Exercise: England Uncensored

Brief

Read the article on England Uncensored by the BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes.

Dench talks about his “humorous approach with an underlying social commentary”. What do you think of this approach? Does it work? What are the ethical issues?

Response

It sometimes feels like we’re asked to look at the work of Peter Dench rather a lot on this course…

The inevitable Martin Parr bit

The Martin Parr comparisons are so overwhelming that Dench not only acknowledges it but gets it in first:

“Rarely does a day go by in my professional life when Parr isn’t mentioned by, or to me. It’s impossible to photograph England without seeing Parr parts in many shots; crying children, litter, dogs with their tongues hanging out, bad food, bad weather. As a photographer I embrace that influence. I would like to think I would have arrived at the style of photography I have regardless of Parr; he certainly hastened the process and blazed a path for its acceptance as a photographic way of seeing.” (BBC 2012)

For me, he clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Parr but doesn’t add back in a huge amount of his own distinctive style. He seems to hone in on a subset of Parr’s typical subject matter – the grimier, bleaker side of Englishness.

Humour as a social commentary device

What they have in common that is relevant to the question posed here is the use of humour to deliver an underlying serious point. In this respect I think Dench is often more successful that Parr, who can sometimes be a little too subtle in his underlying messages and just comes across as sardonic or kitsch.

Dench’s subject matter is darker than Parr’s and his humour is often correspondingly a little bit spikier. The contrast between the intentionally funny pictures and the more serious ones is more heightened in Dench’s work.

I generally agree with his sentiment that “The humour disarms viewers allowing the impact of a more serious image dropped into the sequence to be tenfold.” (BBC 2012), although with England Uncensored (certainly with the images in his online portfolio, might be clearer in the book) it’s actually quite hard to see which ones he thought were ‘serious’.

A better example of his ability to introduce gravity into a seemingly sardonic set of images is A&E: Alcohol & England, which starts off with witty shots of groups of people in pubs but descends into arrests, vomit and bloodied limbs. Here I think the approach does work, as there’s a narrative direction.

Ethical issues

I guess the question is here because of the images that Dench takes that don’t paint the subjects in the best light. Is he exploiting people? Yes, he is I think. With the alcohol shots one could argue – equally strongly – that the subjects are bringing it on themselves by behaving badly in public, or contrarily that they are not in control of their faculties and so deserve a duty of care. I sense that Dench follows the former argument. With England Uncensored, he does come across as a little condescending, and his shots often lack the warmth that often saves the work of (yes, I’ll mention him again) Martin Parr.

Sources

England Uncensored interview http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/17190001 (accessed 29/07/2016)

England Uncensored http://www.peterdench.com/england-uncensored/ (accessed 29/07/2016)

A&E: Alcohol & England http://www.peterdench.com/alcohol-england/ (accessed 29/07/2016)

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