Collaboration has been the heart of my practice since my first work as an artist in residence in 1990

Colleague spotlight | Lizzie Coombes, BSc (Hons) Digital Journalism


Lizzie Coombes

Lizzie is a photographer/artist who teaches on BSc (Hons) Digital Journalism at Leeds Beckett University (LBU). Lizzie has a a track record of cross art form collaboration and innovative community projects. Collaborators include Opera North, The National Media Museum, Compass Festival, Leeds City Council, Bramley Baths and The Irene Taylor Trust (Music in Prisons). In 2017 Lizzie completed I’m Carnival Happy a joint commission with Leeds Inspired and Leeds West Indian Carnival to celebrate the carnival’s 50th birthday. As well as teaching at LBU she has extensive freelance practice involving a variety of commissions. 

Tell us a bit about you and what led you to working within Leeds School of Arts?

I’m a Senior Lecturer on the BSc (Hons) Digital Journalism course where I work across all three years as a module leader on several programs of study. My academic practice draws on my professional work and has enabled me to draw on a wealth of contacts that benefit both students and the industry.

I have extensive teaching experience in a mixture of educational and non-educational settings. These range from working in primary and secondary schools to writing and developing content for workshops working with older people, through to working in prisons and with young offenders. I also work under the name of Betty Lawless on Instagram and Twitter where I was spotted by someone at LBU eight years ago and the rest, they say, is history. 

What makes you passionate about your work around photography?

A large part of my photographic practice has been photographing people, and a thread that runs through this has been the pop-up portrait studio. Having one’s portrait taken in the 19th century was seen as an important expression for those pictured to make themselves visible, not only to themselves but those around them, if they could afford it. 

My practice has involved placing a studio in places where it can be accessed for free with the intent of creating portraits with groups and individuals who may never normally have access to a professional studio (and photographer). Often the resulting collaborations picture those overlooked in the mainstream; the prisoner, the woman who’s had her child removed, the refugee, the older woman and so on. Using the studio and portrait as a tool of social engagement has privileged me with the opportunity to collaborate with amazing people and to witness the power of being ‘seen’.

How is collaboration integral to your work, and what are one or two collaborations that have been most meaningful to you?

Collaboration has been the heart of my practice since my first work as an artist in residence in 1990. I have worked with theatre companies, dancers, festivals, arts and educational organisations and artists from different disciplines on numerous commissions. I am an artist that enjoys both the process and the product of what I do and have been involved in creating exhibitions, resource packs, projections and films that have been shown in a wide variety of places. 

In October 2012, I created the exhibition ‘Submerged’, in collaboration with I Love West Leeds Festival, a set of photographs that were exhibited underwater in the Bramley Baths pool. The exhibition attracted 500 people over the space of one weekend who came and swam around the photographs while listening to music being played underwater. The show gained extensive coverage both regionally and nationally.

Since 2001 I have worked extensively with the Irene Taylor Trust on their work in prisons, including a commission in collaboration with Mark-Anthony Turnage shown at The South Bank, London. The photographs and film ‘Beyond This’ represented this collaboration to a wider audience and formed part of The Cultural Olympiad 2012. In 2016 I was commissioned to make ‘Bridges’, a 15-minute film celebrating and highlighting the work of ITT that was shown at Union Chapel in London.

Water Music I Love West Leeds Festival 2011

What achievements in this area have you been most proud of while working in Leeds School of Arts?

I have worked for Leeds Light Night for many years, I have a particular love of photographing projections and tricky light (started years ago when photographing outdoor night shows by organisations such as Welfare State International and Chrysalis Arts). Light Night in Leeds is at the beginning of October, and I’ve involved first-year students in it as part of an introductory module to using a camera. It’s a great way to develop and test camera skills by working with some challenging light conditions and also an exciting way to introduce the city of Leeds and what it has to offer. 

Several of our Digital Journalism students have gone on to work as volunteers for the council in subsequent years and have had their photographs used by Light Night. In 2020, one of the students took on a commission from them to produce a short promotional film which is now being used extensively on social media. The opportunity to collaborate with students, my freelance practice and organisations I work with is the thing I love most about the work I do.

We know the arts sector has been badly hit by the Covid pandemic, how have you steered your practice during this time?

As my work collaborates with people, communities and events it’s not surprising the pandemic had a major impact on my work. I had exciting commissions, including a weeklong artist residency in Dortmund, Germany as part of the Leeds and Dortmund twinning, but all of them were cancelled. I started to respond to ‘lockdown’ by photographing the people I encountered during my daily exercise. Originally, I described the portraits as ‘social distancing’ but realised that they were much more about the physical distance, and the process of taking the pictures was social, giving me and those I photographed an opportunity to connect and communicate outside of the online worlds that became the norm. The photographs were uploaded daily on my Instagram and were part of a Format Festival Mass Isolation IG takeover. 

As a result of this work, I was commissioned by Opera North’s Arts Together to celebrate Refugee Week, by taking portraits (in a socially distanced way) of members of Mafwa Theatre, a theatre group for refugee and asylum seeker women and women from the local community. Everyone involved received prints of their portraits and copies of a downloadable book.  I also ran a photography competition in my running club called “Beauty in the Ordinary’ with the aim of encouraging people to look at their communities and find the unique characteristics which make them special. I ended up with over 400 entries!

Lizzie Coombes

Senior Lecturer / Leeds School Of Arts
Lizzie Coombes is a photographer, artist and academic with a long track record of cross art form collaboration and innovative community projects. Work includes projects with Opera North, The National Media Museum, ArtForms, Leeds City Council, Bramley Baths and The Irene Taylor Trust (Music in Prisons).

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