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A study of winter grounds Vanessa Winship’s latest exhibition and book

It’s possible to read Poster’s story as a dramatisation of many of the ethical questions surrounding contemporary portraiture, especially given the absence of portraits in Snow. The decision not to include portraits, Winship says, was a response to the increasingly intense pitch of these conversations. “I’m very happy to take a sideways step,” she says. “I’m not saying a step back; I’m saying a return to some more observational work.”

Text can also serve to portray people. “What writing does, what novels do, is allow us to enter the lives of others,” Winship says. “It teaches us empathy. So within literature, it’s perfectly acceptable to put yourself into the shoes of another, because to understand and to imagine another life, another person — that’s what fiction does. We learn about the world in fiction in a way that we’re beginning to be forbidden to in photography.”

Markham seems like a kind of shadow self, her approach the antithesis of the embodied, engaged portraiture for which Winship is known. Where Anna is glad to flee the sculptor, dismissing the encounter as a “wasted afternoon”, Winship approaches her work with a reverent seriousness. “I’ve invested everything in my life in photography,” she says. “My whole life has been spent listening and being part of a discourse, and having witnessed what I have witnessed in the world.” Listening, as Markham seems disinclined to do. “I’ve seen people dying, I’ve been to funerals, I have been to weddings, I have been to many different religious ceremonies and rituals,” says Winship. “It has to be a calling.”

While working on Snow Winship did, of course, encounter people. For a time, she thought that perhaps she would write about these encounters herself, that they might constitute the book’s eventual text. “They were extraordinary,” she tells me. “And in a certain way, a lot of it was about loneliness. Deep yearning and a deep, deep need and desire to speak. Strangely, a camera affords that.” Here is an argument for portraiture at a moment when the questions around it are vexed: that it is a way of allowing people to tell their stories. Not necessarily to the viewer, but during the actual encounter with a photographer like Winship. The photograph is the means to that end. The act that facilitates the exchange, as well as being its record.

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