Through a New Lens

Since its inception in the nineteenth century, photography has been used as the ultimate documentary tool. Anthropological photography, images which document people, history and change for the purpose of providing evidence for record keeping, utilised the camera in a manner which was significantly different to that of traditional portraiture. Whilst the latter captures the character and physicality of its subjects in a flattering light, anthropological photography is impersonal and, in the case of ethnographic photography or scientific records, incredibly dehumanising. However, within the contemporary art scene, moves have been made to reclaim the anthropological photograph, allowing a re-presentation of marginalised groups pushed to the outside of society’s consciousness. American photographer Kerry Mansfield and Brazilian photographer Gustavo Lacerda use the camera as a tool to document conditions that are so often stigmatised and marginalised, and re-present them with honesty and dignity. No longer hidden from view, their unorthodox portraits expose a poignant and compelling version of the human condition that is neither scientific nor clinical, simultaneously challenging the conventions of beauty and strength promulgated by the media.

Brazilian photographer Gustavo Lacerda is fascinated by albinos. Albinism, a genetic condition characterised by the diminished or complete absence of pigment in the hair, skin and eyes (Vision Australia, 2012), is veiled by misconception, often causing those affected to become outsiders. In his series Albinos, Lacerda manipulates the format of a posed studio portrait—images typically impersonal and austere in nature—to depict albinos with dignity and respect. The subjects are not victims in these photographs, nor are they, as so often occurs in contemporary society, sidelined or silenced. Instead they are placed plainly in the foreground, demanding attention. As invisible outsiders whose portrayals are never shown in mainstream media, recognition is rare, and it is this unique situation that sets the tone for the images. Although Lacerda’s photographs certainly encapsulate feelings of subtle discomfort and strangeness, also evident, and almost overwhelmingly so, is a sense of pride. 

Lacerda’s deliberate lighting and colour choices contribute to the radiance of the images. Complementary hues designed for each unique skin tone illuminate the subjects in a dazzling lightness, whilst the selection of costumes enhances the antiquated sense of the images, enriching the atmosphere of a typical posed studio portrait. The series resists being simply anthropological, as the images reference contemporary fashion or glamour shoots, in their elegance and style, capturing the ethereal and unique beauty of people with albinism. In a society that maintains rigid expectations towards personal appearance and representations of beauty, these photographs are radical in their defiance. 

Conversely, Kerry Mansfield fights the grounds of anthropological photography in her series Aftermath, which is characterised by a lack of glamour and an abundance of authentic emotion. The artist never intended to share her work, which documents her struggle with breast cancer, on the public stage. In fact, her raw and honest self-portraits exposed so many of her vulnerabilities that she herself could not even approach the photographs for three years. The images are depictions of a personal journey; reflections of her own painful cancer experience, of which she initially struggled to make sense (Mansfield, 2013), and they give the impression of personal revelation. 

Simply composed, the photographs portray Mansfield, naked from the waist up, in varying stages of her treatment. Like Lacerda’s images, the series contains elements of visual anthropology, such connotations enhanced by the stark lighting and sterile tiled background. However, whilst the nature of Aftermath could indeed appear clinical and impersonal, Mansfield’s poses are highly expressive and varied in their suggestions. In the majority of photographs, she stares defiantly into the camera lens and clearly exposes her breasts, creating a direct connection with the viewer and demanding attention. In others, however, her body is contorted and her vulnerabilities are painfully visible as she gazes away from the lens, rendering the viewer a distant onlooker. When seen in sequence, the photographs document a period of time characterised by physical and psychological change, the audience is positioned to feel empathetic, as opposed to superior.

The very notion of depicting someone at their weakest and most vulnerable on a large scale seems voyeuristic, and leaves the viewer feeling vaguely uncomfortable. However, despite the fact that Aftermath serves as a visual record of her medical history and physical changes, Mansfield reclaims this scientific form of anthropological photography in order to wage her own battles against the cancer, implying constant resilience and even stubbornness in the face of such adversity. 

Most unusually, Aftermath is a stark contrast to the depictions of the female body with which society is inundated on a daily basis. Throughout art history, and even more so in contemporary culture, the female form has been idealised and romanticised, a practice which is inaccurate and often destructive. Unusually, Aftermath poses a stark contrast to the depictions of the female body with which society is inundated on a daily basis. Her photographs are transparent, providing an honest and frank portrayal of the female form in a state which is so often altered or overlooked. The compelling series, however, exposes the realities of cancer in a manner which cannot be found in books or mainstream media. 

Anthropological photography was once an expression of power, documenting the imbalanced relationship between the photographer and the subject. However, this field has been reclaimed by contemporary artists such as Lacerda and Mansfield, whose artworks resist being purely anthropological and clinical. Whilst Lacerda’s radiant studies make visible those living with albinism in a way which is intriguing and quietly beautiful, Mansfield unflinchingly documents her personal cancer struggles with honesty and emotion, evoking empathy from the viewer. In a culture where the marginalised are viewed through a narrow lens, these artists push boundaries and prove that the codes of anthropological portraiture, when engaged with dignity and honesty, can produce a powerfully enlarged vision of the human experience.

Gustavo Lacerda, Marcos, Andreza e Andre, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

Kerry Mansfield, Self-Portrait, Post Mastectomy, 2005. Image courtesy of the artist.

Kerry Mansfield, Self-Portrait, Chemo 1st Cycle, 2006. Image courtesy of the artist.

Kerry Mansfield, Self-Portrait, Recovery II, 2006. Image courtesy of the artist.

notes: 

Mansfield, K., Aftermath: Kerry Mansfield, 2013. Retrieved 10 October, 2013 from http://www.visuramagazine.com/kerry-mansfield-aftermath
Vision Australia, Albinism, 2012. Retrieved 7 October, 2013 from http://www.visionaustralia.org/eye-health/eye-conditions/albinism