The Metropolitan Wanderer
The cinematic mise-en-scène of everyday urban life is central to this retrospective of Northern Irish photographer Hannah Starkey (b. 1971). With an introduction by curator and writer Charlotte Cotton, this new and intriguing publication from MACK Books features important images of women spanning 20 years, from early staged photographs in Belfast to documentation of the 2017 march in London.
Taken from the perspective of the flâneuse, Starkey’s pictures recall Susan Sontag’s definition of the photographer as a “voyeuristic stroller,” who is an “armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitring, stalking, cruising the urban inferno.” Here, the female perspective is shown through the quotidian, drinking coffee in a café or sitting in a waiting room.
Often depicted in solitary settings, Starkey’s subjects are placed against both modernist and minimalist facades, where courtyards, studios and hotel lobbies become makeshift mirrors and manmade barriers, perhaps indicative of the troubles faced by women in the city on a daily basis. “I’m interested in the psychological truth more than the photographic truth,” says Starkey. “My pictures are built on emotion. Every element is designed to drive the emotional IQ of an idea and trigger empathy in the viewer.”
Composition is used to further the internal narratives of each character, with figures placed in segregated contexts, boxed off by furniture or captured as a mirror reflection, therefore enhancing a feeling of emotional disconnect. “I was thinking about how when women were photographed on their own, in solitude, they were seen as lonely, rather than just being on their own,” she explains. In doing so, the image functions as a view into the female lived experience, an insight that is too often ignored by mainstream media. “My pictures come out of a sort of defiance against the kind of image that’s too easy to read about a woman, that either overtly empowers her, or exploits her.”
This can be felt in Starkey’s intimate yet deeply professional and empathic approach to her subjects: the images are narrative-driven and present female characters, not as individuals, but as part of an overarching, broader story. Take, for instance, her 2009 street reportage across various European cities. In this collection, the subjects’ eyes are masked in dark sunglasses, becoming, as Cotton puts, “readymade shields that block the surveying gaze.”
The female gaze presented in the book therefore acts as a buffer between the reality of feminine lived experience and the expectations imposed on women by society. “I photograph women because I want to see different types of images out there rather than the same thing. I’m interested in how they are represented in the world because I worry that if there’s a very narrow idea of what we are, in doing so we might not be able to reach our full potential,” she says.
By Gunseli Yalcinkaya
Untitled, April 2006. Courtesy of Hannah Satrkey and MACK Books.