Daniel Meadows on digital literacy

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Florence Alma Snoad, Now and Then portrait from the Free Photographic Omnibus

Finding ways to attract a new audience and to encourage more people to explore the storytelling aspects of photography is a key question for the medium in the coming years. There is a vast number of photographs out there, but many just swirl around online and fail to reach more than a handful of friends.

One man who has been working in this area is photographer Daniel Meadows who combines his own photographic work with running workshops in digital storytelling.

Daniel describes himself as a documentarist, and is probably best known for his innovative Photo Bus series which was partly inspired by an unlikely source, Cliff Richard's film Summer Holiday, and his work as creative director of Capture Wales, an innovative BBC digital storytelling project that ran between 2001 and 2008.

He has also influenced the careers of some leading photographers through his work alongside David Hurn whilst teaching the Documentary Photography course at Newport's School of Art and Design, and more recently at Cardiff University.

At a time when the photographic industry needs new ideas I asked Daniel to talk about both his approach and his view of the current situation.

"My work has always been about engaging with people," said Daniel Meadows. "In the early days I was driven by an insatiable curiosity about those around me which probably came from the fact that I had spent my childhood locked up in single sex boarding schools. For 10 years I knew only white middle class men and boys. Meanwhile, out there in the world, the 1960s was going on and people just a year or two older than me were fighting and being killed in Vietnam, tuning in and dropping out, rioting in Paris, watching Hendrix play...

"So, when I left school I went to art college and took up photography. It was a great way of meeting, and getting into conversations with strangers, strangers of all kinds. I had a lot of catching up to do. I soon discovered that, as a photographer, the best way to meet a lot of people was to have a studio.

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Portrait of Angela Loretta Lindsey, aged 8, with her brother Mark Emanuel Lindsey in Meadows' free photographic shop on Greame Street, Moss Side, Manchester, February - April 1972

"My studio was the Free Photographic Shop in a disused barbers' on Greame Street in Manchester's Moss Side where I lived when I was a student. I made it free because the rent was very low as Moss Side was being redeveloped, and I could afford it out of my student grant. But it was free too because I was influenced by the counter-culture, there was, for instance a free university in Moss Side. Also I knew that, as I was still learning, some of the pictures probably wouldn't turn out and I didn't want people to feel ripped off if they didn't like their picture.

"The shop turned out to be everything that I wanted, except that it was static. It was then that I remembered seeing Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday. And so the Free Photographic Omnibus was born.

"It took me a year to get the funding in place but when I did eventually set off round England in my double-decker in September 1973, I thought it would be a miracle if I managed to last even a few weeks."

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Image caption,
Portrait from the Free Photographic Omnibus, Brighton, Sussex, May 1974

In fact the journey lasted more than a year and took him to 20 or more towns around country. The resulting portraits were re-discovered by him 25 years later when he decided to track down some of those he had met and re-photograph, the result was published in 2001.

"The idea of re-visiting the project later in life was not something I thought about. In fact the concept of 'later in life' was not something that entered my head at all. I was 21 and very much living in the now. It took me another 25 years to work out that what I had produced in the 1970s was something that might be worth revisiting."

The everyday stories that are often overlooked are the very things that Daniel latched onto, and indeed have remained central to his work since.

"Much of what I was hearing on the streets of England out of the mouths of living, breathing people — not just what was said but how it was said — was infinitely more interesting to me than what I was hearing on television or on the radio. It occurred to me that media could and should be much more democratic. For instance, why couldn't we all have access to the airwaves? Did broadcasting have to be one-way?"

Daniel has now taken those skills and techniques and bought them into the 21st Century through digital stories. He was ahead of the curve on this and opened up the space on the screen to anyone who had a mind to tell a story. I asked him why that is important to him, and why should it be important to us?

"As I've said, I believe in the idea of a democratic media. I'm also excited by Ivan Illich's ideas for "convivial reconstruction". Ivan Illich's 1973 book Tools for Conviviality: 'Tools are intrinsic to social relationships,' he wrote. 'An individual relates himself in action to his society through the use of tools that he actively masters, or by which he is passively acted upon. To the degree that he masters his tools he can invest the world with his meaning; to the degree that he is mastered by his tools, the shape of the tool determines his own self-image. Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision.'

"The Digital age has brought us all kinds of new tools for making a more convivial kind of media. Today we can make TV programmes on the kitchen table and, as it happens, that's what I have spent much of the last decade doing, most notably with the digital storytelling project I took to the BBC in 2001.

"People of all kinds joined the monthly workshops we ran in welfare halls, community centres, church halls, miners' libraries and the like and, using a scrapbook aesthetic and pictures from their own photo albums, told short stories about themselves using computers. Stories with feeling: Two minutes, a dozen pictures, 250 words. It's a wonderful media form, like a sonnet - Multimedia sonnets from the people, on television."

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Butlin's Filey, Yorkshire, 1972

The fact that now many more people have access to the technology is indeed a wonderful thing, yet the shear volume can be overwhelming. Who should we listen to? I asked Daniel where the distinction between the professional documentary photographer and the amateur now lies?

"The big gap today — for those of us who have access to the new tools of media production — is not between professionals and amateurs. It's between those who have knowledge of and respect for form, and those who don't. Just as we learn our conventional literacy we must also learn our digital literacy.

"That's why I still working in education. We need to learn how to use and master the existing media forms and we need to develop new ones. I particularly like digital storytelling because it's a form that newcomers can learn quite quickly and, done well, it tends to elegance.

"I'm less interested in photographers who work only with stills than I am with those who work using multimedia. Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Misrata during the Arab Spring, had been a student of mine in Cardiff and he was doing terrific work using stills and audio. It's just so sad that he isn't around any more to continue that work.

"Gideon Mendel is another photographer I admire, particularly the amazing project he did with children in Hackney, Kingsmead Eyes.

Today your photographic projects and of course your work in training are guiding new photographers, but who would you say were the biggest influences on your photographic work in the early part of your career?

"I went to see the Bill Brandt show at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1970. I'd never seen a photography exhibition and I was blown away. What struck me most was the seemingly easy facility Brandt had for moving between the social classes. Toffs, servants, miners, office workers, actors, naked women… they were all there. I envied him that.

"Another person who was extremely important was Bill Jay, the editor of Album and Creative Camera. He was like an evangelist for photography. He came to Manchester and talked to the students, it was a lecture I'll never forget.

"Andy Sproxton and Val Williams were very influential. They encouraged Martin Parr and me when we went to see them in 1972. Andy and Val opened their Impressions Gallery of Photography in York that winter with work Martin and I had done together at Butlin's Filey earlier in the year. It was their first exhibition and ours too. (Martin and Daniel were students together at Manchester Polytechnic. As well as the Butlin's work they also carried out a study of the residents of a street in Salford: June Street).

"Magnum photographer David Hurn was also important. After the bus I worked as an artist-in-residence in Lancashire (1975-77), doing a big project about decline in the textile industry. I was based at the local college and I became interested in teaching. In 1983 David brought me to Wales to work on his Documentary Photography course in Newport. I learned a lot from David and we're still good friends. It was while working at Newport that I did a study of suburbia, published as Nattering in Paradise."

Image source, Other
Image caption,
From Nattering in Paradise (Suburbia): 25th wedding anniversary party, Farnborough Park, Kent, August 1985

Finally I wanted to mention the Polyfoto piece on your website. It is deceptively simple and yet a compelling piece of work. Perhaps it is a way of working today as re-creating the rapid sequences of photos is relatively easy now, indeed there is probably an App of some sort to do just that, or there should be?

"Polyfoto is something of a favourite. I've played it in workshops and at festivals all over… Arizona, California, New York, Cairo, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide. It's moving in more ways than one, I guess. Perhaps that's what people are responding to.

"And yes, of course, there should be a digital storytelling App. But it won't be easy to design because the hardest thing for people to learn isn't technique, it is confidence.

"The confidence necessary to shape our lives in stories and the confidence to believe that these stories are worth sharing. You'd have to design a 'confidence' App before you set about making that storytelling App!"

Image source, Other
Image caption,
Residents of June Street, Salford, 1973

Daniel Meadows is speaking at Vision 11 on 18 Friday November at the Olympia Conference Centre, London. Vision runs on 18 and 19 November and is an annual event, held by British Journal of Photography, in association with Computeractive.