Assignment 4: early thoughts

Assignment 4 is the 2,000-word critical review essay on a  subject of my choosing pertaining to my studies on this course.

I’ve had in mind for quite a long time that I would do this essay on whatever aspect of documentary photography I found most fascinating during the first first few sections of the course – some theory, idea, technique etc that I hadn’t really considered before starting the course and had attracted my interest. I wholeheartedly enjoy absorbing new knowledge and feel that this assignment can allow me to dive deeper into something that has piqued my interest rather than a subject that I already know a lot about. Selfishly I suppose – I want to enjoy the learning experience as much as possible.


Without doubt, the aspect of documentary photography that I have found most intriguing is the notion of authorship.

Until I started this course, I had perhaps a very common view of documentary photography – that it (in the majority of cases) represents the most neutral chronicling of an event, situation, issue or environment; that it is objective, accurate and “true”.

The research and reading to date has opened my eyes to the fact that documentary is subject to the same reflexive influences of authorship as any other type of photography – that all documentary photography has some ‘angle’, whether the photographer acknowledges or even realises it.

A couple of months ago I summarised my thoughts and findings to date in a research post, with a view to potentially returning to it as a starting point for the critical review essay.

Two particular books led me to think about the subject more deeply: Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs (2010), in particular its concept of ‘mental modelling’ and Stuart Franklin’s The Documentary Impulse (2016), and its differentiation between didactic and ambiguous images.

Ambiguity and metaphor

Franklin covers the notion of documentary photographers using ‘tools of rhetoric’ such as timing, vantage point, lighting, colour and so on – and ambiguity is one of the tools sometimes employed.

His examination of ambiguity in documentary photography (Franklin 2016: 146) really sparked my interest. He talks about how images that are ambiguous (or ‘poetic’, or ‘lyrical’) can rely on the viewer doing some of the processing work.

I found myself cross-referencing this with studies from other OCA courses regarding semiotics, and the signification that can be both written into and read out of elements of an image.

These two lines of thought converged on my proposed subject area for the critical review (working title):

The use of metaphor as a tool in documentary photography.

At this point I think I’m OK with distilling ‘ambiguity’ down to ‘metaphor’, although I will test this hypothesis during my research.

My rationale for this: ‘ambiguous’ means ‘open to more than one interpretation’, and my starting point hypothesis is that when a photographer employs ambiguity there are at least two possible interpretations: the literal (denoted) thing and the implied (connoted) meaning that it is standing in for. My assumption is that ambiguity always has some intended meaning, even if the photographer is not consciously aware of it. The alternative explanation – that ambiguity is genuinely, inherently meaningless – doesn’t sit well with the basic objective of documentary photography, which is the “creative treatment of actuality” (Franklin 2016: 6, quoting Grierson 1933).

Tutor discussion

I had a chance to chat with my tutor Derek about the overall idea, and he provided some general and specific pointers.

  • Define terms well upfront (such as ‘authorship’, ‘ambiguity’ and ‘metaphor’)
  • Try to narrow the subject down to a manageable scope – only got 2,000 words
  • Consider specific aspects of ambiguity/metaphor such as
    • Framing (what to include and exclude)
    • Reflections / obscuring parts of image (e.g. Saul Leiter)
    • Meta-techniques such as frame-within-a-frame, breaking the fourth wall etc
  • Find existing material on the subject, including:
    • Examples – photos, projects, photographers
    • Critical theory
    • Ranges of opinions – controversial/radical isn’t necessarily a bad thing

Next steps

I’m going to put this on the back burner for a few weeks while I work through the section 4 coursework. I’m sure it will continue to percolate away at the back of my mind, but I don’t intend to start knocking this into any kind of shape until October.


Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.


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