Class of 2019: Round two

This article is adapted from a series of features originally published in issue #7888 of British Journal of Photography magazine. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

British Journal of Photography is dedicated to seeking out new talent. Each year, the print magazine platforms 12 exceptional emerging photographers graduating from colleges and universities across the UK.

After sharing the first round of graduates last month, below, BJP-online presents three more UK graduates featured in our October issue. Look out for the rest of the graduates we are plugging this year on BJP-online over the coming months.

Sarah Isabelle Tan

London College of Communication

Sarah Isabelle Tan is originally from Singapore, a place with a long tradition of having portraits made of deceased relatives. Tan’s deeply personal connection with portraiture began when she beheld the framed pictures around her family home, their subjects made present yet remaining ineluctably absent. “A fundamental part of my photography is a longing to possess what’s always beyond reach,” explains Tan. “This longing is inseparable from frustration, from the sense of loss and distance I feel when I look at a photograph. I understand that I am, in one sense, intimately near its subject. Yet in another, I will always be separate from it.”

In the stark cyanotypes of The Distance Between Us, Tan has transmuted her frustration into blue lament. The collection comprises photographs shot in Iceland and the Lake District, but Tan’s work is motivated by a feeling more profound and bewildering than the topography it captures. “I wanted to establish a link between physical distances and the distance between myself and the subject of a material photograph when I hold it, when I look at it,” says Tan. As it did for the elegiac portraiture of her childhood, Tan believes the material form of her photographs amplifies their enigmatic aura. “In my work, I keep returning to framed photographs; the material object in a physical frame has a presence.”

© Sarah Isabelle Tan

Clár Tillekens

University of the West of England

Tillekens was born in Queens, New York, to parents who emigrated from rural Ireland. “Like so many Irish of their generation, they were seeking better economic opportunity,” Tillekens explains. But Tillekens’ own experience is a near reversal to that of her parents. As a recent graduate in post-recession America, she became jaded and restless. “I was jobless and dejected,” she says. “I viewed my home city as hypercompetitive, hyperproductive, overpopulated.”

In 2015, she applied to become an Irish citizen and secured an internship in Dublin. She travelled west to visit her ancestral home in a rural corner of County Leitrim, an experience that afforded her to witness authentic Irish culture, which stood in contrast to the self-conscious, hyperreal Irishness of her New York childhood. “There’s a mood of nostalgia in the New York shots of Irish immigrants clinging to their heritage in a country that’s so diverse, so culturally competitive,” she says of her images.

Overseas invites comparison between different types of Irishness by combining photographs shot on both sides of the Atlantic, often with the location deliberately left ambiguous. The effect is disorienting and serves to undermine the concept of national identity as fixed and coherent. “I want to put signifiers of Irish culture in unconventional contexts in order to interrogate the idea of cultural identity,” Tillekens explains.

© Clár Tillekens

YingYing Shen

Royal College of Art

YingYing Shen didn’t see many photographs of herself or her family growing up, and as a result she formed a complicated relationship with her own image. “As a young woman in a small town in north-east China, I learned to be very strict in the way I observed myself, but that absence of photography in my childhood made me all the more curious about it as I grew,” she says. Shen was uncomfortable taking self-portraits at first, but after choosing to study photography, she began to challenge herself by probing the possibilities of her own image in front of the lens. Pictures of herself have featured heavily in her work ever since.

For her varied projects, Shen takes a series of self- portraits to record the nuances of her facial expressions and body language, and then reprints them by hand in the darkroom. These physical prints – “photographs as objects” as she refers to them – are then used as subject matter for a further series of images. She hangs them up, crumples and tears them apart, and often uses transparent objects, including fishbowls, jam jars and bottles, through which to warp and abstract them. “I use glass in my photographs a lot because things seen through it can appear sliced and twisted, but also because glass often segregates,” she explains. “It acts between objects and views, and keeps things at a distance.”

Like photographs in frames, where the glass is rarely even perceived, most glass objects are looked straight through, invisible before what they contain, and so Shen wanted to do the opposite and emphasise them. Each one of her projects, she says, is ultimately an exploration of “substances, symbols and metaphors”. She is always exploring what different objects can bring to the ‘story’ of a picture, while simultaneously experimenting with an array of photographic techniques. “Photographs gain new identities in different printing states,” says Shen. “An image says something different when printed in UV light.”

© YingYing Shen