Monday, 14 September 2020


It is easier to talk about what empathy is not, it is not ‘like mindedness’ or affinity. Empathy is non- judgmental. Pure empathy is to step into the shoes of another person irrespective of how different or even repugnant their actions or views might appear to be. Believing we are right is a barrier to empathy. Being open to the most implausible possibilities outside of our own experience even that which is beyond our awareness is essential.

To use a cliché, my empathy is a consequence of my disability and it is now my super-power; I can be overly empathic or ’confluent’, I take on attributes of another person’s experience as my own, it’s a bi-product of a great insecurity that led me to believe that everyone's life was more valuable, more complete than my own. It led to a life of exploring other worlds with a camera. In the moment with the camera empathy enables an infected gaze; I subconsciously seek out ways to satiate this ‘posession’ in my read of the world through the lens.

Epoche is a form of bracketing of our own 'self', our views and prejudices that allow us to create a boundaried environment (let’s say a counselling/therapy session or a photographic shoot) allowing us to slip stream into another life and truly feel it whilst protecting our personal integrity.

Epoche comes with practice, awareness of the concept is enough initially and it is key to knowing what is ‘me’ and what is the infection. The camera is a tool that allows me to immerse myself in others lives, a protective barrier allowing moments of total confluence with another life. With the camera I can safely give myself over to an alternative universe in a way I would not now do otherwise, as it would be a betrayal of my self esteem. Like my work with Samaritans I can offer complete care and support in the moment within the boundaries or rules that protect me and the person seeking support. Empathy without boundaries is a danger to self and the pathway to empathy is also not fully possible without this clear demarcation. We can get lost in other worlds and there is a key to the understanding existentially of mental health issues here, some of us feel too much to safely manage and often ironically we may withdraw and shut down. Like a child becoming an adult. Artists are to some extent like children in so far as we have kept that door partly open to pure imagination and play.

My greatest moment of empathy and photography was in Ukraine, the pinnacle of my journey of understanding. Boys in a City Park explores the lives of 4 severely autistic boys, capturing their private, hidden worlds in the instant of a flash light. Their lives seemed chaotic when viewed through the spectrum of normality but a hyper-sensory world was revealed to me beyond my control and awareness only perceptible in the scrutiny of the images after the event. This was only possible through the high resolution capabilities of digital technology combined with almost instantaneous flash. It’s impossible to explain how important these images are and I feel they are as misunderstood outside of my universe as autism is itself. It is the greatest work of my life.

A boy gently clutches a rose head, another is watched by a grasshopper on a leaf and another boy responds to the flash opening his mouth as if to trigger the light.

Although the temptation is to seek out an equivalent to that feeling of total success like the worst drug, I now exist in a new world seeking new ways to find meaning but still within the dogma of my practice. Many doors are now closed behind me and I can only go forward.

See series here and further statement and curators comment. Boys in a City Park

Boy #1 from Boys in a City Park, Ukraine 2011 © Richard Ansett

Tuesday, 28 April 2020

The Anal Stage

Typology of Toilet Rolls was shot at the height of panic buying during the first Covid-19 lockdown in the UK. As art is essential by proxy I am therefore an essential worker allowing me to join the panic buyers visiting supermarkets to purchase multiple brands photographing them in an improvised studio. Each image is accompanied by the factory specifications including roll length, average sheets per roll, sheet size and total area.

In the tradition of the pseudo-scientific typology and ambivalent cultural gaze this high resolution study of the similarity and difference of the once humble and ignored toilet roll was, until Corvid19, the perfect foil for the absurdity of consumerism; a long lost idea of industrialisation replaced by the human engine driving the economy; our emotions manipulated towards excessive, pathological and unchecked desire for variety.

But now Covid-19 has done what conventional politics could not; it has put at risk hard won structures of delicate persuasion that chasing of our own tail is the only sensible solution to a successful society. The capitalist model has been briefly questioned, perhaps optimistically even checked by this alternative reality and a new shape emerges, the once taken for granted toilet roll elevated to the status of precious commodity and allegory for our ever-present but previously masked primal anxiety.

Perhaps we can broach the sensitive subject of what Mr Sigmund Freud considered stage two of our essential psychosexual development, the anal stage or as I like to call it, the anal stage. I sense some reticence to read on but stay with it like, a stubborn number two, you've committed this far (there are some hamsters on wheels at the end as a reward).

The Anal Stage (2) is one of five stages through which we must all pass in order to have a functioning libido and healthy personality. Mr Freud posited that if a child's relationship to any of the 5 stages is frustrated it will lead to neurosis that will be carried forward to shape the adult personality. Threaten to takeaway an essential element (the toilet roll) in our relationship to our 'little precious' and there is potential for anxiety.

A downgrading of the relevance of Freud's theories has occurred due to the parts of his theories that reflect the inherent mysogyny of his times but the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. Have we lost touch with some still relevant explanations for our collective anxieties? What appears on the surface to be an irrational fear projected onto the innocent toilet roll, does indicate what is in fact an unspoken and perfectly rational anxiety. As the fear of societal breakdown rises our hard one privacy is threatened. Its akin to the fear of being run over and being found wearing dirty underwear. Our wealth has afforded us the luxury and disability of detaching us from what was once understood as community. Some other societies less touched by this great gift of western democratic capitalism must be confused and amused by the hysteria associated with the loss of this thin sheet between us and our erogenous dirt star.

As promised here are some hamsters on wheels 


Anal Slang

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Vivian Maier's Garage

Grandfather and Granddaughter, 2012 © Richard Ansett 2020
I regret that I have discarded thousands of what I thought then were embarrassing original transparencies from my early career as a commercial photographer. My wonton destruction of what might now be a valuable resource was before the rise of the 'found photography' movement that evolved from the post-modern insecurities that 'photography was dead'. If only I had at least scattered these images anonymously to the winds to be discovered or better still, had not thrown them away at all.

Digital allows me to explore the same concept but beyond the nostalgia for analogue and I can investigate themes just by entering references into the search bar, new threads appear across multiple hard drives that respond to my current state of mind as I disappear down the rabbit hole. As a consequence of such a large body of work, many images that relate to the same file number can appear in a sort of Jungian synchronistic curation, which has become part of the 'Film is Dead' process. Its a form of basic algorithm stripping away human influence and leaving the universe to evaluate content. This can be applied beyond the personal archive into the swirling mass of imagery on the web by entering the # and the 4 digit file number of your original work. I.e. the file number of this attached work (see below). Try it on Instagram.

Recycling and re-evaluating my surviving digitised and growing contemporary archive is an important part of my practice as a discussion of photography existentially now. A distance is required from the source of creation and much of my work feels more valuable having existed 'in a draw' often for years to separate it from its original purpose. But further, the more significant the work feels the greater my instinct is not share it, like precious jewels.

My ego (only equal to my insecurity) puts an onus on legacy. I can reassure myself that any failure of my work to make an impression on this zeitgeist might stand a better chance in another. (A bit like Vivian Maier's garage). Images that have felt valueless or weak, can take on significant meaning in another reality; some new knowledge, a fundamental change in society (cough) or a new artistic voice free of introjection and all of sudden previously irrelevant images are liberated through that new lens.

My re-evaluation of the archive is often relative to my own personal progress but the influence of Coronavirus is so powerful that it forces all of us to re-examine our relationship to everything created BV. This monumental perhaps temporary rift has forced a response in the 'way of seeing' and judging work created in a world that feels so different to our current present. Images of hugging and touching, footage of club nights, thousands of sweaty naked bodies writhing, all feel like the curation of some post-virus (PV) exhibition.

A friend has asked me to work with him to find an image from my archive for his new track ’Selbstisolation’. As I scour the hard drives in an attempt to find the agreed file, I have come across this image I have always loved but it feels more valuable now ‘Granddaughter and Grandfather, 2012 (File #7250).’

All limited edition enquiries DM me. Thanks and Stay Safe.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Friend of Derek

Richard Ansett with Otto Dix at Prospect Cottage, 2015. Photo: Paul Robinson Webster

Saving Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage might be more of an esoteric campaign than many of us might wish but we who recognise this little humble building as representative of British art, culture and LGBTQ history also recognise how easily it could disappear rather than be preserved as a treasure for the nation.

Attending the private view of Friends of Derek at Lucy Bell Gallery was a pilgrimage for me to reconnect to my own relationship to Jarman whose kind, handsome persona and passions defined an important part of homosexual cultural identity at a time when prejudice protected by law drove many of us into ghettos of fear and low self-esteem. Jarman's art represented by this house and landscape is a beautiful reminder of the power of art and creativity to change the world if we ever start to doubt it.

The gallery walls are covered with photographic documentation of Jarman and his crew filming in the Dungerness landscape, most powerfully represented by color digital scans of the few surviving prints by the production designer of Jarman's The Garden, Derek Brown (the negatives are lost). These prints have a second generational feel and the details are blurred now like our memories, the fragility of their existence in parallel to the risk to the nation’s cultural history if we allow the cottage to slip away.

I recognise the transformative nature of time to the meaning of a photograph and Brown's documentations are salvaged like the rusting beach ephemera in Jarman's extraordinary and celebrated garden. Everything has become so much more than its original intended purpose. 

I shock a fellow guest by daring to imply that if it wasn't for the threat of loosing Prospect Cottage we would not have been stirred from our pragmatic and self-satisfied slumber to the reality that we must be vigilant in the protection of hard won rights. This fight for Prospect Cottage feels like a defining moment recognising a 'handing over' of the baton to a new form of post-modern activism ‘Wokeness’. For all its new empowerment of the young it has a radical Talibanistic relationship to the totems of the past and the new generation might easily forget that a lot of ground work on the path to change has been prepared by their brave exciting predecessors represented by this otherwise insignificant shack.

Jarman's relationship to his sexuality identity and openness about his illness was courageous in the face of shameful laws that undermined the humanity of all of us and Jarman contributed to my own courage in accepting myself. It's hard to imagine it perhaps if you haven't had the privilege of living through it and surviving it. Perhaps my generation still suffers from a collective PTSD. 

So this little house sits unchanged as the world changes around it and once again is at the centre of things; a line in the pebbles to remind us of art on the frontline but further, to the power of the eccentric British creative spirit.

In the existential poem by John Donne on the side of the cottage Dunne lays with his lover, free of the worries of the world, they are in that moment at the very centre of things too. A simple act of pleasure taken for granted by many is the more precious to those who have not been afforded that same right.

From The Sunne Rising

'To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.'

Friends of Derek at Lucy Bell Gallery, St Leonard’s, Kent until 31st March

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.