Sissel Annett: Shadow Play

© Sissel Annett ‘Blinded by Shadows’ [detail] 2021 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’

Memories cast long shadows in the night.

Sissel Annett


We live inside our heads, where the emissaries of our senses cast shadows across an inner mental screen. It is as much an act of imagination as it is of analysis, the whole taking on a completeness beyond its sentient parts. When an artist seeks to evoke an experience, it is more than simply an objective representation of the external world, it is to suggest that richer interplay of the public exterior within the private interior that engenders personal meaning and affect.

For all its apparent objectivity, photography is an equivocal medium. When it was first invented, a photograph seemed to be a way of circumventing the idiosyncrasies of human subjectivity. To see the world directly stencilled from a concrete reality onto the image through the impartial agency of light. Yet, such were the limitations of those early processes that it took considerable manipulation to attain a satisfying verisimilitude. And, while subsequent technological developments improved the accuracy of the photographic image, a deepening critical analysis recognised that in the framing of a subject and the selective freezing of an instant, a photograph inevitably harnessed the human imagination in both its making and its interpretation.

The Norwegian artist Sissel Annett is drawn to this psychological interplay of meaning and emotion, and to the equivocal nature of the photographic medium itself. Her images delve deeply into that internal experience of the world as it is reimagined within the subjective frame of the mind. Rearticulating the visual to suggest an abstract and affective sense of what lies beyond that which can be seen. Rather than turn to computer manipulation or the generative potential of artificial intelligence, her method is to recast the traditional craft of the analogue to the role of overt expressionism through which to explore themes of longing, trauma, and compassion. And it is here, within the umbral embrace of the darkroom, that she creates her introspective evocations of memory in the shadow play of the mind.

Alasdair Foster

© Sissel Annett ‘Self-portrait’ 2013 from the series ‘Still Voice’


What draws you to analogue photography as your medium of creative expression?

With a camera as one’s tool, the possibilities are endless. The first time I had the opportunity to develop an image in the darkroom I was completely hooked. It was so magical to me and remains so today. Working in the darkroom gave me so much more creative freedom than sitting in front of a computer screen. I spend a lot of my time there, playing and seeking ways to extend my expressive voice, pursuing my creative path.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘Union’ 2010 from the series ‘Longing’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘Dance’ 2011 from the series ‘Longing’

Tell me about the series called ‘Longing’.

Ever since I was little, I have felt that there is something missing in life, like I was just a half person. I am not talking about romance or anything like that, but a deeper longing. It is as if I should have been a twin. I do have a big sister and a little brother, but I felt very different from them both, almost like an alien in the family.

How did the series begin?

I was travelling through India at the time, and in a state of turmoil, unsure of where I wanted to be and what I wanted to do with my life. Then, I had a dream about three women in matching white dresses standing on a beach close to where I grew up. The dream had a soft, luminous tone, silent and calm, that soaked into my consciousness. The dream came as a kind of gift. It helped me to understand what I was missing, what I longed for, and how I might find out where I belong.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘Self-portrait’ 2011 from the series ‘Longing’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘Untitled’ 2011 from the series ‘Longing’

The next morning, I went to the market and there I saw three identical white dresses hanging on a line. When I got back home to Norway, I began experimenting with ways to recreate this expressive luminosity of those dresses using analogue black-and-white film. It took a couple of months to resolve that question before I could begin making the series. It was during that process that I came to understand that the theme of this work was longing.

How did you go about visualising this longing for a twin sister you never had?

I do not have any friends who are twins, but I do have two sets of friends who are triplets. So, I started taking pictures to explore what it is like to have sisters who look almost the same. Later on, I introduced the black dress as a counterpoint to the innocence and hopefulness suggested by the white. And, gradually, I began to turn the camera towards myself and reflect upon the fact that I am alone and not one of a pair.

That was a few years ago. Now I feel whole in myself. There is no more longing. But it took some time.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘Untitled’ 2013 from the series ‘Still Voice’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘Untitled’ 2013 from the series ‘Still Voice’

How did ‘Still Voice’ begin?

That is a very private experience. How did you go about visualising it?

I wanted to give both ‘Longing’ and ‘Silent Voice’ a calm reflective sensibility. This was a very personal narrative. I was emotionally naked in these pictures, vulnerable. For me to be able to work with these themes, I had to be very patient and caring with myself: sensitive in how I expressed my feelings.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘Silence’ 2021 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘Transformation of Self’ 2023 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’

In your most recent and ongoing series, ‘Emotional Alchemy’, you look outwards to the situation of others, especially those who have suffered some form of trauma. What first took you in this new direction?

Ever since I was little, people have opened their hearts to me. Even people that I have not known for long, perhaps just a couple of hours. It can be a big responsibility at times and painful to listen to their stories. But I think that is the point. Sometimes you just need to be heard and feel you are seen by another person. I don’t mind being that person.

The idea for ‘Emotional Alchemy’ came to me when I was in Romania. I was working on a project to document children that were living on the street. But it also became a test of how I handled seeing other people’s suffering. I found I was drawing people towards me who had had a very difficult life. I heard many stories of children who had chosen to live on the street with other children instead of at home. It was safer on the streets, though for many of these children their life expectancy was short. Later, in South and Central America and in India, I heard similar stories. I imagine that for people who have been through a lot there is little to lose by telling their story to an outsider.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘Only in Memory’ 2023 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘The Tree of Wisdom’ 2020 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’

When a person tells me their story, I listen without judgement. I want them to know they are being heard and understood. I have learned to become more patient, more understanding and observant of others. People respond to trauma in similar ways regardless of which country they live in. Children seem to find it easier to let go of negative traumatic experiences than adults. I have met a few adults who have changed their pain and anger into hope and compassion. They dedicate their lives to helping others in similar situations. It is people like this who give me hope and I wish I could be around such people all the time. But sadly, most adults choose fear and hatred.

Your way of evoking these stories is through a kind of visual poetry. What led you to this language of expression?

My goal is to be able to tell all the stories that I am told. Although the stories are individual, the experiences and feelings they evoke are more universal. That said, some stories are easier to tell than others. Nonetheless, I have found when showing this work that people are attracted to art and to other people who speak to them in a deeper and perhaps a less self-conscious way.

The challenge was how to do this. And, for many years, I did not know the answer. It was some time later, when I was in a New York subway station, that I started to see the visual language develop in my mind’s eye.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘My Many Personalities’ 2022 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘Wings of Freedom’ 2020 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’

Who are the people depicted in the images?

The people in the pictures are cyphers. They themselves have nothing to do with the story, which is also why you cannot see their faces. I want the viewer to think more about the image as expressed in its entirety rather than the specific identity the figure depicted. For example, both these pictures [above] tell stories of people who do not dare to be true to themselves. Instead, out of fear, they live their life on other people’s terms. I have tried to capture the fear and energy that these people describe. How they experience this as a shadow cast over their everyday life. The masks and roles they take on to avoid being seen as who they truly are. It is frightening the number of people who have described this feeling to me.

You employ a number of analogue techniques in your work…

I experiment with different techniques such as drawing, painting, or creating photograms. Simple in themselves but it can take several attempts to find the combination that best conveys the ideas and feelings I seek to evoke. In a world full of AI and digital manipulation, I find great freedom in using such analogue techniques to push forward on my creative journey.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘The Alchemist’ 2020 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘My Alien’ 2020 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’

Could you give an example of how those techniques are employed to tell a particular story?

This picture [above left] has a story that, unfortunately, I think many women will recognise. The woman concerned is young, beautiful, has an academic education and considerable experience in her professional field. She was in a meeting with her male colleagues and one of them decided to touch her while she was talking. She turned to signal to him that this was not okay. She was then told not to take it so personally. This was not the first time this had happened. While she was telling me her story, she said she wished she had spikes and sharp glass in her skin so that no one would touch her without permission. Here, I have tried to tell her story using simple darkroom techniques and a model who, as I have said before, has nothing to do with the person concerned or her story.

[Left] © Sissel Annett ‘The Journey of Hope’ 2023 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’
[Right] © Sissel Annett ‘Relationship’ 2019 from the series ‘Emotional Alchemy’

What are you working on now?

I am still working on ‘Emotional Alchemy’. I certainly am not done yet. New stories are always coming to light.

What have you learned about yourself while making these bodies of work?

For me, photography is a diary whose images capture ideas that come to me in the fullness of creative flow. It has helped me see parts of myself that it took some time for me to accept. It has also taught me to place greater trust in the cognitive and emotional part of humanity regardless of country, religion, or affiliation, and to work to understand them. We humans are here on this planet to learn to grow and develop as souls. The evolution of each one of us.

© Sissel Annett ‘Untitled’ 2014 from the series ‘Still Voice’

Biographical Notes