NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.
About the work
“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.” (Edna St. Vincent Millay)
The brief asks for “eight images that, individually, have a narrative and convey a specific idea”. I chose to explore the emotional state of Loss.
I aim to convey variations on loss rather than eight subtly different views on the same subject matter, although perhaps inevitably many of the executions allude to the loss of a person. Whilst each image is self-contained, the sequencing does broadly build up in terms of the intensity of the loss.
Though differing in visual style, the images share a still, calm approach to composition and framing that aims to convey a contemplative mood and provide space for the viewer to project their own experiences. The nature of photographing something that isn’t there means that the viewer needs to process from incomplete information, so it’s key that the connotations ‘work’ effectively.
Loss is an emotional state that we are all familiar with – everyone’s lost someone or something important – and I hope that one or more images makes a connection with the viewer.
Click on the first image for a high resolution slideshow.
A contact sheet of the ‘longlist’ (first pass) selection is available here.
(with thanks to Les Monaghan for allowing the use of part of one of his images from The Desire Project (2016) for photo 6, “of someone you think you know”)
This was very much about applying semiotics and choosing signifiers that pointed to the appropriate signifieds:
- receding hairline (denotation) = lost youth, vitality (connotation)
- closed-up shop = someone has lost their livelihood
- names on a memorial = war
- blank final photo = end of a relationship
- flowers in public = tragic accident
- [Bowie one is the exception – it uses simple anchoring text]
- dog tag on makeshift gravestone = lost pet
- empty place setting = missing family member
I am aware that the set uses different styles to a degree: a viewer could make a case of one or two of them ‘sticking out’ as inconsistent visually. I am comfortable with this, as the brief is for standalone single images with internal narrative. I’d have been more concerned if they all looked too similar. So the eclectic presentation is a conscious decision.
I specifically want to address some peer review comments on photo 6: ‘of someone you think you know‘ – which some people felt was out of place visually and conceptually. My rationale with this one is that it represents a collective, public sense of loss, and the image was of someone expressing it in public, and I saw it presented in a public place. It is intentionally discordant with the rest, as it is the most ‘hyperreal’ (per Baudrillard) of the forms of loss, as the rest are more individually experienced as ‘real’.
Relevance to documentary photography
I covered this in a preparation post but to summarise here: I was initially concerned on how the level of pre-conceptualisation on this assignment fits with the notion of documentary, which I simplistically saw as ‘capturing what’s happening’ rather than “translating concepts into visual products” (course notes: 58).
I have however learnt a valuable lesson on this assignment: that documentarians are able to steer the narrative with their choices of subjects, standpoints, specific shots and subsequent editing. Whether this is intentional or subconscious is not always clear, and in a sense is a moot point – the important point to take away from this is that there is always an authorial hand in any documentary photography.
Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
- Materials: unlike Assignment 1, this didn’t specify sticking to one single camera and lens so I used different equipment and focal lengths as appropriate for each execution
- Techniques: there are not really any specific photographic techniques used here other than those covered below under observational skills and design and compositional skills
- Observational skills: the set was a mixture of observed and constructed – for the ones I observed (2, 3, 6, 7) I believe I found a good variety of scenes that fit my brief
- Visual awareness: I made a conscious decision upfront to do the set in B&W for reasons expanded upon in an earlier prep post
- Design and compositional skills: in contrast to the last assignment where I wanted depth, movement and kinetic energy, for this one I wanted a calm, still, deadpan aesthetic, with use of negative space where possible, to give the viewer ‘space to think’; I also stuck to horizontal ratio for both consistency and to support the calm, static aesthetic
Quality of outcome:
- Content: I’m pleased that I came up with eight sufficiently different angles on expressing the concept of loss – even if they don’t all ‘hang together’ (less important for this assignment than most, in my opinion)
- Application of knowledge: I applied much of the new knowledge I acquired during section 2, including the strengths of B&W for certain kinds of documentary photography; I also applied semiotics and constructed images theory from other OCA studies
- Presentation in a coherent manner: I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner – as a set of intentionally self-contained images the sequencing could have been arbitrary but I did want some kind of connecting logic, so I structured the set broadly in terms of ‘intensity’ of loss (from trivial to tragic)
- Discernment: by its nature most of this was pre-planned and so selection wasn’t anywhere near as big a job as it was on Assignment 1; I did however shoot four additional executions that I ended up rejecting as they too closely resembled one of the others other conceptually or visually
- Conceptualisation of thoughts: this, and communication of ideas below, are the two interlocking factors at the core of this assignment – I tested the images on peer reviewers without telling them the theme and pretty much everyone ‘got it’ – which leads me to believe that my ideas were sound, and I communicated them effectively
- Communication of ideas: see notes on conceptualisation above
Demonstration of creativity:
- Imagination: this tested my imagination more than I expected for a ‘Documentary’ assignment, and it moved me out of my ‘traditional documentary photography’ mindset – I think I showed some imagination in the staged images (1, 4, 5, 8)
- Experimentation: I did experiment a little outside of my normal shooting approach and visual style (e.g. the appropriated image in photo 6) – and as noted above the eclectic visual presentation is intentional
- Invention: not sure I invented anything on this one…
- Development of personal voice: an interesting one, this… one of the dilemmas I wrestle with on an ongoing basis on both my Level 2 courses is the balance of ‘captured’ vs ‘constructed’ – the amount of previsualisation vs organic idea development through a shooting-refining-shooting cycle – and it’s very interesting that I ended up (inadvertently) delivering an assignment with a 50:50 split of captured vs constructed
- Reflection: this assignment has opened my eyes to the opportunities and risks of making documentary work with an authorial intent – whether conscious or subconscious – and the ability to steer the narrative; I am increasingly curious about this ‘hidden subjectivity’ in the work of others as well
- Research: I looked at the work of other photographers who’ve worked on similar projects; as always I also looked at what other OCA students have done for this assignment
- Critical thinking: semiotics was a big part of it so I returned to my go-to book on the subject, This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012); I also did some self-directed research into why B&W is so particularly suited to documentary photography
The Desire Project http://lesmonaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-desire-project-at-frenchgate-centre.html (accessed 22/05/2016)
Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.