Anthony Luvera: The Art of Assisted Self-Portraits

[Left] © Gypsy / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Gypsy’; [Centre] © Gary McLouglin / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Gary McLouglin’; [Right] © Charmian Edge / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Charmian Edge’ from the series ‘Photographs and Assisted Self-Portraits’ London 2002–ongoing [details]

It seems common sense to me to invite the person the work is about to have a say in how it is created.

Introduction

A photograph, it is sometimes said, is as much a portrait of the maker as it is a depiction of the subject. A camera may be a mechanical instrument, but it is used by an individual who makes many conscious and unconscious choices in the apparently straightforward act of clicking the shutter. The framing and angle of the subject, the precise moment frozen by the camera, the foreground and background… all these things and many more come together in the photograph.

For many artists, it is this very personal way of seeing that is important to them; something they wish to capture and amplify. Some documentary photographers also seek to show their subject in a way that reflects their personal experience of it. To bear witness not only to how it looked, but how they felt about what they saw. But for others, this raises a difficult issue. How do we know if the way we feel about the subject is the way the subject feels about themselves or wishes to be presented to the world through the photograph? This is particularly relevant where the subject is from a group that tends to be marginalised or caricatured. While the photographer’s intentions may be good, their unconscious biases will inevitably result in an image that tells a different story from the one experienced by the subject.

This is the challenge taken up by the photographer Anthony Luvera. He seeks to bring the issue of homelessness to public attention while getting beyond the clichés and prejudices that often obscure the realities of who and why people are homeless. In doing so, he has developed a way of working that seeks to collaborate with each subject as a partner, sharing with them the skills of photography so that they may be empowered to take control of the process. It is a method he describes as making assisted self-portraits.

Alasdair Foster


© Bryan Horrex / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Bryan Horrex’ from the series ‘Residency’ Belfast 2006–2008

Interview

When did you begin to make photographs?

I was fifteen years old. My schoolteacher gave my friend and me some darkroom equipment, and my uncle (who worked as a private investigator) loaned me a camera kit. We taught ourselves how to use the camera and set up a darkroom in the family bathroom. Excited by our newly developed skills we placed an advertisement in the local paper offering to teach people photography. Looking back, I can see that right from the start my interest in photography was always about something more than just making images. It’s about enabling others to learn about the medium by sharing skills.

You describe your current way of working as making ‘assisted self-portraits’? What is an assisted self-portrait?

It is a process by which each participant can choose where, when and how they appear in the photograph. I ask to be taken to a place that is somehow significant to them. Here, I teach the participant how to use a large-format camera. The camera either uses instant-film or has a digital back tethered to a laptop, so that we can immediately see the results. The participant sets up the shot using me as a stand-in. They then take my place and use a long cable release to operate the camera shutter. We select the final image together.

Making ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Ben Evans’ for ‘Assembly’ Brighton 2013–2014
[Upper Left] Ben Evans and Anthony Luvera discuss the photographs on a tethered laptop computer; [Lower Left] Screenshot
[Right] © Ben Evans / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Ben Evans’ from the series ‘Assembly’ Brighton 2013–2014
(What do think of the final portrait of yourself?) – “Hell yeah! That’s nice!”

So, your role is as a kind of trainer and technical assistant rather than auteur?

I believe there are many ways to use the medium of photography. It doesn’t always have to be the photographer who controls everything. Instead, I approach photography as a learning process, inspired by visual research methods used in the social sciences, and collaborative theatre.

How did you come to develop this way of working?

In 2001, Crisis [the UK charity for homeless people] invited me to take photographs at their annual homeless shelter event over the Christmas period. I felt uncomfortable about this and turned down the invitation. I explained that I would prefer to see what the homeless people themselves would photograph.

Some months later, I was working as a consultant for Kodak on a project which gave me access to a large donation of disposable cameras and film-processing vouchers. The following year, I went back to Crisis and proposed a photography project using these disposable cameras. I volunteered at the next Christmas shelter. I spent time working in the kitchen, helping people to use computers, organising karaoke, and distributing clothing, toiletries and blankets. When it seemed appropriate, I invited people to take the cameras away and photograph their experiences and the things that interested them. After two years, I’d worked with about two hundred people and gathered several thousand photographs.

[Left] © Zoe Star ‘Photograph by Zoe Star’ from the series ‘Assembly’ Brighton 2013–2014
[Upper Right] © Maggie Irvine ‘Photograph by Maggie Irvine’ from the series ‘Residency’ Belfast 2006–2008
[Lower Right] © Golden ‘Photograph by Golden’ from the series ‘Photographs and Assisted Self-Portraits’ London 2002–ongoing

What did you do with those photographs?

One of the participants gave me the business card for a woman called Victoria Jones who worked at the Whitechapel Gallery [an art institution in London]. She was interested in the work I was creating with people experiencing homelessness and suggested we organise an exhibition of the photographs. I felt uneasy about presenting these photographs for the first time in the context of a contemporary art gallery. It seemed to me that galleries are predominantly visited by people who are already well aware of social issues. I wanted to put the work in front of people whose preconceptions about homelessness needed to be shaken up.

However, a short time later, Victoria left the gallery to work on the public art program for the London Underground. She suggested we exhibit the work in advertising spaces across twelve tube stations in central London. To me, this seemed perfect. Nonetheless, I wanted to do more to recognise the people I was working with than simply display a small selection of the images they had created. I wanted to present portraits of the participants… but not by simply me pointing a camera at them. So, I approached a number of companies including Calumet, Hasselblad and The Pro Centre to sponsor the project through free loan of some of their rental equipment. Over the following year, I worked with a participant called Phil Robinson. We experimented with all kinds of cameras: 35mm, medium format, large format, analogue, digital… until we found the right combination of equipment to enable me to teach someone with little or no knowledge of photography how to create a self-portrait.

From the series ‘Photographs and Assisted Self-Portraits’ London 2002–ongoing
[Left] © Gary McLouglin / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Gary McLouglin’
[Centre] © Noeleen O’Connor-Rihani / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Noeleen O’Connor-Rihani’
[Right] © Pawel Grygo / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Pawel Grygo’

Why do you think it is important for a homeless person to be involved in the making of their portrait?

Since the nineteenth century, people experiencing homelessness have been subject to all kinds of photographic practices that have tended to depict them as victims without pride or care for their appearance or wellbeing, as if they are somehow to blame for their circumstances. They are depicted as the ‘other’. I was – and remain – acutely aware of the necessity of avoiding these false but established tropes.

© Angela Wildman / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Angela Wildman’ from the series ‘Residency’ Belfast 2006–2008

“A wee while ago I couldn’t have imagined myself ever being homeless. And it’s what I am but it’s just another thing and I’ll move on to something else. Hopefully. But I’m very positive about the whole thing you know. Homelessness isn’t always a bad thing. It’s something that’s an experience and then hopefully you get yourself together and then you move on. Lots of people have referred to me as ‘vulnerable’. I hate that bloody word because I’m bloody well not. I don’t see myself that way at all. I’ve been through a lot and okay silly and daft things have happened, but I’ve come through and I’m stronger.” Angela Wildman

This series of interviews explores the theme of compassion. How would you describe ‘compassion’?

To my mind, compassion involves demonstrating sensitivity towards another person’s circumstance and attempting to act to improve this in some way. It can be a valuable characteristic of any form of action or way of being in the world. It is the opposite of indifference.

That said, I think the well-meaning intentions driving any form of compassion should not go unquestioned. The act of representing another person in a photograph can be problematic. There is a power dynamic at play between the photographer and the subject. It is usually the photographer who decides how and when the image is made, and the organisation they work for on how it is distributed and where it is seen. Regardless of the intention of the photographer, the images they create about other people’s lives may actually perpetuate these conditions by repeating received, false or negative preconceptions. Equally, I believe photography has the potential to open up new ways of understanding which, in turn, have the potential to shift social narratives so as to include people who would otherwise be excluded from debates about their lives.

© Chris McCabe / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Chris McCabe’ from the series ‘Residency’ Belfast 2006–2008

“I live in a hostel and I’m extremely well dressed and well-groomed and yet I’m still classified as unintentionally homeless. There is no real look, anybody can be homeless… anybody. They can wear suits [and] they can still be homeless.” Chris McCabe

Do you think of your approach to making assisted self-portraits as compassionate?

I have never used the term ‘compassionate’ to describe my work or my approach. This is not to say I don’t attempt to engage with the people I work with compassionately. I am mindful of the imbalance of power that exists between myself and the homeless people with whom I work, and this guides the decisions I make in the way I create images. I don’t think this power balance can ever be avoided entirely – it exists between any photographer and their subject. But I do attempt to acknowledge its existence and to try to recalibrate the ways in which photography can be used. This is why I’m interested in collaboration. It seems common sense to me to invite the person the work is about to have a say in how it is created.

From the series ‘Assembly’ Brighton 2013–2014
[Left] © Gerald Mclaverty / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Gerald Mclaverty’
[Centre] © Mark Tomlinson / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Mark Tomlinson’
[Right] © Robert Truelove / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Robert Truelove’

I read an interesting observation you made about the two contrasting dictionary definitions of the English-language word ‘collaboration’: (1) united labour, and (2) traitorous cooperation with the enemy. Why do you make this point?

It helps me to remain aware of the power dynamic between me and the people I work with. I’m not convinced collaboration in a photographic practice is always a good thing or that photographs created by a participant will necessarily bring about a more truthful or authentic depiction. Photographs can take on different meanings depending on the context in which they are seen. A poorly considered context may end up re-imposing an unequal power dynamic. Collaboration or co-creation will not solve the problems of representation, but they have the potential to offer a more nuanced narrative than that which is commonly created by an outsider looking in.

Making ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Odette Antoniou’ for ‘Assembly’ Brighton 2013–2014
[Left] © Odette Antoniou / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Odette Antoniou’ from the series ‘Assembly’ Brighton 2013–2014
[Upper Right] Odette Antoniou checks the camera framing; [Lower Right] Screenshot
“That was really good. It was a really good day.” (What’s it like seeing the picture of yourself?) “It’s not so bad actually. I’m not as uncomfortable with it as I usually am, to be honest. It’s just me. There’s no airs and graces, is there. I don’t do make-up and stuff. I don’t know why. I’m not really a girly girl. That’s it. Thanks for doing it, for taking the time.”

What effect do you hope that these images will have?

I want to shake up perceptions and inform. In many cases, the images are not shown in isolation, but supported by a program of public debate and the provision of information on the resources and services available for those who find themselves homeless.

What have you learned in the process of making this work?

Over the past eighteen years, collaborating with participants to create these assisted self-portraits has taught me many things. Perhaps chief amongst these is the importance of listening and taking time to get to know people and letting them get to know me.

From the series ‘Photographs and Assisted Self-Portraits’ London 2002–ongoing
[Left] © Charmian Edge / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Charmian Edge’
[Centre] © Ruben Torosyan / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Ruben Torosyan’
[Right] © Gypsy / Anthony Luvera ‘Assisted Self-Portrait of Gypsy’


Biographical Notes

Anthony Luvera was born in Western Australia in 1974, emigrating to the United Kingdom in 1999. In 2006, he received a master’s degree in photography from the University of the Arts, London. He has exhibited widely in galleries, public spaces and festivals, including the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, London; the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney; PhotoIreland festival, Dublin; Malmö Fotobiennal, Sweden; Goa International Photography Festival, India; and Les Rencontres D’Arles Photographie, France.

His writing appears regularly in a wide range of publications including ‘Photoworks’, ‘Source’ and ‘Photographies’. He has designed education and mentorship programs, facilitated workshops, and given lectures for the public education departments of the Barbican Art Gallery, Magnum, the National Portrait Gallery, Photofusion, The Photographers’ Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts, Tate galleries, and community photography projects across the UK. He is currently an associate professor of photography in the Centre for Arts, Memory and Communities at Coventry University, UK; editor of ‘Photography For Whom?’, a periodical about socially engaged photography; and chairs the education committee at the Royal Photographic Society.


This article was initially published in Chinese, in the August 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Compassion.