Winter 2007

Wanted: self-images

A facial composite kit from the 1970s is the basis for an intriguing personal project

Graphic authorship can take many forms: rather than a finished artefact it can be an open-ended exploration of something that grabs the designer’s attention. When photographer Giles Revell and designer Matt Willey first worked together without a client, they decided to do something about the destruction of the rainforests. The result was At This Rate, a striking booklet and poster that they produced and sold themselves to raise funds for the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

Their latest collaboration, Photofit: Self-Portraits, started to take shape when they got their hands on a 1970s police Photofit kit. This is a big wooden box full of indexed, jigsaw-like paper strips of facial features, used to help witnesses describe and identify criminals.

Revell and Willey invited people they knew to construct a Photofit image of themselves. The limitation posed by the 1970s hairstyles gave the collection a distinctive ‘look’. Revell took photographic portraits of each subject, shooting in a plain style that would complement the Photofit.

Philip Oltermann joined the project to interview the subjects, who included an author, a model and a police artist as well as photographer Eamonn McCabe. The process provoked some interesting revelations. Painter Humphrey Ocean thought it ‘similar to drawing or painting’. Peter Butler, a plastic surgeon, found it challenging: ‘I don’t look at my face that often.’ Lawyer Rajnaara C. Akhtar left white space to frame her face in place of her customary hijab. Falklands War veteran Simon Weston says he has had three faces: the one he was born with, the one after getting burned in the war, and he one he has now, ‘after numerous operations’.

Revell and Willey did not start with any plans for publication, but at Oltermann’s suggestion, The Guardian published the pictures and interviews as a feature for its Weekend magazine. For Willey, best known as an editorial designer, a project like this is also a way to escape the daily routine: ‘I really enjoyed meeting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Graphic designers are good at working in isolation, but they should get out more!’

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