Politics of Portraiture

A zoom tutorial with Arpita Shar

I have just attended the fascinating and very informative zoom with Arpita Shar on Politics of Portraiture. I ended up taking 8 pages of notes over 2 hours! So, I will attempt to summarise them.

Arpita started by discussing the ethics of photography and the need for ethical responsibility. This was a recurring theme throughout the talk. She directed us to the work of Anthony Luvera and the website Photography as a Social Practice which I have just managed to take a brief look at. http://www.asocialpractice.com

Luvera said something like (unfortunately I was not quick enough to get the whole quote) – ‘Photographers are storytellers who speak about the world and can shake preconceptions.’ He is involved in a journal called ‘Photography for whom?’  about socially engaged photography. Arpita emphasised that when you were taking photographs of people there were several things you should consider, including:

  • Who is the work for?
  • Who benefits?
  • How do you measure the subjects experience?
  • What is the outcome?
  • Ownership
  • Authenticity
  • Consent

Everybody’s code of practice is slightly different – but you need to really think about what you are doing.

Consent is crucial. It should be informed and transparent. Parents should consent for children. The consent form should include everything that you are planning to use the images for and if you change that you need to revisit the consent – so you need to keep a way of contacting people. She kindly sent us copies of 3 consent forms, her own, the AOP one and the RPS one which are all slightly different.

Arpita also directed us towards the website of the Photography Ethics Centre which has many articles to make you think about what you are doing and why:


Words to remember are respect, integrity, accountability, dignity

Arpita then spent some time taking us through her work from her very early work as a student to what she is working on now. She is mainly interested in looking at migration and movement of families and the ensuing diversity that produces. She started this as she became aware there was little representation at women of colour in photography (more so nowadays – but still limited). Her work is clearly informed by art history, paintings, and miniatures as she is interested in how the past and the present can be layered within images. She uses nature as a metaphor for displacement in many of her photos. She also tries to challenge stereotypes where possible – such as Indian teenagers are always socially poor (obviously they are not) and the meaning of various head coverings that different races and religions use. She commented that it is important to be clear with people not just what you are using the images for but also what you are expecting of them. Are you going to move their furniture around? How long is it going to take? Inside or outside? Yes, they can see the images, but she will retain final choice of which ones she is using? Yes, they can back out – but please tell her.

We then went over several portrait photographers work, some in more detail than others as unfortunately we ran out of time. I will just summarise these very briefly as I want to do more research on most of them! (Time might be an issue).

We talked about socially engaged photographers and how they plan (but do they always?) empower the people to be involved in both the taking of the pictures and their use. Giving the voice back to the people. Challenging preconception. Use of dialogues.

  • Dawoud Bey: very long-standing photographer of black Americans, looking at marginalised groups, originally in Harlem. The images showed a proud people. Contrasted his work with the earlier work of Irving Penn (fashion photographer who in his spare time took images of people of ‘other’ races). Very different feel about the 2 groups. Bey reminded me of the work of Gordon Parks.
  • Dana Lixenberg with her fabulous Imperial Courts where she as a white woman from Europe managed to integrate herself enough with the coloured population in a poor area of Los Angeles over 22 years to make a BOW that is a stunning view of time in that area. Clearly thought about the background and how best to show the people. Note: she is an outsider
  • Mahtab Hussein – working with young adult Asian men in Birmingham – studies showing their Britishness but also (I thought) the sadness in some of their eyes You Get Me? He apparently picked the people by walking around the streets and making conversation, but he also gives them a degree of choice in what images are used. Note: he is an insider in the population
  • Maud Sulter – a very different type of work questioning black female identity and using staged portraiture to riff on ancient muses (need for knowledge of history and fables/ myths to interpret
  • Liz Hingley – a fascinating work on a street in Birmingham looking at the multiplicity of different faiths found there. Often photographed indoors. People not looking directly at her, looking either away from or into the light. (Under Gods).
  • Margaret Mitchell – working with her family and the children – showing the poor background against the rebellious teenagers they are becoming (social photography) – reminded me that I first saw this in St Andrew’s – major contrast.
  • Handsworth self-portraits – used a pop-up booth to get people to take their own images – consent may have been an issue. – but not really considered then.
  • Anthony Luvera – self assisted portraits of the homeless, he also included pictures taken by the subjects on disposable cameras. How much choice do they really have? Within the community the images make sense – but what happens when outsiders see them? Also consider the work of Julian Germain where he offers street children the cameras to express themselves alongside writing and interviews.
  • J.R. – photos taken, blown up and shown on the floor, on buildings, anywhere – a very playful use of the photography.
  • Bieke Depoorter – Agata – a Lon-term work about one person’s life, where she sometimes directs what photos are taken, ands when they are shown will come and write about them on the gallery walls. Very much a collaborative project.
  • Ashfika Rahman and Sam Ivin – ran out of time to discuss but thinking about ways to protect the identity of people who are at risk/have been abused.

As you see: a very long and wide-ranging tutorial accompanied by lots of further reading and links to follow up.

Thank you Arpita.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s