The adidas Breaking Barriers commission, organised by Studio 1854 (British Journal of Photography’s creative agency) in collaboration with adidas, gives one photographer the opportunity to explore women’s football clubs in London. After a lengthy judging process, Alice Mann has been selected as the winner.
“I am interested in the human element of the story and the communities that have formed,” says the photographer. “The work does not need to be about these individuals as football players – it can be about them as people in the context of the sport.” For the next two weeks, Mann will immerse herself in the everyday lives of players from a number of different London-based teams and create a new body of work around them.
Mann is a photographic artist based in London. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, she regularly returns to the country to pursue personal projects. Through a collaborative approach, Mann creates formal portraits, accompanied by documentary-style images, which provide an intimate insight into the lives of those featured.
In Autumn 2017, the photographer returned to Cape Town, South Africa, to document teams of drum majorettes in primary schools across the city. Drummies captures girls ranging from five to 18-years-old, undertaking intensive practice sessions, as well as the wider subculture that surrounds the sport. Drawn from marginalised communities, the discipline provides a way to safeguard participants from many of the social challenges they may face. Mann won The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 with a series of four images from Drummies – this was the first time a series was awarded the prize.
The adidas Breaking Barriers commission brings together adidas’ She Breaks Barriers initiative, which inspires and enables the next generation of female athletes, creators, and leaders, and Female in Focus – a new award from British Journal of Photography that seeks to celebrate exceptional female-identifying photographers.
Over a fortnight-long project period, commencing this week, Mann will work on creating her new body of work. Below, the photographer shares how she plans to approach the commission.
Studio 1854: What interested you in the commission and how do you plan to approach it?
Alice Mann: The commission interests me because it centres around women. My work challenges representational stereotypes and explores notions of femininity. So, I felt really excited by this.
Studio 1854: In an interview with the New Yorker, you explain that a sense of responsibility “not to reiterate the old stereotypes” about life on the African continent guided Drummies. Multiple visual cliches surround football. How will you approach the subject to create something distinct?
Mann: I am interested in the human element of the story and the communities that have formed. The work does not need to be about these individuals as football players – it can be about them as people in the context of the sport.
Studio 1854: Female drum majorettes and female footballers are both performing to some degree. Drummies captures the individual characters of the subjects despite their costumes and choreography. Do you plan to achieve something similar, and, if so, how?
Mann: I love working with people. Photography allows me to form relationships; those relationships extend beyond a project’s duration. They transcend the medium. Through my work, I create a space where people feel comfortable enough to project the kind of image they want. I think the magic really happens when I can facilitate that. Rather than beginning with a preconceived idea about how things should be, I engage with people and allow an image to take form.
I work very slowly. I use a medium-format camera, which is [physically] huge. People are aware that I am there and they are engaging with me. I never depict my subjects in a way that they would not want people to see them. My photography is truthful in that it captures people as they want to see themselves.
And, that is what photography is about. The notion that it is objective is flawed. There are so many factors that an image may be influenced by. It is such a subjective medium. I try to play on that a little bit – working with real-world situations and people but constructing an alternative, almost ideal, reality.
Studio 1854: Are there any themes that you are particularly keen to explore?
Mann: I want to look at the relationships that have formed in these communities and how they have elevated the women within them. I also want to explore the ideas of strength and empowerment, and how these intersect with femininity – beauty is not mutually exclusive to tenacity.
Studio 1854: Drummies blends formal portraiture with documentary photography. What is the benefit of working across these two genres in the same project; how will you apply this to the commission?
Mann: My focus is people, so I have always been interested in formal portraiture. A portrait says so much. After focusing on portraiture for a number of years, I wanted to create more nuanced narratives. I thought I could expand my storytelling approach by incorporating a documentary element – an approach I will employ on the commission.
Drummies was the first project where I developed that. The way that I work and the camera that I use do not lend themselves to documentary photography in the traditional sense. I replay real-world situations slowly, allowing people to reposition themselves for the lens.
With Drummies, I could not be in the middle of the majorettes when they were performing – I would have hit something and disrupted the performance. Instead, we reconstructed elements of it.
I think when actual and staged realities start to overlap and the viewer becomes unsure, that is an interesting way to challenge perceptions – particularly the idea of what documentary is and the notion of truth.