Scar is the latest in a series of portrait-based documentary projects photographer Alanna Jankov has undertaken over the past decade, in which she typically focuses on capturing underrepresented, hidden, disturbing, or taboo aspects of contemporary life. With its depictions of subjects baring skin wounds of various sorts, Scar definitely conforms to this tendency. What makes these latest portraits especially uncanny, however, is the way they align the conventions of commercial portrait photography with the raw truth of the documentary picture-the camera that probes the world to expose what is hidden, and record what will be forgotten. In addition, Jankov presents texts alongside her images, culled from discussions that occurred during the process of making the portraits. Scar thus combines three distinct modes of biography, producing a complex record of the personalities of her sitters.
The most important function of the portrait is to capture a subject’s personality in the sitter’s face. Even when the work is about marks on the body, Jankov never overlooks this crucial task. Her approach is the direct opposite of “candid” documentary photography, however, in which people are caught unawares, their real selves supposedly revealed in the unguarded moment. Jankov prefers to draw out a pose, to allow the subject a role in the making of the image. No doubt her experience as a commercial photographer is crucial here; she is clearly skilled at directing, at creating a dialogue, at making her sitters feel at ease, and this is reflected in the texts that accompany her pictures, which combine Jankov’s descriptions with candid statements by subjects. Beyond being a necessary tactic of a professional practice, however, such an approach suggests an interest in the way people want themselves to be seen, an understanding that who we are is highly dependent on staging, and that our stories are always partly fictional.
At the same time, the rhetorical power of any photograph, even when we acknowledge that all pictures tell stories, is in its directness and revelatory quality. Jankov’s hero, Diane Arbus, once stated that the content of any photographic image is, simply, what is depicted, no matter how many layers of gauze or text one uses to defuse or explain away the shock they produce as traces of what once really was. It is the same with scars, perhaps the most visceral elements of any life story. Scars are inescapable. There is really no way of rationalizing them away.
In the end, we are left with double-portraits. The identity of each sitter is divided in two, between the fiction of the pose, and the revelatory shock of the wound. Often each element appears in a different register, as in the out-of-focus face of Jacques, whose damaged hand is literally “in your face,” in sharp detail. In Andy, the subject’s face appears in a motorcycle mirror next to his scarred arm, as if what has happened to his body is both part of, and separate from his identity. In Chris, the dramatic contrast between tattooed, muscular arms crossing his body, “out front,” and the downturned face of an introspective character exemplifies the recurring theme of Scar-the possibility that several apparently contradictory truths can make up one life. We are defined by our scars, but they alone are not who we are.