In focus: Mahtab Hussain

British artist Mahtab Hussain's photographs explore the relationship between identity, heritage and displacement.

Born in Glasgow in 1981, Hussain grew up in Birmingham. His parents immigrated to Britain from Pakistan. Hussain has said that he often feels too British to be Pakistani and too brown to be accepted as British. It is this sense of place and displacement that he explores in his portraits.

First take

Show this photograph to your class and ask students to respond to what they can see – without telling them anything about the artist or the photograph.

Friends, Curry Sauce 'n' Chips

Friends, Curry Sauce 'n' Chips 2012

Mahtab Hussain (b.1981)

Gallery Oldham

  • Who is this a portrait of?
  • What is their pose and what are they doing?
  • What are they wearing?
  • What else can you see in the photograph?
  • What things do you recognise in this photograph? What things seem new to you?
  • Imagine you are inside this photograph. What can you hear, see and smell?
  • What is the mood of the photograph – what does it make you feel? (Is it funny? Is it positive and celebratory? Is it negative or sad?... )

Visual elements

Now discuss the visual elements. How has the photographer used the following techniques to tell us about his subject?

  • Composition and space
  • Camera angle
  • Lighting
  • Colour and texture

Teachers' notes/photograph thoughts

The photograph shows two young men sitting in front of a shuttered building and eating takeaway food. They are casually dressed in trainers, jeans and hooded sweatshirts. One of the men wears a traditional kameez over his Westen-style trousers. This mixing of Western and South Asian cultures reflects Hussain's interest in focusing on what is shared rather than what divides the cultures. 

  • The photograph is composed so that the two men are centrally placed and our attention is drawn to them.
  • Their poses mirror each other and balance the composition (as well as suggesting the harmony in their relationship).
  • The background suggests an urban setting but the photographer has cropped the photograph so we focus on the men.
  • The photographer seems to be standing close by with his camera at the same level as them, creating the impression of intimacy and suggesting they feel comfortable with him being there.
  • The photograph is evenly lit, suggesting it was photographed in daylight.
  • As well as reflecting the urban setting of the photograph, the brick wall with its paint drips and the ridged shutter adds texture to the background, contrasting with the smooth, soft fabric of the men's clothing.

You Get Me?

The photograph above is from Mahtab Hussain's photographic series, You Get Me?

For the series, he photographed young working-class Asian men and boys in contemporary Britain.

Explore more photographs by Hussain from the series as a class using the nudge questions below if helpful.

Discussion points

  • how would you describe the photographs to a person who could not see them?
  • why do you think Hussain chose to photograph these young men?
  • what is the location or background of the photographs how do you think these relate to the lives of his subjects?
  • do you think he is telling a story or putting across a message in his photographs? What do you think he wants us to take from them? 
  • what questions would you ask the artist about this work if he were here?

In focus: Alice Hawkins

Alice Hawkins's photographs have appeared in high-profile magazines such as i-D and Vogue. She has worked as a fashion photographer and has travelled around the world snapping the rich and famous.

In 2022 Hawkins was commissioned to work with a group of photography students in Hartlepool to take portraits of the local community. Hartlepool is a seaside and port town in Country Durham, England. She tasked the students with finding sitters (the people who would be in the portraits), choosing locations and helping with the shoot.


Luke 2022

Alice Hawkins (b.1979)

Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service

The students chose stylish young people for the portraits and a range of urban, semi-industrial, landscape and seaside settings. The resulting photographs combine glamour with the open, coastal areas around Hartlepool and the urban spaces of the town.

Teachers' notes / photograph thoughts

The photograph shows a young woman standing with her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes closed. She is casually dressed in black trousers, and a black t-shirt and jacket. Her long hair hangs loose over her shoulders and she wears heavy, dark make-up. The image and text on the t-shirt are partially hidden but it looks as if it is a tour t-shirt for the heavy-metal band Slipknot. 

She is standing in a field or wasteland with long grass and brambles. Behind her is an industrial building with chimneys bellowing out smoke or steam. The location seems to be the edge of the town. The industrial background adds a bleakness to the image but also a sense of drama with its lights and billowing smoke.

Visual elements

Hawkins has placed the woman in the centre foreground of the composition, so she is the focus of the photograph. Her standing pose creates a strong vertical axis which contrasts dramatically with the horizontal axis of the horizon line and building behind her. There is lots of space around her, and the buildings are in the distance. This makes her seem isolated but also perhaps suggests a sense of freedom and escape.

It looks as if the photograph was photographed in the evening. The light is fading and there are lights on the buildings behind. The woman's face is brightly lit, suggesting that additional lighting has been used to ensure that she stands out against the background and we can clearly see her features.

Discover and discuss: locations


Landscape 2022

Alice Hawkins (b.1979)

Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service

Visiting different locations and photographing people in the places where they live, work, and spend time is important to Alice Hawkins' portrait approach.

Discuss as a class or reflect on these statements by Hawkins.

'I never want to lose that road trip adventure spirit, exploring and making work with strangers who appear glamorous and extraordinary. Upon revisiting these images I am reminded of my subjects' lives, dreams and hopes, which to me appear timeless.'
'I don't just drive through somewhere, I get under the skin of a place ... It's a magical feeling when you meet a stranger and capture them, something to be kept and cherished. It's like putting your arms around someone rather than pressing a button.'


The quotations are taken from a longer interview with Hawkins about her exhibition at Hartlepool Museum.

If you are using this resource as a self-directed learner (or are teaching older students) read the whole interview and consider Hawkins' approach to her portraits and the people and places she photographs.

This video interview with Alice Hawkins provides more insights into her work.

Research and analyse backgrounds and locations

Look at more photographs in Alic Hawkins' Hartlepool series, using the carousel below.

Task students with selecting a photograph and making notes about how the location or background impacts their response to it. They could do this in small groups or as a homework activity.

  • What is in the background of the portrait – where do you think the sitter might be?
  • What mood or atmosphere does the background setting add to the portrait and affect how you look at it?
  • How different would these photographs look if the subjects had been photographed against a plain wall in a studio?
  • How differently would you respond to the photograph if it had been taken in a domestic setting – such as in a living room or bedroom?
  • How has Hawkins used visual elements such as composition, lighting and camera angle to ensure that the background setting is an important part of the portrait?

Come together afterwards to compare a selection of the photographs and students' responses.

Photography project: A portrait of my place

Develop a photography project using the theme 'a portrait of my place'. Create a portrait in a location that is local to where you live and tells us something about the sitter's sense of place and identity.

Research photographers for inspiration

Choose a photographer to research and be inspired by from the list below. Or choose another photographer you admire the work of. Browse more photographs on Art UK.

Analyse and make notes about the photographer's work. You could think about:

  • what it is about the work that inspires you.
  • how the photographer has used pose, setting, clothing and props (such as objects or accessories included in the portrait)
  • how the location and background impact how we look at the photograph and tell us something about the sitter
  • how they have used formal qualities such as composition, lighting, texture and colour.

Use your notes and the responses to the photographer's portraits to plan your photograph.

Bandele 'Tex' Ajetunmobi

Bandele 'Tex' Ajetunmobi was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved the Britain in 1947. After settling in East London, he began recording the daily lives of his friends and acquaintances, on the streets and in the pubs, shops and clubs. His photographs are an important historical document of social and cultural life in the East End of London.

From the Series 'East End Portraits'

From the Series 'East End Portraits' 1950–1980

Bandele 'Tex' Ajetunmobi (1921–1994)


Wayne Crichlow

Wayne Crichlow photographs people in Hackney, East London against the backdrop of streets and shops. He helped set up Future Hackney: a photography project inviting residents to get involved in photographing and telling the stories of people living there. He was born in East London to West Indian parents, and sees photography as 'visual storytelling'.

See more photographs by Wayne Crichlow on his website

Alice Hawkins

Use Alice Hawkins's photographs of young people as inspiration.


Gabe 2022

Alice Hawkins (b.1979)

Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service

Mahtab Hussain

Be inspired by Mahtab Hussain's photographs capturing young men engaged in everyday activities against the backdrops of where they live.

Friends, Curry Sauce 'n' Chips

Friends, Curry Sauce 'n' Chips 2012

Mahtab Hussain (b.1981)

Gallery Oldham

Walter Simms

Walter Simms was a student at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in the 1970s when he made black-and-white photographic portraits of his friends and classmates in urban locations around the city. The decaying urban locations he selected create an atmospheric backdrop to the portraits and add rich texture to the background.

Alexa Rutherford, Magdalen Green, Dundee

Alexa Rutherford, Magdalen Green, Dundee 1972

Walter Simms (b.1950)

University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College Collection

Don Travis

Along with Wayne Crichlow, Don Travis helped to develop the Future Hackney project in East London, documenting the Caribbean and African communities who live there and telling their stories. 

Planning your photograph

  • Decide who you will photograph. You might choose to photograph yourself (a self-portrait) or a friend or family member.
  • Choose a location that is local to you and reflects who your sitter is or tells us something about them.
  • Think about the mood or atmosphere you want your photograph to have and how the setting could help put that across.
  • You could also consider the shapes, textures and colours of the background and how these might add to the impact of the portrait.
  • Let your sitter decide what to wear, but you could provide instructions such as 'wear clothing that says something about you' or 'wear your favourite clothes'.


Things to think about...

  • Where you want your sitter within the frame of the photograph
  • How far away you and the camera will be from them. A close-up photograph will create a very different portrait than one taken from further away.
  • You might choose to crop the image so that the sitter takes up most of the composition or you might decide to show an expanse of background.

Camera angle

Things to think about...

  • Where you will stand and the angle of the camera.
  • Will you be at the same level as your sitter, as if you are engaging with them? Will you look down on them or up at them? How might this affect how they appear?

Anne Skinner, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee

Anne Skinner, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee 1970

Walter Simms (b.1950)

University of Dundee, Duncan of Jordanstone College Collection


Things to think about...

  • Do you want the pose to create a particular mood?
  • Do you want an informal pose, with the sitter engaged in an everyday activity such as eating, chatting, listening to music or looking at their phone?
  • Do you want the sitter to look directly at the camera? (This will mean that when someone looks at the photograph it will appear as if the sitter is looking at them.)
  • Or do you want to capture your sitter looking down, into the distance or out of the frame of the image? Think about how the direction of their gaze will affect the mood of the photograph.

Grey Polo, Hair Design, Car

Grey Polo, Hair Design, Car 2012

Mahtab Hussain (b.1981)

Gallery Oldham


If you are taking your photograph in an outdoor setting, you will probably use natural light.

You will need to think about...

  • The direction of the sunlight and shadows and where your sitter will be in relation to these.
  • If the light source is behind them they will appear as a silhouette and their features and expression will be less visible.
  • You may decide to photograph your subject in the evening or at night. Think about how you could use lighting to ensure there is enough light for your sitter to be visible.


Nadene 2022

Alice Hawkins (b.1979)

Hartlepool Museums and Heritage Service


If you are developing a 'portrait of my place' project as a group or class, you could present your photographs as an exhibition. Future Hackney presented photographs on the streets where the sitters were photographed. How do you think this might have affected who saw the photographs? How different would they have looked if they were displayed on a white wall in a gallery?

Think about...

  • Who would you like to see your photographs and where would you like to see them displayed?
  • How could your exhibition reflect the sense of place captured in your photographs?

Exhibition of photographs from the Future Hackney project, on Mare Street, Hackney

Exhibition of photographs from the Future Hackney project, on Mare Street, Hackney

Extension activity: portrait vs documentary photographs

The locations in the photographs explored in this resource play an important role in how we see and respond to the portraits. Both Mahtab Hussain and Alice Hawkins see their photographs as portraits, but the portrait settings add a documentary element to the photographs – telling us something about the sitters' everyday lives.

Consider or discuss the difference between portraits and documentary photographs.

You could compare these two photographs as a starting point and consider the points below.

Margarita (2022) by Alice Hawkins
Untitled (England 1966–67) by Bjørn Falch Andersen

  • Think about the photographer’s role and intention. How did they plan and prepare for the photograph?
  • Did they 'stage' the photograph (e.g. choose the location, where to place the people and how to pose them)? Or did they capture events as they unfolded?
  • You could think about the interaction between the photographer and the subject. Is the person or people in the photograph aware of the photographer? Are they responding to instructions or simply going about their lives?

These links may be helpful:
Falmouth University: What are the different genres of photography?
Canon stories: In conversation: when documentary met portraiture

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