Pleasure and discontent collide in Michelle Osten’s conflicting images

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British Journal of Photography presents its Class of 2020 – a selection of graduates from British colleges. Over the next month, BJP-online will be sharing their profiles.

What makes an image pleasing to look at? A balanced composition, earthy colours, and soft textures are commonly regarded as aesthetically pleasurable. But what if they combine with displeasing imagery? Maggots crawling out of a half-chewed apple, bare feet covered in furry moss, or a woman eating a cup of raw meat, blood trickling down her chin. “I’m fascinated by the human psyche, and how we read images both consciously and unconsciously,” says Michelle Osten, in reference to her latest project, Unexpected. “I wanted to play with the idea of whether it is possible to look at an image, and have contrasting emotions to the point where we’re not quite sure how we feel about it.”


Osten graduated from the BA photography course at Middlesex University this June 2020, and is now enrolled on the Graduate Diploma course at the Royal College of Art. Unexpected was developed during her final year at Middlesex, when her focus shifted from fashion and documentary to more a conceptual, fine-art practice. Inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind, Osten began to research aesthetic theory and common phobias, as well as drawing on her own personal experiences. Many of her images are satisfying at first glance, but a closer look reveals elements that cause tension, confusion, or disgust. Motifs of life and death — such as butterflies, blood, and a cracked egg — quietly recur throughout the series.  “I don’t want to give too much away, because I want to leave it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about each image,” says Osten, “but the idea is to experiment with how certain objects might feel in the right or wrong situation”.

The photographer, who moved to London from Norway in 2017, is inspired by multidisciplinary practitioners whose works address the viewer in a deliberate way, such as Torbjørn Rødland, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Olafur Eliasson. Before Covid-19 forced her degree show online, Osten planned to create an interactive exhibition. Her vision included soundscapes and videos, alongside images printed onto different textures, and unusual aromas that could alter a viewer’s perception. She was unable to create the show, but, even as standalone images, Osten’s work is already multisensory. They prompt us to imagine the satisfying sound of opening a fresh packet of crisps, the chewy texture of raw meat, or the tingling sensation of hot wax dripping over our skin. We may find ourselves oddly comforted by a plate of loose teeth, or for some reason, disgusted by a glass of red liquid, provoking us to question our preconceptions of what makes an image pleasing to look at.





Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.