Richard Ansett

1.You’ve won many photography awards, which one means the most to you?

The Arte Laguna Prize is an affirmation of the hard work and trust of many people as well as the personal emotional investment that led to the creation of the series ‘Boys in a City Park, Ukraine.’ I have been cautious about the exposure of this work; it still feels deeply private and precious. These images inspired a remarkable response within Ukraine itself; the strongest I have ever experienced but this prize was the first indication that the project maybe resonating beyond an eastern European sentiment. 

I cannot be sure that my ideas are communicating to others and my images are often mis-understood or interpreted differently from their original purpose. But I accept this as an inevitable consequence when working with unclear or distorted narratives. This can make my work difficult to ‘like’ and I accept that, so have low expectation of awards.

There is a danger that the desire for photographer’s to be recognised may lead to a form of homogeneity of entry in major competitions. In the ambition to be recognized the choice of images entered can play to a perceived notion of what the curators ‘always choose’. Jury’s may only be seeing work created within the same aesthetic and conceptual boundaries and this may lead to stagnation in the evolution of photography as an art form.

2. How have your photography interests changed and developed over the years – are you still motivated by the same things?

I have always felt outside of things and I am still surprised by any interest in me commercially. One constant through my life has been the relationship with photography itself. 

I don’t think much has changed but I have perhaps learned to understand the motivations that have always driven me. This awareness has allowed me access to new ways of seeing, which has continued to bring a great sense of ‘mortal satisfaction’ from the creation of new work, which is undimmed.

I have a genetic astigmatism in one eye and in 2008 I developed some serious scarring across my only good eye, which rendered me incapable of trusting my focus for 6 months. I have never shared this before in interviews but this was the closest I have come to having to change my life in a dramatic way and no longer be a photographer. During this time I shot ‘Woman with Electrode Cap’ which had a real impact on people and showed all over the world and at the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize in London, although I couldn’t really see it properly. 

At this time I started to train as a person-centred counselor as a possible career change and this continues to inform my contemporary practice as an exploration without solution of the complexity of the human experience.

3. What was the first photograph you remember having a real impact you?

Irving Penn had a big effect early on and I have recently referenced Irving Penn’s ‘Women of Risanni, Morroco, 1978’ as an influence for a new project. Cindy Sherman blew my socks off, especially her work in 1992 my favourite is Untitled # 257, 1992; she was an early inspiration that I could be more and braver. Wolfgang Tillmanns had a major affect on me, he’s a really important artist that represents a huge shift in the public perception of photography as more than a two-dimensional record of reality, I love ‘AA Breakfast, 1995’. Ultimately there has been no greater influence on me than Boris Mikhailov’s ‘Case History’. This is the antithesis of everything that is possible, fearless, brutal corruption exposed by the act of corruption. It both inspired me and equally reminded me of my limitations. I have had the privilege of being mentored by him in Ukraine during the IZOLYATSIA residency and I consider him and his wife Vita as friends. 

On a recent visit to the Saatchi Gallery I observed a group of Muslim schoolgirls being ushered in during the exhibition of the Case History acquisition. I can only hope the teacher’s had time to preview the room with the 5 ft print of the wart covered penis.

4. What has your work in photography taught you about the human condition?

The more I learn about the human condition, the more it informs my practice. The more I learn the less I understand; my work is increasingly ambivalent. I have always considered the physical act of photography to be motivated by forces beyond conscious control. Improvement and progress in art and life comes from the evolution of the person; I must become a better-informed protagonist that instinctively interprets the universe in that present. The subconscious decision to choose what and how to photograph is partially pre-determined and unchanging but through life experience and education progress is possible in increments. 

An image is imbued with the lifetime experience of the creator. When I look at work, I don’t view it in two dimensions; an image betrays a level of personal development of the artist. Photography as medium of narrative record at this point is irrelevant to me.

The human condition is unfathomably complex and we should assume nothing about another person. Our ability to socialize and communicate is managed only by complex cultural behaviors that barely prevent chaos. We are all exposed to similar emotional experiences but it is how we deal with them that define the individual and eventually shapes the adult personality. This can be read visually.

5. Some say photography is all about capturing the moment, how much do you agree with this statement?

Sontag said that we live in a constant state of ‘immediate nostalgia’.

My relationship with the physical act of photography is more about the avoidance of missing the moment. * (My first memory of taking a photograph was of a train that I missed and have a great shot of the empty tracks). This avoidance of failure is more of a documentary instinct but it still relates to any photographic practice. During the period of a shoot there is an intense and immediate battle between success and failure and this notion can interfere with the objectivity of a photographer of record.

Even from my first memory of taking photographs the failures have been the source of my motivational energy. 

The minimization of failure has led to a seemingly objectivist and controlling approach, which may seem less momentary but this is a relationship to the space alone and not the sitter. The incongruent subject is invited into these new boundaries and I record their response in ‘the moment’ without overt direction. I am documenting a reaction to a ‘new environment’. I do feel there is a universal truth in the vulnerability exposed at that moment but it doesn’t define the person, it’s not a portrait in the purest sense.

6. Why do you think photography is such a powerful medium?

The majority of photography I am exposed to on a regular basis is repetitive and inane; I am swamped by fatuous imagery interpreting every aspect of my world so it is easy to forget how powerful the medium actually is. Whilst consciously the photograph is accepted as a facsimile of reality, there is still a sub-conscious and primal acceptance of it as reality. It is a very powerful tool in the hands of a propagandist or a surrealist and can offer extreme interpretations of a shared reality. I am intimidated and under attack by imagery, there is an aberrated view of human happiness being used to sell us a version of reality I don’t recognize.

As the visual interpretive medium of the age these established rules of aesthetic engagement must to be unraveled when interpreting photography as a medium of art. The overwhelming convention dominates and an effort is required to welcome work that sits outside of, or challenges conservative parameters. 

This fatuous version of reality cannot be altered by indolence or complicity. Most great contemporary work with any power is less literal, less two-dimensional. Often the immediate content is barely relevant to the images post-dominant message and requires greater effort to engage with but it is worth it.

7. Everyone thinks they’re a photographer these days – do you think this accessibility is a good thing and do you use things like instagram yourself?

I do find conversation at parties with people who define themselves as photographers can be incredibly tedious but ‘People in glass houses should not throw stones’; therefore I think we can call ourselves whatever we wish. My 6 year old god-daughter can think she’s an artist; she can play at art with her crayons like she plays at dollies but who am I to contradict her notion of herself. If she said she was a brain surgeon I might question her reasoning.

I think any art form that encourages self-expression is amazing and modern technology has allowed anyone to experiment and create. The early photographers were almost entirely wealthy aristocrats.

However, we should not kid ourselves that we are any good at it; that is up to others to decide. If a picture we have taken immediately resonates, it is almost certainly because it already exists in our consciousness. This still remains the best advice I have ever been given and I am constantly vigilant against this form of accidental plagiarism. There is however, a difference between plagiarism and inspiration.

The arbiter of our understanding is the work we see around us and of the greats that have gone before. As artists and photographers we have a duty to ourselves to continually expand our knowledge of contemporary and historic practices, recognizing and acknowledging influence. If we exist in a spurious notion of isolation we are in fact only exposed to the lowest common denominators of aesthetic language.

The definition of whether our work is of any value to others can only come from others but we shouldn’t allow that to fully define us. If we want to be happy then we should withdraw into glorious isolation and never expose our work to criticism. Does one’s work require an audience in order for it to exist? It reminds me of the notion of a falling tree in a forest with no one there…