Michaela Mcguinness | Photographer | Leeds

Michaela Mcguinness uses her role as a photographer for a greater good – whether through following and documenting the relentless work of volunteers for Leeds Samaritans, or by investigating the reasons as to why the north east of England has the highest levels of alcohol-related deaths, as in the series Trouble Town. She also devotes much time to DIY YOUTH, a platform that promotes the work of young photographers in the UK and beyond. 

What are the most important factors in the composition of a photograph, both physically and in terms of representation?

Compositionally, framing is the most important aspect to consider. Of course, there are other crucial factors that make a 'good' photograph, from the way that light is used, to how the image focuses the viewers’ attention on colour, shape and the form of an object/subject (because who doesn't love a pretty image). A lot of thought should be paid attention to what to include in /exclude from the frame. The ramifications of these choices should be considered, especially with work that raises moral/ethical concerns, addresses sensitive subject matters or political/social/cultural themes. Personally, I think an image should always represent the concept behind it: there's a reason behind every photograph, and I think it's interesting for photographers to question the choices they make, in order to begin to understand how and why they are drawn to the subject.


In documenting events, people, and places, does your work have an element of autobiography? And if so, do you think that this a crucial aspect of being a photographer?

Over the past year, my work has been deeply (auto)biographical, having worked on a body of work entitled ‘She’s Doing Up the House’, which is a series revisiting the dysfunctional relationship with my mother whilst I was growing up. As an adult coming to this with fresher eyes, I hope to use the collaborative process between us to reflect and work through our issues, using photography as a communication tool to build and strengthen our current relationship. Though this is the only project so far that I would consider to be explicitly autobiographical, all of my work is strongly concept driven and, therefore, derives from having a close interest in the subject matter. I don’t think an autobiographical approach is necessary for projects that aren’t personal. When it comes to documenting events/people/places, the work should come from a perspective that is knowledgeable and carefully considered.


Your photography touches on important issues that require careful, but urgent attention; do you think that the instantaneousness of social media can undermine the message?

There are repercussions, positive and negative, of posting sensitive work on the internet– though I think social media gets too much unnecessary hate. Digitalisation has massively changed the way people engage with photography. Images in the digital realm can be viewed simultaneously by anyone at any time all over the world – isn’t that just great? Having the opportunity to upload imagery to social media does have its downfalls, but is this always a bad thing? Yes, we’ve probably become ‘pickier’ with the images we CHOOSE to see, but I don’t think this distracts from photographs that actually provoke intrigue and interest. Again, this DOES NOT undermine the message that the photographer would want to communicate. As creators we should be happy that social media offers us the platform to share our work instantaneously to wider audiences, making it easier to spread and raise awareness to issues than ever before.


As a photographer, how do you differentiate between documenting subject matter that is familiar and personal to you, with being on the outside of events?

When documenting the familiar and personal, you’re more knowledgeable and well researched into who or what you’re photographing. Shooting from a more informed perspective usually gives you rawer, meatier images. Of course, shooting the familiar can cause bias within a project, but shooting with an opinion or an agenda may not always be a bad thing. It may make the work more intriguing. On the other hand, it’s refreshing as a photographer to document the unfamiliar. Being an outsider to a situation can help to retain the objectivity of the work. Still, it’s essential that the photographer should always do research on the subject beforehand.


What is your duty as a photographer on the frontline of social, cultural and political issues?

As a photographer I aim to be an activist, not just a documentarian. My duty is to take pictures for a purpose, for a greater good, whether that is by raising awareness of social ills or, more generally, in a way that aims to benefit others. I want to create socially engaging work, through the process of collaborating with my subjects – rather than working separately. The photographs I take when I undergo a project aim help to create social/cultural/political change, even if it’s only minor. For example, as part of my collaborative project ‘She’s Doing up the House’ I will be selling prints from the series to raise profits to help my mother complete the jobs to finally finish the house renovations. 


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Check out DIY YOUTH