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In conversation: Kirk Ellingham

Kirk Ellingham documentary photography of a stranger
  • Written byGiada Maestra
  • Published date 05 April 2023
Kirk Ellingham documentary photography of a stranger
Photo courtesy of Kirk Ellingham

Today, we are meeting MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography London College of Communication alum Kirk Ellingham, whose work can transport us from England to the streets of the Caucasus and into strangers' lives.

Can you tell us more about yourself/your background?

After finishing school, I went to an art college in Bedfordshire to study graphic design. However, I didn't finish the course. I then worked in various jobs, including as a chef in fine dining restaurants and fruit picking in Denmark and Australia. Eventually, I decided to return to education, completing a BA in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism at Newport School of Photography in South Wales and participating in an exchange program in Prague.

I lived in London for a while, but I found the city overwhelming, so I decided to travel to Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia. While there, I taught photography, exhibited my work, and photographed protests and street scenes.

In 2010 I applied for an MA at the London College of Communication (LCC), under the guidance of the course leader and documentary photographer Dr. Paul Lowe, to reconnect with the academic world.

Kirk Ellingham documentary photography of a Georgian Woman
Photo courtesy of Kirk Ellingham

How has your experience of studying Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at LCC in 2011 influenced and shaped your work?

Although I think not everyone needs to study art or photography, attending a university course can teach you about yourself and your unique perspective of the world.

At UAL you can learn from experienced tutors and discover a whole new world of possibilities and connections. I would recommend exploring whenever you can: a place, a city, finding a favorite café or spot, and documenting it through photography, writing, and film. One of the best experiences I remember was meeting Simon Norfolk, a fellow photographer, in Nida and discussing my projects over lunch in the sun.

Also reading books and watching films helps you a lot in better understanding your artistic direction.

Kirk Ellingham documentary photography
Photo courtesy of Kirk Ellingham

What encouraged your passion for Documentary Photography?

I wouldn’t define myself as a documentary photographer as my background is in art, so I approach photography differently than traditional photojournalists. Poetry found objects and writing influenced my photography. I also like to keep small notebooks of my journeys and videos and audio records. Sometimes I won't show my work immediately; I prefer to wait for the right opportunity. I enjoy collaborating with other artists and I’m inspired by both great photojournalists like Eugene Smith and Don McCullin and more personal and interpretive photographers like Josef Koudelka, Bill Brandt, and Anders Peterson. My MA's work, "Four Floors in Bielany" about a Chechen refugee center in Warsaw, made me question the nature of photojournalism and I believe it's impossible to be completely neutral in those situations: what you see always has an impact on your work. I found it challenging to keep up with the refugees' lives and felt guilty that I couldn't change much, so I turned my project into more of an image diary. However, I gained a better understanding of who I am as an artist after completing the course; it’s taken time and experience.

Kirk Ellingham documentary photography
Photo courtesy of Kirk Ellingham

Essential tips for UAL arts graduates interested in pursuing a professional career in photography?

As I mentioned earlier, there are two main points to consider. First, focus on photographing what you know and love. If you have limited funds, start by capturing images of things that are close to you and keep returning to them. Take notes and talk to people, as it can become an adventure. For me, my first successful project was based on my own family and my grandfather, who was a Far East prisoner of a war veteran named Gordon McAlpine.

Secondly, always have a backup plan or a second career, as, for many of us, success comes after a long time and consistent effort. If you truly love photography, then it's not about fame and money - keep going, and you may find different directions or ways to get your work funded and seen. Adapt if you can.

Tell us about your latest projects.

Currently, I am collaborating with a writer on my long-term project on Georgia and Armenia. It will be presented at Trinity College, Oxford, as part of Photo Oxford 2023 in April. You can discover more about it at ROAD TO KARABAKH.

I am also gathering all my family work, particularly the images of my three brothers. I have some old films that I forgot to develop or couldn't afford to do so. I cherish the family photo album as a historical object and have developed an increasing interest in the photographic family archive. I am hoping to showcase this collection and turn it into a book, with the proceeds going toward the Brain Tumor Trust.


Rowan J. Curtis | Kirk Ellingham

Presentation and Private View: 20 April 2023, 11am - 5pm and 6pm

All day viewing: Sunday 23 April 2023, from 11am

Projection and Words, Garden Room, Trinity College, Photo Oxford 2023

Kirk Ellingham