Research point: performative documents

We are asked to:

“Investigate Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods and Starkey’s Untitled series. How do these photographers employ imaginative and/or performative elements to construct their narratives? In what sense is the end result ‘real’? What aspects of their work might you consider adopting in your own practice?” (course notes: 81)

Charley Murrell

While the name hadn’t rung a bell, I immediately recognised the project from previous research. Like the Essop brothers, Murrell used composite images of the same person for Constructed Childhoods (2010), but the twist here is that children are depicted simultaneously in an everyday environment and as an idealised figure in media imagery.

from Constructed Childhoods, 2010 by Charley Murrell

It’s very imaginative, and like other projects in this section it offers up a new and interesting way of communicating what could otherwise be a documentary-style message – but to go back to my hobby horse, it’s not really documentary, it’s ‘semi-documentary’ or ‘pseudo-documentary’.

To what extent is it real? Well, for me it may be ‘set’ in the real world but it lacks the core of actuality that I look for in documentary photography. That’s not to say I dislike it at all; it’s quite thought-provoking. But to present it as documentary photography is to miss the point; it’s an alternative to documentary photography.

Hannah Starkey

I had briefly looked at Starkey for the Context & Narrative section on constructed images, and really liked what I saw. She has a very distinctive, dreamy visual style. She uses windows and reflections a lot, which make me think of alternate worlds that her characters are daydreaming about.

She has a knack of capturing a mood, often quite lonely and melancholy, with her images. But like Murrell, I really wouldn’t have considered this having documentary value. Even more so that Murrell’s work, it is detached from reality more than it is anchored within it. Treating this as documentary photography is to broaden the definition to include entirely fictional constructs, at which point the label is pointless.

I actually like Starkey’s work a great deal– it’s hypnotic, beautiful, thought-provoking – but it’s not ‘real’. The images evoke plausible narratives, but one doesn’t get the sense that these are real people experiencing real thoughts. The construct is too… artful?

As this is the penultimate piece of coursework in this section, and the last that asks us to review particular photographers and their work, it feels like I should circle back to the reflective piece I did on how I find the definition of constructed images as ‘documentary’ to be problematic.

Having reviewed the work of Tom Hunter, Hasan and Husain Essop, Jeff Wall and now Murrell and Starkey, I feel like I understand better why these artists are included in the course notes on Documentary… it is undoubtedly important to push the acceptable definitions of a genre, to challenge prevailing thinking and to reach for the edges of the practice.

I understand and accept that all these types of constructed ‘semi-documentary’ (my favoured term) photography belong in an augmented view of the genre, revolving around documentary photography like Saturn’s rings – but I stop short of really considering them, in my mind, documentary photography.

To reiterate, this absolutely does not mean that I see no worth in ‘constructed documentary’; on the contrary, I’ve found some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in recent months in this genre. I’m not averse to the idea of incorporating some of these approaches into my own practice – just maybe not on documentary projects.


Charley Murrell: Constructed Childhoods!__personal-projects/–constructed-childhoods (accessed 01/08/2016)

Hannah Starkey: Untitled (accessed 01/08/2016)


2 thoughts on “Research point: performative documents

  1. Kate 01 August 2016 / 18:41

    Thoughtful writing.
    I included these two in my research for EYV. They both make fascinating work, and I especially liked Charley Murrell’s work and the way that she hard-wired childrens’ media-led ideal selves into their actual physical environments. It reminds me very much of that phase of projecting people onto London buildings (Gail Porter was one, I think). It’s not pure documentary, I agree, but it is depicting an issue of our time, albeit in a constructed manner.


    • Rob Townsend 01 August 2016 / 20:06

      Thanks. Yeah, I’d seen both these before in different contexts too, and really liked them. The Murrell project does address an issue albeit in a surreal way. The Starkey work I love but it’s very ethereal and vague, which most ‘documentary photography’ isn’t… :-)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s