Assignment 5: There Are Two Kinds of People

About the work

There Are Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class and 65.5% working class?)

On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted by the EU Referendum into binary, oppositional tribes.

(is Pickering 44.7% globalist and 55.3% nationalist?)

A referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of a complex situation was followed by a doubling-down of this regrettable tendency for the politics of division, as new “us vs them” labels emerged overnight.

(is Barnsley 31.7% liberal elite and 68.3% left behind?)

Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity onto a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but diametrically opposed to those who had put their cross in the other box.

(is Burnley 33.4% striver and 66.6% skiver?)

I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in according to their split in the EU Referendum result. I want to encourage some reflection about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’ – how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values; how simplification, though tempting, can be harmful.

(is Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner and 54.7% racist?)

The series also acts as a critique of social documentary, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’. With apologies to Martha Rosler, this is Northern England in two inadequate descriptive systems.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Submission

Click the first image for a full-screen slideshow.


Self evaluation

A few general notes on my experience on this assignment before addressing the particular criteria:

This has been the most involving, frustrating, enlightening, circuitous, thought-provoking but ultimately rewarding photography work that I have yet undertaken. It’s taken longer than any other assignment, involved long stretches of inactivity and over the period of the assignment has significantly changed shape in various ways (including literally).

The original intention was to deliver a more traditional social documentary photography project on social inequality, using the EU Referendum result as the starting point for a series of juxtapositions. However, over time I became aware that I was seeking out stereotyped imagery to spell out my preconceived binary messaging, and began reflecting on this. I became more interested in the tendency to oversimplification that I was not only seeing in my own work but was reflected in both the Referendum campaign itself and the aftermath in the media and popular discourse. The parallels between the subject matter and the medium of photography also became more apparent to me as the assignment evolved.

This move away from ‘straight’ documentary photography towards something more like a postmodern meta-critique of documentary photography is a direction very much outside my usual comfort zone and feels somewhat risky and ambitious – which I am ultimately OK with as I appreciate the need to push boundaries as I move from Level 2 towards Level 3 of my studies.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques and design skills, the most obvious aspect of this work is the pie chart format. Deciding on this presentation format was the key turning point in this assignment, as I felt it both suited the ‘data as representational system’ concept and provided a visually distinctive format that would attract the viewer’s attention. As a bonus, it also helped to expand my digital processing (i.e. Photoshop) skills.

The underlying concept tested my observational skills and visual awareness as I needed to locate images in the chosen locations to depict the extremes of stereotypes that I sought. I gave myself an additional challenge in terms of compositional skills with the pie chart format as I needed to find scenes that could fit into the unusual shapes.

Quality of outcome

I’m happy with the quality of the content and presentation as these matched the conceptualisation of my visualisation reasonably well. I got comments from other students which reassured me that the communication of ideas was working:

  • “Great messages within. […] The circle and segments is a great format.”
  • “Although I don’t have the cultural and political background, I caught the idea and think it’s a very interesting and imaginative approach.”
  • “I find this is a very strong and engaging concept, the pie charts are inspired and the images are strong and offer insight on the motivations, perceptions and myths for voting patterns.”

In terms of applying knowledge by far the most useful strand of my recent studies has been the notion of authorship in documentary photography – something that I have intentionally brought to the fore in this work. I incorporated techniques of metaphor and metonymy to help project my intended messages.

Demonstration of creativity

This is an area where I have often judged myself as lacking, but I am much more satisfied with this assignment than the previous ones on this course. I feel that the concept and execution show a greater degree of imagination and experimentation than my earlier work, as I have taken risks in both the presentation format and the communication intent. The biggest risk I am taking in terms of communication is that I am, in effect, asking the viewer to disagree with what I am presenting – which must be fairly unusual as an approach.

In terms of my developing personal voice, I had a realisation over the last year that my own work is tending towards what one might call ‘expressive documentary’, or in John Grierson’s words, “the creative treatment of actuality”. By this I mean that I’m attracted to subject matter that’s rooted in reality, and often has a social documentary aspect to it, but at the same time I feel somewhat limited by the norms of ‘straight’ documentary photography and want to ‘play’ with the format a little. This assignment definitely feels like a key part of what I believe is my developing photographic journey.

Context

This assignment required a significant amount of reflection on what kind of photographer I want to be, and I’m glad I took the time to work through the various stages and rejected ideas to end up where I did with this. This assignment gave me further insight into the application of photography as a visual language, how one can encode intended messages in a visual format for the viewer to decode.

One particular work emerged as an inspiration to the assignment, although it took me a while to recognise its influence: Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In terms of critical thinking, Steve Edwards book-length analysis of the work, Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012) gave me a deeper appreciation of the multiple theories underpinning the work, some exemplified by Rosler’s work and some deliberately rejected by it.

Other important elements of research that supported this assignment came from the work I did on metaphor and metonymy for the critical review assignment, as I found myself attempting to apply some of the ideas I’d written about in that essay.

Finally, I captured much more of my work-in-progress for this assignment than any other – from initial desk research to related photographer work to rejected experiments. I have found this recording of the process to be very useful and intend to do more of it at Level 3.


Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Research point: Crowdfunding

It’s interesting how quickly things move these days; the 2011 BJP link in the course notes doesn’t connect to a live web page, and a search of the site for ‘crowdfunding’ brings up as the first result the news that Emphas.is, the specialist photojournalism crowd-funding platform covered in the OCA article, went into liquidation in 2013 (and WeFund seems to have similarly disappeared).

However, that seems to me to say more about how specific platforms were operated than anything about crowdfunding as a general phenomenon, which appears to be gaining ground.

For the contributor

I’ve personally had experience as a sponsor of a crowdfunded project, Les Monaghan’s Relative Poverty, and it made me think about the benefits from an contributor point of view. In some cases I presume the expected audience is the contributor – “I’d like to see that”.

For me it was more about wanting the project to go ahead because I felt its messages needed to be heard than it was about wanting to see the results myself; I acted as more of a (small percentage!) patron than as a potential viewer.

Most photography crowdfunding involves some kind of contributor ‘reward’, such as a book, an exhibition invitation, a print etc. Particularly for projects with a social documentary photography focus, the notion of getting ‘rewards’ for contribution struck me as potentially problematic – for the Relative Poverty project I contributed at a level that got me a couple of key rewards: a portfolio review (extremely helpful, and the main reason I contributed at the level that I did), and a copy of my choice of image from the exhibition – this latter reward sat oddly with me: much as I want to support the project, I can’t see myself wanting to display an image of abject poverty in my home (sorry, Les!).

Relative Poverty.jpg
from Dave’s Story, Relative Poverty, 2017 by Les Monaghan

For the photographer

The benefits of crowdfunding from the photographer point of view are self-evident: one can confirm a level of interest and – more practically – money before committing to a project.

More specifically, spreading the funding across multiple small patrons could potentially alleviate the risk (or perception) that there has been some invisible editorial or curatorial hand influencing the message. Crowdfunding actually strengthens the photographer’s authorial hand.

The flipside is this though: what happens to the potentially fascinating, imaginative and enlightening projects that don’t get made because a crowdfunding target isn’t met? The success of a crowdfunding campaign relies not only on the strength of the idea but also the marketing skills of the creator – the Prison Photography case study reaffirms this, with its focus on the sophisticated promotional skills of its founder Pete Brook.

The fact that crowdfunding platforms exist and have produced success stories is clearly a good thing, and as per the OCA article it does help to ‘democratise’ documentary photography. I’m not averse to the idea of using such a method in future.

Sources

Crowdfunding http://www.weareoca.com/photography/crowd-funding/ (accessed 26/06/2017)

Relative Poverty http://www.relativepoverty.org (accessed 26/06/2017)

Prison Photography https://prisonphotography.org (accessed 26/06/2017)

Emphas.is story http://www.bjp-online.com/2013/10/crowdfunding-platform-emphas-is-goes-insolvent-amid-internal-conflicts/ (accessed 26/06/2017)

Exercise: Kingsmead Eyes

Brief

Visit the web pages of the Kingsmead Eyes project. Investigate the original 2009 project and the latest Kingsmead Eyes Speak project.

Write notes in your learning log about how the work is presented on the website, in particular the use of mixed media – stills, video and audio.

Response

On the face of it this seemed similar to the PhotoVoice projects I just looked at – a collaborative work where non-photographers (in this case schoolchildren) are given cameras to document their own lives. However, I found it to have more depth and hold my interest much more than the PhotoVoice projects (possibly due to the lack of full projects online for that particular initiative?).

Kingsmead.jpg

The depth comes from the approach. The project leaders, photographers Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes, first spent a week introducing the project and explaining the concepts of photography (both technical and creative, including the role of documentary photography) before letting the children do their own independent shooting.

The aspect of the project workflow that interested me most (being as I am currently fascinated with notions of authorship in documentary photography) was that the children were guided through the editing process for their own images, rating them from 1* to 5*, and encouraged to critique their own work. This led to a much more personally distinctive set of images, without the invisible hand of a curatorial adult/expert.

Presentation

The mixed media format of the project is a big part of why it is successful. The structure is that each child has their own page, accessed from an index grid, and the page has a combination of photographs (both of and by the child), audio, handwritten poetry (related to one of their own images) and video. One gets a real sense of individual stories being told, however minimally, and the characters of the children shone through. Small things like actually hearing their own voices over clips of their photos makes it much more immersive and engaging than photos alone. I’m not usually a huge fan of video works over still photography, but I think here it really suits the content, and works here extremely well.

Karolina.jpg

Some of the work is surprisingly strong; some of the kids have a natural eye for an interesting shot. I presume they all got the same upfront photography lessons and prompts, but some of them produced genuinely visually interesting images.

The poetry angle was also fascinating; the idea of writing a poem to accompany a photograph would most likely fill the average adult with dread, but 10 year olds are less constrained by convention and have little comprehension of the embarrassment of appearing pretentious that us adults do!

In all, I found this to be an enlightening project that broke free from the norms of documentary photography to produce something that is both distinctive at the level of the whole project, and allows for the individual’s voices to come through. I wonder how many of the participants subsequently become photographers…?

Sources

Kingsmead Eyes 2009 http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org/kingsmeadeyes/ (accessed 23/06/2017)

Kingsmead Eyes Speak http://www.kingsmeadeyesspeak.org (accessed 23/06/2017)

Research point: PhotoVoice

PhotoVoice is a charity with the following mission statement:

“PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which everybody has the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story.

Our mission is promote the ethical use of photography for positive social change, through delivering innovative participatory photography projects. By working in partnership with organisations, communities, and individuals worldwide, we will build the skills and capacity of underrepresented or at risk communities, creating new tools of self-advocacy and communication.” (Photovoice 2017)

In practical terms: it gives cameras, training and mentoring to specific communities for them to document their own circumstances.

Banner_PV079N088-750x330.jpg
from LookOut UK, 2012-13

The site itself is surprisingly (suspiciously?) short on actual photography; each project has a few example shots and lots of explanatory text. Each project has specific objectives, some internal to the project participants (developing self-confidence / self-advocacy, creative and communication skills etc) and some externally-focused (raising awareness etc). The balance is what I found interesting – some of the projects came across as much more about helping the individuals (in a traditional ‘charity’ sense) with the resultant images as by-products.

The course notes ask us to look at “the documentary value and visual qualities” of the images.

Documentary value

In terms of documentary value, the key aspect of PhotoVoice projects is the adherence to the insider viewpoint – there’s an inherent layer of authenticity. The flip side, as discussed in Solomon-Goudeau’s essay Inside/Out (2005) is that the insider can be too close to be objective, and miss observations that an outsider would pick up on.

Visual qualities

In terms of visual qualities (to the extent that this can be ascertained from the limited examples on the site) there is perhaps inevitably an emphasis on ‘straight’, no-frills documentary photography as these photographers were very much amateurs given some guidance by mentors, rather than experienced or gifted photographers.

Multiple photographers leads to a lack of a distinctive visual style, which from a  viewing perspective makes a lot of these projects of limited visual interest, if not already engaged in the subject matter. However, as touched upon earlier, the aim of these projects is not simply to produce documentary photography but more significantly to provide skills, support and agency to the individuals involved. So perhaps they don’t need to be visually distinctive to be ‘successful’ in this context.

Authorship

To return to one of my pet obsessions: authorship… these are unusual projects in as much as they have multiple, untrained practitioners producing the work. The key ‘author’ in this circumstance is really the editor(s) – selecting images that meet the communication objective, constructing a narrative out of the multiple viewpoints and moments captured. It wasn’t clear to me whether the participants were themselves involved in the editing process or whether PhotoVoice had the final say on image selection (or indeed whether this varies per project). The extent to which any editorial authorship is intentional or reflexive is, of course, a perennial question for any and all documentary photography.

Sources

PhotoVoice https://photovoice.org (accessed 23/06/2017)

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Assignment 5: [draft for review]

This is a draft version of my proposed Assignment 5 for peer review – any feedback is most welcome.


Northern England in Two
Inadequate Descriptive Systems

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(Remainer or Leaver?) On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted into binary, oppositional tribes.

(Liberal elite or left-behind?) A referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of a complex situation was followed by a doubling-down of this regrettable tendency for the politics of division, as new “us vs them” labels emerged overnight.

(Young and naive or old and bigoted?) Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved veracity on a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, often falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people, even places, as not only homogenous but also diametrically opposed to others who had put their cross in the other box.

(Upwardly mobile or down and out?) I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in, all in the North of England, through the lens of the EU Referendum result. I want to encourage some reflection about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values; how simplification can be harmful.

(Striver or skiver? Globalist or nationalist? Rich or poor?)  I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.


[click first image for a full-screen slideshow]


Notes:

EU Referendum results per town:

  • Barnsley: 68.3% Leave / 31.7% Remain
  • Burnley: 66.6% Leave / 33.4% Remain
  • Dewsbury: 54.7% Leave / 45.3% Remain
  • Middlesbrough: 65.5% Leave / 34.5% Remain
  • Pickering: 55.3% Leave / 44.7% Remain

The title is an homage to Martha Rosler’s project The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75), from which this work takes some inspiration.


Self evaluation

[to follow…]

Assignment 5: more work in progress

I’m building the candidate images for each town as I go along, even though I have still to shoot in one town (Barnsley).

I’m not sure about all of these; the tricky thing is most definitely the pairing of two photos together to make a single image. Some are working better than others. However, I resolved early on to document more of my work in progress, and I am finding the process useful – not so much regarding feedback (not expecting any on w-i-p) but simply to make me complete and publish images – even if they need refinements – on an assignment that I have found easier to procrastinate away from than to knuckle down to! It does feel like I’m getting closer to images that I am happy with – so these are all useful as they are either final images or learning points :-)

I’m looking for 15 images in total, three each from five towns.

So far I have three for Burnley:

… three for Middlesbrough:

… and one each for Dewsbury and Pickering:

Assignment 5: (another) alternative title

I’m still thinking about the advice I was given to make the project title link to the content (and concept) more clearly.

For today anyway, I’m falling out with the last title idea I’ve been working with – Two Kinds of People – as the project deliberately doesn’t include people, and depicts whole towns using stereotypes.

I’ve already acknowledged a inspirational debt to Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1972-74), and I’m currently pondering whether to go one step further and make the title an homage to it:

Northern England in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems

… but I might change my mind tomorrow!

Assignment 5: further refinements

I said early on in this assignment (many months ago now) that I wanted to document my working process and draft ideas more than I had previously done, and this has certainly proven to be the case – I just had no idea just how much the project would evolve in the intervening time. Looking back it’s been a necessary but sometimes meandering journey to get to where I need to be with this work.

Last week, after a flurry of activity were I posted up some work-in-progress images, I took some time to ponder how the overall work was coming across now that I could see it taking shape as (potential) final images.

A couple of changes are needed I believe:

Captions

Up until recently I was working on combining data, images and provocative text captions to get across my message (about divisive over-simplification).

Middlesbrough 1

Looking at the images I produced at this stage, I’m now of the opinion that these text captions are overkill – they are directing the reading too much, and competing for attention with the images. One thing I realised is that the message would still work if I removed the images! – which, for a photographic project, didn’t feel right.

A rethink was needed. I am currently working with captioning each image simply with the town’s name, but with the addition of a question mark – to imply that I am challenging rather than reinforcing the stereotyping I am depicting. I’m aiming to say “This is <town x> – or is it?”

Middlesbrough 1

Title and statement of intent

However… the oppositional pairings of labels that I had been planning to use as captions are, I still think, a powerful aspect of the message that I don’t want to completely lose. They have framed my shooting and selection decisions, and I do want examples of them to be floating around in the viewer’s mind when they view the images.

After deciding to simplify the captions as depicted above I had the opportunity to discuss the work with an OCA tutor (not my own tutor Derek as it happens, but Les Monaghan – a tutor I first met last year and met again at the weekend in connection to his project Relative Poverty). His view was that I needed something to frame the context that the pie chart splits were the Leave/Remain percentages, as this isn’t clear. His suggestion was to make the overall project title more explanatory (my current working title is Two Kinds of People) and he suggested I go for something like Leave/Remain, Leave or Remain, Leave vs Remain etc.

My reaction was (and still is, to be honest) that I don’t really want to be so overt with the title – but I do completely see what he means about helping the viewer a little more. I’m also wary of elevating the Brexit element too much, as to me this is the context of the ‘oversimplification’ message and not the core message itself.

With the above in mind, my current solution is to keep the title but update the statement of intent (again!) to add more of a frame around the context – including some of the oppositional pairings that up until recently were going to be captions. I hit upon the idea of using the pairings as a kind of verbal rhythm through the statement.

So my statement of intent currently looks something like this:

Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

Are you a Remainer or a Leaver? On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted into binary, oppositional tribes.

Are you the liberal elite or the left-behind? The referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of an impossibly complex situation was followed by a doubling down of this unfortunate tendency for the politics of division, as new labels emerged overnight – some neutral, some self-identified, some insulting.

Are you young and naive or old and bigoted? Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, often falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but also diametrically opposed to whoever had put their cross in the other box.

Are you part of the multicultural middle class or the white working class? I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in through the lens of the EU Referendum result, with the aim of provoking thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values.

Are you striver or a skiver? An enemy of the people or one of the people? A foreigner or a racist?  I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Burnley 1Pickering 1Dewsbury 1

Assignment 5: updated title and statement

Title

For the longest time I had in mind a specific title for this work:

I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine

The significance of the phrase was to evoke the overly-simplistic mindset of voters in the EU Referendum: that the vote would either validate a comfortable life or transform an uncomfortable one – continuity vs disruption.

However, as time has passed (quite a lot of time as it happens) my intended message has evolved, and I’m trying to distill it down to be potentially less obscure (or even confusing). To start with my interest was in the vote aspect of the referendum – why people voted how they voted. But as more time passed I became much more interested in the aftermath: how new tribal identities – some self-identified, some insulting – had emerged, and how the over-simplification that beset the campaign was carried over into stereotyping and name-calling that still persists.

So with all of that in mind I am now considering the working title to be:

Two Kinds of People

This better fits the ‘politics of division’ / oversimplification message that I’m aiming to communicate. It is of course a reference to the aphorism: “There are two kinds of people in the world…” – sometimes used seriously but more often these days the lead-up line of a joke. The association of the phrase with jokes based on absurd over-simplifications is hopefully going to help my satirical message intent.

Statement of Intent

This refinement of concept and title means that I have redrafted the Statement of Intent, again:

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

In 2016 the impossibly complex issue of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was distilled down to one question: Remain or Leave? This ruthless simplicity eradicated nuance from the debate and we were all suddenly obliged to fit into binary categories – do you want continuity or disruption? The New Statesman summed it up the day after the vote: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.”.

Narratives that emerged to explain the shock result represented a doubling-down of the politics of division that had beset the campaigning; new tribes emerged overnight – some self-identifed, some insulting: you weren’t just a remainer or a leaver, you were a remoaner or a brexitard; the liberal elite or the left-behind; an intellectual or a bigot.

I revisited a number of northern English towns that I have lived in, looking at them anew through the lens of the referendum result. Data is a potent simplifier. Percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Numbers, words and photographs are all, in their own ways, inadequate descriptive systems.

With these images I aim to provoke thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values. I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are accurate, even if none are ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press