocate some time working away from the arts, a photography degree can be intense, so some perspective through volunteering or supporting organisations that you wouldn’t normally can be really informative in returning to the medium you love. Often studying photography can see other interests put to one-side, graduating can sometimes create some new space for things you’ve forgotten about.

SWGPP will be opening Thursday 28th November. Tickets (free) are available via Eventbright.

Jasmine Bruno who has been shortlisted for this year’s work received a commission to shoot new work for Loupe Issue 10, out in December. Back issues of Loupe are available to purchase from our online shop.


Megan Wilson-De La Mare is a portrait and landscape photographer based in the South-West. You can follow her work at www.meganwilson-delamare.com.