As part of our World Photography Day celebrations, we meet the new CEO of one of the world’s oldest photographic societies – The Royal Photographic Society (RPS), established 1853. Evan Dawson (below) is only in his third week as CEO but has plenty to talk about already…

What is your background?
Most of my career so far has been in music. For the past seven years, I was CEO of Live Music Now, where we trained hundreds of professional musicians each year to work in specialist settings such as care homes, special schools and hospitals around the UK. It’s wonderful how music and the arts can inspire people and bring them together within communities, even those living in very difficult circumstances. I’m fascinated by projects like these and how their impact can be measured.

It was music that brought me to photography, initially through the work of the great David Redfern (who I met when I was a child). More recently, I’ve been photographer-in-residence at St George’s Bristol, where I’ve shot portraits of some of the world’s leading musicians and ensembles (my portfolio is here). Bristol is a great city for photography, particularly with Martin Parr being based right next door to the RPS. We’re looking forward to Bristol Photo Festival next year. When it’s possible, I do hope that many more photographers will come and visit us.

Moving to the trendy Paintworks area in South Bristol has put the RPS closer to Bristol’s creative hubs

What are your priorities as CEO?
It’s been an extraordinary experience to start a new job in these ‘locked-down’ circumstances, from an empty office and gallery in Bristol. The RPS has a really dedicated, informed and witty team of staff, trustees and volunteers; as well as over 11,000 member photographers around the world. I can’t meet them all through Zoom, but I’m doing my best to get to know the organisation through its people. I’m learning how different people see the RPS and its future, before I set out my own priorities.

Currently we have a fascinating range of activities taking place; from online workshops and free talks with renowned photographers, to digital Distinctions roadshows and assessment days. There is much more to come, and I’m looking forward to the development of our online offering.

Many organisations are losing members due to Covid-19. Has the RPS done anything in particular to adapt to the changing environment over the past few months?
Covid-19 forced the RPS to think laterally. All events and workshops were taken online, and we launched a thriving Facebook group with over 2000 members. Our online talks with photographers and bursary recipients (which are available to view on our website have attracted up to 1000 participants, many of whom are based overseas. These are available for everyone, whether you are a member of the RPS or not.

The new HQ has a dedicated and spacious gallery and display area

Whilst people have been confined to their homes, many have found exciting new ways to be creative through photography – so engagement with the RPS has actually been greater than ever before.

What are your thoughts on increasing the inclusivity and diversity of RPS membership?
Inclusion within the arts has been the main theme of my career so far. If any arts organisation wants its work to be relevant, creative and exciting, then it must reflect the society around it. The RPS has more women and more BAME Distinctions assessors than ever before – but we are conscious that we have a long way to go. There are many visible and invisible barriers to joining the RPS, and we will be working hard over the coming months to make it possible for many more people to get involved with the organisation. It was founded in 1853 to make photography accessible to more people – so I hope that we can use that founding vision to help inspire and support many more people on their journey with photography. Everyone is welcome at the RPS.