Assignment 5: early thoughts

I’m at the point in the course where I will start doing things in parallel: as well as working through the section 4 coursework, I need to start planning out my Assignment 4 (critical review) and, starting today, writing up what I’ve been planning for Assignment 5 (personal project).

This is going to be a little rambly. There’s about six months of thinking to summarise here.

Brief

Below is the Assignment 5 brief with my emphasis and notes.

Your personal project should be self-contained and realistic in scope. It must show progression from previous assignment work:

  • There should be more emphasis on methodology – that is, how you plan to get from your initial idea to the final portfolio of images. You’ll need to draw up a self-directed brief.
    • Good – I’m already thinking about this in quite a structured way so just need to make sure that I document the process
  • Your initial research should include finding contacts, gatekeepers and interested third parties.
  • Remember that this is a personal project. Your work should reflect your stance on your chosen topic. The aims of this exercise are to develop your critical and analytical skills, develop your intellectual understanding and demonstrate your ability to synthesise information.
    • I’ve had this point in mind since reading the brief at the start of the course, and I’m confident that I have arrived at a theme that I am passionate about, and that allows me to stamp my authorial stance on it
    • The proposed concept will require a certain amount of subject matter research to underpin the proposed visual concept
  • The personal project should have a wider scope than your previous assignment work. It’s an opportunity to explore political, social and environmental themes in more depth and to familiarise yourself with the process of working on extended personal documentary projects of the kind that you’ll undertake at Level 3 and professionally.
    • My proposed theme is certainly political (though not party-political) and definitely social

Thought process and theme evolution

I’ve had in mind for several months that I would like to do something around the EU Referendum for my personal project.

I started thinking about it March/April time but knew that by the time I would be working on the personal project, the vote will have taken place – so there wasn’t going to be an opportunity to, for example, track the campaigns themselves. I realised that the project would end up being something to do with the bigger picture, the aftermath, the knock-on effects.

By the way, here’s my personal stance: I am very firmly in the Remain camp. I don’t intend to go into reasons why as they aren’t directly relevant here, but I want to make clear at the outset that this is my position on the referendum itself.

With this stance in mind (and with all the misplaced optimism that the 48% had until the early hours of 24th June) for a good few months I was working on an idea predicated on a Remain win:

“They Come Over Here”

This idea was to be a documentary-portrait series to photograph a number of EU immigrants were making valuable contributions to their local communities.

The working title was a subversion of the bigoted phrase “They come over here, they take our jobs…” and the intention was to celebrate the diversity of immigrants and how they add to, rather than diminishing, the communities they integrate with. I planned to have a mixture of nationalities, from the ‘old school’ EEC founders like France and Germany to the more recent and more controversial Eastern European members.

Intended message in a nutshell: “Immigrants are good for the nation!”

Anyway, this idea died a death after the referendum result. I suppose I could still have pursued it, but it would have been undercut with a completely different tone, and it no longer appealed to me.

Post-referendum ideas

Once the Leave vote happened, I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t consciously think about the assignment theme for a good couple of weeks as I was surprisingly furious about the result and needed to work through the ‘political stages of grief’ (!) before I could really think straight.

Once I came down off the ceiling, I started to think about how I could channel my frustration into a meaningful photo project. A few ideas emerged:

  • Another portrait series but with voters wearing t-shirts printed with their reasons for voting Remain or Leave
    • Rejected for a few reasons:
    • I figured it might be difficult to get people to participate
    • Too derivative – reminded me too much of Gillian Wearing’s Signs that say what you want them to say, and not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1993)
    • I eventually realised that what I envisaged would probably end up being a little judgemental, and this isn’t really what I want to be
  • An examination of EU-funded projects in deprived areas that heavily voted Leave
    • Rejected (in this form) as again I felt that it would come across as being too snarky or judgemental
    • It would be too easy to interpret the premise as “Ungrateful proles, biting the hand that feeds” but this isn’t a fair assessment of the situation, or my stance on it
  • A more specific variant on the above but focusing on flags – the EU flag and the St George cross
    • Rejected as being too high-concept and a little limited/shallow
    • Also leans too much on stereotypes and so again comes across as judgemental or condescending

Final proposal

There was something in that idea of looking at specific Leave-voting areas that had received EU social and infrastructure funding that I returned to and dug deeper into. I began to think about underlying reasons why those areas got EU funding and why their inhabitants rejected continued EU membership.

The bigger picture is something like this:

The reason for disproportionately high EU funding in certain parts of the UK is that these regions have suffered economically over the past few decades, predominantly due to the decline in localised industry – manufacturing, mining, fishing etc – in the face of increasing global competition. These areas have lower than average employment and higher than average poverty levels. The EU recognises this and aims to provide help.

There is compelling evidence of inhabitants of economically-deprived Leave-voting areas seeing the referendum as their best opportunity to turn around their fortunes after decades of decline brought about by globalisation. They are the ‘left-behinds’. There was a sense that this was a ‘things can’t get any worse’ last throw of the dice. In this context the rejection of the EU despite huge inward funding wasn’t being ‘ungrateful’, it was merely reflecting that the EU funding was an inadequate sticking plaster.

Looking at the Remain/Leave vote split not along a left-right political spectrum but as a division between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ was the lightbulb moment.

The binary nature of the referendum led me to two related trains of thought that have helped me to refine the project theme and concept:

  • ‘Remain or Leave’ forced people who co-exist in the same place to sort themselves into two diametrically opposed factions
    • And therefore exposed previously unseen ‘fault lines’ in communities
  • ‘Remain or Leave’ reduced the entire future of the country down to whether the vote went your way – all complexity, detail and nuance was discarded for the blunt instrument of a yes/no question
    • The Remainers just wanted their comfortable lives to be validated and move on
    • The Leavers demanded change and this was their ticket to it

These twin ideas of coexistence of opposed voters and oversimplification of voting rationale have solidified into my idea for the personal project:

  • A documentary study of a number (tbc) of towns that voted heavily to Leave the EU, with the following draft criteria:
    • Northern England (as I’d like to focus on places where I have lived)
    • Voted at least 65% to Leave
    • Economically below UK average
    • Recipient of significant EU funding
    • ‘Working class’ political environment i.e. traditionally votes Labour

The intended message in a nutshell:

“Two very different communities coexist in this town – and they both thought that the EU Referendum vote promised them a bright future”

I want the overall presentation to be more neutral and balanced than my rejected ideas above, which were at risk of being too one-sided and judgemental. I presume though that my underlying authorial stance will still come though in the images (I’ve already been thinking about how I might do this).

Approach

I have a particular visual concept in mind:

  • Juxtapose images in pairs, with one portion representing the Remain voters and the other representing Leave voters
  • I want the contents of the images to allude to the underlying reasons why each side voted the way they did – representing the respective lives of typical Remain and Leave voters
  • I intend to display each pair together in a composite image, with the comparative size ratio between the two portions of the overall image matching the Remain:Leave vote ratio
  • This will make more sense once I mock something up…

Working title

I’m currently thinking of calling the project:

“I Woke Up and Everything was Fine”

This relates to my second key point discussed above – that the referendum encouraged simplistic and wishful thinking, that it was a ‘magic bullet’ that delivered you the UK you wanted. It’s also intended to be ironic for at least 48% of us…

Next steps

  • I have started drafting, and will shortly post, a draft Statement of Intent
  • I will send this to my tutor for comment
  • Then I need to start the research
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