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A Prophetic Image by Hannah Starkey

The photographer reflects on the degree-show picture that paved the way for all her future work

Untitled – May 1997 was made for my degree show at the Royal College of Art. It is a hybrid of the photographic languages that I studied throughout my undergraduate course in Photography, Film and Television. At the time, there was still very much a ‘boys’ club’ environment in the art and photography worlds, and a snobbery around photography as a medium. This photograph transcended all of that and liberated me. It was the first picture that showed me my own unique way of seeing, which is second nature to me now. I had found my signature style and it felt amazing. The work also showed me how photography can tell us about ourselves and others, and is one of the very first images I made while thinking about how to represent women in photography.

Photography has shaped women, and now we are shaping it. I think photography is the greatest revolutionary tool in service of women’s equality, but it is still being used largely for their devaluation in the pursuit of beauty. Beauty in the picture comes from much more than a beautiful model. Appreciating it is exhilarating and rebalancing all at the same time. Beauty belongs to us all and photography is the most democratic art form. In Untitled – May 1997 I wanted to see how I could apply this belief to the construction of a photograph that contained subliminal messages, codes and signifiers for viewers to discover for themselves.

This image taught me that you don’t need to sensationalise everything. The quiet moments, the everyday and the fleeting resonate because of their own narratives. We all look for narrative – it’s our main evolutionary motivation – and photography can interrogate that narrative and generate as many questions as answers.

I still love mirrors for many reasons and photograph them often, making pictures within pictures, playing with depth and constructing an idea of reflected reality. When you look in the mirror, you have placed yourself in that world through what’s around you; it’s the same in a photograph.

When I made this picture in 1997, I was closer in age to the girl trapped in her reflection. I am now closer in age to the other woman in the picture. For me, it is a prophetic photograph that has guided me as to what was to come in my future works. All the images I’ve continued to make throughout my career have come from this first work.

Looking at it today, the simplicity of this picture is striking. I’ve been told on a number of occasions that it is a ‘masterpiece’. I guess it is, and time has told me so. It is a photograph that we have looked at for 25 years and still appreciate. That’s pretty remarkable.

Untitled – May 1997 was purchased in 1999 and is on loan to the exhibition Hannah Starkey: In Real Life, The Hepworth Wakefield, until 30 April.

Hannah Starkey is a photographer based in London.