Monday, 6 March 2017

Object of Desire

Expanding on my previous post on the anathema of the concept of 'otherness' or 'queerness' as a celebration of 'not' being part of greater society, rejecting Arbus's self harming label of herself and her subjects' as 'aristocratic freaks'.

In this context I am discussing my new work, 'Geoff and Tina, Basildon, Essex' currently showing at 'Transgender, Gender and Psychoanalysis' this week and later at the Arte Laguna PrizeI am looking ambivalently at the existential nature of persona through the exploration of the transformation itself. Although this is ostensively a portrait of 'Geoff and Tina' the work is as auto-biographical as the self-portraits of those exploring their own identities in the same space. This follows the tradition of my practice in using the relationship with others to communicate my own interests consciously and unconsciously in that moment.

"A subject is merely a vessel through which to explore one's own humanity and sense of place. It is relational. A portrait  is how we see others and therefore more about the artist than the sitter." - Pablo Picasso

Whilst my primary concern is this communication of my feelings in relationship to a sitter, I would like to caveat such a seemingly selfish statement with the further declaration that the therapeutic value of photography to others as a way of allowing them to be 'seen' is part of an essential moral balance and portraiture is a collaboration, permission has been granted. The moral tightrope act is complicated by the exploration of subjects with physical and mental health issues (see previous posts 'Representing Otherness' and 'Dignity'.

The trans experience is a helpful vehicle to explore in visual terms, the need for a developed persona as a protection against the world. The less comfortable we are in our relationship to society the more pronounced the persona as a defence. My interest is to investigate the persona that may have been successful in protecting us to a certain point in our lives but has become a hindrance to future progress. So, when asked about my interest in the nakedness of a subject, one answer is that it is a metaphor for the stripping back of the protective layers to expose the genuine, vulnerable human. In photographic terms I feel this is the closest thing that we as the protagonists can come to representing any kind of truth in a single moment. 

"The expectation of the photographic portrait is that it somehow representative of some sense of truth or observation of the person, some form of insight into their nature. This is as impossible as in paint but there is a declared sense that it is 'of' someone. The fine art photographer as portraitist has to reset the parameters of seeing so as not to be judged by this convention." Pablo Picasso

'Geoff & Tina' is new work and this is a new edition created for this event and there is another transformation happening; from the pixels stimulated by the light from the source object to the creation of the finished framed Gyclee print as tangible object of desire, presented in the gallery space (which in this case is a community hall in Elephant and Castle and the Arsenale di Venezia). This goes some way to representing my own process of engaging with the world in an 'actual' way and this is an essential part of the artistic process. The Internet is a useful space but it is like dipping a toe in the water as a precursor to full immersion. If we are committed, then we are recognising our work as a part of ourselves and the risk of rejection in asking society to accept us is greater, we are stepping out of the safe confines of our constructed universe and daring to face society in microcosm in the gallery space.

Thanks to Tina and the National Portrait Gallery who researched these quotes from Picasso for their recent 'Portraits' exhibit.

'Geoff & Tina, Basildon, Essex' © Richard Ansett 2017

Monday, 9 January 2017

Representing Otherness

A letter to Clair Rees curator of 1001 critical Days Tomorrow;s Child after a discussion over breakfast at The Wolseley 09/01/2017

Dear Clair,

an answer to your question "How do you represent mental health with photography?"

There is a danger of me banging the same old drum here for anyone that knows me well but...

The filter through which we as audience view the world and ‘read’ photography is influenced primarily by the aesthetics of the market place as well as an editorial mindset represented by a linear narrative, so when we are presented with work that sits outside of this, it is either rejected or we attempt to pigeon hole the work to subjugate any personal responsibility for the content. So very often work where the parameters of viewing is ‘less normative’* can be misinterpreted as cynical, cruel, humorous, weird, crazy, exploitative or perhaps just bad. Arbus' work is a great example of being completely misunderstood, perhaps even deliberately, by well known writers, critics and curators. But in her exploration of the world, she defined her subjects as ‘aristocratic freaks’ as she attempted to find a tribe to ‘belong’ to, although ultimately she was unable to square the circle of existential loneliness.

'Aristocratic freaks’ feels a little dated in my multicultural mindset, the implication of a freak or queer is that the subject sits outside of normal definitions, so regardless of any positive fashionable spin, it is surrendering to a conservative notion of normal and excludes rather than includes as an act of self harm if we define ourselves in this way. So in the representation of disability but especially of mental health the camera’s brutal realist eye exposes the nature of the illness and how it manipulates the body as it presents itself to society, stripped of any form of romantic and patronising idealism, therefore ironically demanding acceptance from society on the subject's terms!

I have attached two links to two series, one representing physical disability as a triptych of Alan who has Cerebral Palsy and a sequence (inspired by the cool scientific observations of the Muybridge collotype) of a young man with mental health issues in a day centre in the Dombass region of East Ukraine, exercising for the camera.

As i mentioned briefly earlier, the camera can record 'clues' to a subject mindset if we strip away a need to impose an 'opinion' or even sympathy in the pursuit of a subject's representation; persona, dress, body language, the nuance of expression and the state of our environment are all indications of how a unique world has been formed as protection from the 'hell of other people' (sic) and society.

I refuse to accept any sense of failure in this approach, I am convinced and determined by the democratic nature of the New Objectivist approach in the fair representation of all members of society as equal and worthy of celebration and it is connected to the ideas of moral relativism that we touched on this morning over breakfast; that there are some indisputable truths within and beyond our awareness and certainly out of reach of our clumsy attempts to define our existence.

My work now is increasingly focused on images that ambivalently explore our relationship to reality truth rather than present any subject in terms that might arrogantly interpret the lives of others kindly or otherwise. We can never fully know or understand the life of another person and it is the height of hubris to represent our work as truthful. Our works are merely simple childish sketches, like cave paintings; most valuable as representations of our relationship to others and therefore more revealing and autobiographical.

*I am  loathed to use the word ‘original’ as I was recently reading an Elias Canetti essay that partly defined it in these terms, “ Originality, must not be demanded. The person (sic) who wants to have it will never have it. And the conceited and well-contrived clowneries that some people have served up in order to count as original are still in our embarrassed memories."

Man Exercising for the Camera, Ukraine  (from sequence) © Richard Ansett

Alan in his Bedroom Rotating for the Camera (from sequence) © Richard Ansett

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