London based photographer Hannah Norton focuses on cultural representation and explores our understanding of visual stereotypes. Discussing two projects, ‘Women’, a series that counters the perception of elderly women in photography and ‘Cowboys In Kent’, an ongoing project at JC’s Ranch in Hildenborough, Kent. [This article was originally published on JRNL Magazine, a now closed publication from our Editor James Wrigley.]
So to start tell me about your work and how you started out in photography?
My work is now about finding groups of people that interest me. That hasn’t always been the case though, I started off photographing family and friends because they were immediately available to me when I first started studying photography at school. Also, I was very shy and didn’t have the confidence to photograph people I didn’t already know.
Why are you drawn to portraiture?
When I started studying photography it was the simple case that photographs of people interested me in a way that photographs of landscapes or still life didn’t. I now realize it’s because I am drawn to people, which may seem like an obvious thing to say. But it wasn’t until I did this series, ‘Women’, where I learnt that photographing people also give you an opportunity to talk to then in detail, and in a candid and personal way. Ever since this project it is my desire to learn more about people that draws me to portraiture.
In your series (Women) it’s clear that you have a deep respect for these women, could you tell me a bit about this series and why you chose this topic?
I started this series at a time where it had become very popular for girls my age to photograph their beautiful female friends, and there is nothing wrong with this, I just started to question it. I know youth has an alluring quality but it was frustrating me that there were so many of these beautiful images of young women but a total void of older women being portrayed in a positive way. I started doing some research and found that positive representations of older women in photography seemed reserved for actresses and royalty, and that didn’t sit right with me. I got the word around that I was looking for elderly women who go against the stereotype of what it is to be ‘old’. I met so many incredible women, and of course the one thing we all spoke about was the representation of age. I wanted to represent these women in a way that reflected how I felt towards them, and like you say I had such deep respect for them.
What did learn most from these women?
That your younger self isn’t a separate being, not one of them said they felt old either, and only their bodies and the way people looked at them was a reminder. I was having conversations with women in their 90’s and the whole ‘age’ thing disappears. They have these incredible stories and experiences that come with growing old but there is nothing old about their attitude towards life.
Lets talk about some of your other series, Tell me about Cowboys in Kent and how this came about?
I am incredibly drawn to the life and look of the American Cowboy, when I look at photo series of American cowboys I always think god I so wish that was me doing that, if I only I could do it in England. I started googling every combination of ‘cowboy’ and ‘England’ you can think of, I found western re-enactment villages which I went along to but it wasn’t genuine, it was people dressing up. And then, out of the corner of my eye I saw JC and Charlie at one of them, visiting friends. I spent the rest of the day frantically asking everyone there if they knew where the guys in the double denim and cowboy hats were. I finally found them and I was so excited, there was something about them that all these photos I’d seen of Cowboys in America had about them. As I was leaving JC mentioned he had a ranch up the road that I should come up to. I never ever imagined that I would find this group of English people who had once been cowboys in America now continuing that life in the Kent countryside.
What are you wanting to talk about next in your work and what plans do you have for your documentary work?
I’ve got a project I’m starting this week that I’m hoping will challenge some preconceptions held about culture in sport. Long term I think cultural misrepresentations of people will be something I keep coming back to.
What is the best advice you have been given?
I went to a talk where someone said that you need to be constantly looking at the work of photographers you love and researching new ones because if you don’t fill your mind with great images, how can you be expected to make them?