10 Nov Tattoo portraits by Niamh Walsh-Vorster: A conversation on identity and cultural belonging
The culmination of a fourth year portfolio project and a conversation with her father lead Cape Town based photographer Niamh Walsh-Vorster to what she describes as “an extended self-portrait series”. The exploratory images show people with tattoos – including Niamh herself – in the personal space of their own bedrooms. In the Q&A to follow she spoke to us about how the series came about, her journey with photography so far, and how the lens can be used for advocacy, resistance and insight.
Before we talk about your tattoo portrait series, could you tell us a little bit about your journey as a photographer and the various influences that guide the kind of work you produce?
I majored in Photojournalism at the university currently known as Rhodes. I initially went there to study English and Psychology with Journalism as a fall back, but I began to enjoy it because we worked with people more often for stories. I had taken photographs for fun since high school, and I still find it a great tool.
Portrait and documentary photographs interest me the most. Long form photo stories that deal with identity and history are timeless and important, so that is what I gravitate towards.
Apart from photography you did anthropology as your second subject, how does this integrate into your work?
Anthropology was a really interesting subject that helped shaped my way of understanding (and accepting that not all needs to be understood!) the world around me. Through the readings that often try to unpack ‘The Other’, we had to learn how to reflect on ourselves in relation to people and their cultures as well as our own. It influenced how I approach the photo stories I do, as I want to present individuals in ways that are ethical, humanising and inclusive.
Could you tell us how your series of tattoo portraits came about and what you hoped to achieve through it from the start?
The photo story was for my 4th year final portfolio. It began as a conversation with my dad and became an extended self-portrait series in relation to people who also have tattoos. I included myself in the series as a way of trying to position myself as an equal with the other people in the photos, as an attempt to break power dynamics of the ‘invisible photographer/voyeuristic being’.
A lot of the conversation with my dad about tattoos linked to appropriation, identity, cultural belonging and artistic expression. It was an uncomfortable discussion as he has a very different view to what I do. The photographic portraits provide another perspective: a third voice. One quote which I used in the research of tattoos to try broaden the conversation, and one I liked, said: “Tattoos are culturally rich forms of self-expression and fulfilment, and hold power for their owners, both internally and externally.” (Garcia-Merritt, 2014: 1).
Identities are formed through this self-expression and the motivations and reasoning for why people get tattoos is different for each individual. I wanted to try and delve a bit deeper into the meanings and stories behind people’s chaps. This led me to discover that each one connects with greater social meanings and cultures.
Aesthetically, how did you approach the project?
I photographed people at home, in their bedrooms and in positions I thought were not exploitative or objectifying. I thought the subjects’ personal space that they created gave greater insight to how individuals present their room for themselves and others, as well as contextualised socio-economic spaces of each person – to a degree. The composition of these portraits have deliberately been set up as bedroom, sitting portraits to create a formality and theme, but also symbolic of the personal, intimate space of comfort.
How do you think this series contributes to conversations around body image, heritage and identity?
I feel that the narratives provided by people in the series are powerful, honest stories of real people who have endured pain, love, loss, enlightenment – all human experiences. Getting a tattoo for some people was significant in empowering themselves and recognizing their worth. One portrait in particular tells of a battle with anorexia and learning to accept oneself. None of the images are airbrushed and so they present people in their honest form. There are tones of body positivity.
In connection to heritage and identity, tattoos (in this series specifically) have been used to affirm and remind individuals who they are/who they used to be. However, in the written up conversation with my dad, the one issue that came up about tattoos was the point that there are people who bastardise and appropriate tattoos from other cultures for their own aesthetic.
To quote what my dad says, “there’s a culture in Mozambique called the Makonde of the Cabondelgary province where they have tattoos on their face, but for them it’s a structural needing, of cultural needing and corporate needing. Sometimes the markings will identify exactly where they come from. And it’s a spiritual expression of their culture and so on, and then you get people who get random tattoos of dragons and of these Chinese symbols.”
The series does not seem to reflect anything like this, so it becomes a bit of a rhetorical judgement, but a good observation nonetheless.
You recently captured events happening in Cape Town around the #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing movements. What are your thoughts on photography as a tool for advocacy and resistance?
The week I was able to be on the ground was a fantastic reflection on the power of visual mediums and photography. We know this from the struggle photography days during apartheid. In that week the images that were made by the likes of Imraan Christian and other photographers provided an important insight. It helped mobilise, inform and present representations that mainstream media were limited to telling.
Even in Grahamstown where xenophobic violence has recently shaken the town, portraits of women accompanied with in depth personal narratives allow for this wave of photographic representation that humanises and tells stories in immediate, intimate and ethical ways.
What else are you currently working on?
I am working on the 6th edition of Ja. Magazine with my co-creator, David Mann. And I will be touring with Bianca Woods and her band around SA later this month.
View the full captions for these images on Niamh’s Instagram.