When the rather shocking photographs of a stark naked Prince Harry surfaced last week, Alison Jackson was flooded with calls and emails from journalists inquiring whether it was the result of her latest photo shoot. But in a bid that surprised even Ms Jackson herself, the palace actually confirmed that they were in fact real and it has since become a major talking point.
You may remember my last article about Alison Jackson (back in July) when I wrote about being intrigued by Alison’s clever interpretations of ‘private’ celebrity situations, as they look so realistic and really portray a sense of humor on Alison’s part – whilst also tackling society’s ‘celebrity obsessed’ attitude. I was lucky enough to interview her this week and so I asked her why she chooses to photograph lookalikes (rather than the real thing) and if she had unprecedented access to any celebrity’s life to photograph – who would it be. Here’s what she said.
SL: What first kick started your interest in creating celebrity lookalike ‘portraits’?
Alison Jackson: My initial interest stems from the idea that we think we know celebrities intimately but very few of us have actually met them in person. Celebrities are a media construct and our excitement about them is generated through the media. I shot my first photograph at the time of Princess Diana’s death. I couldn’t believe how much she had penetrated my psyche when I hadn’t paid much attention to her or the media stories around her. It was a great shock when she died. To this day I can remember where I was and what I was doing at the time of her death. This is still a surprise to me. Princess Diana was Britain’s 1st celebrity in the sense we know it now. We thought we knew her intimately but in-fact we only knew her through a bunch of media stories that didn’t always tell the whole truth. Princess Diana was a media construct.
SL: Were you interested in photography from an early age?
AJ: I have always taken photographs and started doing so when I was about 7. I did my BA in Sculpture and took photographs of my performance sculpture to record and document the work. I didn’t like the medium of photography in itself as I considered it a deceitful medium that seduced the viewer to believe in it. I knew that the camera lies at every turn. It inherently has no authenticity. However, because I only had photographs in my portfolio to show at application for my MA I was entered into the fine art photography dept. for MA at The Royal College of London. I didn’t like this initially so continued in the sculpture dept. where a space was found for me to work. In my 2nd year I thought I would focus on photography and created the series Mental Images; A start of a body of work about celebrities doing things in private, but using lookalikes. It is about, amongst other things, ‘you can’t trust your own perception when it comes to photography, authenticity, voyeurism and the need to believe’.
SL: Are you interested in celebrity culture yourself, or is your work more of a satirical representation of our need for constant celebrity gossip?
AJ: I am not particularly interested in celebrities themselves I am interested in our perception of them and of the celebrity phenomenon created through imagery.
SL: Why do you think society is so media and celebrity ‘fuelled’?
AJ: The media allow us to read real life fantasy stories, one foot in fantasy and one foot in reality. There is a lot of ‘what if…’ style of journalism that we enjoy. News is now very limited and we want to know more and more about the remote real celebrity through the media. The more remote the celebrity is, the more famous they become. The media keep celebrities remote. The media acts as a catalyst that fuels our voyeurism. What you can’t have, you want more of.
SL: How do you come up with your ideas for your photographs? You have previously said they ‘depict our suspicions’, do you spend a lot of time studying news stories and judging celebs ‘private lives’ or are you just very creative in thinking up situations?
AJ: I try to get under the skin of the celebrity and show what we imagine but have never seen before. I automatically spend a lot of time reading news stories and about the celebrities. I don’t judge celebrities at all – my work is more about how we are obsessed with celebs.
A lot of celebrities get huffy about my work!
SL: Through your work, you have really tuned in to society’s ‘nosey’ side, to our sense of voyeurism. Why do you think as a society we are so nosey? Why do we like looking at other people’s private lives?
AJ: We can’t help but be interested in celebs private lives if we have a shield of their public face presented to us by the media. Of course we are going to want to know what they are really like. It is great entertainment and it means we can watch them rather than try the things the celebs do ourselves. Celeb watching validates us – if she did that or wore that then its ok it I do. Celebrities are our new folk religion. Each celeb represents a different type of person; Becks, who represents a great sportsman, father, gay icon etc. Kate Middleton who represents that if you work hard you too could become a future Queen. We have a need to believe and this celebrity culture serves us that.
SL: Have any of the celebrities you have depicted contacted you about your work?
AJ:A lot of celebrities get huffy about my work but it is about the perception of them not really about them at all!
SL: Has your work ever got you into trouble with celebrity lawyers, or the celebrity themselves?
AJ: I have never had a letter from a celebrity’s lawyer nor has one ever sued me.
SL: What reaction have you had from the celebrity world about your work? If you could pick any celebrity or famous face to shoot ‘behind the scenes’ for a day, who would it be?
AJ: Prince Harry!
I am constantly looking for lookalikes and go up to people on the street, often mistaking a real celeb for a great lookalike!
SL: I recently read an article about the booming industry of Kate and Pippa Middleton lookalikes, how do you pick just one lookalike for your shots when you have such a wide choice? What do you love about working with lookalikes?
AJ: I try and pick the lookalike which looks most like the real deal or one who has just one angle that works spot on, they may not be the worlds best lookalike but for photographs or films all I need is just one identikit angle. The lookalikes are great fun and are really great at working to the detail I have to. It is hard work and they are non-actors but we achieve some very realistic results. I am constantly looking for lookalikes and go up to people on the street, often mistaking a real celeb for a great lookalike. There have been a few angry celebs when I have told them they look like a great lookalike; Nicholas Cage for one.
SL: Is it tricky to get the angle right when photographing lookalikes?
AJ: Very difficult and very tricky, I spend hours trying to get it right!
SL: I read an interview with you a few years ago, where you said that having dealt with identity and image making so often, you have a clear perception of your own image. Has your work given you more confidence in your own image?
AJ: I think I have always been conscious of my own image and the big difference between my private side and my public image. I think I grew up like that, but I have learnt more about how to present a public image since I have been making this work and am very interested in it.
SL: The celebrity world has become far more accessible in recent years, do you think your work has had a part to play in this? As you have opened up the fact the ‘what happens behind closed doors’ idea?
AJ: Princess Diana was our 1st blonde celebrity. And I was fascinated at this point, pre tabloid magazines and big brother. I think everyone who can remember that time is interested in the explosion of our fixation in celebrity culture. I have commented on this explosion.
SL: What has been your all time favourite shot that you have created? And why?
AJ: I like all the royal pictures and films I have made. I enjoy trying to work out what they maybe like in private, the Queen is such a blank canvas and so is Wills and Kate.
So many press journalists called me thinking the Prince Harry naked shots were my photographs and asked if could I send them over. Even I thought it was a lookalike!
SL: You are pretty much one of a kind with regards to the work you do, why do you think no-one else has ventured when you have gone?
AJ: It is quite hard to be consistent with humour and getting the lookalikes to look convincingly real is very difficult. I am like a portrait painter/photographer where I study every detail in the face, the stance, the way the celebrity holds themselves and what they would do or react to.
SL: The recent photographs of Prince Harry naked could have well have been fake (even though they were in fact real), what do you make of those photographs?
AJ: Many press journalists called me thinking they were my photographs and could I send them over. I really thought it was a lookalike. I studied and studied the pictures and thought it must have been one. Then the palace admitted to Harry doing it.
It was a very difficult photograph to make as it was at the time of Diana’s death and she was sacred!
SL: The statement ‘the camera does lie’ is even more prevalent in your photography! Do you think the camera does ‘lie’ in other more ‘real’ shots as well?
AJ: We are only getting a very small view of what is going on and of course this allows for many different interpretations. The photographer or the editor does this intentionally.
SL: The one major photo in your career has often been considered the Dodi and Diana image, which sparked a lot of controversy. Do you regard it as the photo that made you famous as a photographer?
AJ: It was a very difficult photograph to make as it was at the time of Diana’s death and she was sacred. However I felt compelled to make it as she had made such an impact on all our lives even if we didn’t pay any attention to her through the press stories. This photograph certainly put me on the map of photography.
Above: Alison Jackson is well known for her realistic portrayals of the Royal Family!
SL: Are there any limitations to the kind of situations you can put your lookalikes in for the photographs (for legal reasons etc.) or are you free to be creative?
AJ: There are always limitations and structures that I put in place when working on an idea. That includes ethical , areas of privacy , and legal sometimes but I will always try to work out a way to say something if I need to.
SL: You were involved in producing the BBC series Doubletake several years ago. Do you have any plans to feature your celebrity spoofs on television again in the near future?
AJ: I would really like to make a weekly topical TV series commenting on the news as it happens.
SL: Do your ideas for shoots develop as you watch the celebrities in the media, or do you come up with ideas for photo shoots of your own accord?
AJ: I am always coming up with ideas but I really enjoy following the news also.
SL: What advice would you give to any aspiring photographers reading this interview?
AJ: Always do what you want to do!
SL: With art comes a lot of mixed feedback, have you ever had any negative criticism at all that has made you re-consider you creating ‘celebrity spoof photographs’?
AJ: Some criticism has been difficult to take, I always make sure I can stand by my photographs/films and discuss them. I learnt that very early on.
SL: What has been the highlight of your career so far?
AJ: All of it and I am waiting for more!
SL: Have your re-creations of celebrity situations led to any unlikely friendships (i.e.: with the people in the public eye themselves)?
To read more about Alison Jackson’s work and to see her full photograph archive, visit her website alisonjackson.com .
Disclaimer: the photographs used in this article are not my own and I do not take credit for them. They are used purely for reference purposes only. The interview questions are my own, and I contacted Alison Jackson myself to obtain the answers.