The Politics of Photography: An Interview with Mary-Ann Kennedy

In the run-up to the launch of the GHIL’s online exhibition ‘Forms, Voices, Networks: Feminism and the Media‘ on 23 November, 2021 at 1pm GMT, we chatted with artist and activist Mary Ann Kennedy. Kennedy is a founding member of the Photography Workshop (Edinburgh)/Portfolio Gallery and the WildFires network for women who work in and with photography in Scotland. She is currently the Programme Leader for the BA(Hons) Photography degree at Edinburgh Napier University. The interviewer is Jane Freeland, the coordinator of the International Standing Working Group and a historian of feminism and gender in modern Germany working at the GHIL.

Jane Freeland (JF): Mary Ann, you are one the featured artists in our upcoming online exhibition Forms, Voices, Networks: Feminism and the Media, which explores the relationships between feminisms, feminists and the media. The media and women’s rights are both key themes in your work. How did you become interested in issues of gender and inequalities?

Mary-Ann Kennedy (MK): I grew up in an inner-city neighbourhood of Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s – a place and time that laid bare structural, institutional, and socio-political inequalities of class, race, and gender. As a second-wave feminist, I was painfully aware of the legal limitations to personal growth, identity, and ability to contribute to social change that people faced. From not being able to get a credit card in one’s own name, to being fired for becoming pregnant, to being unable to take legal action against workplace sexual harassment: these were all core issues that circumscribed women’s access to wider education and training, and limited their career choices. A post-war return to the celebration of domesticity within an entrenched patriarchy worked to keep women firmly out of the political and economic sphere.

For me, education is key. My early interest and commitment to politics and gender issues was aided through Title IX and the Women’s Educational Equality Act, which gave me the opportunity to switch from a ‘get-a-decent-education-but-you’ll-only-get-married’ all-girls high school to the formerly all-male Technical High School College Prep. The persistent fact that women continued to be denied and limited access to most professions was a minor deterrent.

JF: And what drew you to photography as a medium? How have your interests in social justice and art come together?

MK: Choosing to initially train as an architect – what better way to change the world than work to address living conditions – it soon became apparent that how we live is heavily mediated through how we perceive the world and our place within it. This is all a part of the politics of representation: how photographs, and the media, represent, frame and construct reality, and in doing so affect real lived conditions. We live in a visual world and power resides in the visual as much as in the physical.

My growing awareness of the role photography plays in forming our understanding of the world, and our place within it, led to a desire to challenge current narratives, to celebrate creativity as a vehicle for change, and to work within education as a political act. Studying with Simon Watney and Victor Burgin and collaborating with Jo Spence led to the establishment of a commercial studio in London, engaging with educational publishers, campaigns, and community arts groups. It was a natural progression to embrace the challenge of degree development at Edinburgh Napier University given my interest in, and commitment to, issues of visual literacy and the politics of representation.

JF: You mentioned the politics of representation. This has been a key issue for feminists working within (and sometimes against) the media. Can you say more about what this means to you and why it is important?

MK: I’ve always felt that feminist photographers have sought to represent, rather than report. To agitate and seek out voices, rather than speaking for others. To collaborate in the telling of stories and challenge the narrow dominant narratives. Representation matters, now more so than ever. Arundhati Roy writes:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with the little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.1

And that imagining is aided, promoted and realized through the visual. I’ve also collaborated on this short film on the politics of representation for the Articulate Cultural Trust.

JF: As a part of our exhibition, we discuss the work of the Polysnappers, a group you were a part of. Can you say more about your work with the Polysnappers and what you were trying to achieve?

MK: We produced ‘Family, Fantasy and Photography’ collectively forty years ago as a travelling educational exhibition developed in response to the need for a more encompassing visual literacy on the place of the photograph and the role the wider industry has within society. We wanted it to engage with issues of gender, race, and class and, although it was aimed at schools, libraries, and community centres, we also sought to highlight the ethical responsibility of ‘professional’ photographers. It was distributed for a number of years through the Cockpit Gallery in London. I was then able to bring it to Scotland for use in my teaching. When it was shown at the Stills Gallery Edinburgh in 2016, there was both a salutary and depressing response from young women viewers. I expected them to appreciate it as an archive piece, but was instead faced with the reaction of how contemporary it remained. There is still so much more work to do…

JF: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me about your work. I look forward to hearing more about your work and the politics of photography at the launch event.


The featured image reuses an image from ‘Family, Fantasy and Photography’, an exhibition by the photography collective The Polysnappers (1981). Image courtesy of Mary Ann Kennedy.

  1. Arundhati Roy, ‘The Pandemic is a Portal’, Financial Times, 3 April 2020. []

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Jane Freeland

She is a historian of feminism and gender in modern Germany. Her research examines the impact and meaning of 1960s feminism on contemporary discussions of gender and women’s rights. Prior to joining the GHIL, she worked at Queen Mary University of London as a Lecturer in Modern German History. She holds an MA in European Studies and a Ph.D. in History from Carleton University, Canada. Jane Freeland joined the German Historical Institute London in July 2019.

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