Manchester Academy was packed out with a noticeably diverse audience on Thursday night for Find Your Eyes, a piece produced by Factory International for MIF and centred on creative powerhouse Benji Reid.
Reid defines himself as a ‘choreo-photolist,’ a word he coined to describe the unique fusion of theatre, photography and choreographed movement in his work; Find Your Eyes is a raw, honest and often surreal exploration of this fusion of genres.
The stage becomes Reid’s studio, with the photographer himself centre stage, his back to the audience and his directions to the three models often audible. As he shoots, the images appear in real time on large screens. Production team members are visible throughout, working at tech desks, moving props and camera equipment. It’s fascinating to get this privileged peep behind the curtain at a creative process – one particularly impressive series features model Salomé Pressac lying on a camera jib crane, her flowing dress and the black backdrop combining to make it appear as if she’s floating in mid-air.
Different photographic set ups mark different sections of the show – from black and white portraits of heightened emotions, to Afrofuturist landscapes created with elaborate metallic costumes and a hiphop soundtrack. Model and international pole dance champion Yvonne Smink strikes poses on a pole, while a vast yellow plastic sheet attached to her wrists and ankles billows behind her in the wind created by a fan – both the performance and the resulting images are so spectacular that they deservedly earn spontaneous applause.
It’s a testament to all involved in producing the photos that even though they are taken in a matter of seconds, onscreen they look as beautifully arranged as if they had taken hours of rehearsing and retouching – there’s a certain amount of bravery required to share work in this immediate way.
It’s unsurprising though, as Reid is equally unflinching in the narrative sections of the piece. In recorded voiceovers, he recounts dark periods of his life affected by drugs, alcohol, abortion and attempted suicide, which connect thematically with the photos being taken. His mother’s stroke and resulting physical immobility is poignantly depicted in a non-contact duet, with Pressac lying on a hospital bed, reaching out for help, and Slate Hemedi floating above her as an impassive god-like figure.
Although the text – written by Reid himself – makes use of some thought-provoking quotes, it does occasionally fall prey to cliché. It also feels overlong at 90 minutes, but in spite of this, Find Your Eyes is an interesting insight into Reid’s practice and lived experience.
Benji Reid Find Your Eyes is at Manchester Academy 1 from 12-16 July as part of Manchester International Festival 2023.