Each morning I wake and move from my bed to the desk at its foot. Here, I write — my daily routine for three months and counting; an often arduous task, although I am privileged to be doing it, in the middle of a pandemic in which my words feel meaningless and irrelevant. But, then I interview an artist, I look at their work — I remember the reasons I do this.
As a writer, writing about photography, my words are a vessel for the images they address: articulating their context, revealing their narratives, amplifying the stories they already tell. I unravel the colours, the compositions, the light, which compose them and delve into their history — the circumstances, the moments, from which they were born. Why? Because, images, and the ideas they contain, are important. Although art is not always for understanding, I hope to express it for those who want to know more.
And, as my words should illuminate images, those images may shine a light on subjects pushed to the margins — photographs can perpetuate prejudice, but they can also disrupt it.
Take Hannah Wilke’s S.O.S Starification Object Series (1974—79), in which the artist co-opts glamour models' poses from women’s magazines while coating herself in small mounds of gum. The gum symbolises wounds and ‘starification,’ transforming Wilke into a star and representing the scarring inherent in that process — “I chose gum because it’s the perfect metaphor for the American woman — chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and pop in a new piece,” said Wilke of the work — an analogy that still resonates today.
Or Carrie Mae Weem’s Kitchen Table Series (1989—1990), in which the artist co-opts the space of the kitchen — a gendered realm heaving with domestic expectation. Across 20 carefully-staged photographs, accompanied by 14 text panels, Weems adopts various poses, sometimes in the company of others, behind a kitchen table and beneath a lamp. Despite playing the central subject, Weem’s represents several archetypes — the mother, the lover, the friend. She calls these into question and explores themes of domesticity, relationships, and the representation of Black women — subjects, which, like Wilke’s work before her, feel as urgent now as they did when the series was made.
These are but two of the myriad projects that challenge the status quo, but I turn to them now as they address themes that run through the work of students graduating from LCC’s photography BA. Work that continues to challenge conceptions of gender, sexuality, identity and representation decades after Wilke and Weems conceived of the series above. Ethereal images of women after intercourse reclaim female sexuality; an angel embodies the tumult of adolescence. Identity is given form by those who have shaped it; a daughter meditates upon the experiences of her mother. Food porn exposes the gendered-messaging of advertising; eurocentric definitions of beauty, which extend from the past into the present, are called into question again.
The graduates relay their work to me from the confines of their homes. I take it in from the confines of mine. They will enter into complete uncertainty: a relentless pandemic, a recession, a society governed by those ready to dismiss them. However, I hope that they will continue — their commitment to redefining visual-culture and the prejudice that pervades it is critical: a reminder of what art can do and how it can change the way we see things. All I can do is hope that my words are enough to articulate their work; that I can be a voice to amplify the power of their images — when and if they need one.
Hannah Abel-Hirsch is a London based writer and editor. She joined British Journal of Photography in 2017 where she currently works as a journalist, writing across BJP-online and the print magazine. Her words have also appeared on magnumphotos.com, 1000 words and she was formally co-arts editor of Ladybeard Magazine. Prior to this, she was an editorial assistant at Magnum Photos, London, after completing a BA in History of Art at University College, London.