Mark Duffy sees the world as it is: often a bit stupid. The Irish-born, London-based photographer just released his first book, Vote No.1, which is made up of photographs of the campaign posters that coated Ireland's walls and buses during local elections last year. The book's printed in an edition of 500, including 100 special editions handmade from actual corriboard election posters and bound using plastic ties.
Duffy focused his attention on the wear and tear and clumsy placement of posters and screws, leaving him a series of images of local politicians who look like they've been severely disfigured or pierced quite aggressively through the neck with zip ties.
The book's been featured in a bunch of photography festivals around the world, was nominated for the LUMA Dummy Book Award and won the Vienna Photo Book Award, so I thought it was probably worth having a chat about it with Mark.
VICE: Your first book is out—has this been a long time coming?
Mark Duffy: Well, I've been kind of doing photography for years; studied it in college, graduated about ten years ago. That course completely put me off photography for a long time, actually. Originally I was doing fashion, but I got sick of that very quickly. I moved away and gave up photography for a good few years, and then took it up in more of a documentary style. I didn't really do anything with the photographs, so it's only recently that I've been trying to establish myself.
You say documentary, but they're also kind of abstract still-life photos. Are aesthetics a big part of your work, or rather a tool for expressing specific ideas?
The image has to be visually appealing. It can't just be an image of an interesting thing; it has to be [shot] in an interesting way, but I don't really overthink these things too much, I suppose. I respond to a situation. If there's something that I think is interesting to photograph I try to photograph it in the most interesting way possible.
They're also funny, your photos, which is quite rare in typical documentary photography.
One reason I think this project has done well is because there doesn't seem to be much humor in photography these days. When I was a teenager, I particularly liked Elliott Erwitt. I would say she's one of the photographers that got me into photography, just because her images were so funny. Also, have you ever seen Ralph Eugene Meatyard? He's a very strange photographer, who photographed kids wearing these weird distorted masks in these dilapidated surroundings—really odd stuff. I was a big fan of his when I was in college, and only recently did I remember his work. I was thinking about this and I thought that you can see the influence that it's had on my work. It's quite disturbing, actually. I imagine that Roger Ballen was heavily influenced by him.
I feel like a part of your work is almost laughing affectionately at society, and a part of it is quite sombre and critical.
I didn't intentionally decide to do something about politics, I just happened to be back in Ireland when there was an election going on. I grew up with these things, and they're so different from here. When you're [in England], if you don't watch television you wouldn't know that there's an election going on; there are very little signs of it, apart from the crap they shove through your front door. But in Ireland these posters are absolutely everywhere, stacked on top of each other. On the way home one day, I noticed a horribly disfigured face placed on the side of a car and I thought it was hilarious. A couple of minutes later, I saw the first picture in the book, the woman with the plastic tie through her throat, and I was just like. "This is ridiculous, how have people not noticed this?" I was thinking maybe this is the result of disgruntled workers intentionally disfiguring their bosses' faces, I think it's so strange that people didn't see it.
So you wouldn't consider yourself political?
I have opinions, but it's something I tried to steer away from for a while. I try to keep my head in the sand because it can be quite disheartening, I think, when you look at the political system, especially in this country. But I try to be fairly neutral in this book. I didn't focus on the party I hate most or anything like that.
Were you trying to get across that sense of disappointment?
It was more to reflect the general mood as I see it in Ireland at the moment, which is people just really losing faith in the political system. One party got us into trouble with the financial crisis, and then we elected the other fellas and they came in and they haven't really done anything apart from raise taxes and cut public spending. So I thought it was fortunate to find something that accurately reflected the mood as I saw it. There's a lot of work out there of political posters with graffiti on them and stuff like that, so I really made a point of steering clear of that. I thought this was a softer way of doing it.
Do you think art should have a purpose? Say you lived in a country where political satire was punishable by law, do you think you'd still do it?
That's a really tough question. I think that art is such a varied and individual thing, and I wouldn't want to say it has to be one thing or another, but I think that art is at its best when it has a point. And the more easily understood and accessible that point is, the stronger the work is. But if it's only decipherable with the aid of a masters in art history or by reading a five-page essay telling you what to think, then you're only ever going to get through to a tiny handful of people.
As for the second part of the question, it's so hard to say. Instinctively, my reaction would be to say, "Yeah, of course I would have done it." But that's so easy for me to say, having never experienced anything like the level of oppression and fear that you describe. Honestly, I don't know. I'd like to think I would have at least taken the photos, but whether or not I'd actually do anything with them under those circumstances, who knows.
Have you spoken to any of the politicians in the book?
Two, one of which I contacted because the trade edition [of the book] has four different covers, so I asked this local politician who's in Irish Parliament now if she was OK with [being on the cover], and she said, "Yeah, as long as it doesn't make fun of politics." But I showed her the project and she was OK with it, because it's not blatantly insulting—it's just a gentle poke, you know.
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What's the most fun you've had with photography in the past, or the most memorable experience?
Once on a photography job I had to hide in a garden shed to avoid the Queen's security so I could then come out and photograph her meeting a client of mine. I was working at the Chelsea Flower Show, but my boss only had a pass for the Royal visit for himself and this other designer, and they had paid me to be there for the day so they wanted the photographs. I had to sit in [the shed] for an hour and a half while they cleared everybody out.
In terms of subjects, I think I'm quite drawn to grotesque things. The photograph I most regret not getting since I've been living in London is something that I saw once, on my commute, walking through Peckham. This guy was walking towards me with a trolley and I had to double take because it was a trolley full of skinned sheep's heads, but I didn't have a camera on me. I was absolutely gutted.
I actually have a funny story relating to the book. When I started shooting the project, I had the idea for the format of the book immediately, so I started to try and track down all of these posters to make the covers. This particular guy was a local politician, and he was like, "Yeah, I've got tons, you can take as many as you want." So I went down to his house and he had a shed full of them. I took a massive stack, went through them, and saw that not only were they not all his posters, but they weren't even his party's posters. He had basically been cutting down his opponents' posters, and I helped him destroy the evidence. The games that go on—dirty games.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm toying with a few things at the minute, but for the past year it's been all about this book and trying to get it published and trying to promote it. I have a full time job on top of all that, which means I haven't had that much time to actually take pictures. I have a few little things on the boil—we'll see if they develop into something bigger.
No, not really. I actually had a really awkward one a few weeks ago; I was at a gallery and a friend of mine introduced me to this other photographer, a relatively prominent guy. We were chatting away, so I asked him, "So, what's your next book?" He starts telling me what he's doing, and I'm like: "Oh, I actually have to stop you there, because I'm doing something remarkably similar and I don't want you to accuse me of plagiarism." It was really, really awkward. We both just kinda went, "OK, bye."
No matter how good your idea is, there's always someone out there with the same idea at the same time. You really have to strike.
Buy a copy of Vote No.1 here.