Confessions of an exhibitionist

Visitors at exhibition

When it comes to feedback, it is better to receive than to give.

When I started out as a trainer one of the first things I learnt about was feedback. Not so much how to give it as how to receive it. I don’t do much stand-up training these days but what I learnt then stands me in good stead in many other aspects of my life, and none more so than when I held my first public exhibition of photographic prints.

The art of photography is all about display.

The pictures are taken to share with someone. This might just be friends and family either face to face or on social media. In some cases on the web they may be seen by total strangers but the photographer is one step removed from them and cannot see their reaction. This is not the case when exhibiting in a public space such as a gallery where the photographer can observe their audience’s response unfiltered.

That’s what I put myself through recently when I decided to exhibit some of my photographs in the town I grew up in, Weymouth, on the south coast of England.

The subject of the exhibition was an old railway that runs along the harbourside from the station to the ferry port. In its day, it would take passengers and freight through the streets of the town. As a child, I can remember trains trundling past the houses, so high up the passengers could almost see into the upstairs windows! Sadly, no trains have run on the line for almost twenty years but the railway tracks are still there, running down the middle of the road; a trap for the unwary but mostly ignored. Most of it is gradually disappearing and, despite local efforts to reinstate it, at some point it is likely to be pulled up. I wanted to capture this piece of Weymouth’s heritage before it faded away completely.

For the first time ever I decided to put some of the pictures on public display.

I hired the gallery space in the local library (incidentally only a short distance from the old railway) for a week. Along with the photographs and a few leaflets I left a visitors’ book for comments. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything like this so I was intrigued to see how people responded.

The gallery itself is in a section of the local library so the audience was anyone who wandered into the library to return their books or use the reference section, and not necessarily to view the photographs themselves. I publicised the event and so some of the visitors did come in purely to see the exhibition but most of them simply wandered over to look at them, as they went about their other activities in the library.

Nervously I observed my audience as they approached the photographs.

I visited the library most days of the exhibition. Occasionally I would be on hand to talk to the visitors but mostly I would observe from a distance, and nervously, as people approached the photographs. Sometimes they would walk past them in a matter of seconds, maybe pausing to read the blurb I had written on the subject; sometimes they would pause for a few moments to take in all the pictures, decide it wasn’t for them and then walk on. Others did linger a little longer, moving from photograph to photograph and stopping at each of them. I would discretely time how long they spent at each photograph. The more engaged would move backwards and forwards, returning to previously visited photographs once or twice. Then they would walk over to the visitors’ book…

After an appropriate period, I would wander over to take a look. To be honest most of the comments were complimentary about my work. What I did find was that a lot of people used the opportunity to vent their feelings about the old railway itself. Essentially there are two camps; those who want it ripped out because it represents a hazard, and those would like to see it stay as a symbol of the town’s history. Both groups could be vociferous. Extensive use of SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS was made.

Some of the people I spoke to about the exhibition expressed dismay at comments they thought were irrelevant. I am more sanguine. I had my own reason for taking the photographs but once I had chosen to exhibit them that was irrelevant. The photographs were on display to provoke a response. My audience had every right to interpret them and to respond to them on their own terms. This also included them using the opportunity to share with me their own experiences of the railway as it was in its heyday.

Once I had chosen to exhibit my photographs they had taken on a life of their own.

One of the things I learned as a trainer about receiving feedback was it helps you understand how people have interpreted what you have presented them. In those days, my role was to listen and, if necessary present the information in a different way to aid learning. As a photographer publicly displaying his works all I had to do was simply provide a space for the different responses.

Through my photographs I felt privileged to allow people to respond to them on their own terms.