Jackie Nickerson: Life Through A Lens

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Jackie Nickerson, Grandmother, 1998 © Jackie Nickerson
Jackie Nickerson, Grandmother, 1998© Jackie Nickerson

Ahead of a spectacular new exhibition, the Anglo-American photographer reflects upon her pivotal works and creative practice

In July this year, the storied Italian house of Marni unveiled its inaugural Autumn/Winter 2015-16 editorial campaign. Poignant and atypically elegant, the series presented Dutch supermodel Marte Mei Van Haaster in a number of defiant, virtually faceless poses – horizontally outstretched over a deep-blue carpet, clad in a belted column dress and snakeskin boots, or insubordinately leaning against a half-suspended oak table: all angular elbows and long, lithe limbs – inviting the viewer to consider the emotional and physical presence of the subject, before the beautiful clothing she’s pictured wearing.

“I love the Marni sensibility and the experimental or subversive way Consuelo [Castiglioni] approaches design,” revealed Boston-born photographer Jackie Nickerson, who was tapped by Castiglioni to lens the project. In fact, the story is an exception for Nickerson, who averted her gaze from the world of high fashion in 1996, after a short vacation to Zimbabwe ignited a new fire of inspiration, and subsequently evolved into a three-year expedition. Camera in tow, she navigated the dry rural terrain of sub-Saharan Africa, taking beautifully composed, compassionate portraits of agricultural workers in their workplaces to highlight her concerns about sustainability, human rights and food security. 

The pictures formed her first highly acclaimed tome, FARM, published in 2002, and additionally established a graceful and distinguished new take on photojournalism in Africa. Since then, Nickerson has continued to pique the world’s attention with her distinctive and powerful imagery – from her astonishing 2014 portraits of Ebola fighters in Liberia to the muted and tranquil documentation of the Catholic religious orders of Ireland in 2008. Though she's currently working from Korea, AnOther had the pleasure of speaking with Nickerson about her diverse body of work and upcoming exhibition, Uniform, at the National Gallery of Ireland

Please describe your photographic practice...
"I’m specifically interested in identity and how we are all affected by our environment and in our shared social and psychological experiences. The relationship between being and appearance. To explore mundane moments that exist in everyday life. What I try to do is to see what is actually in front of me, and make photographs of what it is I’m actually looking at."

What inspires and motivates your work...
"It's really determined by what happens in my own life. All of my work is a direct result of my own personal life experience. So, every series I work on starts out as a personal happening. Human rights are also highly important to me."

Talk us through the concept behind the delightful new Marni campaign [above]...  
"I wanted to create images that not only show the beautiful clothes but that have a strong idea or concept because ultimately I’m creating an atmosphere that tries to convey what Marni is about. So there’s elegance, but also a little disruption thrown in. I think that it is always better if, when we look at a photograph, that we see the person first. So that the person is wearing the clothes instead of the clothes owning the person. I was so lucky to work with the brilliant Consuelo Castiglioni and Lucinda Chambers on the project."

Your career highlights to date and why? 
"I would have to say shooting Dr. Jerry Brown for the Person of the Year cover for TIME magazine in 2014. Surprisingly, I was the first woman ever in the 87-year history of TIME magazine to shoot the Person of the Year cover. I went to Liberia to photograph the Ebola outbreak, working with two amazing colleagues, Aryn Baker and Paul Moakley.

Also, getting my first book published was a benchmark and changed everything for me. FARM was published in 2002. It concentrates on how individual identity is made through improvisation. I heard it became an inspiration for fashion designers and was referenced so much at London's Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design that they actually banned it. I think it’s fantastic that farm labourers can inspire art and design!"

The subject you would most like to photograph, but haven't yet... 
"I have a long list, although I don’t always get the opportunity to shoot the things I’d like to. The problem is that until I start the research I don’t know if something is going to work so my time is always very precious." 


What's in the pipeline for the next 12 months? 
"Well, I’m working on a new project in America that will be published next year [Ed's note: readers, see a sneak peek from Nickerson's Instagram feed above]. And additionally, I have an exhibition opening at Ireland's National Gallery on the 8th October. Aidan Dunne in the Irish Times actually wrote 'Jackie Nickerson’s Uniform, co-curated with Brendan Rooney, juxtaposes her superb portraits of agricultural workers in several southern African countries, published in her book Terrain, with paintings from the gallery collection. The show prompts us to question the way we identify and place individuals'."

Jackie Nickerson's 'Uniform' runs at The National Gallery of Ireland from October 8, 2015.