Artist Natasha Caruana on research-led photographyThe fine art photographer, UCA Farnham lecturer and StudioSTRIKE founding director shares advice about finding your voice, using research in your photography and taking inspiration from your part-time job…How did you get into photography? I dropped Biology A-level so had more free time. My grandfather had left me his camera – a Pentax K1000 – and I started shooting with it and hiding in the dark room. At Easter my teacher said, “Why don’t you do an essay and we’ll enter you for an A-level?” So I did and got an A. I was meant to go to Nottingham to do Business Studies. I deferred for a year and did an art foundation and then went straight to uni after that to do Photography.
The theme of marriage runs through much of your work. Why did you choose to have this focus and would you ever deviate from it?
You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. After my MA I cut out projects that I didn’t feel as serious about. One of them was a commission by the British Council in Saudi Arabia, which I loved, but it didn’t seem to fit with my themes or my voice. But I’m also continuing a body of work around clowning – my father was a clown. Think of it as a shop window: you’ll have something you’re presenting at the time but you also have something in a back room, and something on order from the factory.
What’s your advice for photographers using research in their work?
Make sure you have a notebook all the time. Ideas can come as a little seed and if you don’t note them down they get squished. Overheard conversations are amazing – sitting on the train, on the bus, that’s all research. Go to see the archives at your library or go to the national art archives and look at original prints. If there’s a photographer who inspires you, read an IdeasTap interview with them. Or you might be photographing mining – go and talk to a miner. That will influence how you want to document it.
Depending on the project you work with different types of camera, but which one have you most enjoyed using?
I’m working with a private detective’s agency at the moment and using a watch camera. I got it online from Taiwan. It takes really good images and it gives such a funny perspective – up people’s noses, their heads. I’ve become a bit of a geek with different formats. But I’m equally happy to shoot on 5×4 – I love shooting something slower and more methodical.
When I’m starting a project, I try out a range of different cameras. Even if it’s just a still life, I’ll shoot it with a disposable, a point-and-shoot, a medium format, a digital, just to see which aesthetic works and how I feel comfortable.
You also work as a lecturer at UCA Farnham and co-founded the artist-run space StudioSTRIKE. Is it important for photographers to have multi-stranded careers?
It’s a reality of the economic climate today. There are so many opportunities now and we’ve gone past that guilt where people feel, “If I graduate and work in the local sweet shop [while I] do my photography, I’ve failed.” Not at all! Go and get a part-time job to support your photography. If you’re working on a builder’s site or a cruise ship, use that material in front of you to inspire your work. Don’t think of that as a negative – it’s a definite positive.
In Focus: Developing a methodology for The Married Man
With Married Man I wanted to look at affairs and what happens across the dinner table. I set myself up as a mistress, so I had an alter ego. I dated five men to start with and tried different techniques for documenting it.
I told waiters at the restaurants not to clear away the tables and I shot the tables afterwards; a friend would document me, with the married man, from the window; I also tried giving the waiter my big camera but it didn’t really fit. Then I started using a disposable camera and instantly it wasn’t as threatening. It became something humorous.
There was also the sound element. The stuff I was being told was so boringly beautiful that I wanted to capture it. The hard part was putting it together. You have so much authority – you can make the audience think whatever you want. Do you include the bits where it’s just them talking about their wives? Do you include the bits where it’s just me? I sat with the sound for a year, thinking, “How am I going to do it? Is it even interesting?”
In the end I used the last 30 seconds, which meant I hadn’t tampered with it and it became almost a summary of the date. The images work with the sound so you hear the men’s voices [as you look at them].
StudioSTRIKE is hosting an Open Studio Weekend on 3-4 May. Come along to meet Natasha and the other StudioSTRIKE resident artists, listen to talks and live music.
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Main image of Natasha Caruana: © Sarah Howe.