The technological age continues to facilitate advancements in the capturing, processing and exhibiting of images, with online platforms and photographic filters manipulating the way we encounter aesthetic identity. Shauna Frischkorn contemplates how the conventions of Renaissance portraiture and photography act as a conceptual tool to evaluate the world around us.
A: In 2013, “selfie” was named the word of the year by Oxford English Dictionary. How would you define portraiture today and how has technology affected its evolution?
SF: Just as portraiture evolves, so too does its definition. Traditionally, the belief has been that a portrait could tell us a great deal about a subject: a window into a person’s inner character could be found through facial expressions. But not so with the now ubiquitous selfie, which has singlehandedly redefined portraiture as we know it. The selfie doesn’t really adhere to that definition. Even though my approach to portraiture is rooted in the traditional, I try to layer my portraits with meaning that go beyond the outward appearance.
A: The role of portraiture has evolved overtime, initially captured in paintings. Why did you choose to adopt the conventions of Renaissance portraiture in McWorkers?
SF: As I write in my artist statement: “I purposefully create an ironic yet historical dialogue between my subjects and Renaissance portraiture. Historically, the portrait’s role was to immortalise the wealthy. Conversely, my subjects are unable to make a living wage.” Through this irony, I am able to draw attention to the stark contrast between the privileged and the less privileged. The lighting style is also classic and flattering to my subjects, helping them to look dignified even when they are wearing their fast food uniforms.
A: How does the McWorkers series comment upon global behemoths like fast food chains and their effect on the world around us?
SF: The national debate in the US around raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour was the inspiration for the overall project and my hope was to bring more awareness to this issue through my portraits. The workers in my portraits cannot make a living wage, even when working full time, conversely the CEO’s for these fast-food chains make billions of dollars each year. I began concentrating on fast food workers, because they are so relatable – everyone has contact with them.
A: What does the series say about identity and capitalism?
SF: It is easy to see from the uniforms, that my subjects look pretty similar. The uniforms could basically be interchangeable – black shirt, visor, etc. In turn, these uniforms effectively make these workers interchangeable and invisible to the general public. My hope is to capture the individuality and the humanity of each subject, even though they are all dressed alike.
A: How do you think your works comment upon the changing human condition?
SF: I think the work comments on the human condition in general, and not so much about how it is changing, maybe more about how things have not changed. There have always been workers who perform labor-intensive jobs and people who profit from these workers.
A: Where do you find your inspiration?
SF: As a college professor, I work with young people who make minimum wage to help pay their way through college. They are my inspiration.
A: McWorkers is shortlisted in the Photography and Digital Art category in this year’s Aesthetica’s Art Prize. How do prizes like this help to advance your career?
SF: It is always rewarding to have curators and jurors understand what you are trying to say with your work and to get attention for what you are doing. I am honoured to be a part of this exhibition, especially since it includes all genres – not just photography. I have no doubt that having my work exhibited at such a high profile international exhibition will help promote my reputation as a photographer.
A: What other projects do you have lined up this year?
SF: I am currently in the exhibition The Sweat of Their Face at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. This exhibition puts my work in a broader, historical context as it tells the history of the American worker through portraiture.
The Aesthetica Art Prize exhibition runs 18 May to 30 September. For more information, click here.
1. Shauna Frischkorn from the Mcworkers series.