Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Manchester Bombing - After the Attack

Erin in her bedroom, from series After the Attack, 2018 © Richard Ansett
Erin in her bedroom, from series After the Attack, 2018 © Richard Ansett


Shot just before the first anniversary, this image of Erin is from a series of portraits of the young girls affected by the Manchester Arena bomb. The series attempts to capture something of the emotional and psychological impact that a traumatic event can have on the present for a survivor as they attempt to move forward with their lives. The effect of PTSD is unique to every person but a common reaction to this particular event has been a fear of returning to any large public space and in these studies the otherwise innocuous bedroom locations acknowledge that in many cases survivors can find leaving the house difficult. Part of the healing process is a need to withdraw.

In photographing vulnerable subjects a circle must be squared; an instinct to protect with an equal and opposite responsibility to capture something of their struggle in the moment. Empathy is both inherent and learned and is an essential component in the process towards any potentially great portrait but sympathy can limit the necessity to press a subject towards a representative state.

When attempting to capture any expression that reflects complex humanity we must be vigilant of the conventional rules of engagement and resist the instinct to treat the contract between artist and sitter as normative. It is important to be constantly aware when photographing a subject that they are equally aware of us and any emotion we capture is a response to that relationship as evidence of the complex relationship the subject has with the wider world.

To evolve in the pursuit of an atypical genuine and complex emotion is to continually feed new experience and education into practice. The self awareness that comes from learning about the hidden forces that motivate behaviour leads to an evolution in every aspect of external persona that attracts the projection of the feelings of others. We can literally (and often silently) become a vessel to receive the emotions of others by recognising (and in some cases) removing the obstacles to our emotional progress. Humans are incredibly sensitive readers of each other on a subconscious level, certainly in trusting someone with our most difficult feelings but a cognitive understanding of these signals free of infection and denial can only be learned.

To capture something genuine that offers insight into the subject, ourselves and something representative for the human experience is the holy grail and requires great commitment which may very occasionally be rewarded.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Monocultural Monumentalism

The project 'Lynching in America' distills a horrific national legacy down to the simple collection of soil by the descendants at the site of a 16 year old boy's murder in a woodland glade outside LaGrange, Georgia.

Ironically the blog Wakeupscreaming has invited me to contribute to their issue themed 'The Great Outdoors' with this series, which feels more micro rather than macro and is the
 antithesis of what might be defined as great.

The photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams' iconic monochromatic works shot at Yosemite National Park are the personification of 'The Great Outdoors' and continue a romantic tradition of representing US landscape. Free from any presence of humanity these monumentalist cliches offer a simpler more palatable monocultural language, a bigger 'universal truth'. The chaos, pettiness and failures of humanity seem too complicated for Adams and he withdraws to contemplate an alternative utopia free from our parasitic species. So vast are the mountain scenes that I can no-longer make out the noble attempts of individual truth and reconciliation being played out in our intimate landscape (at the same time the flaming torches of the marching fascists are drawing the gaze of the worlds media just down the road in Charlottesville).

When defining beauty by natural rules we should take time to comprehend the terrible cost in Darwinian terms in its evolution. At the end of her life, Leni Riefenstahl similarly withdrew from the world to an undersea paradise in her trite films that accidentally re-enforce her fascist credentials.

I am suspicious of representations of the natural world without some acknowledgement of the presence or impact of humankind. To be representing the present we must start to perceive the chaos and mess of contemporary society as a beauty too. The romanticised representation of the natural world is a dangerous meme that threatens a complex democratic and free thinking society.


Frances with soil, LaGrange, Georgia USA (from series Lynching in America) © Richard Ansett 2017

Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams


Thursday, 5 April 2018

Random Acts

Me and Patrick Mateer filming on the streets of Hull for Are You My Mum? © Hollie Rosa Warren


Working with the the Random Acts team to put together the film Are You My Mum? was an opportunity to re-engage with the original project in the same way but also in a new way.

Returning to the location of my unknown mother's home is always a difficult emotional experience and I need to be motivated. I am consciously connecting to the loss and the rejection both at birth and again in my attempts to contact her in adulthood. There is a subconscious and not fully explored emotional reaction still, which is a combination of sadness, an existential loneliness and an unresolved anger that is accessed in returning to Hull.

Part of the opportunity presented by the film was to take a further risk in my direct engagement with the ladies of Hull, which has been (up until the commission) a distant connection expressed in the early photographs and posters. This distance as metaphor, reflects the literal paradox of being both near and far from my mother emotionally and physically. The film introduced a direct connection to women of my mother's age and because this was beyond the parameters of the original work, it felt like we were making a different project inspired by the original work to assist others to empathise with me; I had become the subject. 

There is a genuine sense that any women of a certain age could be my mother so spending intimate time with the ladies on the street was a valuable opportunity afforded by working in this way whilst meeting the expectations of the Random Acts brand. My interest has always been to be challenged by limitation and continues to be an exploration of the possibilities within much tighter and restricted boundaries than film. I find a fluid timeline particularly limiting, I prefer to freeze a moment of time and present a subject abstracted in aspic to be studied but not fully understood. It is not possible to bring a project designed for one medium successfully into another medium and I feel the success was in identifying this early enough. I was happy to hand over the direction and editing and be an advisor and subject, so long as the project core aims and message were protected.

The film may steer away from the original work's idea of a universal shared sense of not knowing and this message has been lost in translation in prioritising a communication of my internal psychology but this is a sacrifice required to make it work and I am ok with it, we needed to make something work in a limited time and budget and it needed to be something more than a documentary about the original work. We have been successful in communicating to people that adoption is complex beyond the singular positive narrative; a double sided coin that is both love and rescue recognising the trauma of loss and abandonment.

Ultimately the broadcast, designed specifically to be launched on Mothers Day to maximise the potential for any visceral connection, offers an opportunity to deliver a meme reaching a wider audience than any of us could have imagined. Are You My Mum? as an original deeply personal project may have never been seen had it not been for Hull winning City of Culture 2017 and without this film an audience would not have the opportunity to understand what might motivate any of us to create work and bring it to the world.

Friday, 23 March 2018

The Rules of the Engagement

Naked woman and sofa, 2018 © Richard Ansett 2018
I am again focused on mortal detail working with my muse Ms Beryl Nesbitt very much in line with my image of another great muse and model Geoff transforming from Tina. There is nothing Beryl can do that does not fascinate me, she is my mother alive and dead and her memory of her mother was that she was a bitch. I am continuing a tradition of 'the artist's nude reclining' but photography must be more than pastiche in its insecure demands for recognition and I refuse to present work that purports to be art through mimicry alone. So this is a moment in time either side of the tradition and beyond the frame.

I was concerned that Beryl might die before I could explore her mortal body and capture her extraordinary nature in aspic. I did not want to miss another opportunity to engage with my mother on my terms and Beryl is happy to participate in any role play that in some way satisfies her own needs.

Neue Sachlichkeit is an attempt at an unadulterated response, the world stripped bare of sentimental nostalgia and conventional beauty. Only in recognising the impossibility of the task can we come close to achieving our goal.  A practice still useful now in exposing the contemporary blocks to any successful engagement with the present.

Some rules of Neue Sachlichkeit practice:

1) an image cannot be (or even feel) adulterated. The image and meaning of a subject can only be influenced ‘in camera’ through the manipulation of the world in front of the lens. Authenticity demands a palpable genuineness regardless of and challenging the established rules of aesthetics.

2) The image must be stripped of personal or sympathetic notions both in content and information. #Empathy and #sympathy if any must be left to the observer and the subject #humanity should be exposed at odds to the practice and accentuated through exposure to it. 

3) Presence of the artist as deliberate or accidental protagonist must be declared. No image should imply truthful representation. 

4) Images must be existentially representative of the era in which they are formed, archaic aesthetic notions of nostalgia and beauty must be recognised as crutches for short term gratification distracting from a more honest engagement with the present. Archaic rules seen as established and natural must be challenged and subjugated for a new understanding and a new relationship to the present seen as beautiful. See article for Hunger magazine Film Is Dead.

5) An arbiter of success of any image in the artist's mind is in its legacy and value to an imagined future audience 

6) Any experiment with objectivism must acknowledge the impossibility of objectivism.

Friday, 2 February 2018

The Political Portrait

Tommy Robinson, political activist, co-founder, spokesman and leader of the EDL.

When preparing work for public view, it increasingly becomes evident that the edit is a vital component in the development of work. The representation of a person or event is manipulated by the photographer deliberately and accidently in many different ways in the moment. The audience, who do not necessarily share the views of the artist or subject, project thoughts and feelings into any interpretation regardless of original intent.

When attempting to select an image that in some way represents a politician or political activist, there is a consideration that the subject is already infected with multiple memes attached to their persona. The very act of publishing an image irrespective of its implied critique or celebration can feed the cult of personality around an individual who uses the powers of politics to enable their pursuit of personal power.

An image can be presented in any context that changes the way it is viewed. I recall photographing Peter Tatchell and his distrust of me as the photographer in representing him by a certain camera angle or lighting that he perceived as critical. With my portrait of Peter Mandleson and Alastair Campbell I managed to circumvent their cynicism through representing myself as something I was not.

The experienced politician is continually vigilant and cautious of agreeing to any intimate session with a photographer. The only time that they are exposed to any uncontrollable scrutiny and potential manipulation is in public appearances and there are many great examples of revealing images that have defined careers positively and negatively in these fleeting moments, usually engaging with the ‘great unwashed’.

With Mr. Robinson, this cautiousness with the media does not apply, there is no image in all my files of him (and other representations of him online) that damage the persona. The shouty, ranty Tommy both satisfies the expectation of the liberal left and the far right. Posting any attempt to reflect his humanity feels like a betrayal of the expectation of me as a liberal leftist. Everything is infected with propaganda. The primary image I have chosen to share follows the classic Italian fascist aesthetic, a pastiche of a Mussolini bust, half enveloped by the darkness. Perhaps I am judging him as a white, slightly puffy man with a crew cut as satisfying some of the visual criteria that might lead one to a stereotype. Photography can do that, there is always an objective element, a documentation of a subject's choice of representation.

As audience we can chose to interpret this image as accurate or see it as a discussion on the unfair representation of a political activist expressing their right to free speech. To be fair to Tommy, this image is taken out of context; it was shot as part of a composite image with a known extreme Islamist who I shot separately on the same day (a decision was made not to have them in the same room for the same reasons I would have done so). I am an artist under the guise of a portrait photographer so I am not uncomfortable manipulating and distorting the context of truthful representation it is my USP clearly set out in my statement.

Beyond the fact that Mr. Robinson is in the news at this moment, the question to be asked is why am I not showing the image of the radical Imam? Perhaps I hold Tommy to a higher standard but I feel a sense of disappointment in those who respond to perceived threat with an equal and opposite reaction and in the process loose the high ground.


My interest is Mr. Robinson himself. What is clear is that being in the room with anyone who represents a dangerous concept as part of their very persona, commands the attention and influence over others whose views are less than nuanced and who has become used to being exposed to the most dangerous of political forces, is uncomfortable and therefore of great interest to me on a human level as a portrait.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Made in Britain

Here is a series of portraits taken of some textile workers in Manchester, England.

These subjects work in a hectic, traditional factory. We invited them onto the backdrop set up on the floor and during their breaks they sat for a few moments. It is interesting to observe and record a subject out of context of their environment and then re-apply the narrative in a different form i.e. text or statement. The emphasis has shifted from a documentary convention to a study of human response to events. The direct flash is uncompromising but the images are more of an honest documentation of the effects of life and labour. The plain background helps to isolate them from the environment which whilst informative is a distraction from my interest in the effect of life experience on each unique individual.

Untitled #4577, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett

Untitled #4601, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4636, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4670, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4691, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4733, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Children of Grenfell

These images are from a series presenting 5 children who survived the Grenfell Tower Fire, shot on the eve of the 6 month anniversary.
The definition of a celebrity is ‘being well known’, in the ‘public eye’ or ‘famous’. The word itself implies a celebratory element but there are different forms of attention, ‘wanted' and ‘unwanted’. When the spot light falls on us it can be both destructive and chaotic as well as therapeutic, some of us crave the attention and others withdraw. It is impossible to pre-judge the reaction.
All of us are exposed to events in childhood that alter the shape of our adult relationship to the world. It takes time to separate the behaviours that have moulded our genetic blueprint, especially those that limit our ability to realize our full potential. There are no short cuts, we can only start to work on an injury when it is realised.
It is so complex and often impossible to isolate any one reason for a limiting future behavior and give it a simple label. But, here there is an inescapable event for blame, an undeniable dark monolith and not just a personal private experience to it; there must be a relationship to the public and historic disaster also. Whilst all these children are survivors and share connections to the event, their response is and will be entirely unique. Their lives are indisputably altered.
View all images here: #ChildrenofGrenfell
Amiel's mum prepares him for his photograph, from series 'Children of Grenfell' © Richard Ansett 2017
Danel, from series 'Children of Grenfell' © Richard Ansett 2017 
Megan, from series 'Children of Grenfell' © Richard Ansett 2017