Yvonne Shaw, Auxiliary Movement - interview
Auxiliary Movement, 2019
Silo 6, Silo Park, Auckland
30 May – 16 June
Interview by Mary Macpherson
Yvonne Shaw’s journey towards photography could be said to begin with her study towards a BA in Philosophy at Otago University in 1989 – 1991. Having come from a Catholic upbringing in New Plymouth, she found the ideas of Greek philosophy, Descartes, and the philosophy of science liberating. She loved the world of ideas that her teachers opened up, even without immediate job prospects in sight.
Yvonne also qualified as a teacher and went travelling in the 1990’s, relief teaching for two years in Liverpool, as well as travelling to the US and South America. Travel also brought the motivation to photograph with her first camera, a film-based SLR.
In 2004 she acquired a digital DSLR, at first capturing her family and children, and then branching out to pictures of friends. When friends told her that she was “good at this”, she began to move into commercial work such as weddings and family portraits. In 2013 she started study at Unitec, initially motivated by the idea of developing her lighting and other technical skills.
But under the influence of teachers like Allan McDonald, Yvonne Todd, Dorina Jotti and Marie Shannon, new horizons of ideas and art practice opened up, similar to the rush she’d experienced in Dunedin. Rather than returning to commercial work, Yvonne now teaches at Unitec and works on her art practice. Having come later to photography, she’s brought her life experience to her practice and all the energy that goes with that. She’s graduated with a Master of Fine Arts (First Class Honours) from Elam School of Fine Arts, been a finalist in two New Zealand Photobook of the Year Awards and the Glaister Ennor Award and in 2018 was second runner-up at the Wallace Art Awards. This year she won the Auckland Festival of Photography Annual Commission, which gave her $10,000 to set up and photograph an actual psychodrama workshop, thus extending her practice of making psychological portraits.
For the uninitiated what is psychodrama, and what happens in a workshop? How are people helped?
Psychodrama is based on the philosophy and methods of psychiatrist Dr J.L. Moreno (1889 – 1974). It is a method for working with groups and individuals to enable the development of spontaneity and creativity in life and relationship. In a psychodrama session a group of people are guided by a qualified practitioner to enact scenes from their lives or their most meaningful concerns. These open-ended and spontaneous dramas allow participants to take either the role of the protagonist or an auxiliary role. The enactments assist participants to find new ways to perceive their lives and help them to develop creative responses to situations.
Why was it important to photograph participants in an actual workshop, rather than recreating images you’ve seen in workshops using actors?
I had participated in psychodrama sessions during 2018 – 2019 and I was struck by moments in the dramas which at times seemed like artworks, like living sculptures. I wanted to photograph psychodrama in order to preserve some of these moments of spontaneity and human encounter. Constructing or staging such moments would not represent psychodrama.
The theme for the Auckland Festival of Photography was Fissure - was it a stretch for you to address it? How does the theme manifest in the four images?
I think that the theme invited various interpretations. Immediately I was drawn to interpret the theme in terms of psychological fissure, as my practice is engaged with the territory of social dynamics and the unconscious. However the final images demonstrate connection as well as a divide between people. The method of psychodrama provides potential for integrating our conflicted longings.
You’ve titled the work Auxiliary Movement, 2019, and each of the four images has a quite a functional title, like Warm-up or Enactment, but the viewer has no information about what the participant might be portraying. What is the work about? Is it the formal interaction between the people, or the roles that the audience plays in psychodrama? Is there an even an ‘about’?
The work is about the potential for creative movement across relational fissures. It is also informed by role theory, which explains human behaviour as the enactment of a succession of roles. The roles are not acted. It is not a scripted process. Each person’s reality is alive in the enactment. However the context of each photograph remains ambiguous so that the participants’ privacy is protected. What remains is the image of an authentic moment of encounter.
You’ve built up quite a substantial portfolio of staged work, starting with your models photographed in the street using available light, to Auxiliary Movement where you’ve photographed inside Mount Eden’s Crystal Palace theatre, shooting an actual psychodrama workshop. What interests you about staging work, and photographing it, rather than finding your material in the ‘real world’?
I started creating staged photographs while I was studying at Unitec. In my series, The Reality Principle, 2015, I staged subjects (all women I knew) in motel rooms. By removing them from normal social contexts there was an emphasis on the psychological state of the subject. In staging my works I am collaborating with the subject so that they too, have an opportunity to warm up to the encounter. They have time to consider whether they want to be involved. The process of ethical consent and active collaboration is a key part of my practice and it is a considered process. I choose subjects who have some connection to the underlying themes of my work. Their physical appearance and clothing are not particularly important factors. The intention is not to portray what the subject is like but to reference something else, a psychological or philosophical idea. I am interested in photography as investigation rather than documentation, and I employ both fiction and reality in the process of that inquiry.
How difficult was it technically to photograph inside a theatre, instead of in the street where you’ve previously made your work? What did you do to overcome the challenges?
I had extensive training in studio lighting at Unitec therefore I was able to bring that experience to this recent work. However I also commissioned a lighting expert, Duncan Milne who has had many years of working with theatre lighting, to assist with both psychodrama workshops. In the end Duncan and I set up studio lights and some additional theatre lighting. I enjoyed the technical challenges and collaboration and I am grateful to the Auckland Festival of Photography Trust and Creative NZ for providing the financial support for this level of production.
The photographs are of actual people portraying intense experiences and you’ve taken care to include prosaic details of the environment like cords and chairs, and also, the workshop director - why bring reality into the photograph rather than heighten the interactions by removing or fading out the mechanics of how things happen?
By depicting part of the construction of the image the photograph creates a tension between the authentic emotion of the encounter and its set-up. I enjoy this tension in photography and I want to draw attention to my ongoing investigation of photography itself, its limits and its possibilities.
What risks are there in making photographs where essentially you are demonstrating something to the viewer? Do you worry about things looking over-determined?
This was new territory for me and it was in many ways a much more documentary way of working than the projects I had undertaken in the last few years. Setting up an experiential workshop specifically to photograph psychodrama is a deliberate and determined act. But the images themselves have emerged from acts of genuine spontaneity. I had an idea of how the images might evolve but the resulting images are different from my initial imaginings. I do think this was a risky process in many ways but I am very moved by the generosity of my participants to bring these raw and unguarded moments before the camera.
Your earlier work, and Auxiliary Movement involves people interacting with each other, or quite often looking past each other. What interests you about staging scenarios with groups or couples, rather than portraying solitary people? Does this say something about how our identities are constructed?
Some of my early work involves solitary figures but this was almost a type of thought experiment, like Descartes makes in his Meditations, where he imagines a type of identity that has no world around it, and only consciousness remains. But an individual can never be fully separated from their social context. In my thesis for my Master of Fine Arts I explored photography and the unconscious, and my research focused on the theories of Julia Kristeva who writes about the earliest encounters we have with others as babies before we have acquired language. My series, The Residual attempted to depict how our unconscious memories are present in our interactions with others. Auxiliary Movement is not so concerned with ideas of the unconscious but it does extend ideas of encounter and relation.
The photographs in Auxiliary Movement seem to hover between being film or theatre stills and being artworks - are you aiming for an in-between space? And what genres of photography are you drawing on to make these works?
I am influenced by photographers such as Hannah Starkey and Jeff Wall who create staged photographs. However whereas they often stage carefully constructed scenes that closely emulate reality, in Auxiliary Movement I am photographing re-lived moments that resemble theatrical scenes. These real therapeutic moments of psychodrama invest the image with significance. But I think the ambiguity of the images also holds the viewer’s attention.
When I think of your work generally, I’m conscious of a sense of stillness and images that go for broke in portraying dramatic intensity - like watching a film where narrative is powered by the psychological life of characters, for example John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands vehicles, or movies by Douglas Sirk or Vincent Ward. Are movies references for your work, or are there other sources?
In my research I look at films as well as contemporary photographs. In 2016 when I developed my series The Solitary Now I focused on L’Eclisse, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The movie has an unusual ending for its time: a series of sequences, lasting around eight minutes, which revisit earlier locations within the movie without the main protagonists. There is a sense of dislocation in the ending of L’Eclisse. A lack of resolution. This uncertainty, the frustration of a neat and predictable ending, is Antonioni’s point. In his article L’Eclisse: Antonioni and Vitti. (2014) Gilberto Perez writes of Antonioni’s films:
“even if nothing much is happening, those empty spaces, those intervals of an uncertain modernity, are fraught with intimations of something that happened or is about to happen, narrative paths that may be taken”.
Keeping an open narrative is something that I am seeking to portray in my photographs too.
Why are you personally attracted to making work that portrays people’s intense inner life and their tensions?
Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in a big family and being born as a twin. The immediate social system I was born into was large and complex. The doubling of myself as a twin seemed natural to me for many years. It wasn’t until many years later that I would examine aspects of psychological development and understand more fully how this doubling affected my life. Doubling and mirroring are aspects of photography. They are also key aspects of psychodrama. In a way I am constantly examining my own social system even as I turn my lens to others.
You’ve also said you hope to make a book using the images from the two day shoot in the Crystal Palace theatre. How will the book be different to the work in the Commission?
I see photobooks as perhaps the most perfect form for a series of photographs. In a photobook a series is held together and the sequencing of images within a book leads the viewer to make conscious and unconscious connections between those images paired or situated together. Also, books are intimate artworks. They are accessible by touch. They are not removed from the viewer by space or walled off by glass. There are many more photographs from the psychodrama workshop which show more of the theatre and which also reveal more of the process of a psychodrama session. This work feels like the beginning of a long-term project.
Auxiliary Movement was created in relationship with the Auckland Training Centre for Psychodrama.
Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer, poet, Reviews Editor of the PhotoForum website and a founding member of the Photobook New Zealand committee.