Disrupted Identity

Disrupted Identity

When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris in 1911, the robbery led to an unexpected influx of visitors who flocked there to see the empty space. Its absence unleashed human curiosity. Edgar Martins is an International Sony World Photography Award Winner known for his documentary work on conflict, war and testimony. His shortlisted work I’m Still Here was shortlisted for the Aesthetica Art Prize 2024. It is the result of research projects developed with organisations such as prisons, legal medicine institutes and human rights groups based in conflict zones. The geometric shapes are inspired by triangular suicide notes written on post-its and researched at the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences. Martins appropriated his background images from high drama films from bygone eras, and vintage news photographs depicting events of major historical significance. In this interview, Martins talks to us about his experience with the project and his relationship with photography.

A: Firstly, what is your inspiration behind I’m Still Here?

The project is inspired by the book Stealing the Mona Lisa (2002) by UK psychoanalyst Darian Leader. It uses Leader’s perspective on withholding secrets as a framework for observation. I believe this is especially relevant today, when we live in a culture that is all about excess and optimisation.

A: Could you talk a little bit more about the organisations that you worked with for the piece?

This series results from research and projects developed over the past 8 years with groups such as prisons, legal medicine institutes and human rights organisations based in conflict zones. It is a kind of by-product from these collaborations.

A: What drove you to use the colourful geometric shapes that feature in each photograph?

The geometric shapes hovering over the images are directly inspired by obscure suicide notes written on post-its researched at the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences. Some shapes are actually post-its. Or odd, triangular ‘caption boxes’ used by historical newspapers in the late 1800s to describe the contents of the photographs they were overlayed on top of. I was familiar with round ‘caption boxes’ but then came across the triangular shape. It seems they adopted this shape to create the illusion of showing as much of the image below as possible without actually doing so – similarly to logic of the impact of triangular architecture on an urban skyline.  Here, the coloured geometric shapes are used to obfuscate rather than reveal and describe. The artwork titles are borrowed from the diaries of Scottish inmates or the letters of their partners. These individuals often used prison or regional slang to express themselves, aiming to conceal the true meaning of their words from prison guards. I was able to ask many of the inmates I worked with at HMP Birmingham to keep a journal during the 3 year-long project and to provide me access to some of their correspondence with their families. I was really struck by the language many of them adopted to deceive and misdirect the prison authorities.

A: Why did you opt for vintage films and photographs?

The background images in these artworks are appropriated from high profile films from a bygone era that depict moments of high drama  immediately prior to a major plot disclosure or revelation or vintage news photographs that depict events of major historical significance. I have been working with archive imagery for the best past of 12 years so I had access to a great deal of imagery and material from myriad sources that I had been wanting to use for sometime. Many of these events or films are known to us. They form part of our collective consciousness. We may or may not be able to identify them but we certainly cannot deny them. And whether we recognise them or not, because of the stories and mental associations they conjure, because of their familiar aesthetics or iconography, they provide a ready-made narrative that I can disrupt. 

A: How does photography affect the way we see the world?

Photography, is like a Trojan horse. We accept as a free gift but when we do it colonises us. This is both good and bad. Good because it’s became the primary means through which we make sense of the world.
Bad because it is now so ubiquitous that I don’t think we know any longer what a photograph does. We always ask too much of it and when we do we ask of it the whole truth which can never be exact, or we ask too little of it and therefore relegate it to the sphere of the document which is also not right.

Increasingly we live in a culture where photograpohy has become inextricably aligned to technocapitalist doctrines. It is all about constant upgrading & optimisation – the latest app, camera, lens, camera, the latest operating system, often to the detriment of the creative process and our relationship with images. In the same way as when people are overwhelmed by choice, we choose nothing in the end. In my particular case I have become less interested in photography’s technical potential, but what I see as its failings, its shortcomings. And much of my creative language has been structured around this idea. We must continually challenge our viewers’ convictions and expectations of what we expect from images.

A: What role does juxtaposition play in your work?

Photography, for me, is a medium built around conceptual tensions so it offers me a means to bring together irresolvable contradictions, questioning but also challenging the viewers’ convictions and expectations. My end goal has always been to develop representational techniques and pedagogic tools to interrogate the subjects I am working on and enable innovative approaches to respond to them. These intentions collide, overlap and blur in my work, exposing the fragility of our perceptual / cognitive systems. 

A: What does being being part of the Aesthetica Art Prize mean to you? 

The Aesthetica Art Prize has established itself as an important marker in the UK art scene. It has an excellence reach both in terms of the public and industry insiders. So it’s an excellent platform for artists to reach a broader audience. Despite it’s national reach, for me it is also important that this is not a London-centred prize, as so many are. I have always made a conscious decision to adopt a diverse approach in terms of the dissemination of my work and I believe the Art Prize is totally aligned with this framework.

Martins is part of the Aesthetica Art Prize 2024 Exhibition at York Art Gallery from 16 February – 21 April. Plus, meet over 250 longlisted international artists in our new online gallery.

Want to get involved? The next edition of the Prize is open for entries. Submit your work by 31 August. Win £10,000, exhibition and publication. Find out more here.

All images courtesy of Edgar Martins.