Unstereotypical Artist

Posted: 30th September 2016

Opening up our view of the world

Being labelled is something that may well happen to each of us at some time of our lives. Whether because of our appearance, our mannerisms, our accent, we all risk being identified as a stereotype and identifying others in the same way.  The work of Upper VI artist, Anna Cunningham, challenges our assumptions.  It challenges the way we see the world and confronts the views we may hold automatically of others.

This afternoon Anna Cunningham, Upper VI, received one of the new Priory6 awards. Her achievement was to be published in this week’s edition of The Big Issue, the weekly publication which, as its website states, ‘offers people facing poverty and exclusion the opportunity to earn their own money; a livelihood.  We offer vendors opportunities of a life. We work tirelessly alongside our vendors to help them deal with the issues that either bought them to us in the first instance or issues that have arisen as a result of the experiences they are having.’

The starting point for Anna’s work began with her studies for A Level Art.

She writes, ‘I began this project as a way of investigating assumptions and stereotypes placed upon us by others. I am intrigued by how people perceive themselves and what they think others assume about them, based on their appearance alone. I began the project by photographing Chelsea Pensioners in the Barracks and then moved on to Sloane Square, where I photographed this man selling ‘The Big Issue’.

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I asked my subjects, ‘What do people assume about you, based on your appearance?’ and asked them to write their response on a white board which I then photographed. This Big Issue Seller was more than happy to answer my question and wrote his response. He was keen to tell me that he didn’t take drugs but he was aware that people often assumed that he did and this prevented them from buying his magazine.

I have tried to give a voice to those who are isolated by society and to understand that the assumptions we make of others are inaccurate and without foundation. There is no value in making a snap judgement based purely on appearance. This photograph is a powerful manifestation of the reason why we must not make value judgements based purely on what someone looks like. I have gone on to pose my question to more than fifty people and photograph their response but this remains my favourite image.’

I developed this project by going on to ask people ‘What is surprising about you?’ The purpose of this was to further break down the assumptions made by others and this question helped to counter any preconceptions. The people I asked reacted differently to this question and gave more humorous responses. Their more relaxed facial expressions matched their response to the question. They became more comfortable when they realised that I was genuinely interested in who they were rather than who people thought they were.’

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Anna’s bold artistic enterprise reveals sometimes surprising things about people we may assume we ‘know’. Her work teaches every one of us to be open, to be kind and to be surprised.

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