I am an Ironman – second draft Artist’s Statement

Posted on November 28, 2011


I will keep reviewing my Artist’s Statement for this work as I assimilate information from my research. I have the sense that the original draft did not accurately reflect the documentary nature of the work. Ironman has a tangible visible form represented by the physical shape, clothing, hairstyles, tattoos etc of the athletes. My aim is to record and document the phenomenon through my portraits, whilst also commenting on issues of identity, gender, age etc.

This is my second draft.

Artist’s Statement – I am an Ironman (Version 2)

Ironman triathlon is an endurance sport which involves swimming, cycling and running over 140 miles. The athletes have 17 hours within which to complete the course. When crossing the finish line every athlete is announced with the words, “You are an Ironman”. The sport is open to men and women of all ages and nationalities, although I accept that it is really only open to the relatively wealthy of the developed world. Events take place on every continent and those who are successful in their age group or professional category win the right to compete in the Ironman World Championships which is held each year in Kailua Kona Hawaii. Getting to Kona is the ‘holy grail’ of the sport.

I am an Ironman triathlete myself and I am fascinated by why so many apparently normal people want to take part in such a brutal event. Some people do it to compete with others. Others do it out of a sense of adventure or to achieve life goals such as losing weight or getting fit. A few have very personal and highly emotional reasons such as celebrating a recovery from a life threatening disease, honouring a bereavement of someone close  or overcoming a disability. All of these reasons however are fundamentally about personal identity and self esteem. Ironman is a ‘right of passage’ –  a ritual event that marks a person’s progress from one status to another. John Collins the founder of Ironman is quoted as saying “Swim 2.4 miles, Bicycle 112 miles, Run 26 miles and brag for the rest of your life”. Acquiring these bragging rights (and their impact on self esteem and personal identity) is a key aspect of the sport.

After their first finish, athletes often go on to complete many more. They become part of the ‘family’ or ‘cult’ of Ironman and are driven by the desire to remain part of the ‘family’. They adopt modes of dress and appearance and tokens such as tattoos to signify their membership. There is tremendous respect between all  Ironman athletes to the extent that the professionals who win the races always come back to cheer the late-comers over the line.

My aim is to document the phenomenon of Ironman through a series of portraits of  athletes.  The portraits will be in a consistent documentary style, so that the viewer is invited to make comparisons and to consider the group of portraits as a cohesive whole. The work will explore issues of individual and group identity, and questions of race, gender, age and membership of the Ironman ‘family’.

The portraits will be printed large (close to life size)  so that the viewer is more likely to engage with the subjects and to enable detailed motifs within the portraits to be revealed.   They will be made in colour. Colour is a part of the culture which needs to be represented. The subjects will be pictured against either neutral backgrounds or against unobtrusive environmental backgrounds. This formal style refers to the work of August Sander, albeit updated through the use of colour and large prints.

The key photographic influence on my work is August Sander, who might be regarded as a founding father of typological photographic studies. However, there are many antecedents in photographic history and contemporary practice. Amongst them are: irving Penn’s celebrity portraits and Small Trades  work; Richard Averdon’s Portraits of Power and In the American West;  Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street; Rineke Dijksta’s Beach Portraits; Thomas Struth’s Family Portraits; Nadav Kander’s Obama’s People; Vanessa Winship’s Sweet Nothings  and  Dancers and Fighters. There is a rich source of influences for my work but clearly I will need to make my own voice heard.

Mickie Shapiro, USA, W75-79