For British Journal of Photography's December 2015 issue, we've discovered the best new and emerging portrait photographers in the business, and asked how they're innovating the eternal genre of photography.
We’ve devoted an issue of BJP to portraiture every year since 2010, but this year we decided to have some fun with it.
Our new portraiture issue, which explores how photographers are disrupting the human face, is now available to buy directly from us in the BJP Shop. Digital editions for the iPhone and iPad are also available in the App Store.
Seeking out images in which the sitter’s face is obscured, we found a wealth of projects – partly because that’s always the way when you’re looking for something but also, perhaps, because there are a lot of them about at the moment. Despite the ubiquity of selfies and family snaps – or maybe because of them – it seems photographers and curators have got interested in portraits that do something different.
But if they do something different, what exactly do they do? For the photographers we’ve featured, it seems it depends. For Jack Davison, shooting portraits through perspex, in shadows or through smoke, or scratching or defacing the image after it’s been taken, is just visual experimentation, and not something he’s consciously thought through; for Jason Larkin, though, shooting South Africans in deep shadows while they wait for the bus is a deliberate strategy, designed to take the emphasis off the individual and onto their society instead.
“Very quickly it became a motif and something that decided whether I would photograph or not,” he tells BJP. “You couldn’t really see their identities, so the whole thing became much less about the individual and much more about that greater sense of waiting. The story – as with a lot of my stories – is quiet. There’s nothing political in someone waiting to cross the street, but once it becomes one of many in a constructed visual narrative, it’s intriguing what begins to stand out.”
Perhaps similarly, the fact that the Vietnamese women in Christian Rodriguez’s Motobaik choose to completely hide their faces speaks to the photographer of their position in society – the fact that they do so in pursuit of Westernised beauty standards for example or, perhaps, of their lack of visibility in public life. The project looks humorous at first sight but comes from Rodriguez’s ongoing work on women’s issues, including projects on teenage mothers and female migrants, and the particular problems they face.
For Robin Hammond, the portraits from his series Where Love Is Illegal in which the sitters chose to hide their faces served two purposes – first to conceal their identity as LGBTI individuals living in countries in which their orientation is outlawed, but also to speak of the discrimination and fear that blights their lives. In Goran Turnšek’s project, where he emulates his late grandfather Jakob, anonymity speaks of the impossibility of taking another’s place, but also of the impersonal nature of choreographed dance. “Dancers aren’t the goal in a performance, rather a medium,” he says.
But for Erik Kessels, a series of found Polaroids in which the faces have been cut out serves as a comment on photography, and as an attempt to find the end of the contemporary flood of images. “In the future I think we will look back at this time as a renaissance of photography – but there are so many images, I think people are now looking for what are its extremes [its edges or its limits],” he tells BJP, adding that he published the faceless portraits to make “a little pause in the endless stream”.
Finally, we invited curator and writer Paul Wombell to provide some context and an insight into the particular historical moment in which depictions of the face have been complicated. For him, the current interest in anonymity links to contemporary developments in surveillance and technology, which have ensured that any of us can be recorded, identified and tracked, with or without our knowledge, and both on or offline. “It may not be possible to be invisible in the age of facial recognition,” he cautions; in future many more of us may be interested in the idea of portraits that don’t show the face.