Interview with the Jury: Sean O'Hagan

by Unseen July 15 2016

Back for its fifth edition, the Unseen Dummy Award returns with another jury of photography lovers and experts within the field. This year, Unseen has invited acclaimed journalist Sean O’Hagan to reflect on his position as a jury member, the role of photobooks in the 21st century and what he believes makes a winning photobook dummy.

Q: Is there a difference between how you approach photobooks as a photography writer/critic, an award juror and as an individual?
A: I think there is very little difference between the way I approach photobooks as a writer and as a judge. I would like to think the same rigour applies. I guess with a dummy award, I would be looking for a degree of promise that could be fulfilled – or finessed might be a better word – if it was to become an actual book. Otherwise, it's the same criteria. The personal thing is more, well, personal. My own taste comes into play more of course. I often have to review books by photographers I admire rather than love. I have a reference library of photobooks for my job and I have my personal collection for my pleasure - which is smaller and more worn and more loved. If I was to give up writing about photography, I would get rid of the former and keep the latter. I'm not a collector by nature. I use books, I don't keep them pristine under shrink wraps. The ones I love are part of my life; the ones I admire are part of my job. As a judge, I'm looking for a book to love and keep and, if not, one I admire a lot.

“It’s great to be surprised and confused by a book. I’m an old punk. I love the confusion of the truly new. It questions all you think you know.”

Q: What would you look for in a submission to set them apart from others?
A: One thing I would say is that it’s great to be surprised and confused by a book. I can still remember picking up ‘Ray's A Laugh’ by Richard Billingham – and this was way before I wrote about photography – and just being so confused and excited by it. It was like – What is this? Jesus! It's his family. Holy shit! I mean, what a book! Still. It would be in my all-time top five. It showed you could make great photographs about anything under the sun – and under your nose – if you're honest. So, confusion is good. I'm an old punk. I love the confusion of the truly new. It questions all you think you know. Daisuke Yokota has that edge to his work and the way he makes it. The tightrope walk. Quiet is good, too. I've just reviewed Aaron Schuman's Folk, which is an obliquely personal take on the notion of the archive. It's a quietly intriguing book. Quiet might be the new loud.

Q: What is the most important aspect for you when reviewing a photobook?
A: Essentially, I'm looking for a great idea well executed. The idea has to be strong, the execution rigorous and the end result brilliant. It's a tough call. We live in a world of process, which is great and exciting, but the end result is what is on the wall or in the book. Process is a way of getting there. Too often, it seems to be the thing itself. I think you need to be truly great to pull of the process-is-all thing. Daisuke does it. I think he's a natural.

“Judging is a bastard. I've never been on a jury where there was a consensus apart from once or twice.”

Q: As an interviewer, what would be the most important question you would ask an award jury member judging photobooks? And what would be your answer?
A: I would never interview an award jury member. I don't even really like interviewing curators. It's about the artist, or, it should be. Judging is a bastard. I've never been on a jury where there was a consensus apart from once or twice. Usually, any one of the books or artists that make it onto a shortlist of, say, six, could be the winner. That’s when it comes down to personal preference or to tactical voting. It's a kind of hell. Unless someone comes along who just blows everyone on the jury away, it's really hard, dogged and you walk away feeling a bit low. That's my experience anyway. My question to myself would be: why are you doing this?

Q: Can you tell us about the first photobook you purchased for your own collection?
A: Well, when I first bought photo-books it wasn't to collect them. I just bought randomly what I liked, usually second-hand: Koudelka's Exiles, Nan Goldin's Ballad, Tulsa by Larry Clark, Troubled Land by Paul Graham – which I stupidly gave away to a girl I liked. I can't remember the first one exactly, but it was one of those. Ray's A Laugh was the most important catalyst for me wanting to write about photography for sure. And Eggleston. Not just his photographs, but his short afterword to The Democratic Forest. I can still quote from it: “What have you been photographing today, Eggleston?' “Well, I've been photographing democratically.” 'But what have you been taking pictures of?' “I've been outdoors, nowhere, in nothing…” Just beautiful.

Q: Do you think that the push to digitalise material has changed the significance of books?
A: I do and I don't. The digital surge is hard to make sense of when you are in the midst of it. It seems to me that, despite or because of it, the book has thrived. People seem to want the thing, the object, to hold in their hands. I judged an award a few years back where we looked at all the work on screens and it seemed fine until I saw the actual winner's work exhibited in the wall. It seemed to have changed in all sorts of profound ways, not all for the better. It was strange experience. Unsettling. But, we have to find ways of dealing with the digital. I think it's a bigger question for institutions, museums galleries and archives. For some reason, the photobook is thriving as if in defiance of all the predictions.

“I think photography in general will take a more radical political turn in terms of subject matter.  Photography – and photobooks – cannot help but engage with the turmoil. It's not a time for art for art's sake right now.”

Q: Can you tell us about the first photobook you purchased for your own collection?
A: Well, when I first bought photo-books it wasn't to collect them. I just bought randomly what I liked, usually second-hand: Koudelka's Exiles, Nan Goldin's Ballad, Tulsa by Larry Clark, Troubled Land by Paul Graham – which I stupidly gave away to a girl I liked. I can't remember the first one exactly, but it was one of those. Ray's A Laugh was the most important catalyst for me wanting to write about photography for sure. And Eggleston. Not just his photographs, but his short afterword to The Democratic Forest. I can still quote from it: “What have you been photographing today, Eggleston?' “Well, I've been photographing democratically.” 'But what have you been taking pictures of?' “I've been outdoors, nowhere, in nothing…” Just beautiful.

Q: Any predictions on which direction photobooks are going to develop in the future?
A: I think they are the key medium at the moment. They're reasonably democratic compared to the gallery system – especially with self-publishing. There's a dynamic indie scene, at least in London, and things like Offprint at Paris Photo and PhotoLondon are just more exciting and vibrant to me than what the mainstream stuff offer at the actual fairs. I think newer festivals like Unseen have picked up on that energy from the off and treat the book as a medium - and an art object - in itself. I think that will continue to be the case, though I fear small publishers may be in for a tough time ahead like many other small businesses. I do think photography in general will take a more radical political turn in terms of subject matter. It has to. The world is changing so chaotically and so ominously. Photography – and photobooks – cannot help but engage with the turmoil. It's not a time for art for art's sake right now.