Sarah Davidmann

Sarah Davidmann originally started out as an artist with a preference for sculpture however she transitioned to photography in 1999 after meeting Millie Mot, a transgender drag queen. She then started on a PHD exploring the value of photography and representation for the transgender community through a series of collaborative portraits. Sensitivity was the key in this research project as many of her transgender subjects had not disclosed this information to their families therefore Davidmann had to be respectful with their identity and maintain confidentiality where needed. As with Wasma Mansour the collaborative element was extremely important in the act of producing the image; she allowed the participants to on the detail to make sure that the representation was accurate to their own idea of identity. However this collaboration also allowed an element of control over how and where the end images were actually used; something that is not usually considered by photographers. Anthony Luvera engaged with this idea of carefully considering the output for his body of work depicting the homeless community, reserving his body of work despite many offers. Eventually a curator approached him with the idea of displaying them on the London Underground and Luvera felt that this was an appropriate location for those in the images and the audience he waned to interact with. This responsibility when handling a narrative belonging to another individual must extend throughout the whole process of image-making and distribution if we to avoid the experience Dalia Khamissy witnessed when a group of photographers snapped photographs of witnesses as if there were on a safari.

The key concept Davidmann identified was that photography can be the transition from telling your own story to telling the story of someone else. In telling that story the photographer must be mindful of the subject and always ensure that they are treated as human beings and feel safe. Permission and control is always essential in collaborative photography and a knowledge that as a photographer you may not always get the images you want. In this aspect, respect for the subject can conflict with the visual outcome the photographer wants to produce. In fashion and conceptual photography the model is simply the tool to achieving a certain visual outcome and quite often doesn’t have control over their role in the photograph. However commercial photography is not about the representation of the subject, it is about creating a concept that will persuade the viewer to engage and desire the product.

Empowering the subject however was the essential part of Sarah Davidmann’s work and her research project was searching into the meaning and value of photographic representation for the subject. There were many different methods in which Davidmann experimented to attempt to make the subject feel comfortable in front of the camera for example she used medium format cameras as she felt this was a less confrontational approach. Mirrors also help to allow the subject to see how they are going to be photographed which allowed them to control and construct the visual outcome. Engaging with the transgender community was an attempt to start producing truthful visual outcomes and in some cases trans people have been projected by the media as tragic deviants. In order to reference this Davidmann photographed her subjects from different angles, suggesting the mainstream ideology towards the trans community  is mistaken viewpoint and it is possible to see the transgender community with a different perspective.

In producing the body of work Davidmann identified the imbalance between the photographer and the subject; in taking an image the photographer assumes to powerful role whereas the subject would appear vulnerable and exposed. Davidmann responded to this issue of power by undertaking a photographic experiment in which she played with the dynamics appearing both in front the of the camera and assuming the role of photographer. As there was an element of nudity in her photography, Davidmann also incorporated this sense of vulnerability in this experiment, choosing to both photograph and appear whilst nude to fully experience what the subject could be made to feel. One perceptive subject when confronted with the idea of the power dynamic responded with the phrase, ‘I’m looking at you as much as you are looking at me’; reaffirming the idea that photography is very much a two way process.

As suggested before Davidmann worked extremely hard to consider the photographic process including the outcome. The size and scale of her finished prints were instrumental in getting the viewer to engage with the visual content; some images were large prints and forced the viewer to step back whereas some of them were small to draw them in. This active viewing method reflects the experimental nature of the photographic project; perhaps approaching each body of work as a research project would force the photographer to take an objective view and as a result be able to identify the most effective process and outcome.

This project also introduced her to the fact that one her own family members was transgender but had been forced to hide it; the photograph in the family albums reflected this hidden secret as in all of them he appeared to be this heterosexual male. Davidmann addressed this concealed identity and built a body of work around these photographs that appeared to fabricate the identity of the individual. It would have been easy to ignore the issue and continue the concealment of the secret however Davidmann felt it would be dishonest having seen what it meant for the transgender community to represent themselves truthfully. However it does reflect that also fabrication is mostly associated with the use of digital editing software, it can also be constructed through the narrative. As David Campbell noted, there need to be inclusions and exclusions made in order to form a narrative and in this case the exclusions were the truthful identity.

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