Julia Johnson is Co-Course Leader of the BA (Hons) Photography programme at ARU. She runs a major first-year practice based module, and also oversees the contextual study element for a number of Cambridge School of Art courses.
Julia's specialism is in photographic theory, exploring the multidisciplinary aspects of how the arts, as a holistic entity, supports communities who are marginalised or stigmatised. She looks at photography as a therapeutic tool in her research, and is an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded PhD researcher with the University of Arts, London, working in collaboration with the NHS, as well as a documentary photographer and a wedding photographer.
What one thing inspired you to do what you do now?
My own challenges with education as a young person led me into wanting to be a teacher. I had a very jilted educational history, moving around the Middle East when I was young as someone with dyslexia, and with my own experiences of mental health. So they certainly informed my interest in teaching in a way that is holistic, in a way that is meaningful and authentic to young people nowadays. I suppose one of the reasons for my interest in different diverse communities is also having been someone who has moved around a lot, around the world, and therefore experienced some of the advantages of that, but also some of the difficulties with feeling like an outsider. In photography, you are the ultimate outsider, in a sense, that looks in.
But also, photography is a great way of communicating when you feel you haven’t got a voice, or when you feel unconfident, and I feel it’s a great tool for relearning, as we do in the post-compulsory education field that we all operate in now. One of my favourite first photographers that I came across that really inspired me was Cindy Sherman. I loved the way that she and other photographers that I was interested in at the young age of 18, were able to reveal critical truisms that were present but that weren’t accounted for in the mainstream. So Cindy Sherman took what was mainstream in her film stills, in these female characters, and actually revealed some of the problems with how those characters affected female audiences, and how they supported the male gaze in cinema.
What single piece of advice would you give your younger self?
Believe in yourself. I think it’s so important, that self-actualisation, that sense of realising that you can achieve whatever you set out to do, and I think that young people’s greatest challenge is their sense of self-confidence.
I didn’t really start to enjoy being a human being until I was about 18, and that’s when I found photography, and I was able to learn about the world through that practice. I think education can trigger a lot of negativity for young people, and I suppose it was doing that for me for a while, because I can’t say I came from a really underprivileged background, or anything like that. I was very lucky in lots of ways. My parents were always very supportive, but I just think education, when it’s very stilted and fractured, it can be a real burden for young people, and I think that was my greatest impetus for becoming a teacher, to hopefully help different types of young people and recognise some of their issues and help them meet their potential, when perhaps they themselves have doubt in it. So it’s very important to me – I’m very passionate about that area of teaching.
What’s the most valuable thing you took away from education?
I think, in terms of my post-compulsory education, from 18 onwards, the thing that I’ve taken away is, on an emotional level, to never give up. Always try again. Realise that great achievements involve quite a number of what might be perceived as failures to begin with.
Then, on a more practical level, don’t ever underestimate the expertise of the technicians. They are always the backbone of the department. If you can be decent to the university technicians, and respectful, they will always support you, and give you so much time and resources. Remember they’re the backbone of any department, I would say. If you can buy them a bottle of wine once in a while, or a box of chocolates, they will always help you!
What do you think the future of photography, and university photography courses, will be like?
I think, on a practical level, student needs are ever-evolving, particularly at this very dynamic time sociologically. Economically there are challenges that are experienced by the students on a really quite dramatic level, and working with them gives you insight into that, but it’s still quite surprising some of the time the stuff that you hear from them in terms of their social, cultural, economic experiences, in terms of being a young man or being a young woman, as well as the relationship they have with the subject specialism.
I think that in the near future – and it’s something we’re all pushing for – we’ll be thinking about how projects can be aligned more with live client-based outcomes, making connections with industry, and thinking about how students can develop portfolio skills, not just within photography as a unit of experience, the photograph being the unit of experience, but thinking about the holistic approach to photography, where it is one of the central skills used to develop student portfolios so that they come out with a diverse graduate capital. For example, one student has just been offered a position as a medical photographer for the NHS. So it’s looking at various diverse fields within that, and really supporting them individually on that level.
But on a theoretical level, I think it comes back to that whole idea of what an image actually means. It’s impossible to describe what a photograph actually is within the digital networked culture that we now live in, and that obviously associates with these challenges and opportunities of citizenship photography, and whilst that is I suppose a danger to students who are wanting to take international-policy projects that affect change, working with citizens is a really broadening scope of opportunity, so working in participatory fields, and working with tools like photo- voice, or photo- elicitation, tools that we’re developing with our students on the BA Photography programme.
What’s the most interesting thing you get to do in your role?
I think the most interesting thing is working with young people, and supporting them academically and creatively. I’m a photographic theory specialist, but I run a major practical module as well, and have worked as a documentary photographer and a wedding photographer for a number of years supports my delivery. Working with students on their projects has become quite a deeply personal thing in some respects, because there’s been a shift in the last twenty years from seeing photography predominantly as a way of representing the world around us, to students wanting to represent their own experiences within that frame.
In the context of what we’ve all just experienced with Coronavirus, even though there’s huge challenges with representing and getting access to ways of representing, it is also a really unique time in history, in terms of the images that are being produced – there will never be the making of these unique moments and images again, capturing this, from the point of view of ‘historic record’ has been so important to a lot of the students.
What projects are you currently working on?
I am at the moment finalising my PhD research, which is an AHRC-funded project working with the NHS and other services, to develop a participatory photography toolkit. It’s looking at how therapeutic photography can be employed to support people in mental health contexts. I worked in mental health contexts with people who have experienced mental health issues, to use therapeutic photography to convey and communicate their experiences, and those images were used to assess the value of that experience for each participant. So the thesis and corresponding toolkit should be finalised over Summer 2021.
I’ve also submitted a paper which looks at how photography operates within social media in some instances, where the image shifts into a problematic terrain, whereby – and this is the hypothesis of the research - the person taking photographs of themselves subscribes to themselves a form of self-surveillance. My research suggests that in some social media users, there is this worrying behaviour demonstrated. It’s looking at how those images function as a way of controlling us and at the same time subjugating the author, but it’s all done through their own self-processes; why that’s happening, what they’re internalising in terms of media when they’re doing that. So that’s in for review at the moment. I’ve also contributed a foreword to a photography book by Dilip Sarkar, a great historian, to contextualise some of the work in it.
We’ve got the first years working on a COVID project with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where the work, if selected by the curator (and they have that ongoing relationship with the curator), it will be part of the MAA’s digital showcase. So there’s certainly opportunities for celebration at the moment.
How does any work you do outside the university tie in with your work at ARU?
The toolkit I’m developing as part of my PhD we will use as part of teaching about participatory photography at CSA. It’s very much looking at the role of participatory arts and community arts since the 1960s onwards, and its alignment with civil rights histories in terms of issues of racism, of feminism, and of the value of critical or holistic pedagogy as a liberatory practice.
So, thinking about how the arts, in terms of its relationship to health, can support different types of communities, and what students will do is learn to facilitate programmes: learn about how to get funding, how to develop a set of objectives that are meaningful to participants that aren’t all self-valued objectives. Thinking from the very moment of design through to the process of evaluation, of the participant being centred within that approach, then looking at the space for community arts as a therapeutic tool, but also as a self-advocacy tool.
There’s a wide academic scope and framework for supporting actual industry skills in this area, in terms of what they learn. So it’s perfect for a university context. In a sense I see this learning as a pilot for a bigger degree in this area. This is a key area of interest in terms of academic courses in arts and health, so I think it could be a small seed that grows into something much bigger.
Tell us one thing about Cambridge that other people might not know...
John Ruskin, the leading English art critic who our university is named after, many might not know that he was among the first to embrace the photography as a tool for preservation. So people kind of know him in terms of his various writing and art critiques, but actually he very much advocated photography in terms of its value in creating a very accurate representation of different contexts. He was really interested in its use in Venice, where he felt that the restoration of buildings was problematic. He felt that the overall preservation of Venice at the time he was writing was insecure and under threat. So his work has a sustainable aspect in terms of how it relates to photography.
But there’s also one other thing about him that’s very relevant for our students – obviously we can’t prove it, but we know for sure he had mental health issues, and it’s likely those were bipolar issues, so in terms of his plight as a creative thinker and as a man, I think he can inspire our young people in these other ways that he’s not really thought about, as someone with these experiences, and a lot of us have those experiences nowadays, we’re well aware of mental health being something that affects us all. So I hope that the fact that this man had these experiences such a long time ago, and it’s something that I know young people experience now, I hope that inspires them to know that it doesn’t have to classify you as this one thing - you can be all these other great things, just as the great John Ruskin was.