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The legacy of Living Portraits / 7 November 2014

Colin Hambrook gives an overview of the Living Portraits exhibition shown at the Brighton Media Centre from 14th-19th October 2014 as part of the Photo Fringe Festival.

Dao has been supporting the Living Portraits blog since last March, giving visual artist Lynn Weddle and sound artist Anya Ustaszewski an opportunity to reflect on the project as it built towards the exhibition.

What has been clear through the process has been the desire of the artists to work sensitively with their participants - a group of young carers - to create an artistic statement that gives a snapshot of their lives. As Lynn put it early on: “For our proposed subjects, it is our understanding that their lives are so often not their own.”

In setting up Living Portraits, Lynn and Anya set themselves a number of questions about the process. The idea was to produce a thoughtful investigation into the lives and personalities of four young people. First and foremost it was important that it be good Art, but not at the expense of the sensibilities of the participants. 

The first thing that struck me on seeing the exhibition is how the process works as a validation of the caring aspect of the young peoples lives. As disabled artists both Lynn and Anya were clearly aware of the care that needed to be taken in representing the four young women who participated in the project. As such Living Portraits exemplified something of a role reversal in giving time and space for the needs of the participants. Young carers are typically as invisible within society as the disabled family members they support and are often given large amounts of unacknowledged responsibility.

As a result what shines through the installation: a series of four full-length static portraits - is how much energy has gone into developing the trust of the subjects. As a viewer you are immediately faced with the question of how you might feel in the young women’s position, exposed, watching a camera that is watching you. It takes nerve, knowing that it’s just you and the elements. The young women were given the decision of choosing how and where they were to be filmed for the project. And much is revealed through what is an outwardly a simple yet evocative process. There is a vulnerability. How am I being seen? Who is watching me? Does it matter?

The personalities of the four young women shine through the portraits through subtle changes in facial expression and body movement. It’s fascinating how the eyes and the hands of an individual tell so  much about how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

Hayley wears a leather jacket and has her hands firmly planted in her pockets. She stands in front of the sea her hair blowing in the wind. Emily stands swaying slightly in front of a field of long grasses. Her movement mirrors the movement of the tall grass. Chloe stands in front of a school building. She poses with one elbow held out, while she encircles her body with her other arm. Brogan stands in front of a set of stone steps in a garden, her hands clasped in front of her.

Anya’s soundscape pulls  all four portraits together into a cohesive whole. Through blending a reflective electronic soundtrack with subtle sounds from each location: the sea, the wind, birds, crickets, a passing car - elements from each location are melded into an immersive installation.

In thinking about the legacy Living Portraits will have it occurred to me how much the process borrows from some of the earliest experiments in film in the late 19th century. It’s that sense you get when you watch the early work of people like the Lumiere Brothers or George A Smith that you are watching a moment frozen in time that will in years to come provide a significant sociological document of how life was lived and the attitudes that were present at a particular moment in time. 

It will interesting to see where Living Portraits takes Lynn and Anya from here?