Photographic Education: An interview with Lewis Khan

Photographic Education is a new series from Loupe. Through conversations with successful graduates, we discuss why photographic education works, how to get the most out of it, and where it can improve. Each graduate shares their advice for current students, and answers a guest question from a past tutor. The series aims to be a useful resource for students and educators alike, and promotes work from the most encouraging new photographers.

Interview by Harry Flook

Our series kicks off with Lewis Khan, a 2013 graduate from Bristol UWE’s BA photography course. Since graduating, Lewis has moved back to London, his home city, where he now works full-time as a freelance photographer. Lewis’s intimate personal projects have won him wide acclaim along with commercial success, gaining commissions from the likes of FT Weekend, The Guardian, and Time magazine. In this interview we discuss the importance of maintaining a personal practice, Lewis’s approach to research, and preparing for the commercial world.

Harry Flook: Let’s start with your own photographic education. You studied at UWE, which seems to have a real focus on developing students’ personal creative voice. How did your own work change while studying on their BA programme?

Lewis Khan: Yeah exactly, the vibe at UWE is all about developing a personal style and body of work. Developing the artistic as the engine, the ‘why’ in the process of creating.

When I started, I didn’t have a clear idea of what kind of practitioner I wanted to be, and so the whole process was quite experimental. I think it’s really important that uni is a space where you can do that, without any pressure to have it all figured out from the get go.

My first and second year were spent working on projects looking at the language of advertising and marketing of commercial and new build residential property.

From 'Theatre' ©Lewis Khan

From Theatre ©Lewis Khan

I started my third year on the same theme but adding a human focus, then finally leaving the built environment theme and working on a project that was fully focused on human experience and relationships. This was realised through a film and series of photographs.

On the subject of experimentation, social media wasn’t so strongly tied into the photographic world when I was studying as it is now, and looking back I feel like I benefited from that. I can’t imagine the pressure to attain – which can come from social media – is healthy or helpful to students at the developmental stage of their practices.

HF: That last point you make is so important. I recently advised a group of students not to put too much stock in social media, and instead focus on developing their own creative voice. The trouble is that it’s also hard to deny the draw social media has. If used well, it can be an great resource for inspiration and self-promotion. Professionally, how do you approach social media? And what do you suggest students do to keep their use of it creative and positive whilst developing their practice?

LK: Yeah the dilemma it presents in that way is very true. I think social media in general is a useful tool to engage with, but it’s important not to let what you’re doing be dictated by the platform.

HF: How well did your course prepare you for the professional industry?

LK:  Having a focused personal practice is what has always got me anywhere. I stopped assisting and began shooting for myself full time in 2015, and have always been commissioned based on my personal work. Yes commercial experience becomes a factor at some point, but largely commissioners are interested in your voice, and will be commissioning you for that. It’s easy to imagine that you have to have separate visual languages for personal and commercial work, but in truth it’s quite the opposite. Therefore having a personal language that is you becomes so important in the professional world.

From 'Theatre' ©Lewis Khan

From Theatre ©Lewis Khan

HF: That strong personal language is noticeable as early as your graduate project, Georgetown. What advice do you have for second and third years who are trying to develop a unique visual approach, while also creating a meaningful body of work?

LK: What you produce is ultimately a reflection of your inspirations, and I think it’s important that these are wider that just doing photography itself. Often it’s these interests that shape and inform what you do in a way that makes it uniquely yours.

I do look at a lot of photography of course, but I find inspiration from that alone can be a bit vacuous. Instead I find reading, or other art forms like sculpture to be much more influential.

HF: This in a way goes back to that point of social media, surrounding yourself with nice imagery is great, but to make something really new and different you have to invest beyond the instant visual glut that is instagram. What’s your research process like for personal projects? Is it as straightforward as you have an idea and then read around the subject?

LK: I’d say my research process is fairly organic, and often quite practice lead – little things lead to other things that lead to other things, which over time develop into something. Rarely do I sit down, decide on a topic and then plan for making work about it. I have certain themes that underpin my practice – human experience, belonging and relationships, so I’m generally working around these ideas, but as for how actual ideas manifest, it’s a lot more open ended.

Sometimes it’s a chance encounter, meeting someone, or seeing something. These things happen all the time, everyday, but it’s then how you choose to process and filter all of this stuff, and why.

I was on holiday in Cuba a few years ago and happened across a firework festival in a small rural town. The festival requires that the town splits itself into two halves, geographically down the middle, with the town square as the dividing line. Both areas spend the year building huge floats, each with its own theme, and amassing huge numbers of fireworks. On the day of the festival the floats drive from the edges of town to the central square, where for 24 hours there is a ‘war’ of fireworks between to the two sides.

From 'Fictions' ©Lewis Khan

From Fictions ©Lewis Khan

Shortly after returning to the UK, I was reading a passage of a book about the social mechanism of inter-subjective reality: the fictions we believe that enable humans to co-operate in complex ways and on a global scale – concepts like money, nations, and religion.

I thought back to the events of the firework festival, now viewing them through this prism of inter-subjective realities. I saw global constructs playing out on a micro scale – the two sides of the town (nations), the firework battle (war), and the tribalism with which each side was supported (religion).

Because fiction is what has made possible our real life nations, religions etc I thought it was interesting to try and talk about those things through something that is entirely fictional itself.

For the resulting project I returned to the festival the following year and photographed it as if it was a genuine conflict zone.

00-1_khan-2

From Fictions ©Lewis Khan

HF: We’ll end on a guest question from from your old tutor, Jim Campbell. “As part of your final submission on your degree course you made both stills and a moving image piece called Georgetown. Both were excellent, but it was the film that made the bigger impact and went on to win a prestigious award. It would seem that the door might have been open for you to make further moving image work, but since then you’ve concentrated on stills, why is that and do you harbor any aspirations to return to moving image?”

LK: Good question Jim. I see a lot of the stills work I do as tributaries, leading this way and that towards a bigger river – a method of research through practice, which is necessary for me to arrive at a place of conceptual and practical understanding needed to make a film. Georgetown was created through reflection, the processing of a relationship that had been built up while I was creating body of stills, and for me the process is all about taking time.

Over the last few years I’ve spent time making work within intimate hospital settings as an artist in residence. I’ve gotten to know the environments using a camera, and have slowly built up an idea of what work I’m trying to make within these environments.

From 'Georgetown' ©Lewis Khan

From Georgetown ©Lewis Khan

I’ve recently been back in the hospital environment after a period away, and have been able to do some of that subconscious and intentional mental processing of the work, which can only come from having an understanding of a subject over an extended period of time.

Now stepping back into the hospital again I have some quite clear ideas, of some moving image work I would like to make. It all comes directly from that practice lead research process, spending all that time in there a few years ago.

So yes very much so, and I’m working on it…

HF: We’re very much looking forward to the result. Thanks for your time Lewis, all the best.

www.lewiskhan.co.uk

——

Harry Flook is a photographer, writer and educator working at Hereford College of Arts, alongside writing and editing for Loupe magazine. You can follow his work and words at www.harryflook.com