Hannah Starkey review – women scrutinised in unsafe spaces

<span>Alternative realities … Metaverse, May 2022.</span><span>Photograph: © Hannah Starkey, courtesy Maureen Paley, London</span>
Alternative realities … Metaverse, May 2022.Photograph: © Hannah Starkey, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

A series of visual conundrums awaits at Maureen Paley’s London gallery in the form of six large-scale C-type prints by Hannah Starkey. In this small and surreptitious show, Starkey destabilises the certainty of seeing and complicates the act of looking, poking at the paradoxical nature of photography.

The first image in the show is Untitled, January 2023, a riveting and complex scene that incisively describes women’s particular relationship with photography – a subject Starkey has pursued for more than 25 years. The image shows a group of young women – students at Capa College, Wakefield – each engaged in a form of looking. One subject stands on a chair to photograph another, who poses. Two other young women engage in this loop of looking – one gazes up at the subject, the other, her back to the camera, is cast as a silhouette. Behind them, through a window, we glimpse more young women – apparently happily unaware of their subjecthood.

The interplay of these layers of reflections, shadows and silhouettes – framed in turn by the invisible author, Starkey herself – raise questions about authenticity and agency, obfuscating the viewer’s gaze and the ownership of the image. Who decides who is shown, and how? Who is more real – the subject who is aware she is being photographed, or those who seem unselfconscious?

Women have been both hyper-visible and erased throughout art history. There’s an urgency to being seen, but is there more to standing in front of a camera – or behind one? Starkey’s fascinating dialogue with the genre of portraiture evolves further in a recent work, Untitled, November 2023 . Again, the image presents a puzzle – what is reflection, what is construction, and what simply was just there? Superimposed layers capture a shop window; a curtain depicting a map of constellations floats ethereally in the foreground – the photograph was taken in front of the glass. Lightbulbs dart like fireworks and dangle like celestial orbs; the city skyline casts an inky imprint. In the bottom right a woman (an employee at the shop) stands in front of a cardboard moon – the only prop Starkey added to the image.

It’s a beautiful thing to look at, contemplative and cosmic. Starkey sculpts with sight, adding texture and infusing emotion into the ordinary. As a metaphor, it speaks to how puny humanity is when set against the vastness of the skies and stars, how immutable the condition of our mortality is. This isn’t a portrait of one woman, it’s a portrait of humans flailing against nature.

The mysterious atmosphere continues in Metaverse, May 2022, made in part as a response to the Dispatches documentary, Inside the Metaverse: Are you Safe?, which exposed the extreme racism and violence reporter Yinka Bokinni witnessed entering the metaverse posing as a 13-year-old girl. At one point, Bokinni described being cornered by seven users as they made sexual comments and tried to grab her.

It is that horrifying image that I think about looking at Starkey’s spectral image of a 13-year-old girl who stands in a defiant pose, head tilted up, face struck by the artificial light above. The whole image is tinged blue. All around her are people, their faces covered by VR headsets. The image’s perfect symmetry belies the fact it was made guerrilla-style – Starkey and her subject ambushing the Van Gogh immersive experience to take the picture. While no one is looking at her, the detachment doesn’t feel safe, and this space doesn’t feel safe. What use are alternative realities if they only replicate and worsen the way we treat and view women?

Starkey is so interesting as a photographer because she is constantly critical of her medium and its continued use against women. She undermines the assumptions of the camera, and acknowledges the vulnerability that comes with being photographed. In the second room are two self-portraits. Starkey shoots herself from below a mirrored ceiling, so that we look down on her repeated image, splintered through reflection. The mirror trope feels more symbolic and psychologically fraught here, more than a device to create visual intrigue. It’s the artist, seeing herself. And her image is fuzzy, blurry, or obscured by her camera, twice removed from us by the mirror and the lens, distant and unreachable. Rather than reveal the world to us, Starkey reveals its myriad ellipses.