Published by Photomonitor
Anthony Luvera (AL): For over a decade you have photographed children, adolescents and young adults. While you have addressed particular circumstances, experiences and themes – ranging from teenage pregnancy, ex-offender rehabilitation, to living in Belfast after The Troubles – underpinning your work appears to be a fascination with individuals going through a formative or transitional period in their lives. What compels you to work with young people?
Michelle Sank (MS): It’s the sense of individuality they display at this stage in their lives, as they try out new, experimental and liberating ways to express their identities. I find something gem-like about young people. I see a celebration of beauty in them that I feel in some way connects to my South African heritage which was filled with colour, texture, ritual and difference.
My own youth was a mixture of highs and lows, strengths and vulnerabilities. As the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, growing up in South Africa during Apartheid, I witnessed and experienced ostracization. Leaving South Africa and coming to live in the United Kingdom enhanced the feelings of alienation I experienced in some ways. I think this contributed to my fascination for individuals who identify with subcultures or who somehow live on the edges of society. I’m attracted to the unusual and the unseen in what might be thought of as normal.
AL: In a different way to much of your previous work, this idea of seeking out the extraordinary in the everyday appears be pushed to the fore in your most recent series, In My Skin. What drew you to photograph young people who have altered their bodies?
MS: I’m interested in the pressures placed on young people to conform to ideas about what is fashionable or what society says they should aspire to in relation to their bodies. For example Hannah 20 yrs old is a photograph of a young women who has had lip fillers, breast augmentation, botox, body liposuction and rhinoplasty. Hannah expressed to me that even though she has undergone all of this surgery, and despite being in a loving relationship, she still feels her body is not good enough and she wants to have more surgery. The photograph titled Matt 18 yrs old shows a young transgender man. When Matt was 5 years old he left a note for his mother on her pillow telling her that he was a boy, not a girl. He told me that for most of his life he has felt pressure to conform to a gender he was born with but does not actually identify with. He is now in the process of undergoing gender reassignment.
It seems to me that more than ever there is a prevailing value system that focuses on what your body looks like and not the person you are. I’m interested in how this affects the individual and how they are able to change their bodies at such a relatively young age, at a time of vulnerability, as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood.
AL: I’m curious about your use of the term “vulnerability” here. “Vulnerability” is a word loaded with preconceptions about position, power and agency, especially when talking about young people or other groups of individuals who are overly-spoken for in public arenas. While some of your subjects have used surgery to align themselves with preconceptions of beauty, fashion or the ideal body, others have altered their bodies to free themselves from a gender they do not identify with. In either case, it might be said that taking such steps is an assertion of power or an expression of control. Could you also say something about the notions of control and vulnerability in relation to the transaction between a photographer and subject?
MS: I think the notions of control and power play out in different ways for each of the subjects I have photographed. What interests me about those who have undergone plastic surgery is how they seem to be controlled by social norms relating to how one has to appear physically in order to be accepted or admired. With the transgender people I’m interested in how they have lived part of their life trying to conform to society by living in a body that was alien to them, and I see the changes made to their bodies as wholly positive.
In relation to the idea that the young people I photograph are vulnerable, it’s more that I perceive a certain kind of delicacy in them. It seems to me that they are poised in a moment of balance between who they are and who they might become. When I’m photographing I look to feel a strong sense of connection between the subject and myself. This is something I feel intuitively and has strong resonance for me personally. It has been said that there is a sense of performance in my work – that the space I create photographically is like a stage, where the subjects and myself interact in a scene.
AL: The use of performance as an analogy for the portrait-making process is an interesting frame of reference as it engenders consideration of the dynamic between someone giving direction to another person playing a part. Can you talk a little more explicitly about the relationship between you and your subjects? How are decisions negotiated around their presentation to the camera?
MS: When I encounter people I would like to photograph I feel a sense of wonderment about them. I try to create a space where I can connect with them. This is largely achieved by talking to them. I feel the relationship we have, albeit brief at times, is as rewarding as the photographic process or the finished photograph. I often feel a sense of gratitude and personal enrichment through the encounters with the people I photograph. For In My Skin I wanted to work in the subject’s personal space so that their surroundings would say something about their personalities in the photograph. In a sense I see myself as a director. From time to time I asked for elements to be removed or positioned in order to create or intensify a narrative that I perceived. Mostly the size of the rooms dictated where the subjects were positioned. Then, when the subject has settled in to their space in front of the camera, I look for something unique in their gesture or gaze to respond to.
AL: How do you hope viewers will respond to In My Skin? What is it you want to achieve with this body of work?
MS: I would like the individuals depicted in this body of work to be viewed with empathy and respect. I hope this series of portraits may go some way to enabling a greater understanding of the pressures young people deal with in the face of the sensationalization of the ideal body.
Michelle Sank was born in South Africa and currently resides in the UK. Her photographs have been exhibited and published extensively in England and internationally, and her imagery is held in the permanent collections of Allan Servais, Brussels; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; and Open Eye Gallery Archive, Liverpool. Sank has three published books, The Water’s Edge: Women on the Waterfront (Liverpool University Press, 2007) – a study of women who worked and still work on Liverpool’s Docks, Becoming (Belfast Exposed Photography and Ffotogallery, 2006) – a major monograph featuring her portraits taken over five years, and The Submerged (Schilt Publishing, 2011). She has also undertaken numerous commissions for prominent galleries and magazines in Europe and the USA and her work has won awards in many prestigious competitions.
Sank’s recent series, In My Skin, comprises sensitive portraits of young people under 25 in the UK who are challenging their body image. An engaging visual discourse with cosmetic surgery, body dysmorphia and transgenderism, Sank’s work has already won several awards from Unicef and Lensculture and will feature in an upcoming publication by Gomma Books.