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A different focus on beauty

26 April 2024

A career-changing photographer has made a national impact with her student work, reports Susan Gray

Ruth Samuels

The Beholder: Group Portrait. This image is part of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2023 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

The Beholder: Group Portrait. This image is part of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2023 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

STUDENT projects are usually greeted with rapturous acclaim by friends, family, and — on a sliding scale of sincerity — tutors. Rarely does the work end up forming publicity for a major exhibition at a prestigious gallery. This was the trajectory of Ruth Samuels, whose photograph Group Portrait, from her series The Beholder, completed while studying at the London Institute of Photography, featured on posters outside the National Portrait Gallery.

A former international-development worker and youth-ministry director, Samuels explains that, although Group Portrait, selected to be part of the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2023 exhibition, was undertaken while she was a student, she wanted to invest her time in serious work from the outset. “I wanted to produce meaningful work from the get-go. I didn’t want to take some nice portraits of my friends. I wanted something impactful and meaningful.”

The Beholder series opens dialogue on ideas of beauty. Samuels says that she seeks to amplify marginalised voices and empower women through her work. The series challenges societal conventions of perceived beauty, celebrating women who, for too long, have been made to feel inferior.

Ruth SamuelsArtist/Canvas: Gringo

Drawing on her own experience, she says: “As a black woman, I’ve found myself feeling emotionally weighed down by a lot of what I see and hear online: our features are ‘not delicate enough’, we’re ‘too muscular’, ‘too dark’, our natural textured hair is ‘undesirable’.”

The portrait of the models Renita, Chloe, and Caitlyn is an invitation to find beauty in places where it has previously been missed. Composed in close trio, connected through tilting heads and overlapping shoulders, reminiscent of the classical pose of Canova’s The Three Graces, the three women in contemporary clothing unapologetically meet the viewer’s gaze.

FAITH and a desire for social justice are interwoven through Samuels’s photography, as they were in her earlier work in international development for the Salvation Army, and as 0-25 Ministry Director at All Saints’, Peckham. “In my heart, I always wanted to work with communities and try to improve lives. There’s a lot of inequality, lots of social-justice issues. I want to work with people who need help to overcome the circumstances that have been dealt to them unjustly. Because, with all of the resources we have in the world, there is no reason for the inequality there is.”

Ruth SamuelsSalvation Army officer, India, 2017

Changing career in your mid-thirties is no walk in the park. Samuels emphasises the challenges of managing ME — which she has dealt with for more than a decade — in the workplace as a significant driver in her becoming a photographer. During a period of sick leave in 2022, she recalled that the part of international development at the Salvation Army which she enjoyed most, was photographing people and listening to their stories: “I’m a people person,” she says.

Testament to this is a portrait of a Salvation Army officer in a uniform blue sari, with red epaulettes on the white short-sleeved shirt worn underneath. Her right hand, with three grains of rice sticking to the long finger, is poised over a metal dish of rice and vegetables. She is captured smiling, in the split second between taking another bite and continuing to enjoy a conversation with an unseen companion.

SAMUELS’s work centres on people. A series of images from a tattoo studio moves away from inkings of “Mum”, muscles, and love hearts, to show the tattoo artist intensely at work on a supine young man’s stomach. The paleness of the client’s bare torso contrasts with the parlour’s orange walls. A succession of intricately patterned legs, necks, arms, and fingers reveals the centrality of the body art to the subject’s identity, most strikingly — though not in an intentionally religious image — where a bearded young man’s dark, stylised crown-of-thorns tattoo encircles his forehead.

Another portrait, simply entitled Dad, chosen for the Coventry Open 2023, at the Herbert Art Gallery, shows a man in an open-necked shirt, who wears glasses and smiles quizzically. “Yes, he’s my dad,” Samuels confirms. The youngest of six children, brought up in Wolverhampton, she describes her Baptist parents as “amazing”.

While her four eldest siblings attended a large Baptist church, her mother took Ruth and her sister to one with a smaller, mainly elderly congregation, to support it with new life. “I didn’t necessarily develop a faith there, and started to feel church is just a cold place I was dragged to on Sunday.” But involvement in the evening worship music at the larger church, and meeting other musical young people with a strong faith in Jesus, led to Samuels’s baptism at 18, and what she calls “a faith of my own”.

Drawing on these two contrasting experiences of being a child in church shaped Samuels’s work at All Saints’, Peckham, in the years either side of the pandemic. During this time, she encountered the present Bishop of Croydon, Dr Rosemarie Mallett, who was then a parish priest in Brixton, at a round table on the prevention of youth violence. Ms Samuels remembered seeing the priest before, when watching Sky Arts’ Masters of Photography, in which Dr Mallett had been the subject of the winning photo.

Ruth SamuelsBishop Rosemarie Mallett — East Croydon. This image was shortlisted for the British Journal of Photography’s Portrait of Britain awards, in 2023

Describing her portrait of Dr Mallett, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Portrait of Britain, Volume 6, Samuels explains: “I set out to look at black women in professional roles, where they’re commonly underrepresented. So, the series is called Uncommon Place. I reached out to a number of people who were happy to have their portraits taken, including Bishop Rosemarie.”

For the portrait, the Bishop sat in her study, dressed in an episcopal shirt, Dr Martens, and a dark leather skirt, whose pleats were given a sculptural quality by the light, although Samuels recalls: “She wasn’t originally due to be wearing that. She didn’t dress specifically for our meeting, that’s just what she was wearing for later events, and it works really beautifully.

“And I really love that you can pick out little details from previous careers. Just behind her knee you can see the top of two cricket bats poking out, and they come from her time working in management of West Indies cricket. They are signed by some of the most famous West Indies cricketers who have ever played. It’s all part of who she is. It was incredible to have that that moment, and put it out there.”

She says that the room conveys the Bishop’s presence: “Everything tells a story, either about an encounter she had, or who she is, and what she cares about. There is actually a drawing that was done by Nelson Mandela. Who has things like that on the wall? There’s a nicely illustrated street map of Brixton, which is really significant in her journey.”

ASKED for her thoughts on Christian art, she says: “There is a lot Christian art has done to contribute to this idea of what is beautiful, what is lovely, what is good,” Samuels says. “And it has centred whiteness, because whiteness was where the power lay, and who had the power to say: this is what is beautiful, this is what is acceptable.

“I find it really interesting how people can get angry about Christian art that depicts Jesus or Mary or anyone else in a way that isn’t blond-haired, blue-eyed, with very pale skin. I want to say: surely you have taken into consideration the literal locations where Jesus became man? Just think about that region of the world, and what people look like. That’s just the way it is.

“If you were someone who genuinely believes that we are all made in the image of God, and that we all have inherent worth, why would that make you angry?”

Samuels suggests that elevating one iconographic palette above all others suggests a spiritual gap. “If you really love Jesus and serve him, you’re able to be aware of who he is and his context, and that shouldn’t make you angry. And, if it does, there’s a good chance you believe that the person of Jesus is there to serve you.”

Reflecting on her transition from salaried employee to freelance photographer, Samuels concludes that the hallmark of hearing the Lord’s calling for your life is not that it is easy, but the reverse.

“You can be going in the direction that God calls you in, and it’s the most difficult, brutal thing ever,” she says. “It looks like, in the eyes of the world, you’ve made the worst decision you could possibly have made. And there’s no way you know you’re doing what God’s called you to do, because, if you weren’t, it would all be easier, and then it would all fall into your lap, and everything would be fine.

“But I’m learning that that’s just not true at all. I know that I’m on the path to doing whatever it is that God is calling me to do. I’m just being open, and it’s been great to have these gifts of confirmation and favour. Where I’ve received recognition, it’s been really great to have that, because it’s helping me through the really rough time at present.

“It can be pretty horrendous, but I believe that things will work out for good. I really do wish it was easy. It’s exhausting.”

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