If you are ever out and about and spot random people striking poses on a red chair for a photographer, then you have probably stumbled upon Sean Blake, updating his ‘Untitled Chair Project’. The long-time professional American snapper has been in love with cameras for most of his life and is now taking his art across the globe with a purpose. We spoke to the enthusiastic artist about this unique project.
How did you get the idea for the chair project?
I liked the idea of doing a portrait series for a cause, and I liked the idea of having an element that was visually consistent. Altogether, I honed the concept for about six months before I was able to take it from sketches and storyboarding to a real world application.
You’re trying to increase awareness about bone marrow donors...
I have two reasons for raising awareness. In 1996 I lost a dear friend to leukaemia. I always wanted to do something in memory of him and help others become aware of bone marrow donation. Also, on May 8, 2011 a local newspaper printed an article about a young Arab girl that needed a matching bone marrow donation and her family was struggling to find a donor match [and it said]: ‘The best chance of a match is with a donor of similar ethnicity – and of the database’s 15.5 million registered donors, only 45 are from the Arab world. All 45, though, are registered with the Sharjah Bone Marrow Bank, set up in 2006.’ Immediately after reading this article I challenged myself to design a photography project that would raise awareness for the need of registered bone marrow donors.
How do most people usually react to the red chair?
Usually they first react with curiosity, which then turns into creativity. The only rule I have during photo shoots is that people not look directly at the camera. After that they decide for themselves how they want to pose or not pose with the chair. No two photo shoots are alike.
What’s the story behind the red chair?
Every time I photograph someone with the chair, I ask them to sign it. Signing the chair represents sharing the project and cause with friends, family and colleagues. The story of the chair grows with each portrait I take.
How long will the Untitled Chair Project go on?
The Untitled Chair Project doesn’t have a scheduled end date. I’m hoping even after the portrait sessions have ended, the project finds a home (travelling or static) and it continues to raise awareness.
Do you find that using art to raise awareness about a certain cause makes people more receptive?
Some people jog or run or play polo for a cause. I’m utilising photography and art as a tool to help raise awareness for a cause. Utilising art to raise awareness gives us a fun and positive platform to discuss the issues that need to be discussed.
How long have you been a professional photographer?
Like most professionals it started off as a hobby, I enjoyed it so much I decided to pursue it as a career and attended photography school in 1997.
Have you taken a self-portrait?
The simplicity of the old school Diana F+ [the type of camera Sean uses] doesn’t have the technology to shoot self-portraits. There’s no timer I can set and having someone else fire the shutter doesn’t count as a self-portrait.
Why do you prefer photography for your artistic expression?
Photography allows me to capture moments in time. I’ve always been able to tell a story with my camera, it’s my pencil and paper, paint and canvas. With every portrait that is shared with others through social media, I have seen the project gradually spread to other countries. When I photograph someone from Europe, North America or the Gulf region, they in turn share it with their network of family and friends. This has allowed me to reach out to people in a way that I would never have dreamed. To date the project has been viewed in 72 different countries.
For more information about The Untitled Chair Project visit www.theuntitledchairproject.blogspot.com. For more information about Sean Blake visit www.blakephotography.com.