Award-winning photographer Joanne Coates on her quiet rebellion against inequality
For North East native Joanne, photography is a way to bring hidden stories into the light – and then challenge why they were overlooked in the first place.
What first inspired your love of photography?
Literature. Stories. That was always the starting point for me, a way of thinking differently and understanding narratives. Then the camera gave me a voice, a way of articulating what I couldn’t communicate through words.
I’m going to borrow the words of Nan Goldin: ”I’m not really interested in photography…”
I’m interested in how to tell stories and what the role of art can play within this; how it can express hidden histories, and how it can make us ask questions about who is overlooked and why.
Your work is unapologetically political. What is it about photography that makes it the perfect medium to address issues of identity, class and community?
I’m not even sure it is. Photography alone so often lies; it’s often used within the constraints of whatever the dominant ideology is. I think that makes it an unreliable narrator but that’s what also makes it interesting as a medium.
I think it has a fluidity, and an ability to weave in different spaces, commercial, art, public. That makes it interesting for me.
You always work with the communities you portray in your photography. What do you think forming these relationships lends to your work?
For me, collaboration is connected to the Labour Movement, about working together. The knowledge and connection those communities have over their own spaces is vital, and it’s vital for an understanding of complex issues. I can’t tell a story without them, and without them there wouldn’t be a story.
I think much of the work I do needs to be made with others; it can’t just be singular. Which can be hard to navigate.
But ultimately, it’s a privilege to get to work with communities, listening is a big part of what I do and a really important part of the work.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve been working with Redcar Palace on a body of work about green spaces and, particularly, allotments, which has allowed me to explore my interest in the Enclosure Act.
I worked with a community in Redcar and collaboratively with the curator Beth Smith. The show, Grow and Gather, is on at the Palace until 22nd July.
Hold the Line is a body of work with communities along the coast in the
East Riding of Yorkshire, around coastal erosion and the changing
relationship we have with the sea as a commodity.
Laborious is performative, self-portraiture work, understanding my own
relationship with class, labour, rural life and art.
There are also a few bodies of work that are currently being made. I won’t say
too much about them now, but I’m delving into masculinity and mining and I’m continuing to work with rural communities around gender and labour, looking at
in-work poverty particularly. Think mining, gender, community, and class.
You’ve recently started capturing performance-based self-portraits, which is a bit of a shift for you – what inspired this new chapter?
Firstly, I wanted to bring in my feelings about my own background, my work in agriculture and how that intersects with my art. Secondly, I wanted to bring in humour, a dry humour that goes with who I am and my feelings about how ridiculous things can be. I’m being deadly serious but, at the same time, it’s having that humour in the situation that helps you get by.
I’ve always loved the work of Jo Spence and, although much of her work was serious, there was this social radicalist tool of humour in her work, too.
Another aspect I’m exploring is the relationship between art maker and who they make art with. How does that relationship work? And who has the power in that relationship?
You’ve spoken about experiencing moments of self-doubt on social media. Do you feel this is something that, in essence, your work is trying to help eradicate?
Sometimes I think my self-doubt can be a drive. It helps me to relentlessly question, think and research.
Self-doubt is a huge part of being working class in a world that speaks of class but not to it. I think I overcome it by allowing myself to be. This is who I am: this is where I live, this is the work I make, this is how I play, this is how I learn. Acceptance, basically.
Understanding the systemic ways in which we can be made to feel less than and allowing ourselves to feel and be. Which sounds awfully complex but really is quite simple.
Tell us about Lens Think – what was the incentive behind establishing that?
I started Lens Think back when I first graduated, as it was pretty isolating out there as a new graduate.
It started with socials, events, and got really intense quite quickly. I had to really think about what this is and why I started it. To create a community, yes, but ultimately to create a space for advice and opportunities for working-class creatives.
There are three mentorships a year available and plans for a physical space that can be used as a resource. Lens Think in 2023 is an artist-led organisation that aims to
redress some of the disproportionalities within the arts. It’s making small changes, running workshops, offering advice and mentorships and planning exciting new things for 2025.
Which other photographers do you most admire?
Helen Cammock, Jo Spence, Nan Goldin, Tish Murtha, Ingrid Pollard, Carolyn Drake, Ciaran Og Arnold, Franki Raffles, Judith Joy Ross, Boris Mickhailov, August Sander, Lewis Hine, Chris Killip, Christopher Nunn, Jim Brook…
It changes depending on how I’m feeling. What I’m researching, what I’m looking for, where I’m looking and how I’m looking. I think all their work to me at least speaks of something more than a singular image; they’re all telling complex stories with their photography in really different ways – sound, words, installations – and I think that’s what interests me the most.
I mainly find inspiration from cinema, daily life, and literature still. I’m outside of the art world really, so often admiration comes from just being, doing, finding and ideas through my own community.
What advice would you give to other North East photographers, especially women?
I think we shouldn’t have to persevere but it’s vital not to give up.
Ultimately I think what my gran always said was: “Don’t let the bastards get you down”, and they’re my favourite words of wisdom!
Perhaps the most helpful piece of advice is to be who you are, tell the stories you know, that you can’t help but tell, and follow what you’re passionate about. Make work that you need to make, not just that you want to make.
What’s your ultimate career ambition?
I remember at art school in my interview to get in, I was quite naively like: I want to change the world! I want to ask questions!
I remember when I first said that it was scoffed at quite quickly, so I stopped talking and became really quiet by my second year. Now, I’d say I want my work to be quietly rebellious, overtly political in every aspect, and to get people thinking, questioning, talking about narratives they otherwise might never have spoken about.
So, yes, I guess my answer is still similar 10 years later… I do want my work to ask questions, to give hidden histories and stories a space, to create a gentle vision, to move, but yes to be political. I want my work to speak about issues I care about, to
highlight them and to go beyond aesthetics.
And you can see Joanne’s work in person:
Grow and Gather will be on display at Redcar Palace until 22nd July, 2023.
People Powered: Stories from the River Tees will be on display at MIMA from 22nd July, 2023 to 7thJanuary, 2024