Featuring doppelgängers of Donald Trump and Princess Diana, the photographer's new exhibition proves truth is only a construct
Before I hear Alison Jackson’s voice on the line, I hear the metallic screech of a car stopping suddenly nearby. Jackson apologizes for the noise and tells me she’s out for a quick afternoon stroll through Hollywood with Donald Trump. Not the Donald Trump, but a lookalike, one good enough to stop traffic.
To Jackson, this approximation of Trump, this simulacra of celebrity, is just as powerful as the real thing. The act of carefully smudging the boundaries between reality and illusion has been essential to Jackson’s artistic practice since the ’90s, when she first began producing photographs that show likenesses of public figures in compromising situations. In her images, Jackson dissolves the wavering partition that distinguishes celebrities from the rest of us, cleverly using lookalikes to imagine scenes from the private lives of the rich and the famous. Think the Queen of England in a nightgown, captured having breakfast in bed accompanied by her fleet of corgis, or Kanye West heaving Kim Kardashian into a pair of too-small Spanx.
Though her work often revels in the salacious and the absurd, Jackson also points to the one-sided intimacy that our celebrity-obsessed culture encourages, in which we find ourselves deeply invested in the lives of people who quite simply don’t know that we exist. Following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, Jackson found herself astonished by the parasocial nature of celebrity culture displayed in full-force, as millions mourned the loss “as if [Diana] was a family member.” She realized this paralyzing collective outpouring of grief was in many ways a result of the power of imagery—ordinary people felt a closeness to Princess Diana because the media obsessively proliferated her image through photographs, and what we see in photographs we assume to be real or true.
The following year, Jackson responded with a set of black-and-white photographs meant to challenge our devout belief in the veracity of images: one of a Diana lookalike smugly giving the camera the middle finger and another few that appeared to be a family portrait of the Princess, Dodi Fayed, and their lovechild. They were instant controversies. They also marked the beginning of Truth Is Dead, a retrospective that tracks our celebrity neuroses through the Trump era. On view through the end of January at Neuehouse Hollywood, Truth Is Dead features more than 60 portraits designed to question viewers’ belief in representation and truth.
Jackson joins Document to discuss the seductive nature of imagery, influencer culture, and what it takes to turn a civilian into a celebrity.
Alison: I’m out on the street here with the Donald Trump lookalike. It’s a bit of a roadstopper. I thought people hated Donald Trump here, but everybody is stopping and wanting a selfie. It just nearly caused a whole car pileup on the street.
Biz: I think I just heard that. I wonder if people’s perception of him has already changed post-election.
Alison: No. I remember in 2016, just before the election, people went crazy and mobbed [the Trump lookalike] outside Trump Tower in New York. We had to have a police escort to get out of it.
Biz: I’ve seen photos of that. It seemed like quite the entanglement.
“You’re cheated into believing it might be telling a whole truth when it’s only telling a grain of truth itself—that’s the very nature of photography.”
Alison: Thousands and thousands of people [came] to hurl abuse and then want[ed] a selfie. I thought as much [might happen] because celebrity always rules over the actual substance of a person. The image of someone is more important than who the person is. One thing Donald Trump has managed to do is create a super-celebrity of himself, [through] becoming president. So whether people hate his politics or not, they love to hate him.
Biz: How did the concept for Truth is Dead originate?
Alison: I started this body of work when Princess Diana died. I wondered why on Earth people were mourning her death and becoming hysterical about it when they actually didn’t know her. Very few of us had actually met her, but [the public] felt they knew her intimately as if she was a family member. So much so that the country came to a standstill—England was closed, as if it [was] COVID or some catastrophe.
What was even more amazing is that before her death the press was having a real downer on her. Everyone hated her at that time, but as soon as she died it pivoted to everyone loving her. There was mass guilt about her death because of the way she died—she was actually chased into a tunnel by paparazzi, who supplied the media with these photographs that we all desperately wanted to see. I remember at the time people even wanted to see photographs of how she died, but they were never published. There was this greedy, voyeuristic, macabre, and desperate need to have a look at Diana, as our [most famous] celebrity in the UK.
I started thinking, ‘Did we only know her through media images and the seductive and powerful nature of photography itself?’ I started to deconstruct the manufacture of Princess Diana’s fame and how imagery plays such a huge role in that. Imagery itself is a very seductive medium, [and it’s] slimy and deceitful. You’re cheated into believing it might be telling a whole truth when it’s only telling a grain of truth itself—that’s the very nature of photography.
Biz: I feel like our voyeuristic addiction to images has only gotten worse with the acceleration of digital media.
Alison: We now know that we’re tricked by photography but we just cannot help ourselves from wanting to believe it. It’s that wanting to believe it even though [we know] we’re being tricked that is the frightening aspect of photography.
We live our lives through imagery, and we’re living in a world where you can’t tell what’s real or fake anymore, and we’ve come to the conclusion it doesn’t matter. A bit like Donald Trump—it doesn’t matter if you hate his guts and you spent the past four years ranting and raging about [him]. The fact of the matter is, if you bumped into him, you’d want a selfie with him. Donald Trump is made up of imagery—very few of us have actually met him, very few people know what he’s actually like, yet he’s a master of media manipulation. He’s a master of creating an image that we all want to have a look at: half real, half cartoon. He’s a bit like a Flintstone in the same way that Kim Kardashian is like a Jessica Rabbit cartoon. We need that un-reality to say, ‘Well, nothing is real.’ It’s not surprising we live our lives in fantasy. We are living our lives through our imaginations because imagery incites the imagination—it incites desire for the object or the [person] inside the photograph.
Biz: How do you think the public’s fascination with celebrity has changed over the course of the pandemic?
Alison: Well, where are the celebrities? My imagination drifts to [them] constantly binging out of the fridge, putting on weight and worrying about it, and endlessly watching TV. Definitely not performing and not being out in public, which is what celebrities need and are really brilliant at. It’s the switchover, isn’t it, from the traditional media to social media. I think if celebrities [want to move beyond traditional media], they’ve gotta start genuinely showing their private lives and sharing authentic elements of themselves, which is hard.
Biz: Do you think that influencers are any more “real” than traditional celebrities? Would you ever experiment with the likenesses of influencers in your work?
Alison: I’d love to work with some of the influencers. I’ve been trying to collaborate with a couple recently. I don’t think influencers are any more real than traditional celebrities, but what they have done is tap into being a bit more authentic.
“My job as an artist is to tear down the walls of censorship and look behind the shiny, polished facades.”
Biz: Your image-making process is quite rigorous. Can you walk us through it?
Alison: I dread having to shoot because the shoot day is so exhausting and so tiring. The [lookalikes] come from off the street and suddenly they’ve got to look like a celebrity. So that means they’ve got to have a wig, the right color skin, and the attitude. It is an utter nightmare and that’s before you even start directing. The way I shoot, which is grainy images that look as though they’re badly shot, through a door crack or a window frame or a keyhole, is all helpful to disguise the fact that you’re looking at people who one-hundred-percent can’t take direction. They’re anxious, looking around wondering what to do, what not to do. I have to talk them through it the whole time.
Then I have to make the wig. On the Donald Trump wig, it took twenty top hairstylists to make it and they still couldn’t do it. One or two were in tears, not because anyone was getting angry with them, but because they couldn’t believe that they just could not make the wig. I ended up sort of having to make the wig myself.
Once the lookalike becomes a ‘celebrity’ they become a complete diva. It’s from nobody to diva in thirty seconds, it’s just horrendous so then I’ve got these personalities to manage. [He was] a real sweet guy before and [he’s] suddenly they’re a monster, not unlike the real Donald Trump.
Biz: That sounds difficult to manage.
Alison: It’s a nightmare and you can imagine what it must be like for the lookalikes. Suddenly they look totally different and they’re getting a lot of [attention]. In order to suddenly deal with mobs [of people], sign the autographs and take selfies, they’ve got to behave like celebrities.
Biz: How do traditional media and tabloids respond to your images?
Alison: The media reappropriates my imagery and puts [it back out] as if it’s real.
I remember Tony Blair came up to me and said, ‘How did [you] manage to get into William and Kate’s bathroom to take a picture of them in the bath?’ And I looked at Tony Blair and I thought, ‘God, you really are delusional just like everybody thinks.’ I think he was drunk. But the pictures look so real and sometimes there’s no identification on them other than something ambiguous, so people can’t tell. [There’s] a lot of, ‘[She’s] tasteless, disgraceful and disgusting,’ but why are they saying that when they’re reappropriating my images and giving me whole pages in the press?
Biz: Do you have any thoughts on the rise of deepfakes and the problems they’ve presented?
Alison: It’s frightening. My work in comparison raises questions about what’s authentic and what’s not. We can’t tell anymore, and does it really matter to us? I use an authentic person—that’s John Smith, not Donald Trump. And if you think it’s Donald Trump, your mind’s fucked because it’s not. You can’t rely on your own perception when it comes to photography. But deepfakes are designed to confuse. I don’t know how to begin to stop that unless there’s some form of regulation.
Biz: In a post-truth world, what does truth look like to you?
Alison: We live our lives through imagery, full-stop. All imagery is seductive and manipulated, even if you’re not digitally manipulating it. The very nature of photography is deceitful and won’t tell you the whole truth because of the way it’s cropped or shot. I’m proving the camera lies. My job as an artist is to tear down the walls of censorship and look behind the shiny, polished facades.