In Conversation:
Hannah Starkey
and Lauren Elkin

The photographer Hannah Starkey chats to Lauren Elkin, author and honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool

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Across two decades Hannah Starkey has exclusively photographed women and how they navigate their environments – a question more relevant than ever in the context of street safety. In the first major exhibition of her work Starkey is witness to the powerful presence of women in cities, from those she encountered growing up in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s to recent street protests.

Lauren Elkin: We were first in touch in 2017, following a period you’d spent working in Paris. You sent me pictures.

Hannah Starkey: I rarely do that, but I had been making work for a solo exhibition at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, and your book Flâneuse: Women Walk the City had just come out. It was on my mind, as a kind of guide. I always hoped at some point we would have a chance to talk. You described so brilliantly in that book how Paris transfixed you when you first moved there and how you would spend hours walking the city, guided only by what interested you. You said: “Learning to see meant not being able to turn away.” That really chimed with the way I work. And of course, I was interested in the idea that historically the urban observer has been regarded as an exclusively male figure.

LE: Yes, I started that book with the idea that the image of a woman walking alone in the city retains an element of transgression, and I also question how as women we want to be seen, whether we want to attract or escape the gaze.

HS: Your book also reminded me that practising any art form becomes a way of life, it’s how you move through life and experience the world… For me, having two daughters fitted in very well with my work. It gave me a different perspective on what it means to be a young woman – all the things my girls were influenced by at that age, social media, advertising – and the shifts from when I was a teenager.

LE: I can’t imagine having teenage daughters in the era of Instagram and influencers – how hard that must be for them.

HS: Well, it is very difficult because the whole basis of advertising is to present you with a problem in order to then sell you a product, and with social media it’s ferocious. I know with my own girls, and speaking to other parents, that it has a very detrimental effect. There is an epidemic in eating disorders, anxiety, all sorts of things, which I find extraordinary. In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a young woman, these were issues you came across less frequently, but now it seems to be every second parent has a story.

LE: As an image maker yourself, a photographer with a knowledge of the history of photography, do you offer them the antidote?

HS: I do, yes. I’m trying to counteract these messages. I feel that girls are given no understanding of how these images work, and in your teenage years when your brain is changing, and especially if you are insecure, you internalise these messages. You have to give young women a strong education on how these images come about, what they’re designed to do, and that they’re not real. I remember explaining to my 11 year old how advertising images are manipulated. At the end of it she said: “Yes, but she looks good.” The photographic image is so powerful that what you see is what you believe, even though you know it’s constructed. So, it’s trying to minimise the damage of all these messages.

LE: Do you feel like you’re dealing with embodiment at all? I mean, I wonder how you’re thinking about embodiment maybe outside of sexuality.

HS: My photographs are about presenting a female body in an urban environment, often navigating quite masculine architecture, but it’s a body that isn’t performing for the camera, but instead is just in the space and in her interior world. You are very aware as a young woman that you are the observed, and you are expected to perform for the eye. We’re conditioned to the point where we observe ourselves being observed, and we operate out of that language, or those dynamics. My work is a way of speaking to women about how you don’t always need to perform for the gaze, that there is more to being female than being seen. It’s interesting that for a while, subconsciously, I made all my women turn away from the camera, so that the eye wouldn’t see them. Or the images were constructed in a way that maybe the women were behind glass, seen only in reflection, so that your eye had to slow down… It’s a way of taking back control.

I think it’s also important to understand my personal experience in the reading of my pictures. I emerged as a photographer during the late 1990s, quite bruised by the sexism of that time, and I made the decision to exclusively photograph the female subject. It’s always a contentious issue to work with feminist ideals, particularly in photography. It’s threatening somehow, and that’s what I love about it. I see my work as a quiet resistance.

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LE: I’m really interested in the way sociological context shapes the work that we make, because you can’t take the artist out of her context.

HS: My work ultimately derives from my personal history of growing up in Northern Ireland, seeing women doing amazing things, influencing politics, bringing communities together, and witnessing how they were targeted and silenced by their male counterparts. Also, growing up in the 1980s where casual sexism was rife, and you could literally say whatever you wanted about a woman. Even the words ‘woman’ or ‘female’ were considered derogatory. For me, I’ve always thought women can achieve so much just through listening and talking and responding in a very different way.

It sounds idealistic, perhaps, but that was my experience growing up with the mother that I had. I have so much respect for women and the adversity they experience.

A longer version of this interview appears in Hannah Starkey: In Real Life, a book accompanying the exhibition of the same name at the Hepworth Wakefield, until 30 April. Lauren Elkin’s latest book No. 91/92: A Diary of a Year on the Bus is out now (Les Fugitives)  

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