The characters we play seem absurdly conservative, but they address something I consider to be particularly British.
There is a British proverb that says “an Englishman’s home is his castle”. It suggests that, within the domestic sphere, a person may live in whatever way they please. In reality, however, the wider community was often quick to condemn those whose domestic arrangements were unconventional. Intergenerational relationships, where a couple differ in age by twenty or more years, for the most part, met with disapproval. For many centuries, homosexual relations were illegal. In England they were only decriminalised in 1967, with civil partnerships between two people of the same sex made possible in 2005 and same-sex marriage in 2014.
Those personal freedoms have not ridded Britain of prejudice against gay men and women, and domestic partnerships between two people of significantly different age continue to be criticised and often ridiculed.
Nor is the Englishman’s home a defence against such attitudes. In advertising and in the media, words and images continue to shape public opinion on what is aspirational and what is less than worthy. Such images are driven by commercial interest and by those who wish to sell their publications through a sensationalism that encourages the worst aspects of human character. All those who they consider to be different from their chosen image of ‘normal’, they present as outsiders; the ‘other’.
The concept of ‘otherness’ has come to describe this construction of prejudice buried within the language and image-making of those who seek to divide rather than embrace the great diversity of ways in which we might express our humanity. And, in a particularly cruel irony, one of the most often targeted areas in the West, is that of the diversity of ways in which people express love for each other.
It is this question of ‘otherness’ that is at the heart of the work of the British photographic artist John Paul Evans. His work grows from his personal experiences of being cast as ‘other’. The images have an autobiographic genesis, and all involve the photographer himself as the central actor, often appearing with his long-term partner, Peter. However, these images are not diaristic. This is not a documentary about his life as it is actually unfolding. Rather, it is a series of allegories told through tableaux performed with rigorous formality. It is clear that these are not natural moments captured from the flow of life in the click of the shutter. They are consciously constructed pictures. Works of visual art that ask us to look beyond the specific to the larger ideas that stand behind individual experience. Inside this domestic ‘castle’, one discovers an alternative artistic heritage of ‘otherness’.
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
John Paul: I began to take photography seriously in the early 1980s. I was in my late teens and still coming to terms with being gay. The wider cultural atmosphere in Britain at the time was predominantly one of fear and loathing towards homosexuality. This had been exacerbated by a right-wing government and their response to the rise of AIDS. However, I began reading a magazine called ‘TEN8’. Through it, I learned about the ways in which photography is used to reinforce notions of belonging, but also of ‘otherness’. This understanding has framed my work ever since.
Do you consider yourself to be ‘other’?
It has always been important for me to be true to who I am. I have learned to take the negative words used to ridicule gay people and take ownership of them. To celebrate the culture of ‘otherness’.
One of your earliest series is called ‘Domestic Routines’. What precipitated the making of this series?
I wanted to explore the domestic environment, a space that is often associated with ‘femininity’. Feminists have argued that, in a patriarchal society, a man’s sphere of influence has traditionally been considered to be out in the world, whereas the traditional female domain has been in the home. I wanted to explore my presence in the domestic space as a kind of trace: sometimes as a ‘depersonalised’ self-portrait, at other times just a shadow. I wanted to suggest the impossibility of living up to what is expected of a man in a patriarchal society. And I wanted to explore the idea of home as a space of sanctuary and solace.
In much of your later work you appear with your partner, Peter. How did you meet Peter and when did you become domestic partners?
I met Peter in 1989, so it is now almost thirty years ago. We began a relationship soon after we met and began to live together full-time in the early 1990s.
In the series ‘Home and Away’ you take a title that is usually associated with the relationship between being at home and being overseas. But here you are always just outside your house, neither at home nor away somewhere else. Why?
In 2013, when the British Government proposed introducing same-sex marriage into law, I was surprised by the level of opposition. Civil partnerships between couples of the same gender had already been introduced some eight years earlier. The vehement opposition from some sections of the community made me realise that the domestic environment can be an ideological battlefield. In ‘Home and Away’, I wanted to explore a series of images where an ‘odd couple’ were represented as outsiders to the domestic environment. Their ‘oddness’ in relation to the status quo was not simply that they were of the same sex, but of different generations. The work is a metaphor for the tension between feeling one ‘belongs’ and that one is ‘other’.
Do you find the age difference between you and Peter is viewed as problematic?
Of course, I am very aware that, as there is a twenty-seven-year difference in our ages, some people will perhaps confuse us with being father and son. But this relationship is my reality, my ‘lived experience’. I am not going to change that simply because it might be misunderstood.
In our Western culture we are bombarded by advertising telling us how to live our lives: what to buy, how to look, who to be. The home has become a trope through which consumerism is marketed as ‘lifestyle’. I wanted to make clear that the domain of ‘home’ is increasingly defined in terms of ownership and exclusion. Those who may own and those who are to be excluded are, in turn, defined by the predominant notions of ‘normality’ and ‘otherness’: those things that are ‘approved’ and those that attract disapproval. That said, I wanted to show that this is not a simple matter of one thing or the other. Prejudices can exist even among those who are themselves victims of prejudice. In this case, I wanted to challenge the way in which the gay community can also have its own prejudices, for example in terms of a couple’s age difference.
In the photographs, you and Peter both wear identical dark grey suits with neatly knotted tie and well-polished shoes. It is a style associated with a time now past and not usually worn in the home, where we tend to dress in a more casual way. Why do you choose this form of attire for your photographs?
In a gay community, flamboyance is an accepted norm. The ‘ordinariness’ of suit and tie suggests a resistance to simply being ‘typecast’. The characters we play seem absurdly conservative, but they address something I consider to be particularly British.
What is that?
They reflect what in English we call a ‘stiff upper lip’. They do not show emotion. They remain impassive, no matter what is happening to them. However difficult life becomes, one is just supposed to get on with it and never show one’s emotions.
Do you always dress like that?
No, it is most definitely a costume. I might wear smart clothes from time to time, but I certainly don’t see a suit as defining my identity. These are two characters whose ‘generic’ appearance helps to emphasise a sense of displacement in a tragicomic way. They are outsiders.
The title of the series ‘Til Death Us Do Part’ is a phrase taken from the marriage ceremony of the Church of England. Why did you choose that title?
Well, yes, it is an obvious reference to the marriage ceremony, but it was also the title of a ‘politically incorrect’ BBC television comedy series aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a sitcom depicting a working-class family in which the father (the patriarch) rants about the changes in society brought about by sexual liberation and immigration. As someone who grew up in a working-class environment, I saw a direct correlation between this expression of vociferous intolerance towards social change in the 1960s and the vitriolic coverage in some of the popular media covering the proposed legalisation of gay marriage in Britain in 2013 [which came into force in 2014].
The phrase “til death us do part” is a promise to be together for the rest of your lives. In these photographs, there is an alternating sense of connection and absence. What ideas are you exploring in this series?
I started including Peter in the photographs around 2010. As an academic, I was critical of the way photography is deployed – through a narrow notion of the ‘family album’ – as a way to reinforce the ‘normality’ of heterosexuality and ‘otherness’ of homosexuality. I realised that, if someone looked at our own personal photographs, there was little evidence of the years that Peter and I had spent together. By this time, Peter was already well into his seventies and I was in my forties. I realised that I urgently needed to redress this lack in order to leave a trace of our life together. As an artist, it seemed to me the most appropriate way to do this was to create a series of photographic artworks. These works would, of course, come to exist within a public rather than private context. However, ironically, although these are images made for public audiences, they nonetheless trigger personal memories for me. Memories of our domestic life together.
‘Home Sweet Home’ is a phrase that evokes the sense of security and familiarity of the home as a place of nurturing protection and familial happiness. Can you talk about the images in this series and why you chose that title?
Initially, I was responding to a call put out by Ffotogallery [a long-established public gallery of photography in Wales]. They were seeking work for the International Diffusion Festival, which that year had the theme of ‘Looking for America’. I began researching and discovered that a world-famous Italian-French opera singer called Adelina Patti (1843–1919) had, in later life, come to live in the Welsh valleys. She was well known for singing the nineteenth-century ballad ‘Home Sweet Home’. The song became very popular in America during the Civil War (1861–1865) and, during her American tour, Abraham Lincoln had famously implored Adelina Patti to sing the song for him personally. Meanwhile, Oscar Wilde was so impressed by her singing that he included a reference to her in his novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.
In this way, a sentimental song came to connect a celebrated singer, an American President (a ‘national patriarch’) and an Irish playwright who would shortly be jailed for his homosexuality. This seemed like an interesting point from which to start making some performative images exploring notions of home, belonging and otherness through reference to those key figures of Patti, Lincoln and Wilde.
What has it been like to put yourself and your relationship so directly in front of a public audience?
My work is not ‘documentary’, but I do see it as a kind of personal memoir. I am trying to make my concerns evident and to do so visually. Photographing myself is a way in which to avoid the possibility of exploiting or misrepresenting another person. While Peter is also in many of the photographs, he and I are so close that we have the confidence to know what we are both doing and why.
Is Peter an actor in your theatre of image-making, or a co-creator?
I consider myself to be the author of the work. That said, Peter is more than simply an actor. I discuss my ideas with him and, as the images have evolved, Peter has always been ‘in tune’ with the creative process.
© John Paul Evans – from the installation ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’ 2018
Your most recent series, ‘In the Sweet Bye and Bye’, continues the arrangement of placing you and Peter formally within the frame of key images, but extends it to create a dialogue with old snapshots from the past and images of clouds in a deep blue sky. What are you exploring in this ‘dialogue’ of images?
The work is, in a sense, an act of memorial for three people; for three different contexts. When I was growing up, my father had a friend that, in the euphemistic language of the time, would have been called a ‘confirmed bachelor’. One of the hymns sung at his funeral reminded me of my Baptist childhood and a time when, for my father’s friend, it would have been unthinkable to admit one was gay or to act upon it. I began making images in response the deep sense of loss I felt for this man who had perhaps lived his whole life in denial of who he really was.
While I was working on this project, my mother died suddenly and this triggered my own memories of the sense of rejection I had felt as a teenager when, at that time, she could not come to terms with my being gay. (In her later life, she did come to wholly accept my sexuality.)
And then, last year, my closest friend died.
Did you find making this work was therapeutic?
No. It’s not as an act of phototherapy, because nothing can lessen my profound sense of loss. It was an act of mourning and atonement.
There is a quiet melancholy to much of your work. This is particular present in this recent series. In sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, melancholia was considered an indispensible aspect of artistic expression. Today, in a world that seems to demand that we always be happy, sadness is seen as something negative. How do you see this melancholic sensibility in your work?
I am very conscious of wanting to express a sense of melancholy. People often confuse it with depression, but I see melancholy as having a strong connection with desire. There is a kind of solace that comes with immersing oneself in sorrow.
Given our difference in age, Peter and I cannot grow old together. That didn’t seem to be an issue when we first met, but the last three decades have passed very quickly. Now that Peter is entering his eighties, I am all too aware that our time together is short. Unlike other media such as painting or sculpture, photography is inextricably linked to time. Photographs always point to an actual moment, a real situation that has already past. Photographs tend towards memorial.
What have you learned about yourself in relation to domestic life through the process of making these photographs?
Photography plays a significant role in the way we come to comprehend our lives. In the West, photography can tend to draw a distinct line between the masculine and the domestic. It is important that we analyse what we see in a thoughtful way and understand that we can also use photography to challenge stereotypes and represent alternative ways of being human.
John Paul Evans was born in Cardiff, Wales, in 1965. He has exhibited and published in many parts of Europe and, further afield, from Kuala Lumpur to Berkeley, California. In 2017, he won the portfolio Award in ‘Bokeh Bokeh’ magazine (USA) and the Black-and-White Award in ‘Dodho’ magazine (Spain). He was, for many years, a university lecturer and now works full-time as a photographic artist.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.