Let’s Meet Up … with John Paul Evans!

We caught up recently with John Paul Evans (United Kingdom, 1965), who won third prize in the ‘Open’ category last year for his series, ‘Till Death Do Us Part. Evans, who is also a senior lecturer in photography at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David, has had his work exhibited in a variety of venues, ranging from the Brighton Photo Biennial to the news channel CNN’s photo blog.
He explained to us how gender representations inform his art and what makes gay marriage ‘uncanny’ to some people.

You’ve stated that “my photographic work stems from an overall interest in gender representation and the polemics of representing men under patriarchy.” Where does that interest come from? 
I first got interested in photography in the 1980s. The significant photographic journals at that time – in Britain, anyway – were focused on photographic representation in politics. It was a time of great change and upheaval, not only in terms of the working landscape, but also in terms of the AIDS epidemic. There was an interest in how identities are formed through how people are discussed and talked about.
We’re bombarded with images of women as sexual objects. Growing up as a gay man, I was acutely aware that seeing representations of naked men was taboo or forbidden. I’d always thought and wondered about that.
We accept things as being ‘natural’ – for instance, women wearing skirts and men wearing trousers – when this is just a social convention, there’s actually no biological basis for this. I believe that this process of ‘naturalization’ plays an important role in the way our social and sexual identities are formed. We seldom question this. Photography plays a central and significant role in our culture in that respect. As Michel Foucault has said, the way people are represented in society affects the way we understand them.
Is your goal in your work to challenge these traditional representations? 
That inevitably comes into it, but it’s very difficult if you set out with that goal in mind. Taking photos needs to be intuitive, I think. With my present work, certain images came into my mind, which I wanted to re-appropriate. I had strong ideas, but the process needed to evolve naturally. I wanted the pictures to be open enough to be interpreted in a number of different contexts.
You (with or without your partner, Peter) are the subject of many of your photos. Do you prefer making self-portraits to taking photos of other people or objects?
Absolutely. By taking photos of another person, I’d be worried that I’d be objectifying that person. Also, when you’re taking pictures of just yourself, there’s no one to let you down, really. I couldn’t imagine using a complete stranger in my photos. I wouldn’t know where to begin!
I view my work as a sort of personal diary. I realized at one point that I didn’t actually have much a record of my life with Peter. I needed to address that – in an amusing, subversive way.
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‘Till Death Do Us Part 
Let’s talk about your series ‘Till Death Do Us Part, which features you and Peter. You call it a ‘series of absurd permutations of the wedding portrait’ designed to ‘evoke a sense of the uncanny’ in response to traditional notions of marriage and domesticity. Can you elaborate on that? 
I wanted to blend the homely with the unhomely, the familiar with the unfamiliar. This blending creates a ‘disturbance’, not necessarily something that’s horrifying, but something that’s at least out of the ordinary. That’s why, in a lot of these staged portraits, we look quite mannequin-like. We don’t show any expression; we don’t smile. That’s a very deliberate tactic to evoke a surreal image. The fact that the images aren’t what we’re used to makes us think about them more.
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You told CNN that the photos depict you and Peter as feeling “not quite at home.” Can you explain that feeling a little more? 
I took most of these photos during one weekend, working very intuitively around our house. Many of the photos had Peter and me peering into the house through windows. It quickly became apparent to me that we looked like ‘outsiders’. The photos were a metaphor for ‘otherness’. Even if gay people get full rights under the law, it will never stop a segment of the population from being intolerant or prejudiced towards them. I wanted to loosely comment on this incomplete acceptance of gay households. The ill fitting costumes Peter and I are wearing, for instance, reinforce the notion of figures who might make some people uncomfortable. 
Another angle to it is that Peter and I are of different generations (he’s more than 20 years older than I am), which some people – including gay people – are likewise uncomfortable with.
Many of the elements in the photos (veils/shrouds, stiff suits, bouquets and laid-out clothes) are symbols of both marriage and death. Were you trying to make a statement about the relationship between marriage and death? 
Yes, on one level. But, as I mentioned earlier, I also realized that I’d been with Peter a long time already and there wasn’t much of a record of us.
Roland Barthes says in his book Camera Lucida that photographs are always in a sense a representation of death, because we try to capture our loved ones through the photographic moment, which only shows that we can never relive that moment again.
Marriage rites reflect that circle of time as well. I saw the veils, for instance, as representing both the start and end of something. When we first get into relationships with people, we assume our partners will be there forever, but at some point we become aware of how fast time passes. As a middle-aged person living with someone in his seventies, I’ve begun thinking about this reality a lot. I wanted to respond to it in my work.
In one of the most evocative photos in Till Death Do Us Part, you and Peter are seated at a table with your faces covered by veils and Jan van Eyck’s famous “The Arnolfini Portrait” in the background. What were you trying to achieve with this juxtaposition? 
First of all, I viewed the picture as very comic. The veils covering our faces made us look silly. But the seriousness of Peter’s and my expressions makes the photo susceptible to other interpretations as well. Our posture and bearing lend the photo a funereal aspect, for example.
It was also a way of re-appropriating classic ideas of marriage. Taking this renowned, iconic wedding portrait and putting two gay men – of different ages – in front of it is a subversive, contentious act, I believe.
The photo of you and Peter fully dressed in the bathtub in Till Death Do Us Part is delightful. What were you trying to represent here? 
Again, it’s a depiction of the absurd, taking something – in this case, two suited figures in a bath – completely out of context and imagining the consequences. It’s absurd, not only because it’s funny, but also because it’s uncomfortable. On the one hand, we recognize the image – the bathroom and the two men in suits – but to see the two men as a couple might not fit most people’s sensibilities, so the image becomes unsettling or troubling. That’s what I’m referring to when I talk about ‘uncanny’.
The final photo in the series – with your and Peter’s hands joined in one another, with a portrait of you two and an array of homey domestic objects behind you – is particularly poignant. What were you aiming at here? 
I just wanted to mix it up a bit. I was aware that there was repetition with the other photos, and I wanted to put in a few pauses to disrupt this repetition. The hands are very much about two people connecting, with the portrait of the same people in the background defocused. The defocus serves as a metaphor for these people disappearing.
Interview: Zach Tobin

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


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