Issue 08 Contributors
Essay Issue 08: by Spencer Rowell
Our Shared Preverbal Symbols
The current state of the British Psychiatric Establishment 2011
Just Between Us
The Letting Go
Emotions within us are manifest in momentary glimpses of the lives of others and can be an exploration of the limits of ourselves. Exploring the complex nature of our emotional world offers hope and empathy to others. We are mostly exposed to similar emotional experiences; it is how we deal with these emotions that define us as individuals.
I am a product of my environment, I am denied a genetic heritage and am unaware of the inherent forces that influence my behavior. I lack a genetic empathy for others and my images are a consequence of this as a disability.
Normal consideration is not given to narrative, truthful representation is irrelevant; subjects are merely participating in an interpretation. This is declared in overt composition and lighting that acknowledges my dislocation and presence as protagonist. It is a distorted and prejudiced view; an exposed infection of the personal experience and a discussion of truth conveyed in realism.
“For all its art-world froideur and its antiseptic, scientific gleam, Ansett’s photo has that kind of sympathy, that kind of humanity.” Blake Gopnik, The Washington Post
Does psychoanalysis recollect the forgotten past, making ways of resurrecting and containing deep experience? Or does it create words from feelings, making the unconscious conscious and in doing so, enrich those meanings, that they may give an understanding to the here and now? The creation of photographs to answer these questions, is perhaps one way to describe the artistic endeavour.
The analyst Liz Bennett, of ‘The Guild’ reviews the self-portrait of Spencer Rowell.
‘It is hard to reconcile some aspects of the picture, so perhaps it is hard for the subject to reconcile aspects of himself… The shape of the work suggests an old fashioned mirror which allows you to see different views or aspects of the self…
The suggestion of a mirror could be about a lack of mirroring… This picture suggests raw, strong feelings… the subtext seems to be, “Something is coming out of my mouth and the process is horrible and painful, yet I am spewing light and beauty.” Is this about the subject’s experience of therapy? Is he spewing words and feelings?’
‘…something within which he cannot accept and must vomit out, but when it comes out, it is beautiful… but also a sense of disturbance and anxiety… Something about a struggle – powers beyond control..’
There I Sit Before my Mothers Mirror 2011
Photography must always change in response to changing social conditions. However, the core elements of classic practice remain important, especially everyday worker photography and street photography. Photographs are documents we can make ourselves, documents we can have some control over with regard to distribution. Also important in this respect are the ephemeral materials of everyday life, the redundancy notices and tax demands etc. Such material constitutes a vivid historical counter-archive, for it often contains photographic images made outside the sanction of officialdom and of events censored from the press, and, perhaps more importantly, shows things so ordinary and everyday, or so unique, that no one else has recorded them. Such material if it can be made to survive will give those who follow us the possibility of seeing other images and hearing other voices than those of governments and ‘official’ artists of our day.
In carrying out this present work, which is part of the larger ‘Crisis Project’ carried out with the late Jo Spence, I have made use of an important creative method from her phototherapy practice, that of the technique of ‘Historical Imagination’. I have proceeded as if I have been given a historical commission from a future government to produce visual material for a criminal trial against those who have presided over the despoliation and destruction of our society.Although we are now in an economic crisis of 1930s proportions, the actual signs of the crisis, the visual imagery of The Great Slump are vastly different from that which formed the basis for the classic documentary photography of the ‘30s. The poverty and hardship in many areas of Britain is no less real but its public manifestations and its media presence is often very different indeed.
In this more diffuse visual environment the classic documentary photographer clearly faces a dilemma. Historically classic documentarians have sought to ‘solicit’ social change largely through the creation of iconic emotional imagery and by an appeal to the viewer’s humanity, so called Appelative Photography. But what do photographers do when documentary photography is no longer to function as a contemporary “appellative photography”
When those in power no longer care to listen to any appeals, and those who care, the working-class, do not yet have the power to respond?
Many photographs have abandoned the documentary mode for various forms of staged and constructed photography. Much of this work is experimentally important, but it is almost certainly an historic mistake to give up the documentary mode altogether. Its current dilemmas signal not obsolescence, but a change of role and function at this point in history. In the future such images will again function as ‘scenes of the crime’, part of a tradition of documentary evidence (along with poll tax summonses and hospital closure notices) of the continuing realities of class experience.
The current state of the British Psychiatric Establishment 2011
This images from the series ‘The current state of the British psychiatric establishment’ 2011, investigate the sexual control of women by the psychiatric establishment, originating in the colonial era.
As you step into the private consultation room of a profitable family court psychiatrist’s practice – the chairs uncomfortable, the bed/couch hard, dirty and heavily used – you are catapulted back to the mid 19th century. The patriarchal culture of the 19th century shaped and developed the field of human psychology. It established an enduring
association between female psychology and insanity. Women find themselves punitively labeled, and further, abused or controlled, in line with Freud’s belief that female “patients” who claimed to have been abused were merely fantasizing.
It is not just the archaic aesthetic of the environment that is saddening, but its suggestion
of the archaic and dogmatic approach towards women, race and class – a Darwinistic bent and fatalistic hereditarianism – that persists in the attitudes and diagnoses of today’s psychiatrists.
Just Between Us
Just Between Us began in July 2010, when Charlotte and I entered into an intimate relationship. Over the next nine months, with Charlotte’s full co-operation and participation at all points, I photographed the changing relationship. Sometimes using the viewfinder, sometimes a cable release, sometimes a timer, I “took” moments of exuberance, tenderness and companionship, as well as others of loneliness, vulnerability or remorse, moments in which something of us became visible. It seemed as if the camera entered into the relationship itself, occupying another “position” that was not mine and not hers, but that was under a kind shared, negotiated control. Sometimes I could even anticipate what was going to happen. I hope that in some way I have challenged assumptions we usually make about the way the camera looks, marks things “past,” distances us from the world, and separates subject from object.
The Letting Go
I use photography to explain my response to life. Not to others, but to myself. This process allows a greater understanding of perceptions combined with a cathartic development of self.
Photography for me is an experience. I want to feel, react and arouse deep emotional and physical responses. We may see a 2D piece of work in front of us, but what you feel is tangible. It moves and inspires. It exists and touches you.
The Letting Go is a personal and confessional series of photographs, portraits and self-portraits. The body of work explores my need to reveal something personal as part of, not only a healing process, but a need to move on and push forward.
Part of this deals with my own and others’ perceptions of me. Insecurities and preconceptions are laid bare… Moving me through a passage of unearthing lost joys and clarities long since hemmed in by life, social pressure and personal experiences.
These personal letters are markers of important incidents in my life, referring to moments of love, loss and confession and though the letters were not necessarily sent to me, they came into my possession for significant reasons. I’m not sure why I kept these letters and not others but I think subconsciously I was storing evidence in order to give an honest account of the time to myself, or others should I be challenged. These tangible words, hand written, indelibly linking the sender to the recipient were proof should proof be needed; the written words were indubitable.
The impulse to photograph is strong; the letters were becoming distorted by time through both wear and tear and a shifting perspective. I became interested in transforming the text into an image. Now rendered subjective by the act of photography, I re-framed them and lost details in the shadows cast through the windows of my home, excluding information and making them anonymous. I thrust them back into the unpredictability of memory and time and in an attempt to block memory, to take control of the re-telling of the story in a partial way, I subverted the reason for preserving them in the first place.
The London Underground is comprised of eleven lines with a total of twenty seven terminuses. In 2010 Michael travelled to the communities at the ends of each of these lines to shoot a single portrait. The objective was to photograph a series of 27 portraits in locations that define the outer reaches of London, to portray some of the people that live in or visit the end of the line at evocatively named places like Cockfosters,Barking,Stanmore and Morden
Psychotherapy and photography have been two of the strongest influences on my adult life. From my earliest encounters with photography I recognized the power it has for me as a tool to aid self development and the shifting of self perception. My psychotherapeutic training has informed and shaped much of my photographic practice. Equally, the application of the arts is central to my therapeutic work.
In this series which I call ‘The Cabinet’ I have applied a widely used therapeutic technique called ‘Sandtray’ to the photographic process. In Sandtray a collection of miniature objects are used to make pictures in a sand box. Like the early ‘irrational cabinet’, the collections function is to bring together a number of material things and arrange them to represent or recall either an entire or partial world picture, in Sandtray it is an inner world picture. The miniature collection will contain people, monsters, transport vehicles, religious icons, stones, animals, shells, buildings, just to mention a few. These objects can come to represent different aspects of ourselves, at times they visualize what we have to face in life; they also can become symbols for other people and things. The client, in the therapeutic environment, is invited to spontaneously select objects from the ‘collection’ and place them together to create a three dimensional scene. The therapist facilitates the client to find his or her own subjective interpretation of its meaning. The Sandtray objects constitute a projection of our inner psyche and outer worlds; that is to say that these inanimate objects come to life and thereby offer the client a new dialogue with himself.
‘The Cabinet’ adopts the Sandtray approach, I am spontaneously choosing miniatures, placing them together and allowing myself to be blindly led by intuition rather than consciously constructing sets. I am relying on an instinctive impulse to fire the camera. I photograph the scene through a reflection, and this reflection distorts and blurs the event. It turns what is figurative in to a narrative and some how the distorted reflection heightens and crystallizes the underlying unconscious story. The photograph is not a record of the process, it is part of it. Sometimes I try to trick the unconscious, I will put objects together with what I imagine has a clear meaning for me, yet the final image will never be as I consciously planned.
I have a strong sense of not knowing where the images have come from. It is as though they were made by someone else. I look at them like a stranger trying to imagine what they are about. They are something ‘other’ which although sensed is not yet consciously known. I can only imagine that the source of my ‘unfamiliar feeling’ finds its roots perhaps back at a time of pre-verbal reasoning, a time when there was no language to communicate with.
The Cabinet may also may relate to what Jung termed the ‘Shadow self’. This is part of the personality that we don’t want to identify with or we wish to disown. The Shadow is in essence neither good nor bad . It is an aspect of ourselves that we have rejected and is usually (since we project it on to others) unavailable to the individual. Here the instincts derived from our animal history are represented: it is where the darker side of the ego resides. Aspects of our Shadow are often projected onto others as they are experienced as overwhelming to the well-ordered ego. Gaining awareness of the projected unconscious aspects of self is an initial step in the process of Individuation, a move towards becoming fully oneself. What Jung perceived as core to the individuation process involves re-gaining ownership of these cut off aspects of ourselves which will enable us to expand and deepen one’s subjective experience of our true nature.
For me the photographic frame acts, like the sandtray as a container or frame within which the difficult and repressed experience is brought into light. In its visual form it offers an opportunity to assimilate unconscious content into the conscious self by the means of mirroring. The desire to assimilate these fragments is the individuals attempt to heal oneself and become whole.
Earlier this year I worked on a participatory photography project with patients from the emerging and severe personality disorder service of the Cassel Hospital in Richmond. I was so impressed with the powerful honesty of the images and captions they produced that I challenged myself to use photography to look at mental health issues in my own life. Since I wanted a wide spectrum of people to be able to relate to the work, I chose to explore the emotions we go through when the expectations and demands of life seem overwhelming. The times when we try to put on a show of being fully in control of every aspect of our lives so that others see us as confident, competent and professional, when underneath we really aren’t coping and desperately want to turn our back on it all. From conversations I’ve had, it seems apparent that most people have experienced times when feelings of anxiety and negative voices have left them feeling hopeless and miserable. I hope that this work may highlight the communality of these feelings and encourage people to speak more openly about the issues rather than pretending they don’t exist.
Making the work is a way for me to confront these issues in my life. In particular, the feelings of anxiety and panic I experience when I don’t feel in control of a situation. Seeing myself reflected in the figures in my images forces me to face the fact that as a human I am vulnerable and wounded and can’t always live up to the high expectations I, and others, place upon myself. It also reminds me of the high emotional cost I pay for trying to be something I’m not.
Our Shared Preverbal Symbols
Essay Issue 08: by Spencer Rowell
‘The form of some art corresponds truthfully to some felt pattern of our emotional life. In this sense, every object with aesthetic import is potentially in tune with some elements of human feeling… every truthful work will be limited by its authors range of sensibilities, every truthful work will have its supporters because it resonates with them’.
Kenneth Wright (2009)
This edition of Uncertain States offers the work of ten artists seeking to access and represent felt patterns of their individual emotional lives. Through the therapeutic use of our cameras, are we trying to recollect the forgotten past and in doing so make ways of resurrecting or contain deep experience? Or are we creating images from feelings, making the unconscious conscious, attempting to enrich meanings to events that may give significance and answer questions to the here and now?
One fundamental aspect of engagement with photographs is a shared understanding of symbolic gestures, often not able to be verbalised, however, ‘felt’. I am personally interested in the development of these communications through the production of self-portraits and our ability of being able to symbolise these ‘feelings’ without language. On the page opposite, I present a picture of someone I should know very well, but of course I do not: on the contrary, I seem to know very little of him. Using my camera as researcher, can I find a more accurate representation of the real self and create a narrative more in keeping with these felt emotions? This joy of being recognised also serves all our narcissistic needs for recognition, acceptance and uniqueness. Perhaps the photographer, in taking such images, can inhabit these forms, slowly becoming more fully themselves and in doing so, have a more meaningful contact with all human beings.
The psychoanalyst and academic Kenneth Wright offers us an insight into some of these questions in his book ‘Mirroring and Attunement’ (2009). In it, he talks of early pre-verbal relationships. He focuses on two aspects of functioning in the pre-verbal relationship provided by the mother: that of mirroring and attunement.
Mirroring, in context of Winnicott’s emotional mirror, is where the baby sees his own face in the face of the mother and this engagement marks out the mental space between them. As well as the baby feeling an essential sense of connection and rapport, it creates a direct line of conscious and unconscious communication between the two. This early and important stage is the precursor for linking our inner experience with external forms, an essential phase of early symbol-formation.
‘To put things in this way begins to make the link with art more apparent; there is an emotional reaching out towards the subject, with perhaps the expectation of a response; a medium that allows itself to be transformed; and a ‘finding’ or creating within that medium of significant forms that reveal the subject to himself. Winnicotts’ model readily transposes into the language of art’
During any empathic engagement with images, both the photographer and viewer try to put inner experience into words, although this can be done in many other non-verbal ways, in mirroring, we attempt to reflect the perception of our inner state; in attunement we attempt to imagine what the inner state, that is being experienced, actually is. This joint identification, suggests Winnicott, provides the external picture of the inner experience.
‘In attunement, a similar situation prevails. First the mother identifies with the baby’s experience (emotion), then recasts it in her own idiom and replays it to the baby. If the baby can experience the mothers enactment in a resonant way (ie corresponding to something in the infant), at that moment, baby and mother, like the artist and the audience, will be momentarily linked through the created (maternal) form.’
But what of the internal worlds of my co contributors, how do I perceive their internal narrative? Fiona Yaron-Field searches through her cabinet for the props she has lovingly collected for so many years. In her therapeutic world, her exterior world, they are there to help others in their search of themselves, but this belies the importance of the narratives she has constructed of herself. The continued piecing together of her monsters and saints that inhabit her unconscious, creating that alternative narrative. A story, perhaps that will make more sense of feeling, offering further understanding to her emotions and the importance of her need to communicate these to the world.
Can these pictures be seen as portraying the shapes of non-verbal imagery and of an expression of early relationships? Can these images, perhaps in different sequences produce an alternative form of dialogue, providing a range of symbolic communication of the artist’s inner state, a way of reviving some parts of the inner world of the artist that may have died or failed to develop, or simply the artists need to newly acquire, reform, reconstruct and search for these deficiencies? Does the photographer, compensating for any deficiencies in attunement, make reflective forms of their own and in doing so, gain an ability to exist and feel ‘real’ through this process? These photographs allow the possibility of us all to exist in a world of newly created reflections.
On the surface, the work of Laura Hind and Ross Rawlings both deal with the pain of loss. It feels that beneath the surface there is a sense of missed opportunities, of miscommunication that may have led to this misplacement. The photographs emote from both a maternal and paternal viewpoint; however, there appears no difference in my sadness as they both struggle to search for the same answers from the same questions. The grief and longing feels the same and with it, the sense that this is indeed the same shared human experience, profoundly universal and yet seemingly so unique to those in the throws of its pain, this loss is a universally common experience we are all witnessing.
Loss, or the unconscious fear of loss is why we find it so difficult to commit to relationships. But Jo Spence bravely confronts her worst fears with her camera. Her lens searches for the answers, bravely documenting, with her confidant and co-curator Terry Dennett, her ‘Crisis Project’. This is how she will perhaps survive. It is with pride that I can publish alongside such powerful figures, committed to the therapeutic use of photography, their tireless sharing with the world of their process. We are indebted to Terry Dennett for not only being a significant part of Jo Spence’s journey but of lovingly compiling and archiving the work for future generations to research.
Being in the presence of Ruth Joys photographs allows me to relate to another human condition, at times, common to us all, that of sadness and loneliness. Joys pictures are gentle, quite and softly spoken, yet contain an element of unease. The subject in these images only just represent presence, as if only just occupying the space as a whisper, a breath of air could take this person from this world. Is this a representation of how fragile our existence really is, a profound reminder of the narrowness of that border between art and insanity? Moi’s comment in 1989 that ‘Psychoanalysis is born to the encounter between the hysterical woman and the positivist man of science,’ comes to mind as I look at Marcia Michael’s work. I am forced to confront the question, is psychoanalysis really a science or an art and is it always used as a power of good? There is a profound sense of disappointment in these pictures, that the process has somehow let us all down. Michael documents this painful experience in a raw and archaic Freudian sense.
In Klein’s view, the creative act is driven by guilt and concern. Hannah Segal, a Kleinian psychoanalyst, stated that symbolism within the photograph is based more on absence and the loss of the object. It is the rebuilding of these fragments of scattered objects that becomes the creative act. It is this attempt to repair, to make reparation to this object that becomes the photographer’s artistic endeavour.
Sue Andrews uses the camera in this way, engaging with her subject, confronting this ‘beast’ within us all. A manuscript is photographed and placed upon the page, we try and digest its contents, become part of its narrative, but it is hard to see, ‘I will show the parts that I am able’, Andrews seems to say. These particular object can be only be shown to the world through a lens that will distort, in light that will screen certain feelings from us all and as Andrews admits ‘Subverting the reason for their preservation’. In a generalised way, the Kleinian concept of creativity comes from a sense of lack, and the need for replacement of what is missing, it reinstates the missing experience and attempts to replaces the mother with a more perfect version, perhaps this what is being attempted in these photographs.
Fuller, (1980) suggested that the picture surface could be thought of as a face like structure, with which the artist communicates in ways that reaches back to earlier experience with the mother’s image. The photographer can modify the surface until it gives back to her or him the responses that are needed. Richard Ansetts image ‘Woman with Electrode Cap’ is an example of this and becomes the perfect cover for what lies within this publication. This is the image of an ‘All Knowing Matriarch’, who becomes the theatrical narrator of all our complex thoughts and phantasy. She will guide us to what lies within these pages, she becomes the all-powerful scientific host, the spokeswomen of the journey into all our inner worlds.
This is the canvas surface that in Fullers words ‘becomes a surrogate for the good mothers face’. Likening this mothers face to an emotional mirror and suggests that the infant sees this and begins to experience himself, through the visual medium of the mother’s responsive expressions. Wright says the artist, in this space, can be dangerously poised on the edge of ‘no mother’ (the un-attuned mother), so hence the photographers compulsion to go on creating. The photographer has then to retrieve an experience in the absence of the mother, observing this object brings her back, or at least the infant’s way of remembering her.
‘The infants initial world is made of symbols, created concrete objects made from his pre-verbal structuring, as language appears he now faces another world, made half by other, restructuring his world in the fashion of language that carries other meanings. Does the artist hang on to this unique much earlier code of communication?’
The photographer creates a joint metaphorical and creative language. Ordinary language, is essentially practical and concerned only with external reality, it is object related and it needs considerable adaptation before it can be used to embody subjective phenomena, like symbols and art. Finding this authentic voice is a not easy, a person’s true self lies deep in this preverbal world, the world the photographer inhabits, it is here that our important and often most difficult feelings to communicate lay beyond the reach of ordinary language.
Language, of course, offers us an important form of shared communication regarding external objects, however, non-verbal communications of symbols offer us a much more a profound insight into inner objects and feelings. It has the power to move, in the words of Barthes, to pierce, the inner self and that of others.
Through symbols, the artist gives a voice to the unsayable, like trying to recapture a lost memory, in doing so producing what Winnicott would call our transitional objects, ‘primary creativity, a realm of illusion, a place of transitional objects and from a much earlier stage of the child’s omnipotence.’ Through photography and its refining and experimentation, the reflections one would have preferred begin to emerge, the surrogate mother, a more perfect object is created that contains more of the artist self than the artist can communicate verbally.
These individual experiences shown in the photographs are of course personally significant to the creators, but so often with creative work, there is a ‘fit’ or an unconscious ‘knowing’ that emerges with the engagement with them. Shared attunement, a shared pre-verbal experience. If a photograph is based on this structure of non-verbal presentational of symbols and represents the ‘fit’ between mother and child, the creative endeavour can provide fertile material indeed.
Through production and publication of these photographs, Uncertain States has brought external forms from inner states, perhaps the images that are on show within these pages represent the latent images of first relationships, a subjective part of our earliest experiences. These photographic objects are an artist’s way to recast subjective feeling into more or less objective form and create a bridge to these experiences. They represent the photographic importance of a shared experience, not simply a vehicle for self-examination, self-analytical exorcism or an individual journey of self-awareness, but primitive communications that are based on shared preverbal symbols, communicated to us non-verbally, not intellectually via words. This photographer’s joy of being recognised (seen) of being responded to (heard) is the confirmation that is so desired, a confirmation of self and the creation of the good enough, even perfect maternal object.
Spencer Rowell is a research student at Sir John School of Art, Whitechapel, London
/ 08 Article by Spencer Rowell 2011
“I have a strong sense of not knowing where the images have come from. It is as though someone else made them. I look at them like a stranger trying to imagine what they are about. They are something, ‘other’ which although sensed, is not yet consciously known. I can only imagine that the source of my ‘unfamiliar feeling’ finds its roots perhaps back at a time of pre-verbal reasoning, a time when there was no language to communicate with.”