Fair exchange: should socially engaged photographers pay their participants?

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Portrait of Sarah from She / Her / Hers / Herself (2017 – 2022) by Anthony Luvera.

This article is printed in the upcoming issue of British Journal of Photography: Money+Power. Sign up for an 1854 subscription to receive it at your door. 

Many socially engaged practices rely on collaborations with marginalised communities – but if a photographer receives funding, should their participants also be paid?

As culture evolves, so does language. Many documentary photographers today would never describe people in their pictures as ‘subjects’ since it suggests a power dynamic they reject. They might say that they ‘make’, rather than ‘take’, those pictures. They might avoid words such as ‘shoot’ and ‘capture’ in articulating their process, objecting to the violent undertones. New words come as other words go. And one word spoken with increasing frequency in recent years by artists, institutions and funders is ‘co-creation’. 

Arts Council England’s 2021 report Considering Co-Creation defines it as: “Shared authorship of a creative work or project, where each party plays an equal role (but not necessarily the same role). Each party has creative agency throughout the development and production of the creative work or project.” 

In photography, this method is described as ‘socially engaged photography’. It is adopted by those working with individuals or groups whose perspectives are lacking within mainstream visual culture – due to their being marginalised, isolated, or socially or economically disadvantaged. The language of ‘co-authorship’ and ‘co-production’ is rooted in the idea of a collective endeavour.

Assisted Self-Portrait of Natalia Tokarska from Construct (2018 – 2022) by Anthony Luvera.

Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool’s Socially Engaged Photography Network defines it as “activities or projects where photographers and communities/individuals come together to co-author or co-produce visual representations of the world around us”. There is an implied parity. And yet, hierarchies persist, not least financially. While the professional artist usually receives a fee, the participant does not. But – if they are true co-creators, co-authors, co-producers – is it time they should?

“I’ve been grappling with these questions for a long time,” says Anthony Luvera, who has worked as a socially engaged photographer since 2002. “Would it further underscore the power imbalance between myself and the participant if I were in the position of employer? Would they feel they had to do a ‘good job’ to be rewarded? Would payment incentivise participation? Would they feel as free to express their own agency, interests and  perspective?”

For many of Luvera’s projects – with people experiencing homelessness, for example – the photographer has been embedded within a partner organisation, which comes with its own parameters and protocols. “The participant might be visiting a support centre for specialist services, to see a housing adviser or a nurse, and taking part in my work is one of a number of activities they may be offered,” he says.

“Being paid for the project meant a lot. It made me feel as though I was truly a respected part of the project, as though my ideas and contributions were important, valid and appreciated”

Open Eye Gallery has a similar approach. “We see the projects as a creative offer,” says Liz. Wewiora, the gallery’s head of social practice and leader of the MA course in socially engaged photography at Salford University. “It might be something they’re doing for their health and wellbeing through social prescribing.” 

Transparency is important in outlining this offer and how creative work might be used afterwards. Discussions take place around “what the group or individual want to get out of the process” and which expenses need to be covered, “so that it’s a positive opportunity that doesn’t put a strain on anyone”.

Noni Stacey, author of Photography of Protest and Community: The Radical Collectives of the 1970s, thinks differently. “Artists are getting funding and building their careers off the back of these projects. It has a much longer impact for them than the participants and that should be recognised,” says the photo historian. “I don’t think it’s right. If people are taking part in a project, they should be paid a living wage.” Contemporary practices have roots in the politically motivated community photography of the 1970s that Stacey studied, but the landscape now is different: “The budgets they were getting then were tiny and there wasn’t the gallery system there is today.” The participants may be credited as co-creators now, but they rarely benefit from the same opportunities the artist might receive. These projects, while not commercially driven, have a legacy. They can increase the artist’s cultural capital in the form of status, as well as bringing in commissions, exhibitions, sales and funding for future projects.”

But there can be opportunities for participants too, such as paid talks, workshops, or funding to run their own projects independently. “She / Her / Hers / Herself is not just a project, it’s my life,” says Sarah Wilson, with whom Luvera collaborated for five years chronicling her journey as a trans woman, after the pair met when she participated on a previous socially engaged project, Let Us Eat Cake. “It’s helped me grow and expand my business. It’s given me advertising. It’s given me work. It’s helped me make connections with many people. It’s opened up doors I never thought could be opened for me.”

With Luvera’s help, Wilson shot video tutorials to promote her work as a beautician and ran a nail bar during this year’s exhibition of She / Her / Hers / Herself at Belfast Exposed, receiving a fee.

Collaborative Self-Portrait of Sarah from Let Us Eat Cake (2017) by Anthony Luvera.

Alternative rewards

Paying a participant is not always as simple as processing an invoice. The practicalities can be admin-heavy and logistically problematic. A participant can risk losing state benefits or asylum status by being paid. In the UK, anyone earning more than £1,000 a year as self-employed needs to file a self-assessment tax return. One way to circumvent this is by giving vouchers in lieu of payment.

Becky Warnock has worked on both paid and unpaid socially engaged projects, and presented this as an option to participants in the 2022 Chisenhale Gallery project How’s the Weather in Your Head?. Self-referred via a callout, participants “all identified as having struggled with their mental health, although they were at no point asked to publicly disclose their experiences,” Warnock explains. 

The participants were given the option to either receive an hourly rate of the London Living Wage for their time attending meetings and developing artwork, the equivalent value in vouchers, or an in-kind opportunity like a course. Each one chose payment. 

“Being paid for the project meant a lot,” says Emma, one of the participants in the project. “It made me feel as though I was truly a respected part of the project, as though my ideas and contributions were important, valid and appreciated.” Another member, Maiya, adds: “Within this project, I saw myself as a collaborating artist. My experiences and opinions were valued.”

“Collaborative research is based on the idea that everyone can be a creator of knowledge”

Beyond the photography world, there are compelling examples of remunerated participatory projects. Dr Stefano Piemontese is a research fellow in the University of Birmingham’s Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology, focusing on migration, with an interest in collaborative and audiovisual research methods. In some cases, where resources allow, individuals are paid as ‘co-researchers’, employed as casual workers for a fixed term, active in the project’s design and execution.

On the one hand, he says, this is about appreciating what they bring. “Collaborative research is based on the idea that everyone can be a creator of knowledge,” he says. But it also addresses the fact that people from economically deprived communities do not necessarily have time to volunteer – they might be working multiple jobs to make ends meet, trying to survive.

The question then comes down to whether participation constitutes work. Or, as Open Eye’s Liz Wewiora puts it, “Are they delivering a service?”. Luvera frames his practice as primarily pedagogical. “Working in this way, I bring a skill set and the participant is invited to develop skills or have a particular experience,” he says.

Luvera is in the process of completing a new project about economic segregation in recent housing developments, commissioned by Four Corners. The participants in this project are paid for their time as standard. “I’m thinking through the mechanics and ethical implications,” he says, echoing Wewiora’s definition. Whereas, in the case of Warnock’s project, participants formed a collective and were identified as artists and change-makers from the off.

Self-Portrait of Mauvette Reynolds from Construct (2018 – 2022) by Anthony Luvera.

Perhaps co-creation is a sliding scale and social engagement not a universally agreed category. Each concept is a guideline, not a rule, continually interpreted and enacted in a plurality of ways. Noni Stacey is not sure this argument cuts it: “First it was participatory, then community, now it’s socially engaged. There are all these terms swimming around. I don’t see much difference between them but I do have problems with the model.”

The current flourishing in participatory arts could be read in multiple ways: as artists doing the job of a state stripped bare by more than a decade of austerity; as a long-overdue acknowledgement of the holistic richness of art; as a celebration of the need for creative expression inherent in all of us. Art practice is exactly that – a practice, something artists do, an approach that changes, shifts, adapts. At the core of every socially engaged project is “an exchange”, says Warnock. 

What changes hands can be artistic, social, educational, material or monetary, but it must be fair. For collaborators with a stable income, remuneration might not be a concern. But for others, it is a barrier to their participation. And that is something photographers choosing to work in social engagement must continually negotiate.

Rachel Segal Hamilton

Rachel Segal Hamilton is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in photography and visual culture, for art magazines, book publishers, national press, awards, agencies and brands. Since 2018, she’s been contributing editor for the Royal Photographic Society Journal, is a regular writer for Aesthetica and author of Unseen London, published by Hoxton Mini Press.