A diary of the Photographers’ Gallery

Join us today the 15th September at The Photographers’ Gallery in London 12-8pm, 16–18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW for our final Thinkers in Residence. During the day we will have artists and thinkers in the gallery having actual thoughts. Just come. It’s nice.

One of the techniques used in psychoanalytic training is to learn how to observe. From infant observations, the much loved component to clinical training, to observing groups and the places we work, this is a simple but powerful way to cut to the unconscious chase.


To see what is really going on under the surface.


Through our Thinkers in Residence project I’ve developed a girl crush on the Photographers Gallery – as a space and an institution. One of the many oddities of the building is the layout – a gangling teenager of a structure with five floors and no evident sense of coordination, despite the team of highly sophisticated curators and educators who frame our experiences.


My first observation involved standing in the lift for an hour.


There’s just one lift which is experienced as a dysfunctional kid refusing to get out of its bedroom. Everyone is always waiting for the lift to turn up. Tut, tutting and phone tapping as frustration turns to annoyance. Slowly the doors open with something of the “whaaaats your problem?” tone.


This location for an observation, on reflection, was a bit silly for someone who is supposed to blend into the background. But psychotherapeutic training prepares you well for awkward silences and tolerating other people’s projections, just how hard can it be?


I start well, pleased to be in a confined space with no job, no busy-busy, an opportunity just to be. My psychic muscle memory of the experience of letting my mind wonder with no purpose kicks in. Like a bad meditation, I think about the last observation I did at a hospital in Bristol during the junior doctors’ strike. Already I feel the pressure to be somewhere else with a purpose and a task.


I press the top floor button.


Floor 5: the doors open to a group of  bright intense men hanging around a car. My reaction to this wall of masculinity wasn’t very grown up and like a child I press every single floor down to B.


Floor 4: The doors open to a photograph of a black woman with red nails. In my hurry, a show about refugees becomes a bit bling bling. I feel uncomfortable with the association, relieved to be interrupted by a gaggle of teenage girls coming in. “What are you doing here?” they ask circling me – like a new girl I try to get them on my side and tell them I heard their laughing before the doors opened. “Oh NO00000000”,  their delight at being welcomed to rebel, to have been noticed in a space called art.


Floor 3 is the education floor. Tourists sit reading leaflets and letting their walking boot feet rest. They look up tired and happy – like people digesting a good meal. I wonder if floor three is the stomach where art can be digested.


Floor 2 and the doors open to a charcoal drawing of a black sunrise sunset. The exhibition is of drawings and photos, a clever ensemble by my friend. I think of how cool and sophisticated the space is, tall and thin, like her. I’ve never seen a friend reflected in their work so clearly. A proud mum feeling spreads as the doors close.


As the hour progresses it dawns on me how hard its going to be not to talk to people. How to be a silent jobless person in a lift without freaking people out.


Initially, people got awful busy on their phones. At one point the lift is full of young people plus me, all of them staring lovingly into their phones. I try not to go off on a well rehearsed thought trail about narcissistic withdrawals and the end of intimacy. I wonder if today’s the day when my middle age actually made me invisible. I angrily long for the day the lights get switched off. Ten seconds in a lift with people married to their phones and apparently I’m ready to get me a farm on higher ground and a gun.


Two middle-aged women get in the lift – they say hello to me and ask where the shop is. Ah, normalising. I smile but don’t answer. A punitive psychoanalytic response – internally I sigh, why can’t analysts just be nice? I think of my excuses to these women – that I really do understand how hard it is to be in the presence of someone who wont take your projections and yes, sometimes you just want people to play nicely.


An old teddy boy comes into the lift, the real deal. He tells me about his own photography – about how he’s working on some abstract images and is inspired to do some pieces in reds and rusts. As we get to the ground floor I feel him observing me, lost in a lift. A generous lovely feeling fills the lift. He leaves me saying “I’m just here if you need someone to talk to”.


The doors close. My throat feels tight.


A couple come in bitching about a work colleague. The air in the lift feels like its running out. All that anger sucking the life out of this shared space. They look unhappy, I avert my eyes not wishing to reflect anything back to them. I have a simple thought that they don’t actually like each other – and as if they read my mind I feel their attention collectively turn towards me. Let the psychic ping pong begin. I feel my feet sink into the floor, as if they are spreading roots, and think about how irritated they must feel that I didn’t flinch.


Buoyed by my capacity to withstand the feelings of others, I decide not to press any buttons and just let the lift wait. It goes to floor 4, and so we wait. I am left with my own thoughts.


Tick tock.


Anxiety starts rising, how very hard to wait. Remembering my training, I try to stay here, not to escape in my mind.


Within just a few minutes I feel incredibly alone.



I turn into the mirror I’ve been avoiding, catastrophically looking for a bit of human contact. I look tired, my hair is frizzy, a Thinker in Residence indeed. I snort that you don’t have to be Freud to know that’s possibly the hardest thing to do, to look yourself square in the face.

Oliver Whitehead, Photographers’ Gallery and Elizabeth Cotton, Surviving Work had a conversation about the links between psychoanalysis and photography in this month’s issue of Unseen magazine.  Click here to read the full article.

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