Alexander Coggin studies the ritual of donning the mask

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This article is printed in the latest issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, Humanity & Technology, delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Including over 80 photographs, Year of the Ear illustrates how we cultivate and shape our identities

During the past year, our nervous systems have had to grapple with so much: the threat and reality of debilitating illness, the unrelenting news cycle, the social isolation, the cruelty of socially distanced grief. How will this time we are living in be remembered? Alexander Coggin’s practice focuses on stories about the performativity of life. He explores the ways in which we build identity, cherishing both the individuated character and the moments in which it slips and reveals the unexpected. He visualises this with urgency and dramatises it with flash, giving depth to details so often overlooked.

In Year of the Ear, shot during the pandemic, the London-based photographer articulates more than a moment in time. Each ear is distinct and speaks to how we cultivate and shape our identity, absorb influences and hone eccentricities. It signifies how we want to engage with our surroundings, and explores our continuous merging with technology. Through over 80 images, the humble ear becomes a subtle yet oddly beautiful microcosm evoking the rhythms of human behaviour.

Coggin is a trained theatre-maker. From a young age, he was informed by teachers such as the late Rhea Gaisner to be conscious of one’s sensory experience of the world and to embrace the “full aliveness of being”. “My big takeaway from Gaisner was to be more attuned, but in the last year, with the pandemic and the compulsory mask, there was so much trauma on the street. I found myself plugging all my

senses to go grocery shopping,” he reflects. Coggin paid close attention to the ritual of donning the mask and the awkward struggle to position it comfortably. “The ear has to bear glasses, adornments and headphones,” he continues. “We’ve now had to add masks to the list of responsibilities. This already fragile organ feels under attack.”

Evident in his Clavicle Studies, Year of the Ear, and an upcoming project on the male nude, the rigour of cataloguing multiple versions of the same subject is a generative framework for Coggin. “I’m seeking adornment in service of the specificity of character,” he says. “I look at the world like theatre, and I’m looking for types. I want you to look at the ear and connect the dots between class, occupation, gender preference, generation, and so on. When you get tight on a detail of a person, the variety is infinite.” Beyond its initial read, Year of the Ear is a portrait of social healing. Coggin is chronicling how we armour ourselves to go into the world; to find normalcy, in whatever guise that takes, and renew our sense of hope for a future unknown.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.