An Interview with Helen McGhie, Photographer and Artist at FORMAT Festival 2015

Shutter Hub were at Format International Photography Festival Portfolio Review this year, as sponsors of the Shutter Hub Prize, and delivering Professional Development sessions as part of the Portfolio Review. It was also a great chance to meet some emerging photographers and find out more about their work. As a result we're going to be running a series of interviews and features with those artists. Helen McGhie tells us more about her work and practice, attending FORMAT Festival, Portfolio Reviews, and other thoughts on photography…

Who are you?

I’m a photographer and artist, and recent graduate from the Royal College of Art. Through traditional hand printed c-type photographs, my practice investigates interiority and the photographic gaze through the still and moving image. It considers how identity might be represented in relation to the notion of the Gothic, where 'haunted spaces' are affected by a past that disrupts the present. Images of the female protagonist, skin, dust, abandoned domestic rooms and discarded objects, establish fictitious documentaries. Grouping of images suggesting a sense of fearful enchantment where flashlight illuminates darkness, and darkened rooms promise security – I often exhibit binary images that relate to each other, my recent project (M)other exists as a combination of two subjects, a house and a life model.

Tell us a bit about the work/series of works you showed at this year's FORMAT Festival.

At this year’s FORMAT Festival, I mainly showed a number of photographs from my recent series (M)other, produced during my final year at the RCA. The work explores a performative analogy between the body of the Mother as character (the model photographed having no familial relation to me), the figure of the 'Monstrous Female' and the interior of a worn English house. Here, photographs of sun-drenched wallpaper and spider webs alongside the visceral surface of the ageing female body become subjects of fascination. The physical security of home is called into question, where leaking ceilings and darkened corners suggest the embodiment of an un-named or unknowable fear. Imperfections in shadowy vein riddled skin present the maternal body as being at once haunted and as the site of nurture.

When I show my work, people often assume the model in the images is my actual mother, but I had the intention to explore fiction in photography. I’m also a bit obsessed with the representation of women in horror films, where the maternal body often has a big role to play – it’s within these terms that I present the figure in (M)other.

Your work has a very 'physical' feel, often featuring details of interiors, but also sections of human anatomy that appear almost architectural, a part of the structure of the environment. How do you select your subjects, and how do you go about deciding on the juxtapositions in your work?

That’s interesting; people have also mentioned the word ‘touch’ when looking at my work – a sense that’s particularly relevant to the maternal. When shooting, I was definitely keen to show a sense of the ‘physical’ and I certainly enjoy photography’s ability to present a subject in high detail. I’m the sort of photographer who takes multiple rolls of film of different approaches to the same subject, printing proofs of my favourites before considering a final edit. When deciding the final images for (M)other, I gave myself two rules: images of the body should present a sense of the architectural (‘Cavity’) and those of interior spaces should have a sense of the body (‘Mouth’). Editing can be quite an intensive process, but is key to how my work communicates.

How did you first get in to photography?

I first discovered an interest in taking pictures when I was a child. I remember my parents buying a Kodak point-and-shoot 35mm for me as a birthday present, which I cherished. Later when I went to college, I fell in love with the magical qualities of developing pictures in the black and white darkroom, something that still fascinates me now.

What made you want to go to FORMAT?

Well, there’s so much going on! I’d also never been to a Portfolio review before, which was something I’d planned to do for a while. The festival has a lot to offer for somebody either working with photography or who has a keen interest.

Which reviewers did you choose to see, and why?

I went to see a selection of eight reviewers including Camilla Brown, Sian Bonnell, John Duncan and Federica Chiocchetti. I made my selections based on a number of reasons, taking the genre of my work as ‘fine art’ into consideration. Each reviewer had a different point of view, which was really great to absorb. I would certainly recommend the event to others and plan to attend again in the future.

What do you think are the main challenges facing emerging photographers now?

I think the reduced government art funding is a real challenge, so many have to compete for the same opportunities. It’s also difficult working in as an artist – it can be hard to sell work and make a living, requiring a ‘day job’/practice balance, which can be difficult to get right.

Tell us something interesting/funny/random that happened at the festival.

It was funny to be reminded of how small the fine art photographic community is! Despite how everyone came from a different place, I met a number of people who said “oh, so you must know……?!”. We’re much more connected than we may realise.

What are your hopes for the future, and for yourself?

I’d like to keep working at my practice to become more established as an artist using photography, finding more ways to show my work to new audiences. In the near future, I’d like to find a studio as a place to work and collect my thoughts, leaving the studios at the RCA has made me realise the importance of finding space for your practice.


Helen McGhie is currently showing her work as part of the Hello Future! Archive exhibition at the Onassis Cultural Centre, Athens. For more details see the website here. You can see more of Helen McGhie's work at her website.

Is there someone that you’d really like to see us interview on Shutter Hub? Drop us a line and let us know!