Michelle Sank: Coming of Age

© Michelle Sank ‘Maurice’ [detail] 2017 from the series ‘My.Self’

They seem, completely, themselves … the familiar is rendered quietly, never bizarrely, new. New, rather than unfamiliar.

David Goldblatt writing about Michelle Sank’s photographs


While the word ‘adolescent’ goes back to the 1400s, it was not until the early twentieth century – when child labour laws and extended universal education opened up a space between childhood and adult responsibility – that it became a recognised stage in life. Initially, this was seen as a dangerous period of unruly instincts, stormy and impulsive. Something the adult world should extinguish, forcibly if necessary. The study of adolescence developed considerably in the period following the Second World War when the generation gap began to open up, with young people cleaving to their own kinds of music, styles of clothing and forms of social interaction.

The period of adolescence is one of significant, sometimes overwhelming, change. The rapidly developing limbic system that drives emotion outstrips the slower development of the frontal cortex, associated with cognitive evaluation. There is a tendency to risk-taking and the affective buzz that rewards it. A growing sense of individual identity and independence draws the young person away from family while amplifying the question: ‘who am I and where am I going?’ As the urge to sex grows with puberty so the question of sexual and gender identity can find itself in conflict with familial expectations, in-group values, or wider cultural mores.

Much of the work of the British photographer Michelle Sank has focused on this complex and volatile period of adolescence. In the absence of any universally recognised coming-of-age rituals, the transition from child to adult finds expression through modes of dress, social behaviour and body image. According to the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, the period from twelve to nineteen years of age is characterised by the tension between the quest for a clear identity and the turbulence of uncertainty. What follows in one’s twenties is a psychosocial state in which the desire for intimacy is in tension with the fear of isolation. In those series where Michelle Sank focuses on late teenage and young adulthood, that yearning transition from a concern with states of being to states of connecting is made poignantly apparent.

Michelle Sank’s approach to environmental portraiture can seem deceptively simple: young people photographed in an interior or exterior space with which they are connected. Yet she brings remarkable care and nuance to the delicate balance between dignity and disclosure. This is the ordinary recognised for its very extraordinariness. The subjects of her photographs are neither sensationalised nor stereotyped. No judgment is made. We meet each as an individual. What connects them is a time of life, a crossing from one state of being to another, which each of us negotiates in our own way.

Alasdair Foster


Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?

Michelle: In the Seventies, I was studying for a Bachelor of Fine Art degree at The Michaelis School of Art in Cape Town. I had been concentrating on painting and sculpture but, during the final year of my studies, they introduced a photographic module. I had had no previous affinity with this medium but, once I started interpreting experiences photographically, I felt that I had finally found my expressive voice. It was as if photography was an umbilical cord connecting me to the worlds I inhabited. I was fortunate enough to have an inspirational and passionate tutor. It was also around this time that I first met David Goldblatt who was to become a lasting support and mentor, especially during the long period in my career when I was unable to focus on photography.

Let’s begin by looking at the series ‘Bye-Bye Baby’. What ideas were you exploring in this work?

I had become very interested in the way in which young people were becoming ‘adulticised’ from a very early age. This was being promoted through styles of clothing and through the way that the media and popular culture represented children and young teenagers with an apparent sexuality and demeanour well beyond their years. I became fascinated by the ways in which their explorations of individuality manifested themselves in terms of colour, texture and adornment, coming to appreciate the beauty of it. It set up a strong resonance with my upbringing in South Africa where social, cultural and ethnic differences were reflected through a rich diversity of personal expression.

I sense in much of your work that the ‘staging of self’ through clothing and attitude becomes the visible manifestation of something internal. What do you think these adult forms of dress mean for the children who wear them?

It is almost as if they bear the imprint of their future adulthood about them, like children in an adult skin. Having left the purity of their childhood, they take on the trappings attributed to the grown-ups they mimic. These fashion choices – and the associated body language – seem to reflect their personal interpretations of what constitutes being an adult male or female … and with this, there are the first stirrings of narcissism.

In the series ‘My.Self’, you depict young people who are a little older. Did your focus shift with this change of age?

I was commissioned to create a photographic portrait of young people from the Black Country [an industrial area of the English West Midlands], embracing its diverse social and cultural strata. Working predominantly with adolescents between thirteen and twenty years of age, I wanted to explore how they were forging their identities and presenting a sense of themselves through their clothing, make-up, hairstyles and gender-identification. I am interested in the ways adolescence is marked by rites of passage that themselves reflect cultural values and, in turn, how these rites and values are expressed within different ethnic communities.

Why did you set each portrait within the subject’s bedroom?

This is where they can most freely express their individuality and sense of themselves through the decoration, personal objects and furniture. Their bedrooms were not only an expression of their social and cultural identity but of who they aspired to be.

I was interested by what are sometimes apparent incongruities between the subject and their environment. Perhaps this is just about getting older and the room being as it was when they were children. But in some of the images it seems to evoke contrasting aspects of personality. For example, the bodybuilder and his soft toys or the goth girl and her harp. What is it that these images show us?

I am always searching for that subtle tension where the portrait and environment interact with one another to create a strong narrative. I think with both these images the young people are caught in a state of flux between childhood and adulthood.

This series was commissioned by Multistory. Could you explain a little about the organisation and what it does?

Multistory is a community arts organisation based in West Bromwich [a town in the West Midlands of England]. Their remit is to build meaningful connections between local communities and artists to produce creative projects that tell stories of everyday life. Over the past fifteen years, they have collaborated with a wide range of communities, artists, creatives and partners to reimagine the local area. They provide a platform for under-represented voices to inspire creativity and social change. While these projects arise locally, they reach out to more distant audiences through national exhibitions and their digital program.

‘Endgame’ focuses on a different kind of community. Where was it made and who are the subjects?

While I was working on a project documenting adolescents on the street, I was struck by the presence of one particular young man. Speaking with him, it emerged that he was on a rehabilitation course run by an organisation called C-Far [Centre for Adolescent Rehabilitation]. Established at the Grange, an old mansion house in the Devon countryside, C-Far’s remit was to offer adolescent male offenders an opportunity to serve the last eleven weeks of their sentence at the Grange where they were offered personal development coaching by specialist staff. I contacted the then Director and he gave me permission to come and work with the youths at the Grange – something he felt would empower these young men and enhance their self-confidence.

In much of your work, clothing and other forms of adopted style are used by the subjects to define (or maybe to discover) their identity. Did you find the young men here were using a similar approach to identity – perhaps seeking to redefine or reshape it?

In a lot of cases, yes. If I consider, for example, the boy in the blue shirt and how he chose to wear that for his portrait. The sense of care in this decision and the vibrancy of the clothing resonating pride and a strong individualism – very much in contrast to the trauma of his upbringing. The portrait of the young man wrapped in the English flag became one of the iconic images from this project. He had been watching an England football game and came out draped in the flag, standing strong against the pastoral landscape, underscoring his sense of English identity.

[C-Far closed in 2005 due to lack of government funding.]

There are several different ideas running through ‘In My Skin’, how did this series begin?

Years after making the work for ‘Bye-Bye Baby’, I once again became very aware of the issue of body image amongst young people. There was a growing social pressure focusing on physical beauty … achieving and maintaining the ‘perfect’ face and physique. I decided to document young British people under the age of twenty-five who were questioning their identity in relation to this physicality. I was interested in those who had had, or were considering, cosmetic surgery in order to achieve their ideal of ‘beauty’. Interwoven with this was an exploration of the body dysphoria that drives eating disorders and more radical forms of body transformation. This ultimately led me to explore gender dysphoria and the struggle of living in a body with which one has no affiliation.

Your work focuses on portraiture. What is your approach? Do you direct, or do you let the subject decide how they are to be photographed?

For me, it is a bit of both depending on the nature of the series. For example, with ‘My.Self’ and ‘In My Skin’, I knew that I wanted to make these portraits in the subject’s bedroom but, in doing so, I was often restricted by the limited space. This meant using the bed as a platform. In some cases individuals would present themselves in clothing that didn’t work for me and we selected garments together that I felt would characterise the image in a more individual way. It is very different when I work on the street. There I am much more intuitive, connecting visually with someone before collaborating on how they present themselves within that environment.

In both cases, it is as if the location of the portrait becomes a studio or a stage with all its accompanying dramatic potential. For the subject, it encourages a performance of self and, for me as the photographer, a framing of that performance.

© Michelle Sank ‘Vera’ 2008 from the series ‘Wondrous’

Finally, in ‘Wondrous’, you look away from adolescents and young adults to older women. How did this new focus come about and what do you seek to convey through this work?

Yes, my focus on body image among young people did a reverse turn when I began considering the aging process in relation to my mother and, indeed, to myself. I was interested in looking at the concept of femininity in older women and the way in which society tends to classify the older body as unattractive. I am challenging that notion through these images, which explore ageing skin as something beautiful in itself. The sensuality of the body can still be enjoyed in later life, when it is coupled with an inner reflectiveness and the wisdom that emanates from that reflectiveness.

Who are the women and how did they respond to the project?

They are my mother, the mothers of my friends and other women that I got to know while making this work. I found that they embraced the opportunity to be noticed – to become visible and appreciated – enjoying the collaborative process of making the photograph. When they saw the results, there was an element of surprise, matched by a sense of pride and achievement… of being acknowledged.

What differences or similarities did you find in the aspirations and concerns of the young people you usually photograph and the older women in this series.

With both there is a mix of uncertainty about their physicality contrasted with a relative ease of presentation. They all wanted to look good, but the older women were more comfortable in their skin, more accepting of their imperfections. Some of the girls and young women could be overtaken by their sense of awkwardness.

What is the most surprising response you have had to your work?

In 2020, I was contacted by the New York Times T-Magazine to commission a fashion shoot for the Pyer Moss label in New York. Their decision was based on my images of young people made in exterior environments and my recent interior portraits for the series ‘My.Self’.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making your work?

That photography is the way I connect to and communicate with the world around me. That the joy – the wonderment – I experience while interacting with both the subject and the environment is as important to me as the resulting images, if not more so. I am enriched by the people I have engaged with through photography and feel privileged that they have shared their stories with me. Each new photographic encounter brings a heightened anticipation of the magic that can so unexpectedly unfold.

© Michelle Sank ‘Jackie, 18 years old. Underwent full transition surgery at 16.’ 2011 from the series ‘In My Skin’

Biographical Notes

Michelle Sank was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1953. In 1978 she left South Africa and has been living in England since 1987. She has a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from The Michaelis School of Art, Cape Town, and a Master of Art in Photography from De Montfort University, Leicester. She has exhibited extensively in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and Oceania, and her work is held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (USA); Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (UK); and Woodstock Centre for Photography, New York State (USA).

In 2007, Michelle Sank was a winner in the Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery, London and, in 2010, the International Photographic Award for a single image from the British Journal of Photography. She received the Gold Award at the San Francisco International Photo Exhibition in 2013, and won the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards in 2016. Her work has been published in ten books, including four monographs: ‘Becoming’ (Belfast Exposed Photography, 2006); ‘The Water’s Edge’ (Liverpool University Press, 2008); ‘The Submerged’ (Schilt, 2011); ‘My.Self’ (Multistory, 2018).

Photo: Andreas Sterzing

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.