“The spectacular in the ordinary”: photographer Michelle Sank shines a light on everyday encounters

Inspired to explore contemporary social issues by her family’s legacy of immigration, the photographer’s practice relies upon building connections with her subjects.

Date
11 July 2022

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For the most part, Michelle Sank’s subjects are people she meets on the street. When encountering someone, picking them out and then taking their photo, it’s integral to the photographer for her to build some form of connection with her subjects. And often, after their meetings – whether they be short or long – she will continue the relationship afterward. “I find that the human interaction I have with my subjects both on the street and in more constructed situations is extremely important to me, and as relevant as making the imagery itself,” Michelle tells It’s Nice That.

One might refer to her work as a kind of street photography. But, unlike the forebearers of street photography – Joel Meyerowitz, Daidō Moriyama, Vivian Maier, with their in-motion shots, catching people in the midst of going about their day – Michelle’s compositions ask her subject to stop, adding an intriguing friction between the location and the scene in focus. From this interesting and unique approach, Michelle intends for her portraits to mould person and place together, creating sociological, visual and psychological landscapes and narratives. “I hope there is a sense of respect and empathy that emanates from the imagery in relation to the subject matter that I tackle,” Michelle adds “and that the viewer can get a sense of the spectacular in the ordinary”.

Born and raised in South Africa, Michelle sees her interest in sub-cultures and exploration of contemporary social issues and challenges as being rooted in her family’s legacy of immigration – her family have both Latvian and Lithuanian heritage. She did her undergraduate degree at The Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town with a specialism in photography, and then later went on to take a master’s in photography at De Montfort University in Leicester. Since then she has exhibited across the world and published four photography books and won numerous accolades.

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Michelle Sank: Vera (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

Highlighting a few of her favourite recent works, the first Michelle lands upon is her piece Naailah. Taken on the promenade in Sea Point, Cape Town, the image shows a woman clothed in a red dress, standing in front of an early evening picnic, a cool box and love heart pillow standing out amongst the various objects strewn on the ground. For Michelle, it proved a readily constructed scene, in need of little interference. “I was captivated by the light, the colour of the constructed tableau that this young couple formed on the eve of Valentine’s Day,” the photographer recalls.

Not all of Michelle’s photos take place on the street however, but when they are transported she likes to include compositions and methods that she typically applies – namely, her penchant for constructed scenes. In Maurice, a man stands in a powerful stance, a huddle of soft toys next to him. “I really enjoy the connection between the “love me” on the bed and the way he’s presenting himself in relation to his body,” Michelle expands, “Then the contrast with the fluffy onesie and the soft toys. The metaphors and contrast that emerged from this shoot were very poignant.”

Moreover, delving into entirely new territories, Michelle highlights a fashion shoot she did for The New York Times for Pyer Moss as being particularly interesting. Showing three topless figures, each wearing a pair of colourful trousers the image is defined by its intriguing composition and intensity of the models’ stares. “It has resonance for me as it was the first time I had brought my methodology of constructed narrative into a fashion shoot and the challenge this imposed,” Michelle details, “but the moment of capturing the three models in this pose alongside their physicality and the interrelationship of the colour and textures of the clothing and background was inspiring.” Despite having built such a personal and distinctive style, it’s evident Michelle has no fears expressing the diverse potential of her practice.

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Michelle Sank: Naailah (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Jolene (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Kylie (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Onos and Twin Sons (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Brother and Sister (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Veronica (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Ison (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Campbell (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

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Michelle Sank: Pyer Moss for the NYT (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

Further Info

Michelle Sank: Maurice (Copyright © Michelle Sank, 2022)

About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in illustration, photography, ceramic design and platforming creativity from the north of England.

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