Technology expands perception. Air travel turns a journey of thousands of miles into a matter of hours. Google Maps shows us the way through unfamiliar city streets. Over Skype we can see and hear our loved ones wherever we and they are. But our new abilities have come at a price. Our physical senses have deadened. Laura Thompson came across this conception in a study by Claude Levi Strauss, which described how members of a particular tribe could see Venus in daylight. The anthropologist noted that this was a skill that Western sailors had had in the past, but lost over time since they no longer used it to navigate.
“I was surprised to learn that you aren’t born with an innate ability to sense things,” says Thompson, whose series Senseless was shortlisted for the 2016 D&AD Next Photographer Award in partnership with Getty Images. “It develops as you’re a child, your senses adapt to the specifics of your environment. Advances in technology bring passivity. Certain parts of our brains don’t develop because technology is there doing everything for us.”
Her D&AD Next Photographer Award shortlisted series depicts five yeti-like figures in costumes constructed from disposable products – rubber gloves, mirrors, plastic forks, cardboard air fresheners and foam earplugs – wandering through the Scottish and American countryside. At once threatening and ludicrous, each being is uncannily at odds with its rural setting, although visual echoes – grass reflected in the mirrors, cacti a similar shape to the rubber gloves – suggest a desire to blend in.
Originally from California, Thompson moved to the UK to study International Relations at the University of St Andrews. After a stint interning – “I wasn’t cut out to work in politics, it was so stressful, so much negative energy” – she went back to university, this time taking a Postgraduate Diploma in Photography at LCC. There she began shooting with the yeti suits but it was during her Master’s in Communication Design at Glasgow School of Art that Senseless really took shape, becoming her final degree project.
“The creature has been consumed by our materialistic society to the point they can no longer sense anything. They attempt to go back to nature only to find it’s too late and they’re stuck between these two worlds,” explains Thompson, who was inspired by the costumes and masks used in animist and Shaman cultures to mediate between the human world and the animal or spirit world, as well as the mythology of Bigfoot. “Not quite human not quite animal, it has this in-between quality, this uncomfortableness. People trying to go back to nature have that feeling as well – you can try but you can’t get there.”
If the costumes are uncomfortable to look at, they were uncomfortable to make. Starting with a morph suit base, Thompson painstakingly hot glued on materials chosen to reflect the five senses and bought in bulk online.
Each posed a different challenge. The air freshener was so pungent it gave her a splitting headache. The gloves got waterlogged and mouldy in transit and the glass mirrors, much heavier than she’d imagined they would be, shattered each time the model, whose own senses were severely limited, took a step. Added to this, it was Thompson’s first time working with large format. “I only had five film slides and they’re very expensive so you have to craft each image and it takes a long time to set up.”
Since making the shortlist for the D&AD Next Photographer Award, Thompson has been working on a commission for Glasgow School of Art, photographing the Mackintosh Building which went up in flames in 2014, and shooting performances for the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
She also has a number of personal and commercial projects in the pipeline. “The Award greatly increased my online presence,” she says. “My pictures were shared 10,000 times on Tumblr alone, thousands more on Instagram, Pinterest. Because of that I’m now getting a lot more enquiries into my work.”
On top of the exposure, Thompson found the mentoring aspect of the Award extremely beneficial. “D&AD put your work face to face with people in the advertising world, and also in image sourcing, professional photographers,” she says. “You get a whole variety of insights into your images – about what works and what doesn’t – as well as next steps to take to further your career and valuable connections for further down the road. Everyone was really friendly and supportive.”
A year on, what’s her advice for applicants this time round? “It’s good to submit something original, something different from what the judges might have seen elsewhere in the competition. “The order is important – you should try to create a story. Put your most attention-grabbing image first because that will make them want to see the rest of the series.”
Deadline for entries has been extended to the 10th March. Visit the D&AD website to apply for this year’s Next Photographer Award, which offers a $5000 grant from Getty Images. Entry is £25, you can submit up to five images of any genre. The Award is open to emerging photographers of any age who earned less than 50% of their income from their own photography over the past three years.
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