“When you are working with strangers there’s that chance element which is a way of finding things that you don’t think are there. It dislodges the perception of what is in front of your eyes.” (1: p.45)
In 1992 Gillian Wearing created her series Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, (discussed here ) and in doing so not only announced her arrival as one of Britain’s most influential conceptual artists but also nearly created a sub-genre of portraiture, the idea of anonymous subjects expressing an opinion through the medium of a written sign. I say “nearly” because Wearing’s Signs project is so recognisable that is seems as if photographers are frightened of using it as a reference point.
Wearing herself presumably felt that she owned the copyright to the idea when she considered suing the BMP DDB advertising agency in 1998 for using people holding signs in a VW Golf advertisement. (2) The advertising agency argued that they had taken inspiration from a number of sources including the promotional video for Bob Dylan’s 1965 Subterranean Blues in which he holds up signs including key words from the lyrics and an earlier Levi advertisement.
As far as I can tell no other well known photographer has adopted the same approach as Signs which suggests that the idea was so powerful that it has closed off this particular avenue for exploring strangers’ inner thoughts. However, the concept is so established as a form of advertising, protest or social commentary that the internet overflows with stock images of models holding blank signs ready for the licensee to add their message. Additionally a small number of contemporary practitioners have based series on the same concept.
Grace Brown was only nineteen in 2011 and a photography student at New York’s School of Visual Arts when she started her blog, Project Unbreakable (3). After hearing a friend tell her story Brown began photographing women who had been victims of sexual assault; each victim holds a handwritten sign documenting a quote from their assailant. When Brown began to post the portraits on-line the project rapidly expanded both in terms of its scope by including photographs of child abuse and domestic violence and by accepting contributions from victims across the globe. (i) Brown’s role evolved from photographer to curator whilst the nature of the photographs change from social documentary by a concerned photographer to deeply personal statements expressed through self-portraiture or assisted self-portraiture.
Wearing took over 600 photographers when working on Signs and has revisited the concept on other occasions. Reviewing the many images that are available in print or on-line there is a wide spectrum of the type of comments she captured. They range from confessional statements to what I would see as conscious cleverness, a desire to be saying something meaningful for the camera. In either case the request by a photographer to speak (write) ones mind often seems to extract something that would otherwise remain unsaid. In that sense it is a powerful concept, the still photography equivalent of a fly-on-the-wall documentary or the confessional.
In Brown’s collection whether we consider her pictures or the vernacular selfie stye snap-shots that dominate her blog we see the phenomenon of photography revealing a secret; a sense that no one has previously asked to hear these people’s distressing stories and the opportunity to write a brief statement and then be photographed creates a tiny crack in the dam that humans instinctively build around memories of traumatic experiences.
Another young photographer who has used the hand written sign as a way to extract people’s inner most thoughts is Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi. For her series Which is Your Biggest Regret (5) Dragoi openly cites Gillian Wearing as her reference but there are distinct differences in her approach. Firstly, whereas Wearing retained a snap-shot aesthetic, a certain found untidiness about her pictures, there is sense that the locations and perhaps some of subjects for some of Dragoi’s photographs have been carefully selected and by using a square format camera we are often offered far more context than in Wearing’s tighter shots. This doesn’t necessarily detract from the series, arguably it puts Dragoi’s own stamp on the work.
The second significant difference is that Dragoi has narrowed the breath of responses so that people are restricted to naming their regrets. This narrowing often has the effect of encouraging the “lie” that “I have no regrets”, good in a song but otherwise hardly believable but it has also extracted some surprising confessions “Shagging Lee’s Mum” or ” When I stole my sister’s money” or, my favourite, “What I did last night” which not only creates an open ended narrative but, as a picture, is made more interesting by the sign hiding the subject’s face.
The third example of Wearing’s work inspiring young photographers is Kiyun Kim, a Korean American artist with a degree in Visual Arts from Fordham University. Her project Racial Microagression (6) is a social critique on the type of background racism that rarely attracts comment, that may even appear to be acceptable to certain people, but that is, in reality is as racist as the “N” word given the intent is to establish racial superiority quite apart from being patronising, insulting and hurtful.
Putting to one side the depressingly familiar type of abuse this is an interesting photographic project. Like Dragoi and Brown the comment has been narrowed to a single topic and like Brown the subject matter contains a strong social critique. Kim modestly does not list photography as one of her skills but she should; I like the undirected nature of this series, I responded positively to Dragoi’s work but the sense of staging in some pictures runs the risk of detracting or under-valuing the text on the cards; in Kim’s case she has given her subjects free rein and the poses and facial expressions compliment the written statements and bring out something about the personalities of the subjects. For the hand-written text to have the right level of influence on the photograph it needs to be given equal status with the visual depiction of the subject so that the two work together, a third “artful” element is unnecessary.
I think it is interesting to look back at these four practitioners. Wearing is a conceptual art who uses photography as one of many mediums, Brown was a photograph student but through her work became a campaigner and curator and Kim is a graphic designer who surprinsgly doesn’t even list photography amongst her hobbies. Only Dargoi is a practicing photographer.
To return to my opening point it is surprising that Wearing’s idea has not been picked up and evolved by more practitioners. Photographer’s strive to tell the viewer something non-visual about their subjects and the hand written sign is one way to collaborate fully with the subject and to offer them the chance to close down the meaning of their portrait.
Notes on Text
(i) The photographs on the site are deeply upsetting and highlight the need for these issues to be far more openly discussed; one hopes that the recent focus on celebrity abusers has helped educate both the authorities and the public for the need to listen to the victims. Brown herself reached the point when she could no longer bring herself to read the victims’ statements and the project closed down in 2015.
(1) Wearing, Gillian (1999) Gillian Wearing (2011 edition). London: Phaidon Press
(2) McCann, Paul (1998) VW Stole my Ideas, Says Turner Winner (accessed at Independent 7.8.16) – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/vw-stole-my-ideas-says-turner-winner-1164356.html
(3) Brown, Grace (2011 to 2016) Project Unbreakable (accessed at Project Unbreakable 7.8.6) – http://project-unbreakable.org/about/
(4) Stokel-Walker, Chris (2012) Project Unbreakable: Stories of Surviving Sexual Assault (accessed at Storyboard 7.8.6) – http://storyboard.tumblr.com/post/32733584157/project-unbreakable-stories-of-surviving-sexual
(5) Raluca Dragoi, Alecsandro (2015) Which is Your Biggest Regret ? (accessed at the photographer’s website 7.8.16) – http://www.alecsandraralucadragoi.com/which-is-your-biggest-regret-i
(6) Kim, Kiyun (2014) Racial Microagression (accessed at the photographer’s website 7.8.16) – http://kimkiyun.com/#/fine-art/microaggressions/