When Michelle Sank approached young people on the streets of Sandwell, asking to take portraits of them in their bedrooms, most were happy to be photographed. It was trickier to negotiate with their parents, who were sceptical for obvious reasons. “I had to explain why it was so important for me to photograph them in their bedrooms,” says Sank. “What’s on their walls is a metaphor for their identity and personality”.
My.Self is a collaboration with Multi Story, a local charity that works with artists to make work for and about the people of Sandwell. The charity hadn’t produced any work yet on young people in the Black Country – a name for this region of the British West Midlands believed to have come from the layer soot it was covered with in the Industrial Revolution – so with her past experience of working with young people, Sank decided to make portraits of them in their bedrooms, wearing the clothes, and surrounded by the items, which help to confer their identities.
The book is dedicated to David Goldblatt, who was Sank’s mentor when she first started studying photography in Cape Town. She left South Africa in 1978 and has now been living in the UK for almost 30 years; even so, as with Goldblatt’s work, her projects are still interested in the human condition, and on issues of social and cultural diversity.
Sank was able to get access to many families and their homes through Multi Story, but because she wanted to represent a wide cross-section of all the different communities in the region, she also approached people on the street, and outside Sandwell College – where the book will be launching this Thursday.
After speaking to her subjects about their hobbies, their style, and their experience of living in the Black Country, Sank worked with them to come up with ideas for their portraits. She would often have them change clothes and present themselves in a way that expressed something unique about their identities.
Throughout the book, Sank has inserted questionnaires printed on sheets of yellow paper, with handwritten answers to questions like “List 5 words that describe your image/the way you dress”, “What would you like to be doing in 10 years time?” and “How do you feel about living in the Black Country?”
What’s intriguing is that the interviews don’t correspond to the people in the portraits, leaving it up to the reader to imagine who is speaking, and also giving a wider representation of young people in the Black Country. In doing so it raises the question of our urge to judge, and especially to judge young people – whether it’s from the way they look, or what they have to say about themselves.
My.Self will launch at Sandwell College in West Bronwich on Thursday 8 November, 4pm to 6pm, and will be available to buy from Multistory.org.uk