Each year, British Journal of Photography presents itsOnes To Watch – a selection of emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 500 nominations. Collectively, these 15 talents provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we are sharing profiles of the 15 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct through thebjpshop.com
For the past 11 years, our Ones to Watch platform seeks out new, emerging talent from all over the world. In the years that follow, our selected talents have continued to grow their careers, taking an array of different paths. But developing and sustaining a creative, photographic practice is not without its challenges. Following on from part 1 last week, today we catch up former nominees Jim Mortram, Sipho Gongxeka, Karolina Wojtas and Spandita Malik, who discuss their career highlights, challenges and lessons learned so far.
United Kingdom, 2013
Jim Mortram is a British photographer based in Norfolk, UK. Best known for his ongoing project, Small Town Inertia, published as a book in 2017 by Bluecoat Press, his work focuses on documenting the challenges faced by disadvantaged individuals living on the margins of society near where he lives. His intimate, unsettling images resonate with many, and he plans to release a second chapter of the work soon.
Jim Mortram: The past couple of years have been very tough for all of us [in the community documented in Small Town Inertia]. Many people, including myself, are still self isolating due to us caring for a loved one who is vulnerable or being vulnerable themselves. We have kept in close contact via social messaging through the entirety of the pandemic. It’s a relief to check in with one another a few times a week. It’s been very, very difficult though – austerity, Covid-19, the cost of living crisis – it’s one attack after another and those at the bottom of society bear the weight for those at the top’s folly and failing. Always have.
As none of the issues facing people within the book [Small Town Inertia] have ceased or even dissipated – in truth things have got far worse – the work carries on, despite Covid-19 and having to isolate.
I’m terrible at keeping track of these things, but there have been many highlights since 2013. The include publishing volume one of Small Town Inertia and selling out two editions; appearing on the cover of British Journal of Photography [February 2019] a solo exhibition at Side Gallery in Newcastle, new books with Café Royal Books, a virtual exhibition with Oxford Brookes University.
Most recently, there was the huge success with Photo Print Day on social media, where anyone can exchange any type of photographic print for a maximum donation of £10 to charity. We made a pop-up event online a week after I had the idea and raised thousands for those enduring the war in Ukraine. There’s more to come. Look out for a three-day event happening in September.
At the opening of the solo show at Side Gallery I gave a lecture. Or, as I like to call it, ‘a chat’ with an audience. I pulled out my phone and asked those in attendance at the gallery to applaud all the people who so selflessly shared their stories with me [in Small Town Inertia], – shared them with us all – and I recorded it. Upon returning home I filmed everyone’s reaction to the recording of the applause. That was very special to me because that was the promise that I made at the start of all of this: to amplify these voices so they might be witnessed and appreciated. Whatever I decide to do in the future it will always be rooted within a community.
Born in 1989 in Johannesburg, where he is still based, Sipho Gongxeka’s work explores masculinity, sexuality and social stereotypes in neighbouring townships. He began his career as a footballer, and was tipped for greatness playing in South Africa’s lower leagues until he was introduced to photography. He attended the Market Photo Workshop, a photography school founded by David Goldblatt, where he was mentored by Pieter Hugo. Since then, Gongxeka has co-founded a collective called The F Stop Club SA. His most recent project, House of Realness, ruminates on the imagined experience and perception of queer identity in 1980s Soweto. The project was awarded a residency by Quad, Derby, and formed part of the Format Festival in 2021.
Sipho Gongxeka: Since I was nominated in 2015, my practice has changed. Working at the Market Photo Workshop from 2015–2018 helped shape my understanding of photography and the business.
Recently, I’ve fallen in love with analogue 35mm film photography and self-publishing in the form of zine-making. Zines and photobooks/artbooks are a niche market that has not yet been exploited or heavily explored within Southern Africa. There is an opportunity to engage with this market and create a space for a new generation of artists.
In 2018, myself and two other photographers started a collective named The F Stop Club SA. We work with emerging artists to help them develop their [personal] brands and artworks. Our vision is to have a platform where artists can produce and publish their own work to sustain their practices.
In the same year, I launched my first zine prototype with the Arts and Culture Incubator programme in photography at the Market Photo Workshop. It is an ongoing photography research work called House of Realness. The project investigates masculinity and stereotypes of homosexuality amongst men in the townships of South Africa. I intend to challenge long-held notions of how Black queer individuals are expected to publicly perform their identities. This initial body of work therefore the politics of self-representation in Black communities. The series is developed in conversation with FAKA performance art duo, the queer model Nkululeko Masemola, and other members of my social and personal network.
I’m currently working on House of Realness 2. I believe that an exhibition is the best platform for a personal, narrative-based project and through selective marketing there is a way to tap into the growing collectors’ market. As the world moves further and further into the digitisation of imagery, there is space for the creation of high-quality, small-edition physical photographs because, for most people, buying prints through galleries can be very expensive, making an exhibition/showcase a desirable output. I’ve learned a lot over the years, but the biggest lesson is about the ownership of my work – taking full control of my archive and teaching my family about it. Most of us artists like to focus on making work, producing and exhibiting, but we rarely pay attention to archiving and ownership. When I die, my family should have full access to my archive, not a gallery or an agency or whoever.
What’s the highlight of my career so far? Fatherhood.
Born in Jaroslaw, Poland, in 1996, Karolina Wojtas was just 22 when she was nominated for Ones to Watch in 2019 by Magnum photographer Rafał Milach. She was also an Unseen Futures talent in the same year. Her work is colourful and spontaneous, characterised by playful experimentation when exhibited in physical form. She is represented by the Oslo-based Vasli Souza gallery and has exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, numerous international festivals, and most recently at Foam in Amsterdam.
Karolina Wojtas: The pandemic was bad and not much has changed, but in all this stillness, something had to be done. I made some new projects, developed some from four years ago. I finished college. It’s hard, but I try to live with the energy of a child and the thirst of a teenager.
In 2019, I won the ING Unseen Talent Award and it seemed as if my future was looking good. I started to get some jobs and more opportunities, but when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, everything stopped, or was postponed to a later date, or to never. I was scared of Covid-19. And now with the war in Ukraine, the world is not so good to live in. I am from a town called Jarosław, which is 30km from the border with Ukraine and the whole situation is very scary.
The most challenging commission I’ve worked on was a little weird because we shot in a crazy hotel, we created wild hairstyles… so much was happening in those photographs. The second such situation was having to create a Chinese New Year campaign in my hometown. That was kind of a challenge. It is difficult to choose the highlight of my career so far but maybe it was showing my works at Paris Photo last year (2021). I was represented by Vasli Souza gallery –I never thought I would be there as an artist. I also had a solo exhibition at Foam in Amsterdam with the project We can’t live – without each other.
At the moment, I’m working on books. I am still trying to do a photobook with the We can’t live series. It is supposed to be a ‘bath book’. I’ve had a lot of trouble with its production, but I’m hoping it will be ready by the autumn.
Graduating with an MFA in photography from Parsons School of Design in 2019, Spandita Malik is an Indian photographer based in New York, for whom, “nothing [is] finished with a click”. Her layered practice blends photography with collage, textiles, pattern and embroidery, ruminating on themes surrounding gender-based violence and misogyny in her home country. Her work has been featured in a number of publication including Artsy and Crafts magazine, and this year she was selected as one of The 30: New and Emerging Photographers to watch.
Spandita Malik: The past couple of years have been challenging. I have had to pivot my practice multiple times. I wasn’t able to travel to India to continue my collaborative practice or meet with my family and friends due to the border closure [during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown].
Over the last year, the community of women whom I’ve worked with before, came together to collaborate in a disparate world of thought and support during the fragmented times we found ourselves in. We collaborated through international mail and phone calls, but more importantly during the process of creation, we could build a community to support, hear and listen to each other in a different but significant manner, whatever deemed necessary. During these fragmented times, the community of women I work with have gone through mayhem of constant grief and ever changing lives in a pandemic; it became crucial to sustain the community.
I think my favourite project has been Vadhu (2021). While the women and I communicated through a Whatsapp group, they also shared valuable insights with me about life, stories and sometimes they shared recipes. While we have talked a lot about change, the kind that was inevitable and the kind of hopeful daydreams, the past and the present have existed and erupted on occasions simultaneously. The women met in their backyards, bringing with them photo albums, mostly wedding photographs and the conversation started; they talked of themselves, the self they saw in the photographs of the past, a narrative of someone transformed as we walked through the memory lanes of many decades. Memories that existed in the photograph, skipped timelines, often jumped, sometimes ground to halt on different occasions informed a new shape of the memory. They embroider the portraits of the past, recalling, recollecting, remembering and reclaiming the narrative of the portrait in sync with the present; the language of embroidery reshapes the memory of the photograph.
I’m currently working in India on continuing the series Nā́ri (2019-Ongoing). I’m also travelling to states I haven’t been to before to collaborate with women to expand the project in dying embroideries and crafts.
My dream project will be to start a non-profit school of arts for underprivileged children in India as well as continuing my projects in social-practice. With few opportunities available, art in India is reserved for the middle class or the elite. I want to create a structure to eliminate the initial cost of equipment and tools for children to learn.
The highlight of my career so far? It has to be winning the 30: New and Emerging Photographers Award this year.