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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

Races 9

How I achieved seven RPS Fellowships

Simon Street FRPS explains how he achieved multiple Society Distinctions

For most photographers one RPS Fellowship would be quite enough. For Simon Street FRPS, neither a duology nor a hat-trick quite sufficed. Indeed, despite only picking up his first digital camera six years ago, Street has already accrued seven Fellowships.

Based in Surrey, Street is most at home working in black and white. In terms of content, he has tried his hand at most things, including abstracts, landscapes and travel. However, it is human interest that fuels his People at the Races collection, to be displayed at the Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society annual exhibition in April 2023.

Using his local racecourses, Simon wanted to explore the social hierarchies at play in the equestrian world, and in particular the tension between tradition and progress.

Below, he discusses his septet of Fellowships, including People at the Races.

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What motivated you to achieve more than one Fellowship?

Many RPS members will think that one Fellowship is hard enough and/or pointless doing a second. I would argue that if you did enjoy achieving one success, some people (not all) may continue their learning curve by trying a different category. Here is a mountaineering analogy: if a Fellowship is considered Mount Everest for photographers, there are many peaks in the world still to be conquered above 7,000 metres high.

Our current category system of Fellowships is broad and allows for submissions in print, photobook and digital. There are no constraints to members applying for more than one area. I found plenty of fresh ideas to try and different media to master.

However, the cost of doing a further Fellowship will also be an important consideration for many – me included.

What have you learned from previous Fellowships?

Fellowships often require several thousand images to be sorted and managed. Earlier successes taught me the importance of a good tracking system, rigorous note-taking on what did and did not work, and consistent processing methods.

I also learned to try out two to three ideas early on and know when to drop one that was not working. For example, on one sheet of paper I would ‘mind-map’ out potential images and group them by sub-themes. If I could not get to 20-30 potential image ideas after a few days, I would drop it. If the idea had ‘legs’, I would go and test shoot it and find if I was actually enjoying the subject.

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Talk us through the creative process of People at the Races.

My best creative ideas arrive early in the morning. I have just a minute to scribble them down before they are lost in brain fog. The People at the Races documentary idea also came with a hint of anger. In 2016, I attended a race meeting at my local racecourse. I am not a racing person. For me it was just a lazy opportunity to take pictures of people. I was disappointed to find a 1950s social hierarchy at work – owners, premier enclosures, punters, stable people. Where was the inclusive, diverse world we live in? I took plenty of images back then – and one or two I thought were strong. However, the idea was left on hold as I went through the major steps of LRPS and ARPS where my interest in storytelling matured a little.

How did the project unfold?

Remember those short breaks in lockdowns where travel was still restricted to just five miles? In 2020, the light bulb went on: how about re-starting my races project? I have several racecourses within five miles of my house. This time I got permits to take photos and attended every race meeting I could afford as lockdown restrictions gradually lifted. For me, the most important consideration in a Fellowship project, after interest in the content, is the ability to make repeated visits. I got to know the staff and jockeys well. I would talk for 20 minutes to many of them while shooting from the hip to provide an unobtrusive and distinctive style. Midway through I realised I had some great images of horses, but they were not the focus of my narrative – I had to drop them.

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How did your submission change over time?

My first submission draft was messy. It had one of every role in the race meetings but lacked a coherent story. Different light on different days also made the visual consistency difficult. I wanted to show my different emotions – some from the anger at the ‘old school’ hierarchy; some from the jockeys telling me of their personal poverty and injuries; and some from the humour at the outrageous hats.

How has the RPS supported, encouraged or guided your career?

Irrespective of the distinction level or category, I have always obtained one2one advisory sessions. Every single one has added hugely to the quality of that submission and my overall learning of photography.

Using the Races images as an example, I had arranged a one2one review with Documentary assessor Simon Leach. Simon saw the potential to tell a clearer story of how the mix of attendees had changed over the five years I had followed the race meetings. Bingo – there was my documentary theme: change through time. I was able to find a few older images to start my story. The selection of later images began to fall into place. A few gaps needed filling and the statement of intent was torn up and re-written.

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All images by Simon Street FRPS from his successful Fellowship Distinction portfolio People at the Races.

The Richmond and Twickenham Photographic Society annual exhibition, including work by the RPS Visual Art Group, is at the Landmark Arts Centre, Teddington, 7-16 April.