Beth Atkinson

MA Photography 2011–13

I did an undergraduate degree in Fine Art at Leeds and graduated in 2007. I came from a fine art background but found photography was the thing that I was best at and was the best way to express what I wanted. I did lots of painting and drawing, but it gradually became more photographic.

After leaving Leeds in 2007, I moved to California and spent the next three years travelling and working between different countries. My partner and Iived in London and worked for Tate Modern, then went to Vancouver, where I worked for a music festival, a library and an art gallery, and then moved back to the US. All the time, I was building up contacts and working in various industries, seeing where I’d fit in, and what I liked.

I came back to England in the middle of the recession but managed to get intern work at the Whitechapel Gallery, in the community department, and eventually ended up working in the education department at the October Gallery. It was great to be able to finally combine all my work experience, but I felt that all the way through my travelling period, I needed to focus and move on with my own work. The environment you have at the College is one of motivation. It felt like I’d got to a point where I knew what I needed to know about the world and looking after myself, but wanted to go deeper into photography and dedicate my time to this.

What I lacked in my undergraduate degree was more specific technical knowledge and photography-specific debates, arguments and theory. I wanted to study somewhere that had rigorous theoretical grounding. Not many of the other courses did have this – other schools don’t offer the same Critical and Historical Studies (CHS) the RCA does.

When I started it was overwhelming. It takes up all of your brainpower. It’s hard work. I wouldn’t want to do something that I found easy, though. Having to work alongside is really difficult and you have to be clever at managing your time properly. In the first year you do a Fine Art version of CHS. In Photography, specifically, we have artist talks and visiting lecturers. We also have tutorials and group crits and anything else you organise yourself, including group shows and exhibitions. It’s as much about the people around you as it is about the facilities.

I’ve got things that I care about and a theoretical practice but coming to the RCA has meant it’s been pushed and stretched and opened up. For example, my interest in music is really important but I never thought about that being part of my art practice. That’s incredible to me because it’s everything that I like in one place. I’m making films. I also joined a shape note choir, which is like an early American folk choir – music originally from England and early America – and how it turned into this whole new kind of music, really beautiful and epic. I’m trying to develop a project that looks at history and the land that people live in being connected through music, songs and words. Before that, my work was all about history and landscapes.

I’ve had quite a few jobs in supporting myself. You have to squirrel it away and eat lentils! I’m lucky because my job at the gallery I can do on a day that nothing’s programmed at the College. The other job I do regularly is youth worker, working evenings a few nights a week. That means that most of the week I have off but I earn enough to pay the bills and fees. I’ve been really lucky to get a bursary and win a couple of prizes while I’ve been here. 

I want to make a book out of the work I’ve been doing and keep applying for residencies and commissions, and if I can save up enough, I’ll maybe look at doing a PhD. I feel very excited by it and am still enthusiastic about it all.

"There are loads of such opportunities to win money – really good commissions, prizes and awards. RCA is really set up for that. I got one called the Tim Sawyer Prize and another, the Villiers David Travel Award. Because of this money, I’m able to travel and do research on shape note music for a whole month."
Beth Atkinson
Beth Atkinson