Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Colonial Gaze

Camels, Tunisia © Richard Ansett 1992 - 2019
'..the vast territory her gaze had discovered...on the dry earth of this measureless land scraped to the bone, a few men ceaselessly made their way, possessing nothing but serving no one, the destitute and free lords of a strange kingdom.'

Reading Albert Camus' The Adulterous Wife transports me back to the Tunisian desert as a younger version of me when photography was merely a gateway to seeing and understanding the world. Perhaps the sharpness of the light in North Africa encourages the focus on existential detail or perhaps there is something in the cultural meme that Camus personifies. I am seeing the camel train approaching, the slow effortlessness of the movement of the dromedaries belies the speed at which they approach. I had a youthful beauty then, as the camels approached I had to run at full speed in the fine desert sand to keep up just to capture a cliche silhouette. Eventually I stopped and watched this paradox slowly swiftly move away. A man, the owner I assumed, with a dark leather face gestured to me to come with them and in that moment I had to decide to leave the life I knew or stay on this side of the camera. I still feel the disappointment at my choice. I remain, observing the world relative to my own instead of participating in it; the cowardice in that moment and an opportunity lost. It was an early marker. my photographs are a constant arbiter and document of my courage and cowardice and risk is always rewarded.

I am now in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges , I walk past a homeless beggar and safely past him I watch him. He is so weak that a dog growls and snarls at him sensing his weakness, it moves closer with each breath, the beggar can barely muster the strength to raise his stick to keep it at bay. I stayed and watched hopelessly as the delicate and terrifying balance was maintained and I did nothing, to photograph it felt like the worst betrayal, to capitalise on this suffering without any tangible concern for my subject. Even knowing that at some point the man would loose the battle I walked away. My hopelessness and guilt in that moment seemed to define my relationship to travelling the world and observing the daily terrors of my fellow humans played out for my colonial gaze. India is so all consuming in its beauty and ugliness one learns quickly to compartmentalise the daily normalised acts of depravity.

To feel helpless in the face of existential suffering has to be addressed, I feel that perhaps only I have seen these things because I have had to act to address the guilt in my life now. I seek to address my past failures through redemption (proof positive that there is no such things as a selfless act), I find it difficult to imagine life without this balance and to live life without this correction is ultimately self harming. There is a consequence to ignoring the suffering of others it is an infection of character each time we do it and it is part of the attrition that forms the adult personality for better or worse. We are not conscious of the monsters we are becoming, we only think the best of ourselves.

At the top of my list of many of the greatest photographs I never took was in a circus tent in Kerala, I recall the site as being beyond what was possible to capture in a mere photograph or perhaps not worthy of the medium. In truth and in hyndesight, the latter but it was and remains a perfect metaphor for my thoughts of India at the time. I had walked into the circus area in the early morning whilst the performers were waking, documenting their routines on a rare b/w positive 35mm (now discontinued). On entering the main tent as my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness I photographed a boy in charge of the elephants and glanced up at the old worn out canvas. It had become so rotten that thousands of holes allowed the light to break through creating a constellation, it was perfectly beautiful and taught me in that moment that great beauty and understanding can come from even the most impoverished landscapes. I did not even try to photograph it, I wanted it just for myself perhaps but also mere two dimensional documentation was not worthy. Somethings are only for the mind's eye.

Boy in Circus Tent, Kerala © Richard Ansett 1992 - 2019
There are often sections of literature that accidentally reflect my view of photography and Camus inevitably captures it's existential significance in 'The Adulterous Wife'.

'She only knew that this kingdom has been promised to her from time immemorial and that it would ever be hers, never again, except perhaps in that fleeting moment when she opened her eyes once more on the suddenly still sky and its streams of fixed light, as the voices rising from the Arab town fell suddenly quiet. It seemed to her that the turning earth had simply stopped and that from now on would ever grow old or die. Everywhere, henceforth, life was suspended, except in her, where at that very moment someone was weeping with pain and wonder.'

I rarely reminisce perhaps it's the inevitability of age, perhaps I am beginning to disassociate from the present. There is no excuse actually and I avoid this as much as possible but reading Camus again forces introspection and I have a talk approaching that demands retrospection. My concern is how to communicate to a younger me, the information that might be of value when we only seem to really learn from our own experience.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Extended Caption

I have been asked by the National Portrait Gallery London for an extended caption that might bring some insights in the creation of 'Grayson Perry, Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern, 2013' for the upcoming exhibition at Chelmsford Museum, Spring 2020.

Submitted Draft

'It would not be original to describe the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern as ‘womb-like’, the deep red envelopes you and like a foetus I was looking for the exit when I found this corner. It challenges reality just enough for it to lend a hand in examining this unique and complex subject. This portrait is a record of the first time I met Grayson Perry.

I consider my most successful portraits to be when I am able to document the literal first meeting with my subjects, they are invited in front of the lens without any conventional niceties and often in silence. In a portrait of the famous the resulting awkwardness and vulnerability can feel like iconoclasm but not in a negative sense, I am accidentally de-constructing the myths of celebrity because my main interest is in examining the human condition it masks. I enjoy photographing artists but there is a particular challenge in photographing Grayson Perry, who can present an alternative, equally valid persona ‘Claire’. Claire’s appearance is so radical as to parody the very notion of persona and in this first opportunity to represent her I was determined not to be seduced by the vivid character that protects him. Her otherwise infectious demeanour was met by a deliberate ambivalence that inspired this briefest glimpse that now represents the serious and powerful figure of the contemporary art world, influencer and commentator on the British national character…in a dress.

Perry has spoken to me since about the experience of being the subject of a photograph as ‘observing the photographer with equal fascination’ and this has remained with me since as the closest thing I can share about what he is like. It is the very definition of empathy, to step out of one’s ego in the true exploration of the reality of another person's life. Perry is the poster girl for an empathy with a more complex idea of what Britishness is, it is closer to a lot of people’s reality, not in any narrow definition of gender or sexuality, but existentially. This is his most generous aspect, like any artist the extremes of vulnerability and ego exist within him but he allows us to form our own relationship to him, projecting our own thoughts and feelings onto Claire and she loves the attention.'

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Searching for Cindy

Untitled #540, 2010/12. All rights Cindy Sherman

In 1992 a 26 year old me came across a giant psychosexual masterpiece Untitled, #257 by Cindy Sherman in the window of a Soho gallery. A dripping jewel of cum illuminated in the darkness; held in suspense by gravity and photography as it hovered above a gaping manaquin's mouth. It blew me away and infected me with one of my most treasured and complex memes. It was a £1000 then, a price that felt out of reach but also I was not brave enough even to own it. 'Owning' a Sherman in a feminist context is a fascinating prospect but it is a constant regret that I do not and now cannot possess even a bit of her.

The recent private view of an almost complete retrospective in London (the image described above is absent) gave me the opportunity to reconnect to the exquisite pain of that regret and brush up against her genius and courage in the hope that a little more might rub off.

The majority of the evening was spent searching for the actual Cindy Sherman in the multiple rooms of the National Portrait Gallery and although surrounded by monumental self portraits I was still not entirely sure whether I would recognise her. At one point all the women of a certain age could have been her. Eventually though I found a diminutive and humble human in a dress which could have been made from the same fabric as the wicked witch's ruby slippers.

Sherman's early introvert documentation are iconic tropes for any contemporary adolescent obsessively seeking understanding through the selfie. Hers have evolved over decades of dogmatic repetition into a thorough examination of persona, from the 'protector' of the young through experiments in cultural stereotype to an eventual realisation that all persona is a barrier to progress towards any real understanding of self. This theme builds through the exhibition as the work becomes increasingly surreal and less defined by anything as tangible as gender. 

The final rooms are potentially most baffling and I met two curators struggling with the enormity of defining Sherman's practice for upcoming presentations. My solution is to surrender to the lack of understanding and in so doing be free from the conventions of narrative and rationalisation. Through this filter I can see that Sherman has handed over the contents of her dressing-up box to the randomness of the universe, inserting these new personas into the primordial landscapes that hint at the Jungian ooze that we are formed from and ultimately return.

The exhibition but especially the discussion chaired by Bonnie Greer 'Imitations of Life' re-inspires the quest for knowledge in the hope that somehow it will assist in the alchemy that is the successful synergy of 'self' and work. Sherman is the mistress and poster girl for us all in our attempts to be free of persona as glass ceiling and her intimate explorations are the canvas onto which we project the different stages of our own anxiety. Adoption is my unique USP, my disability and superpower. My own relationship to the existential lack of certainty is my nature and allows for a confluence with other's, it is a useful skill in a photographer seeking understanding of self through the exploration of the lives of others. I am however less comfortable turning that objective gaze onto myself, that takes a different kind of courage. A self-portrait is like hearing my own voice played back, I do not recognise it and I struggle to like it.

Greer disrespects photography by suggesting Sherman transcends the medium. This is often said of any artist who manages to work successfully with it. Photography is such a difficult tool to work with to create original work as it is the most present of mediums. Results are compared and defined by the aesthetic rules of contemporary capitalist culture. Sherman like any artist has chosen her medium and is masterful in its use and she is undoubtedly a photographer. She is after all part of the generation that discovered photography as an art form in the 70's so eloquently defined by writers like Sontag. Each new generation since has re-discovered these lessons and possesses them as if they are new truths. Similarly with gender and sexual politics, Sherman reminds us that all we need to do is look back to recent history to find the same complex questions we are asking now. How amazing and courageous these artists were to feel the new power of the medium for the first time and dare to use it. I can only be in awe.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Collective Alienation

Warren Family from series Darvell Bruderhof Community, UK © Richard Ansett 2019
Happiness is not a relative concept; we should not rely on a perceived lack of contentment of others to reinforce our own sense of wellbeing. If this is a foundation, we are are not on safe ground.

I am spending time with people who I may not immediately seem to have a natural affinity. On the contrary, firstly I always feel like an outsider and my adopted psychology seeks out anyone who shares my sense of dislocation regardless of any sense of otherness. Here I find an empathy with a need to withdraw to form a safe new universe in microcosm. This community, who has literally attempted to isolate itself, is representative of my view that we create worlds within worlds as a subconscious strategy to manage contemporary, complex reality. Of course the irony is that fear and contempt for Sodom are feelings we all share.

Here the word of God forms the firm boundary within which to explore the human experience. The Bruderhof boundary, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, feels much closer to the lived experience than the limits imposed by the secular state. Rules are an attractive alternative to chaos when we struggle to find our place in, what I define as, 'a relatively free society'. The modern state no longer offers nostalgic cultural norms that we can feel part of (or alienated from). Even punks feel the need to belong to a movement, a collective alienation and we are denied even this right to feel 'other' now. The state has found a way to attempt to manage our rage through a strategy of inclusion. If queer is a welcome section of society it is in its very nature no longer queer.

We are not yet taught in schools to cope with the now inevitable associated existential anxiety that pervades society. Millennials must sometimes crave something less multi-dimensional that will quickly answer the open questions that have led to a 'mental health epidemic'. Cast adrift to form our own unique relationships to society we, instead of embracing the complexity and extraordinary gift of freedom of thought, withdraw to form more controllable worlds. We should however resist the desire for order and instead examine inwardly for solutions to why we aren't coping.

To refer to a biblical allegory I am very much involved with; can we say with certainty that if we fall down we will be helped up again by another member of our society that is so huge in comparison to the 300 members of Bruderhof, we call each other stranger? I believe so actually. 

Prayer seems an ineffective remedy for the suffering of others, I see it as an entirely delusional and self-serving act that subjugates responsibility.  It is at best a placebo defined as 'a measure designed to humour or placate', but there is an element of deceit in convincing the patient that what they are offered has any power to heal. There is huge value in being given some time and genuine care however it must be freely given to be most effective and not linked to a promise of heavenly timeshare.

The Bruderhof community will say I am missing the point and I agree that all my rational, atheistic objections fail in the face of 'faith'. I am doomed to never benefit from the power of God ifI do not believe and continue to stubbornly deny his existence. I am doomed to a life without answers, a constant searching for truth through one painful life experience after another and then the risk of eternal purgatory. How wonderful it would be to subjugate responsibility and be held in the strong and comforting arms of the great patriarch.

The Buderhof community in their isolation and withdrawal are no different to us, they are inescapably part of our community too. None of us can exist in isolation, we are entirely reliant on each other for our existence whether we have realised it or not. Our society allows for those that chose not to recognise that they are part of it.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Kuenssberg Letter

Laura Kuenssberg, House of Westminster, London © Richard Ansett 2019
The portrait of Laura Kuenssberg was called in for a curatorial meeting of the National Portrait Gallery and initially not accepted into the permanent collection. It was called in again unusually for a second view but with a request to see other frames from the shoot. See below my response*. The email was read to the committee.

I am very grateful that the curatorial committee is considering my portrait of Laura Kuenssberg at Parliament. I am always honoured that my work is regarded worthy of even a conversation at such a level.

This portrait was taken at the height of the Brexit tensions and it was synchronistic that dark clouds moved across the sky as we shot her. The House of Westminster looms as a forbidding silhouette and nods to my own fascination with Monet’s representation from the other side of the river. The clouds are a classic pathetic fallacy of course and the flare from the additional flash light, hints at the scrutiny with which we observe and judge her as journalist and 'woman'. Whilst the setting is staged, she is caught slightly off guard as she adjusts her microphone revealing a glimpse of her guile.

Not only is Kuennsberg a great journalist but she is also the first woman political editor of the BBC and inevitably worthy of a place in the archive irrespective of which facsimile is chosen. She has the job of unravelling the complexities of the political class and presents this back to us. She must play an artful game in negotiating with people skilled at sophistry and avoidance.

What I might consider great portraiture possesses the emotional moment as priority stolen from an otherwise collaborative process inspired by the greats of portraiture, especially my own heroes Irvin Penn and Bill Brandt who I fear one lifetime is not enough for me to ever emulate. A portrait of any lasting value must represent something of the person beyond a flattering likeness and there is a line to be walked between the complicity of the subject and their collaboration in the portrait process. As 'subject' we are submitting to the risk of being exposed and scrutinised in a more exploratory way. In my work I seek to discover something in the moment that represents the subject beyond just flattering likeness and this I suggest may be at odds with tradition of objectification that accompanies the photography of women 'as beautiful' first

This lone image for your consideration prioritises the examination of her as interpreter of the Machiavellian but I do consider it not to be unkind or unflattering but indeed beautiful. There is a discussion to be had re. contemporary feminist representation and whether we should continue to interpret our modern, successful, powerful women figures primarily through the lens of aesthetic stereotypes that have defined portraits of women in the past.

Very best and kindest regards,

*slightly re-worked from the original text for the purposes of the blog

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

No Photography Allowed

As part of a road trip through the southern states I visited La Grange, Georgia. In 2017 it attracted press attention as the first town to officially apologize for the circumstances that led to the lynching of a young African American man, Austin Callaway in 1940. As part of the Equal Justice Initiative's 'Community Remembrance Project', soil from the sites of known lynchings was collected in special labelled memorial jars to be installed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

‘In Lynching in America: Confronting the legacy of Racial Terror, the EJI documented 4400 racial terror Lynchings in 12 Southern States – and more than 300 in eight states outside the South – between 1877 to 1950. Most critically, Lynching reinforced a legacy of racial inequality that has never been adequately addressed.’

Lynching in America: Confronting the legacy of Racial Terror and hotel breakfast © Richard Ansett 2017
The soil collection for Austin Callaway's memorial jar had not yet taken place and before leaving for the states I requested that any descendants might be found and asked if they would participate in the collection as a specific event for the camera.

Arriving from the UK, racial politics feels very different in the US,  in many ways more progress has been made and even the unresolved issues between black and white feel closer to the surface. In Britain we are culturally less used to airing racial division so openly. We arguably avoided a US style civil war by massively compensating slave owners, funding the industrial revolution and we have unsuccessfully circumvented the conversation ever since. But even in the US there is a reticence to fully negotiate the minefield of racial tension and the EJI project recognises that contemporary generations are shaped by an emotional legacy associated with victim, perpetrator or bystander. The genius of the Community Remembrance Project recognises how these old wounds perpetuate continued  prejudice and division, damaging everyone.

When I visited the EJI offices in Montgomery, Alabama, the home of the civil rights movement, I was conscious of the monetary value of 'civil rights tourism' and in light of William. C. Anderson's article 'When a lynching memorial becomes a photo oppertunity' I can empathise with how behaviours more associated with tourism than commemoration are perceived as disrespectful. I photographed myself at the Rosa Parks bus stop, was photographed with the minister of Martin Luther King Jr's church and was even offered a haircut by his barber; At a time when tensions were rising in nearby Charlottesville, I sent a postcard of black prisoners to my partner in the UK with the standard sentiment and ironic 'Wish You Were Here'. There are many people on holiday visiting the sites on the civil rights trail offering opportunities for the virtue signalling selfie as valuable currency for our social media feeds. I can see that a form of 'Disneyfication' of the black struggle has occurred in making the suffering more palatable to the white visitor so as not to alienate and in that there is a danger of an empathic disconnect from the very demographic trying to be reached in any re-education process. 

Selfie with Lynching Memorial Marker, La Grange, GA, USA
However the overall approach across all the sites is an attempt to be educational, there was a generous welcome at MLK's church and I felt I was a valued guest in someone else's history and the minister pulled no punches in reminding our group tour that the oppression and inaction against black people was by 'white folks'. Surrounded by the safe space created by the love and forgiveness of the pastor there was a palpable sense of shame I faced in that moment at odds with an otherwise glorious narrative of British colonialism and white history that had an early influence on my racial and cultural identity. A confidence built on these foundations is racist.

There is an art to remembrance; in the UK we have our ostensibly conservative and austere permanent memorials to heroic sacrifice in 'victory' but we have no significant monuments to any collective guilt or moral failure defining our past as less than glorious. Germany, crushed and defeated twice and re-born, has embraced another form of national commemoration and Berlin especially has monumentalised the lessons of humanity born from defeat and hubris (my favourite is the Room of Silence at the Brandenburg Gate). But in re-framing the evidence the UK can be considered as equally defeated; the bullet holes in the walls at Amritsar are a more fitting testimony and potentially more valuable to the national character than any tribute to the glorious dead defending the empire.

Bullet Holes in the walls at Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab. Image subject to © .
The most successful memorial as visitor centre and museum I have seen is Oradour-sur-Glane, a village in France and the site of destruction and massacre of the population by the German army. On the instructions of Charles de Gaule it was sealed off to preserve the evidence of the atrocity as it had occurred. On arrival one is directed through an underground tunnel from the modern world into the heart of the deserted original village. Crucially the visitor is instructed on appropriate behavior including, no dogs, no photography or filming and no food or drink. With less distraction the silence encourages a presence to the terrors and increases the chance of empathy.

A white tourist's lack of empathy epitomised by the ubiquitous selfie at a memorial to black suffering directly as a consequence of white oppression is perceived as disrespectful in William.C. Anderson's article. The selfie defined arguably as only casual narcissism and photography's diminished power and importance by the vast numbers of digital images created can be argued as devaluing of any subject. In the context of the US civil rights movement, the contemporary snaps at a memorial to the subjugation and murder by a previous generation who thought so little of the victims that they photographed them as entertainment and were produced as postcards is darkly ironic. Mr Anderson's perfectly erudite description of the act as the ‘rigorous documentation of their own evil’ might be equivalent to the US army selfies with torture victims at Abu Graib.

Abu Ghraib selfies © Unknown
As part of my photographic project 'Lynching in America' I have included some abstracts of the soils in the jars as a typology to emphasise the scale and geography but my main focus is in the documentation of the simple, intimate action by the direct descendants Frances and Walter of the murdered boy Austin Callaway. This documentation of the collection of soil at the site of his lynching whilst conventional in appearance is not intended as a conventional editorial, photojournalistic observation.

Frances and Walter collecting soil for the EJI memorial jar © Richard Ansett 2017
Soil from the site of the lynching of Austin Callaway © Richard Ansett 2017
Entering the unmarked woodland glade and recording the events at the site of the lynching of Austin Callaway with his descendants Frances and Walter, my actions as a white photographer could be compared to a continuation of the damaging legacy of recording mass murder as entertainment and in this re-enactment I am a valid participant in the action equal to the subjects in a process of reconciliation. Any act of reconciliation requires the presence of all parties and I am welcome and present behind the camera. 

This event whilst staged for the camera is a collaboration and a genuine act and is not just between myself Frances and Walter but the result of negotiations with a huge number of other invested people from the La Grange community, black and white, church, police and state. Understanding of photography is transformed from a conventional document of complicity to murder and oppression, to its antithesis. It is the catalyst for healing and a search for truth. As the subject, the experience of being seen and recorded can feel personally valuable and in this moment Frances and Walter's lives are recognised as valuable to this process, very different to how the mob must have viewed Austin Callaway in 1940.

At the time of documenting our quiet act of truth and reconciliation, the riots of Charlottesville were in full swing and drawing the media gaze with the burning torches and chants of "Blood and Soil".

*The apology was not for the lynching but for the failure to protect Callaway from being taken from the police station cell by 6 white men and murdered in nearby woods. One indication perhaps of inherent racial bias and 'white saviours syndrome' is that the much-respected white Police chief who offered the original apology became the centre of the media story eclipsing the black community’s courage in its willingness to accept the apology and the hard work of the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryon Stevenson for inspiring the entire process.

**There is the matter of the colonial gaze as an accidental inherent bias of the white documentary photographer as an ‘invested observer’ and obstruction to the fair and objective representation of any event . There is a responsibility on a contemporary photographer seeking documentary truth to at least have an awareness of this legacy..

This blog is developed from a response to 'When a Lynching Memorial Becomes a Photo Opportunity' - William. C. Anderson 

Saturday, 23 March 2019

More Than Documentation

Danel and Erin, Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize Exhibition 2018/19, National Portrait Gallery, London

The portrait of Danel, 9 years old, a survivor of the Grenfell Tower from the series ‘Children of Grenfell’ and the Portrait Erin, 12 years old, a survivor of the Manchester bombing was submitted to the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2018.  Both images were successfully shortlisted guaranteeing the inclusion in the exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, London.
The Danel portrait inclusion highlights the disconnect between ordinary people and the establishment graphically illustrated by the official response to the Grenfell disaster and the circumstances that led to the fire itself whilst at the same time its presence in a national institution reminds all those affected by Grenfell that they are infact valued. Further, the inclusion in such a prestigious international prize brings an increased level of exposure offering the visitor* an opportunity to engage with Danel’s portrait as a vessel for our empathy and sympathy for all affected.
In the presence of children it is impossible to not consider their potential; this was pronounced as I faced Danel with my camera during the capture of his image, his future has been inevitably altered by his experience. Photography can be more than just documentation and the inclusion in a prize exhibition is more than celebration of craft and ego. The process of creation and the bringing of the work to the gallery space offers an opportunity for further understanding and potential for healing.
Danel with his mother and brother were invited to return to visit his portrait for the first time in the elitist gallery environment. It is both a celebration and examination of the processes that are defining them. The gallery was specially closed to the public to allow them time with the work. A film crew was invited from ITV news to record the event.
” I feel like a celebrity.” – Danel
*The portrait was voted as the favourite by the visiting public.
The inclusion of Erin’s portrait emphasises the therapeutic possibilities of photography. Similarly to Danel and the other children survivors of Grenfell, the act of attention during the photographic act itself offers the possibility of healing and Erin as a print is the focus for empathy for all those affected.
Erin’s unique circumstances as a survivor of a terrorist attack have left her (as with other survivors) with diagnosed PTSD. The inclusion of her portrait at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition offered an opportunity to invite the subject to consider attending the private view event that could have parallels to the Ariana Grande concert. The National Portrait Gallery offered Erin and her family a special space available to her exclusively to recognise her value to them in attending and to help her manage the experience of being once again in a large crowd in a confined space.
Erin had trouble liking her own image but since has requested a print and the family have put it up in their home.