Phil Collins’s free fotolab is included in the Walker exhibition Ordinary Pictures, on view February 27–October 9, 2016.
In his work free fotolab (2009), British artist Phil Collins presents 80 photographs that exactly fill the standard 35mm slide carousel he uses to project the images onto the gallery wall. Although Collins is a photographer, he is not the author of any of the photographs shown in this work. The artist sourced the images in free fotolab by putting out a public call for rolls of undeveloped 35mm film, which he agreed to process and return to participants free of charge, on the condition that they cede all rights and claims of ownership to him. The images displayed over the nine minute, 20 second slide show depict people engaged in everyday life: celebrating with their families, going to the beach, having a picnic, drinking a cup of tea. In free fotolab, Collins presents a collage of normal, ordinary pictures, the commonplace subject matter of which is contrasted by its presentation in a formal gallery setting.
While no background is given for free fotolab, closely examining contextual clues (such as bottles of the Macedonian beer “Bitolsko” or an entire shelf full of books in Serbo-Croatian) reveals that some of these images can be traced to the Balkans. This isn’t surprising, as Collins has spent a significant portion of his professional career working in the region. The artist’s first video work, a 12-minute piece called how to make a refugee (1999), was shot in Macedonia during the same year as the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. Collins created the work after witnessing reporting methods employed by official news media covering the crisis in the region. In how to make a refugee, we see journalists directing and posing a displaced Kosovar Albanian family they are photographing. The reporters appear to show little concern for how their instructions are received by the family they direct; instead the journalists are focused on crafting a saleable news story for their domestic audiences. By filming this process of documentation, Collins exposes the imposed construction of a refugee narrative designed to fit Western consumers’ expectations about what war reporting looks like, and by extension, what refugees look like.
After how to make a refugee, Collins continued with his nontraditional representation of individuals living in crisis zones. In a 2001 work entitled young serbs, Collins presents portraits of young Serbians lying serenely in the grass on a sunny day. “Anyway, here they are,” the artist writes in an email to a colleague, “romantic, sexy, deathly, intimate, posed, bucolic, disappointed, suspicious… I wanted to escape the urban grit and aggressive posturing of Western photography in Belgrade and try and pick at a romantic sensibility.” Collins’s desire to show an alternative side of his subjects often erased in typical crisis reporting results in the production of more human images, immediately familiarizing for his audience what is typically portrayed as “other.” His portraits show individuals as themselves, not as people cast in roles of refugee, victim, or aggressor. The power of such personal images is undeniable on an emotional level, and it is exactly this human intimacy that makes the photographs political. Collins explains this idea succinctly in a comment regarding his work filming Palestinian teenagers in Ramallah: “If you ignore the people who inhabit these places, you don’t feel bad about bombing them.”
In much of his practice, Collins attempts to return some measure of control over representation to his subjects through the subversion of traditional corporate media narratives. The idea of agency for the subject is seen especially in real society, a 2002 project in which Collins advertised for anyone willing to remove some of their clothing to come to a luxury suite in the Maria Cristina Hotel in San Sebastian to be photographed. Collins accepted everyone who wished to take part in the project and photographed his participants engaged in any activity they chose. People are seen dancing, talking, lounging, and undressing themselves and others—one couple even took a bath. With this work, Collins reduces the influence of the photographer in the process of image creation, relinquishing control over both the choice of subject as well as the direction of the storyline.
free fotolab can be seen as a further attempt by Collins to erase the hand of the photographer from his final product. These images are objects of truly democratic representation—they were taken for and by ordinary people with no notion of their eventual public display. They are free from any posing, framing, or staging within in aesthetic context, and both the anonymous authors and subjects reveal themselves in an uninhibited way. By showcasing these images, Collins finds a way to present the viewer with photographs untouched by his artistic bias.
By removing the professional photographer from the process of image creation, free fotolab asks its audience to consider the role of the photographer and what influence this editorial role might have over how one ultimately perceives photographic subjects. No image can ever be truly impartial; the photographer is always the unseen third party, the filter through which an image is passed before it reaches its audience. Collins’s work draws awareness to the presence of this filter, asking us to question to what extent our perceptions of the world, and especially of distant others, are based on the photographic narratives that are created for us.
 Collins, Phil, and Milton Keynes Gallery, Yeah, You, Baby You, (Milton Keynes England: Milton Keynes Gallery, 2005), 54.
 Ibid., 16.