Interview by Lucas Birtles –
Alex Colley, a final year student at the University of South Wales, has already developed a distinctive creative voice. In Issue 9 we featured an image from Colley’s most recent project, War Office, supported by his own words regarding philosopher Guy Debord. In this interview we further explore Colley’s motivations with the project, his successful use of experimenting in other mediums, and the important role education has played in his creative development.
Lucas Birtles: Can you tell us a bit about your recent project, War Office, and discuss your motivations for shooting it?
Alex Colley: I made the series at the end of 2018, as part of my final year at university. Initially, my intention was to go and photograph the two MoD office buildings where my parents worked, as I hoped it would lead to some interesting imagery and there are a lot of themes and ideas surrounding it. Whilst I was waiting for confirmation on access to go and photograph there, I focused on researching thinkers and philosophers that wrote predominantly about capitalism and war. This is when I came across Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. Whilst reading through it, I came across a particular quote that reminded me of something my mum said about working in an administrative office role, how unlike it is to some other jobs, where there is an evident end product. In these positions it sometimes feels like you’re separated from the outcome, instead you’re forever progressing. I thought this was an interesting parallel, and from there the project continued to develop in different directions as I came across new material and ideas.
LB: The project as it is displayed online is immersive – using sound and moving image alongside stills – and seems well suited as an installation. Were you set on this multimedia approach before creating War Office, or did the additional elements become necessary after the concept began to take form?
AC: I’ve always really enjoyed using lots of different types of media when making my work, it feels more playful and allows me to get really creative and experiment with lots of different things. For War Office I started by taking photos, then came across my Dad’s old photos of his office in the 80’s and then his corporate yearbooks. As the concept evolved I continued to experiment with ideas, trying to think of visually interesting ways of presenting them to the viewer.
LB: Much of your other work is also born from ideas borrowed from psychology and philosophy. Do you tend to start with a concept and build a project around it, or does the intellectual framework come into the project afterwards?
AC: My research and the evolution of my work often grows parallel with one another. I’ll often have an idea for something that I would like to photograph that I feel is both visually interesting, yet also contains interesting themes and ideas. I’ll then delve further, looking at the ideas in relation to current affairs, psychology, philosophy, history, culture etc. This research then compliments my own ideas which then influences the direction I take my research and it goes back and forth. Eventually the images and the various areas of research begin to link together, in a bit of a eureka moment.
LB: Do you find with your approach of the continuous back and forth you allow a greater space for the project to grow organically rather than a predetermined end goal?
AC: As long as you have an outline of what is you’re actually trying to say with the work, I feel that any development in the concept or the visuals that may benefit the end goal is a positive. Just get creative and experiment with any ideas you have rather than limit yourself to what it was that you initially had planned. Then eventually your end goal might change, but if you don’t like it just reel it in a bit and go back on yourself and go in a different direction. If you don’t allow the project to grow organically and take you on different tangents, then you might miss something major that you would’ve never initially come across.
LB: You currently study in your final year of Documentary photography at the University of South Wales – What role has the course played in influencing the development of your photographic practice and has it encouraged you to find a unique voice within photography?
AC: Without a doubt, having a distinctive voice is encouraged from the day you start the course. The lectures emphasise the idea that by the end of it you should have a unique style, that means when someone looks at one of your prints, they can immediately tell that it’s a photo taken by you.
The course has had a huge impact on my practice and the way that I now view and create photos. I remember in my first year trying to think of something to do for my final major project. One of the third years told me not bother. They said your whole concept and knowledge of photography completely expands and changes as you make your way through the course. They were completely right. I didn’t even know that self-portraiture was an option then and now it’s become foundational to my practice.
Throughout the three years you’re immersed in the work of some many different photographers, who range in their approach to image making. As well as this your knowledge of theory in relation to both photography and beyond is deepened, and of course this then effects the type of work you want to make and the way you want to make it.
LB: To finish, tell us what have you learned from your projects so far and, moving forward, what are you looking forward to exploring in future?
AC: My projects are often research focused and linked to the conceptual ideas cemented within the writings of various critical thinkers and philosophers. Through this research as well as the numerous tangents my research often takes me on, I’ve learnt lots about psychology, history, photographic theory, and discovered loads of other strange facts. As well as this and due to the final outcome of my work taking on different forms, I’ve learnt how to make book dummies and create websites.
I know want to continue experimenting with book and website design to present playful, performative work, but in a more collaborative environment, so that it’s not just me in front of the camera, but other people as well. Whether that’s friends, family or a particular group of people I’m yet to meet, we’ll have to see. Whatever it is though, I’m looking forward to it.
LB: Thanks for your time and best of luck with your graduation
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