To call you multi-faceted is an understatement. You have a robust background in art, illustration & drawing, design, print making and of course photography. How did your vision evolve towards the photographic medium as your focus?
My abilities with various mediums emerged more or less like a reflex, with one interest leading into the next without much conscious thought about a bigger picture; creativity is mysterious, its difficult to explain. Photography is definitely the focus of what I’m currently sharing online, but I’ve also been working on several projects outside of photography that I haven’t openly shared yet. Cultivating anything of personal significance obviously takes a certain amount of invested energy; it feels vital to protect the creative process – to keep it for myself until I am ready.
I believe my creative achievements are a direct result of my mental condition, as an autistic savant. My autism is actually a very mild form (asperger’s syndrome, specifically), but there are traits within that condition that can be seen as very helpful towards creativity: enormous curiosity, perseverance, and a desire to make sense of the world. ‘Savant’ is an ambiguous term, which can loosely refer to any very knowledgeable person; in the case of autistic savants, it means there is exceptional ability in one or more fields that coexists with some form of disability.
Growing up, I always felt very different from my peers and spent a lot of time alone because of that. My creativity emerged and through its expression, I was able to connect to other people in a meaningful way; it allowed me to work around what felt personally difficult so that eventually I focused more on my strengths than my limitations. I actually was not formally diagnosed until this past year, at age 28, so I never recognized my difference as a disability—I think my Dad was intuitively aware that there was something about me he couldn’t fully understand, but he was always incredibly nurturing and supportive of my interests. Despite the sense of relief and self-understanding my belated diagnosis has given me, I feel like its absence through my development was valuable in the sense that I never thought of myself as being less than others, only different.
How important or effective rather, has it been having such a varied arts background in shaping and executing your photographic style?
Having never studied photography, my priorities are idea-based rather than being based in technical proficiency. A perfect exposure matters less to me than the visual language within the frame - the same visual language that I would consider regarding works in any medium. To me, my abilities will always be secondary to my overall perception. Perhaps my awareness of difference and sensitivity to what it means to be different is what matters the most. In the context of repeatedly recycling themes and materials (which is what I do in my work), having an idiosyncratic perspective feels more essential than having the most impressive technique.
Your work focuses very much on the concept of the self, identity, shape and form and of course sexuality. How would you describe your work and what do you want the viewer to come away with after seeing your work?
A large portion of my work is reflective—a practice for processing my own feelings—so I think how others perceive its meaning will always be vastly different from what it represents to me. It may seem contradictory, given some of the writings I pair with my work, but I never aim to express precise ideas through imagery. I’m not sure that I care so much about a viewer understanding my exact thinking, although I do find the perceptions and theories offered by others regarding my work to be very interesting. Any writing that I share with a body of work is not necessarily representative of what the project means to me on a personal level, but more so offers a starting point for contemplation.
An observer’s role is to interpret; they need to use their mind to collaborate with whatever it is they are observing—to make sense of it. Maybe my work can serve as an invitation to others, to see the world differently, not solely by looking outwardly, but also by looking within—at the subjective memories, ideas, and emotions that inform each interpretation.
I mentioned sexuality as one of the themes that seems pertinent to your work. One could also say control, dominance and freedom too, can be witnessed through your work. What is it about the aesthetic of the self, control and dominance that interests you and continues to shine through in your work?
Dominance is a word that I rarely think about outside the context of animal behavior or genetics. In terms of the BDSM subculture, I can’t say that I find the variations in dominance and submission themes particularly inventive - although I can easily appreciate the importance of dominance roles and admire how these enthusiasts recognized that significance, in many ways, before the science of neuropsychology did.
In simplest terms, fetishism refers to the use of an object to negotiate (usually binary) difference to achieve an immaterial end—more broadly, it offers a means to focus on the meaning and constitution of the relation between subjects and objects. Fetishism is, in many ways, an act of interpretation. In the context of my own work, I contemplate fetishism as an instructive strategy; thinking through fetishism, rather than simply about it, and attempting to use it as a perspective for exploring subjects and objects, desire and knowledge, identity and difference.
You work primarily with female models in your photography. Is this something that once again ties into the central themes of your work or is it simply a preference rather than a statement?
My first photo subject ever was actually a close male friend of mine, who was doing drag performances at the time and needed photos of himself as his different female characters. The images were entirely his vision and his creative direction, but it was my role to be behind the camera and help him with his body—finding the most feminine angles.
I’ve always been very androgynous in my preferences about physical appearance, or rather I would have preferred to be more androgynous. Being raised by my Dad, I wanted to be just like him. Puberty happened and my dream of being just like an adult male was derailed. My friend who did the drag performances unknowingly framed the concept of being feminine to me in a more digestible way: rather than simply seeing it as “being unlike my Dad,” my friend showed me that its okay to experiment and interpret femininity without necessarily having a clear understanding of what it means. So my first self-portraits with photography were with myself, a woman, “in drag” as a woman… gradually, the process evolved and expanded to include more complex ideas.
I choose to focus on collaborating with women now for practical reasons: they are able to fit into my clothing and I am able learn from them; I think because of my struggles with my own femininity in addition to the differences in how my brain functions, I continue to seek discourse with women of all ages, for the insight they can offer me and the mutual recognition the interaction itself offers. Awareness of different perspectives helps me to know myself better and feeling validated by women is very meaningful to me. Throughout my life, I’ve had various male mentors who each taught me a great deal; female perspectives remain more mysterious to me, less familiar.
Your use of bold colour, sharpness, shape and crispness in your photographic style is very poignant and something I love about your work. A sense of chaos of the self contrasted against the simplistic bold backdrop. How much of this is a power play between the object and the environment?
I think it’s more of a stylistic approach: attempting to simplify abstract interpretations of complex ideas, hopefully without excessively simplifying.
Are there any themes or imagery you have yet to tackle but want to?
Yes, I write endless notes to myself of ideas. Some of them end up in word documents, evolving into larger texts. Eventually, I start to see images in my mind connected to those blocks of language. Several of these text documents are now over ten years old, expanding towards clarity over time, and others I write only a day before creating an image. Its not a rigid system, though, I have ideas in my mind that I don’t transcribe anywhere—they emerge directly as images. I have trouble creating the experience of rest in my thoughts; I’m always contemplating.
You, yourself are an elusive creature to capture on film. Much like many artists is your preference to remain behind the camera rather than in front?
I am actually in front of the camera regularly for my self-portrait work, but always without a face—which is how I shoot most subjects. Obviously, being behind the camera and looking through it is a different experience from stepping in front of a camera that operates itself through a remote, but I enjoy the unknown aspects in both processes: either I can’t see how I am being captured or I am unsure of how a subject will move through the frame.
As far as being elusive, that is conveniently connected to my socially awkward mode of being. I haven’t comfortably reconciled with the current scale of my online audience; the idea of a large number of strangers potentially recognizing or approaching me at any moment overwhelms me. I’ve been recognized by my tattoos a few times and I don’t think I handled it as well as I wish I was able to. I feel uneasy about being the center of anyone’s attention and have difficultly sustaining eye contact. I think, in many ways, it’s easier for me to not be too easily identifiable. I definitely have the capacity to be socially fluid, but I really need to plan in advance and mentally prepare for it.
Who are some of your personal photographic or artistic influences and can you tell us why? And any muse/muses?
I’m actually not knowledgeable enough about the history of photography or even contemporary photographers to attribute any specific photographic influences. Growing up, my Dad was very excited about and supportive of my creative abilities. He placed prints of surrealist paintings around the house, with my childhood art displayed in between. “Not to be reproduced,” by René Magritte, is one of my favorites. It reminds me of my Dad because he chose it for our house and it also reminds me of my own concept of “me,” as other: an open-ended question rather than a subject who can truly be known.
You’ve done both artistic and commercial work. How difficult is it to find the right balance between staying true to your own vision and working with commercial visions from clients? And how to you manage the love/hate relationship with the commercial art world?
I’ve actually never received clear instructions or ideas from a client, just the number of required images and a compensation arrangement. In that respect, researching a client’s history of projects and weighing it against my own body of work to develop an idea that they might appreciate—it can be a stressful process. I’ve been told many times that I have no place in commercial photography with the reasoning being that my work is “too weird,” so when I do take on projects that involve businesses, I try to be conscious and respectful towards whatever branding they have developed. In all honesty, though, I never know how anything will be received: if it will be praised or entirely misunderstood. I click on the ‘send’ button, brace for impact, and hope for the best.
In terms of the commercial art world, I can’t pretend to know what’s going on there; it is like a faraway continent and I’m on my small island. I have only recently boarded a ferry to the mainland by accident and I hope that I’ll be allowed a return ride so I don’t have to build my own raft to get back.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. What can we expect to see from you in 2017?
I will continue to be true to myself.
All photos © Rita Minissi