Nasty Women Exhibition – Empowerment: In Conversation with the Artist Jessica Ross

Jessica Pierre Ross is an emerging, interesting artist; we met her at this year’s Nasty Women Exhibition – Empowerment in London and chatted about what empowerment means to her personally and about how her photography and other works come to life.

As a creative director and photographer, Jessica is a conceptual enthusiast utilising a range of research techniques to deliver innovative approaches to contemporary image making, whether exploring a subject or social matters, working within the medium of analogue photography as a means of discussing her own identity or that of others, and  specialising in fashion and portrait photography (Source © Jessica Ross).

“More than anything it’s an interaction, a mutual exchange; a snapshot of insight in front and behind the lens.”

Image result for jessica ross photographer nasty women exhibition

Photo © Ryan Price 

What does empowerment mean to you personally?

For me, empowerment stands for strength, passion, and a determination for change. As an artist, that is the woman that I’m trying to be! I’ve made ‘pretty’ images photographing beautiful people in beautiful clothes and realised that an image without purpose means very little to me. My main aim is to use the fashion image and portraiture to not only stimulate the eyes, but also the mind. At the moment, I’m exploring black female identity and progressive representations of masculinities through positive representation, contemporary thinking with a classic aesthetic. Confronting questions I’ve had about my own identity through my practice and I guess that’s what it’s all about…  To be a nasty woman is to speak up, confront issues that women all over the world face day to day, (but might not have the freedom/support or resources to change). To challenge unfair representation built from dated ideologies; ‘otherness’ and difference, whilst providing a safe space for women to freely express, so being part of a movement like empowerment is amazing.

How do you create your art and what is the main subject of your work?

It varies a lot! I came from an academic background opposed to art, so a great deal of the time it’s a social issue, historical theme, or literature that inspires me; I’m always in CSM library! Although sometimes it’s a person or an emotive experience, I’ll meet someone or feel something. Saying that, sometimes it’s literally the way light hits something; for instance walking home at 3 AM and a glare from the street lights hits a window! When something (whatever it might be) or someone interests me, I get excited and ideas start coming. It’s not necessarily something you can control, instantaneously I want to communicate or share it with people and photography enables me to this.

I’m a very sociable person; I think for me, it’s equally about having a genuine love for people and humanity. I get fascinated by interactions, emotions, understanding what makes a person tick, the challenge of getting someone to trust you enough to allow you to really ‘see’ them… It’s a special kind of satisfaction – making people feel empowered, comfortable, and most importantly beautiful in their own skin. I have a lot to say (laughs) and I like to challenge people, if only to momentarily enable them to delve deeper than what’s obvious and really feel an idea, emotion or subject… The possibilities are infinite. More than anything, it’s about an interaction, a mutual exchange; a snapshot of an insight in front and behind the lens, showing aspects of my own identity, that of the subject and inevitably that of the viewer… The enticing thing about shooting film – like life, new encounters and new experiences you never really know how it’s going to turn out. It’s as much about releasing your own inhibitions as the shutter. I don’t think you ‘become’ an artist as such, creativity finds you.

Which is more important to you, the subject of your art or the way it is executed?

The subject (if you mean person) is always the most important aspect for me; they need to feel comfortable even if I’m challenging them conceptually. It’s an exchange, so if my subject doesn’t understand or isn’t enjoying the shoot, I’m failing as an artist.

If you meant subject matter as in theme, I think that is also more important that the physical execution. I’m somewhat of a perfectionist visually and I like things to look a certain way, but I’ve made loads of works that perhaps haven’t been executed ‘perfectly’; visually, a work might not be my best, but it meant something to me and I tried it. I think you can sit on hundreds of ideas with the fear that they might not turn out right, or you can give it a go and the outcome can be very different to what you envisaged. It doesn’t necessarily lessen the work, but it expands one’s practice. Although I do everything in camera and don’t use Photoshop (apart from basic dust removal, colour correction), my conceptual planning tends to take a great deal more time than the actual execution. I shoot on 120 film with 10 frames per roll, I’ve been told I shoot really fast (laughs).

When you create, is there a deliberate message present from the very beginning? 

Most of the time yes, unless I’ve come across someone who just inspires me and I want to record them to their truest self and celebrate them (but perhaps that is a deliberate message in itself). I’ve had some great shoots where it’s been a totally unplanned day out with a person and really captured something magical… Occasionally I’ll shoot something with a very rough theme or just a few key words that have inspired me; then, after scanning the negs, a much deeper message strikes me within the work, but most of the time I like to really delve deep into research before a shoot.

When a piece of your work is complete, do you remain attached to it or is there a catharsis with detachment present at the end of the project? 

Ah… I think I’m my own worst critic, but I guess that’s a creative thing! I have a few shoots that I think I’ll remain attached to forever, but a lot of the time I ‘go off’ of my work, I start to dislike it or feel a detachment. Honestly, this normally coincides with a drop in my creative confidence; if I take a break from it for too long, I start to doubt my ability. But I guess that’s life, we’re always evolving and growing, so it’s natural to let go. On one hand, when something really works for you, it’s great to pursue it further, but at the same time, holding on to past work too much inhibits you from growing and can make the process feel a bit stale. Saying that, more recently I’ve been going back over old work, considering/appreciating images that didn’t appeal to me as much the first time around; I think it’s healthy to revisit your work with fresh eyes – just don’t dwell on it for too long. 

Photo © Jessica Ross

Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler

Edited by Sanja Struna

ABOUT THE BODY OF WORK ‘A celebration of black female identity through a renaissance lens’

“The lady whom we saw has not uncomely hair, betwixt blue-black and brown. Her head is cleaned shaped; her forehead high and broad. Her face narrows between the eyes, her eyes are dark. Her nose is fairly smooth and even, that is somewhat broad at the tip and flattened, yet it is no snub nose. Her nostrils are also broad, her mouth fairly wide. Her lips somewhat full and especially the lower lip…all her limbs are well set and unmaimed, and nought is amiss so far as a man may see. Moreover, she is brown of skin all over…and in all things she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us.”

Bishop Stapledon of Exeter’s report of the future bride of Edward the third, Philippa of Hainault, circa. 1324

Ties, ropes and ribbons … The woven ties of ancestry and family trees are knotted together with patterns and pathways that displace any notion of colour or class. Yet, attitudes towards Afro-Black ancestry within the British monarchy and the pictures painted within our history lessons place a spotlight on white supremacy. It’s rare glimpses, like this description of Philippa of Hainault from the fourteenth century, that illuminate the rarity of women of colour in our history lessons as “pleasant” celebrated and established women. Bound in the ropes of slavery, or the dirty secrets of illegitimate relationships, commonplace representations of women of colour in literature and art from these eras are in stark contrast, which illuminates the ways in which our vision may have been obscured.

Re-imagining traditional renaissance style portraiture and styling with a contemporary twist, this work pays a creative homage to the shrouded and misplaced depiction of black women in western mainstream art.

Casting an eclectic range of young female models of colour, this project also confronts any preconceived notions of beauty. With no post retouching and no constraining pre-criteria for the female form, this is a project that sets out to convey a real representation of women. These images may toy with the ties between history and modern reality today, blurring the lines between fantasy and authenticity, but what is real is their conversation with identity, a conversation Jessica Pierre Ross is an emerging, interesting artist; we met her at this year’s Nasty Women Exhibition – Empowerment in London and chatted about what empowerment means to her personally and about how her photography and other works come to life.

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