“I anchor myself in the moment through others”: Rhiannon Adam explains her unique take on photography
After an adventurous childhood spent sailing around the world, the London-based photographer developed a need to photographically record her life. Here, she tells us more.
- Jyni Ong
- 11 May 2021
- Reading Time
- 5 minute read
Rhiannon Adam has had an eventful life, to say the least. Born in County Cork, Ireland, she spent the first seven years of her life in a small village called Ballinadee, a place her parents ended up in by going on holiday and never coming back. Together with her parents, they lived in a farmhouse “always in some progressive state of renovation” before turning their lives upside down and moving onto a boat (a 42-foot steel, bilge-keeled sailing boat) sailing between the Caribbean and South America. Describing it as “confined and claustrophobic”, far from the luxury of yachts and what we might think of when we think of sailing, Rhiannon spent the best part of her childhood in this “solitary little unity,” feeling like “we never really fitted in with where we were and no longer belonged from where we came”.
Long story short, she moved to London as a teenager to live with her aunt and cousin Josh, a place she imagined out of Dickens books (there was no TV on the boat so books were her only reference as to what London was like.) Having lived such a resourceful, crafty and creative life up til then, it’s no surprise that Rhiannon turned to creativity to express herself once she found herself in the relative stability of life on land. She had very few pictures of her time on the boat, “film and cameras don’t get on well with salty air,” she admits, and her experiences could be distilled down to a few wallet-sized snapshots taken with a waterproof camera as they crossed the equator. “But really,” she tells us, “our life was not recorded and as time passes, memories fade.”
It was this lack of physical pictures that led Rhiannon to become a photographer. “I realised the importance of the image because of the absence of it.” Her friends at school wanted to see evidence of her backstory, but with little of it, Rhiannon adds, “I’m sure most people thought I was exaggerating.” In turn, her mission became to record life and her existence. “In a way it’s a narcissistic process,” she adds, “as every image – even if it is of a complete stranger, is really about me and my relationship with them. Even though I’m invisible in the frame, my presence is always there, so I anchor myself in the moment through others.”
In time, she went onto study the two things she knew well; art and books. After graduating, she worked in art book publishing, then as a photographers’ agent where Rhiannon developed her own work on the side. Taking the leap to pursue the medium, for a while, Rhiannon concentrated solely on Polaroid photography, a passion which at one time was “the reason I got up in the morning. She even wrote a book about it titled Polaroid: The Missing Manual. Though she uses it less and less in her photography now, it was a major aspect of pushing Rhiannon’s practice forward.
Nowadays, photography continues to be an illustrative process for the photographer. A way of “using a photograph as a starting point to tell a story beyond the frame,” Rhiannon’s practice doesn’t stop there. She also likes to write about the process of making a photograph, finding it meditative while exploring the relationship between image and story at the same time. When it comes to the subject of her photographs on the other hand, Rhiannon’s portraiture is all about giving space to the subject, to let them be whoever they are, “to occupy the frame, to take away fallacy and pretence.”
She pinpoints that there is often an element of loneliness to the image but beyond that, “I guess it’s a quest for intimacy,” says Rhiannon. We all need connection to the world and without it, I feel I might just float up into space and disappear, and maybe I can help my subjects feel a little more anchored – to see who they are through my lens, and in the process, help myself.” And for Rhiannon, a photograph can do that, if only for a very short moment. Avoiding being too predictable when it comes to her approach, Rhiannon also admits she does like to revisit certain processes such as using fracking fluid chemicals to destroy undeveloped film. In a project made in collaboration with Laura Pannack for example, she uses natural fluids such as saliva, blood and stool samples on undeveloped film to “create abstract pictures of ‘health’ as a kind of biological portrait.”
Multi-faceted in her processes and interests, Rhiannon likes to lead the viewer to question what they are looking at and what has informed the image. Her areas of focus shift, from religion to women’s issues to isolation (just to name a few) and photography acts as a vehicle of discussion. As Rhiannon puts it, “I often use a limited area of focus, but expand that into a metaphor for wider issues.” In her next big project, for instance, the photographer will journey to Salton Sea in California to photograph California’s largest lake a few hours from LA. Elsewhere, she’s also been working on a series of images loosely titled Don’t Push Me Cause I’m Close To The Edge, a project that’s “my way of keeping sane” during the pandemic, which sees the photographer travel round the British coast taking pictures along the way.
With a myriad of interesting projects under her belt and in the pipeline (including a new book) the possibilities are endless for Rhiannon who’d also like to write a novel one day, and make work in and around the queer community. She says on the latter, “sometimes we forget to document what is closest to us, or the world we are a part of, a bit like us not photographing our time sailing. I think it’s important to be able to document stories from the inside rather than leaving storytelling to outsiders, and I think I’ll regret it if I don’t.” With that in mind, if you’re part of the queer community, feel free to reach out to Rhiannon to get your portrait taken. She concludes: “As long as I have a camera, I know I can feel content.”
GalleryRhiannon Adam: Don't Push Me Cause I'm Close To The Edge (Copyright © Rhiannon Adam, 2021)
Rhiannon Adam: Don't Push Me Cause I'm Close To The Edge (Copyright © Rhiannon Adam, 2021)
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.