Sunday, 27 November 2016

Burn the Witch

During the shoot development of images with Tina, a retired lorry driver from Basildon, Essex, we went for a brief walk around her area. Tina was fully dressed in a dramatic red sparkling number and red heals. I am always impressed by the courage of anyone to be themselves, I think my empathy relates to my own memory of the painful process of extricating myself from my hetero-normative cocoon as a young gay man.

The ‘trans’ experience is similar but not the same, gayness cannot always be seen, so there is some relief from the relentless undefinable attention. There is always a fear, after one’s first queer bashing, that the next hurtful experience might be round the corner, especially if you cannot escape the visual representation of who you are. We all should take responsibility for the effect of any unwanted attention on our fellow humans even if our motives are decent, it is hard not to be distracted by a shiny object in all this mundanity.  The emotional response to negative, unwanted attention affects us in different ways, some of us withdraw into isolation and depression, others find the strength to be ourselves and magnify our personas further as a polite fuck you to society; there are many responses to the journey towards self-realisation.

Although we live in a relatively free thinking society where we can ‘be’ and behave however we choose, there are still invisible forces externally and internally to be defeated and I think anyone that does not rely too much on the scaffolding of cultural representation to define themselves should be celebrated as an inspiration for us all.

So ‘coming out’ in the area we live, when anger and frustration at society can easily be mis-directed towards difference, is not without its dangers. In showing ourselves we can risk exposure to forces that seek to hurt us. Children very often have a cruel existence, the playground is a place where brutal behavior can be normalized and because they are children they may not be aware of the hurt they are inflicting, as adults we have a responsibility to attempt some awareness of how our behavior might affect another human being.

These pictures show Tina walking me towards the scene of the Guy Fawkes night bonfire where the flames were fed by the children of the area, pulling up the fence around her property. No one else’s fences were touched. I am shocked by this act of passive violence, a threat to individualism and to Tina personally. She mentions it so casually, there is no sense of stress or bitterness in her voice and she is matter of fact about the experience. I can only presume that perhaps this is normal for her, which adds to my feeling of anger and sadness.

I ask that we think for a moment how this might feel, to know that there are people who harbor hateful feelings and threatening behaviors that know where we live or will not hesitate to abuse us. How might this affect our personality, our confidence and our ability to function in society? These images are a record of the result of prejudice that leaks down from the seemingly innocuous dog whistles, politically incorrect humor and insults that casually demean and de-humanise, the results of which are very often impossible to define.

I see these pictures of Tina as a Phoenix rising from the ashes, her courage is an inspiration to many new ‘T-girls’ too afraid to step out of the shadows. She supports and allows many people to stay at her house. There is so much amazing work going on in the support of other people that goes unrecognized by medals and awards, this is the truly normal human condition, so much kindness and support offered with no expectation of reward, it is everywhere.

Tina on Burnt Ground (_7285) © Richard Ansett 2016

Tina on Burnt Ground (_7287) © Richard Ansett 2016

Tina on Burnt Ground (_7294) © Richard Ansett 2016

Sunday, 20 November 2016

A Mosquito Trapped in Amber

I am aware of the increasingly high production values of both film and television drama and even some reality shows. Many films and television programs now have incorporated incredibly high standards of photography, beautiful light and composition that envelop and support their narrative. This work is equal to the abundance of aesthetically beautiful but ultimately shallow still photography that floods the market presented as fine art photography. It would be fair to say that perhaps there is some element of chicken and the egg going on here, in so far as it is the still image that has inspired film to raise its game incorporating classic and contemporary photographic themes. This is exciting, we can see our work and ideas seeping into the zeitgeist, becoming part of a standardized repertoire to reflect modern life but I feel that many still images defined as fine art now feel like nothing more than a still frame lifted from somewhere else.

So, the challenge now and initial arbiter of quality for any photograph, is whether it is capable of elevating the technical aesthetic to a level that can only be explored by the still image. What defines a great photograph above and beyond a transferable aesthetic to the moving image?

First and foremost there must be an acknowledgement within the work itself that there is a reason for interrupting the timeline, for cutting into the inevitable flow and observing the content 'In stasus''. As a portraitist I am particularly interested in the complexity of emotion expressed by the human face, the 1000s of barely observable muscle movements that betray our emotional state, only fleeting and overlapping in film, barely registered as part of a complex narrative. With the still image there is a frozen moment that can be scrutinised outside of the normative timeline. We can hold an emotion and not let go of it like a mosquito trapped in amber.

I have never found that two dimensional beauty is enough, both in people and art, it is fleeting, seductive and disarming, I want to possess it definitely but once I have consumed it I tire of it quickly, I find myself only seeing the flaws. Beauty is a successful mask that hides that which is most interesting in us; it is more often an instrument of deception than an arbiter of knowledge or truth. Beyond this shiney surface is a seam of complexity that transcends conventional time. Normative beauty has become (and perhaps has always been) part of our medication to assist in our survival as we engage with the complexities of our present, it is the art equivalent of Prozac and many images commercially fulfill this transient criteria, as amyl nitrate hits my brain and floods me with pleasure for a few seconds, so does much work we are exposed to everyday satiate our desire as we drive past a poster or flick through a magazine but it fades quickly and leaves me with a headache only cured by the consumption of more of the same. Further I find myself seeking the flaws in anything presented as perfection hence I cannot spend too long with that which is presented as close to it, the longer I am with it the sooner I become bored, then angered and finally threatened by it as I fail to compete on an existential level with the message of purity. So what elevates an image from the morass of perfectly lovely but ultimately shallow beauty to one of lasting value?

The inclusion of the immediate historic narrative within the image, the cars, clothes, technology, anything which is present in the landscape that is representative of the era within which we are passing through, deliberately or incidentally, is an essential element in increasing an images chances of future value, this may include elements that in the present moment might feel unattractive, especially to the nostalgist; a MacDonalds sign, a rubbish bin, a Toyota Prius. Included in this is the technical make up of the production of the work itself, the very nature of the image can indicate the era of its creation. The addiction to nostalgia as a prop to elevate work in the moment in the pursuit of the transient 'hit' from our audience is my main gripe; we are sacrificing our works' long term value reducing it ultimately to the fish and chip paper of history. I see few reasons to create a photograph that merely replicates an era of photography long dead and this has been my argument against the use of analogue film techniques in my article 'FILM IS DEAD' for Hunger magazine. There are some exceptions that play off these ideas by juxtaposing contemporary content with nostalgic processes but mostly I immediately disregard all works that do not negotiate in some way with the present. 

The path of least resistance is not the solution to great work or work with any sense of legacy, mostly we must explore and celebrate the present and if we find the present to be a place we do not want to explore or that we do not find attractive, we should examine why that is within ourselves but ultimately we should be vigilant to the unique powers of the defining moment, the value of suspending emotion and action in time, creating an immediate history.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop

For the purposes of this project Penelope (follow this link for full series) I have worked with a female masker, (a man who transforms into a female character using latex) to re-create a popular childhood fiction inspired by adult sadomasochistic fantasy. The process of 'masking' is not considered 'trans' it is a more fetishised role play. We have re-created the classic scene of the helpless maiden tied to the railway tracks in the tradition of Mabel Norman's performance in the 1913 'Race for a Life' and Betty Hutton, 1947. Penelope is now a man who wants to possess a woman in another way and he choses to tie himself to the tracks in an act of empathy with the stereotype but whilst placing himself in danger he is acknowledging feelings of suicide, self harm and need for rescue.

The Perils of Penelope Pitstop was a spinoff from Wacky Races, which features Penelope as the lead character. Penelope is a traditional damsel in distress. Her catchphrase is "Help, help!" She displays a curious combination of ingenuity and helplessness but when her male nemesis (The Hooded Claw) grabs her, she is incapable of doing anything other than yelling for help. In the tradition of these scenes, the very protagonist that placed her in danger is in disguise and is in fact her kind and wise guardian. It is easy to be blinded by the stereotype of the helpless female but the 'man' is presented with equal prejudice. The nemesis character is portrayed as duplicitous with a hidden agenda, driven by primal instincts of greed, suppressed sexual desire and aggression, which Penelope does not or does not want to see, she trusts and loves him. Perhaps it is the ultimate fantasy to consider ourselves to be the perpetrator, rescuer and victim? See Drama Triangle 

Penelope_8313, from series 'Penelope' © Richard Ansett

Penelope_8490, from series 'Penelope' © Richard Ansett

Penelope_8492, from series 'Penelope' © Richard Ansett

From ' The Perils of Penelope Pitstop'

Mabel Norman from 'Race for Life' © Unknown

Monday, 4 July 2016

Like Father Like Son

Jeremy & Grayson © Richard Ansett 2016
Detail from Jeremy & Grayson © Richard Ansett 2016
'Jeremy and Grayson, 2016' is published in the new edition of Der Greif Magazine launching at the Arles Photofestival this week.

This image is from an ongoing exploration of the issues around the expression of emotion in men following the recent shocking statistics of male suicide in the UK. Through the observation of relationships between fathers and sons at varying stages of development, subjects are requested to express intimacy in the boundaried atmosphere of the photographic session and the response recorded.

The influence of cultural conditioning on males from the earliest age has historically punished the expression of any significant emotion with accusations of weakness, femininity or homosexuality. The stiff upper lip as a metaphor of the Victorian era and more particularly the British empire still pervades an element of the psyche of the male. The very definition of manhood has been represented by the exercise of great self restraint in the expression of emotion as a celebration of national character.

I am exploring the divergence of the male and female response to feeling as it relates to a moment of self awareness in the child when the outward expression of unfettered emotion that could be read by others is perceived to be judged as wrong or dangerous (or equally as powerfully) as successful. The young male child begins to see the expression of emotion as revealing weakness, exposing them to potential attack and defeat, whereas the female child at the same moment learns of its equal and opposite power. The female child conditioned through centuries of oppression to not have a voice adapts, understanding the power of the expression of emotion whereas the male child correlates withdrawal as protection. In terms of this as a broader and more defining cultural representation, the British empire itself relied entirely on this outward cold bloodedness so that only a very few could control  such vast swathes of population. The legacy of this success has led to its continued resonance in the male psyche in a modern world where the rise of women towards equality has recognised these notions as limiting and mysoginistic. This is creating a contemporary emotional vacuum exacerbating the dangers for men who feel they cannot compete with their own engrained expectations. My work as a Samaritan forces me to empathise with these notions as pressures that can lead to thoughts of suicide and self harm and the statistics for men are terrifying.

Whilst it is important to recognise that the fight for true equality between men and women is far from over and men are still the predominant force in the world, it must be recognised that there is a consequence to a behaviour that represents a certain form of success that has led to the dramatic contemporary statistics of male mental health issues and suicide. The suicide rate for men is now three and a half times that of women. The very machismo values that remain the definition of manhood are directly implicated in men's reluctance to seek help and support, whether from friends or professionals, preferring to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs with all the consequences that hold for careers, relationships, social isolation and homelessness, all of which are known to be key risk factors for suicide.

In this image of artist Jeremy Wood and his son Grayson, I perceive even at this early stage the child's need to escape from the immediate and present expression of feeling through self distraction. Often this can be observed as a desire for food, computer games, television, behavioural issues and in this particular case a small red car. The toy represents a self imposed block to his engagement with his father, he feels unable to engage with the act of intimacy without it. It seems the expression of emotion triggers a fight or flight response at such an early age that we start to develop complex evasive strategies that become the defining characteristics of the male personality in adulthood.  

Monday, 6 June 2016

A Child's Bedroom

I spend a lot of time either supporting or recording the lives of people who might be conventionally considered ‘to be’ members of the very lowest echelon of society. I immediately object to this definition as it diminishes the humanity of all of us and masks the reasons behind the increasing disparity between what we might consider the other end of the societal spectrum, ‘the elite’. It is these clumsy definitions that passively point the finger at those who have not been offered the opportunities or do not know how to recognize and take them. Equally it diminishes the terrible depression and mental illness behind the shiny gates. Instead images of the poorest and most vulnerable passively act as a two dimensional arbiter of acceptability and success. I am personally very conscious of how close I am to eating out of bins, whilst at the same time accepting an award, being published in an international magazine or just sitting in my garden. I don’t consider myself unique, so I imagine we are all a little bit afraid that the lives we are living might not be on the firm foundations we hoped, its why we work so hard right; to feel safe? Because I am exposed to such a diverse cross section of society; standing in a squalid bedroom of a child with a soiled nappy on the floor and the next day eating bircher muesli at my regular table at The Wolseley, I inevitably am challenged to comprehend where I belong, well I don’t, my adopted experience allows me to float between world’s observing through a thin plain of glass, from the outside looking in.

I see only great benefits to belonging.

My existential loneliness that seeps into every pixel is a very comfortable place; it is where ‘I belong’. I am of course not alone, but the often crushing realizations that lead to hugely challenging moments in our lives as we pass into the era of individuation, I am already prepared for.

We are leaving people behind in this country in our need to feel safe, increasing numbers are in our blind spot, like death, the sun or cruelty to animals, we cannot look our own country’s poverty square in the face without the safely defined parameters that frame horrors as palatable. Whilst we accept some personal responsibility for our own lives we must also recognize how we have achieved our place in society and in so doing attempt to emphasise with anyone less able. We can help people back up on their feet or even show them how to stand at all and unfortunately we also have to support those who have no foundations for achieving a ‘successful life’ defined by some semblance of happiness. Its actually in our best interests to be slightly less individualistic, we are inextricably linked, equal to each other and part of a society. We have an in-escapable collective responsibility irrespective of our selfish narcissism, for those that deliver our mail, collect our garbage, make our laws as well as those who steal from us or want to hurt us.

I am working with a group of artists on an exhibition in the Houses of Parliament later this month sponsored by 1001 Critical Days Manifesto that examines the impact of the first 2 years of life on the adult personality and we will explore with scientists how we might respond to improve our potential futures.

A Child's Bedroom, UK © Richard Ansett 2014

Soiled Nappy, UK © Richard Ansett 2014

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Intentional Object

It is a convention that every thought must contain within it an intention, we must love 'something', desire, hate or fear 'something'; we are accustomed to comprehending feelings through this frame of reference. However, the objects that we should be projecting our feelings towards can be confused, disguised or substituted by more palatable alternatives. The object that, for instance, anger is projected towards can feel too dangerous so we can substitute it with another, all be it other human beings, things, lovely shiny pretty things, food, drink, drugs, God, sex, art. What's yours?

Because we feel we must place our emotions 'somewhere' we can easily find proxies to escape the intensity of our actual feeling perceived as too painful, risky (or even good). When deploying these engrained tactics of evasion and projection, the 'source thirst' will of course never be satiated, whilst that which is being evaded remains unrecognised. Immersion in this cycle is so culturally engrained that the origins of feelings can feel lost and substitutes seem the only normative solution.

This can be very useful in a consumerist society in a trillion pounds of debt, the onus now being on us to save the economy one latte at a time.

If this notion that you are some fleshy programmed machine of the state is not your idea of happiness, all is not lost, the line is never broken to those feelings you are escaping and that sense that something is not quite right is actually where the hope is. If you don't feel like this, congratulations on being a well balanced member of society, you may go.

Here is a triptych of my godson Jake; his intentional object for the purposes of this discussion is the glass of water, mine is him, the exploration of thirst is shared. The image is an illustration of the status quo and unfortunately not a clue to any solution. I find a useful exercise is to just try and be angry, sad or happy and hold it allowing the emotion to exist or alternatively explore the feeling attaching itself to the recurring intentional substitute object I.e. that fourth biscuit. It can be gruelling but it only feels so difficult because we are out of practice.

The link to photography is a bit obvious in so far as we as photographers feel we must also choose a subject or a figure from the ground. If we are not fully aware of the forces influencing our choices it is inevitable that all our images will be different from each others', which does define a style in the fine art practitioner. But as documentary photographers this challenges our sense of the interpretation of objective truth.  We don't need photoshop to manipulate our images when we are perfectly capable of altering the present reality in front of the lens consciously or otherwise.

Jake with a Glass of Water © Richard Ansett 2016

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Victoria Wood RIP

Victoria Wood, London 2011 © Richard Ansett

Poverty Porn

‘Migrant Mother’ is one of the most famous images in the world taken from a series of photographs that Dorothea Lange made of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in 1936. I have been reminded of it during a shoot with Karin a victim and survivor of child sexual abuse and viewing an archive portrait of a mother and child discussed recently with Guardian Weekend Magazine picture editor Kate Edwards.

I suppose I am comparing the literal starvation and suffering of Lange’s subject with the emotional malnourishment I felt from my contemporary sitters.

Migrant Mother resonates with contemporary society more so now during our own version of what depression is but our austerity is only felt by those not often placed in the spotlight and when we do see those who suffer, they are often categorized as somehow complicit in their plight. My images of the underclass in this country as represented here by the image of a mother and child (below), shot for the notorious ‘Benefit Street/CH4’ have been accused of objectifying poverty, whilst the same images of suffering from abroad seem more palatable. Perhaps we are a little uncomfortable facing up to the reality that there is genuine poverty here (literally and emotionally) when we appear to have so much and we are often quoted as being the 5th largest economy in the world.

Update 24/09/2018 after Barbican retrospective 'Politics of Seeing'  Lange was commissioned by the visual encyclopaedia of American life in order to promote the New Deal, the images were presented in context of a single narrative to persuade the country of a political argument. The plight of white Americans particularly shocked the country and contributed to change. The images of the hardship of white people only previously reserved for 'other communities' must have been shocking at the time. The focus on white as opposed to the expectation of black suffering in images, I suggest, drew attention to the plight of the country in a way that images of other races would not. The tragedy here is in the expectation of the representation of black poverty in images as 'not as shocking' as white. The humiliation is real and exaggerated if the expectation that as white you have an inherent advantage. Lange is not so brutally objective and her politics masks this unique image of white humiliation with some sympathy and is presented by curators as 'stoicism' but I suggest the expression in Migrant Mother is despair.

I wonder how this would be received now. The definition of 'poverty porn' (an accusation levelled at my work) is "any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which exploits the poor's condition in order to generate the necessary sympathy for selling newspapers or increasing charitable donations or support for a given cause". End

Sometimes I am brought into contact with an emotion exuding from a subject that is so powerful and complex it changes the physical nature of the space in that moment. As they face the camera there is an exchange of mutual needs; to be seen and recorded. I never quite know when it will occur but it is the Holy Grail.

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet.” – Dorothea Lange.
Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936
Mother & Daughter, from Benefit Street/CH4 © Richard Ansett 2014

Karin with Cat © Richard Ansett 2016

Sunday, 10 April 2016


The convention for the representation of a victim especially in cases of sexual abuse is the silhouette or blurred out face, their voice distorted or replaced by an actor on the news. 

Here though the subjects from this new series of images created with the cooperation of Minnow Films and the BBC, present themselves defying this stereotype and for the objectification of the lens; out of the shadows and into the light. The portraits are a recognition of their role as victim and survivor but beyond the terrible narrative that has blighted their childhood and inevitably influenced their adult lives, they are more ambivalently representative of a shared reality for all of us.

The words 'victim' and 'survivor' whilst conventionally useful in defining the terms through which we view the subjects as an item of news, continue to acknowledge the presence of the perpetrator and this goes some way to explain the reticence many have in coming forward to be defined in these terms. If we remove the narrative of these sitters we are presented with an iconography of ordinariness, the presentation and celebration of the relatively mundane subject, barely noticed as we pass each other in the street but frozen here to be scutinised as we might do ourselves in the mirror. Can our story be read in the way we choose (consciously or otherwise) to present our personality to the world? How has our unique response to the most difficult moments in our lives affected how we are seen and accepted by ourselves and society?

In the final edit I am hugely challenged by this notion of a curated defining moment. It has taken the subject of childhood sexual abuse to bring this to the forefront of my mind. I have included a selection of images (below) that satisfy the photographer in me but they inevitably lack fairness. The invitation is to scrutinise each subject and form a relationship with them in relation to our own life experience. Not purely as subjects of some distant sensational news story but as representatives of our own emotional possibility. The complete series hopefully should act as a form of human typology, the shared experience being the timeline of our growth into an adult. The horror that defines them in is context of abuse, is only a small part of their lives up to this point; in many cases they have relationships and children of their own. We should not allow ourselves to be entirely defined by the past but accept the good and bad as part of the experience that shapes us and celebrate the great variety of human experience.

Thanks to all for your trust and support.
© Richard Ansett 2016

© Richard Ansett 2016

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Working with Children

I do bang on a lot about the client photographer relationship and this new portrait of Jeremy Irons shot during a voice recording at the BBC is another example of that empathy, trust and support. An image that I perceive is successful is read purely emotionally in the moment and equally further down the line with some objectivity. I consider my work in hindsight as if it is not mine, the longer the gap between the energy of the shoot the better in judging a work's value. I allow my emotions to shape the reality I am in in the moment so my perception in this state cannot not be trusted, I am possessed and this energy leads to the creation of the work that represents me. I don't apologise for the composition that I always find my way back too, those of you that know me , understand this is connected to my adopted experience and it is a genuine and therapeutic affinity, which began in my original relationship with Jan Van Eyke's Arnolfini Marriage and later with the objectivist Dusseldorf school.

This image (as with all work I consider most successful) is taken between one certainty and another, in the literal and creative journey from one space to another. I see this new space and demand that the subject place themselves within it, and I am consumed by a need and this is a dangerous moment for anyone who might be in my path, I am not sure what I would do if anyone said no to me in these moments; burn their house down, hire a Ukrainian hit squad or throw a massive tantrum like a 6 year old (which I have done to the bemusement of all around me). Mostly though everyone can feel the molecules in the air change and go with me. Mr Irons included. In these moments the subject is less complicit, the process is now less collaborative as I begin to shape all the elements to satiate my deep emotional needs in the moment. This is not a negotiation or discussion, the assistants are prepared for these moments as these are the times, the narrow windows, the brief glimpses of success surrounded by failure when something can happen and they must be ready.

Digital is really helpful for this, I can now roll the spliff and smoke it in the moment whereas in the old film days I had to wait hours if not days to know if I would get stoned.

I often feel an image works in the moment but afterwards I am consumed with self-doubt and a sense of complete failure, convinced I have seduced myself into a image that actually lacks any of the intense emotions I felt in its creation in the moment, so then I must just leave it and it sits on a hard drive for months or years until something happens to remind me to return to it and re-evaluate. This image was shot in November 2015, I went see the film adaptation of J.G.Ballad's High Rise and Batman vs Superman this week and felt Mr Irons was worth considering again. This image feels like it is working now, its value is in its authenticity, it is an autobiographical record of a moment that happens to include Jeremy Irons, a curtain, a fridge and a trolly; they possess equal spacial value. It is essential that an image possess some of the chaos of life; tidy and conventional notions of beauty don't represent my experience or anybody else that I know. Thanks as always to all those who help to facilitate these opportunities and support my work, I know I'm a child.

Jeremy Irons © Richard Ansett 2015

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Stephen Hawking

Even in this world of celebrity there are few living humans who are guaranteed a place in history along side Da Vinci, Mozart and Galileo (Hawking's personal hero). This shoot was organised very precisely as there is a limit to Hawking’s physical energy and whilst we are used to seeing Hawking alone, he has a huge team both personally and at Cambridge University that enable him to exist in any normal way inn the world that we would understand. I invited him infront of the famous Cambridge blackboard wall from floor to ceiling, centred within a chalk and board universe of his own making, a reality re-shaped by his theories. The flash reflecting like a super nova off the surface as Hawking is held in the gravitational pull and orbits in his chair. A space man impotent without the technology to keep him alive in this hostile environment, allowing him to explore the wonders of the universe.

How do you communicate the incredible genius as well as the normalcy of a person in a moment especially when the parameters for reading the personality are altered from the convention?

When photographing people with disability it is essential not to expect conformity to the aesthetics of the ‘everyday’ world. The visual processes that we use to define personality do not apply and when we try to force 'a square peg through a round hole' we are at risk of patronising and mis-communicating the reality of a person’s life. No matter how masking of the personality the disability is, we must find a way to communicate humanity equal to ourselves.

Thanks especially to BBC and The National Portrait Gallery for their unwavering trust and faith and Prof Hawking and his amazing team for their openess and enthusiasm.

Professor Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University © Richard Ansett acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, London