Photographer Gabriella Sancisi on a Career in Portraiture

08 February 2019

Banner: Detail from Installation (detail), Baby Portraits, Dorset County Hospital, colour photographs (framed) 2000, 1500mm x 1200mm © Gabriella Sancisi

Gabriella Sancisi photographed Emirati paralympic athletes on her visit to the United Arab Emirates, telling their stories in their own words. Her photograph, Thuraya Hamad Al Zaabi, 2011, can be seen at the entrance of our Main Gallery exhibition, Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers, as part of a celebration of pioneering female photographers throughout history.


Exhibition view of Thuraya Hamad Al Zaabi, 2011, from series Emirati Paralympic athletes, Colour photograph © The Lightbox

Great to see your portrait at the entrance of our Main Gallery exhibition. Can you let us know a little bit about what you are working on at the moment?

In the summer of 2018, I took a research trip to visit a quarry in Italy and over the next few months, I will return to take some new stonemason portraits. Stonemasons were my first sitters of an ongoing project and they are of particular interest to me as I come from a family of stonemasons, having grown up surrounded by marble and marble-covered people. The family business no longer exists but my love of marble and other stone is as strong as it always has been. I am also completing a series of 81 portraits of octogenarians and editing my archive of Polaroid photographs.

Has your gender affected your experiences as a photographer throughout your career?

I don’t think I have experienced fewer opportunities as a woman and have always pushed hard to do well, but history and statistics show a clear imbalance in the number of women exhibited compared to the number of men. My favourite subjects to photograph are men and especially those who work in a physical way and so are marked by their labour. Dirty, sweaty, bloody masculinity is a subject that continues to fascinate me and I explore my relationship to men and my idea of this particular physical masculinity through my experience as a heterosexual woman. In the world, I can only relate to people as a gendered person with my history and this is the same in photography.


Bummaree, Smithfield Market, 1995, from series Butchers and Bummarees of Smithfield Market, C-type photograph mounted on aluminium, © Gabriella Sancisi

Why portraiture?

I am fascinated by our relationships with ourselves and with one another as human beings, and portraiture is a way to really examine this. Roland Barthes has written extensively about the “pose” in portraiture and we seem preoccupied with how we are portrayed. In front of the camera, we have this idea of how we are perceived by others but also how we would like to be perceived. In a ‘selfie’ and celebrity-obsessed culture, we manage our images very carefully. For example, there are apps that can alter our image to have larger eyes or smoother skin or whiter teeth. In my work, I have noticed how many younger people know how to present themselves to the camera to produce the most flattering images of themselves. I love to explore my own relationship to the sitter as s/he is like a mirror, and the photographer plays a part in the resulting portrait.

Many people feel uncomfortable in front of a camera. How do you help your subjects stay relaxed during a shoot?

I do not deliberately put people at ease and am not very good at small talk, but I think my sitters might perceive me as non-threatening. I ask questions about his/her activity or work so that s/he might talk about his/herself and relax a little through doing so. I give instructions to look in a certain direction or to relax his/her shoulders or mouth, for example, but I do not have techniques to put them at ease. My lack of instruction can be helpful to the final portrait as I like to see a moment of uncertainty in a sitter’s expression, allowing space for the sitter to present him/her self to the camera without being too prescriptive, although I know what I am looking for and will wait for that moment. Generally I don’t like to photograph people smiling unless it seems appropriate, for example, when I photographed beauty queens.

From beauty queens to manual labourers, your subjects are so varied. How do you come up with ideas for new projects?

I choose my subjects according to personal intrigue. I like to photograph people who have pushed their bodies to the limit or have been through an emotional experience in a life-death situation such as a fight. I happened to read a novel containing a scene describing a sumo wrestling match, imagining the sumo wrestlers would be interesting subjects to photograph. I arranged two visits to Tokyo to make the portraits and was privileged to meet the Hawaiian Grand Champion Yokozuna Akebono shortly before he retired.


Sumo wrestler no.5,,2002,  from series 'Sumo Wrestlers', C-type photograph © Gabriella Sancisi

Do you have a favourite type of person to photograph?

I enjoy photographing butchers, stonemasons, coal delivery workers and boxers. New-born babies are fascinating as they are so unaware of what it means to be photographed, even if they are aware of the presence of the camera. They are tiny and fragile and I felt very attentive to their vulnerability. They are unable to deliberately adopt a pose, yet the portraits of new-borns that I made at Dorset County Hospital look theatrical and they appear to make gestures in front of the camera lens.

As we become aware of ourselves as separate beings, our self-awareness causes us to behave in a certain way in front of the camera and I enjoy the psychic exchange that happens between subject and photographer during the act of portraiture – we each have our own agenda. I most enjoy photographing people who are marked by their labour and are still mentally involved in what they were doing just before they sit in front of the camera.


Thomas, 1999, from series Baby Portraits, C-type photograph © Gabriella Sancisi

What does this exhibition mean to you?

This exhibition attempts to redress the under-representation of women photographers and artists as it is very regrettable that some populations continue to be less visible. I think it is necessary, and I am so excited to be part of this important historical survey of women photographers – and in such good company. My portrait is of an Emirati Paralympic athlete. I visited Dubai and Sharjah to make portraits of Olympic and Paralympic athletes during 2011, photographing only the athletes head and shoulders so that it is unclear if they are able-bodied or disabled. Some of the sitters were photographed looking at the camera and others three-quarters on to the camera.

What’s next for you?

‘Meeters and Greeters’, for which I filmed people waiting at Heathrow Airport, began an exploration of the mind-body split, and I know I have more to understand about the subject. What interests me about the subject is the notion that the body is engaged in an activity but the mind is absent. I am still keen to explore this through the moving image as time-based video portraiture allows these ideas to unfold. I am working on some projects that involve language both in books and embroidery.  This year I am due to return to Dorset County Hospital to photograph the babies that I photographed 18 years ago and see how they have grown into adults. I took their portraits again at age 10 and loved to see how some of them were recognisable through their gestures and posture.


Installation (detail), The World in London (Argentina), 2012, Oxford Street © Kate Elliott, The Photographers' Gallery

Women in Photography: A History of British Trailblazers is on display in our Main Gallery until 2 June 2019, presenting an in depth historical survey showcasing the achievements of female photographers working in Britain.

Entrance to the exhibition costs just £5 with a Day Pass, or £7.50 with an Annual Pass, and admits one to both Main and Upper Gallery shows.

What's else can I see with my Day or Annual Pass?

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