> The Substitute

Dawn Woolley / The Substitute

April 2017
Interviewed by Anna McNay

An artist and researcher whose work constitutes an enquiry into looking and being looked at, Dawn Woolley was selected from more than 14,000 entrants to the #SaatchiSelfie competition, judged by Tracey Emin, Idris Khan, Juergen Teller, Juno Calypso and Saatchi Gallery CEO, Nigel Hurst, with her photograph, The Substitute (holiday) (2008), winning first prize and being labelled by GQ magazine as “the best selfie in the world”. It is now being exhibited alongside nine other shortlisted works as part of Saatchi Gallery’s larger exhibition, From Selfie to Self-Expression.

Anna McNay spoke with Woolley via Skype a couple of days after the announcement.


Anna McNay: Congratulations on winning the #SaatchiSelfie competition. Your practice encompasses photography, video, sculpture, installation and performance. Do you see selfies as purely a photographic medium or do they also straddle the boundaries?

Dawn Woolley: I suppose it depends how true to the definition you want to stay. I wouldn’t really call my work selfies, in the traditional sense. I have just finished my PhD at the Royal College of Art for which I was researching selfies, and about social media as a commercial realm. I was thinking about how selfies become adverts in some ways, but also how we advertise commodities through the way we present ourselves. I was working on a series of still-lives called Hysterical Selfies (2015) that didn’t have a person in them but were shot as if they were selfies. There’s a mirror, but the mirror just reflects more commodities and it’s about how our identities are built through objects.


AMc: How did you select the piece you submitted for the #SaatchiSelfie competition? That’s from a different series – The Substitute.

DW: Yes, that series is from a while ago. I knew they were looking for self-portraits and didn’t think they would stretch the definition as far as still-life. The works in this series are self-portraits, but, really, I think they’re also still about this idea of how we are represented and how we represent ourselves photographically. That work particularly questions how the female body is shown, which I think is a really pertinent question to the selfie-phenomenon.


AMc: Do you always use yourself as the subject – or object – of your work, apart, of course, from series such as Hysterical Selfies?

DW: Usually, yes. There’s a responsibility to how you photograph other people and I can get away with a lot more photographing myself. Some of the work in The Substitute series can be read in quite violent terms – even the reduction to two-dimensions – and doing that to another woman could be seen as being objectifying.


AMc: Do you see yourself in those pictures as the subject, or have you become an object?

DW: I guess I’ve become an object, but the thing I like about those photographs is that because the male in them seems quite satisfied, in some ways he is being objectified as well. He’s being duped by these images into believing that they will be satisfying, when clearly images can only show us stuff, they can’t do stuff. There’s an interesting power relation in them.


AMc: The Saatchi exhibition, From Selfie to Self-Expression, presents many great self-portraits from art history alongside contemporary celebrity selfies taken with smartphones. The premise of the show is that these early self-portraits were simply the selfies of their day, back when selfies could only be made by those skilled enough to use pencil or paint and create a good likeness – albeit also often in role. Do you feel comfortable with this analogy?

DW: Basically, it’s saying it’s all self-portraiture, and this propensity to look at ourselves isn’t a new thing, but the new thing, I think, is that because of the selfie-phenomenon, it’s now seen as deeply narcissistic – particularly deeply femininely narcissistic. To put it in this lineage of artistic self-portraiture gives it a little bit more weight and takes it away from this narcissistic conversation, which I think is a good thing, because the ability to present oneself in this way can be quite liberating and empowering, in terms of having a presence. It’s not always used like this, but there’s the potential there. For my PhD thesis, I spent a lot of time looking at selfies. I decided only to look at ones of people on their own in a private space, because it’s not then presenting an event or a place, but really just looking at yourself and presenting it to the world. My findings were not all that positive. I think there is an element of hysteria in the fact that so many pictures are produced. It’s self-presentation almost as a compulsion to keep saying: “Here I am! Look at me! Am I ok?”


AMc: Almost a validation of existence in a world where reality is being overtaken by virtual reality.

DW: Yes, a form of self-affirmation.


AMc: How would you define “selfie”, if you were pushed to do so?

DW: In the traditional social media sense, as a picture taken with a smartphone, either holding the camera away from yourself or in a mirror. But I think having a definition is unnecessary really.


AMc: In the immediate press reports on your win, you’ve been quoted as saying that the selfie should be used more in art. What did you mean by this?

DW: I wanted to get across not really that it should be used more in art, but that it shouldn’t not be used. It’s really about getting away from the negative way in which selfies are discussed. Selfies have also been used positively to show support for charities – such as Cancer Research UK’s #NoMakeUpSelfie campaign.


AMc: You’ve just completed your PhD and your Viva show is touring to the Ruskin Gallery in Cambridge in September and Ffotogallery in Cardiff next January. What else are you working on at the moment?

DW: The research I did into selfies and social media is being published in various articles and I am planning to publish a book of my thesis in the coming years. I am working on a durational performance about anti-ageing products for the Talking Bodies conference later this month and, as part of this project, I have a social media account called the Mystical Scientist (@Sciency_Stuff), which I interact with from my own Twitter account (@dawn_woolley), and which is issuing a lot of anti-ageing advice at the moment. For Diffusion Festival, I am doing another Twitter thing, called the Sadistic Capitalist (@SadisticCommand), which is one of the modes of address that I theorise in my thesis. I’m going to look at adverts and then couple them in some way with quotes from Sade. I said I’d do one a day for the entire month of the festival, but I’m thinking I might go insane! So we’ll see. The last thing is an Instagram project that I’m working on with an American artist, which is called Hard Stop, and we’re looking at the political and social rhetoric in Britain and America, while both of our countries are in such crazy times. I’m going over to visit in July so that we can devise a plan.


Dawn Woolley was interviewed for Photomonitor by Anna McNay, April 2017.

From Selfie to Self-Expression will be on show at Saatchi Gallery until 23rd July 2017.

For more information on Dawn Woolley’s work, please see: