Sasha Shuttleworth on Photography, Anonymity and The Difficulties Facing Young Artists Today
Sasha is an immensely talented multimedia artist from Brighton. Over the last few years she has been involved in countless creative projects. Author of the brilliant essay ‘Dislexia abd me‘, host of radio shows in Leeds and Brighton and creator of beautiful and poignant documentary photography, Sasha is a woman of many talents. Throughout our conversation, she had an air around her of a true ‘artist’. She creates for herself, for her subjects and no-one else, the praise her work receives is just an added bonus. Articulate, interesting and funny, Sasha had a knack of veering away from my questions but saying something wholly more intriguing. In this (long but utterly worth your time) interview, I question her on the influence of Instagram, the pressures gripping young artists and why Brighton is such an inspiration to her work and life. Make a cup of tea, take ten minutes out of your day and sit down to read the opinions of a powerful mind speaking some real truth of what it means to be a young artist.
Where does your creative inspiration come from?
I’m a total magpie. I pick things up as I am going. On the floor, in any place wherever I am, physically and virtually. If i’m watching a film I print screen stills because i’m very interested in how films are blocked often more so than the actual films themselves. I have a massive folder on my computer where I keep images, bits of poems, bits of articles I have read. Whenever i’m not doing anything I look through them as I often forget what’s in there. There’s thousands of photographs and about 800 images. I can’t deal with free time. I can have about three days off and then I start going mad.
This is actually The Year of Pink project came about. It came from my collection of poems and images. I think because I am dyslexic, my brain connects things differently. My interconnected reasoning is very different. I attach a colour to a thought and that’s how that whole series came around. It was me thinking of how I see the world. I think the reason why it went so well was because I was able to articulate that properly.
What are the key themes within your work? Is there a running theme or is each project individual to itself?
I find the world very funny and i’m very interested in people. I look for intimacy and kindness a lot and I think you can see that in my pictures. Kinship in general is a big theme. I’m very interested in British-ness and how people express themselves and their surroundings, which is why I have never really warmed to working within fashion. It just doesn’t hold interest to me, I find documentary photography so much more interesting.
I like talking to people and I like having conversations, it’s very important to my work that it’s not just me taking something. When I work with subjects it’s about me creating an experience for them as models. Which is why I never really work with a team. I will work with assistants on occasion but I often ask people to wander off and have a cup of tea or take a break because the relationships between me and subjects is very important to me.
How did you begin? Where did your artistic flare come from?
There’s no way of saying this without sounding like a bit of a wanker but I guess it inherently is…it’s just how I process the world. I can’t move on from anything in my life without creating work about it. It is just how I have always been. I see it as having all this stuff in my head and in my heart and in my chest and it’s all running round and then I draw it out and create something and then it’s gone. I think creating keeps me healthy. I just couldn’t, kind of, be without this outlet.
I have always done art and I still do a lot of collage work which is why I still work as a mixed medium artist because I like doing things with my hands. I started taking photographs when I was 16. My art teacher who really didn’t like me told me that I should do photography. I didn’t want to but then I picked up a camera and I was like “oh my god this is it.” It wasn’t easy I was really bad when I started. Photography’s not easy. Cameras are difficult to use and everyone has this idea that they can pretend that they inherently know how to use one but it’s a machine. No-one naturally knows how to use a machine.
What’s the most challenging thing about your work and art form?
Financially it’s really difficult. I’ve got two jobs and a full-time degree, I do it all by myself. I find it very challenging to believe that i’m good enough. It’s hard to ask to be paid and respected for your work. The practicalities of shooting on different cameras and shooting in different scenarios. Photography throws issues at you all the time. You need to do two things to understand it really well. One is that you have to understand light, which is not easy, in fact it’s near impossible.
Two, you also have to understand art history. I found it remarkable as I have been studying that my peers have never looked at art history books. If you don’t look then you’re going to do what someone else has already done and think it’s your own idea.
It’s also hard to convey how much work goes into every project I do. There’s so much money and time and effort goes into all of it. On the other hand of that, of course i’d love to be paid for all of it but all I have ever wanted is to be happy and to be an artist and I am one so you know, I just keep that in mind.
I’m doing what I want to do and I think it’s very easy in the arts to constantly strive to reach your goal as quick as you can. I’m very ambitious but at the same time I’m doing what I want to do and I think you always have to hold that in your head.
It’s so fine to not be that good. It’s so hard to constantly put yourself out there. I’ve taught myself how to do most things. I taught myself how to network, I taught myself how to create graphics, I taught myself how to work a website, how to price things, how to talk to businesses, how to source equipment, how to source locations and somehow get to them. All of that is self taught. It is alright if I am not that good at it now because it’s just practice and in time it, and I, will be okay. A challenge is learning how to be easier on yourself.
What is the most important part of your creative process?
It’s an amalgamation. The ethics are very important to me. In the more recent project I have been doing I have been asking people very intimate questions and it’s very important to me that a) they don’t have to answer a question if they don’t want and b) they can ask me whatever they want. I believe in making people uncomfortable because that’s helpful as a photographer but I don’t believe in taking more than I am giving. I don’t think you can see arts as the same way as other businesses, particularly working within documentary photography as it’s quite often going into people’s lives and spaces. You have to always be aware that what you’re doing will be on record forever and you have the responsibility of showing who that person is.
I go completely insular when i’m working on projects. I don’t leave my room for three days and sort of just wander round the house and mumble like a mad woman because I just get so intensely involved in it. When it’s out there, it’s important to me to get feedback, and i’m very lucky in that I have always received positive feedback, but to me it’s not that important.
Do you feel it’s a reflection of yourself and what you feel at that time? Or is it something that you’ve dealt with and then process creatively?
I think the way I treat people is a reflection of experiences that I have had. I think you can see that in my work. You can see the ethics I have within it but i’m very careful about how much of myself I put in. I’m a very private person. I work as a writer, as a poet as well and it always comes from a place of truth. It also comes into photography, if you’re lying in your photographs people can see it. If you’re asking people to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable, and not in a positive way, people can tell straight away. You have to be truthful within your work or no-one will care.
Anonymity is very important to me. I do radio, photography and writing and none of that involves my face. I think the best photographers are those who no-one knows what they look like. It’s something I worry about with this generation. You know we link our social media, which is our lives, to our art and it can work for some people but I do worry that people are merited on their art by their own beauty rather than talent.
I’ve been asked to talk a lot about body positivity and looking a bit different. It is something i’m very interested in talking about in a political and social way but I don’t feel at this point in my life and career that I want to talk about myself in that manor. It’s not relevant to my work. I do feel as though I would have a larger following if I did that.
Would you feel as though that were genuine?
I would feel very vulnerable and I am not willing to do it (laughs) It’s not that anyone’s forcing me but I do feel as though there’s a certain pressure to talk about yourself and your insecurities online. It is odd because for some people it’s a very cathartic and brilliant thing. I’m happy that people do it but for some who’s very private I just want to show people my art. Not that much of my work is about my identity which I think is quite unusual for this generation of artists.
Definitely. I think it’s quite easy to have a ‘millenial mentality’. To look at yourself and not what’s around you in the moment. I have friends that are incredibly talented artists who just do not look beyond themselves and their own emotions and their work ends up being monotonous.
yeah I agree. I think it’s so insular and you have to be very careful about how much you give because you might not leave enough for yourself.
Over your career so far, how do you feel as though Brighton has inspired you? What themes come out through your work that Brighton has inspired you to do?
Massively. I think it’s a very funny place. It’s wild, I think you grow up very streetwise. I definitely did when we were out being naughty as teenagers (laughs) I think you grow up with an understanding of difference. It’s an unashamed place and it’s not bashful. I have friends who were sixteen and had multi-coloured hair doing, you know, not that great poetry but it was fine and fun and they didn’t get bullied for that. They got praised. There’s a space to experiment and wear whatever you want. Be whoever you want.
I don’t want to paint it as an idyllic place because it’s got its problems. You know it’s incredibly white, it’s incredibly middle class and there are so many people getting pushed out by housing prices. I couldn’t afford to live here now but i’m very lucky that my parents do. I think I had a very exciting youth and I look back to those days almost daily.
Yeah I fully agree with you. I moved here when I was 16 and the town I grew up in was a place where everyone knew each other. It was very Conservative and posh and there was no encouragement to express yourself but in the five years I have been here, I feel as though I have grown up. Particularly within the hardcore punk scene, I have come to realise it’s not a matter of acceptance it’s just freedom. You can do what you want here and that’s okay.
Yeah completely. I think it’s just so wild. There’s a space to just do what you want and I think my youth had a lot of wild times. So much of it was mundane and boring but going to university and meeting other people, I realise I have so many experiences from Brighton that have informed the way I interact with people. I feel like everyone does in their youth but I feel like Brighton has a specific wildness that is unique to here that is very good when you’re young.
I am a very, very independent person. I have done all of this off my own back since I was 16. I set up my website and all the rest and I feel incredibly lucky that I could do that. I am also so lucky to have an incredibly supportive family and I don’t take that for granted at all. They’ve always championed me, even with my shit work (laughs) they act as though it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen. I am only now beginning to comprehend how helpful that has been because you know that people back you and aren’t going to shout you down. Creative stuff is really scary.
The one thing that’s important to say about Brighton is that it’s very high quality work here. You have to be good. You have work really hard. I think compared to other places there’s such a high standard here and I think that’s kept my standards for myself very high.
Lastly, what projects do you have lined up at the moment?
I have a new project in the works called ‘The Way They Speak To Me‘. I am working with couples and pairings. I have got mothers and daughters, couples and I’ve got a lot of best friends which is lovely. It’s a multimedia project, I send them a list of five questions which they hand write out answers to. We then meet in a place that’s important to their friendship or relationship and swap answers. I record them talking about it and shoot a set of photos. I am very interested in love at the moment which I haven’t particularly been before. I am very interested in the different formations of it and as I said before, kindness and kinship have always been very big themes in my work. I like working with a lot of people.
Photography is a good way of meeting people for sure!
I’ve met some pretty wild people. I went to a christian book signing for a shoot and I had to buy a book all about this church because I felt bad. (laughs) They were so lovely to me, I was just like oh I’ve got to buy the f***ing book (laughs) I went to west Wales to do this amazing shoot for this artist last year. It was one of the first paid jobs I ever did and it was with a sculptor. I worked with her sister and her sister’s friend who both had quite severe learning disabilities and we had such a lovely day together out in the countryside. They showed me where they lived and I got some really beautiful photos.
That’s where the ethics of my work comes back in because in documentary photography, you often work with people who are quite vulnerable in some way or another and I think agreeing to be photographed is either saying you’re slightly vulnerable or you’re willing to be.