US photographer Sean Blake is using his creative skills to shed light on a cause very close to his heart. From his base in Abu Dhabi, he travels worldwide with a single red chair, shooting people seated upon it for his Untitled Chair Project blog. The project aims to raise awareness about the need for bone marrow donors in both the UAE and abroad. He visited Dubai last month to update his project: we spoke to the enthusiastic artist about his unique aim.
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. I honed the concept for about six months before I was able to take it from sketches and storyboarding to a real-world application.
So the aim of trhe project is to raise 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, to help others become aware of bone marrow donation. Also, on May 8 2011, a local UAE newspaper printed an article about a young Arab girl that needed a matching bone marrow donation. Her family was struggling to find a donor match. The article 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. After reading the article, I challenged myself to design a photography project that would raise awareness for the need of registered bone marrow donors.
How do people usually react to the red chair?
Usually they’re curious, which then turns into creativity. The only rule I have during photoshoots is that people can’t look directly at the camera. After that, they decide for themselves how they want to pose. No two photoshoots are alike.
What’s the story behind the red chair?
Every time I photograph someone with the chair, I ask them to sign it. This 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 continue?
It doesn’t have a scheduled end date. I’m hoping that 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 cause helps to make people more receptive?
Some people choose to jog or run or play polo for a cause. I’m using photography and art as a tool to help raise awareness for a cause. Using art to do so 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 went to photography school in 1997.
Have you ever taken a self-portrait?
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the old-school Diana F+ – the type of camera I use – means it doesn’t have the technology to shoot self-portraits. There’s no timer I can set to take the picture, 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, paper, paint and canvas. I’ve seen the project gradually spread to other countries through every portrait that’s shared with others through social media. 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, see www.theuntitledchairproject.blogspot.com. For more on Sean Blake, see www.blakephotography.com.