Tobias Slater-Hunt a photographer and teacher from Brighton brings his exploration of physical identity, sexual identity, notions of beauty and disfigurement in his brilliant body of work. His images of nude human bodies challenge our notions of ‘beauty’. They are stark and at times cause deep physical shock.
Let’s be frank. Accosted by the constant stream of the need for ‘body beautiful’ it’s hard not to physically react when faced with images that show bodies disfigured-they challenge us.
Tobias Slater-Hunt has a number of amazing projects like Phenotype and The Quotidian Body, but Closer To God is the most absorbing. Up close and personal with stunning detail we come face to face with human disfigurement. But this is not a project about shock per se. Indeed we should not shy away from the fact that our initial reactions maybe shock or something more. Rather we should allow the reaction to force us to consider this whole movement of beauty.
Tell us about your childhood and how it impacted on your direction into the creative world?
I have always drawn, well I used to always draw. That has fallen by the wayside a little in recent years. But as a child I was happiest with a pad, crayons and some dinosaurs. I graduated to pad, pencils, Da Vinci’s sketchbooks and 2000 AD comics in my teens.
I have always been a nerd, and drawn to science fiction movies. When at a young age I realised that someone got paid to make spaceships, or draw comics, my goals in life were set in youthful optimistic stone. Then a Catholic education happened, which opened my eyes to Caravaggio, Grunewald, Durer and a path to arts college-a career as a painter was forged.
Is there a moment or a collection of moments that really solidified your interest in photography?
The man to blame, well thank is Ian Sanderson. He was my tutor on my foundation course in art and design. He is a terrific photographer and practises the nearly forgotten photographic alchemy of gum bi chromate printing. Ian introduced me to photography, to studio photography, the darkroom and Helmut Newton! When I realised I could make realistic images with dramatic lighting in black and white in a matter of days rather than weeks scratching away with a pencil, I was hooked.
Talk to us about psoriasis-what is it, how has it affected you and the images you capture?
…surface outsider….Psoriasis is a skin condition that results in red scaly lesions on the skin and if you are lucky like me also causes swelling of the joints and chronic arthritis. So it deeply affects the appearance of the body and how not only people perceive you but how you perceive yourself.
The illness led to a very long fallow period creatively. But with the advent of improved treatments that have relieved my symptoms I am now making up for lost time.
As a result of living with the condition I became deeply aware of the surface of the body, not only mine but others too. It would be a waste of experience to try and make art only about the body beautiful, or even make work about anything else other than the body.
I am quite deeply aware of the marks left on the body as we journey through life: I seek to celebrate this. As an artist using photography to make images of the body surface I am frustrated with the mediums lack of a surface. But I am working on different approaches to try and add a surface to my photographs. I have become rather obsessed with different ways of censoring my work as required by social media and am wondering if it adds to the work?
Your work Closer To God is perhaps one of your most visually powerful works-tell us about that work and the fact that you created the deformities?
The series questions what beauty is, and uses the very same editing techniques used by the beauty industry to render the body beautiful. The series was a giant experiment that has led to a way of working I still use today. The first challenge was the subject matter. I didn’t want to make images of people with real facial deformities, because that could be perceived as exploitative and at that point I did not have enough confidence in my practise to consider attempting such a thing.
The decision was made to “create” deformities which led to a series of experiments with tape, rubber bands, and glass to “move” the flesh about. Once I had got something that worked, the images were made by shooting each model in section and making several images of the faces with different distortions. The images were then stitched together in Photoshop to enable the making of large prints and “bits” of different heads put together with the tape, glass or bands removed using the same techniques most photographers would use to remove a mole or blemishes. By the end of the process it almost became like painting with flesh. Very time consuming.
Your work evidently challenges our current perceptions of beauty how important is this challenge?
Very important and for all sorts of reasons. As an artist I have always been fascinated by the human body, and as an artist I am always seeking to grow and challenge myself. Photographing the body beautiful is not particularly difficult, nor does it add a great deal to the photography/body conversation. Photographing the human condition represented by the body is another thing altogether. Not that I am saying I have achieved that but it is part of the aim of what I do.
Talk about nudity and working with models who may have been victimised for the way they look?
The nudity in my work is there for two reasons. The work is about different bodies so the nude is the natural means of investigation. I like the idea of making timeless photographs-clothes can date images quite precisely. Even people’s changing attitudes to their own bodies can place a time on an image. The proliferation of tattoos now seems totally normal but it would have been a very niche aspect of the body only fifteen years ago.
As for working with people who have low body esteem it can be quite a challenge. The key is dialogue to gain trust. My personal background certainly helps and gives me some sort of membership to the club which adds credibility. But I also think the images I am trying to make, “the body dressed in photography” are about photography and the body and NOT about how an individual looks naked.
These are not portraits that happen to be nude, but artworks that happen to be of bodies. So when someone “gets” that they a collaborating to make an artwork then a lot of barriers come down. I think my models understand the transformative nature of what I am trying to do. That they will be changed into an image that is about bodies and not about them. I often use techniques to keep sitters identities anonymous for precisely these reasons.
Gender is a huge area-but briefly discuss what you try to document in terms of gender in your work?
I have put my toe in the waters of the gender debate with my Phenotype project. In it, I imagined different genders rendered from cut offs from my Closer To God project. I then re interpreted the images in Photoshop.
It is a huge and deeply fascinating subject. My practise has always sought to include both male and female and fluid bodies. The more inclusive you are the more interesting the collaborators you find and the wider range of bodies you can use to make images.
A focus on the male body is an aim over the next year. I would deeply love to work with more trans people. I have a deep respect for their bravery to realise themselves. In terms of how I approach different genders, the simple answer is: treat them all the same. My work is about about bodies but not eroticism and I hope this is apparent. It is not a “male gaze” that I approach these images with but a democratic, enquiring gaze.
Are we ever more sensitive to those who we deem as ‘not normal’ in this age of social media?
I think it is a double edged sword. The body beautiful is all pervasive and freely adopted by commerce to sell us everything, including our own body image. The digital tools available for perfecting the perfect body are increasingly sophisticated and authentic. And it is quite easy to drown in the deluge of all this. I am quite aware of it and as a 50 year old man I am getting well into the age of increasing invisibility.
Society/culture doesn’t really care what I look like. For the younger generation however the pressure to conform or to ascribe to these perfect bodies must be enormous, and quite damaging. That said, I have only recently joined Instagram and I have found various artistic and photographic communities championing the cause as it were. Whether it is big is beautiful, flesh over 50 or Jocelyn Lee there are many people asking similar questions. They are trying to regain ‘beauty’ for the normal, outsider or ageing body.