Elisa Medde And Laura El-Tantawy On Exploring and Activating Documentary Narratives

We met up with the co-heads of Criticae PhMuseum's Online Masterclass on Documentary Photography, to get an insight into their teaching approach and guidance to agency, awareness and experimentation.

Applications are now open for the new edition of Criticae 2024/25, for the first time held collaboratively by Egyptian photographer Laura El-Tantawy and editor, curator and writer Elisa Medde. Mixing theoretical seminars with practical sessions, individual meetings with group classes, El-Tantawy and Medde will inspire and challenge emerging practitioners to delve into different modes of storytelling, questioning the documentary aspect of photography and its various media, from the concept idea to its materialization.

Ciao Elisa and Laura, thanks again for joining our Masterclass Program this year. You will share Criticae as co-heads for the first time. What can students expect from this collaboration? How do you imagine your different backgrounds coming together?

Laura: First of all, I’m delighted to be joining forces with Elisa to co-teach this masterclass. Elisa is a longtime friend and someone I have consulted on my own work over the years. We both come at photography from different directions – Elisa as a curator and editor and myself as a visual author. We offer different experiences from different sides of the table, so to speak. This will offer participants a rich offering of documentary photographic practice today – from the artistic, to the political and the environmental. We will be able to journey with the participants across the pitching and realization of their projects during the masterclass and also open the door to how they can take it towards the publishing, exhibiting and activation stages. Which is what makes this a very unique and results-orientated offering for this year’s participants.

Elisa: I am very excited to join Laura as co-heads of this Masterclass Program! I have known Laura and admired her work for a very long time. We have collaborated several times in the past and that gave me the chance to witness the depth and solidity of her working method, and the commitment she shows towards the subjects of her research. Visual storytelling requires a very strong agency and awareness, both during production and dissemination - which is also where I look forward to building upon. Documentary practices have expanded in broad and rich directions, and it is very important to be able to master these in a conscious way - so to make sure that intent coincides with output, and be able to build a solid body of work that has meaning. We will have the chance to explore together all stages and challenges of the practice, from the concept idea to its materialization, balancing out theoretical thinking with practical restitutions, always thinking about spectatorship as an integral part of the conversation.

What are some of the key concepts or themes that you are interested in exploring within Criticae?

Elisa: I am very much interested in both process and message, ultimately in what we can do with photography and how that message can be disseminated in the most effective way. Photography is a medium in constant transition and documentary practices are constantly expanding, which makes everything very exciting but also challenging to handle so that the medium (whatever chosen, or whatever combination of them) properly serves its purpose. It is important to keep in mind that there must be reasons behind every choice, and that communication always goes hand in hand with reception. The role of the story-teller and its implication - who tells the story - is also a very important part of the work itself, and I am very excited in witnessing a very fertile conversation about it within the field. My wish is to support the participants in being active actors of such conversations, and walk with them in finding their own strong voice.

Laura: I am always interested in where documentary photography stands today and possible hints about where it may be heading. I am always surprised by the limitations people put on documentary photography as a genre – for me it’s the most open minded and freeing of all photography genres. I always tell participants the only limitation they have is the one they impose on themselves. I think there is often a misconception that I expect participants to produce work within the same realm as my own. Nothing is further from that for me – I encourage participants to explore stills, video, sound, poetry… whatever language they feel best articulates their feelings alongside visuals. As visual storytellers, I strongly feel that we should not simplify our ideas or visuals, but rather respond to an ever complicated and multilayered world in an equally articulate way.

What advice would you give to documentary photographers who are considering enrolling in the program? How can they benefit from it and from online teaching in general?

Laura: Apply with an outcome in mind – completing a project, publishing a book, having an exhibition. I find it’s best when one starts something with the end in mind. It also helps me in going on the journey with them because I know exactly what I can focus on with them and what resources I can support them with. I also encourage everyone to have an open mind about their work – expect to get lost and unlost. There is frustration on this journey – but it’s positive frustration because it’s truthful to the experience of making work and the challenges that come with it. It’s not easy and that’s why we are here to support and share our experiences along the way.

Elisa: My suggestion is to come with some core questions to be answered, and a project in mind. This might change along the way, but I find it important to both help the participants keep a perspective and us to support them in the most appropriate way. They can expect a program that is tailored around their needs, and that is flexible enough to cover a very broad range of aspects. At the same time it is a program that will confront them on their weak points, and encourage them to face and transform them in strength. Not easy and surely challenging - but also very rewarding. I think it is also important to come to the table allowing the possibility to walk towards unexpected roads and directions.

Elisa, you have been practicing as a curator and editor for many years now. What can you bring of this expertise when assisting photographers in the development of their work?

One of the most important aspects in my mentoring activities is to make sure that whatever projects participants are busy with, what they have in mind actually is present in the visual outcome, that intent and visuals are aligned. My work ultimately revolves around presenting, disseminating, activating, ultimately making sure a certain message, a certain conversation comes across. This is a fascinating yet tricky territory, there is no one recipe that fits all, and each practitioner needs to find their own method, and be aware of criticalities.

Laura, how does your personal practice inform the way you approach teaching?

My practice is fluid in the way I approach making images. I don’t like to stick to one thing – I always allow for the theme/story/environment to inspire the visual approach rather than imposing my own. This opens the realm of experimentation for me, which is something I find exciting and provides renewing energy for my practice. I approach teaching in the same way – I am open minded in terms of subject and approach but also in discussing different outcomes. Flexibility is important in my practice and I teach the same way.

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Criticae Online Masterclass On Documentary Photography is part of the PhMuseum new educational program, comprising four different masterclasses that will all share a single intake period running until 20 June, with classes beginning in October 2024. Each course is tailored to meet the needs of emerging photographers, artists, curators, and contemporary storytellers looking to bring their methods to the next level. Check out which program suits you best at phmuseum.com/education

APPLICATION KEY DATES:

23 May - If you apply by this date you can be eligible for the full scholarship, and will automatically access the Early Bird Fee of €1,750. 

20 June - If you apply by this date you can join the program by paying the Regular Fee of €2,000.

© Laura El-Tantawy
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© Laura El-Tantawy

Audio-visual projection of In The Shadow Of The Pyramids at Encontros da Imagem 2022 © Laura El-Tantawy
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Audio-visual projection of In The Shadow Of The Pyramids at Encontros da Imagem 2022 © Laura El-Tantawy

From Luca Locatelli's The Circle exhibition curated by Elisa Medde for Gallerie D'Italia in Turin
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From Luca Locatelli's The Circle exhibition curated by Elisa Medde for Gallerie D'Italia in Turin

An article on aka TAWLA by Elisa Medde for BJP1854
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An article on aka TAWLA by Elisa Medde for BJP1854

© Laura El-Tantawy
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© Laura El-Tantawy

Foam Magazine #57: In Limbo, curated by Elisa Medde. Cover image by Xaver Konneker © Foam Magazine
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Foam Magazine #57: In Limbo, curated by Elisa Medde. Cover image by Xaver Konneker © Foam Magazine

Installation view of Shadow Of The Pyramids and Beyond Here Is Nothing at PHOTO 2021 © Laura El-Tantawy
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Installation view of Shadow Of The Pyramids and Beyond Here Is Nothing at PHOTO 2021 © Laura El-Tantawy