Sebah Chaudhry

Diversity, education and using photography for institutional change.

Sebah is a freelance Creative Producer and Curator, experienced in working at international festivals and events. She has previously worked with: Kasselfotobook Festival, Germany; Fotofestiwal Łódz, Poland; Rhubarb-Rhubarb, England and Fotofest, USA.

She is an avid networker and advocate for emerging artists, encouraging both artists and others to get involved in the art scene. Sebah is currently UK editor for the photo exhibition archive, Chair of 1623 Theatre Company Board, Steering Group member for FORMAT Festival, Board Member for Redeye Photography Network and Co-Founder/Co-Director of ReFramed.

From your experience working as a (often freelance) Curator and Creative Producer in the UK and Internationally, how have you and those you are working with ensured diversity and inclusivity? Is this important to you?

Yes definitely, I have always noticed the lack of diversity, but especially in the last few years I have become more aware of it. As a British Pakistani/Kashmiri Muslim woman, I’m really cautious of there being a lack of diversity of South-Asians in the Arts, or Pakistanis and Muslims too, so I was really excited to work on The Place I Call Home recently. There was a range of artists from the Gulf and UK, and a good representation of different people. In Photography and the Arts, there’s always a good amount of diversity in terms of gender, but ethnicity is not something that is always considered or at the back of people's minds. FORMAT Festival however has always been very diverse. The off-year programme this year would have been an exhibition from Lagos, Nigeria, and there are always Asian (Chinese, South Korean and Indian) artists exhibiting at the festival. When you look at the Portfolio Review, which I organise, the reviewers are always from different countries, such as the Far East and South Asia, but we always try to make sure we have Black people on the panel as well because they bring a different perspective and offer something more, encouraging diversity in the participants. 

“If you have a history of showing White, middle-aged photographers and you don’t have diverse voices within the speakers, curators and producers then how do you expect your audiences to be diverse?”

I was recently asked by another organisation to advise on the diversity of the people who look at their talks online, which isn’t very diverse at all. I asked them to look at their list of speakers in terms of diversity, and there wasn’t any. If you have a history of showing White, middle-aged photographers and you don’t have diverse voices within the speakers, curators and producers then how do you expect your audiences to be diverse? I think there is a real lack of diversity of people from ethnic minority backgrounds – it’s not in the back of someone’s mind to have these people involved, so it’s something I am very aware of in my work. I’ve become more vocal about it, so when I’m working on a project now and I don’t think there’s enough diversity, I do speak up about it. I think it’s the responsibility of the organisers, curators and producers to speak up.

Many institutions across the world have had their reputations, history and responsibilities bought to the fore recently. As a collective, we are committed to learning, listening andacting against racism. Change is important, so I’m interested to know what you think needs to happen across the Arts, from grass-roots organisations right the way through to internationally active institutions and Universities?

That’s a good question! Arts organisations need to go into the communities and find out what they want. They need to work with artists within the communities directly. Institutions are different. Universities for example, speaking from a Pakistani perspective, Photography isn’t seen as a profession. This is due to lack of knowledge, so there needs to be more work done within the [Pakistani] community to talk about art and culture, and the importance of it. 

I went to an all Asian school, in an Asian area, and I was lucky to study GCSE Photography, which is how I became passionate about it, but apart from my teacher I wasn’t really supported. My parents were very supportive, and happy for me to study Photography at College and University, but I was the only Asian person at my College, so I felt really isolated. More needs to be done to tackle that and for it to not be ‘us and them’. Universities need to understand that there might not be as much support from home for example, so they need to actively offer more support. People might not be able to afford certain courses, such as an MA for example, so Universities need to offer discounts and incentives to ensure diversity. Also, how much diversity is there amongst staff members within Universities? This needs to be looked at, and conversations need to be had at institutions which lead to real change, there should be groups dedicated to creating these changes.

“This is not just a thing for Black people to speak about, everyone else needs to speak up about racism. We need to stand up for people who don’t have the privilege of standing up for themselves, and we all need to stand together.”

People have an individual responsibility to educate themselves and be constantly learning, which is what we are trying to do as a collective, but it feels very hard to change things on an institutional level. This isn’t just a problem with the Arts, so how do we continue to make change? How do we overcome the ingrained racism that still exists within the ‘gatekeepers’ of any industry?

There is systemic institutionalised racism across all bodies: educational bodies, police, the list goes on. It does exist. You have to look at the people at the top of the boards and the Directors, and if they’re all White, then this has to change. They have to bring in people from different cultures and places to represent other voices and have more equality. It will take time, as these kinds of things are ingrained, but it does need shaking up. It won’t be overnight, but it needs to happen. We all need to speak up. This is not just a thing for Black people to speak about, everyone else needs to speak up about racism. We need to stand up for people who don’t have the privilege of standing up for themselves, and we all need to stand together. Together we are stronger. We know that in the Arts and Photography it’s quite a tight-knit group and most people collaborate and support each other, but we need to understand our privilege and use it where we can to make real change.

I do feel like things are changing now, but we have to all be part of that change. If you look at the Let’s Create strategy from the Arts Council for the next ten years, 60-70% of the images show diversity, but that’s not represented in the Arts. They [Arts Council] want organisations to change, but the organisations have to make real changes and bring in people to help make those changes; people from the community who can actually serve that community. This is where things get lost and people don’t really act. Organisations need to think how they can really make change with long-term, not just short-term projects. But they need to be serious about this, and not just do it because it is what the Arts Council want.

On a personal level, you are British-Pakistani who might call many places ‘home’. We worked together recently on The Place I Call Home, so I feel like the themes of national identity, togetherness and unity have never felt so important. How do you think photography can be used in a way to encourage healthy discussion and help educate people on anti-racism?

Like The Place I Call Home taught us, we all have so many more similarities than differences. Photography can be a real catalyst for change, because it can capture our everyday lives, and in the UK we really aren’t that different from each other. Sure, we all have different cultures, but overall, we’re all one human race and through making photographs you can understand a sense of unity and community. When people from different backgrounds work together, on a photo walk for example, they can often make similar sorts of images. They all might live in the same place, with the same trees, houses, pavements – it’s about seeing that people are all the same and see the same things but perhaps in a slightly different way. We all want to live freely and openly, and just want love and happiness. Photography can really help bring us together, through workshops, exhibitions and community get-togethers. It’s about realising that there are more similarities than differences between us all.

Also, by viewing exhibitions by BAME/BIPOC artists, people can engage in discussions with the artists, also creating a dialogue and discussion about racism and how to avoid micro-aggressions. 

“Photography and Art, creativity and culture are things that can change and unite us, so collaboration and shared authorship are things that definitely should be explored.”

Would you say that collaboration and shared authorship are important within Photography?

Yes definitely, I think so. We are steering towards a lot of socially engaged Photography, which can be a catalyst for change. If someone is producing work with the community, then actual shared authorship is where all names are included in the final outcome. Photography and Art, creativity and culture are things that can change and unite us, so collaboration and shared authorship are things that definitely should be explored. Within the Pakistani community for example, not much is known about Photography, so if someone did a workshop, they would learn more and it would be good for their mental health too. This is something that is not always recognised in our communities. 

The Black Lives Matter movement has been a catalyst for action within the Arts, but the commitment of individuals and organisations over time is where real change will happen. What is your role within ReFramed and how do you think this will develop over time?

ReFramed has real potential. We’re a new organisation and network to support Photographic and Visual Artists who are Black, Asian or other ethnic minorities in the Midlands and around the UK, as well as abroad at some point. There are four Co-Founders – myself, Andrew JacksonAnand Chhabra and Jagdish Patel. We all have the same passion for working within Photography to create change. We only launched a week ago and have already had a lot of interest from organisations and people; it’s a really important time for this to happen. I think organisations will come to us and will seek our advice, because they need to speak to people who work within the BAME communities. These organisations can’t go on bringing in big-name photographers who don’t relate and understand the community, and vice versa. A lot of photographers have done this in the past, and most of them are middle-aged, middle-class and this needs to change. ReFramed can be a part of this change because we can help organisations develop actual, proper connections with communities. If you attend some of the local Festivals, it’s always the same crowds who say they are there for the communities, but the communities are not actually present. ReFramed is about helping and guiding these organisations and being a step towards change. We’re by no means experts, but we’re all from the BAME community so we understand what it’s like, and what the community needs. 

“Unless Arts organisations address the lack of diversity on boards or management and make drastic changes to employ people from other backgrounds, the change isn’t going to happen that quickly.”

If organisations reach out to ReFramed for advice, it must be important for both parties to equally gain something from that interaction. How can we make sure that systemic change happens, without the worry that ReFramed will be exploited in some way?

I completely get that, and I think it’s a challenge that we’re going to have to face. We’re very new but hope that we can grow and be an organisation that people come to and work with. Between us, we have decades of experience as photographers, curators, producers and educators. We don’t want people to steal our ideas, but organisations do need to make changes. The Arts Council has said that if they don’t change, money will be taken away. (The Guardian, 2020). There is a fear that organisations are going to make changes because they have to, which is a shame, but hopefully they will want to as well. Hopefully they will do it ethically and in the right ways which benefits the communities. Unless Arts organisations address the lack of diversity on boards or management and make drastic changes to employ people from other backgrounds, the change isn’t going to happen that quickly.

We have got a bit of fight in us though, and might have a long road ahead, but ReFramed is here to stay.

Interview with Josh Adam Jones, June 2020.

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Design by Josh Adam Jones, 2020.