Should Publicly Funded Photography Be Open to Being Questioned?

Everything that the United Nations of Photography is, and does is self-funded: by self-funded I mean by myself. The cost of URL’s, hosting, server space, podcast equipment, etc, etc, comes straight out of my pocket. I am not alone in doing this within the photographic community. There are many one-person bands out there creating platforms and instigating projects under small banners for the pure love of the medium and a need to share their passion for photography: their own and that of others. These independents are to me the pumping life blood of the publishing, exhibiting and questioning aspects of the photographic environment.

I grew up in a punk decade and relish the tools that allow me to explore the medium I love, and the publishing practices I am involved with that were not available to me in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. I have never looked for funding, applied for funding or received funding for anything that I do. However, I have ever since 1985 paid my taxes, and contributed to the funding pot that get’s distributed. I have never played the National Lottery so I cannot claim to have supported causes through that funding body, but members of my family have so I do not feel too detached from that form of funding either. I like you have skin in the game.

In the UK there are many pots of funding that can be accessed to support the arts, but the Arts Council is the principle ‘go to’ source. Many of you reading this will be aware of the complications and requirements in completing the paperwork to secure money from this organisation. It is something of a Harry Potter based ‘Black Art’, but despite this, an art that many successfully master. Boxes need to be ticked, and if they are funding is released. Much work would not have been completed without this funding.

Festivals and museums, photography competitions and gallery spaces also look too kindly institutions to fund their endeavours, including high profile financial brands and national/local government. Lottery funding is also a primary source of finance, particularly for the larger institutions looking to survive and maintain free entry to exhibitions.

By not receiving funding I maintain an independence that I treasure. I am free to do whatever I wish, how I wish to do it, and when I want to do it, whilst always being responsible, empathetic, ethical and aware of the legal framework of publishing (having been involved in publishing for over thirty years, this is particularly important to me). However, those that accept funding will have had to enter into some form of contract of expectation to fulfil their responsibility to the funding body. I understand that, but this can present issues that seem to occasionally expose a raw nerve when the funded exhibitions, festivals or work are questioned. Despite this the funded rarely promote independent initiatives, and yet they expect those same independents to promote what they are doing. They are often happy to be promoted, but not to be questioned.

It is too sensitive an issue for those being funded to question others being funded, and therefore that questioning falls upon the shoulders of the independent community. After all, surely it is important to question! It is important in all areas of politics, and arts funding is firmly based in the political nature of decision making, as I was informed by a departing funded gallery employee. That questioning requires some critical thinking, but it can create a feeling of ‘them’ and ‘us’ between the independents and the funded.

The aim of critical thinking is to try to maintain an objective position, a position that independents find easier to achieve without a funding contract in place. When you think critically, you weigh up all sides of an argument and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses. It entails actively seeking all sides of an argument, testing the soundness of the claims made, as well as testing the soundness of the evidence used to support the claims. Of course subjective opinions cannot be avoided at times, but without a financial agenda they can be more easily avoided.

The ‘black hole’ that I believe funded initiatives can fall into is the reliance on funding to exist. In this case the funder begins to dictate both practice and outcome. The boxes that need to be ticked become very clear to those applying for funding and those who decide to play the box ticking game become the winners. It is their projects, sometimes moulded to the funders requirements, that are funded, and exhibited, and those non-game players become the unsupported. This is a situation that I believe needs to be questioned.

Who is creating the boxes, who is judging if those boxes are of benefit to the medium, and who is judging if those boxes have been ticked. What is the professional background of the judges? Is it inclusive and diverse in life experience, professional experience, practice and character?

More importantly perhaps is to ask if this is a game that all photographers can play or if invisible restrictions are in place that create a cabal of exhibitors, curators and photographers that are continually successfully ticking the same boxes. I am not saying that this is the case, although some may, but I do think that the process of funding should be open to being questioned.

When I attend a funded festival or exhibition that seems to have no relevance to an audience outside of those who are already engaged in a narrow, hyper-informed understanding of the photographic medium I believe that it is appropriate to question that work and that initiative. This is not a call for a dumbing down of work, or a suggestion that work shown should be safe and mass market in its audience connection. But it is a call for variety and democracy in the images that are shown. For photographers from a broad range of practice to be supported and encouraged.

I see many community based projects and that is great. Funding for community is a box ticking exercise that makes sense. I have completed many workshops on funding and community, and impact is always a major consideration in any funding proposal. But I have also seen much mediocre to poor work funded and exhibited that I feel the need to question. Am I allowed to question that work?

I am not going to play the tax payer card here because that would be easy, ignorant, and pointless, but I am going to play the photography card. If photographic institutions and initiatives are going to accept funding to promote photography they cannot remain in an ivory tower. They must accept the constructive criticism alongside the praise. The praise will be nice, but the criticism maybe more helpful. They are promoting photography to the nation and that comes with a responsibility.

Transparency of intent and expectation alongside a transparency of process is essential when speaking with the photographic community to avoid a sense of alienation between photographer and establishment.

I speak with many photographers who have given up on ever receiving funding or being exhibited within a funded space. They feel that they, and their work does not ‘fit’. They may be right or wrong about this, but that is their perception, and it is therefore a valid opinion to consider. That perception needs to be addressed by those who are often seen as gatekeepers who hold a magical key available to only a few like minded souls.

I am not siding here with anyone, I have no agenda. I am however, raising some discussion points that may irritate, inflame or resonate with some of those who read this article. I am proposing questions concerning the importance of questioning. Perhaps the responses to this article will be answers in themselves, I do not know, but to dismiss, attack or reject the notion of constructive criticism or questioning from an independent witness would evidence a mindset that is not conducive with the evolution of a creative medium.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021


  1. You have opened a can of worms here, Grant. I opened Open Eye Gallery in 1977 on a wish and a prayer. It took almost two years before I received Arts Council funding but the annual process of grant applications, meeting unreasonable criteria and a London-centric bias eventually did for me. I left in 1982 and vowed never to entertain another grant application. It has been very hard but I have kept to my word – independence is essential if you value creative freedom. Of course it is more nuanced and complicated than that but it is time to have a discussion about how the Arts Council spends its photography budget – who makes the decisions and what is the agenda.

  2. Many play a game I have no interest in. A month ago I was asked to meet reps from an institution (who had just received substantial funding) and who were seeking me to come onboard and ‘create something’ to further support their cause…they weren’t sure what I should create but could I come up with some ideas for them the public would buy into. The coffee was nice, the chat pleasant and then the question …I asked what budget do you have (keeping in mind I’ve just been informed they’ve been awarded support amounting to quite a few million). ‘We were hoping you’d do it to support us as we’re a charity.’

    I asked a further 3 simple questions ….Do you take a wage from the institution? Do you believe in supporting charity? and are you prepared to split your months wages 50/50 with me to make your hopes a reality?

    They answered yes to the first 2 questioned and laughed (thinking I was joking)at the 3rd.

    I respect they felt I had something to offer …but alas not enough to offer any respect in return. I thanked them for the coffee and wished them well.

    As I was leaving I had a thought ….I have a portfolio that already links to their hopes and has immediate associations and has been quite in demand. I offered that I would present them with the opportunity to offer their patrons the chance to buy one of the three portfolio’s I’d donate this project after my costs …they could take 50% of the sale price (I would be loosing financially but the work already existed). All they had to do was a little effort and a new way of thinking in how to raise funds. It went over their heads. Simply send an email to your patrons and any who respond favourable then you get 50% of the public price the portfolio is available for. That seemed like effort to them when filling in a form or simply hoping other’s will provide the feed was far easier and a route well travelled and known.

    We need support and grants BUT we should never simply expect them to fo unquestioned.

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