Celebrating LGBT History Month 2017

Other Heroes

 An Exhibition of Photographs to celebrate LGBT History Month 2017

collage Trinsent

I was recently commissioned by Pinsent Masons, a large international law firm, to create a collection of portraits of 23 members of the LGBT community in the UK who have played an important part in LGBT history – in parliament, the law, the arts or more generally – but who do not always receive the recognition they deserve. Each portrait is accompanied by a short first person text.

 

The portraits and texts are displayed prominently in the foyer of their London HQ to mark

LGBT History Month, the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality,

and Pinsent Masons’ recent ranking as the second highest employer in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index

in England, Wales and Scotland.

You can sample the portraits and texts in the pdf by clicking the link here

(please note this document is a 7MB pdf)

Pinsent Mason LGBT History

You can see the portrait display, during normal Office Hours, in the foyer at Pinsent Masons London HQ until Mid March at:

30 Crown Place
Earl Street
London
EC2A 4ES

(very near to Liverpool St Station)

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Black History Month.

As part of their ongoing diversity programme, Pinsent Mason*, a large international law firm, asked me to create an exhibition of portraits drawn from my portfolio of successful black people:

Portraits of Achievement – a selection of portraits created between 2000 – 2014, celebrating the achievements of people of African and Caribbean descent.

The portraits are displayed with extended captions listing some the key achievements of each of the subjects’

To see the texts and the portraits click here Robert Taylor Black History Month Exhibition (pdf)

The Background

In 2001 Jacqui Macdonald, the then Head of Staff and Organisational Development at London University’s Institute of Education conducted a study that challenged stereotypes of black underachievement by telling the stories of 72 black men and women who have risen to the top in contemporary Britain. The study was published as a book called Portraits of Black Achievement: Composing Successful Careers (Published by Lifetime Careers). It was centred on a series of interviews with black professionals in fields including politics, medicine, law, education and the arts. The interviewees described their life experiences and talked about what it meant to be a successful black professional. Each interview was accompanied by a photo portrait by Robert Taylor.

I’ve been creating collections of portraits for over 25 years. Recent commissions include an extended collection of women celebrated for their excellence in the fields of science, engineering and technology, and most recently, two large collections for an Oxford University college. 14 of the 28 portraits in the Pinsent Mason display are drawn from Jacqui Macdonald’s project, the remainder are from a variety of commissions between 2002 and 2014.

* 30 Crown Place, Earl Street. London EC2A 4ES

New Exhibition launched in September 2015

The Tanner Collection at Hertford College, Oxford

Earlier this year I was commissioned by Hertford College to create a second collection of photo portraits to hang in their Great Hall. This time the men are allowed back in. There are 20 new portraits of men and women who applied to Hertford between 1965 and 1985, while the college was running a revolutionary scheme that sidestepped the traditional route into Oxford and set up a new system for students from state schools. It will be on display in the Great Hall for at least the next year.

You can sample the new Tanner Portraits here

You can still view the previous set of portraits of Hertford Women

 

 

A New Photo Exhibition at an Oxford University College Prompts Reflections on Progress for Women

KW2C5257 (1)

Left to Right: Charlotte Hogg/Banker, Theresa Moran/Teacher, Shahnaz Ahsan/Thouron scholar,
Stephanie West FBA/Emerita Fellow in Classics, Alison Woollard/ Fellow in Biochemistry

Did James Brown Get it Right?

I recently installed a portrait exhibition at Hertford College, Oxford University. The exhibition was commissioned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women to that college. The women featured are remarkable in their very different ways, some of them prominent figures on the national scene. The collection of 20 images, together with texts – written by the women themselves – confirms the undoubted place and power of women in contemporary Britain. But there are still some real concerns.

The images and texts can be viewed here

[The booklet accompanying the exhibition can be down loaded at  Hertford Women Exhibition Booklet (pdf)  ]

How are we doing on gender equality these days? In many parts of the world, indeed even in parts of twenty first century Britain, being born male is still one of life’s great lottery wins. Just 50 years ago the legendary soul singer James Brown had a hit with his song ‘This is a Man’s World’ . The song attributed the key manifestations of modern civilisation exclusively to the efforts of men, offering only a rather limp salute to the ‘little ladies’ by going on to claim that despite all the great things created by men, it would all ‘mean nothing, without a woman or a girl.’  Such chauvinism didn’t seem that outrageous in 1964.

As much as the old charmer obviously enjoyed women, the phenomenal rate at which he got through them, his criminal convictions for assaulting some of them when they stepped out of line, and the lack of impact this had on his star status suggest that all was not well on the gender equality front, back then. To heap irony on top of all that, the song was at least partly written by a woman, who it is claimed never received due credit, or all the royalties that were owed to her. Those were the days!

50 years on, things have certainly changed for the better, for lots of women – but by how much and for whom? There are no straightforward or easy answers.

Meanwhile, the University of Oxford has been making some interesting moves. Hertford College Oxford’s celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the first admission of women include commissioning me to create an exhibition of portraits of women connected to the college. Hertford College’s main hall had previously always been adorned with large painted portraits of men. The sort of chaps who have traditionally owned or controlled things. All suitably grand, gowned, stern and correct looking. My portraits of the women will replace all the men for a whole year. It’s not yet clear what will be hanging in the hall after the year is up.

The 20 women in my exhibition, nominated by Hertfordians past and present, represent a mix of ages, classes, cultural backgrounds, and a broad range of achievements. They include acknowledged leaders in their fields, as well as those less publicly recognized including: the first woman Home Secretary (Jaqui Smith), the current number two at the Bank of England (Charlotte Hogg), the first woman president of the CBI (Dame Helen Alexander), a leading scientific researcher (Professor Dame Kay Davies), a leading philosopher (Baroness Warnock), a QC, a champion rower, a broadcaster, and many more women, all flourishing in by no means typically female environments.

The collection gives a very reassuring nod to the place and power of women in British society today. And yet, even though their talents and achievements are undisputed, the way we relate to that success can be problematic.

In a recent UK government re-shuffle a number of women were promoted to some very senior jobs. Great news in itself, but it was disappointing to see the amount of media attention directed to things that had little relevance to their experience, skills and talents in the political and governmental sphere. There was much written about what the women wore, spurious discussion about their love lives, often in language tailored to sustain some pretty obnoxious ideas about the place of women in society. Even if the mass media manage to keep off the subject of women’s sex appeal and sartorial choices, they still harbour some pretty dodgy assumptions about a person’s capacity to be a parent as well as holding down a top job, if they happen to be a woman: Mother of three poised to lead the BBC …” was the recent headline in the Daily Telegraph, reporting the appointment of the new head of the BBC Trust. Successful male parents are rather less prone to this sort of nonsense!

Anticipation of these kinds of problems even infected parts of the process of deciding how to depict some of the Hertford College women in my portraits. Much as I would have loved to make more of the way some of the women looked, in celebration of their attractiveness and striking dress sense, there was a wariness of attracting too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of attention. Consequently, some of the picture options that I and my sitters might have favoured were passed over in the editing process in an attempt to maintain the very delicate balance between surface/cosmetic appeal and other factors such as character, charisma and presence.

There’s another tricky issue, perhaps as relevant to discussions of racial/cultural identity as gender – that of self exclusion. Whatever tangible and concrete barriers there may still be to equal opportunity, some members of disadvantaged groups self-exclude/stay back/don’t apply/ for things for which they are eligible and qualified, for fear of experiencing the humiliations of unfair exclusion, inappropriate enquiries into their private lives, or just straightforward discrimination on grounds that they don’t ‘do’ women, or gays, or ‘foreigners’. Quite a few of the many very successful women I’ve photographed and interviewed over the years have admitted that they’d sometimes not applied for things they were undoubtedly supremely well qualified for, for fear of exclusion on ‘non relevant’ gender related grounds such as absence of other women or evidence of toxic ‘canteen cultures’.

Despite lots of equality legislation and much upbeat societal discussion, women are still at an unfair disadvantage in all sorts of ways including: often being paid less than men for work of identical or very similar value, still being subject to sexual harassment at work, still suffering our legal system’s patchy responses to domestic violence and rape, still suffering an unequal division of domestic labour and child care responsibilities (long after weaning has been completed). Some of the more subtle forms of discrimination and exclusion are harder to confront. There are still lots of informal men-only social networks that function as unofficial gateways to all sorts of information and opportunities, often at the highest levels!

For all that, it is undeniable that things have moved forward a great deal for some women over the last 50 years.

If things are going to continue to develop it’s likely that we’ll have to be creative and energetic as we try to change perceptions and practices, as well as continuing to legislate and allot places on the ‘naughty step’ for persistent male offenders. There are now many great female role models, in various fields, and amazing stories of the different strategies employed, by women, and men, to ensure that girls and young women plotting their futures see that anything (or at least much more) is possible. We can all help by doing our bit to share tales of things that have worked out really well, and not just sighing and complaining about the persistence of out of date attitudes and practices.

This will all make much more sense if there is a simultaneous conversation about new possibilities for what men choose, or are allowed to choose to do with their lives. There will need to be as much creativity with our perceptions and decisions about men’s roles at work, in the home and more generally if it’s going to be practicable for women to achieve more without having to be superhuman. Many women are now undoubtedly achieving great things in their education and careers, but many of them they are still facing nineteenth and twentieth century burdens at home and other informal spheres. This is hardly a fair or meaningful version of progress.

The Exhibition is in the Hall at Hertford College, Catte Street, Oxford OX1 3BW. It will be open to the public from Sunday 12 Oct 2-4pm, and then each Sunday 2-4 pm up to and including 30 November 2014. It will be open again in 2015 during university term, dates to be confirmed.

 

The booklet that accompanies the exhibition can be down loaded Hertford Women Exhibition Booklet (pdf) 

 

Selected Media Coverage

 

Guardian

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/21/oxford-hertford-college-portraits-women-co-ed

 

Daily Telegraph

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/11113961/Why-Im-proud-to-be-on-the-wall-of-my-Oxford-college.html

 

BBC News

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-29311151

 

New York Times (Artsbeat)

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/22/portraits-of-women-take-over-an-oxford-dining-hall/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

 

Cherwell

http://www.cherwell.org/news/college/2014/09/23/hertford-hall-now-decorated-solely-by-portraits-of-women

 

Oxford Mail

http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/life/11496865.Hertford_College_puts_women_s_talent_in_the_picture/

 

Oxfordshire Guardian

http://oxfordshireguardian.co.uk/oxford-college-marks-40-years-of-coeducation/

 

USA Today

http://college.usatoday.com/2014/09/24/all-female-portrait-gallery-takes-over-oxford-dining-hall/

 

A Hertford College Post

http://www.hertford.ox.ac.uk/hertford-college-women-portrait-display

 

A University of Oxford Post

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2014-09-25-hertford-hall-gets-gender-makeover-mark-coeducation-anniversary

 

Blogs

http://jamiecastell.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/hertford-college-portraits/

 

Remembrance, death, and belonging, from an Afro-Caribbean Perspective

On the 1st November The RAF Museum at Hendon will launch an exhibition about airmen of African and Caribbean Heritage who have served in the British Royal Air Force. I will be featured. For me information please see:  http://tinyurl.com/qdtmtsh 

(I’m interviewed in the film loop, and have one of the wall panels)

In 2005 I co-produced an exhibition of photographs and texts about Bereavement called LIGHT AFTER DEATH. One of the 28 items in the exhibition was a reflection on war memorials from a New Commonwealth Afro-Caribbean  perspective:

 

Poppy on Kente Cloth

(Kente is an Asante ceremonial hand-woven cloth from Ghana)

Every November on Remembrance Sunday special services are held at war memorials and churches all over Britain. A national ceremony takes place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, in memory of the men and women who were killed during the two World Wars and other conflicts.

I served in the Royal Air Force in the 1970s. Over twenty years later, quite by chance, I met some West Indian World War ll Army veterans at a tiny exhibition at the Imperial War Museum about the African, Asian and West Indian contributions to the British war effort. One of the men had served in the British army during World War Two with my late Jamaican grandfather. When they found out about my military past they insisted that I join them at the Cenotaph in Whitehall at the next Remembrance Sunday ceremony.

Before that time I had never given much thought to the sacrifices of those killed in conflict and had certainly never thought of marching down Whitehall as part of a contingent of black ex-servicemen. I attended Quaker Meetings for many years,  and now tend towards pacifism. What on earth would I be doing there? I was finally persuaded when they made it clear that it was really important for them that there was the possibility of a continued black presence at these kinds of events after they had died. They were worried in case people forgot that the fight against Hitler and all that he stood for was won with the help of all sorts of people who didn’t fit the stereotype of the brave white war hero depicted in film, fiction and documentary.

To my great surprise and relief we got a very warm welcome from massed the crowds as we marched around the streets of Whitehall. I felt immensely proud, very emotional and powerfully present to the memory of my late grandfather and his distinguished war service.

RAF Swinderby

Robert Taylor at his RAF passing out parade in 1975

 

 

Art, Science, and Ignorance

Nina edge

Nina edge

Nina Edge in her installation “Vitual Duality” (photo 1994, ICA commission)

I’m a photographer. I create portraits, and abstract/experimental images based on the human body. Some say I fit comfortably within the range of arty stereotypes. My partner of the last 19 years is an Oxford University academic who definitely conforms to some of the stereotypes of the geeky scientist.

People are often surprised that we’ve thrived as a couple for so long. To some, our relationship seems unlikely, reflecting the supposed gulf between scientists and the rest of society. Scientists are supposed to think, communicate and behave quite differently to the rest of us.

 

A recent experience forced me to question the extent and significance of this gulf. I’ve just returned from a trip to the old university town of Leuven in Belgium. My partner, a respected scientist specializing in pheromones, was invited to give a TEDx talk (TED stands for Technology, Education and Design. TEDx talks are organized under the auspices of the non-profit TED foundation which has the slogan “ideas worth spreading”.)

The challenge for speakers at the Leuven TEDx event  – all eminent research scientists – was to craft and deliver talks related to their areas of expertise, but with a largely ‘civilian’ (non-specialists and non-scientists) audience in mind. Successful TED talks tend to be less about hard knowledge per se, and more about inspiring, challenging and entertaining an audience, by presenting fresh new ideas about the world and how we experience it.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the subject matter of some of the talks. In their different ways several of the speakers challenged my most basic assumptions about what science is, and what being a scientist is about.

The outstanding talk for me (apart from my partner’s of course) was given by Professor Stuart Firestein, intriguingly entitled “Celebrating Ignorance”. He is a Professor in Biological Sciences at Columbia University, New York.

His talk took a wry look at conventional notions of knowledge, fact and the scientific process. Generally we think of science as an orderly phenomenon – a collection of proven facts about the world. Professor Stuart does not see ‘real’ science as like that at all. In his experience, few research scientists use a formal scientific method. He sees successful scientific research as often being as much about “…farting around in the dark …” as engaging in a rational definitive process.

This much fuzzier reality occurred to him as he reflected on his dual role as a professor (teacher), and investigator (research scientist). He teaches a lecture course based on a hugely comprehensive and highly respected text book that purports to impart a lot of knowledge about the human brain. He was concerned that some of his students might be left with a mistaken impression that mastering its text would amount to knowing all there is to know about the human brain.

At the same time, in his research lab, he, his students and colleagues often stumble around and come up with interesting questions, in an open ended process he often finds exhilarating. He also noticed that even when scientists were gathered more spontaneously, away from their labs etc. they tended to talk as much about what they didn’t know – about all the open questions and problems they were facing – as what they did.

He has seen this phenomenon as important enough to warrant a new university course and book, about ignorance. Of course, he’s not talking about the bad or negative model of ignorance that carries connotations of willful denial of incontrovertible facts, rampant prejudice etc. He’s interested in the more fascinating kind of ignorance described by J.C. Maxwell, the distinguished 19th century theoretical physicist: “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” George Bernard Shaw put it even more bluntly ”Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating 10 more”.

Science is much more than just an ever accumulating amount of clear and reliable facts or information. The purpose of knowing a lot of stuff isn’t just to know a lot of stuff, it’s to be able to frame ever more thoughtful, interesting questions. Knowledge leads us to ‘higher-quality ignorance’.

Returning to the great art/science divide, supposedly reflected in my relationship with my partner. It turns out that we have more in common than I’d previously considered.  In our respective working lives we’re both exploring, asking questions, never quite arriving, but enjoying a fascinating ride en route. Imagination and creativity are important to both of us. We are both wrestling with difficult questions that matter to us, and we both need to be creative in the ways we go about it, and communicate about it.

Perhaps I was not as brave in choosing to share my life with a scientist as it might seem. As I remember it, very early on, my partner appealed directly to my vanity by declaring that he’d already encountered and enjoyed my photography, long before we first met each. Does this prove that scientists can have impeccable artistic taste?