British photographer Luisa Whitton’s (b. 1991) project What About the Heart? features life-like robots from a Japanese research lab, suggesting a human presence by showing them in characteristic poses, while also laying bare the machinery underneath the robots’ skins. Whitton’s sometimes uncanny photos of these robots were picked up by major magazines and awards, offering Whitton the opportunity to finalise her project. While she’s in Tokyo finishing up the last photo shoots for the project, she takes a moment out to talk with GUP in this interview about ambiguity in photography, how collaborating with robots can be fun and whether robots can have their portraits taken.
When did you meet your first robot?
Ever since I saw the robots of the Japanese scientist Hiroshi Ishiguro on tv, I was fascinated with them. Professor Ishiguro had created these robots as a tool to investigate whether human presence can be transmitted into an inanimate object. The best way to test this was to create a replica of a person and then program the robot so that it has all the same mannerisms, so he started by creating a robot copy of himself. I wanted to meet with him and find out more about his research. It started as a very simple curiosity. And then, when I was doing my BA Photography at the London School for Communication, the photographic award Ideas Tap had an opportunity to shoot your dream project and I applied. I got the funding to travel to Japan in 2012.
Did Ishiguro allow you to be around while he was working?
I think when I first interviewed him, he was interested in my artistic views on his research – we come from such different backgrounds, and apparently that turned out to be interesting to him, too. That allowed me to gain more access to his laboratory over time.
In the images, it’s almost disturbing how lifelike some of the robots appear, and you seem to be directing our attention towards that specifically. What’s the story behind the project’s title ‘What About the Heart?’
In one of the interviews I had with Professor Ishiguro, I asked him how technology and creating androids could change the definition of what it means to be human. He answered: “The definition of human will be more complicated, there is no absolute definition. We use artificial organs more and more, and replace our bodies with machines.” I wanted to know about emotions, so I asked “What about the heart?” and he continued: ‘The heart is the easiest part. Artificial hearts are very popular now. The liver is more difficult.” What is interesting about this title, is how for me it represents our differing approaches to the subject. Professor Ishiguro is interested in the science, and I’m coming from an artistic background. I’m developing the project playing along these two lines: art and science.
Is it fun to photograph somebody who doesn’t really react to you?
Actually, yeah! I use a 6x7 medium format camera, and it’s nice to take my time setting up. But, I’ve found it more challenging actually to photograph a robot than a person in this way, because of the programmed movements, I have to set up the shot, and wait for the moment the robot is completely still.
Tell us about their movements. How do they affect your photographs?
The robots have a programmed ‘movement cycle’ that runs through slight head movements, blinking and facial expressions, I have been creating video portraits of this, and creating formal portraits too. However video seems to give too much away. If you see the moving, and you see the scientific stuff around it, then the magic thing “is it human?” is gone. With the photos you can hold onto that ambiguity a lot better.
Is a portrait of a robot actually a portrait, or is it a still life?
Yeah, this is interesting. I guess a portrait can be defined as a ‘representation’ of a person. And the robot copy is a ‘portrait’ or ‘scientific representation’ of the professor, so then the photographs I am taking become a photographic portrait of a portrait. This cycle of portraiture is interesting to me…
People like to have photos to have a likeness of themselves, or their family members or lovers. Do you think robots will eventually replace that function of photos?
Since I’ve been in Tokyo actually, I’ve found another laboratory that is a manufacturer of all types of androids, and I’ve started hearing more and more about one-off customers ordering android copies of themselves, but they are extremely expensive!
Which has been your favourite robot to photograph?
The robot copy that Ishiguro made of himself is the one that’s most interesting to me, because that was the one that first started my interest in this project. But his new robot is also intriguing. He has made a newer copy because he started to look much older than his first robot. For a while he even used plastic surgery to keep looking like his robot, but now he has made a new, older looking copy of himself. I’m photographing that one at the moment.
In the series there are some photos of robot masks. There’s something very unsettling about seeing a face that doesn’t have a body. You can’t help but feel that there’s a personality there...
That’s what we project onto a portrait, don’t we? We project our emotions and reading in a face. But a photograph is just a flat surface, it’s our reading and our projection that makes us feel like there’s a human presence there.