Ben Burbridge



While studies of contemporary photography pay considerable attention to the ubiquity of photographic images, much less has been said about the diverse forms of labour on which photographic cultures rely. When we think about networked photography, for example, it is typically in terms of image content, visual communication and the behaviour of social media users, not mineral extraction in the Congo, smartphone manufacture in Shenzhen, the unpaid self-promotion of freelance creatives, content moderation in the Philippines, or the gruelling work involved in training machines to see like humans.

Exploring a range of practices through which this labour has been made visible—in art, scholarship, advertising, and the media—I consider in precisely what senses this work can be regarded as ‘critical’; particularly as, when understood as labour, the practice of critically reflecting on and through photography is so often situated within similar economic systems to those being scrutinised. Examining the potential of photography’s much-trumpeted ubiquity as a means to make the complexity of larger systems legible at the level of individual actors, I turn my attention towards the social, intellectual and political objectives we hope critical practices might serve, along with their implications for our thinking about both criticality and practice.


Ben Burbridge is a writer, curator and academic.

A former co-editor at Photoworks magazine (2011-2016), he has written numerous articles, chapters and essays for publications including Photography and Culture, Philosophy of Photography, and FOAM, and has presented his work internationally at venues including Tate Modern, London, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester and Palais de Tokyo, Paris.

Burbridge has led a number of large-scale, collaborative projects that straddled different platforms, including books, websites, exhibitions, artists’ commissions, and events. They include the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial 2012, Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space (multiple venues, Brighton), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (the Science Museum, London, National Media Museum, Bradford and MACK, 2015-6) and Either/And (Media Space, London 2011-15). He is co-founder of the AHRC-funded Ph: The Photography Research Network and co-editor of Photography Reframed: New Visions in Contemporary Photographic Culture (IB Tauris, 2018).

Burbridge’s 2020 monograph, Photography After Capitalism (Goldsmiths 2020) explores the hidden labour of contemporary photographic culture, and is part of a larger project that has so far encompassed essays, events, an international symposium, performances and a semi-fictional start-up specialising in ‘the creative production, efficient circulation and critical consumption of post-capitalist photography’. He is currently working on a project about art, cultural memory and the UK rave scene (funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art) and a book about family, photography and fiction.

He teaches modern and contemporary Art History at the University of Sussex, UK.