A Portrait of Survival: This Week’s People’s Choice Winning Portrait

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Matt Hussey’s portrait is of a woman named Taya. Having met Taya through a friend, Hussey was struck by her determination to turn a history of abuse into an empowering and meaningful future. The portrait Hussey and Taya created together evokes rebirth and survival, incorporating water as a symbol of peace and renewal, but also of danger and uncertainty.

Taken from an ambitious personal project called ‘The Photographer’s Journey’, Hussey’s portrait of Taya was shot as part of a self-imposed challenge to photograph someone every day for a year. Two and a half years later, Hussey is still working on that project, and now has hundreds of portraits to show for it. Specialising in portraiture, with a focus on environmental and documentary portraiture, Hussey seeks to incorporate people’s environments into his work, with a look to take a wider view of his subjects’ identity, both literally and figuratively.

Michael’s story was all about his relationship with New York City and the subway he used to meet his father when he was a child © Matt Hussey

Can you tell me about the portrait you entered into Portrait of Britain 2018? What is the story behind it?

The portrait is of a woman named Taya. She works in an operating theatre in a hospital.  Taya is a survivor of abuse; she’s had to overcome a lot and to somehow build something positive out of a series of events that changed her entire life. It’s a story that has come to define her identity. but she’s not a victim; she’s a survivor, and this photo is a testament to that.

Water was something that came up time and time again when we spoke, and I wanted to shoot something that incorporated it. Water is a symbol that can mean so many different things: renewal, rebirth and peace, but also danger, loss and uncertainty.

The setting I chose for the photograph is both serene and unsettling. I wanted to show a lot of fragility in the portrait, but also a lot of strength. Speaking to Taya has made me realize that it is not what has happened, but how we choose to respond to it, that defines us. Working with her was a deeply humbling experience, and being able to tell her story in this small way is something I will never forget.

Tamar Fynn, a professional gymnast spends a lot of his time walking alone along the River Avon in Bristol © Matt Hussey

The portrait is part of a wider series called ‘The Photographer’s Journey’. What were the aims for that series?

I originally set out to take a portrait every day for a year as a technical exercise, but the project has turned into a remarkable journey and insight into the process of being a photographer. That process has allowed me to explore how I see others and myself in the photos I take. I now have a record of my progress as a photographer through these portraits. I can not only see how my technical ability has increased, but also how my ability to draw people out of themselves has improved.

Sarah-Jane Cavendish showcasing her tattoos and the stories behind them © Matt Hussey

What do you think makes a compelling portrait?

Time and trust. My portraits take months, or in some cases years, of conversations between my subject and I before I press the shutter. Having a camera pointed at you can feel invasive, and it can make you feel vulnerable and exposed. My job as a photographer is to make the subject feel safe in that process of revealing themselves, and to let them know that their story is in safe hands.

Do you have any advice for future entrants about selecting a portrait to submit and, more generally, about getting into portrait photography to begin with?

Start small. I was always so overwhelmed by how much great work there was out there. To see other artists’ incredible portraits made me feel inadequate – I questioned what I could contribute to photography. Over time I learned to look for stories in the people and places near me. Everyone has a story to tell, sometimes the smallest or most personal stories can reveal universal truths about us all. Start by photographing what you know and what’s accessible to you; friends, family, friends of friends, and see what comes back. Reflect on that and repeat the process.

Also, learn to enjoy the process of photography rather than the end result. For me, connecting with people, listening to their stories and creating a record of that interaction with a photo is the most valuable thing of all. I learned to love the act of making a photo rather than the photo itself, which has allowed me to work on personal projects that have taken years to come to fruition, because I enjoy the doing of photography rather than the validation that comes at the end. If you’re in it for the clicks and the likes, you’re going to be in for a rough ride.

Robbie, a mechanic from Donegal, shot in his workspace © Matt Hussey
My father. His story is one made up of my memories of him growing up as a child © Matt Hussey