Photographer Katie Waggett uses her street portrait photography to raise awareness of social issues. Having moved to Henley from London with an acclaimed book under her belt, she tells us about her next project.
Tell us a little about your work and your background.
My parents met at Art School, so creativity has always been part of the landscape I grew up in. At school I loved the craft of being in the darkroom, and when I went onto study Graphic Arts and Design at degree level, photography was one of the subjects under that umbrella. It quickly became the focus of my work and I began to use it, and the power of its aesthetic form, as a tool to raise awareness of social issues. Most of my work uses portraiture to explore themes of community.
What made you decide to become a photographer?
From an early age I have had a passion for street portraiture – I’ve always been fascinated by the way others live their lives, which inspires me to seek people out. It sounds a bit of a cliché, but it’s often curiosity that drives so many documentary portrait photographers. The camera is a vehicle for getting access to peoples’ lives; it’s an excuse to learn about someone and feed that curiosity. So I started going out with my camera, making portraits, engaging in conversations, and listening. Photography became a means to make sense of the world around me, and then translate what I discover visually in a way that’s unique to me.
Why did you decide to create a book?
Sunday Best was a long-term project I did that brings together portraits of Londoners in their cultural finery, as a celebration of the diversity on which London thrives. A book always felt like the natural resting place for the work – the photographs are not meant to be seen alone, it’s the sequence of images that gives the full narrative. The juxtaposition between the portrait of a Sikh on the front cover and the title ‘Sunday Best’ – a phrase traditionally used to refer to church attire – immediately questions what Sunday best means today, and leads you into a story about multiculturalism, British identity, and faith at this poignant point in our national history.
There’s something about the physical presence of a book that’s so important. It’s a personal, intimate object that you can sit with and read, close, reflect on, and then return to time and time again. A book is something that’s there forever, and in this way, Sunday Best will take on new meanings as time passes. I hope the project makes people think and start conversations that are beyond my own limited experience.
Where do you find inspiration?
Looking through my collection of art and photography books, podcasts, TED talks, documentary films, and artist talks. One of the silver linings of lockdown is that there have been so many online discussions with artists and most of them tend to be free. The internet is a great resource in making these events accessible, and I’ve particularly enjoyed listening to artist talks from around the world – and the broader cultural viewpoints that they bring.
I also keep scrapbooks where I gather things that interest me – artefacts, images, thoughts, quotes, and newspaper articles – to draw upon as sources of inspiration. I love taking walks in unknown places with my camera too, with no other reason but to observe and learn.
Describe your typical working day (in the new normal)
Right now, I’m not photographing anyone as the type of photography I do relies on me going out and meeting people (strangers) on the street. However, this has been an opportunity to do some research into a project that I’ve been meaning to return to. A couple of years ago, I started a project called ‘The Gentrification Cookbook’. I was living near Peckham, where two distinctly different streets exist in close proximity to each other: Rye Lane – an ethnically mixed, vibrant high street where the food products reflect the birth countries of its immigrant population – and Bellenden Road – a middle class, predominantly white area, brimming with independent shops and restaurants that target the ‘foodies’ market. Gentrification has caused a segregation between the two areas with little crossover.
My project uses food to bring the two communities together by documenting local chefs creating dishes, whereby half the ingredients are purchased on Rye Lane and half the ingredients on Bellenden Road. In addition to photography, methods of documentation include interviewing ethnographers, building up a historical timeline of the two communities, and collaborating with an illustrator to create a food map of Peckham; and it’s these broader layers of storytelling that I’ve been working on during lockdown.
What has been the biggest highlight and biggest challenge to date?
The biggest highlight would be the response I have received from my book. I’ve had so many personal messages from people who have said that the book has been such an uplifting read – and a source of hope – at a time when so much of the news has been dominated by the uncertainty and fear of the Covid pandemic, Brexit and the tragedy of George Floyd’s death. The impact of the book has been bigger than I expected, and the fact it presents a story about cultural diversity that has inspired hope in so many people has been special to hear.
The biggest challenge? There’s been a shift in how photography of a journalistic nature operates. It’s not a lucrative industry in the way that it used to be, and there are very few photographers who make a living from photojournalism and documentary photography alone. I combine doing documentary projects, which I’m passionate about, with commercial photography jobs and teaching. I think it’s the juggling act of those things, along with being a mother, that is my biggest challenge.
Best nugget of wisdom you can share with your fellow Creative Ducks?
It’s not enough to have a good idea, or a talent, you have to be obsessive about what you do. Make your work accessible online, reach out to people, enter competitions, collaborate, and be resilient. Let your passion for your creative practice be the one constant that never fades.
Where can we find out more?