Paid Content is a new body of work by acclaimed British photographer David Stewart, that uses the setting of the advertising agency, an environment he, himself, has occupied for the past four decades. Through this project, Stewart explores the changing face of workplace culture and the wider dehumanising effect that is occurring due to the growth of large, faceless corporations and globalisation.
For his series, Stewart has constructed a finely tuned record featuring a cast of interrelated characters within a number of semi-biographical semi-fictional settings. Through his process, he accords a heightened reality to these scenes. The close focus, highly detailed images result in an unforgiving, penetrative treatment of his subjects and what they stand for – high gloss superficiality, smoke and mirrors - not the creative dynamism Stewart encountered when he first entered this environment.
"It is the people and culture I see around me everyday that influence my work. There is nothing stranger than what I see in real life, which is why my photographs appear slightly surreal," explains Stewart. "Often the interpretation of the work comes from the viewers' own reference points and can mean different things to different people."
Yet for all its outward disapproval at the fakery and insecurity it captures, Stewart’s images are imbued with a sense of humour and, even at times, an empathy for their subject matter. Through the positioning and lighting of his figures, he adds further layers to the imagery, evoking scenes from both Renaissance and Baroque paintings.
On closer inspection, the repeated inclusion of symbolism within the frame recalls the iconography of religious subjects from these artistic periods. On a contemporary level, these staged scenarios are instantly recognisable even to those outside of the advertising industry. Yet Stewart avoids mere stereotyping through his acute observational eye and impeccable casting of his characters. This is the Emperor’s new clothes laid bare.
Stewart adds: "In Paid Content, there is empathy with the subjects. We know that they know. Hopefully, these observations can remind us all it doesn’t have to be like this and there is a path to freedom."
Paid Content by David Stewart has been released simultaneously as an exhibition at Wren London (28th September 2018 – 17th November 2018) and as a book published by Browns Editions. Discover more at wren.london.