The eye of the beholder rarely only sees beauty. If really looking, it will instead see despair, frailty, fear, loss, and a tremendous amount of imperfection. These are the things that British documentary photographer Stephen Shaw directs his lens towards: the human, the “raw and real” of life and society. Shaw doesn't seek to glamorise his subjects or their environment; he rather looks, with declared empathy, from a distance, which is not only necessary to this photographic genre, but has the value of preserving dignity while maintaining the viewers curious for more.
Shaw´s latest project, The Gift, is a well-crafted piece of visual recording and storytelling that reaches into the depths of normalcy, certain to find its manifold inversions. With carefully calibrated doses of everydayness and disillusion, The Gift is a story of life and death, of desire and the inability to avoid it; a story of self-destruction brought on by the brutal honesty of repeatedly failed attempts at self-fulfilment.
Elena Stanciu: What draws you towards documentary photography?
Stephen Shaw: Documentary photography is a challenge to explore, investigate, delve deep beyond a safe surface. I'm a hawk and I like to gamble, keen to collect, put myself out there and archive.
ES: This medium is associated with social change and calls for action against urgent social issues. Do you design your projects with this in mind?
SH: The UK is one dark mess. I aim to document that, starting from insight into so many personal histories around me. By shaking people up, I hope I can assist on a ground level. Urgent intervention is needed, particularly through education and health care.
ES: Tell me a bit about your most recent project - The Gift?
SH: The Gift works with themes of disease, drug culture, otherness, social cleansing, and issues of postmodern perceptions within veracious conformity. I am using a paranoid fiction narrative to tell a dual story as a parallel metaphor to this contemporary “problem,” as an explanation to the way it affects our culture. This narrative constantly shifts and polarises from perpetrator to victim, within a story decipherable through this dual narrative which is a subterfuge to reality, following a polemic with an obscure rhetoric of repayment that can be more easily seen by both.
ES: Your work is very complex and sensitive, clearly loaded with symbolism and narrative intensity, which seem difficult to contain within one shot. Do you ever find that photography is not enough to tell the story, that there are limits to this medium?
SH: I feel that any medium can be evolved and grown through time. Not everyone can see the same, so sometimes one's vision needs more forms of language to help hone it to a sharp point. Photography is never enough to tell a story, particularly a personal one. Ideally, I would include as much sensory, emotional persuasion as is possible. I see my words and images as an artform that moulds my context towards personal desires.
I'm drawn to symbols from real life, and use them to tell a story whilst working within my documentary process as a way of framing my subject and, as a tool of dual-layered storytelling to explain life tragedies poetically. I use language creatively to give clues that help realise a deeper story.
ES: Very often, your photographs feature unglamorous, sort of broken or threatened humanity, and dilapidated spaces and structures. What do you find interesting about this vulnerability in your subjects?
SH: I empathise with so many aspects of such vulnerability, as it is a personal reflection of myself, my “black mirror,” which I have had to endure.
ES: What is your mission as an artist? As a documentary photographer, how do you experience the tension between the subject and the craft, the clash of aesthetics and ethics defining what you want to/must do and what you can/are allowed to do?
SH: I see my developing body of work as art contained within a frame of contrasting viewpoints, quietly attempting in a humble manner to bring about change in the way so many people look at modern concepts, and look away from them fast. Blind eyes, deaf ears equal evasion, avoidance. That is shameful, a sad reflection.
Words: Elena Stanciu
Photography: From the series The Gift by Stephen Shaw