In 2009, a year before Humans of New York (HONY) exploded and made street photography the hottest thing out, Auckland-based artist Paul Stevens was attempting to photograph strangers on our streets.
“I wasn’t internet-focussed (unlike HONY), I just wanted to capture a whole range of different people, but often they were rude or didn’t want to be photographed. People felt invaded so I had to rethink.”
That rethink led Stevens to cast himself in the role of the stranger and create a series of sixteen self-portraits exploring the fluidity of identity. Much like American artist Cindy Sherman, whose performative self-portraits have been shattering cliches since the 70s, Stevens has the luck of possessing a relatively generic face, the kind that can become someone else quite easily.
“Stranger references that vernacular of people being photographed and saying oh, that’s not really me, that’s not how I see myself, or just hating having their picture taken.”
But for Stevens, the experience is the opposite: his picture is being taken over and over and yet none of the pictures are really of him.
I am struck by the subtle authenticity of the characters Stevens portrays. They are not cliches or caricatures, and their expressions feel real: they are self-conscious, impatient, humble, awkward. You can tell these people are uncomfortable in front of the camera, which is perhaps the intention as Stevens reveals his underlying love/hate relationship with photography.
“I think photography can be exploitative because you’re using someone else’s image for your own purposes. The person being photographed becomes the artwork in a way that simply doesn’t happen in a painting. Photographers present this “reality” to their audience that says this is who this person is, but reality is a lot more complex.”
After perusing the pictures, I ask Paul if any of the strangers are not strangers at all—is the real Paul Stevens hidden in the mix?
His answer is not definitive. I won’t say which image, but there is one that portrays the real Paul, not in his hair or his outfit, but in the truth of his expression.
“I was having a bad day and I shot that one with a tripod so there was no one else around. When I saw it I thought that is way too honest, way too me. It ended up going into the series but it’s okay because no one will know, and really there’s no such thing as a photo of me because me is always changing.”
Stranger will be on display as part of Rainbow Youth’s Pride Art Exhibition at Studio One Toi Tu from the 11th until the 26th of February. The exhibition, curated by artistRY collective, will display work from young, emerging and established queer artists.
Article | Lucinda Bennett.
Photos | Paul Stevens.