Anna Fox has been making photographs and video for over thirty years. Her practice grew out of the very male-dominated documentary tradition, and most often explores the strangeness of everyday life, creating a bridge between the personal and the political.
An excellent mid-career retrospective book of her work published in 2007 by Photoworks says, “Like many of the new colourists – young British photographers including Paul Reas, Paul Graham, Martin Parr and Paul Seawright – Fox was enchanted by the ‘ordinary’, and helped, as part of this group, to redefine documentary photography in Britain and Europe.”
Fox is also an educator at the University for the Creative Arts at Farnham, and one of the initiators of a major multi-faceted research project called Fast Forward: Women in Photography. In this interview for LensCulture, Fox speaks to Clare Samuel about her first steps into photography, the importance of humor, and working and living during this challenging period of Covid-19.
Clare Samuel: We’re meeting online in late June so it’s about four months since lockdown, with things just starting to open up both in the UK where you are and here in Canada. It feels like a time when huge historical shifts are happening in how we function and what we value as societies, nations and individuals. A lot of your work is rooted in historical research (local, national histories and photographic histories). How are you feeling during this time, both as an artist and as a human being?
Anna Fox: Well, it’s obviously incredibly strange. It’s quite hard to get over the shock of it, to be honest. When it started to happen, I suddenly felt a huge amount of energy to do things. But as it has worn on, I think people feel quite exhausted. I’ve been incredibly lucky as an individual; I live in the countryside and I have a garden. But some of the stories that have come out, not just about Covid, but some of the things it’s brought to light behind the scenes are terrible. I read in an article that something like 15 million people in America have no running water, and issues such as mental health are finally being talked about. And there’s the Black Lives Matter movement, and increases in domestic violence (or increases in the visibility of these incidents). I mean, it’s incredible these things that are coming to the surface. You know, I have that hope that certain social and environmental things might change, but I also fear that we’ll all just go back to how we were very, very quickly and forget all about it.
I think as an artist, you know, you want to respond to it, but at the same time you feel useless responding to it, unless you can do something helpful, and that’s difficult. Although I would encourage everybody, including myself to just continue doing things, because as you say, this is a very significant historical moment; it’s just trying to find ways of making work that has relevance, I think.
CS: I think of you as a pioneer or veteran female photographic artist, although I deeply dislike the colonial and militaristic implications of those terms! When you started your career there weren’t many well-known women photographers. Did you have any experiences of not being taken seriously because of your gender?
AF: In terms of being taken seriously, well, that’s quite a funny one. Sometimes one gets asked ‘is women’s photography different?’ and I would say, ‘no’. But there are some things about as working as a woman photographer that are different. One might get access to different subjects that are more difficult for men.
I did find that I wasn’t taken seriously on several occasions by the offices I went to when I made Work Stations, but it was actually useful. I wasn’t treated like some nasty paparazzi photographer or treated the way that people often treat journalists. I was using a medium format Makina Plaubel. It’s a superb camera, very light and easy to use but it looks like a toy. So on top of the fact that I was a woman, I had this camera that people couldn’t take seriously! It all helped in getting access.
When I speak to curators and editors I’m sure I’m taken seriously. But I have felt very much in photography that there is a kind of boys’ club, which is based around how people network and promote each other, and some work by women seems to be distasteful to this boys’ club in some way, or just not interesting to them. I also think that women have been less inclined to promote themselves. I once heard a woman photographer say that she felt that ‘networking’ was a dirty word—perhaps this idea comes out of education in a patriarchal society.
CS: One of the things I find most compelling in your work is the way you use humor to examine important ideas. Sometimes this is within the image, and sometimes it’s in the relationship between text and image. Would you say humor is a way to subvert not being taken ‘seriously’, to change the rules of a rigged game?
AF: The idea of combining image and text was partly inspired by British comedy, and how humor and irony can really draw you into a narrative. And drawing people in to look at office life is not so easy! I collected texts through going to conferences, journals, interviews, and just things people said as I walked around these offices. I edit my texts in the same way as I do pictures; I choose bits that I think are working.
I was looking for things that would really emphasize the aggressive nature of Thatcher’s Britain, the pursuit of individual wealth, the competition at work. ‘Having a secretary is a status symbol’ was one of the texts. And ‘a typing pool can be a happy place for girls who like working with other people’ is one of my favorites. And ‘strength, stamina and precision had kept him at the top’ under a picture of a man and a woman next to each other, with a portrait of Margaret Thatcher above them. My point of using that text with that image was that it doesn’t matter if you put a man or a woman at the top, it’s a patriarchal society and the women have to adhere to it, actually even more than the men do. They can’t get away with not adhering to it.
CS: There’s a lot of theatricality in your work, series like Pictures of Linda and Back to the Village focus on forms of ‘dress-up’, the portrait subjects in Spitting are puppets, and in Resort 1 the elaborate lighting renders Butlin’s Holiday Camp as a hyperreal stage, with the holiday-makers like actors or statues. What is your interest in performativity or theatricality, is it something that you associate strongly with photography, or more broadly with identity and social interaction?
AF: This is a great question, it really highlights all the things I’m interested in—this relationship between photography and theatricality. I’ve always been fascinated by this idea that we’re living on a stage, that everything is, in a way, theatrical. I remember first thinking that everything is slightly unreal when living in the countryside in the 1980s, where I had spent my whole life. People there were very opinionated and conservative. Many hadn’t traveled anywhere (at that time) or even talked to a broad range of people. There was a lot of narrow-mindedness surrounding me, it was claustrophobic. With photography, I could sort of unpick that, and look at the world as a theater of gestures and performances that we’re all undertaking. I was able to create a distance between me and the countryside that I couldn’t get without the camera.
For the Butlin’s project when I first went there, with my Plaubel and my portable Metz flash, I felt like a creep basically because nobody wanted to be photographed by me. There were lots of official Butlin’s photographers walking around, so the punters just thought I was another person trying to sell them something. But as soon as I came with a big 5x4 camera, a team of people and eight lights, we became more like a film crew occupying each area. We had to get one picture of each place, and we became like a performance ourselves! And strangely that’s when people took us seriously and then wanted to be involved in the picture. Because of the format and lighting, these very ordinary people having their holiday became sort of elevated to statue-like characters on a stage.
Butlin’s is an iconic holiday camp, it’s really important in the history of Britain and I wanted to make sure that came across. It was started in the mid 1930s and was the first place where working class families could afford a holiday. A week’s holiday there cost a week’s wages, and childcare and activities were provided. It was an opportunity for poorer people to enter into the ‘performance of leisure’. The founder, Billy Butlin, left the circus to start these holiday resorts. And every single one of them looks like a circus! Stages where something’s going to happen.
CS: Besides humor, violence is also a thread through your projects. There’s voyeurism in The Village, the verbal and emotional violence in My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words, there’s the structural violence of patriarchy in Work Stations. And more physically in the stiff, blanched, overly feminine corpses (played by musician Alison Goldfrapp) strewn awkwardly throughout the lush idyllic landscapes in Country Girls. Can you speak about the process of representing these different forms of violence?
AF: I think I enjoy visualizing them actually, unfolding narratives not normally spoken about—and being a woman speaking them. I was uncomfortable when I first published My Mother’s Cupboards & My Father’s Words. Since then both my parents have died, and the second edition is just out. But at the time of the first edition I hadn’t told them it was coming out. It was a completely unethical project in a way. I did feel bad about it, but I’m still glad that I did it. I think these things have to be talked about and someone has to do it!
Country Girls is a response to the very violent murder of a young girl called Fanny Adams in the nineteenth century, in the small town where Alison and I both grew up. She was cut into pieces, it was a horrible story, it’s all in the museum there and we were fascinated by it. And there’s this phrase ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ which many people think is a polite version of ‘sweet FA’ or ‘Sweet Fuck All’, which is British slang for nothing, or doing nothing. But actually it comes from the fact that not long after her death, the Royal Navy brought out tinned meat in cans, which wasn’t very popular, so as an odd joke the sailors called it Sweet Fanny Adams. Then it morphed into ‘sweet fuck all’, so she was equated to chopped meat, and then to nothing at all. And this physical and verbal violence underlies a very common phrase that people just use flippantly.
CS: What was your personal connection to the story, coming from that town?
AF: Even when we were growing up, this town was a pretty violent place and there was no internet, no access to seeing what things were like in the city or in the rest of Britain. Everything was contained within family homes, or on streets every Friday and Saturday night when it was a bloodbath. Really unpleasant, and the last thing you wanted to be was a reasonably good-looking woman. You just didn’t want that kind of attention, it was a risk.
So Alison and I were looking both at the Sweet Fanny Adams story and at our own experiences of the place. It would be very hard to find the words to talk about this. But the great thing about photography is it’s the relationship to realism, its indexical relationship to the world. It’s like something hidden in reality is coming through more directly when you take pictures.
I think the violence in all the projects you mentioned relate to women in different ways. The Village was a response to the place where my grandmother lived and my mother had grown up, and the very conservative values that I had been brought up with through that matriarchal line, and within the confines of a patriarchal society. The camera-angles through hedges and so on suggest the restrictiveness of that, and surveillance. I think at the heart of my work is always a story about how women have been pushed into corners, which especially exists in rural life because that tends to be more isolated inside families. And in small communities where a certain sort of values are supposed to be continuously upheld. It usually falls on the women to uphold these—and goodness help you if you don’t!
CS: Your connection with your subjects is something that sets you apart from more traditional approaches to documentary. What are your thoughts about the ethics of photographing others? What do you think about recent reappraisals by Ariella Azoulay for example, and the research project she’s created with Wendy Ewald and others Collaboration. A Potential History of Photography which argues that portrait subjects actually have a very active role in image creation?
AF: I’m not aware of that project but it sounds absolutely fascinating, I’m a big fan of Wendy Ewald and Azoulay is a powerful writer. I found Wendy’s early collaborative work with children really interesting. It’s a challenge to conventional documentary practices.
In my recent project Spitting, Andrew Bruce was my assistant and then became the photographer with me. It’s a challenge to your authority, and one of the problems with being behind the camera is you can get a little bit too fond of your own ideas, so it’s great to have something disrupt that! But I will argue with people, of course. When I was working with Linda Lunus in Pictures of Linda, we used to debate a lot about what pictures would go in or not. The same with Alison Goldfrapp, I’ve actually got a whole load of pictures in the Country Girls series that I really want to show but she’s so far banished, I’m hoping one day she’ll change her mind, maybe before the book’s published. It is a challenge, you have to learn how to argue well for what’s good or not.
CS: And what is your relationship like with the people you’re photographing?
AF: Even when it’s not a collaboration, I like to talk to people. I do love street photography, and I’d love to do it, but I can’t often do it. I’m not comfortable with not speaking with the people I photograph. So that’s why I liked coming in with the big camera and the lighting crew for Resort 1, because people wanted to come and talk to us. I like to tell them what I’m doing, to know that they think it’s worthwhile to be in the picture. As long as I tell them everything about the project and they understand how I work, I feel much more comfortable, much happier.
Occasionally I have taken a photograph without asking, something’s just evolved in front of my eyes. There’s one in Work Stations, a woman being interviewed. I felt terrible taking the photograph, I saw her marooned on this chair in the middle of a carpet with the interviewer behind a huge desk. And he was tapping his pen on the table in a very aggressive manner, just looking at her legs, and I just went ‘click’. I knew when I took it that I didn’t make her situation any better at all, but I didn’t think it was going to get better. I sometimes feel that the picture’s so important that I have to take it. But generally speaking if I do that, I try to speak to them afterwards and tell them what I’m doing. And if they don’t want to be in the picture, I don’t include it.
Working with, and taking into consideration the subject’s wishes, it diverts you. And I hate the idea of falling into a pattern, falling into a style and an approach. I mean, obviously there are themes and there are things that interest me and things that I focus on, but the idea of falling into a style or a way of picturing the world that is the Anna Fox style or something just fills me with horror. Because then you’re not really getting to the bottom of the story or the feeling in a particular project.
CS: That’s a really nice way to think about it, because you still want to be open to the world and what it can show you, rather than imposing your metaphorical lens on it. A lot of photographers strive to have a distinctive style.
AF: The flipside is it makes it quite difficult when you want to promote yourself! Until I did the first big book with Photoworks, that’s kind of a compendium of all my works, and the show Cockroach Diary and Other Stories, curated by Anne McNeill at Impressions Gallery, people didn’t understand the relationship between the projects. Val Williams edited the book and there were essays that brought all my works together. Afterwards people said “we didn’t associate you with this, or with this”. So it is harder to build a reputation if you don’t carry a particular style with you throughout.
CS: In 2014 you started Fast Forward: Women in Photography, a research project addressing women’s position in the histories of photography, the stories they’ve been erased from and those currently unfolding. Tell me about the process and impetus for forming that group.
AF: When I studied photography in the 1980s, there were hardly any women teaching. And out of my group of about 35 students, I think there were four women studying. But now in the UK it’s totally the reverse in terms of student numbers, we are educating sometimes 100% women in our classrooms, especially at Master’s level. One of the reasons we started Fast Forward was because we realized that despite this, women were having limited success actually becoming photographers. They might go into editing or curating, but becoming practitioners was still a difficult business.
Martin Parr is very good at promoting himself so we thought what would he do? My colleague Karen Knorr and I decided to approach the top organizations and say: what can we do about promoting women in this medium? We started working with the Tate and Val Williams, at University for the Arts London, and developed a conference, which was much more successful than we’d anticipated in terms of the number of abstract proposals and attendees. What was actually spoken about was a revelation. We left the themes very open and a lot of new stories, issues and voices from behind the scenes emerged. And then I won a Leverhulme International Networks Award, which had a huge impact on the project as it meant we could travel and meet people and gather new research.
CS: Tell me a bit more about how the project functions internationally and online.
AF: Maria Kapajeva is our Network Coordinator and we created a series of seven research workshops around the globe with these amazing partners in Brazil, the US, Nigeria, India, Finland, and the UK. As well as the conferences in the UK and in Lithuania. We all realized very quickly how the workshops fostered this idea of women supporting one another, and the photography world didn’t really have that, because a woman’s network hasn’t really developed there. And how different the global fields of photography are, because we’re still connected to these written histories that have come out of North America and Western Europe. So we had both historical and contemporary stories come out about women’s role in photography. It’s incredibly important to start talking more and more about these and keep repeating the stories and the women’s names.
Anyone can access the conferences, which are available to view online, or take a look at summaries of the workshops, which may become public at a later point. People can also apply to come to the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham and listen to the archive. And we’ve done two special journal issues, one with Katalog and one with Photography & Culture that’s about to come out.
A fourth conference will be held in Tbilisi, Georgia at the Photography and Multimedia Museum in 2021, and that’s about women and conflict and a fifth in 2023 with Tasweer Photography Festival in Qatar. At the moment we’re also considering doing something collaboratively online, a series of roundtables across the world, which would work well in the current environment. We have a number of grant applications in the pipeline so watch this space!
CS: As well as starting a critical dialogue and interrogating histories, a lot of Fast Forward’s work has been to create practical opportunities and connections for women photographers, lifting up others in the way that ‘old boys’ clubs’ have done for centuries. Are there some emerging or under-represented artists you’re following at the moment?
AF: Yes! So many I can’t think of them all… Charlotte Yonga, Etinosa Yvonne, Marilene Ribeiro, Heather Agyepong, Pixy Laio, Maisie Cousins, Chinar Shah, and Nelli Palomaki. These are only a few. And organizations like Firecracker and Women Photograph are also doing great work promoting women. There are also numerous women-only photography collectives such as Zimbabwe Association of Women Photographers and Raiwya (meaning ‘she who tells a story’) originating in the Middle East. There is a lot going on; we just need to commit to investigating it, discussing it and promoting it.