Photographic Duos is a feature from Loupe, exploring collaboration in photography through a series of interviews with creatives working in pairs. We discuss varying approaches to collaboration, considering the issues of shared authorship alongside the benefits of collective creativity.
Interview by Bertie Oakes –
In this instalment of Photographic Duos I talk to Photographer/Graphic Designer duo Paul Gambin and Gemma Gerhard. The London based couple are in the midst of creating their first book, Honeysuckle, an ambitious project which focuses on a community living in close proximity to an abandoned dump outside the tourism hotbed of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Bertie Oakes: What are your photographic backgrounds?
Gemma Gerhard: I studied photography through school and carried it on as something to enjoy in my spare time. At university I specialisied in graphic design, but everything always led back to photography. My final major project and my dissertation were both based around documentary photography and photojournalism, which allowed me to combine both my interests.
Paul Gambin: Gemma had always been the creative half in our relationship and a perfect counterbalance to my numerical background, but my foray into photography began on a 5-month trip we made after finishing our degree courses. I’d just finished a masters in environmental technology and wanted to take some time off. After the trip though, I kept to my roots and began to work in climate change and finance.
GG: We started working full-time. I was looking for a career in design and managed to get a job for a fashion company.
PG: Neither of us were satisfied with our jobs. After a year working in the city I decided I wanted to be a photographer. It was a very dramatic and naïve decision. You switched soon after too.
GG: I realised fashion wasn’t where I wanted to stay so made a change. When I got the job as a graphic designer at SMITH/GOST it was perfect, everything fell into place.
PG: We’re now on a good track, but it took time. I assisted for 2 or 3 years, did some odd jobs, worked for a couple of magazines. I lucked out almost 2 years ago and began working for Magnum Photos, managing cultural projects like commissions and exhibitions. It’s taught me so much, I guess it’s filled the gap in education I have.
BO: How did you come across the community depicted in Honeysuckle, and had you always intended to make it a collaborative project?
PG: The community in Honeysuckle was introduced to me through a charity called the Seaver Foundation (TSF). I met the director whilst I was writing and photographing a piece for a magazine. We kept in touch, and after seeing some of my work from Nepal they asked me to do a project about a community they were working with. They wanted me to photograph the community through the eyes of the children, as their mission is to understand and act upon children’s voices. It was a challenging brief which I didn’t feel comfortable with so we developed lots of ideas and embraced the challenge with a different approach. But Gemma wasn’t involved from the start.
GG: When Paul first came back from Mexico, he tried to give me his photos and said: ‘hey do something with these!’ I was like ‘what do you want me to do’? He just wanted to collaborate, we’d talked about it, but still didn’t know how to bring our practices together. So it didn’t feel right at first. We tried a few things but I said that if we wanted to do this project, I needed to know more about it. I wanted to get involved, I wanted to meet the children and see the community. We had to go together so I could immerse myself in the project, and from that we could do something.
BO: From the intimacy of some of the images it is clear to you had a great level of access, but more importantly you had their trust and understanding. How did you build this relationship?
PG: The charity had been working with the community for something like 7 or 8 years, so they already had a lot of contacts there. They knew a couple, Bety and Victor, who worked with some of the mothers in the community, Bety is a psychologist and Victor is a director at a local school. Together they were helping the women there by offering free counselling and teaching them literacy skills, IT and English.
They really had the trust of the community and were an important part of it. I met them, and we got on really well, which wasn’t hard, as they are such incredible people. So on my first trip Victor would drive me up from the hostel to the community and I would spend my days there. One of the kids, Thomas, really took a liking to me on my first day and gave me a tour around the dump and the streets and introduced me to the other kids. The first week or so I was just meeting and chatting to people, figuring out what the place was like.
GG: Paul would spend a lot of time at the community. The children were always around playing and he’s a big kid so it was easy to make friends and be accepted by them.
PG: Yeah we would play football and basketball everyday. Go explore the dump. It was fun though I imagine the parents thought I was a little strange, but because I had the support of Bety and Victor they always trusted me. One of the children’s mum’s, Lucy, was pivotal, she was the first person to invite me into their house, and I would regularly have lunch with them. I made sure not to step over any boundaries and I took my time. It was a while before I started taking pictures, I wanted to make sure everybody was comfortable with having me there first. From the get-go we told them what we wanted to do. In fact Victor told the children about the project before I arrived, so they were aware of me and the parents were on board.
However, what I experienced was nothing like the charity had warned me. They had mentioned the area being severely poor and unsafe, but I didn’t see that. On surface level you don’t really see any of that. You don’t see the violence. I really questioned my role there, but access didn’t seem to be a problem!
GG: A lot of people would have photographed the communities in a certain way. They see poverty and that’s what they photograph. We invested the time and got to know the community and were careful about the direction of the project.
BO: That feeling of intimacy also comes from the children taking pictures, and you have used archive imagery from their family albums. Was this something you had planned to do from the outset?
PG: Exactly, the intimacy really comes from the children’s pictures, we encouraged them to express themselves and we invited them to think about what they wanted to say and how to highlight that. It’s all about sharing authorship.
GG: It was something we had thought about a lot. It wasn’t just a case of inviting them to take photos. It was also about finding a medium that they were all equally able to use to express how they felt.
PG: On our subsequent trip we encouraged them to think about their photography before we even showed them the pictures they had taken. Some months had passed before they got to see their pictures as we developed them all back at home, but it was incredible how vividly they remembered it all. How precious they were about them!
GG: We didn’t want to draw our own conclusions to what their lives are about. So we asked them to take their own photos, to take control of their image. By combining those with the archival materials and Paul’s images, we were exploring multiple perspectives, something that was closer to what they were feeling and thinking.
PG: The outcome is a combination of the children’s pictures, images of the community from an outsider’s perspective and the archival material from the family albums. We didn’t plan to have the family pictures from the start, but we lucked out and the families gave us crates of pictures which were so beautiful.
BO: Encouraging the children to draw over their images was a further way for them to express themselves, where did this idea come from?
GG: Exactly. It can sometimes be hard to know what the children see in their photographs, as it’s all very interpretative. We provided them with a range of materials, and it was up to them what they illustrated. The materials they chose allowed them to express themselves in a multitude of ways.
PG: It was interesting because on the first couple of days a lot of the children would write about how thankful they were for everything in their lives. In particular one girl was very thankful for the church, for her family and sister. So that told one story, but eventually she also began writing about other things too, getting past what she thought we wanted to hear, and writing about what she actually wanted to say. But it wasn’t just the writing that was expressive, it was also the way they coloured and drew on things. The colours highlighted their imagination, the words their thoughts. It was the perfect contrast to the challenging realities often presented in their pictures.
BO: With the project being made up of such disparate imagery, how are you finding the process of trying to piece together a cohesive narrative?
GG: We had to take time off work to really focus on it. We have a lot of content and it’s all so different, so it took a lot of time to pull together. We’re still editing and we have a little way to go but we’re excited for the outcome.
PG: We’ve focused on more than the photography aspect of the project, reading literature and listening to music, especially from around the region of Jalisco. There is more to guide us beyond the history of photography.
GG: It’s important to get a real feel for a project, to explore beyond what we see. By reading literature from the area, talking to people and getting to know what they love and do, we are provided with a better understanding.
PG: Yeah it gives us a clear vision of what to say and what can be said. A lot of the pictures are very different as you mentioned, but in reality, they all tell a similar story, it’s just about picking out those ones that fit the overall theme, while being conscious of the pictures that aren’t ours and the stories they tell. The moment it clicked for us was when we began reading Juan Rulfo between trips. Rulfo, who is from a nearby city, is known for his use of magical realism, whereby everything seems normal, until he throws in a really strange line that gets you questioning the reality of his stories. From there we started exploring the Mexican Surrealist movement, and the history of Mexican photography, and decided to make an edit of the pictures, with Rulfo as a guide. In Honeysuckle, we use the kid’s imagination to tell the story, so in a way we’re using a fictitious reality to describe something very real and raw. On top of that there are these magnificent realities expressed by the kids through their own pictures, which also fit into that narrative. Then, finally, you have these fantastic pictures from the family albums which have decayed over the years, making the colours almost dream like. It all fits in so well, it’s real but surreal.
GG: We were excited but had no idea how to tie everything in, luckily things just naturally started to fall into place. We learnt about hummingbirds, which play a key role in the project because of their symbolic value. According to Mexican culture hummingbirds are an important spirit that inhabit your body. At night, when you sleep, they leave your body for the heavens and bring back dreams. You see so many hummingbirds by the dump because they are attracted by the honeysuckle that now grows there. In a way it’s the dump, the more difficult side of the community, that has attracted these hummingbirds which in turn feed the children’s vibrant imagination. It all ties in so nicely. Rulfo, the hummingbirds, the dump, the children’s imagination, the surreal nature of the pictures and the temporal nature of it all.
BO: How has your working relationship and collaborative process developed as work on the project continues?
GG: I think we share more creatively…I mean if Paul read Juan Rulfo and thought it was great for the project, I would read it too because it’s something that we can share in.
PG: I think I’ve become a lot more tolerant to criticism. Where initially I thought I was coming up with gold, now I realise they are most probably little steps to a bigger and better idea.
GG: Because we’re honest with each other we can really say anything to one another. We take each other’s thoughts on board and it’s always constructive. I guess that’s something we’ve gotten better at over time. You never want to tell someone their work isn’t good, especially in the early stages, if they’re passionate, you don’t want to hinder that. When you first get started, you’re never the best, you work at it, it takes time. You need to support each other and nourish that creativity. I believe that’s really helped us get to where we are now.
PG: In a way we’ve also had to embrace each other’s approach. When you’re collaborating and have a thousand other things on your mind and it can get quite challenging to find a time when you’re both in the right place, so we’ve also gotten better at understanding what motivates us both.
GG: We both needed to be immersed in the project, not just Paul as the photographer but myself as a designer, design is about finding the best way to communicate an idea, so it was vital that I understood it. When Paul kept asking me to do something with the work I knew little about, it was frustrating and it didn’t work, but after we discussed this and decided to go back to Mexico together it was great.
BO: What are your plans for the future, both in terms of Honeysuckle and in general?
GG: We’ve thought about spending more time in Mexico to continue working with the community there, possibly creating some new work. There’s talk with TSF of starting a photography scholarship. We’ve started now and are enjoying it so why not continue?
PG: We’re also in the process of making the book so we’ve begun talking about self publishing. Some other interesting projects are on the horizon too. So much is happening back here so we’ve been thinking of ways to tell similar stories closer to home.
GG: Yeah I still want to design and Paul still wants to create photography, even in a freelance capacity. It’s early days and we take everything as it comes. We’re always open to changes and haven’t got a set plan.
PG: We’re not as prepared as a lot of people, but it leaves us open to possibilities, kind of like Honeysuckle is and was.
BO: Best of luck with the rest of the project, we look forward to seeing it resolved as a book. Thanks for your time.
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Cover image made by Yessica, from Honeysuckle