To start, could you please discuss your earliest experiences with photography, as both a viewer and a practitioner. What drew you to photography? What images inspired you; and why did you choose to pursue it seriously?

The first time I picked up a camera I was addicted. It was those disposable film cameras from boots, we would wait a few months and get them developed. I would spend hours looking over the blurry images that came out. As a viewer the first images I saw were those in the Sundays Times weekend supplement, they used to do these photo essays. I would pore through and always read with interest. The images that inspire me now are; Tarkovsky: the moments we don’t see, the way he makes you think, from his films to his Polaroids. Alfredo Jaar tells incredibly difficult stories in complex ways. He is one of my favourite artists. The list is varied but I am inspired by the works of; Ron Jude, Neil Gunn, Kate Bush, Rebecca Solnit, Robert Macfarlane, W G Sebald, Adam Scovell and The Brontes. It’s mainly literature, film, every day stories from people within my community, the land, happenings.

Photography was for me, the one continuous element. I had been through some ups and downs and photography was always there. I wasn’t aware that it was a path I could pursue, but I just went for it. It was almost quite organic. I don’t think there is a choice for me, to do this as a job, it’s part of who I am, I don’t think I could do anything else.

joanne coates fisherman working on fishing boat the south west collective

Let’s discuss your project ‘North Sea Swells’. This project is a collection of photographs that you made between 2012-2016. Could you discuss how the project came about, what it represents to you?

A little background information, this project was my first real ‘anything’ with photography. I started studying photography and this was my foundation project. It was the first thing I’d ever done with photography, I hadn’t had any access to the medium before. I wanted to do a project that meant something to me. I’ve always had an attachment to fishing and the sea with family connections.

I’m not sure it really helps to discuss its representation to me. It will be more important how it is for the viewer or the people I worked with on the project, their view is what matters in that regard?

Four years is a long time to dedicate yourself to one project. How often over the duration were you out at sea, and for how long at a time?

Long term projects are more interesting to me, there is an element of taking seriously the task at hand. That’s quite difficult to answer as I was on in-shore and offshore boats. Both those types of fishing require different amounts of times at sea. The shortest being around six hours, to the longest being around 10 days.

Piotr Karpinski – Three Project Feature

While working in such extreme conditions did you face any challenges, photographically or emotionally? If so, can you discuss what they were and how you overcame them?

I find this quite a difficult question as it’s someone’s job to do that, and they face extreme conditions every day. I’m just visiting. I really don’t like that hero photographer approach. I think the challenges the fishermen face are and can be difficult/extreme. For me, it is quite safe.

Alongside your commissioned and personal projects, you are also the founder of ‘Lens Think’, could you tell us a bit more about this platform, when you started it, and what your aims and intentions are?

Lens think is; A creative group, a community of people that can offer advice, a place where people can chat about ideas and work, it helps ease that pressure. It’s also really important to have peers out there, on the more business side to network and to grow an understanding of the industry you work in.

It started out as a social back in late 2016. It’s gone on to grow into a social enterprise. We provide opportunities for artists, artist residencies, care about equality and diversity in the arts. We make small changes with small happenings. From putting on exhibitions, to working with creative partners and mentoring.

There are so many rejections in this industry. We are told we need to be tough and develop a thick skin. The problem lies in that most creatives are sensitive people, the pressures can take their toll. A physical meeting won’t solve any of the problems within the photographic industry BUT what it can do is be a great place, to encourage inclusivity, to allow people to be curious, to meet people that they can form collaborative projects with. Also to put on some events that allow people to experiment a little with the medium, with other people and with themselves. I wanted to create a group where it didn’t matter how established people were, where it doesn’t matter what awards they’ve won, what university you attended, what class you’re from, it’s a meet up where everyone is welcome. Lens think has a Facebook group which is open to anyone to join, an Instagram that features interviews with new and more well-known work by photographers who have worked in the North.

joanne coates fisherman at sea the south west collective of photography

Are you currently working on any personal projects or commissioned work that you can share and discuss with us?

I am working on two personal projects which I can’t speak about, and working with a charity on work around the fishing industry. I’m not ashamed to say I really enjoy commercial assignments. They can be part of your practice. It is also about considering who you reach, I have zero interest in seeking validation from other photographers, I want to make changes to a wider consensus with my work. I’ve found the ways of getting projects like that out there are by working with others. I worked with Sail Creative on a campaign for Newcastle Carers and the NHS. It was so inspiring. It was a socially engaged commercial campaign, where the young carers were involved. The aims were getting more young people to realise that the organisation was there to support them. It made sense to work solely in the North East, with young actors living in the North East from working-class backgrounds. It went on to be a billboard campaign across the city of Newcastle. Most of the commercial work I do is just an extension of my practice.

Lastly, can you share any words of advice from your experience, that might help and encourage young photographers?

Keep on going despite the hurdles, you don’t have to jump them. Find your own way around.

Joanne Coates

“Joanne Coates is a working-class documentary storyteller who uses the medium of photography. Based in the North of England. She is interested in working life and class inequality.  Leaving the rural North as soon she could to study on the Ba (Hons) Photography course at London College of Communication. Joanne Graduated in 2015. She left the capital to focus on her work’s key themes Northern culture in rural places and working-class life. Her approach to photography is democratic and poetic, this can be seen in commissions for BBC, Vice, The Telegraph, and the Guardian.”


Interview by Ella Cousins

If you enjoyed this interview by Ella, check out her last one with Photographer and Founder of Another Place Press Iain Sarjeant:

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