Exercise: Discontinuities

Brief

Make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else (i.e. no photographs of the Eiffel Tower).

Using OCA forums such as OCA/student and OCA Flickr group, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.

Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. Make sure that you also add this to your learning log.

Response

Below is each of the five images, one from each decade of my life so far, with the proposed explanations from other students, followed by the actual explanation. I will then summarise my findings and thoughts on this exercise and how I can apply it to my ongoing practice.

1970s

1977
1977

Suggested by others:

  • Brother and sister grew Britain’s first pineapple despite the persistent rain.
  • We’ve been to the fair.
  • Me, my little sister and the biggest pineapple
  • Two kids and a pineapple.
  • Me and my big brother
  • Proud of our mega big pineapple!

Real explanation:

  • Me (left) and my brother after winning a pineapple-shaped plastic ice bucket at our school’s first fundraising fair. Also the first time I was in the local paper.
  • A couple of people assumed that one of us was a girl! (let’s blame the poor quality scan…)
  • No-one guessed it was a fake pineapple (why would they!) yet this changes the story
  • Interestingly in the context of this exercise, the newspaper got my age wrong! So one can’t trust the documentary status of an image even when there are words attached…

1980s

1989
1989

Suggested by others:

  • Students protesting against halls going up for sale.
  • Squatting.
  • Summer days with my friends
  • Soaking up the sun with friends.
  • University mates

Real explanation:

  • Fellow Brits outside the apartment building we shared while working a summer in Boston, USA.
  • A few guesses were partly right but no-one correctly identified the specific context
  • I thought the American house style was quite distinctive but maybe not
  • One commenter was kind of half-right with ‘squatting’ as 11 of us lived in an apartment let to 4…

1990s

1992
1992

Suggested by others:

  • Birthday disco.
  • At X’s weeding with Uncle X.
  • Office meal out
  • Meeting the TV star…
  • Congratulations are in order.
  • 21st birthday do with my Dad

Real explanation:

  • Me meeting the actor who played Percy Sugden in Coronation Street – in my first post-grad job I helped to organise a corporate event at the Rovers Return with a bunch of celebs
  • So it was kind of an office meal out, but only one person got the celeb connection
  • Understandable that people assumed it was a relative – but I thought that including a (admittedly low-level!) celebrity would have made this more obvious than it was

2000s

2001
2001

Suggested by others:

  • Photographers at a Bali wedding discussing how distracting the flowers are going to look in their images.
  • Celebrating a wedding.
  • X’s wedding when we lived away.
  • wedding Caribbean style
  • Photographer chats to wedding guest.
  • It’s my wedding day – please don’t get the photographer drunk!

Real explanation:

  • Everyone guessed a wedding, no-one guessed it was mine!
  • I correctly thought that a pic that didn’t include me or my wife would be a little more obscure
  • Bonus point to those who spotted the photographer
  • Location was Seychelles but Bali and Caribbean are reasonable guesses given the scene

2010s

2011-08-12
2011

Suggested by others:

  • Please get that camera out of my face and let me sleep….
  • Your second love.
  • Puppy love
  • I’m only looking at you with one eye. I’m keeping my other eye on the treats coming my way.
  • My best mate (after my wife of course – but this one doesn’t answer back!)

Real explanation:

  • All of the guesses are right in their own way, but the particular significance is that this was the last photo of our first dog, the day we had to have her put to sleep
  • I wouldn’t have expected anyone to guess this, to be fair
  • The first comment was strangely close but I think unintentionally so…
  • This is a good example of the specific context changing the reading of the image, especially for a viewer with knowledge of the photos subject

What I’ve learned

This exercise brought home to me in practice one of the key aspects I covered in theory in the last exercise – that a photographic document is incomplete without context. I will repeat here a key quote from John Berger on the subject:

“In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.” (Berger 2013: 63)

To have the context, one can have it explained (as I’ve needed to above), or one can know it based on experience. The limitation of explanation is that one is still making assumptions on the viewer’s overall cultural knowledge and wider context framework – for some viewers would I need to explain that a fake pineapple ice bucket was a popular home bar accessory in the 1970s? that meeting a soap opera star is somehow impressive? and so on. Context exists within its own context.

Stepping outside of Berger’s point above, an easier reading of an image is possible when the context is known, directly or indirectly. In looking at three of the images above, I am ‘re-seeing’ things I previously saw with my own eyes, through the ‘transparent portal’ of the photograph (Walton 1984); in the other two I am ‘re-living’ scenes that I was in but never saw first hand, only experienced as a photograph.

Others would correctly read the images above based on their knowledge of different aspects of my life:

  • 1977: my immediate family know what the image is about
  • 1989: the other people in the picture know what that one’s about
  • 1992: many people who both know me and have a working knowledge of 1990s soap operas would know what was going on
  • 2001: I don’t think anyone but my wife and me would know the significance
  • 2011: ditto

The importance of providing (or expecting) context to support images is my big takeaway from this fascinating, strangely enjoyable exercise.

Finally, and I know I mentioned this above but it bears repeating: the words provided as context should themselves be subject to scrutiny for their veracity (ref. the 1977 newspaper getting my age wrong). The Berger quote above continues as follows:

And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (Berger: 2013: 63)

So the very act of juxtaposition of image and text increases perceived credibility. One must therefore be alert to the risks of attributing a greater degree of veracity to a photograph based on the accompanying words – and vice versa.

Sources

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Walton, K.L. (1984), Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism, published in Critical Enquiry 11, (December 1984). Chicago: University of Chicago.

https://www.flickr.com/groups/ocarts/discuss/72157664596100452/72157662472330784/ (accessed 18/02/2016)

 

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One thought on “Exercise: Discontinuities

  1. Catherine 18 February 2016 / 12:35

    Good points. Now I understand the point of the exercise!

    Like

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