Though I am passionate about photography, it does not often move me to tears. I’ve just seen an exhibit that forced me to choke up in front of a couple of its artists. And it could hardly have been more difficult to find.
The University of Westminster, by Regent’s Park in London, has mounted a massive and gorgeously curated show of its current MA graduates’ work. Their course of study was documentary photography and photojournalism. After one fire alarm that emptied the building, and several attempts to go up stairs that yielded nothing but closed doors and corridors of offices, I wrested the exhibit’s location from the security guards at the front desk. It was, unpromisingly, down in the basement – but oh what a basement! (The space is called Ambika P3, but that’s not going to help you much. What that means is that you should take the elevator DOWN to the P3 level.) All the junk that occurs in a building’s basement had been moved aside or rendered part of the exhibit space (like a metal stairway leading to a balcony/second level) and lighting, directed and sufficient, had been put in place around the long plain walls. Though the prints were allowed to take a number of different forms, for the most part they were large format, mounted simply on foamcore. A lavishly produced and free-to-the-viewers catalogue accompanies the exhibit, which will be shown ONLY UNTIL NEXT SATURDAY, AUGUST 29, so if you are in London, hurry.
FROZE, the print reproduced above, exemplifies Jonathan Clifford’s work with boys rescued from hhuman trafficking and sheltered in southeast Asia. He invited them to invent their own superhero identities and photographed them posing, in both action shots and portrait views. The result is overwhelming, as the adolescent boys are allowed to reenact childhood while reinventing themselves as their own rescuers.
Most of the nineteen photographers immersed themselves in their subjects’ lives, while honoring their struggles through formal, beautifully composed views, like Clifford’s above. It is not stretching things too much to suggest that most of these projects find their subjects between two worlds: the worlds of self-sufficiency and need, like the hungry subjects of Rita Alvarez Tudela’s suite or the harassed London canal boat dwellers of Andy Scofield’s story; or the worlds of England and their homeland, or a first language and a second, like the migrating subjects of Ekaterina Leonova, Maryam Kastoo, Aleksandra Raluka Dragoi, and Kiki Streitberger; or the worlds of mental rootedness and dementia, like the poignantly articulate subjects of Sigrid Haaland’s The Keys.
Both Streitberger and Haaland use language beside objects photographed against white backgrounds to bring their subjects to the viewer. Haaland’s Keys are objects used to reignite connection with the past — their own pasts — for persons with dementia.
This photo was accompanied by the text, “ICE SKATES OLD AND OLDER. I borrowed ice skates from an older guy. Then I got the newer kind. They had to be grinded. It was around 10-12 kroner for a pair of ice skates.”
In “Traveling Light,” Kiki Streitberger chose the simple and incredibly powerful format of picturing the sparse objects carried by refugees on their flight from Syria on small boats in perilous Mediterranean crossings. Her subjects’ explanations accompany the photographs of their gear. Only a handful of kits are pictured from among at least thirty that she has photographed. The stories come home to comfortable viewers like me who feel abstractly “sorry” for the refugees until confronted with ttheir courageous and difficult choices: to bring the strong pair of glasses; to leave family and friends in an agonizing search for eventual security for all; to use the water resistant cosmetic case for all the family’s documents. Forced to leave their luggage at the dock, they wore or hand carried all they had. Technical difficulties prevent me from uploading a high-resolution reproduction of her work, but you can find it on her self-titled web page.
Not only the objects, but the faces and clothing of the photographers’ subjects, bring the viewer closer to identification with their dilemmas. Tudela’s “Hidden Hunger” depicts adults suddenly thrown upon food banks for daily subsistence. Some of her subjects would give their names and some would not, though all allowed their photos to be taken except for one person so ashamed of dependence that he would only allow his grocery cart to be photographed.
Picturing middle-class-looking subjects does not so much “diss” the chronically poor as suggest the alarmingly rapid spread of simple and devastating hunger among the British population.
Some of the photo suites examine changes more difficult to picture: climate change, for example, or psychological and emotional “burnout.” Neil Baird’s “Carbon Footprints” takes us into the minds and lives of individuals with a variety of responses to impending global disaster. Their words and faces provoke the viewer to test her own conjunction of thinking and acting regarding the planet. You can find his immersive portraits at http://www.neilbaird.photography/footprints. Lukas Rapp undertakes the challenge of portraying photographically the impact of work- and stimulus- related burnout on individuals from manual laborers to office workers and professionals. His work, including a somewhat chilling video rendition of his findings, may be found at http://www.lukasrapp.com/burnout-work-in-progress/.
I’d love to highlight all the work of these artists. They blew me away. Photographers not mentioned above include Andrea Baldo, Clare Bennett, Emma Louise Charalambous, Pat Graham, Kevin Percival, Blanka Sadilkova, Alena Vasilyeva, Jake Vyner, and Tingshu Wang. They challenged, stimulated, and moved this viewer. While most of these students seem already to have been working professionals, the success of this exhibit suggests some of the benefits of formal training: group work, critiques, and encouragement, access to technical tools, and the sense of shared mission, both artistically and socially.
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