Joanne Coates and Heather Agyepong create space for their authentic identities

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© Joanne Coates, Krystal, Category D, from the series The Lie of the Land 2022, originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 4.

This year’s Jerwood/Photoworks Awards winners explore once-hidden experiences, championing working-class identities and emotions deemed incompatible with societal norms

“Sometimes I’ve found it quite hard, because you think photography isn’t for you, or the industry isn’t for you,” explains one of this year’s Jerwood/Photoworks Awards winners, Joanne Coates. “When you come to a private view you think ‘do I have to adjust how I speak or the way that I dress?’”

Thankfully, on the day of her own private view, Coates has adjusted neither her broad Yorkshire accent nor her bright, floral dress. She sits, almost relaxed, beside her Border Collie, who has made the long journey from Swaledale to London with her. He’s a fitting reminder of the rural, working-class background which once made Coates so unsure of the photography industry, but which is now so central to her work.

© Joanne Coates, Amber, Mum and Beauty pageant winner II, from the series The Lie of the Land, 2022, originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 4.
© Joanne Coates, Galena, fruit of labour, from the series The Lie of the Land, 2022, originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 4.

“I want this work to be like a celebration of the acceptance of parts of myself that I’ve banished for a long time”

Commissioned by the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, Coates’ newest work, The Lie of the Land, addresses the erasure of contemporary working-class histories and culture in the countryside. Now on display at south London’s Jerwood Space, the striking, black-and-white landscapes and portraits interrogate notions of rurality and women, and the perceived stigma associated with them.

The personal stories of the working-class women Coates photographed – and with whom she closely identifies – are laid out throughout the first of Jerwood Space’s two rooms. Portraits of women self-described as matriarchs, multitaskers, miner’s daughters, milkers and mams line the room’s white walls, accompanied by their handwritten notes and recordings of their varied experiences. The overall impact of the display is inescapably bold and, at times, confrontational – which, Coates says, is exactly what she was hoping for. “I wanted this work to look directly at a London audience. There’s this thing of ‘you’re an angry working-class woman’, but some people are angry – not in a violent way – and they’re allowed to have that melancholic anger.”

© Joanne Coates, Grouse Moor, Heather Burning, from the series The Lie of the Land, 2022, originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 4.

The anger and passion of Coates’ work is palpable. And moving past her arresting images into the second room, a rather different set of emotions moves to the fore. This more dimly lit room is filled with textiles, hanging unmoving from the ceiling. Deep blue walls are adorned with images in still darker shades of blue and the space is filled with tense, electronic music – building slowly to a final release.

This release, explains fellow Jerwood/Photoworks Awards winner Heather Agyepong, is an expression of how trauma lives in the body and how, through allowing the body to speak, it can find resolve. “This work is very much about accessing your unconscious through movement,” Agyepong says, speaking quickly over her extra-hot cup of tea, clutched close to her for warmth. “We wanted to create a journey of how it feels when you confront your shadow. We wanted to illustrate that journey of discovery.”

© Heather Agyepong, Only Pino, from the series ego death, 2022, originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 4.

The artist’s own journey of discovery is what led to the creation of her new Jerwood/Photoworks commission, ego death. The work, inspired by psychiatrist Carl Jung’s concept of ‘The Shadow’, explores aspects of the personality deemed inappropriate – repressed and shamed by societal norms. The series of self-portraits, each a double exposure, capture Agyepong as she embodies and confronts seven different characters: The O Daughter, The Saboteur, D is for…, Georgina, Lot’s Wife, Only Pino and Somebody Stop Me.

“I want this work to be like a celebration of the acceptance of parts of myself that I’ve banished for a long time,” Agyepong explains. “But also mourning those parts that I’d banished too, mourning the distorted versions of myself that I’d internalised and releasing them.” The process for achieving this was an emotional one for Agyepong who, using her skills as an actor, spent time embodying every character. With no plan or staging, she would then spend just 90 minutes creating each of her images. It was, she says, important to set this boundary – not to spend too long inhabiting each deeply emotional space.

Heather Agyepong, ego death, 2022. Originally commissioned through the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards, supported by Jerwood Arts and Photoworks. Installation view at Jerwood Space. Photo: Anna Arca

Although not always easy, creating emotional space is key both to Agyepong’s and Coates’ work. While the Jerwood/Photoworks Award winners have little in common in terms of style or approach, they are tied together by their identities and emotions – both, at times, deemed ‘lesser’ by society at large. Both artists commit to exploring these once-hidden parts of themselves, successfully creating space for their authentic selves to thrive.

The Jerwood/Photoworks Awards are on display at Jerwood Space now until 10 December 2022.