It’s been four months since I enrolled in the Falmouth Postgraduate Research program, and I’m finally starting to feel like a PhD student. The confusion has lessened after completing the first milestone on this journey, the AfR. "Ah, AfR?" I hear you ask. Welcome to the land of jargon and abbreviations that research students must navigate. However, I’ll strive to communicate plainly, as we are encouraged to, even while navigating these terms.

AfR stands for Application for Registration. It involves a formal process of submitting a 1,000-word proposal detailing a research project. Mine was titled “Photographing the Invisible: Exploring the Relationship Between Photographic Narratives, Public Perception, and Policy Regarding Air Pollution in London.” It encapsulates all my keywords, and I was pleased with it until I attempted to verbalise it to my colleagues during a workshop. I found myself running out of breath towards the end.

My research goals, though ambitious, are straightforward:

  • Visually represent the air pollution in London, highlighting its impact on the environment and communities.
  • Explore how photographic narratives influence public perception and awareness of air pollution.
  • Use photography as a tool for advocacy to influence environmental policies.

Earlier this week, I revisited my AfR document and reflected on the feedback from the RDC. Yes, another abbreviation, this one stands for Research Degrees Committee. They are the discerning individuals I had to convince that my research was worth undertaking. Despite their approval, their detailed feedback prompted me to question my capabilities. "Why me?" became a recurring question, challenging my self-identity and stirring feelings of inadequacy, much like the invisible pollutants I aim to photograph.

Recognising these doubts as symptoms of imposter syndrome, I reminded myself of my journey here. So here is my story, a good starting point if we are to develop a lasting relationship as you follow my journey.

I am Alan Conteh, born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and relocated to the Gambia during my early years to escape the Civil War and live with my mum and stepdad. Sadly, they both passed away last year. Despite it being the worst year of my life, I remember the joy my mum felt when I told her I had achieved a distinction in my MA. We were still mourning my stepdad, but she couldn’t help but share the news with everyone. She even requested a photograph of my certificate to frame and display it, but she passed away before it arrived.

Photography was not always my career. For a long time, I worked in IT, developing apps and websites for small businesses in South London. However, after the birth of my first son, I took up a camera to document our family, and my world changed. What began as a hobby evolved into a service for my clients, and then transformed into a career doing beauty and fashion photography. Being self-taught at this point, and uncertain of how long the COVID lockdown would last, I decided to enrol in the Falmouth University BA Photography (Top-up) program.

My goal was to enhance my skills and credibility with this accreditation. Yet, the BA program at Falmouth went beyond teaching the usual photographic theory, techniques, and practice development. Its design encouraged deep introspection, which unexpectedly redirected my focus towards environmental photography, leading to several projects on plastic pollution.

My academic journey progressed with the Falmouth MA program, where I delved deeper into environmental issues, particularly waste, and its societal and ecological impacts. This experience solidified my belief in the power of photography as both a form of expression and a tool for research and advocacy.

Photography enables me to understand the world’s complexities. Sharing my work has revealed its potential to educate others. Broadly speaking, I use photography as research, as defined by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which describes research as “a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared.” Throughout my MA, my work embodied this investigative process, and insights were shared. The difference now, with my PhD, is the standard at which I'm required to conduct this research.

So, "Why me?" Not only because of my passion, though I am deeply passionate about my field, but also because I have committed the next few years of my life to seeking answers to questions that have intrigued me since my BA. Along the way, I hope to better understand the world and, together, share my findings effectively.

I welcome your comments and contributions. Do not hesitate to engage with me as I share this journey with you. I hope we grow together.