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Regulars / The Graduates 2017

Luke Withers balances ambiguity with strong aesthetics in his research-driven photography

Photographer Luke Withers applied for The Graduates because he wanted to connect with people outside of his creative field, and adheres to the mantra of “taking all the opportunities that are presented to you”, which has become a big part of his approach to his art. Originally from Belfast, Luke went to the University of South Wales and studied the Documentary Photography course. “It was really a case of noticing that a lot of the photography and photographers I was looking at happened to be coming from the course in Newport,” Luke says of his decision to study there.

“When I looked into the course further it had a really amazing reputation over a 40-year history… I was interviewed by two of the tutors who spent a lot of time going through the work. Their interest, knowledge and enthusiasm was something I hadn’t really experienced in relation to photography until that point.”

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That passion was embraced throughout his time at university, especially by the people Luke surrounded himself with including peers, tutors, visiting speakers and most importantly the people he met through making work. “All of my projects involve working with people, generally not people I’ve just happened upon. I’m seeking people out because of the interest or connection they have to a particular project,” explains Luke. “The relationships are borne out of research and so they’re somewhat unnatural, the challenge is transgressing that so people aren’t just accommodating you but realise your enthusiasm in what they’re doing is genuine. That’s an exciting point because that’s when people really become your friend and I am constantly surprised by how much people are willing to do for you.”

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Communicating this faith in a project was, at times, “agonising and uncomfortable” for Luke and it’s something he struggled with several times throughout university. “There is continuous doubt until you find an edit at the end of a long period of making work, and even then the doubt isn’t completely lifted,” says the photographer. “But I find myself encouraged by the positive experience of having genuine interest and really knowing my subject.” This is demonstrated in Luke’s ongoing project Territorial Volumes, a series which explores the disputed territory of Gibraltar, the limestone peninsula rising from the Mediterranean at the gates of the Atlantic.

“I’m really trying to explore the place’s relation to land itself and how this is disrupted, distributed and depicted to make an uninhabitable place habitable for the sake of ownership,” says Luke. During his research the photographer found that Gibraltar has no natural resources and relies on desalination for its drinking water, a process which sees saltwater separated through a membrane into freshwater and brine. The source for this is the contested seas surrounding the territory and Luke “saw a chance to form a hydrological exploration of the place that would involve the elemental properties of the territory without relying on explicit imagery of ‘sovereignty’”.

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The project demonstrates Luke’s documentary style of photography which often has a conceptual approach and we see images of public telescopes, rippling pools of dark water and the contrast between clustered houses on the mountain and wide expanses of tarmac. “The imagery itself varies from relatively clinical aesthetics to heavily metaphorical but the two are not mutually exclusive,” Luke says of this work as a whole.

Ambiguity is a big theme in Luke’s photography and it was while at university that he really started to explore the idea. Luke’s tutor Paul Reas showed him Evidence by Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel, where the images are all taken from American institutional archives and it’s a book that “ruthlessly reduces images taken for the purpose of record and analysis to aesthetic ambiguity”.

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“For documentary practice, it’s a fine line to tread and it’s always a difficult call between what an image is really saying and the aesthetics of the series,” explains Luke. “The best work balances the two with a strong concept and lots of research”. This approach has informed Luke’s other complex projects, and it’s refreshing to see the young photographer tackle topics outside of his experience and really try to tell new stories.

His projects are research-heavy and visually rich, and viewers are invited to connect with new people and places, like in Uncertain Entanglements, which explores politicised language and communications in Northern Ireland through a series of landscape shots, portraits and still lifes, and Wireless, a series about amateur radio enthusiasts trying to connect across oceans. “I find that projects evolve a lot over the course of making the work, and that much of the research comes from the people you meet in addition to the resources and papers available to you as part of a university,” he says. “So, the more you photograph your subject, the more you’re learning about it and ultimately the more potential the project has.”

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Supported by A/D/O

Founded by MINI, A/D/O is a creative space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn dedicated to exploring new boundaries in design. At its heart is the Design Academy, which offers a range of programming to professional designers, intended to provoke and invigorate their creative practice.