these nostalgic still lifes capture the crushed sporting dreams of teen girls

Alice Hutchison and Ilona Savchenko's 'Trophy Girl' explores the underrepresentation of women in sport and the aspirations of teenage girls that fall by the wayside.

by Nick Fulton
18 September 2018, 7:27pm

The 90s are back but Australian image makers Alice Hutchison and Ilona Savchenko are here to remind us that the decade wasn’t just about bucket hats, bike shorts, and spaghetti straps. Their first official collaboration under the name Hutchison & Savchenko looks at sports culture and the way it failed to encourage female participation beyond adolescence, irreversibly crushing the aspirations of those hoping to become the next Jennifer Capriati or Brandi Chastain.

Both Hutchison and Savchenko grew up in the 90s, and the theme is heavily influenced by their own experiences as teens. Hutchison briefly played football and cricket, but ended up pursuing dance, while Savchenko, who was born in the USSR, says, “young girls were expected to do aerobics, rather than pursue any other sport.” It was through this shared narrative, and by Hutchison discovering that her father had been collecting trophies for various sports that neither her or her sister had competed in, that the photographic series Trophy Girl was born.

Each image is steeped in nostalgia and took months to prepare. Hutchison and stylist Marie Eon (who assisted on the project) spent hours scouring thrift shops for props that fitted each specific theme, aesthetic, and color palette — greens and pinks for tennis, blues and reds for boxing, etc. Once everything was arranged, including the backgrounds, which Hutchison says “were custom made, so they are actually a gradient in real life,” her and Savchenko got behind the camera and captured the five instantly iconic images.

Can you explain Trophy Girl in a little more detail?
Ilona: We wanted to highlight, in a playful way, female underrepresentation and the way females are discouraged to participate in sport.

Alice: We wanted each image to be steeped in a kind of nostalgia that represented aspirational teenage girls in the 80s and 90s. Each image represents a different sport, but we made a decision not to use more typical female sports such as dancing, which is something I was heavily involved in when I was growing up. We wanted to represent sports that were perhaps a little more niche.

How does the theme connect to your own personal experiences playing sport when you were younger?
Alice: I was lucky enough to be brought up in a very progressive household, so my father insisted that both his girls played cricket and football. However, despite that, I still found myself pursuing dance… and I vividly recollect my attraction to dance paraphernalia, and how each object that I would attain that related to dance seemed to be filled with my own aspirations to be a great dancer.

Ilona: I think for me, I experienced it more on a cultural level, where gender roles and expectations are more clearly defined. As a teenager I tried to do boxing, and I remember being the only female in the class and having males not want to be paired with me because they saw it as emasculating.

Alice: I think the series, too, does have a very nostalgic feel, and that is influenced by my parents. Many years after leaving home I would visit my parents’ house to find a strange nostalgic gathering of my minor successes. It was interesting to see that, even in this kind of pathetic shrine-like way, my parents had preserved a part of my youth.

Where did the trophies come from?
Alice: Funnily enough, I did actually call up my parents, only to find out that they had thrown all of my trophies out. I was kind of horrified, but simultaneously entertained, to discover that my father had since started a collection of trophies of his own that had been [awarded to] other people. He’d been going to op-shops [thrift stores] and buying the most outrageous, kitsch trophies that he could find, and had been storing them in the family shed. The trophies had other people’s names on them and they were for sports I had never participated in, [so] it provided the impetus for us to explore other sports.

Can you explain your own individual roles and responsibilities?
Ilona: With this particular shoot, sourcing props fell on Alice and Marie and I was more involved in the technical side. When it comes to shooting, Alice and I always discuss the creative direction and how we’re going to approach the shoot, and we always take turns. There’s a really organic flow to how we shoot.

Alice: I think that creative direction and concept development should inform everything else you do, and once that strong foundation is formed it helps to propagate the rest of the process. Marie was an integral part of that. We spent about six weeks intensively prop sourcing. We would often separately go shopping and then meet to compare what we had bought, how it related to each sport, what kind of color palette we were working with for each sport, and what kind of meaning each object had. A large part of our practice is seeing how different elements affect a greater narrative.

You met while studying at university in Melbourne and have both worked as individual practitioners for several years. What made you decide to come together and collaborate?
Ilona: Alice was the star student at our university, and to be honest, she was a little bit intimidating. Then we went to China together, and that’s a whole other story. We shared a hotel room and I had food poisoning, so we became really good friends, really quickly. We’ve been best friends for a few years now, practicing photography separately, and I think we just noticed that our aesthetic and how we like to photograph is very similar. It can get quite lonely being a creative, and not having anyone to bounce your ideas off, and I think we just started slowly being there for each other creatively and it morphed into this.

Alice: Having had a long-running practice as both an artist and a commercial photographer, I agree with that. It can get very lonely, and being creative in isolation isn’t the most effective way of being. It’s been organic, in a way; we were working together before we officially started to collaborate. But it has also been quite deliberate and conscious, teaming up to work on projects that are more expansive, that involve more concept-driven ideas and have a lot of production behind them.

Ilona: When you’re two people, you can push the concept further because you have the resources to pursue something on a bigger scale.

Alice: And that sort of pre-production that I’m talking about, it’s not just prop sourcing, it can mean collaborating with other people, it can also mean set design or having to get something fabricated. It can mean working with talent. They are the sort of roles that a creative agency typically takes on, so doing that as a solo practitioner is near impossible. Doing it as a duo is more manageable, and then of course we’re photographers, so we’re highly engaged in the technical side of image making. We’re lighting all of our own sets, we’re doing all of the post-production, developing the photos, all the processing and printing. So it’s image making from the very conception all the way up to the finished image.

You’re building your own commercial practice. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Alice: We see ourselves as image makers, not primarily as photographers, because I think the word photographer implies that you’re a technician. What we deliver is much more comprehensive, and we really want to redefine what a creative practice looks like and move away from hierarchical structures and patriarchal processes that are typical in the photographic industry. I guess the ultimate goal for us is to create an innovative and dynamic practice that fills the space between art and commercial photography.

Ilona: I think strong concept-driven shoots will be something that becomes an ongoing narrative within our practice. Communicating something that is close to our hearts in a more accessible and fun way. We want our work to have a strong narrative and concept, that portrays things that are important to us. We are living in a society that is constantly bombarded with information, and I think if information is presented in a more light and fun way then it’s easier to get the message out there.

Alice: We both want to express femininity in our work that is not always clearly defined as feminine. So really bringing our true voice to the work, but in the same vein, we don’t want to present ourselves as being too serious, either. A lot of our work is humorous, it’s tongue-in-cheek, it investigates nostalgia, and it’s also looking at how high-end art and cultural influences mix with subcultures and the everyday. I think we’re going through a period now as a society where we are realizing how gendered we’ve made cultural activities and physical pursuits, and through recognizing that we can kind of redefine our future towards a more progressive idea of participation. And I think that also rings true for the way the way we’re running our practice. We are two women of equal standing, so we work on a collaborative basis, and we don’t typically employ the ‘photographer and assistant’ hierarchy.