Thursday, 8 September 2011

Michelle Sank

Congratulations to Michelle Sank whose new book Submerged is launched at the Hotshoe Gallery in London today. I put a few questions to her (which will also appear in Gomma Magazine) and she very kindly answered me below.

Why is the series called submerged?
In an area called Borth near Aberystwyth there is an ancient submerged forest that appears on the beach at very low tide. These entangled and mysterious roots show.
The idea of something spectacular emerging from the ordinary seemed pertinent to the work and the fact that all these fascinating figures, landscapes and moments were emerging from the normal - and from a grittiness I felt in the darkness of the geological make up of the place, in the stone used for sculptures, in some of the beaches and in the weather.

How did you make the work? What was your working practice?
I had a residency at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and my practice was to go daily to places that attracted me for their atmospheric qualities and then capture what emerged for me at any particular time. I work very intuitively.

You say you are interested in creating ‘sociological landscapes’? Why are you interested in this and how do you create them?
I am interested in the images having some context – the way e.g the background and figure work together to create some kind of narrative. It has been said of my work that it is as if the figures have been stuck onto the background. Also that my images are like a theatre where things happen or people see it as an opportunity to present themselves This is of course also to do with how the natural elements are all working together at that moment.. 

Do you adapt your practice to the environments you are photographing in? 
 I think I work pretty much in the same way unless I am on a commission where I am given specific people or areas to work with. However the way I approach my portraits and landscapes is the same.

Your pictures have a relaxed but formal/neutral quality. Why do you photograph in this way? Should photographs be neutral? Can they be neutral? 
 It is the way I connect with my subject matter – as if on the same level and with a combination of empathy and real excitement. Perhaps they feel they can be themselves? I’m not sure if neutral applies as everyone will react to an image in their own way and according to their own ‘heritage’

In the Guardian you said that you see yourself as a hunter, that you “work intuitively, to sense in that person, at that moment, something special.” What are the special things that you find and how do you work these into a series? 
 It is that sense of magic where you can be in a place at a certain time and something spectacular appears and for me it is a celebration of life. I cannot really explain how this happens for me, except that I do believe I “see” as a result of my life’s experiences, upbringing and my particular exposure.

Can photography be intuitive? Can it be truthful? 
 For me it is intuitive in that I allow the images to come to me. For the most part I don’t go out with an image in my head. Once again the idea of truthful will change according to the individual.

There is the sense inbetweeness in the series you have produced, both in the subjects you photograph and the environments you photograph them in. What do these areas tell you about people and places?  
The areas that I worked in for The Submerged were areas that had both a transient and permanent population and for me it was showing that diversity.

Examples of these inbetween areas are the ideas of the Edgelands, the liminal, the teenager in the gap between childhood and adulthood. Why do so many photographers work in these areas? What do you think the fascination is? 
 For me it  has a lot to do with growing up in South Africa during the apartheid years and being the daughter of Jewish Russian refugees. This feeling of being marginilised and exposed to a wider marginilsation is what has drawn me to photograph people living on the edge of society or subcultures – including adolescence.  After leaving South Africa I felt alienated and in an inbetween area myself.

How do you qualify success as a photographer? 
 Difficult, and I think there are different levels. For me it is people understanding or responding to my work in a similar way to how I responded when taking the photograph and in wanting to work with the images in some way.

How do you make a living? Is it possible to make a living in photography outside commercial/social photography
I had a big gap in my career due to leaving South Africa when I did, so when I picked it up again I decided that I would not put pressure on myself to make a living from it. I did a lot of unrelated jobs to support my practice, and also commissions and I now teach photography at University College Falmouth in Cornwall.

What are your next projects? 
 I am working in South Africa on a community who live in the Cape Flats in Cape Town.

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