Following my 1:1 with Krishna, I have been considering how the work could be displayed. The idea of encouraging the viewer to engage with the masks is one that is key to the project. It is important that the viewer realises that everyone has a mask and that ‘ordinary’ people can hide the most painful things.
My idea for the exhibition is that it woud take place over a a few rooms. The first one would contain all the masks pinned to a rope on the wall. Below this (on a wooden drawered plinth) would be the behind the mask portraits randomly placed. The viewer is encouraged to try and determine whose mask is whose. The correct pairings will only be revealed in subsequent rooms where the images are diplayed as pairs.
The wooden drawered plinth would contain blank mask and pens. The viewers would be invited to become participants in the exhibition. The room would contain a central table with several chairs to facilitate this.
After the viewer has completed their mask, they would have the opportunity to be photographed in a private, sound proof booth. The images would be printed out straight away. The viewer (and now participant) would be able to pin their mask on a rope and place their image below. This interactive and participatory activity will add increased agency and engagement to the work.
There is still work to do to develop this display further and this will be explored as I move into the final phase of my MA.
Mock ups created are shown below.
For the current submission, I had to whittle down my images to just 18. Whilst the images below form the work in progress portfolio submission, the images not used are still very much part of the project and will appear in the full body of work. The images I chose to include were the ones that I deemed the strongest at this stage. This does not detract from the strength of the other images. I would have loved to have included all the images, but that was not possible at this stage.
I have chosen a square format for the overall submission as this does not detract from the images. The portraits are stronger in my opinion in this format as the eye is drawn to the person. The Oxford Dictionary (Oxford Dictionaries | English, 2017) defines a square as “fair”, “honest”, “straightforward”, “confrontational”, and “direct”. All of these are words I would apply to this body of work. The square also reduces the amount of up and down side to side motion of the viewer’s gaze. Instead, the viewer’s eye tends to move in a circualr motion around the image towards the centre of the photograph. This increases the engagement of the viewer with each portrait and helps them to interpret the image.
The work has been well received by my peers and tutors with positive and encouraging feedback. The aim of the sequencing is that the image of the mask conjures up an image in the viewer’s mind of the person they expect to see behind the mask. The reveal of the corresponding portrait reveals the truth. We are often surprised by the person we see. The words on the mask lead us to believe we know what the person looks like before we even see them. The assumption is based on our own experiences and emotions.
We are often surprised by the person we see. We had envisaged the person behind the mask in a particular way and are challenged by the person we see.
The viewer is able to relate to the words on the masks. We are all human and many of us have experienced these feelings. The final mask in the portfoli has so much written on it that it is the most powerful mask in the project. The amount of writing is shocking to the viewer, who lingers and engages with the mask for a long time. The final two portrait images are also powerful. The pain is evident and strongly displayed.
As a work in progress portfolio, I am very pleased with the overall effect and the sequencing. I am constantly amazed that I have been able to become a ‘confidante’ to my participant’s hopes and fears.
Oxford Dictionaries | English. (2017). square | Definition of square in English by Oxford Dictionaries. [online] Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/square [Accessed 12 Dec. 2017].
So, what didn’t make the cut for the current portfolio? Whilst the images below are not in the current 18 needed for submission, they are still very much part of the bigger project.
These images below are still very powerful, but due to image limitations, they were not able to be submitted for this module.
Everyone pictured here hides behind a mask. They are people you could know and see every day. A mother. A daughter. A father. A son. A friend or a neighbour.
Like the participants in this project, I too wear a mask every day. The words ‘I’m fine’ are the walls that surround the real me, they are my escape route and the lie that defines my outward appearance. But how do you start to talk about the issues that make you hide? How do you tell someone else that you are struggling to face the world unmasked?
Stigma prevents conversation. But why are we all so focused on verbal conversation anyway? Billions of photographs are shared on line each day. The images communicate and connect instantly with us on a subconscious level. This happens before any stigma can affect the message. We do not need words. Photographs start the conversation when our voices fail us.
As Bradley et al (2001) said “the power of images to interpret events and emotions is a basic premise of art”
But photography is not just a form of art; it is also a means of expression and a way of communicating our deepest thoughts and emotions. A single photograph can tell a hundred different stories.
For this project, I have deliberately set out to re-frame my way of working. I am no longer satisfied to speak on behalf of my subjects without their voice being heard. I have moved away from being both the author and the creator. The voice of the project is democratic, with all participants becoming stakeholders in the outcome. The participants are as much the authors as I am. The project choices and direction have become our commonly shared goal.
The democratisation of the participants voices results in images that are authentic and true to real-life. Each image has been produced in the same way. They are not staged, but record moments of real emotion. This real-life aesthetic delivers the message sympathetically and authentically to the viewer. The consistent composition ensures that the image is not affected by the location the shot is taken. Reducing the portraits to just headshots removes any potential for distraction from the background. The consistency ensures that the viewer concentrates on the message. This visual language is synonymous with my goal of portraying everyone as normal and as equal.
The process is interactive and participatory through the words each person writes onto the masks. The words they write are personal to them; there is no hidden agenda; no scripting; what you read on each mask is the voice of the person. The visual message and the collaborative nature make this project socially engaging and adds an increased agency to the output.
The photographs facilitate an empowering experience for the participants who have suffered from a lack of acceptance. They are able to make eye contact with themselves, maybe for the first time in their lives. The photographs make it easier for them to show other people who they truly are behind the mask and how they are feeling. Words cannot always do this. We lose meaning in the translation and interpretation of the words that the visual nature of photographs does not.
In her book, PhotoTherapy Techniques, psychologist Judy Weiser suggests that photographs can be used as a therapeutic tool when working with self-portraits. Her clients are encouraged and supported to understand the images they make themselves. They can also see other perspectives of themselves when they examine photographs taken of them by others.
Weiser also suggests that we take photos of what is important in our lives, often at a subconscious level, and that in many ways all photographs we take are to some extent also self-portraits. They show what we care about. There is a little bit of us in each image; we are connected to the image; we feel the emotion we felt at when we took the photograph.
When Jo Spence produced, and showed work that concentrated on her battle with breast cancer, she created images that portrayed her emotional responses as well as her experiences with the treatment she underwent. Through this process, she suggested that the strength of the viewers’ responses to the images reinforces their validity as expressive objects. This is also true of the images in my current body of work whether the images are explicitly laden with emotion or whether they are more ambiguous in their portrayal. Spence’s work has been quite influential in the way that I have conducted this project. Her work has been described as intimate and honest and it is to this that I aspire this project to be. Spence herself commented “Through photo therapy, I was able to explore how I felt about my powerlessness as a patient, my relationship to doctors and nurses . . . whilst being managed and ‘processed’ within a state institution” – Jo Spence (Confronting, intimate, honest and uncomfortable 2014)
My practice draws parallels with Spence’s in that she “referred to herself as an educational photographer . . . her direct, often confrontational style was intended to be both pedagogic and emotive. For Spence, photography should be informative” (Jo Spence: Biography 2017). My current body of work embraces this concept and is intended to raise awareness and educate the viewer about the issues that cause many of us to hide. The emotion in the unmasked images is clear. The pain is real. By looking at the images, the viewer begins to experience how the participant feels.
However, the impact and interpretation of the images will depend on the viewer’s personal experiences too. Documentary photographer, Eugene Smith (Loewenthal 2013), expressed that a “photo is a small voice, at best, but sometimes – just sometimes – one photograph or group of them can lure our senses into awareness. Much depends upon the viewer; in some, photographs can summon enough emotion to be a catalyst to thought.”
In the project, each mask is presented on its own before the wearer is revealed. The viewer is required to engage with the images and the words to determine who they think is behind the mask. By not seeing the person’s hair, gender, clothing etc., the viewer wonders about and will make assumptions about the person behind the mask. They have to decide, from their own life experiences, what the person will look like. The reveal leaves the viewer challenged in their perception of what people are hiding. This makes the project more powerful and makes the viewer realise that ‘ordinary’ people suffer too.
During this module, I have been actively networking via my online presence. As a result, I have developed and updated profiles on social media sites, as well as a dedicated website for the project. My photography website has also been updated. Disseminating my work via social media platform and the internet ensures that the project will be seen by many, including those who are reclusive due to their issues. This offers a vital way of engaging with many people through their preferred technology and raises awareness of issues with them.
The demographics of the Project Facebook page are astonishing. In just under 2 months, the page has over 2600 followers and an astounding 80% of those followers are aged 13-17.
The interest of the younger generation in the project has led me to contact the charity MQ about working with them. At this moment in time they do not have the resources to work with arts projects and fully vet them to ensure that the work is delivering right message. This is totally understandable as the wrong exposure could prove damaging for them and the work they are doing. However, some of their employees have offered to take part in the project as they believe it is a really strong concept.
To develop local connections, in 2018 I will be running ‘behind the mask’ photography sessions at Viney Hall Physiotherapy. They have invited me to run the sessions to further the project. This is a great opportunity to roll out the project to a wider audience and get more people to participate.
The project also has an Instagram page where images are posted daily to raise awareness of the project. The page currently has 136 followers. All images are tagged with #behindthemaskwewear.
To encourage wider conversation about the issues surrounding the masks that we wear, I have created a website for the project. The promotes the project, and provides a means for those who do not live close to me to be involved. There is a page about how to submit images from anywhere in the world. This project is about raising awareness and acceptance wherever people are located.
I am thrilled to announce that one of the images in this project has been shortlisted in the portrait category of the Picfair Women Behind the Lens competition. The image is part of an exhibition that has been installed and is open to the public at the Guardian News and Media Gallery in London until 11th January. The category and overall winners will be announced at an event at the end of the exhibition. I am honoured and very proud that the image has been shortlisted. It allows the message to be shared to a much wider audience. Off the back of this, I have been using the news to promote the project and my practice further through social media and other media outlets including local newspapers and radio channels.
I continue to be inspired by these courageous people to pick up my camera to help them tell their story, I am in awe of how beautiful yet vulnerable the participants appear. Viewing themselves through a different lens to see the suffering hidden by the persona they present to the world is enlightening to them.
One of the participants of the project said, please take the time to talk to each other.
Thank you for listening
Bradley, F., Brown, K. and Nairne, A. 2001. Trauma. London: Hayward Gallery.
Confronting, intimate, honest and uncomfortable. 2014. Dazed [online]. Available at: http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/22149/1/confronting-intimate-honest-and-uncomfortable [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
Jo Spence: Biography. 2017. Jospence.org [online]. Available at: http://www.jospence.org/biography.html [Accessed 1 Nov. 2017].
Loewenthal, Del. 2013. Phototherapy and therapeutic photography in a digital age. London: Routledge.
Weiser, J. (1993). Phototherapy techniques. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
As part of the project, each volunteer had a photograph taken with the mask that they normally present to the world. Everyone pictured here hides behind a mask. They are people you could know and see every day. A mother. A daughter. A father. A son. A friend. A neighbour. They all have one thing in common – they want to stand up and fight the stigma that surrounds the reasons they feel they need to hide away.
One possible photobook layout is shown below. This was produced using Saal Digital’s Design Software. I have ordered the photobook and will review it once it arrives.
The design has been chosen to showcase each image. The project is all about the images (in much the same way that Martin Schoeller’s work is all about the face – see previous blog post).
Each mask is placed on a page with no explanation or name assigned to it. The following page is the image of the person behind the mask. This layout encourages the viewer to engage with the images to try and determine what the face looks like behind the mask. Whilst this adds the the overall cost of the photobook due to the number of pages needed, it is essential to the impact that the images have to the viewer.
The pages will be matt to reduce the reflections when looking at the book. I also hope that it will reduce the incidence of fingerprints on the pages.
I really look forward to receiving this in printed form and to reviewing it in a future blog post.
After each shoot, I produce a contact sheet of the possible images that will be selected for the project. 3 examples are shown below. I have only included these one due to the options chosen by participants on the image release form – not everyone wanted all their images made public as they are very vulnerable and exposed in these images.
In each case, careful consideration is given to the image selection. In order for the project to have the maximum impact, the emotions expressed must be genuine and not forced. I also choose the image I think is most powerful. The image is sent to the participant before it is finally chosen for the project.
In order to increase the engagement of the viewer with the project, and following feedback received in a webinar, I have experimented with the mask images. I wanted to make the viewer relate to the participants and feel challenged by the person behind the mask.
The masked people images (figure 1), reveal an awful lot about the person. As a viewer, we are not as challenged when we see the person behind the mask.
I chose to photograph each mask on its own (figure 2). The viewer then needs to engage with the images and the words to determine who they think is behind the mask. By not seeing the person’s hair, gender, clothing etc., the viewer wonders about and will make assumptions about the person behind the mask. They have to decide, from their own life experiences, what the person will look like. The reveal leaves the viewer challenged in their perception of what people are hiding. This makes the project more powerful and makes the viewer realise that ‘ordinary’ people suffer too. These people could be someone they know. The message of the project is stronger this way.
I have received comments from viewers that they did not expect the person behind the mask image to look like they did. In some cases, they even guessed the gender and age incorrectly. They have gone on to comment that the images behind the masks are sometimes shocking in their content and they feel a real, genuine concern and connection with the person.
The process of recording each session has remained consistent, with the participants wearing the mask before taking it off to confront their issues. This is still an essential part of the process.
Figure 1 shows the original mask images, which do reveal a lot about the person behind the mask. This results in the viewer not being as invested and engaged in the images. Figure 2 is the masks alone.
Figure 1: Sutherst. Original mask images. 2017
Figure 2: Sutherst. New mask images. 2017