Fully-funded PhD ‘Cultural Snipers: Photographic Portraiture in Britain, 1970-1990’

Courtesy of Dominic Mifsud, photograph of Cultural Sniping: Photographic Collaborations in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive, an exhibition at the Peltz Gallery, London, 9 March – 28 April 2018

National Portrait Gallery and Birkbeck University of London present AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership – fully-funded studentship:

Cultural Snipers: Photographic Portraiture in Britain, 1970-1990 

The History of Art Department of Birkbeck, University of London and the National Portrait Gallery, London, invite applications for a fully-funded doctoral studentship under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme. The project will examine the politics of photographic portraiture in Britain during the 1970s and 80s, when, informed by activism and critical theory, photographers challenged preconceptions of gender, class, and race, seeking new ways to portray marginalised people.

The PhD will be supervised jointly by Professor Patrizia Di Bello, lecturer on the history of photography at Birkbeck and co-director of the History and Theory of Photography Research Centre, and Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery.


  • Qualification type: PhD
  • Location: London
  • Funding for: UK students / EU students
  • Length: up to four years full time/seven years part time
  • Funding amount: subject to AHRC eligibility criteria, the funding covers tuition fees and an annual stipend towards living expenses for three years, with the option to apply for an additional six months of funding from the Student Development Fund. The 2019/20 annual stipend is likely to be £17,009 with London weighting, with an additional CDP stipend of £550 a year. Additional support of up to £1000 a year is available for three years from the National Portrait Gallery to contribute to research-related expenses. 
  • Hours: full or part-time
  • Closing date: Friday 10 May 2019, 12 noon
  • Interview date: Wednesday 22 May 2019
  • Enquiries: for informal enquiries, please contact Patrizia Di Bello at Birkbeck, University of London (p.dibello@bbk.ac.uk) or Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Curator, Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery (sjaskotgill@npg.org.uk)


In the 1970s and 1980s, emerging grassroots photography organisations engaged in a cultural and political struggle over the politics of representation. Informed by, and in turn contributing to, debates around issues of personal and collective identity, photographers experimented with collaborative ways of making, understanding and disseminating portraits as sites of social action. One such collective was the Half Moon Photography Workshop, established in 1972 by a cooperative of photographers as a gallery, workshop and education project; members included Ed Barber, Shirley Read, Peter Kennard and the photographer, writer, and self-defined ‘cultural sniper’, Jo Spence. While the work produced during this period is attracting critical and curatorial interest, less scholarly attention has been paid to this moment in British photography, and on how it opened areas of debate that continue to influence photographic culture and portrait making today. 

With access to the extensive primary sources and visual resources of the National Portrait Gallery and Birkbeck, University of London’s Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive, the studentship offers an opportunity to examine the portrait projects initiated by these grassroots movements, shifting attention away from ideas of the single artist and art object towards collaborative ways of making and understanding portraits as sites of social and political action, and the important critical debates that animated this activism in the late 1970s and 1980s.

The student will be encouraged to pursue their own original enquiries and to decide the scope of their chosen research, situating the project within research questions that include:

  • how identity is constructed, undermined or challenged in this period through the practice of photographic portraiture and its changing iconography
  • how the work from this period questioned and explored the relationship between photography, biography and identity
  • how photography of the period makes visible marginalised communities and identities
  • the relevance of this work to audiences today
  • the engagement between photography and cultural theory
  • new approaches to picturing the self and the community
  • collaborative working practices in British photography
  • approaches to producing, exhibiting and disseminating photographic portraiture
  • mapping the network of community photographers in 1970s and 80s Britain
  • the economic and sociological factors that affected the development of photography projects in this period


The studentship is intended to support the work of the National Portrait Gallery and offers unique access to the Gallery’s expertise and collections, including portraits by Jo Spence, Peter Kennard, Tish Murtha, Neil Kenlock, Helen Chadwick and Liz Rideal, supplemented by letters and correspondence, period magazines and journals held in the Gallery’s Archive and Library. The student will also have privileged access to uncatalogued materials in the Jo Spence Memorial Library Archive, which as well as materials relevant to the life and work of Jo Spence and her collaborator Terry Dennett, includes holdings of Camera Work magazine, and a variety of other publications and ephemera – posters, leaflets, postcards and pamphlets. 

The student will be offered practical work-based training in collections and curatorial practice, suitable for a potential career in the cultural sector. There will also be opportunities to develop cataloguing experience and to propose curated displays at Birkbeck’s exhibition space, the Peltz Gallery, which could be used to test ideas for experimental modes of display and innovative forms of audience engagement and interaction. Alongside training provided by Birkbeck, University of London, sector-specific training will be offered through the consortium of museums, galleries and heritage organisations affiliated with the AHRC CDP scheme.


Birkbeck and the National Portrait Gallery value the diversity of their staff and students, and welcome applicants from all backgrounds.

Essential skills/attributes:

  • you will hold at least an upper second class BA in History of Art, Photography, Museum Studies, or some clearly related discipline
  • you will hold either an MA in History of Art, Photography, Museum Studies or a clearly related discipline, or have equivalent professional experience that might include working in museums, galleries or archives 
  • candidates should also demonstrate evidence of appropriate English language proficiency normally defined as 6.5 in IELTS. For entry requirements please visit http://www.bbk.ac.uk/student-services/admissions/entry-requirements

Desirable skills/attributes:

  • advanced knowledge of twentieth-century British photographic history or British portraiture

The preferred start date is 1 October 2019


  • There are two steps:
    • You need to apply for this studentship by downloading and completing the application form. You will need to send your completed application form and references to Anthony Shepherd, no later than 10 May 2019.
    • Please note the successful applicant will be required to complete an application for a place of study on the MPhil/PhD History of Art programme at Birkbeck, University of London.