Barrie, a part time farmer stands in a field with long grass coming up to his knees. There is a big oak tree behind him. Barrie wears grey overalls and has his hands in his pockets, staring into the distance. The sky is cloudy.

Marge Bradshaw is a socially engaged* documentary and portrait photographer interested in people, place, and heritage. She uses a mixture of photography and ethnographic research to share the stories of participants; often giving a platform for voices in communities who are sometimes not heard by politicians or policy makers. She collaborates with participants to produce ‘useful art’ which intends to encourage debate or raise the profile of societal issues that are important to them.

She also works commercially as a cultural events photographer, brand photographer and family documentary photographer. Her work has previously been exhibited at Open Eye Gallery, Museums Northumberland, Bolton Museum and Gallery, and the Science Museum London. It has been published in various national and specialist media including the BBC and The Guardian. She was shortlisted for the RPS Science Photographer of the Year in 2019.

Marge has also worked freelance since 2008 as an arts and heritage consultant. She supports museums, galleries, libraries, archives, and heritage sites across the UK with marketing, audience development, evaluation, and community consultation.

* In case you are wondering what the term “socially engaged photography” means, here’s a definition from the Socially Engaged Photography Network: “Activities or projects where photographers and communities / individuals come together to co-author or co-produce visual representations of the world around us.” It’s related to participatory or community photography, and in the US is sometimes called social practice. More on this from Marge below.

 

How did you get into photography?

I’ve taken photographs for years but didn’t start professionally until 2018 when a friend of mine finally persuaded me to buy a DSLR. As a big music fan, I got in touch with some of my contacts at independent venues across the northwest and started shooting various gigs and festivals. If you can shoot successfully in dark venues under strict time restrictions and challenging lighting conditions, I think you can probably shoot just about anywhere! I went on from there and started offering cultural events photography, brand photography and family documentary photography. Alongside commercial projects, I also work on socially engaged artist commissions. Last week I was doing a shoot for a South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue recruitment campaign, this week I’m working on a socially engaged photography project with residents of the Watch Factory, a residential extra care setting in Prescot which is a commission with Open Eye Gallery.

My other skills in community consultation help my socially engaged practice as you need to be a good facilitator, a good listener and encourage people to share their stories. Having a background in how the arts and heritage sector works, what organisations are looking for (from artists) and an understanding of target audiences also helps in terms of making approaches to institutions for both cultural events photography and applying for open calls. My experience working with the press means I’m able to confidently pitch ideas to picture editors as I understand a bit about how the media landscape works.

 Marge Bradshaw - Pfizer Clinic Vaccination Site, 2021

 

When did your socially engaged practice start?

I spotted Open Eye Gallery’s Crossing Sectors professional development programme in 2019 and thought it sounded like a good way to build my experience in working more collaboratively with communities. I enjoyed it and so I then applied for the Making of Us programme (a socially engaged project with The Turnpike in Leigh), where we were supported to work on a project with a group of autistic adults. My interest just built from there. Socially engaged photography is collaborative and puts community participants on the same level as the artist, involving them in the design and decision-making processes. It’s participatory and usually focused on how artists work with communities to document what is important to them, rather than the artist documenting it for them. My approach to socially engaged work is very much process-driven, where the process of working with the participants is of equal (if not more) importance than the finished output. You can see me talk about one of my socially engaged commissions here.

Video showing more detials of the Making of Us programme can be found here.

 

What's the best way to stay organised as a freelancer?

It’s a challenge. With caring duties at home, running two sides to the photography business, and then my arts and heritage consultancy, I have to be very organised. I plan my diary meticulously and use trello and toggl to manage my tasks and time. I’m a big fan of personal projects as long as they benefit you in some way – whether that’s creatively, emotionally or in building reputation. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without them; my commission with Museums Northumberland came about after one of their team spotted a personal project I did with families during lockdown. That commission led to me being invited to do something similar for Bolton Museum and Art Gallery. Another personal project exploring the impact of the pandemic on grassroots musicians led to a paid feature piece with the BBC after I pitched it to them, and it was also selected for display at Castlefield’s New Art Space in Warrington. Ultimately, personal projects are a way to do something creative without the requirements of a brief, funder, or any other stipulation on you. They can help with your own health and wellbeing and are a way to create work for you, rather than others.

Marge Bradshaw - In the Street Festival, Wonder Arts

 

Any other advice to freelancers?

Freelancing isn’t for everyone and it’s hard work: make sure you go into it with your eyes open. Do your research – what’s your offer, who’s your target audience, what’s your USP, what are your values? It’s important to think like a business. Get your financial and admin systems and processes in place. Upskill in any areas where you’ve got a gap – whether that’s marketing or photography skills. Invest in your ongoing continual professional development. Put money aside from invoices for your tax. Understand what comprises a day rate or fee, you’ll need to consider your overheads and unbillable hours – it’s not just a case of taking an annual salary and dividing it by 365 days! As well as making the most of Redeye, use local business support networks and online freelance communities like Being Freelance, Work Notes and Freelance Heroes. Learn how to say no. Give yourself permission to have lunch breaks, holidays, and book these into your diary. Look after your health and wellbeing. Consider working with a business coach when you’ve got challenging things to work through. I could go on…

What is next for you?

I’m in the process of applying for an Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant to fund a new socially engaged programme of work across Bolton from the Autumn. I’m carrying on with my cultural events and business brand photography this Spring. And I’m also just starting to shoot small weddings, civil ceremonies, and elopements so I’ll be building my portfolio in that area too. Watch this space!

 

See more from Marge:

Website: https://www.margebradshawphotography.co.uk/

Instagram: @margebradshawphoto

Twitter: @margebphoto

Facebook: @margebradshawphotography

Marge Bradshaw - Katie, Runner, Howfen Spaces

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