Richard Ansett


National Portrait Gallery Portrait Prize 2007

GOLD AWARD – Prix de la Photographie , 2011

Shortlisted Kassel FotoBook Festival Dummy Awards 2014 

At a specific moment in the 21st century prior to the 2007- 2008 financial crisis there was a political and cultural shift, the beginnings of the de-construction of the historic cultural boundaries that had defined the old national stereotypes that accompanied a peak in capitalist excess. I was part of and witnessed these early steps towards a genuine attempt at a new utopia, which was a significant moment for me personally. I was in these very moments of documentation adjusting to the increasing acceptance of my own sexuality by the state, society and within my own mind. The consequences of this new found freedom ‘for all’ was the inevitable destruction of the existing oppressive cultural framework that defined all British societal behaviour. We were set free, exposed to the very best and worst excesses that accompany self-responsibility and to some extent the baby had to be thrown out with this filthy bathwater. In my mind at least we all seemed to be set loose to re-define ourselves without the boundaries that previously seemed so oppressive for some and a great comfort for others. Inevitably this radical shift brought with it great challenges as we scrambled to define our identity in this new exciting vacuum and society felt barely held together except for our collective worship at the alter of consumerism.

In this capitalist utopia equality would now only be defined by wealth. It was the first time I recall a spotlight being shone so brightly on the oppressive nature of our historic cultural identity. It felt like a truly radical and exciting time, a personal yoke was being lifted but for all the benefits of this new found freedom there were consequences and victims. There is an inevitable bi-product in the creation of a new society, a consequence of setting minds free. One significant jewel inside this particular Pandora’s box was the previously hidden state of our collective mental health.

The cost of freedom can never be too high but there were and continue to be costs; there is no such thing as a free lunch. The trade off for our new found liberation? In a society increasingly losing its manufacturing base the state turned to its citizens as the primary vehicle for the creation of wealth. Our consumption was to become the driver of this new utopia and we entered a period of unrestrained capitalist individualism beyond which even Thatcher could never have imagined and visually manifest in an epidemic of obesity. But this project is not meant merely as a conventional portrait of real peoples lives or a critique on the obesity epidemic, it is an allegorical examination of the UK at this moment and an inevitable projection of my own personal psychology. 

This series represents a seminal moment in my practice technically when I was further liberated from the aesthetic boundaries that have defined historic photographic documentation that are now an essential part of my wider practice. Part of British hubris is the absence of self-analysis and this project along with all of what I consider the best works in my archive turn this outward colonial gaze back onto British society as unsentimental realism. It is a challenge to turn the spotlight we have so often reserved for other countries and societies back on ourselves. Perhaps the suffering of other parts of the world seems unimaginable compared to our lives and we don’t have the right for the indulgence of self-examination? Self-critique can seem inherently lacking in empathy for those living in societies we deem less privileged but I argue that pain is not relative; that suffering of the individual is not lessened by the knowledge of the agony another. Further the problems of other societies should not serve to detract from the fractures which are unique to our own society.

My practice recognises photography as a documentation of our physicality shaped by our emotional state, I argue that it is inescapable and inevitably on show and we all in turn contribute to the shaping of the social/political landscape. We share some commonality of experience but it is how we deal with this, especially in moments of crisis that literally shape our evolving personalities over time. In many of us we have learned ways to disguise our vulnerability in complex identities designed to detract and these hiding strategies contribute to our image identity but for some coping strategies are impossible to camouflage.

The subjects in ‘fat’ are more than participants in a photojournalistic study; they are allegories that I view as the inevitable by-products of a progressive society.

This series is a record of this unique moment in our cultural history when we were left to fend for ourselves in the newly forming epoch defined by moral relativism and a transfer of responsibility from the state to the individual. The images are the documentation of another unique moment, this group of individuals are only days away from bariatric surgery. In these moments they are detached from the shame and humiliation of their obesity and look forward to a new life that offers the hope of freedom from their present physical reality. These are, in editorial terms, the ‘before’ images intended originally to be compared to the ‘after’. We are left with a privileged record of an otherwise deeply private world transcending traditional dignity that asks questions about self-love. 

I was deeply affected by the time spent with these subjects and my practice is led by my need for intimacy that demands an immersion in their lives. It is an intimacy only afforded by the camera celebrating these subjects as more courageous than myself then and these images are as much a projection of my own issues with self acceptance. 

The subjects expose themselves to the brutal gaze of the objectivist lens in these ambivalent works that capture a moment in the evolving epoch.

I ask that we consider the subjects to exist not as subjects in a conventional editorial narrative but as a part of ourselves, they are, in the moment of capture, physical representations of our own emotional possibility not intended as either documentary or Arbus-esq freak show but as an extended metaphor and privileged insight into a human being’s most intimate vulnerability.

Book Dummy– Designer Boris Kajmak