Sunday, April 19, 2020

The art of self-representation

There's always a reason to be wary of those who claim to be giving a voice to the voiceless - however noble and well meaning their intentions might be. More often than not, that voicelessness is imaginary; the real problem is that the voices of the marginalised simply aren't being heard. The solution, then, is to amplify those voices rather than indulging in potentially patronising ventriloquism - or, to put it another way, to allow the marginalised to speak for themselves rather than presumptively speaking on their behalf.

Working in Handsworth in Birmingham in the late 1970s, Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon were determined to counteract the undeservedly negative media depictions of the suburb, but were also acutely aware of the need for sensitivity and the awkwardness of their own positionality. As Bishton says, they were outsiders "conscious of being white photographers in a very multicultural area."

When the trio came across an article in the magazine Camerawork, the solution seemed obvious: a pop-up studio on the street outside their house/creative agency, where locals passing by could stop and take their own picture by clicking a cable-release button. Standing in front of a plain white background and free to choose their pose and expression, the participants had complete control over how they wanted to be represented. Meanwhile, by restricting their involvement to setting up the equipment and checking framing and focus, Bishton, Home and Reardon were not photographers but facilitators.

The project proved a great success, attracting a diverse array of participants truly representative of the area and producing some tremendous portraits - as visitors to the anniversary exhibition at the city's MAC last year can no doubt attest.

Reading Sacha Lehrfreund's comment "You get the sense that people are thinking: This is mine, I have ownership over this image, and I'm relevant and important", I recalled something Gayle Rogers mentioned about the Workers Gallery's recent Art Box on Tour initiative. Apparently, some of those who saw the photos and learned of David Hurn's career and status were initially bemused as to why he might be interested in taking pictures of Valleys people and communities. Bishton, Homer and Reardon - like Hurn - clearly believed that everyone was a deserving subject, and saw the value of photography as a means of convincing people of their own self-worth.

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