In Praise of Peers

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Ramillies Place street sign in the Peer Forum meeting space at The Photographer’s Gallery.

Today marks the final session of Peer Forum, a monthly mentoring session I’ve been organising since last year in conjunction with a group of nine other photographers and supported by The Photographer’s Gallery and Artsquest. Peer Forum provides a space for its participants to regularly meet and share work with each other for feedback and comments, as well as a chance to hear from invited guest speakers from a range of backgrounds in the industry. The idea for Peer Forum was that each person would share the same project throughout the six months as a way to sense what progress was being made and so that the group didn’t encounter new work each time, and so advice given would build on previous discussions. The result of this was, for me at least, really pretty amazing, and I thought I’d write up the experience as a way to mark its end, and make a general claim for the value of creating organised groups of peers within which to share ongoing work.

The project I’ve been sharing is titled City of Dust and it’s one which I’ve been labouring with for about two years. When I say labouring, really all I’ve laboured with was the idea, specifically suffering from a paralysis in terms of figuring out what I was trying to talk about this work, and an equal difficulty then getting the idea to match up with the photographs I’ve been taking. At the start of the Peer Forum process I was seriously thinking this might be a project I would just have to abandon, it had reached the point of feeling so untractable and unresolvable. Of course like many things we lose sleep about most of that intractability was just in my head, the consequence of tying myself in knots thinking about the project and failing to just get on with it.

Sharing it with a group of peers proved a turning point, and City of Dust has resolved itself from a miasma of loosely connected ideas and vaguely defined objectives into a much simpler and I think better project, which still addresses the key ideas that really interested me when I first started it. Simply having to articulate what I was trying to do to a group of people and listening to the confusion of most of the words coming out my mouth really helped to drive me to crystalise previously vague ideas. The more I spoke these ideas out loud the clearer they seemed to become. The impetus to make new work to show each time was also very useful, an artificial deadline of sorts which proved very motivating.

My positive experience of these six months has got me really interested in the wider possibilities of peer mentoring and learning, both as a tool I want to increasingly employ in my formal teaching, but also as something I want to to advocate for greater use of within the photographic community. I feel it could have a number of real benefits here, as an alternative for example to the trend towards paying for access to professionals for feedback through portfolio reviews and like, and as a way to counteract the inherent isolation of working as a photographer, particularly on your own projects. Of course almost all of us engage in peer mentoring on some level, typically the informal one of showing a friend a few photographs or a dummy book over a coffee or beer, but I think working in small groups and formalising these sorts of meetings offers a number of strengths.

For one a formalised group seemed to foster an environment of equality and quid pro quo which is very much at odds with the demands and power imbalances of paid for portfolio reviews. Advice is very clearly exchanged for advice and everyone has a go at both giving and recieving. This is also in contrast to what can happen in more informal exchanges where some people are much more routinely demanding of others and give less back in return. Another nice thing about Peer Forum was that things like age or career stage felt far less important in this sort of environment than they might seem to be in an informal mentoring situation or a paid for review. Equal membership of the group felt like a very effective (if admittedly arbitrary) leveller. These comments all come with the caveat that this was my experience of one group, we knew each other to some extent before the process began and were all fairly invested in the process. What I’m really interested to do now is to see how the positive experience I had of the proccess can be replicated in other settings.

One thought on “In Praise of Peers

  1. I certainly agree with you here. I’m a distance learning student and we set up a peer support group for students in the area around 3 years ago now. We meet on a regular basis and, from time to time, we also have a tutor (we applied for funding from our College for this) join us which is good because we have a ‘model’ for providing constructive feedback. It’s been a very valuable source of support, inspiration, challenge and stimulation.
    Also I went to an open session with Q-Arts the other week – a very democratic organisation http://q-art.org.uk.

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