The Work that Photographs Do

Kerry Manders

Michéle Pearson Clarke is a Trinidad-born, Toronto-based artist who works in photography, film, video, and installation. She is currently the inaugural artist-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies (2020-2021) and the Photo Laureate for the City of Toronto (2019-2022). She talked to Kerry Manders about the work of photographic advocacy, the importance of visual literacy, and the depth of process and practice.

Tell us about your work as the City of Toronto’s Photo Laureate. How did this opportunity come about? What does the role entail?

For me, it came out of the blue; it’s not a position I applied for. The city convened a committee, and I was their recommended selection. But the invitation came with the freedom to make the role my own: I could figure out what I wanted to accomplish with this three-year, part-time appointment.

I have a broad relationship to photography in my practice, and I make more moving image work than I do still photography. Since my relationship to photography is one of making but also one of writing, thinking, and teaching, I wanted to bring this full and varied relationship to photography to my role as Photo Laureate. I was less interested in making photographs and asking Torontonians to look at them than I was in inviting Torontonians to think about and reflect on the work that photographs do in our world. As someone who has the privilege of working full time as an artist, it was very appealing to me to devote some of my time to photographic advocacy.

I love this idea that the Photo Laureate is an advocate and an ambassador. I see your Photo Laureate Instagram account, for example, as an educational platform.

Unfortunately, what I’ve been able to do during my tenure has been really hampered by COVID-19. But the Instagram account has become an important facet of my Laureate role. I don’t have a budget, so I can achieve more by supporting and participating in existing programming – panel discussions and exhibition talks, for example, and amplifying artists and issues on the Instagram feed. My advocacy entails shining a light on what other people are doing.

I’m also going to repeat something I did last year on my Laureate anniversary: I’ll offer a day of online “office hours” where people can talk to me about anything, even have a mini portfolio review with me, in 20-minute chunks. I’m always trying to create access and connection so I’m happy to give as much of my time as I can to those informal conversations.

Can you tell us about your monthly photography column for the Toronto Star?

That has been a real highlight for me, being able to touch on a wide range of topics and reach a huge number of people. Also, I’ve developed my own knowledge and practice because, with every topic that I cover, there’s research. When I wrote about climate change and photography for last year’s January column, I ended up reading for at least a week before writing anything. I did a deep dive into thinking about the emotional impact of climate change, and how that is conveyed photographically.

One of the things I’m so grateful for is my visual literacy. The column is a small attempt to invite a more general audience into that conversation – to introduce visual literacy and inspire people to consider photographs differently. As photographers, we often take for granted our ability to read and think about images. Everyone has an intimate relationship to photographs, seeing and taking images all day long with cameras in our purses and pockets. My job is to help us think about images in new ways.

What are you currently working on?

The pandemic has really shifted my practice. One of the most immediate responses to this pandemic was a turn to mutual aid, and I’ve responded to that as well. At the best of times, being an artist is a very “look at me” job. And like most artists, yes, I have a healthy ego. But when you’re living through a period of such suffering and grief and loss in all forms, it’s a bit more difficult to say “Well, I made a thing. Will you look at it please?” So, I’ve found it harder to be self-focused. Thankfully, both my residency at the University of Toronto and my Photo Laureate work allow me to focus on community.

When I was invited to take up the U of T residency, I proposed curating an exhibition rather than mounting a solo show. “We Buy Gold” will open on May 7, 2021 and showcases mostly emerging LGBTQ photographers from across Canada. It’s deepening my practice because I’m learning what it means to be a curator.

It’s postponed until next year, but eventually I’ll also be working on a project called Toronto Park Portraits. This will involve free family portraits by professional photographers at parks across the city. It is a return, in a way, to the research I did in my MFA and thinking about the history of portraiture. When it comes to representations of more marginalized folks, you’re not going to comb the archives and find as many studio portraits of them. Portraits of queer or Indigenous people or folks with disabilities are few and far between, in part because of the prohibitive cost of studio portraiture. But we all recognize that a well-lit, well-composed portrait is very compelling! It stands out. It elevates how you see yourself and it elevates how other people see you.

And as the photographers and assistants are working to make the portraits, I’ll be talking to people about what it feels like to live in Toronto in the summer of 2022. There will be a project website and an Instagram account where, provided we get permissions, we’ll share photos and excerpts from our conversations. Again, I’m trying to create different kinds of access and points of engagement for Torontonians to connect through photography.

How has your background in psychology shaped or inspired your creative practice?

The skills and knowledge and capacity to hold space for human complexity that I learned as a counsellor are especially useful in my artistic practice. Going back to school to do my MFA was very much driven by my grief experience, which I wanted to concentrate on. I had turned to numerous sources for help, understanding, and comfort, including art. I didn’t often find what I needed, and that’s the motivation for the work I do.

There’s no question that the capacities and capabilities that I developed in my first career directly shape and influence the art I make. I’ve moved from holding space for people in a professional therapeutic role to holding that space in a contemporary artistic role. Those actions are quite similar, even as the boundaries, ethics, outcomes, and expectations are distinct. But both careers foreground social practice and community. That’s a growing area of contemporary art that focuses on community in relation to the work, most often in areas that involve vulnerability, healing, and repair.

What have you learned about queerness and curation in your current artist residency?

Reading and thinking about queer approaches to curation over the last months, for me, I’ve come to see it as less about an academic definition of queerness and more about a queer practice. Yes, all the artists I’m working with identify as queer in some way. But as we make this exhibition together, we’re asking how we can grapple with the power dynamics of the gallery space, how we can work within that space differently. This is crucial for me as a first-time curator. I’m trying to foreground those things that make me feel supported as an artist. I know what it feels like to have me and my work truly seen by other curators.

I’m trying to question everything, including how the work will be displayed and explained in the gallery. One concrete example: I decided that a single, “expert” curatorial essay didn’t feel right to me, so I asked the artists who they’d like to have write about their work. Instead of one curatorial text, now we’ll have nine short texts by nine different writers.

And our exhibition will have two opening receptions, COVID permitting (who says we can’t?!). We will have a weekday evening reception and a weekend afternoon reception. A Saturday reception has a different kind of energy and is accessible to different people, including those who want to bring their children. Small gestures matter. It’s about accessibility and inviting in the largest possible audience.

What would be helpful for students to know as they apply to get into their first exhibitions?

The number one thing is to think about your photographic project as a three-dimensional thing. Most people work digitally, and we only ever relate to images on a screen. You’ll make a series and you’ll be asked how you want to present it for an audience. You want to have a good answer! Because the work needs to exist outside of your computer.

It’s okay if you don’t have a show yet, but you need to be working toward that show. Choose a gallery space that you’re familiar with and start visualizing how you’d exhibit your work there. What photographs would go where? What would be their size and scale? Framed or unframed? What are you trying to communicate with these choices? The sooner you start thinking about these questions when you’re working on a project, the better. The “where” and the “how” of its eventual presentation should be related to the conceptualization and execution of your work in progress.

The other thing students should be doing when galleries open again is to visit them. Any of them. All of them. I’m always shocked by how few shows my students attend. You need to go and to study and to ask yourself questions about the exhibitions you see. Do I like this? Does it work for me? What is it communicating? What is it asking of me?

The why is crucial, isn’t it? Too often, we stop at “I like this” or “I hate it.”

Yes. Do I think this is well shot? Why is it installed in this way? How many images are on the wall? Why not less, or more? How are the images spaced out? They need to pay attention to what they like and don’t like, to track their gut reactions. With some reflection, they might be able to validate their first impressions—or change their minds. Studying other work will help them make decisions when it’s their turn. I’d also recommend signing up for various photography newsletters and reading about photography daily.

Can you tell us about an artist or work that played a pivotal role in your artistic development?

I’m going to name the whole of the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. I wouldn’t be an artist if it wasn’t for that festival. When I first came out, and I was looking to meet people and make community. I became a volunteer, first ripping movie tickets and later sitting on the screening/programming committee. I eventually became a board member and enjoyed a 15-year relationship with this organization. It was my film school and my first artist network.

Long before I became an artist, Inside Out gave me permission to believe it was possible and the relationships to make it happen. Watching films there was an amazing education. It was the first time I saw short rather than feature-length films. It was the first time I saw experimental films. I had grown up watching traditional movies: discovering what else was possible in that medium was mind-blowing. And I met so many people in Toronto’s arts community. When I first, and hesitantly, voiced my desire to make my own film, I had community support, people who not only wanted me to succeed but were willing to help me do it. I made my first film in 2003 and my first video in 2006. The queer artists who ran Inside Out and who made work that was shown there – they were my inspiration.

That’s such a great answer: not one artist or one work but an entire festival as your biggest inspiration. Okay, final question: if you could give this year’s graduating Image Arts class some advice, what would it be?

One: understand that there’s not a single career path for you. Reject the narrow narratives about what a successful artistic career looks like. You must forge your own path, the one that works for you and your passions and talents. Also, refuse the implicit hierarchies. Being a wedding photographer isn’t “less than” being a gallery artist.

Two: whatever direction you choose, recognize that you are a business you have to manage. Learn a bit about marketing and advertising and accounting and the like. How will you pay for and run your studio, your website? I’m shocked by the number of artists who believe they don’t need a website! A website is a strong business tool that you should leverage. You need to show people what to pay attention to. You need to have your contact information readily available for those who want to be in touch.

Three: Don’t say “yes” to every opportunity. It’s hard to say no, but you have to know your limitations and understand what’s a good fit for you and your work – and what isn’t. There’s a lot of pressure to say yes, especially when you’re starting out. You’ll regret some of your yeses, and that’s a necessary learning curve as you develop self-awareness. And sometimes you should say yes to challenging asks that push you out of your comfort zone. But there’s a difference between stretching yourself in positive ways and doing things that simply aren’t a fit for you. Learning when to say “no” will be crucial for your practice. And for your overall well-being, too.