Artists at the RCA: Meet Sharon Boothroyd

Originally published on White Noise

September 2018

Have you ever felt like you’re losing your mind? Photographic artist, lecturer and RCA researcher Sharon Boothroyd draws on our experiences of ‘madness’ to subvert society’s ideas of normal.

Her haunting visual series have created photographic interpretations of prayersasked strangers to critique her work and plunged the viewer into the fantasies of fictional characters.

With my own love for photography and the human psyche, I was excited to delve into Sharon’s with some email questions about her work. Putney-based Boothroyd talks about making fictional friends, the difficulties of living with unanswered questions, and why romance makes her cringe.

How did you get into photographic art?

My dad is a photography enthusiast. I remember being bored waiting for him while he took pictures in the countryside where we lived in Northern Ireland. At the same time, I was intrigued and envious that he got to climb over fences and disappear for what seemed like ages so he could “get a good shot” while the rest of us had to play by the rules. From early on, I learnt that photography gave you a licence and could take you places.

It wasn’t until I got into the darkroom at school and saw the magic of developer trays and later at university that I discovered the conceptual power of photography as a medium. It was then, when I was introduced to artists who were making photographs that spoke of identity or politics, for example, that I got a sense of how far it could go. I was hooked from pretty early on, probably because it was the only thing I was really good at.

You’re studying a PhD with the Royal College of Art called ‘Boundaries and Slippages of the Self: Photography and autobiographical fiction in the performance of female fantasy and delusion’. What does that involve?

It involves, as with any research, following a hunch and then working hard to provide evidence to back up that hunch. For me, I had a hunch that photography and fiction could work well together to enhance public understanding of ‘madness’. I wanted to challenge fixed ideas about ‘correct’ ways of fitting in to societal structures. I’m doing this by developing a fictional character who is going through an episode of delusion. I want viewers to see my work and have empathy towards her, and for them to respond by thinking, “It could easily be me,” rather than stigmatise and dismiss her.

Most of us have probably gone through times when we have felt like we were losing our minds, and I wanted to draw upon that. I use my own experiences – although I have no diagnosis or personal history of psychosis, I identify with the feeling of being an unreliable narrator of my own life. I also work in collaboration with a psychiatrist and psychotherapist to ensure the work is made within an ethical framework.

Photography is well-suited to the precarious job of describing reality, because photographs can only exist due to a connection to an actual moment in time. There is no way of telling anything about whatthat moment in time was really about. There is so much more to the context than what we see in the frame, even if it is an ‘accurate’ depiction of what was literally there. There is an inherent ambiguity at work in photography that I want to play with. Photography can allow truth and fiction to merge and ambiguity to be enhanced, questioning how any of us can know what is real, and how photography can be trusted at all.

Your book, The Subtext of a Dream, centres around the experiences of a fictional character, Madame Beauvais. Is she your favourite character? What would she be doing on a typical day?

I can’t say a favourite. The thing I love most about reading fiction is the new friends I make. I really miss them when I finish the book.

My character Madame Beauvais is derived from Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a tragic female character who was prone to depression and ‘flights of fantasy’. Flaubert famously commented “Madame Bovary, C’est moi!” It is this self-identification of male author with female subject that attracts me to this particular example.

On a normal day Madame Beauvais would be sitting in her hotel room, where she lives, making books, or writing a lecture, preparing a conference or having a conversation with a jug or a dead philosopher. We never know if any of the lectures are real or not. In a sense, it doesn’t matter.

Despite the element of fiction that you use, it’s all very real in its setting. Is that part of the reason why you chose that element of artifice, in order for us to emotionally detach and just observe?

That’s an interesting take. It might have that impact, yes. Ursula Le Guin asks, “Why do we huddle round the campfire?” in her essay of the same name and concludes that it’s simply human nature to tell stories. To understand ourselves and our histories. I think that’s why I do it too – to seek understanding. To try and make sense of things and yes, perhaps some of that understanding comes from an ability to make more sense of things that are not so close to home.

One of the hardest and possibly one of the most important things we can do is to learn to live with unanswered questions. Perhaps fiction is a way of helping with that. You can tell a story a hundred times and each time hear a slightly different one depending on what you ‘need’ each time.

Despite the erotic material, your work isn’t overtly explicit, but beautiful – romantic almost. What is the aim of that?

It’s an illusion! I think romance and falling in love is an illusion, but it’s very seductive and tempting to fall into that delusion. I think that’s why I’m drawn to recreating that beauty or romance in the imagery. However, I do always want there to be something within the work that punctures that illusion, for example the violence of the erotic literature in The Subtext of a Dreamor the madness of Madame Beauvais. Romance for romance sake makes me cringe a bit.

What do you want people to take away from your work?

In an image-saturated world, the most I can ask is that they are glad to have encountered it.

How do you want to be remembered as an artist, a lecturer or a psycho-socio artist?

I want to be taken seriously. I want to be making relevant work that makes people think. I also want to make people smile and to make meaningful connections through my work, which I regularly do and am very thankful for. It’s why I do it.

As a lecturer and tutor, my main aim is to enable students to develop their own voice as artists. I hope I do this by listening to them and asking the right questions in order to open them up and perhaps by suggesting pertinent literature or strategies. Ultimately, it’s up to them. I want students to come away from my sessions feeling inspired and able to do anything they put their minds to. I also want to release them from academic restraints that have often been ingrained since school. I hope to engage them in a process of unlearning and relearning.

Sharon is a Photography Lecturer at Ithaca College, London Centre and Roehampton University and Visiting Lecturer on the MA across-school group at the Royal College of Art where she teaches Language: Transparency and Concealment.