Change is key in the work of this award-winning Manchester photographer
Allie Crewe is fascinated by transformation. This is true in obvious and less obvious ways. The Manchester photographer’s latest exhibition, Your Own Light, an ongoing series of portraits of transgender and non-binary people, is a document of radical alteration. But change, and growth, inform all her work.
I don't think I hold all the power at all because what happens in that connection between me and that person in that moment
I join Allie as curators at Sale's Waterside Arts Centre hang prints of her portraits on the glowing, aquamarine walls of the gallery. She is full of admiration for their skill as they map out the precise distance between prints. The exhibition is to open Trafford's Pride celebrations and then run throughout the whole of Pride month.
With her work being described as "highly rated, sincere, poignant and classical” by Magnum, initially getting shortlisted for the prestigious BJP Portrait of Britain award in 2017, and then going on to win the prize in 2019 with Grace, you might assume Allie is a veteran photographer.
A creative explosion
Instead, when Allie won BJP Portrait prize she had only been working professionally as a photographer for four years. Her astonishing ascent in the world of photographic art was as unexpected, to herself at least, as it was rapid:
"It has been more of an explosion than a launch. Maybe, that's what happens if you wait until you're in your 40s. I didn't even think I'd make it as an artist. I thought I would photograph kids or pets, and I would have bought my own freedom. I didn't know I had that inside of me. I’m very driven. This is an obsession."
Allie had previously worked as a media studies teacher, but she has always been an extremely visual person, confessing to seeing "images in everything" and "dreaming in photographs".
But it is not just visual, physical changes that draw Allie. The tectonic emotional shifts that take place inside her subjects attract her just as much, if not more. One of her sitters, Olivia Fisher, accompanied Allie to the launch of the exhibition. Her portrait is direct, powerful but luminous. Allie met Olivia on another project, and her portrait was subsequently exhibited at the Getty Gallery in London. Allie wrote elsewhere that it seemed as if "my soul hung on the gallery walls". The seed of Your Own Light was planted and Olivia has since written the text for the book of Allie's work.
“Olivia and I started collaborating about five years ago on another piece of work. We've both begun a journey, and journeys are really interesting because I think when people are in transition in their lives, whether that’s from a gender point of view or transition in another sense then something is changing.”
For Allie, her work belies the conventional dynamic of artist and subject. Instead of outright owner of the work, she sees herself as a co-producer.
“There's a sense that if you sit for me, because all my work is project-based, then you're collaborating. I painted a wall of the house grey [for the backdrop]. I chose the light, which is natural light - north light as it has a particular temperature; and then in terms of what people bring to that space, that's their choice.
"Most people tell me their story, and I try to work out how to interpret it. But there are always two people in the frame. If you're a portrait photographer, there is just the subject. I like to call these people participants [rather than subjects] because I think they participate. I don't think I hold all the power at all because of what happens in that connection between me and that person in that moment. That's what makes the work enriching to me - human connections.
“I'm mostly focused on the pupil [of the eye], but this is about the power dynamic between a photographer and a participant. So when I think about women particularly, we are normally objects of the male gaze, we are sexualised or viewed in a certain way. And I was thinking, what if I could start to create a female gaze? I don't think that's something we've defined yet. So I'm going say it's the ‘female gazes’ instead.
"Women artists, photographers, we need a lot of space to experiment to find what the female gazers might become. But one thing I feel strongly about is that these are not people just to be looked at. They are offering what I think is a confrontational stance. They're looking right back.
"Olivia is my friend but when I look into her eyes [in the portrait]... there's something very, very powerful in saying to a person that you are not there just to be looked at or to be viewed. I don't want you to feel like a subject for now. I want you to feel that you collaborated in this shot and you are looking right back. I think giving people that power is really important. They are projecting out from their eyes what they were thinking or feeling in that moment."
Resilience and strength
Allie has previously described herself as an ally, but acknowledges that, as a cis-gendered woman herself, the process of earning the trust of the trans community was a slow one. Once she started started working with Sparkle, the national transgender charity which organises Manchester’s Transgender Day of Remembrance service, the project started to gain momentum.
"I have a certain degree of privilege. So in all the work I make and all the projects I work upon, I'm giving I'm just trying to use my privilege in a way that is more purposeful for the people.
"Is it political? I don't have a political agenda, but I'm aware that the personal is political. If I make a body of work about a group of people who are trans or non-binary, or in the city centre, people who have experienced domestic violence, I have to make choices.
"So I included men in the domestic violence work, and I included trans people, people in same-sex relationships. Those choices are political, but whether I have a specific political agenda? No."
As well as Your Own Light, Allie's recent work for SICK! Festival garnered much praise. Frequent visitors to St Peter’s Square may remember the plinths that stood in front of Central Library, displaying portraits of people who had experienced domestic or intimate partner violence. That work, I Am, documented not only the vulnerability but the resilience and strength of its participants.
Allie's own experience of childhood abuse informed her work and connection with the participants: "I grew up with domestic violence, sexual abuse, and I know what it is like to suffer and to be silenced. So my intention with work is actually quite peaceful. I have to live a life in a way that I find meaningful because that's how I cope as a survivor.
“I just would never promote violence or hate.”
When Allie is asked if she sees her portraits as challenging, she clarifies: "I think they’re bold. There is a certain boldness in hanging work about gender identity at the moment.
"There's that sense that if I spend my life, helping other people who are survivors in some way, if they desire visibility and I'm giving that community visibility, then I'm happier since I've walked out of my sensible job."
But Allie doesn't just seek out evidence of change in her collaborators. Her own inner healing informs her creative practice and her career and work represent a huge internal transformation of her own. Change doesn't stop of course, and the version of Your Own Light hanging on the Waterside walls is just a snapshot of a much bigger project which is constantly being added to. The series is also shortlisted for the Royal Photographic Society International Award.
"I've spent a lot of years suffering from trauma and that's a doorway into photographing trauma," says Allie. "Often, people have lived a life that's unbearable. That's the story of the domestic abuse work - that life has become unbearable, and dangerous, but that healing happens as well."
Allie Crewe: Your Own Light is on display until 30 July at Waterside Arts, Sale. Entry is free.
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