Category Archives: 3 Self-Absented Portraiture

Part 3 – Exercise 4 – Nigel Shafran’s ‘Washing Up’

The requirement for this exercise was to review Nigel Shafran’s series of images ‘Washing Up’ and answer the following specific questions:-

Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?
No, I don’t think it did surprise me that the series was taken by a man. The question assumes that the domesticity of the series should somehow have been narrated by a female, or worse, that the subtlety of the rhythmic nature of the act of washing up as part of daily life, could not have been observed in such sensitive detail by a man. I suppose that the series being akin to a diary is perhaps more surprising to me that the artist is male, but that is down to my misplaced gender assumption that women write ‘diaries’ and men write ‘journals’, translated as women do feelings, men do facts. I don’t think men and women can be so clearly distinguished – there is more overlap than separation between the sexes. Having said this, my reaction to the image below was ‘how annoying that the carrier bag is just left there on the side without being put away’, and my partner’s first comment was ‘that light switch is illegal – it’s too close to the water/taps’. Certainly our initial responses were very literal for both of us and typically gender-oriented!


In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?
Clearly there are certain topics for which only either a man or woman could ever have experienced and the personal perspective would inevitably be more powerful, such as Elina Brotherus’ ‘Annunciation’ series about her IVF experiences. A male equivalent might be the feelings evoked by being a catholic priest being unable to marry and having to live their entire lives within the boundaries of the strict rules of the church regarding relationships. It might be impossible for an authentic interpretation of these emotions via a photographic series without the artist actually ‘living’ that particular life.

Equally, the different genders historically contributed to the production of certain images, purely by the virtue of legally having access to a location e.g. front line images in war photography. Don McCullin shot photographs on the front line of shell-shocked soldiers but Lee Miler captured images to document the female war effort from very much behind the front lines.  Who can say how much of their choice of type of image was dictated by virtue of their legal right to enter different locations or whether it was merely their personal choice of subject?

Beyond those specific situational or logistical differences I’ve cited, I don’t think gender particularly influences the creation of an image. Men are certainly not constricted by a ‘stiff upper lip’ expectation, and equally women are not expected to stay within the confines of a domestic/maternal or emotion-evoking topics to create photographs any more.

What does this series achieve by not including people?
Perversely by removing people in these images makes you wonder about them! The artist wants us to look at the objects in the photographs and interpret them as part of a richer mosaic of the owners’ lives and relationship. He’s asking us to look at the subtleties of the variations – the sometimes beautiful available lighting, the different kitchen styles etc. He is encouraging us to piece together elements of their lives together, moving between the wider family members’ kitchens, days not being at home, but maybe being in their ‘second home’ or their childhood home, together… the rhythmic daily drum beat of life – eating, clearing up, washing up, sleeping.

Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?
The human relationship element behind these apparently banal images is patently what makes them interesting. I think you would also need to appreciate the sheer scope of the series (Shafran took over 2000 images) and spend time reviewing a large number of them to get a true sense of their lives together and the strength and nature of Shafran’s connection with this wife. It would only be by seeing these images on mass that you would understand more and learn more about the artist and be able to understand his interpretation of ‘home’ through these photographs.