A tribute to Rhonda Wilson

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Rhonda Wilson MBE, one of the nation’s champions of the photographic arts, has died at the age of 61.

The creative force behind the Rhubarb–Rhubarb International Festival of the Image, Rhonda died on Thursday 06 November 2014 after a debilitating term of severe depression.

Born in Birmingham on 17 August 1953, Rhonda began her career in the 1970s as a trainee journalist with D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd. in Dundee, working on the popular Jackie magazine as a music editor, stylist, photographer and problem page agony aunt.

Returning to Birmingham in 1980, she worked as a graphic designer, moving on to develop her skills as a photographer and subsequently building an international reputation for progressive photographic campaigns around low pay and homelessness. The Age of the Elders exhibition showcased people from different cultures growing old in the city together, for example, while From The Heart of the City drew together 80 portraits of women, while Worth Paying For was commissioned by the West Midlands Low Pay Unit.

Rhonda also partnered with Ming de Nasty in 1989 to establish the Poseurs Studio and Gallery in Birmingham’s Balsall Heath area, where she curated and hosted photographic exhibitions until the early 1990s.

By 1984, Rhonda had joined the editorial board of Ten.8 magazine, designing two issues – Another Coal Face (1984) and Evidence (1987). In 1988, she and Roshini Kempadoo co-edited the Spectrum Women’s Photography Festival exhibition catalogue, which was published as a special supplement to issue 30 of the magazine. In 1989, Ten.8 was restructured from a loose co-operative into a limited company, and Rhonda became one of the magazine’s directors, with special responsibility for Ten.8 Touring, an exhibition touring project established two years earlier by Ten.8’s editor, Derek Bishton. She left Ten.8 in 1991. Many of the ideas that were to surface in her later work were first formulated during this period, and she also visited Houston FotoFest in the US at this time, where she saw the portfolio reviews she later emulated.

From 1991–2003, Rhonda held the position of part-time lecturer at the Nottingham Trent University, where her impact was immediate but also long-lasting. “Rhonda would pave the way forward with her inspired talks and focused insight into the business world of photography,” says Max Kandhola, current course leader of the BA (Hons) Photography programme. “There was always a vision and a journey, and there was no obstacle.”

Working with the photography faculty, Rhonda helped transform the curriculum with the introduction of Survival Strategies and Professional Practice courses. The curriculum fostered entrepreneurship, with influential curators, photographers and agents invited as guest speakers; Rhonda was also a popular and inspirational teacher throughout her lecturing tenure.

“Rhonda was a person who divided opinions, always challenging the status quo,” says Frede Spencer, who graduated from Nottingham Trent University in 1999 and went on to found the Twenty Twenty Agency. “As a lecturer she never felt part of the establishment but rather an equal, a peer. This lack of social hierarchy meant that as a student you had someone with immense experience talking with you and to you, rather than at you. There was a lovely childlike, almost anarchistic nature to Rhonda. She will be sorely missed by many – the world needs more people like her.”

Early on in her career as a lecturer Rhonda wrote Seeing The Light: The Photographers’ Guide to Enterprise, publishing it in 1993. The publication sold out quickly and spurred the founding of the training and development agency, Seeing the Light. With Rhonda at its helm, the company produced Agents of Change – The 5th National Photography Conference, The Page, The Wall, The Internet conference, and many more projects in collaboration with other Birmingham-based companies. One of its most notable achievements was the Rhubarb-Rhubarb International Festival of the Image – an annual, three-day portfolio review that brought hundreds of photographers and industry specialists from around the world to Birmingham. It was considered the best of its kind in Europe, and quickly built up a respected international profile.

Throughout the early 2000’s the company was given many different awards for its achievements; in the New Year’s Honours List of 2005, Rhonda was awarded an MBE for her contribution to photography and international trade. “She was a life force of sorts, a driver, an innovator but a pragmatist too,” says Jonathan Webber, director of international trade, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, and head of UKTI Birmingham & Solihull.

“UKTI supported Rhonda’s work on Rhubarb for a number of years because we saw her as the catalyst to opening opportunity for our regional photographers overseas. We supported Seeing the Light into a variety of markets, Poland, Korea and Arles. All of this collaborative work, her incessant innovation and willingness to experiment, led to her being awarded an MBE for services to business, to international trade. I wrote that citation [for the MBE nomination] and never was one better earned or more deserved.”

Rhonda’s commitment to photographers was matched by her commitment to the city of Birmingham. She was instrumental in producing The People and the City exhibition to support Birmingham’s bid for Capital of Culture, which was staged in London in 2008. A year later she curated and produced the Obama’s People exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, attracting more than 100,000 visitors.

In 2010, Rhonda took a leave of absence for seven weeks to recuperate from a hip operation. When she returned to work, she threw herself into applying for NPO status from the Arts Council of England, at a time of massive arts funding cuts. The process brought with it a high level of stress and anxiety, and Rhonda became very concerned about the future of Rhubarb-Rhubarb and the livelihoods of those on her team; according to her partner, John McQueen, these pressures were a significant factor in her becoming ill with severe depression.

After a long delay, Rhubarb-Rhubarb was informed of its success in obtaining NPO status from ACE but, without Rhonda at the helm, the company fell into a hiatus. The Arts Council withdrew its funding and eventually dissolved.

“She thrived on creativity, she based her world upon it,” says McQueen. “One of the last things she said to me recently was ‘If an image can hold you for a second, then take you on a journey somewhere secret, peaceful or magical or tell a story to the viewer, it’s a true reflection of the person that made it’. To the very end she talked about light.”

Rhonda is survived by John McQueen, her parents Len and Daisy Wilson, and a brother, Clive Wilson.

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Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy