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Hot off the Press: photo portraits of trailblazing journalists by MDX's Jennifer Forward-Hayter exhibited in Kilburn

MA student's degree show, Penknife, captures the ambivalence, stresses and allure of contemporary media

A short, young white woman with blond hair in a white shirt dress talks to midle-aged woman with long greyish hair in a denim jacket. They are at a photography exhibition, with work on display on the wall to the leftAward-winning MA Photography student Jennifer Forward-Hayter is seeking to pique interest and stir debate with her degree show, Penknife, about people in the news business.

A strong advocate of bringing MDX work out to external settings to be seen by wider audiences, Jennifer secured a slot at Kingsgate Project Space in Kilburn from director, artist Daniel Howard-Birt. (The venue is directly opposite the former Kingsgate Community Centre, subject of a landmark MDX Interior students' project last year).

Jennifer’s show, which follows one she held in Sydney last November, features her striking portraits in a wide variety of formats.

A large photographic sculpture with Australian satirical newsreader Mark Humphries on one side and an image of a bound and gagged journalist at a hostile environment training camp on the reverse forms a centrepiece. Other subjects include Carole Cadwalladr, Jon Ronson, Owen Jones and Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, campaigning lawyer for assassinated Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. There’s a portrait of satirist and environmental documentary presenter Craig Reucassel sunbathing on a beach covered in rubbish, with a jumbo jet in the background.

A black and white photo of a white man sunbathing on a beach. The man is looking with one raised eye towards the cameraJennifer is fascinated by the tensions in modern journalism: how post-Leveson Inquiry, "journalists are framed as villains - they're antagonists, horrible people - but at the same time they are trying to do good", the effects of English libel law on reporting, and the spectacular rise of social and digital media at the same time as deep industry cuts and declining media literacy. She sees podcasts, such as Josh Baker's series on Shabina Begum and Nick Wallis's expose of the Horizon Scandal, The Great Post Office Trial, both for the BBC, as a saviour of long-form investigative content.

She is "obsessed with offices" - "if you can see someone’s desk you can understand their frame of mind" – with the exhibition featuring scenes of media working spaces, from rooms with views over gleaming skyscrapers, to interns eating sandwiches. She hopes her work, as a counterpoint to the familiar images of journalists as "boring headshots against a white background” shows the profession still has an allure, like it did in the era of trench-coated reporters.

Black and white photo of middle aged white blonde woman, in smart clothes, with her eyes closed. She is smilingBefore her Sydney exhibition, Larrikin, Jennifer said she was “immensely proud” of being able to work with subjects such as Jeremy Bowen and Carole Cadwalladr, and being able to organise an archive of images into something which can be shown to an audience.

Her other projects have included photographing journalists and news teams on the Ukraine-Poland border, and recreating all 324 live testimonies to the Leveson Inquiry in photographs, with herself in wigs or with head shaved playing each of the witnesses.

For the Ukraine work, she intentionally didn’t apply for a press card and shot at close-range with a huge flash.

“I did this to keep me on the outside. The process of being photographed – even discreetly – is really unnatural, and I like drawing attention to the uncomfortableness I get as reactions.

“I’ve often gone to communities I’m not, or never would be a part of”. She describes her style as “cruel, upsetting, funny,” and says that someone once told her that her work “looked like a hit list, full of ugly people”.

“Ugly people have better stories. And people with better stories make better pictures.”

For her Collaborate MA module, she contacted Australian satirists at The Chaser.

“They run the oldest, still-running satirical media organisation in the world, and I spent a month documenting their process,” she said.

A young man with reddish hair sits at a desk eating a sandwich. An older, bald man stands behind filling in a mini-white board. Both are in shorts. In between them is a huge model of a halved avocado pear with the stone out“Australia is unique in the history and continued development of journalism. It’s still a remote, isolated island, with an intensely concentrated media ownership. As an extra fourth estate, satirists have to not only react to journalists, but become better [than them] in order to mock.”

Without telling people when she was going to turn up, Jennifer was given access to budget meetings, delicate pitch writing, and computer screens.

“I especially liked capturing the journalists walking around the office – normally a quick dash from desk to kitchen,” she said.

“It was like shooting someone who’d finally taken a peak above a parapet, and they became vulnerable.”

After showing her images to the organiser of a local photo festival, Jennifer was invited to hold her Sydney solo show supported by XD Law/Xenephon Davis and Young Henrys.

“The reaction to my work was amazing” she says. “The Chaser, still intrigued and unsure of why I wanted to shoot them, hosted a special, sold-out, artist talk for me. They discussed why arts funding should be abolished!”

The show fortuitously opened on the day David Cameron was appointed Foreign Secretary, with Jennifer’s portrait of Financial Times markets correspondent Robert Smith, who broke stories about Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, becoming a talking point.

Jennifer, who also studied for her undergraduate Photography degree at MDX, is grateful for her university experiences.

“The technicians at MDX are above and beyond,” she said.

“They want to be proud of the work which they are around and help to produce, and make sure you get to a point where you can create to these standards. The photographic prints made at MDX are better than at many printing spaces available outside the university. “

She was a shortlisted winner at the Portrait of Britain Awards, and won Best in Show in Week 1 of the Free Range photography prize as an undergraduate.

Asked about her future hopes, Jennifer said: “I would like to continue using photography as an excuse to be places I shouldn’t! I’ve been told so many amazing stories by a variety of people – observing how they work, on frontlines, at members' clubs, and online empires.

“There’s a hundred more small snippets of life, and photographers can push to the front to experience these.”

To find out more about studying photography at MDX, click here.

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