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What do you do?

The older I get, the more troublesome this question becomes to answer. Pinning down a useful, ingenuous and non-facetious response always feels a little like herding cats. A friend of mine from a previous life responded with ‘when?’ Another friend, ‘what do you mean?’ I just seem to fumble in my verbal pockets, stare at my shoes and wonder why people want to know what I do rather than what I am.

Occasionally, I will say – boldly – that I am a photographer and proceed to assault the questioner (who was, after all, only trying to make polite conversation) with a passionate tirade of how film photography (or ‘photography’ as I still call it) is a distinct art-form from digital image-making and how the former is no more in danger of being usurped in the long term by the latter than painting’s death knell was sounded by the invention of photography and how digital image making is much more likely to underpin and liberate – rather than undermine and subjugate – photography and how photography is fundamentally philosophically different to digital image making. I sometimes foam at the mouth slightly and invariably get looked at in a funny way. A photograph’s a photograph, right? Not when it’s a digital image d’une pipe it’s not. Treachery indeed.

At other times, I will assert that I am a jewellery designer. Not so much of a rant this time, but I don’t think that the kind of jewellery I make fits into most people’s idea of the norm either. I use, amongst other things cow-bone, box-wood, steel cable and found objects with no intrinsic – but much allegorical – value with which to make pieces that usually ask more questions than they answer and I end up getting a slightly glazed ‘ah, interesting…’ type of response. Which I guess is an improvement on the looks I get after my foamy photographic fulmination.

Having had a couple of non-fiction books published a decade or so ago, I will sometimes suggest that I’m an author, but saying that always feels a bit like an out-of-work and consequently horribly insecure thespian announcing themselves as an ‘actor’, with a heavy emphasis on the ‘OR’ (dahling!); or – having amassed a body of drawings and collages dating back over the last 20 years or so – I will sometimes define myself as an ‘artist’, but somehow the last syllable always comes out as an ‘iste’ (as in ‘piste’) rather than ‘ist’ (as in, well, you know).

So, the question of most pressing importance in my creative practice is that which asks of me ‘what I do’ and in order to resolve this lifelong dilemma, I need some help. I believe that everyone we interact with is a kind of mirror, held up in front of us to provide some kind of image of what we are. Many people are like those mirrors in fairgrounds that squish or stretch us into comic or grotesque parodies of ourselves. I find myself in need of some plain flat mirrors whom I can reflect with and upon in order to see what shape I am. What shape I want to be. These mirrors are tutors, curators, contemporary practitioners and fellow visual thinkers who share the same aesthetic dialect. What do I do? I do many things, and I wish to seek advice on how best to bring these different strands together into a cohesive, coherent and contiguous set of activities that will go some way towards defining who I am.

Robin Shelton, June 2016