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 February or March 1936. I have been reminded of something within this image when viewing a recent image from a shoot with Karin a victim and survivor of child sexual abuse and a portrait of a mother and child discussed recently with Guardian Weekend Magazine picture editor Kate Edwards.

Karin has many cats she has rescued. Animals are a vessel for us to project our feelings towards. Karin is showing the tenderness and affection towards this innocent, trusting animal denied to her in a moment by a Paedophile. This is a moment of non-verbal communication shared with the camera, visceral in its complex ambivalence that I feel has its roots in Lange’s portrait.

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

Migrant Mother resonates with contemporary society more so now during our own version of depression 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.

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