Custodians with photographer Joanna Vestey
It makes it very hard for trained photojournalists to get paid
"Slap in the middle of England stands the city of Oxford, on an ancient crossroads beside the Thames. Its origins are obscure but its fame is universal, and it forms a national paradigm — in whose structure sometimes shadowy, sometimes splendidly sunlit, we may explore the history, the character and the condition of the English". – Jan Morris
In her Custodians work, Oxford-based, award-winning photographer Joanna Vestey has explored the ‘structure’ of Oxford that Morris refers to in the above quote, and in particular, what could be revealed by examining the relationship between the Oxford institutions that make up that structure and the individuals that occupy them.
Joanna has previously explored the concept of the custodian in a series shot in Havana, which focuses on buildings in varying states of disrepair. The Oxford series is a stunning exploration of buildings, some of which that are often off-limits to those who don’t play a role within the university. OX talked to Joanna to get her take on this eerily beautiful series of photographs.
In the Custodians series you photograph a large variety of Oxford buildings. How did you decide which to include?
I was quite keen not to double up. I didn't want too many chapels or too many libraries or too many dining halls. I wanted as wide a selection as I could, and I wanted to include some spaces that weren't in colleges as well. I approached all sorts of people and largely it was down to those who said yes as to which spaces I was able to get access to.
In your Havana series you explored the notion of the custodian beforehand. How did your creative aims differ from what you shot in Havana to what you shot in Oxford?
I think in Havana I was very interested in a single inner regime or an ideology that doesn't favour buildings as much as it favours ideas, whereas in Oxford I was more interested in the individual custodians and the individual spaces that all make up Oxford but they're not owned by any one person. They don't have one person overseeing all of them, there's a degree of individuality in how they pursue their aims.
In Havana did you know what you were trying to achieve before you started more than you did in Oxford? Was the Oxford series more of an exploration?
I'd been to Havana before so I was aware of wanted to say before I did the work there, whereas in Oxford, even though I live in Oxford, largely a lot of the doors are closed so I was interested to get a peek behind them. In some of the spaces there's a quite monastic tradition in maintaining the spaces.
Can you tell us about your background in photography?
I started many years ago as a photojournalist. I worked in Jerusalem for a lot of charities and NGOs, then I had my children and moved to Oxford and I thought photojournalism had changed a lot in that time and it wasn't something I wanted to pursue as a mum. I wanted to make more long-term work that very much had a message, documentary work rather than reactive, journalistic work.
Do you think that your growth as a person has changed what you want to achieve as a photographer?
Yeah, it was very much has. Also, the industry has changed quite a lot. When I started we were still shooting on black and white film, I don't want to sound ancient but there it is! It was a very different scene. You could arrive somewhere, take pictures and fly back again whereas now there's a lot of being embedded, and a lot of citizen journalists, which means that photojournalists either don't have to go to these places or aren't able to go. I made a big personal transition but the industry underwent a big shift at the same time.
So do you think professional photojournalism isn't as relevant as it was when you started doing it?
I think it's even more relevant today, but I think it's much harder. Because everyone now owns a camera or a phone, anybody can potentially be a photojournalist if they're stood in the right place. I think it makes it very hard for trained photojournalists to get paid, to get insured or to get affiliation to be sent somewhere, and then to actually get their work published. Before, an organisation like the Sunday Times would have published in-depth footage stories whereas now they're more likely to look inside a celebrity's house?
Do you think, because the rise of the internet has meant that citizens can now take a photo and it's in the public domain almost straight away, that you don't see quite the same level of photographic skill?
I think there's no shortage of skill, but the platforms have changed. I'm a bit cynical but I think that a lot of the magazines have favoured advertisers over the people supplying the content. At this stage, people have found alternative platforms on the internet, which is amazing, but to me it doesn't have the same impact as something that sits on your table on a Sunday morning and makes you think "Oh shit". You've got to confront that picture story, whereas if it's on the internet, you have to go looking for it and maybe you do or maybe you don't. I think there's a different response.
If I can go back to the Custodians series, you've mentioned before how you aimed to explore the concept of ownership, and how the venues and custodians affect one another over the course of time. Do you have a particular image that you think portrays that the best?
Do you know the Elliott Erwitt work where the owners start to look like their dogs? There's a degree of that in how people are moulded by their spaces, and there's a couple of them in particular. There's a man called Professor John Morris who's in the School of Anatomy, and the way I captured him standing, and I'm sure he's not normally that rigid, but he's standing in a very rigid way in a similar manner to the skeletons and bodies around him. There's that degree of how you're influenced personally by your space.
The colours of, for example, what the custodians are wearing in some of the scenes match their surroundings perfectly. Did you have any say in this or is it happy coincidence?
No, I had absolutely no say! I largely had no say in who I was given by the institutions, because they appoint the custodians themselves. Someone like Alice Ogilvie who has the most beautiful red hair and is in The Divinity School which has this deep red brickwork, is just luck, complete luck. I probably shot 50 and there are about 34 in the book, so some of them may have been wearing a shirt that didn't work or something that didn't gel.
Something that I noticed whilst going through the series is that some of the photos of large, empty buildings that are normally associated with being lively, busy and full of students often have quite a surreal loneliness to them. Is that something you were aiming for?
I think that's why I was quite interested - and I don't know at what stage I began to think about it - in the idea of permanence, and that the building is there yet we have this fleeting time as humans, so we just pass through these spaces in life. The extraordinary building continues. We need to put the life force into it to keep it going but it overshadows us on so many levels. Institutions overshadow individuals, to a certain extent.
Do you think you understand more of the beauty of the architecture of the buildings when they're empty?
Personally, I felt like I really needed the person in the image to give an idea of human scale.
What do you mean by human scale?
If I see an empty room, I see an empty room. Photographers like Candida Höfer - and I think her work's amazing - are very much about empty spaces, and you get the idea that it's a library, for example, but you don't see anyone. For me, framing it with somebody there makes me consider our role, whether it's temporary, or whether we're more fragile than the space, and so on. I think it's that juxtaposition of the two that sets you off thinking down different trains of thought, where perhaps just an interior shot wouldn't have led you down the same path.
So is it that the custodians affect the buildings as much as the buildings affect them?
Excellent. What do you have planned for the future?
I'm looking at the same idea of institutions, but UK-wide. There's an Israeli academic who writes a lot about invisible social structures that we all adhere to, so I want to use institutions that physically represent those invisible structures and try and make pictures in those. I'll see whether it's interesting visually or just academically. Hopefully it'll be visually strong.
When can we expect to see that?
It's in progress and I think it'll probably be quite a slow series. I think it'll be done in around 18 months. In the meantime I've got a trip to Senegal next week with a charity to do some work for them, so I have short-term projects going on alongside.
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