LET’S MEET UP WITH…RICHARD SANDELL

Richard Sandell won Third Prize in the Open category with the photo ‘Andrew and Irene’, from the series ‘At home with …’. Richard is Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. He works closely with museums both in the UK and internationally.

 
There is a very intriguing atmosphere in this tableau portraying a half naked man and a woman sitting casually on a couch. Could you reveal its story for us?
 
I’m pleased that you find the image intriguing, as the aim of the small series (of which ‘Andrew and Irene’ is part) was to prompt questions in the viewer. In reality, Andrew and Irene are close friends of mine who kindly agreed to help me with my photographic project. Irene lives in the flat above Andrew’s – they became firm friends soon after Irene moved in a few years ago. I managed to persuade them, along with other friends who generously let me use their beautiful house for the shoot, to spend the afternoon sitting for the series in a variety of different settings and guises.

The series was devised specifically in response to the Extremely Normal theme that I had seen on the Pride Photo Award website a few months earlier. At the time, I was studying photography and decided to use the theme for my final year project. I was a little conflicted about the theme, to be honest – on the one hand, I was excited by the potential for creating images that would challenge narrow and reductive ways of seeing LGBT people. This is hugely important and why the Award is so significant. But on the other hand the theme prompted difficult questions for me – who decides what is deemed ‘normal’ and who, by contrast, is considered ‘deviant’? What might ‘normal’ look like in the context of the highly diverse LGBTI community? Perhaps most importantly, what about those LGBTI people who cannot – or choose not to – present themselves in a way, which might be considered normal by others?

The result was a small series of images that aim to call into question perceived ideas about what and who is considered ‘normal’. All of the images were staged and I enjoyed the task of creating tableaux and manipulating the settings and poses to achieve my ends. In each image, individuals feature in elegant domestic settings that, in many ways, epitomize social acceptability. (Nick and Andy – who let me use their house in Nottingham and who feature in another image – have a very beautiful and distinctive house, which helped to set the scene). However, my intention is to gently undermine this initial reading of the image by introducing new characters, props or clues that suggest relationships, behaviours, or lifestyles that potentially fall outside of the mainstream, prompting viewers to look again.

‘Andrew and Irene’ is the most ambiguous of the images because we are unclear about the nature of their relationship. Andrew’s louche pose and Irene’s inscrutable face are difficult to read and open to interpretation. I’ve enjoyed hearing different people’s responses to it – they make up some hilarious and outrageous stories of their own.
 
As an academic, you are researching the ways in which LGBT people are publicly portrayed. It must have clicked with our theme, ‘Extremely Normal’. What are the conclusions of your research so far?
 
My day job certainly clicks with the work of Pride Photo Award. For a number of years I have been researching the ways in which museums, galleries and heritage sites represent difference and engage audiences in discussions about equality and social justice. These public representations frame the kinds of conversations that a society has about difference – they help to shape the way we think and behave. Pride Photo Award is so important because it makes sexual and gender diversity highly visible and offers progressive ways of thinking about LGBTI people. Of course the ways in which viewers respond is far from straightforward – some will welcome these positive images, some will reject them but we know from a range of in-depth studies that it makes a difference – it helps to create the climate within which discrimination and prejudice can be challenged.
 
What do you think are the main stereotypes about LGBT people and how can they be challenged?
 

In my research to date, museums have generally been less complicit in reinforcing the kinds of stereotypes that have been prevalent in other media, for example TV shows and films, which have often depicted LGBT people as either comic figures or sometimes crazed maniacs! But they have been worryingly silent on these matters, erasing sexual and gender difference from the stories they have told. In recent years this has started to change – there have been more exhibitions about LGBTI life in the past 5 years than in the previous 50. This is enormously welcome but we have a long way to go. Exhibitions and events that have explored LGBTI art, history and culture are most often temporary, leaving the main museum unchanged – and this is something that has to be addressed.
 
What was your motivation to participate in the Pride Photo Award contest?
 
I had followed Pride Photo Award online for the past couple of years because there was such a strong link with my research interests. So, when I was developing ideas for the final project of my photography class, I saw an opportunity to get involved by entering and decided to give it a go. Of course, I entered without any expectation that I might win given the standard of work that I had seen in past competitions, and so was completely taken aback – but over the moon – to hear that one of my photos was selected.
I can’t wait to see the exhibition when I visit at the end of August – the other winners’ work is extraordinary and I am honoured to be included.
 

Interview by Claudia Vendrik
 

From the series 'At home with...' by Richard Sandell, United Kingdom Winner of the Third prize in the Open category 2013

From the series ‘At home with…’ by Richard Sandell, United Kingdom
Winner of the Third prize in the Open category 2013

Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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