Robbie Lawrence, Senta Simond, Matthew Morrocco, and more, reflect on the experience of intimacy amid the current crisis
The camera does not belong in intimate moments — a foreign object that threatens to disrupt a delicate exchange. And intimacy, in all its subtlety and nuance, may itself prove challenging to capture. Perhaps this is why it so affecting when one does. Intimacy can also work to create an image: the existence of an intimate relationship between artist and sitter making for a more compelling photograph than if there was none.
At a time when social-distancing has driven a wedge between people, hindering physical and perhaps also emotional intimacy, or forced them to be more ‘intimate’ than ever, confined within the walls of their homes, what image does the word evoke for you?
We asked Matthew Morrocco, Néha Hirve, Chad Moore, Robbie Lawrence, Senta Simond, and Sue Williamson to respond to this question; their replies are published below.
Matthew Morrocco delves deep into his personal life to excavate the subjects for his work — sexuality, intimacy, loneliness, the experience of being a ‘man’.
“The things we need have a way of finding us when we’re free to be ourselves.”
“I’m tired of intimacy. Not intimacy itself because we need intimacy to survive, but the idea of intimacy — the facade, the parade, the discussion. Real intimacy cannot be pictured, the years of ageing together, laughing together, crying together, having secrets together — shared experiences that would never be interesting to others.
I had a best friend when I was a child. We used to spend days, maybe weeks, talking and laughing and loving and teasing and fighting and sometimes even trying to kill each other, seriously, and endlessly discussing the worlds we wanted to build. When we grew up, we grew so far apart that we didn’t speak for 20 years. I recently learned that he almost died in a terrible motorcycle accident. When I read about it on Facebook, I sobbed uncontrollably and alone. Was my sadness intimacy? Maybe his sister’s Facebook post was intimacy. Is it intimacy to ‘like’ someone’s picture? Maybe intimacy is leaving a comment or sending a ‘DM’ or just responding to an email on time. These days intimacy looks a lot like whatever you see when someone answers your unannounced FaceTime call.
“I had a boyfriend, once. I told him my darkest secrets. We broke up 10 years ago and haven’t spoken very much since. Recently, he emailed me out of nowhere to inform me that his dad had died. I think his email was intimacy.
“For a long time, I searched for intimacy I could show in photographs. I never found what I was looking for because, like all humans, I need actual intimacy, not just pictures of it. So as an antidote to all this ‘intimacy,’ I covered myself in a full-colour suit because the colour was the first thing I saw when I opened my eyes.
“I call this series of pictures Orchid — a project about what to do when public space is a dangerous place. It is a series of pictures about abstraction and freedom of thought. In these pictures, I am escaping intimacy — the idea, not the actual thing. I am seeking refuge in anonymity because in quarantine intimacy ‘looks’ a lot like a popularity contest and not like the thing we need. In quarantine, intimacy ‘looks’ like a crowded Zoom call your friend posted on Instagram.
“I hope the privacy of quarantine and this picture of me in a red suit embracing a blue bush in Arizona at sunset inspires you to be a little more honest about what and who brings you real joy and not just ‘intimacy’. The things we need have a way of finding us when we’re free to be ourselves.”
Néha Hirve explores the in-between — the places at which moments, emotions, and people intersect.
“The back is intimate — it is tender, a person’s most unguarded place”
“Intimacy is inseparable from vulnerability. I have always found it easier to photograph people I don’t know — how easy it is to encapsulate everything a stranger is to me in a single image. Photographing someone I know, on the other hand, requires vulnerability on my part and theirs.
“Shot on instant film, this is an image of Emil, a close friend of mine. There’s an unnatural quality about it, something about his posture, which makes me uneasy.
“But, intimacy can be uneasy too. Perhaps photographing from behind is a way to really look at someone I love while avoiding the vulnerability that comes with being gazed back at. Perhaps it is also because the back is intimate — it is tender, a person’s most unguarded place.”
Robbie Lawrence’s photographs are meditative, taking us on slow and lyrical journeys through the subjects he explores.
“That perceived closeness has now faded and is hard to grasp”
“During lockdown, I’ve been editing a project that has been in development for the last four years. The story focuses on a gardener in the final years of his life. As I’ve gone through the images, the question of whether photography can convey intimacy or connection keeps coming up.
“This photograph was taken in late winter on the Scottish west coast. It was the first day I met Jim. Over the time I went to visit him I looked to document his presence, not only in portraits but by photographing his possessions and his surroundings; the photos show the foggy hills above his garden, his plant journals, dead leaves and dusty teacups. Collated, they begin to build a picture of Jim, but that perceived closeness has now faded and is hard to grasp.”
Chad Moore’s life and surroundings have become the subjects of his work – his friends, his acquaintances, his nights, his days; the young people of downtown New York — the next generation.
“You can see it in the subject’s eyes if they trust the person with the camera, and trust is the most intimate thing”
“The term intimacy, in regards to photography, might very well be the most important part of my practice — but without me really ever considering it until asked. I was initially going through my archive thinking about the subject and the most obvious thing was to select a picture of a couple making out in bed — or something like that. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realised the most intimate of pictures can be portraits.
“Photography is all about trust, it makes the picture. You can see it in the subject’s eyes if they trust the person with the camera, and trust is the most intimate thing.
“I made this picture last week. It depicts one of my best friends and now roommate, Sasha. We’ve been friends for a long time, and as of recently, live together. Sasha is the subject of a lot of my work, but this might be the first time we just sat down for a second, in silence, and made a picture. You learn a lot about someone when you live with them, but you really learn a lot about someone when you are quarantined together. I’m happy to have her in these uncertain and strange times.”
Sue Williamson, part of a generation of South African artists who began exploring social change in apartheid South Africa, interrogates themes of memory and identity formation within her work.
“An eviction notice had been delivered to Naz that very day, and some months after this photo was taken, Manley Villa was demolished”
“This photograph is part of a series titled Last Supper at Manley Villa and was taken on 02 August 1981 at the home of Naz and Hari Ebrahim, District Six, Cape Town. It is the great festival of Eid, and Naz is bending down to greet one of the friends who have called to celebrate the occasion.
“The Ebrahim family had lived in Manley Villa for more than 30 years, but the Nationalist government had proclaimed the neighbourhood for whites only. An eviction notice had been delivered to Naz that very day, and some months after this photo was taken, Manley Villa was demolished.”
Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.