Jade Tomes-Morgan is currently (2020) a second-year photography student at Birmingham City University. We asked her some questions about the project she’s working on for the Identifying Direction module.
Tell us a little bit about your interest in photography.
I have an interest in capturing stories and emotions, but well it doesn’t feel right to tell anyone else’s stories. Self-portraiture has always made the most sense to me, as a massive introvert. I enjoy creating a finished project and messing about in front of a camera. There can be a great joy in creating or a calming influence in just using a camera to capture a moment.
What is the idea behind your project?
I got Ophelia stuck in my head after an old photo I created about one of the paintings. A collection of them came up whilst I was scrolling through tumblr one day. I’m not much into paintings so I didn’t realise there were so many versions of the Ophelia death. I became really interested after an essay I wrote with the idea of never-ending narratives, the stories have their own lives that spark of so many different things that take on their own life. I decided I wanted to try and show this by creating different photographs on the same subject that are completely different. And such is the nature of my practice they became autobiographical and thus capture overarching trauma points or new life etc.
There’s something about death resonating in the images. You have also spoken about working through trauma with your work, repeating trauma. Can you say something about how death is not a trauma that can be ever be repeated? Is there something in the way death is the ultimate or absolute trauma but at the same time, it is, on one level at least, unrepeatable?
Death is a very blunt trauma, it’s very easy to see the pain of it. There is a very clear before and after. There was a person and now there isn’t. Not all traumas are that black and white it would seem, so I think in this project I might be using it in that sense. The idea that these events killed some part of me for better or worse, they change us. Death changes us. Death in terms of the person who died is of course not repeatable, but the trauma of it that is left behind, the memory is repeatable. Trauma is very much the pain of those existing.
You have spoken about the life of narrative, do you think narrative has a life of its own or do you think narrative is life forming. That’s not a well-phrased question, but what I’d like to know if you think we live life through narratives or if in living our lives we form narratives after the effect?
This feels like a nature or nurture question in that it is always going to be both. Do we live through a narrative we create as we go, or is our life only a story once we tell it. I hate to quote the matt smith era of doctor who to such an interesting question but ‘we are all just stories in the end’. I think throughout our lives we tell our story so far, and over time our outlooks of it change or we forget a part or make different connections. No story stays the same, they ebb and flow and are subjective to the reader. And then when we are gone, someone else tells our story. And whilst we are living others tell stories of us from their perspective. It is so hard to tell because everything shifts constantly. We might slip into narratives we feel safe in, like the phrase playing the victim. We might want to be a certain type of person and work towards that and in such create our own narrative. We even edit as we go to fit the perception we want, leave stuff in and focus on other bits to change the audience’s opinion. It has to be both, it’s a never-ending question. Much like stories are never-ending.
You work alone setting up your images, how do you stage them visually, is it trial and error? Can you explain something of your process?
It’s very much trial and error, it makes more sense to me to figure it out in the moment. As long as I know what I want I can figure out how I’m going to lead the image there, but also how it’s going to lead me there. How the space works, for a photographer I am not very good at visualising how things work in spaces it has to be in front of me. I can’t even tell how I fit in a space, the images under tables for example. I am a lot taller than I think I am. Sometimes shoots can be utterly rigged up, I can have torches balanced on a book tripod and I’m running in and out of shot into a precarious position to reset the self-timer constantly and see if I’m in the right place. Remote triggers and a flip-out screen are a lifesaver, I have rigged up mirrors to see the screen before. Generally, I’ll see a really rough final image in my mind and I’ll know the topic I’m talking about but the details will be left to what I have on the day and what feels right.
You have spoken about the reality of the images and yet, in some sense, they appear very ‘unreal.’ What do you think is the relation of a lived reality to image?
I’m starting to realise just how much I have detached myself from my own life, I was aware that I dissociate a lot but it would seem I hold memories like stories. In that I keep the emotion of them separate. I’m also not creating a documentary piece, I’m not trying to contrast as a snapshot of the event or the feeling exactly as it happened. I am creating a worked document that ties in the actual event and reflections on it and conversations I’ve had about the photo and what happened the day of the shoot etc. It is a constructed version of snippets of my reality weaved together, rather messily.
Do you think your images are more about fantasy than reality?
I think no matter how realistic you try to make a constructed the image it ends up a little bit fantastic. The world is more fantastical then we give it credit for. But here perhaps it says something about the way I retell memories, the way I detach myself from them and turn them into a narrative retold over and over like a story. Photos are just stories at the end of the day, reality is lost the second it is lived.
When we repeat things (rituals, habits etc) what happens is we are trying to satisfy an unmet need. If we met the need, we would no longer want to repeat what it is we are doing. Is there something in your work that speaks to this unfulfilled or un-met need. I think the appropriate word would be ‘desire’ but ‘need’ also works here.
I suppose I don’t know what else to talk about, not that it defines me or is particularly interesting but it is such a well of stuff. Each bucket I pull up I try to work through, but the water all ends up back in the same place. I tend to just photograph what’s coming up or what’s on my mind. I have a tendency to obsess over things and repeat bad habits and so it would make sense those character traits would show through in my work. Here the repetition is meant to display differences, how the repetition of retelling makes changes. Almost like Chinese whispers but more of a subjective retelling than a mishearing.
If you are re-living a trauma in the work is there also a certain amount of therapy taking place? A lot of students are interested in the therapeutic effect of making work, can you tell us if that is something you’re working with as well. If so, how does making work help you?
I am thinking a lot about the sustainability of photographing trauma at the second, I worry about the balance of working through what I am feeling and dragging things up because I need a new photo. Though I think in my practice I don’t go deep enough for it to be therapeutic, it is never raw enough. In fact, a project I made about polyamory is perhaps so dear to me because I made it whilst living it, it is entirely raw and the images made spontaneously and in real-time are the strongest. My work may be another way of dissociating from the issue and simply making it a story to tell over and over as an explanation. In my final year and going forward I really want to push myself harder to make the work therapeutic.
The spontaneous and raw images I make I find incredibly therapeutic, and I think when making something so worked it helps to break down what it is your want to say about that event or that feeling. I heard recently that there are so many emotions that go into one thing, like heartbreak as an easy example, but it is one image so you need to pick are you angry here or are you sad. Are you destroyed or are you rebuilding?
What kinds of work will you continue to make?
The self-portraiture feels like such a part of me and can go in so many different directions I feel like I will continue to make it, recently I used it to make fashion protest work just by myself in a studio and it was so fun. I’m currently also trying my hand at something more Nan Goldin etc. Taking polaroid’s of my friends and mixing in some tactile expression onto the Polaroid’s with that. I also have an interest in film and cyanotype images. Everyone’s styles and interests change over time and I think it will be fun finding out how mine does.
What do you want to do when you graduate next year?
Oh lord, a momentous question. Currently, I a just trying to figure out how to write the essay to finish the second year. I hope I’m working as a photographer but things in life are never that simple. Running some queer local art projects sounds like the best to me right now but I’m figuring out how to get into all that.
Where do you see yourself in five years time? Do you see yourself still making this kind of work or would you have hoped to have resolved the trauma and be focusing on other things?
I think they’ll still be some self-portraits but it is impossible to know, hopefully, I have some different topics to talk about or at least a better perspective on these ones. I’m not much one forever looking to the future, I suppose from my work you can tell how stuck in the past I am.
What do you think is the future of photography?
I think it is what it has always been, new creatives using the technology to tell their stories. We talk in class about us becoming obsolete because everyone with a phone can be a photographer, but that isn’t true. For lack of a better example, some people still choose to work solely in the darkroom and some audiences still prefer that. New things don’t have to erase old things. We learn from history and we grow, but also we can honour it.
What do you like most about the photography course at Birmingham City University?
I know it sounds cliché but I like the lectures, I was hooked by the location and the beautiful studios but ultimately what I value most is the conversations I have with lectures and other creatives in the university. They ask you hard questions and push you forward and have a joke all at the same time. Photography is so much less about kit and so much more about passion and communication.
Have you any advice for other students?
Keep going, that burn out won’t last forever. Trust yourself and your gut when it comes to your work but ask for feedback and really hear it, process it, it’s what will push you forward. Just keep going and keep trying.