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Artists in Shirts in Studios: Trevor Appleson

By Nathan Sharp

Jul 13, 2022

Artists in Shirts in Studios: Trevor Appleson


Continuing our series of interviews, we visited the South London home of South African photographer Trevor Appleson, to talk about portraiture, story telling, and art as therapy.

Photography by Kevin Davies.


Nathan Sharp, Drake's: You’ve shot in a lot of wildly different places. How does the nature of the work change when you’re in Birmingham, for example, as opposed to Mexico? 


Trevor Appleson: These days I’m as excited to make work here in Gypsy Hill as in Mexico. When I was younger, I was really excited to get on a plane, fly off and go do something. Whereas now that I’m a family man and an old git, I mostly prefer not to have to do that, to be honest. I’m happier at home, really.


NS: Do you think it has something to do with maturing as an artist, the fact that you can create work wherever you are? 


TA: Absolutely. I’m 50 years old now, and would honestly say I’m only just getting to a place where I’m starting to find my voice. I think that goes for a lot of artists. It’s still difficult, but think I it's easier in some ways than it was ten years ago. I had more energy then, maybe more instinct sometimes, but I didn’t have as much of an idea of what I really wanted to say. Not that I have a true vision now or anything like that, but I think it just takes time to learn your trade. I don’t think surgeons start off operating on the heart or the brain when they graduate. I think you need time to build something meaningful with art.


NS: Shall we talk about the ‘portable studio’? That’s an interesting way of working because it’s like street photography, but you’ve removed the street. 


TA: Yeah, exactly. It started off with [Free Ground], where I first set up a portable studio on beaches in and around Cape Town in South Africa. I erected a simple black backdrop, usually at dawn or dusk, and photographed passers-by, or whoever happened to be at the chosen location of the day. So it was this strange dichotomy between documentary and studio photography. But I took the studio to the people, so to speak. Which was really exciting. 


NS: Does that make it easier to convince people to stop and have their photo taken, if they see something already set up?


TA: It depends where. In South Africa I had a lot of people that wanted to be photographed, but in some countries, like Mexico, people were more distant – you had this strange artist in the middle of nowhere, with a studio, in their village, and they thought, ‘Who the hell is this?’ So, it took some convincing. It also depends whether you’re photographing vagrants, street kids, or posh people, basically. For a person who’s living on the street, and suddenly there's some guy erecting a studio in 'their' space, it’s a complete novelty, and maybe an opportunity for them to be part of something unexpected, and of course,  to be represented in a completely different way to their norm. The majority of the South African work was focused on itinerant workers, street kids, drug addicts, alcoholics, just people kind of hanging out. People that I found in public, informal spaces, really.


NS: Is there something specific that you hope to reveal, in your subjects, when you photograph them?


TA: Well, I suppose with the portable studio type work, the only direction I’m giving my subjects is where to stand. I’m trying to create an environment where they might reveal something natural and honest in themselves. That they might self-represent. It’s a space, a kind of glamorous passport studio, a stage. I’ve created the environment and the frame, but the rest is up to them. I know that's a bit idealistic, because obviously a person could argue I've still manipulated the situation, [because it’s in a] controlled environment. But I think if you look at, especially, the South African work, there is a kind of democratisation. So, the idea is to represent a cross section of society from a consistent point of view. 
With Portable Studio, [Appleson’s 2015 project on youth culture in Birmingham] the portraits were used as an index to present a slice of a vast ad-hoc informal archive I collected from a selection of the participants. These could be anything from a selfie at work, to a pair of prom shoes, to a family photo.  People also shared diaries, social media conversations, and even their Google search histories. I would argue these are portraits as well. 'Expanded portraits.'


NS: So, what interests you now?


TA: At the moment I'm developing an interprofessional project with Goldsmiths University – so again I will be collaborating with my subjects. We are developing a research project – initially with a group of care leavers – that aims to look at whether art has a place in established social work practise. 


NS: Do you think art can make actual change?


TA: When I made [Portable Studio] I was nervous at first. As a white, middle-class male, who was I to comment on youth culture? What was really surprising was that at the end of a four-year process, when we launched the publication, all the key participants were present. I’d edited their materials into 'a type of story,' and they were pleased. But I think mostly pleased to be part of a collaboration. No one challenged me and said, ‘You did something wrong.’ And I thought that was quite powerful, and telling. It’s about giving people a voice who are usually - in Birmingham, young people, and now with service users - dictated to. If people are involved in narrating their own stories, suddenly they have an opportunity to move forward and own the process in profound ways.


NS: It must feel like a big responsibility.


TA: Yes, it is. I find this process incredibly powerful, because it’s personal. Initially I had some moral questions, but over time I came to realise that it’s fine if the subject chooses what they share. And that it can be hugely beneficial for people to share personal narratives, and that it is an intrinsic part of the process. And just because a person is 15, it doesn’t mean they don’t know who they are or what they want! 

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