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Capturing the current climate through the camera lens: Q&A with Nicola Shipley of GRAIN Projects

Image: Farzana Hossen exhibition at Pathshala Institute

Birmingham-based GRAIN Projects believe that ‘photography is the most democratic and accessible of artforms and is uniquely placed to allow us to reflect on and comment on society’.

Through the Transforming Narratives Digital Collaborations Programme, GRAIN has created a photographic collaboration and exchange project with Tasweerghan in Lahore and the Pathshala Institute in Dhaka, which will culminate in an online digital exhibition and event later in the year. 

As a small arts organisation, GRAIN has a bold vision to work collaboratively with communities, individuals and artists, using photography to create positive change. GRAIN is also part of the National Photography Network and has a reputation as a platform for contemporary photography and a hub for photographers.

Here we talk to Nicola Shipley, Director of GRAIN, about its Transforming Narratives project:

TN: What made you apply for the Transforming Narratives Digital Collaborations Programme?

Nicola: We deliver high quality projects and activities with partners in Birmingham, the UK and internationally that are socially engaged, collaborative and that support artists and develop opportunities for participants and audiences.

As part of our programme we have been working with artists of colour, commissioning new work, curating exhibition opportunities and delivering bespoke professional development activities.

We have recognised that as a culturally diverse city and region with talented artists we can do more to collaborate, support and provide new opportunities. The Transforming Narratives Digital Collaborations are an innovative and unique way of doing this.

We moved our programme online during the Covid-19 lockdown and its aftermath, and see this as a wonderful opportunity to create further relevant content on our digital platforms as our audience and reach expand.

The opportunity also adds a separate strand to our international portfolio and we know it will have an important legacy for the artists we work with and for our organisation.

TN: What are the aims of your project?

Nicola: We aim to develop new collaborative approaches with new contacts in Pakistan and Bangladesh - Tasweerghar and the Pathshala Institute - that will lead to new partnerships and a new way of working. 

It will be an ambitious programme of high-quality international work that we can share with our national and international networks.

The result will be four new bodies of work by four artists/photographers made in collaboration, plus a new piece of writing that accompanies the artwork and an online digital exhibition and event to share and promote the exchange. 

TN: How will you make this happen?

Nicola: Our project will draw on a range of contemporary photography techniques and project management skills from drawing up new Memorandum of Understanding for the new partners to managing and delivering Artist Open Calls in Birmingham, Pakistan and Bangladesh to ensure the artist opportunity is open to all. 

We will be sharing ideas, dialogue and a truly collaborative approach to working with artists/photographers to create new artwork and there is a strong opportunity to test and plan for a more long-term partnership.

There will be new artistic exchanges for the four artists/photographers that lead to new opportunities for them, including making new work and will be a step change in their career.

As well as this, there will be the opportunity for artists/photographers to respond to our current times including Covid-19 and how that has affected their lives, families and experiences in Birmingham, Bangladesh and Pakistan. 

TN: How will this fulfil the Transforming Narratives Digital Collaborations Programme brief? 

Nicola: The four photography artists will be awarded a bursary to take part, two based in Birmingham (one of Pakistani heritage and one of Bangladeshi heritage), one in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh. 

These four practitioners will be able to contribute to a dialogue, share ideas, develop work together and focus on themes of heritage, culture, identity and representation. 

They will also be developing international links and opportunities through these conversations. 

The project partners and artists will also explore what the future reality looks like for the public realm and our creative spaces and roles.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in projects funded by Transforming Narratives are those of the artists and organisations delivering the projects, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or position of Transforming Narratives, Culture Central, the British Council or Arts Council England.

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