“I am a selfish photographer in that I want to get what I want out of a shoot rather than give a sitter what they want.”
In one of his recent series called Mythographies English photographer Steven Barritt (born 1976) is dealing with Greek myths and their modern visual interpretation through photography.
He says about the images: “They are dark and sinister and show what happens behind closed doors.”
Mythographies is a visual exploration of the human psyche and its abysms.
Further on Steven Barritt shares his ideas about the future of photography in a world filled with abundant visual imagery and explains why it’s a huge responsability for a photographer to take another person’s portrait.
Interview with Steven Barritt
Steven, one of your latest series is called “Mythographies”. What is it about?
The series is a kind of contemporary retelling of Greek myths, set in the seedy extremities of my sub-conscious. They are loosely based on real stories in tabloid newspapers, but also represent extreme versions of my psyche, and reflect on issues that have affected me or people close to me.
They are dark and sinister and show what happens behind closed doors. Being self portraits I have to embody the character and this can take extreme forms, but it also acts as a sort of catharsis.
At the beginning of each project one often has some kind of idea in mind as to what the result could be like. Sometimes that changes along the way and the result is quite different. Was that the case with “Mythographies” and if so what did you learn during the project?
I tried to remember when I first came up with the idea and recently I found an old notebook from years ago from my first day at university on my BA and in response to a brief we had been given I had jotted a very similar idea down as a possibility, so I realize that I must have been thinking about it for quite a while and developing the idea for a while.
At the outset of the project I had a clear idea of what I wanted the result to be like but was still very unsure if it would work photographically, or whether it would look clichéd or trite so I approached it from many different angles, photographing in different ways to try to understand the best way to communicate what I wanted. As it turns out I think my original idea worked but it could have gone either way.
The main thing that changed during the project was that it was originally intended to be made with actors, and it was only whilst writing characters for each scene that I realized I was sort of writing about me and so it made sense for me to be the main protagonist.
Suddenly they were self portraits and I was method acting the characters and in a sense living their lives for a short while. This was a huge turning point in the project that suddenly made it much more personal and more visceral.
A photographer has many “tools” at hand to bring across his message: lenses, lighting, framing, color treatment etc. Can you elaborate a little bit on the techniques you used for this particular project in order to link form and content?
I employed several techniques in the creation of the images, from lighting the sets in a cinematic way, using continuous light to keep a warm tungsten glow to the images, as well as making the exposure times fairly long to force a sense of stillness in the images.
The sets are lit to try to give a claustrophobic, nighttime indoor feel, as if the viewer is being given a privileged view behind closed doors, adding a voyeuristic feel to the images. I tried to use a standard lens where possible to maintain a natural viewing angle, with a fairly small aperture to ensure everything is in focus so that the eye can roam around the images.
The colour palate is achieved through lighting and various darkroom techniques in the film processing and printing stage.
How do you realize a project like “Mythographies”? From the idea, the research, finding the characters, getting to know them, interactions, earning their trust etc. – and not to forget the funding.
“It can take me many weeks to build a set.”
The whole project has been entirely self-funded up to this point and has been crippling financially as well as emotionally. There is a great deal of research involved in terms of understanding the characters, the themes of each image, moral and philosophical concerns.
Also there is a lot of work that goes into each image in terms of set building, sourcing all the things I need or making them, often having to do complex photo shoots simply to make an image to place within a scene.
Each set is built in an organic way, developing as I build it, with items left to chance, like whatever furniture I can find on the street. There is also organizing the space in which to create these sets as it can take me many weeks to build a set, even when I have collected most of the stuff.
And there are often other people in the scenes so casting the right person and organizing them, that can be problematic as well.
How do you connect with your subjects?
That is a difficult question to answer, maybe asking one of my subjects would give a better answer. I guess I am just honest about what I do and what I want from the images. I am a selfish photographer in that I want to get what I want out of a shoot rather than give a sitter what they want.
Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide is known to work very slowly. She once said in an interview that she’d rather miss a good photo than to interrupt a conversation with the people she’s taking photos of. To her “respect” and “complicity” are fundamental. Can you identify with that approach?
I can completely understand this, especially working slowly! And to a certain extent I am the same when it comes to interacting with people. I like photographing people because it affords me the opportunity to meet people and talk to them, I don’t want the photography to get in the way of that, but I also strive to ensure I get a picture that I am happy with.
A great deal of your work focuses on portrait photography. Portraiture is a genre traditionally used to explore issues of identity. What do your photographs tell about the persons being portrayed?
This is a very interesting point, I often think that my portraits say a lot more about me than they do about the people in them. I think a photographic portrait can capture a facet of someone, a hint, subtle intensity but never tells the whole story.
“Photography is a very backward looking medium, capturing, recording for posterity.”
It is a slice of time, the instant it is taken the person has already changed and can never be the same again. Photography is a very backward looking medium, capturing, recording for posterity.
There is a sense that portraiture is a kind of immortalizing art and with that comes the responsibility of recording someone forever.
What I try to do though is to maybe capture something different from mere appearance. Using lighting and direction I normally control the image to a great extent, and whilst I am sensitive to the sitter and always strive to represent them in a respectful and honest way, I am trying to tease out something that maybe you wouldn’t see in them by merely looking.
On the other hand it’s said that a portrait also tells a lot about the person who took it. Do you find that to be true and if so what do your images of others tell about yourself?
I do find that to be true and I think my portraits show a lot about me, but what it is I leave to the viewer to figure out.
My portraits of others are a portrait of me and are left to the interpretation of the viewer.
What reaction do you intend to provoke in people looking at you photos?
I am unsure if there is a particular reaction that I intend. I want people to be struck by the images without really know why maybe, in a Roland Barthes “Punctum” type way.
But I also want people to be able to engage with the work intellectually, to enjoying going back to them and finding new things. I would like to think that whilst I am not trying to make any particular comment on any issue, viewers of my work might be provoked to think about them.
What do you consider to be the biggest challenges contemporary photography is faced with? And what are the most important changes recently?
I am not sure what the biggest challenge for photography is, but it is a very exciting time, there has been a huge democratizing shift in the technology of photography that has enabled anyone to easily make and share images. There are probably more photographs being taken in a month now than were taken in the whole of the 19th and 20th century put together.
“The more people are surrounded by images, the more they understand the language of photography.”
I guess people worry, in a world where everyone is a potential photographer, about differentiating themselves, or that people think anyone can do the job of a professional photographer. I don’t see it like that, I think it is more the case that the more people are surrounded by images then the more they understand the language of photography and so the possibilities are greater to reach more people in a more meaningful way.
To make a clumsy comparison, the invention of the Guttenberg press, and hence mass-produced “writing” didn’t suddenly mean that the quality of writing went down or that anyone who was a writer was squeezed out of a job. What it meant was that more people were exposed to writing and therefore were educated in language. That allowed more writers to write more, better, more complex literature, poetry, news whatever.
The same will be true of photography, it is starting to find its feet as part of our cultural language and this will allow us as photographers to exploit it in more ways to communicate better with a wider more educated audience, and a more educated audience will more easily be able to identify quality work from the mass of images.
Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
Apart from always analyzing light and studying people’s faces and always framing everything I look at so that it looks like a photograph, I guess it has allowed me to see beyond the surface and to always look for the hidden or unexpected angle on things.
It has made me more confident, proactive and engaged with the world in general, and has taught me to be very self-reflective and critical and to push myself to always do more.
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
I think the main landmark for me was the first time I saw my work presented on an exhibition wall and received very positive feedback. I think it suddenly gave me confidence in my work, let me relax about striving for a sense of acceptance for my work and just make the work.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer.
Q: What inspires you the most?
A: I think my family inspire me the most and give me the encouragement and support I need to do what I do, but I take a huge amount of inspiration from literature and painting. Reflecting on my past life and childhood also provides me with inspiration.