This post lists some examples of portrait and figurative artists whose practices tell stories and foster connection. It is the final instalment of a 3-part series examining portraiture as ethnography. If you missed part 1 or 2, you can read them here: PART 1 // PART 2
Outside and Inside the Body
Pam Hall, Roselena Ramistella
Pam Hall’s “Making Introductions” Series (1999-99) and Roselena Ramistella’s “The Warmth” (2019) both use portraiture to examine what we learn and see (or don’t see) when we look at a person. Hall’s tackles what is visible: depicting ‘the first thing we see’ when we look at someone in a uniform- a role signifier on the outside of the body. Ramistella’s series renders visible ‘what we cannot see’ with the naked eye, going “inside” her subjects in a unique visual way through the use of thermal imaging. But although these two portrait projects differ in form, they overlap in function in that they seek to show a deeper, more intimate, honest and complete picture of someone than a ‘regular portrait’ showing likeness alone could ever do.
“Making Introductions” was completed during Hall’s residency with the faculty of medicine at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. Like Kirsten Ervin’s time at the airport, this residency brought an artist into a non-arts institution, fostering creativity and community engagement. In a hospital, when we see people in scrubs or a white coat, street clothes or a patient’s gown, we immediately are given an understanding of what role these people play within the institution. But who are they, beyond the labels of housekeeper, doctor, visitor, patient?
Maren Elliott’s illustration of Parm Hall’s “Making Introductions” triptychs
Each one of Hall’s portraits was a triptych, depicting photographs of her healthcare worker subjects in their work uniform, their street clothes, and a classic patient’s gown (also known as a “Johnnycoat”). Mimicking how information was collected and shared in a hospital during the 1990’s, these photographs were mounted on basic wooden clipboards along with a form that was filled out with the subject’s written “history”. Depending on which ‘role’ the subject was depicted in, the forms varied slightly in the information they collected. The “personal” histories asked questions about memory, hopes, fears, and interests. The “professional” histories contained information about the subject’s job description, as well as the experiences, joys and difficulties they’ve experienced during their careers. Finally, the “patient” histories examined a past experience when the subject had to visit a hospital as a patient, and how that had felt.
Triptychs of people in a variety of professions (ex. technicians, nurses, doctors), were displayed throughout the corridors. What I love about this series is it draws inspiration from the important practice of collecting information from patients and colleagues around someone’s medical care, and flips it around to provide glimpses into who that person is beyond the hospital walls.
Italian photographer Roselena Ramistella’s “The Warmth” also provides unusual glimpses into her subjects by using thermal imaging technology. Like Sohl’s “I believe in our right to be frivolous”, Ramistella’s series documents the images and interactions between the artists and refugees and asylum seekers- in this case those who found themselves in Sicily. The ongoing series consists of video documentation of conversations between the artist and subjects. She would ask them questions about their lives and experiences, and as an effort to guide the sessions into the territory of “exchange” rather than “interrogation” she carefully considered her questions through an intention of empathy, as well as allowed the subjects to ask her anything in return. I imagine this brought a more natural feeling of conversation into the sessions rather than having it follow a stiffer, Q&A format.
Roselena Ramistella’s “The Warmth”
The figures in her portraits appear in vibrant tones of yellow, orange, purple and blue, depending on the levels of heat on different areas of their body detected by the thermal camera. What is most fascinating is that depending on where the conversations went and what kind of emotions came up, the camera would detect changes of heat being emitted by their faces and bodies.
Roselena Ramistella “The Warmth” (Abuhacar, Kate and Iman, Abou)
While some people may criticize these images (which are stripped of the ordinary details we normally see on a person) as reductive or dehumanizing, I believe it draws attention to one of the most human things of all- our feelings. The anonymity provided by the nature of these “obscured” images also allowed for a level of safety in self-disclosure. According to the artist, “words came out like a river in a flood”,
Considering Space: Our Homes, Our Selves, and the lenses through which we interact
Samantha Lyn Aasen, Angelina Barrucco
Samantha Lyn Aasen and Angelina Barrucco are both artists who have used photography to explore interplay between intimacy of our day-to-day settings, how our homes reflect our identities, and how we present ourselves digitally out into the world in different contexts.
Samantha Lyn Aasen
“Cam Fam”, Samantha Lyn Aasen
Feminist artist Samantha Lyn Aasen explores the contradictions of celebration and condemnation experienced around sexuality and sex, particularly for girls and women. As objects of the male gaze, sexualized women are put on a pedestal, lusted after, worshiped and used as a means to sell products and messages. But as soon as we venture into the territory of women taking charge of their own sexuality and sexual experiences, the messages flip. Anything from exploring and experiencing pleasure to working in sex or sex-adjacent industries becomes seen as dirty, shameful, indecent. If she is an object it is ok to ooze sex. If she is a person you know she is a slut. What a confusing double-standard we have to navigate on this side of the gender binary.
Aasen’s “cam fam” photo series originated in the friendships she gained with models and sex workers during a post-grad school period during which she worked in the pornography industry. Much like artists, these models were independent business people, producing content, building their brand, and developing relationships with clientele all while being the “star of their own show”. Sex workers are people, working hard and living their lives like anyone else. Yet in a world that exists in the borders between fantasy and privacy many people do not even consider this reality. Using techniques from family photography, her series depicts its subjects working on their online businesses, filming content, and just hanging out and existing in their spaces.
Instead of a webcam or phone camera producing images to capture them in as the curated, fantasy versions of their work personas, Aasen’s photographs are candid, tender, casual. People in their natural environment, doing what they do and just being. In her artist statement, she writes the following:
I photograph sex workers in an attempt to de-stigmatize their professions and humanize them to those who have a “vanilla” lifestyle.
“Cam Fam”, Samantha Lyn Aasen
Again, the theme here is humanization over objectification, a noble effort in a creative field like portraiture where that line can be easily crossed, especially when working with folks who are stigmatized.
Natural environments (aka the domestic setting) and interacting on-screen played an important role in the creation of Ottawa-based photographer Angelina Barrucco’s “Portraits in a time of social distancing” (2020-21). I feel like this series is the ultimate pandemic project. One day, perhaps, historians will put her photographs in the books (the e-books, I guess?) as a reflection on how we interacted ‘back in covid days’.
Above and below: Angelina Barrucco, “Portraits in a time of social distancing”
Instead of using a traditional camera for an in-person, face-to-face photoshoot, Barrucco’s series relied on Zoom, which she describes as “the tool of the moment”. Indeed. Each portrait is a diptych. On one side, there is the image of the subject sitting and facing their web cam like one does in a regular video call. For the other side, she asked them to turn their cameras around 180 degrees so she could screencap the place in their home where she would have been standing if she had physically taken the photo. Framed in top-and-bottom black bands, these portraits give a more complete picture of a person, much like Pam Hall’s “Making Introductions” series by virtue of including additional information.
Angelina Barrucco “Portraits in a time of social distancing”
Instead of a written history, in this case we learn more via visual clues. The artwork on the wall, pets, furniture, books, a bowl of fruit. As a viewer I feel a bit like a fly on the wall, these details give me some ideas about the portrait subject (eg. this person has a piano) but even more questions. Is the piano theirs? Do they play? Is the fruit real? What is their favourite music? That photo on the wall- is it a loved one? Are they still alive? I’m drawn in. Reminded again just how nuanced and impossibly complex we all are as human beings.
Angelina Barrucco, “Portraits in a time of social distancing”
Note: Works from “Portraits in a time of social distancing” are currently on view at the Ottawa Art Gallery as part of the “Abound” exhibit, featuring the work of 7 recent MFA graduates from the university of Ottawa.
Trauma and Healing ~ Symbols and Objects
Alexis Marie Chute, Mahshid Farhoudi
Portrait’s from Alexis Marie Chute’s “the quiet rebuild” and Mahshid Farhoudi’s “The Red Blanket Project” are gorgeously rendered, technical images with a depth and richness to them as visual objects in their own right. But in addition to their visual beauty, they both explore the beauty of resilience and the strength of the human spirit in the face of trauma.
Alongside her own creative practice, Iranian-born Canadian Mahshid Farhoudi is an instructor in figurative drawing and painting at the Ottawa School of Art. It is a piece by one of her diploma students there that sparked the inspiration for her “The Red Blanket Project” series. Robert Bradley completed a visual arts diploma after a 28-year career in the Royal Canadian Engineers, during which he was deployed abroad numerous times. Through painting and sculpture, he has explored the horrors of war and challenges faced by veterans experiencing homelessness, and healing. His painting “unknown soldiers” got Mahshid thinking about how mental illness and PTSD that has affected the lives of so many soldiers.
Robert Bradley paintings – inspiration for Mahshid Farhoudi’s “The Red Blanket Project”
At a personal level Farhoudi has also experienced PTSD, and she has witnessed its impact on friends and loved ones as well. Like so many, her life course was altered at the hands of war. When she was a teenager studying art in Tehran, the upheaval of the 1979 cultural revolution and the Iraq-Iran war forced her to flee. She arrived in Canada as a refugee without her parents and had to rebuild from there.
Her portraits (one series drawn charcoal and metal-leaf, another, slightly larger versions in oil paint) depict veterans face-on, cloaked in a red blanket. Just as in the ‘personal’ category portraits in Pam Hall’s “Making Introductions”, these veterans are depicted in their street clothes rather than their uniforms.
Mahshid Farhoudi, “The Red Blanket Project”
Mahshid Farhoudi, “The Red Blanket Project”
Photo via Esprit de Corps online article
The images are self-represented, meaning the individuals are depicted wearing attire that isn’t their uniform. They are dressed casually, as they are in a period of recovery, and are covered with a red blanket, which symbolizes courage, passion, and life force (resilience).
Artist statement at “Red Blanket Exhibit Preston Square, Ottawa (2021)
I had the pleasure of visiting an exhibit of “The Red Blanket Project” Preston Square in Ottawa this past fall. It showcased Farhoudi’s works from the series with a guest appearance of some paintings by Robert Bradley. When I see an artist who can draw or paint with extreme finesse, who can render the human form with striking realism, I am always impressed. But I get bored by technique alone. Sometimes I feel like if a drawing or painting approaches photo-realism, why bother? A photo can achieve the same effect. But despite the technicality of Farhoudi’s work, they also contain depth of character. They are the kind of art that I would come back to over and over again, getting something more out of them every time. Besides the red blanket, Farhoudi integrates imagery into the portraits (helmets, airplanes, tanks, and others) that denote the trade, or branch that the veteran acted in, as well as hinting at the past and memories and story that exists within the person beyond what first meets the eye.
(L) Mahshid Farhoudi WIPs text images / (R) Mahshid Farhoudi self portraits
As this is an ongoing project, some works in progress were displayed under a translucent veil covered with handwritten notes and quotes. This mixed use of text and imagery reminded me of Monirah Al Solh’s approach to portraiture in “I Believe in our Right to be Frivolous”.
It is a beautiful tribute to its subjects and a creative effort to destigmatize and open up conversations about mental illness and post-traumatic stress.
Alexis Marie Chute
Alexis Marie Chute’s ongoing project “The Quiet Rebuild” began with a call for volunteer models via social media. “Are you rebuilding your life after struggle or hardship?”she asked. This large-scale, black and white photographic portrait series is the result of that bid for connection, and an evolution of Chute’s exploration of rebuilding after her own personal tragedy.
Subjects of “The Quiet Rebuild” have weathered illness, loss and grief, addictions and other struggles. Much like Farhoudi’s reference to her red blanket subjects being in a period of recovery, Chute’s striking portraits integrate how we continue on in life after trauma, with simple titles: “Healing 1” “Healing 2” and so on.
Alexis Marie Chute, “The Quiet Rebuild” (Healing 7, 10, 6) [2013-14]
Some subjects are depicted tastefully nude and others are stripped down to very simple clothing, alluding to the loss and vulnerability associated with experiencing and opening up about our most difficult, life-shattering experiences. Around them are objects that create visual and compositional interest but also reference their stories, much in the fashion of the objects integrated into Farhoudi’s paintings. A doll. A bath of ice. Tree branches and stumps and deconstructed piano keys. Sometimes subjects of “The Quiet Rebuild” are not only beside these objects but fully wrapped or immersed in them. As a viewer we don’t know exactly what each person’s story is. In a way, this protects them from having to put the details of these utmost personal stories on view for the whole world to see. But the textures and interest and associations we can project onto these objects (doll-child, pianos-music) has a twofold effect. They prompt us to create our own narratives as related to our life experiences, and in doing so elicit empathy and a deeper emotional response overall.
They depict other people, but I would argue that both “The Red Blanket Project” and “The Quiet Rebuild” series are sensitive, vulnerable and deeply personal bodies of work. It is telling that Chute and Farhoudi both have adjacent self-portraiture explorations on the artist’s own lived experience with these same themes, and what it’s like processing the stories of others in light of this. The artwork, in their exploration of the self and others, remind me of the action of mirror neurons when we connect with others, match them, and see common ground.
Portraiture as Ethnography: Parts 2 & 3 Takeaways
When you sit with a person, meet them where they are at, and create a safe space for mutually respectful dialogue, it is natural to gain more insight into their story, who they are beyond their immediate appearance.
To me, these listed artists (Parts 2 & 3) are examples of this practice being conducted with elegance and sensitivity. Some include the stories directly, with words, videos, specific questions to break the ice and build rapport (sitting for a portrait can be a strange and unnerving experience, after all). All remind me that portraiture has the potential to make someone visible beyond just their image, to empower rather than objectify. All of these artists demonstrate attempts to ease the power imbalance between artist and subject through efforts such as including them in the creative process or gifting them with a print or in some cases, a physical copy of the finished work.
Many of these artists depict people who are in disenfranchised, stigmatized situations but also ordinary people. What is ordinary anyway? Aren’t we all just…people at the end of the day? And woven into this is always a bit of a mirror of ourselves- who we are in exchange with others, the dialogical identity that is key in the human condition .
Maren Kathleen Elliott, from sketchbook
In life we all are dealt different cards, we all have our own stories. We may not be able to relate to the exact experiences of another person. But when we bring things down to an emotional level, there is always common ground. No matter where we come from, or how we look, we have all felt joy, fear, anger, sadness, shame, peace, boredom, excitement and hope. When someone expresses their emotions through their face or body language or voice, we can relate those expressions to our own lives and memories. Although using human subjects in art can run the risk of being exploitative, when approached with empathy and care, I would argue it brings people together in our shared humanity. It can build understandings of those who are different from ourselves, give a platform for sharing stories, and amplify the voices of those experiencing difficulties or erasure. It celebrates the beauty and complexity of who we are individually, and, as Sara Norquay so perfectly puts it, “citizens of this world”.