Zed Nelson is an internationally recognised photographer, whose main approach to photography is complete integration and empathy with his subjects. After a long period of working as a documentary photographer in some of the world’s most troubled areas, Nelson has recently turned his attention to Western culture, with a more conceptual approach to reflect on contemporary social issues.
Nelson’s first published book, Gun Nation looks at America’s deadly obsession with the firearm. The collection of work consists of observed, environmental, formal and detail portraits.
| - Formal portrait|
- Medium format
- Neutral background
|- Observed portrait|
Busy background giving context
Nelson spends a lot of time getting to know his subjects, and I think this shows through the relaxed nature of the subjects, in both the formal and observed portraits. On his website each photograph is meticulously captioned, often accompanied by a quote from the subject or a quote from something relevant – for example, a detail of a Magnum handgun is accompanied by Dirty Harry’s “are you feeling lucky” line.
Nelson’s second book, Love Me, looks at vanity, beauty and bodily improvement which are fuelled by Western media. It deals with the way Eastern cultures are paying to ‘Westernise’ their bodies – “surgical operations to 'Westernise' oriental eyes have become increasingly popular, so the beauty standard has become increasingly prescriptive. In Africa the use of skin-lightening and hair-straightening products is widespread. In South America women have operations that bring them eerily close to the Barbie doll ideal, and blonde-haired models grace the covers of most magazines” – says Nelson’s description of the work. Again it consists of environmental, observed, formal and detail portrait elements.
Above is an environmental portrait of plastic surgeon Ox and wife Angela in their Rio apartment. I think that photographing people in their home environment, and what Nelson does so well, is that it picks up on peoples’ personalities, in that every what is surrounding them is to their taste. In this case it is a very clean and sterile apartment building – perhaps representing their personal ideology of perfection – with a lot of white. The white, for me, again represents perfection and cleanliness, and again tells the viewer about the subjects’ personalities – they obviously look after their health and looks, with perfect tans and expensive-looking clothes. The two perfectly groomed poodles in Ox’s hands are almost like a incarnate of themselves as a couple, with poodles being the ‘top dog’ associated with celebrity and pedigree.
The quote which accompanies this photograph is: “We live, as Naomi Wolf once observed, in a surgical age. Everybody’s doing it. Soon, the only people who won’t have any kind of cosmetic surgery will be the poor. Money will be the last barrier to the scalpel when allothers – gender, ideology, morals, politics – have gone.” – Maureen Rice, writer.