Before you walk through the video installation space of the Photographers' Gallery to watch Simon Fujiwara's Joanne, you must first step past three enormous photographic light boxes, illuminated with images of the central figure of the show: Joanne Salley, a 40-year-old artist, boxer, and former Miss Ireland beauty queen. She is dressed in expensive-looking athleisure, looking poised and athletic, blown up to a larger-than-life size, and you can walk straight up to her and look up at the tiny freckles on her torso and the lines around her eyes. It could be a campaign for a glossy sportswear brand, the kind you see on billboards and pass by without a second glance.
The central conceit of this film, a collaboration between Salley and Fujiwara, however, is that there is another Joanne: That would be Joanne Salley, the "Topless Teacher of Harrow." As a young college graduate, Salley landed a job as an art teacher at the prestigious English boarding school, only for a USB stick of her topless photos to find its way into the hands of a student and circulate among pupils. The resulting tabloid coverage—in which she picked up the nickname that has dogged her ever since—forced her to leave her job.
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"It was the biggest shock of my life," Salley tells Broadly. "When the press wrote about the story and only a day after the photographs appeared in print, I believed my whole world had ended. I had worked so hard to gain respect at the school and I felt this made a mockery of me and what I stood for."
Journalists trailed Salley and her family relentlessly in the days afterwards; one even jumped over her mother's gate to ask her for a quote. Salley's long-term relationship ended in the aftermath of the scandal, and she found herself retreating to a damp cottage in the Cotswolds to be alone. "The trauma stayed with me," she says.
Five years on, Salley is revisiting the incident with Fujiwara in a ten-minute film that explores the slipperiness of identity and seeks to rehaul—if not obscure—the old Salley of tabloid gossip. Once one of her star pupils at Harrow, Fujiwara graduated from the school before the tabloid scandal and is now an artist with pieces at the Tate Modern and MoMA. When the Tate Britain put on a Frank Auerbach show in 2015, Fujiwara remembered that he had created an Auerbach-inspired painting under Salley's tutelage.
"I contacted her," Fujiwara says, "and we went to see [the Auerbach show] together and we thought about making work that related to that painting. It somehow dealt with the things that Joanne had gone through in the years after I left [Harrow], picking up on conversations that we had at school about the power of beauty, the power of image."
"What was sort of uncanny about it was that some of the things Joanne and I had discussed in other years were things that she had experienced on a quite grand, national media level," he adds. "They were not things that were confined to art room talk, in that respect."
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The resulting film is not quite a documentary, though it starts off like one. We see Salley meet a team of PR gurus and marketing execs to discuss a revamp of her public image ("Whatever I do, I'm labeled the 'topless teacher,'" she tells them.) Then, as part of the new and presumably improved Joanne, Salley is shown Snapchatting herself waking up, eating breakfast, jogging, painting, training for a boxing match—glimpses of her apparent life all meticulously undermined by cutaway shots of a camera rig filming her or a professional makeup artist fixing her face.
"It's using the tools that the media has created and saying something about them, using a real life narrative—and that's what becomes uncomfortable about it," Fujiwara says. "It's no longer theory, it's no longer an article about the effects of the media or how powerful Snapchat or Instagram is. And so it is also about turning things on its head. We all eyeroll about selfie culture and, you know, [say] 'Gosh, how banal narrative has become, how we spend our times watching individuals and what they wear that day.' For some, that can actually be an empowering tool because it's where you can define yourself as human."
Crucially, the film isn't just wish fulfillment on Salley's part—as any victim of revenge porn knows, it is impossible to wave a magic wand to undo the abuse and years of violation. Instead, Joanne is a much trickier beast. Even as viewers long for some emotional payoff, Salley and Fujiwara wink at us and refuse to rise to the bait. In one genuinely moving scene, Salley revists Harrow and almost weeps at its entrance as she says, "My temptation is to go back and knock on the door and say, 'Hi, it's Joanne Salley and I'm here for my interview…' I'd love to just start again"—only for it to be promptly thrown into doubt by her next scene, where she attempts to sum herself up: "I'm an actress, playing a role."
"The film is unique," Salley tells Broadly. "If only we all could change the author and the narrative. I believe society often stamps a label on us, and if it is taken to a media scale, it is difficult to impossible to have control over this. Believe me, I have tried. It doesn't matter how many marathons I run, countries I cycle across, mountains I climb, boxing matches I fight in, [how much] money I raise for charity. The media are not interested in the experience, the inspirational characters I meet, whatever I have to say. The story reverts and favors the exaggerated, the caricatures and low-level simplifications that keep underlying the pillars of women they want to present."
The Salley presented in Joanne is neither caricature nor fact, even as the film feints at authenticity. Even as Salley tells us exactly who she is—an actress, a boxer, a beauty queen, an artist—we are acutely aware that these are identities she is staging in front of us, parts of herself that she has allowed us access to. It makes her earlier persona recede into the background, piled on by all these other labels she has chosen for herself, reducing her past violation to a miniscule blip in the gloss of an icon.
Joanne asks us to reconsider what makes us think that any of these things—topless photos, waking up in bed, weeping on the steps of her old employers—contribute anything to our understanding of this one person. In the process, the film is a sort of gift to Joanne Salley, the woman: it shows that overexposure can, in a way, be its own form of anonymity.
Joanne is now on at the Photographers' Gallery in London until 15 January 2017. For more info, visit thephotographersgallery.org.uk.