Rhizome Live is offering the use of our platform to various individuals to let them have a play, explore topics which interest them, build networks and harness Collective Intelligence. The first of these Rhizo-Sprouts is Stephen Mayes. Today I am finding out a bit about Stephen and what he wants to achieve. In a few months, we will be back to found out how he got on.
(Image © Trea van Drunen)

Can you introduce yourself? Tell us a bit about you.


My name is Stephen Mayes and I am the Executive Director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, which is looking after the archives and the legacy of Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist who died in 2011. He was particularly noted for his exploring mind. He was always testing the medium and looking for different ways of communicating.

And that’s been a subject of mine throughout my career. I’ve worked in photojournalism, I’ve worked in fashion, I’ve worked in editorial, commercial, just about all the areas of photography. And there is still so much more to see and learn. There is so much happening in visual imagery which is so exciting which just can’t be called photography any more. And that’s what I want to get into.

Jonathan was telling me that you responded quite positively when someone told you photography was dead. He said that you disagreed.


Well, absolutely! People have said photography is dead, and it’s a contentious statement. I agree that photography is no longer with us, but photography has to be very strictly defined. Photography is a static medium. It is essentially a rectangle of imagery, which is fixed, isolated in time and space, and that is a photograph. What we are dealing with now with modern imagery is so much more than photography.

So photography, I would say, has evolved. It’s grown up. I sometimes use the analogy that it has gone through pubescence now; we are into adulthood. And it’s not that photography is dead, but it’s gone. We have a memory of how it was as a child, but that isn’t with us anymore.

Is that to do with moving into the digital?


The arrival of the digital is absolutely key in all of this, because the digital has transformed the medium. We haven’t really recognised it yet because we use the digital medium to mimic photography in so many ways. So, whether it’s a DSLR or a cellphone, we produce things that look like photographs, what we used to remember as photographs. But they’re not! They are utterly dynamic documents which shift and move and change at every moment depending on their context. And of course once you go online the context is infinite. So it is a very different medium, and it is entirely because of the digital process, but we just haven’t quite engaged with it yet because it looks like photography as we used to know it, and yet it strangely isn’t.

So it’s about understanding this evolution?


Yes. And I think there are two dangers to not understanding this transition from analogue to digital, in recognising. One issue that really is a danger is that we are under threat, because people are using the digital medium in all sorts of ways: to exploit us, to use our data, harvest our data, sometimes inappropriately. Digital imagery fulfils functions that photography could only achieve in the crudest ways. We’re becoming familiar with some of the more obvious marketing and commercial applications of digital imagery. We’re aware of security cameras monitoring our every move on city streets, although few really understand the extent to which digital surveillance transcends basic identification and tracking. We hear increasing numbers of horrifying stories about revenge porn and online bullying, and we must brace ourselves for all sorts of uncomfortable, hideous and sometimes evil uses of digital imagery. We are under threat if we don’t understand what we are dealing with.

And the second danger is that it is also lost opportunity. If we could understand how to use the digital medium in the same way that some of the experts can in marketing, for example, what an amazing communication tool we would have! If we could pull in all these other dynamic elements which are associated with the digital image, that whole data pack which goes beyond the visual, then what powerful communicators could we be. And this is just an amazing opportunity.

What is it that you want to do with the Rhizome platform that will help you explore what you want to explore?


Well, I’m hoping very much that the Rhizome platform is going to help me learn, because I’m an old school expert in photography: ask me anything about reticulation values and how to process film and I’m your man. But this isn’t where it is happening anymore. I want to learn new stuff. The world has moved on and I’m desperately fascinated by all this.

So I’m learning, and I’m looking for the innovation of fresh eyes, fresh minds, fresh approaches, hopefully all around the world. ‘Cause what’s happening in my little corner of digital imagery is interesting, and I can see so many opportunities, but what’s happening globally is immense. So I’m hoping that Rhizome Live is going to be my network into exploring and learning.

One analogy I make is to the insect - the compound eye. A compound eye has many, many, little facets, which actually sort of stretch a 180 degree angle. These little eyes, they poke forwards and they poke backwards. And each little cell is an independent eye. But what the insect does is it compounds all that from the many, many eyes it has into one image. And that’s a little bit what looking at a computer screen is to me. I’m seeing scattered pixels all around the world and my screen is bringing them into one image which is either on my phone or on my laptop. And that to me is really fascinating. To me Rhizome Live is my compound eye, my way to reach all these many many different perspectives

Who is that you are hoping to reach out to and contact?


Do you know, it’s really hard for me to think who exactly I am going to be talking to. The easy answer would be to say I am looking for people with experience in digital photography or handling digital imagery, but it may not be. It may be people with entirely other experiences who just happen to have touched on the digital process and they will come with fresh wisdom and fresh insights. So it’s pretty broad. Essentially I would say, I am trying to reach people who want to know why imagery is so important to us at this point in time.

So in some ways, the people who you want to talk to, you don’t know who they are yet.


Well, I don’t know who the people are. I would say there’s a core. Because I come with a solid photographic history, I’d say as a core I’m looking for people who, as a start, people who have some photographic history, but with a curiosity about the future. But I’m also looking for, ultimately, people who have no photographic history. And to be honest not necessarily even any interest in photography. Because I think this new, fluid, dynamic image that we deal with at the moment has impacted on all our lives in so many different ways.

You can point your mobile cell camera at a pair of shoes and it will tell you where they come from and how much they cost. It serves as a service as well. So imagery is going beyond just being a communication thing (‘this is where I was, this is what I saw’) to being a service thing. And indeed beyond a service thing, to being really integrated into our lives. It’s hard to find any aspect in our lives which is not a) digitised and b) connected to imagery. And I want to know how all that’s working. I want to learn: why is this important to all of us? Because it is, in many ways that I can’t even imagine. So therefore the people I am interested in are the people who have experience in those things, the people who have wisdom in those things, who are testing those different elements. Not necessarily photographers.

That sounds really interesting!


It does, doesn’t it? I’m fascinated.


Rhizome Live is very much about uncovering hidden specialists - and that definitely sounds like what you want to do. Could you tell us about something that you have learnt recently from somewhere or someone unexpected?


Oh - that’s a great question. It’s not necessarily so recent, but I think an example of learning something unexpected would be my conversation with my friend Katia who is a professor of ancient philosophy. I was talking to her about how journalists are storytellers. You know, journalists go into the field, they see things, and they tell stories about it. And she was horrified! I mean, she was really horrified. Her job is dealing with the ancients, she’s a philosopher, and she talks about Plato and Homer. And she was literally shocked, I mean, her jaw dropped. She said ‘I really hope not’. I said ‘What do you mean? What stories?’ She said, ‘When we read Homer’, she said, ‘We have no idea whether that war happened or not. And we don’t care; that’s not the point. He’s teaching us deeper truths. When I read the newspaper, I want to know what happened. Please tell me you are not storytellers!’

And it really opened my eyes, because of course in a way we are telling stories. But she opened my eyes to this much richer legacy of how storytelling becomes more about metaphor and allegory, and human experience in a much deeper way. And that telling a story is not necessary to be a storyteller. And that really expanded my horizons quite a lot. I enjoy those connections where amazing things change your view in a turn.

Lizzie Evans - Learning Consultant, Rhizome Live

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