A photograph is a flat surface. A surface which gives way to a world beyond — a person, a landscape, a place. And our perception of that world is unavoidably subjective: we project pre-existing experiences, opinions, and prejudices onto what we see. We make judgements, we assume, we stigmatise, concerning the subject at hand.
And it is this, which Hannah Price, newly-nominated to Magnum Photos, unpacks in Sephamore: a collection of black-and-white images, and a film, which unravel the act of looking in the realm of photography, the real world, and beyond. The subjects of Sephamore are random and varied; anonymous and unknown. “Some of the subjects I discovered randomly in the street,” says Price. “Others I found in a grocery store and asked to photograph later. Some are friends or former neighbours.” Their appearances and locations may provide clues about them, but, mostly, we are left to make assumptions on our own.
In one image, titled Jamal, 2018, a young Black man is staring into the camera — strong and composed. “When we look at a photo like Jamal, what do we do first?” Asks the writer Kate Kelley in a text accompanying the work. Do we marvel at the kisses of sunlight glancing off his temple and chest? Perhaps. But first […] we take in his skin colour, gender, age and physique, and feel it reverberate off of ourselves. When encountering this image, we admit its existence according to our systems of thought and our beliefs. We create this person anew — for ourselves.” Indeed, as individuals, we may acknowledge the elements of a stranger’s identity, which they exhibit. Ultimately, however, we ascribe them context and character informed by the intricacies of ourselves.
“Identity is an individual definition, and I hope these works allow people to approach others that way,” says Price, inciting us to refrain from making the sweeping, uninformed judgements described by Kelley, and, instead, reflect on what we can see: a young woman’s head nestling in the crook of her arm, pupils rolled back, their whites reflecting the surrounding sand; an older man standing clad in white shirt and trousers, mottled with shadow; a young woman in a summer dress looking on, a child standing below, staying close. “When people view images they have preconceived notions of different groups of people based on their own experiences,” continues Price. “I hope to make emotional, genuine portraits to display the humanity of the person on top of the image.”
Relationships, race politics, social perception, and misperception, sit at the heart of Price’s work, however, with Sephamore, she did not want to make race the focus: “I tried to hone in on a diverse group of people. I wanted to share that we all have to spell out our identities. Even to our mothers and family.” In the film Who are you? which accompanies the project, Price interviews a range of subjects in Philadelphia, upstate New York, and Charleston, South Carolina. Amine and Abdula, two animated pizza-delivery drivers kicking a football around; Dominique, tall and soft-spoken, fishing under the scorching sun; Tim, an older, bearded character clad in coloured workwear; Gabrielle, a young woman sporting shades, and a beige-oversized rollneck, perching on a wall.
“What does it mean to be a man?” Price asks. “What is beauty? What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be Black? What is the difference between the way you look, and the way you are identified?” The answers come thick and fast; shrouded in social-acceptability. In this way, the work becomes less about what the individual’s say, and, more about the versions of themselves they present to the camera. “It felt like all my subjects knew what I was getting at, and were careful not to offend,” says Price. “We shouldn’t limit ourselves and others to categories, and then maybe eventually governments and institutions would limit us the same way either.”
However, there are moments of authenticity. “I have strange theories on God, I believe he is probably an alien,” laughs one interviewee. “Fucking weird … I mean strange,” smiles another. And, it is this tension: between the real and the constructed — our construction of strangers’ identities, and their exhibition of their own — which informs the project’s title: Semaphore — a term given to the act of conveying information at a distance through flags. “The concept I’m going for is to look beyond the surface in people, one doesn’t truly know a person unless they talk and experience them,” says Price. “Especially people who may be unfamiliar.” As a sephamore illustrates, information can be communicated from afar, but when it comes to people, one must delve deeper, and, perhaps, in this respect, the two-dimensional surface afforded by an image can only take us so far.