A conversation on digitalisation, speculative histories and increasingly widespread conspiracy theories with photography artist Esther Gabrielle Kersley.
Esther Gabrielle Kersley is a London-based documentary photographer working with speculative histories and semi-fictional narratives through long, research-based projects.
Esther Gabrielle Kersley was introduced to us through Revolv Collective as an artist we should feature as part of our on- and off-line on the topic of digitalisation. We became fascinated with her work, and with her The Fifth Generation project in particular – which concerns the increasing prevalence of conspiracy theories. Esther writes the following about The Fifth Generation:
‘Conspiracy theories, which thrive in times of uncertainty and have been linked to extremism, have now entered the mainstream. Their prevalence is a symbol of our so-called “post-truth society”, characterised by a lack of agreement over the nature of truth. The Fifth Generation looks into modern-day conspiracy theories linking 5G technology with the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in the vandalism of at least 100 phone masts in 2020. ‘
Maria spoke with Esther about her work, resulting in a newsletter in August 2023, the longer, extended version of which is featured here…
Maria / culturala
Hey Esther! It’s great to speak to you; I’m very glad that Revolv Collective introduced your work to us. Could you start by telling me a little bit about your background? How did you become an artist, and what is your way of working now?
Originally, I studied Politics and Conflict Studies, going on to work at various NGOs and think tanks in the area of international security and conflict for several years. This background has informed my art practice and, in some ways, was my route into photography. In a lot of these organisations, I was the informal photo editor and I became really interested in how we communicate complex topics visually. At the same time, I was working on my own projects, both photography and documentary short films. In 2019, I decided to do the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. And then I became a documentary photographer 😉
All the projects I work on are research-based, long-form projects – so they generally take some time. I usually have an idea of something I want to explore before I start. It could come from anywhere but it’s usually something that troubles me or that I don’t quite understand. And then I begin to research this topic by reading, watching and listening to things.
So my work comes out of this research… I don’t have a set way that I make images, it comes from the topic and what I feel suits it best. I generally try to research and make images at the same time, as I find doing these things simultaneously helps me figure out what I’m trying to say and the right language to use.
It’s quite unique that you’re seeing the research and the photography in parallel, rather than doing one after the other. So, I was especially interested in a range of your projects that are based on what I would call speculative histories. Would that be an accurate description?
Yeah, I think “speculative histories” is accurate. My work is not traditional documentary photography, but I still see it as documentary as it is responding to real events, but often using fiction to do this. My work is also concerned with the truth claims of photography, and the blurred boundaries between truth and fiction in documentary storytelling. I find fiction very powerful and believe it can sometimes provide more insight, or say something more truthful, than straightforward documentary work.
How did you end up working with this kind of in-between truth and fiction of speculative histories?
I think that my reason for working in this way is twofold. Firstly, it is often a result of the topic I’m working on – I’m drawn to subjects that are harder to visualise in a traditional way because they might be taking place virtually or mentally, or haven’t actually happened, or are contested.
Secondly, I think the topics I chose to work on are a reflection of the world we live in today – and so is my approach to these topics. I see misinformation and the overload of information in our online ecosystem as one of the key problems of our time. I think growing distrust in what we see and read is a reaction to this problem, and so I believe journalists, photojournalists, documentary photographers, artists and so on need to find new ways to reach and engage people.
I believe that art is most powerful when it allows space for ambiguity and doubt. This is a slight reaction against the world of politics and the limitations of straight, rational ‘facts’ to combat complex problems that are often rooted in emotion. I’m more interested in posing questions that will encourage curiosity in the viewer, prompting them to reflect and think for themselves, rather than providing an ‘answer’.
Fascinating. Could you tell me a little bit more about how you see this new way of engaging with the false/truth scenario of the online ecosystem?
The problem of misinformation is nothing new, but the internet, and in particular social media platforms, has increased the speed and reach in which information spreads, making the issue worse. And as social media platforms prioritise inflammatory content, ideas and information that make people angry travel further, meaning online discourse has become more polarised and extreme. In addition to this, the volume of information we are exposed to today is also having an impact on not just our sense of reality, but also our attention and our ability to engage meaningfully and critically with information we come into contact with. This is the environment in which art is being made today.
So, do you think that art has a response to this since it is made in that environment? It’s an age-long view of seeing art as a kind of mirror to its society, something that is kind of partly true and partly not.
Well, in photography, the term “postphotographic age” was coined to describe how this image-saturated era has complicated how we make and consume images. I think it also offers opportunities for photographers to make work in new ways and to think more critically about photography and our role as image makers. In a world where 3.2 billion images are shared online daily, how can we avoid adding to the noise?
For me, the response is rather than trying to elicit an immediate and strong reaction in the viewer, I’m more interested in making something that will force people to take the time to engage with it, to try and figure out what they’re seeing, and what they think about it for themselves, to prompt a conversation. To be comfortable in the grey area, a place of uncertainty.
I also think that through this we can show some of the limitations of photography as a medium of truth or objectivity.
Yes, that makes sense. And how do you see your art projects in particular responding to this current scenario of misinformation and oversaturation of images?
My series The Fifth Generation looks into modern-day conspiracy theories that in recent years, as a result of the internet, have entered the mainstream. The project focuses on online conspiracy theories that linked 5G technology with the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in the vandalism of at least 100 phone masts across Europe in 2020. 5G conspiracies interested me as they weren’t just a reflection of our online environment, but also a symbol of the technological shifts in communication we’re living through and our fear around this.
I started collecting social media exchanges and knew I wanted to be led directly by these voices. At the same time, I started reading official reports written by governments, NGOs and industry about the geopolitical, economic, and technological implications of 5G. Taken out of context, I realised this text was often as surreal as the conspiracy theories. I decided to try to visualise these various voices, mixing together the conspiracies and the real information and presenting them equally so you can’t tell which is which. In doing this, I’ve tried to mirror the online experience: the sense of being bombarded with constant information and being unsure of who to trust.
I used montage and appropriation, combining found images from the web, social media text exchanges and official reports with my own photography to interweave these various perspectives. I felt these techniques mirrored the rehash culture of conspiracy theories and the internet more broadly, reflecting their collage-like nature – coming from multiple sources, stitching together different ideas, and combining elements of truth and fiction, and playing on questions around truth and authorship that this work is concerned with. An important element was the combination of image and text, I tried to use it in a way that neither quite explain the other, to make you trust both mediums a little less.
I used this fictionalised and more ambiguous approach, on the one hand, to try and reflect this environment in a non-judgemental way, that doesn’t try and mock or make fun of conspirational thinking but attempts to get across the sense of confusion, fear, and uncertainty which I think is very real.
This approach was also designed to make the viewer work harder as it’s not immediately clear what the work is saying. It is not that I am ambiguous about the subject – l believe conspiracy theories are very dangerous and have serious real-world consequences – but I am interested in how we can understand this issue in a deeper way. Rather than through looking at and judging others, through considering our own blind spots and subjectivity, and how this may help give us a new perspective or gain a new understanding of this issue.
Yes, this makes sense. And I really think that series manages to do so: sometimes in a pretty scary way even. It’s also interesting how you use alt-right or fake news movements and turn them on their head, opening up what they’re kind of really about or where they come from. Do you have other projects that use a similar approach?
Yes. In a different way, my series Space Lasers (And Other Fantasies) is also a response to our online environment, and the sea of hate content, racist images, memes, and conspiracy ideology that consume online spaces. The antisemitic meme “The Happy Merchant” – depicting a stereotyped Jewish man with a hooked nose, beard, scheming hands, an evil smile and bulging eyes – is one of the most popular memes to exist on 4chan and Gab, two major alt-right forums.
The image originated from a cartoon from the 1980s that also included a racist caricature of a black man with the caption: “Let’s face it! A world without Jews and Blacks would be like a world without rats and cockroaches.” The stereotypical Jewish person in the cartoon was cropped out and began to spread on various internet communities in the early 2000s. Today, it is the most popular antisemitic meme on the internet.
My series traces where antisemitic iconography originates from, going back two thousand years to when European artists first began producing anti-Jewish images. At this time, Jews were depicted as reviled creatures: ravens or toads to indicate greed, or with horns and beast-like features to signify the devil. As antisemitism became racialised in the late 19th century, animal motifs stayed popular in depicting Jews, from snakes, pigs, and rats, to vermin and parasites.
The layered collages I’ve created combine photographs and photocopies of animal masks, self-portraits, and stuffed animals – abstracted to show how the image of the Jew has taken on a life of its own, fantastical and removed from reality. The idea again was to take a slower approach to the subject, the layered images take a while to decipher and represent how history continues to overlap with, and seep into, the present. By taking a historic approach, and focusing on animals rather than the more known visual stereotypes, I have tried to show how the “other” is built from a reservoir of ancient images that have been woven into the fabric of Western society over centuries, often in subtle ways through conspiracy theories, tropes and images.
Like with my previous work, the internet didn’t create this problem – it is a human problem – but the internet has aided its spread and reach, giving it a new lease of life, and moving it from the fringes to the mainstream to where it is now infiltrating mainstream politics.
Yes, and I really do believe we’re now living in a time of technology where we try to use the technology as a scapegoat for our problems instead of dealing with the human part of the problem. Thank you so much for sharing your work and thoughts, it’s been absolutely fascinating.