Assignment 5: the clouds part

As mentioned on here recently, I took a three month break from Documentary, including work on the final assignment, that ended last week. Yesterday I went out for my first shooting trip since that break, and think it’s time to collect my thoughts on the assignment and where I go from here.

After such a break, it’s tempting to think that one of two things can happen to a project:

  • I remain enthused and pick back up where I left off
  • I become disillusioned and abandon the whole idea

In reality however, it’s ended up being somewhere in between.

This in itself is a good example of what is increasingly the underlying message of the assignment – that we humans are drawn to over-simplifying complex situations!

It’s simply about… simplification

What the assignment is ‘about’ has evolved, even though the subject matter and visual approach are unchanged:

  • The assignment began life as being ‘about Brexit’
  • Then in my mind it became more ‘about inequality’
  • As time’s gone on I have distilled this down to it being ‘about simplification’

Whilst I am excited about the new depths I am finding in the assignment, I remain concerned about my ability to successfully articulate the message. The work still needs to be rooted in the same subject matter – the images still need to be of socially unequal northern English towns that voted to Leave the EU, yet still communicate my over-arching message of the dangers of over-simplification.

‘I hadn’t thought of that before’

At the risk of name-dropping, whilst in Arles last summer I had an opportunity to speak to OCA principal Gareth Dent about my intended assignment subject. He asked an excellent question that I presume is one often used to challenge students: he asked, what’s the ‘I hadn’t thought of that before’ aspect of the project? Familiar subject matter needs to have some angle that makes the viewer think of it in a new and different way, some way into opening a new line of thought. Good documentary work needs to be – to employ an overused phrase that resonates here – thought-provoking.

What thoughts did I want to provoke? At the time my answer was more shallow and less satisfactory than it is now: I said that I wanted to highlight the co-existence of the haves and the have-nots in the same places, that these towns are overlapping parallel worlds with different populations. But this didn’t feel like all there was to it.

I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine

I’m a firm believer in the importance of titles to projects, and the working title for this project, for as long as it’s had one, has been ‘I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine‘. As time’s gone on I’ve realised that coming up with this title was the beginnings of me refining this idea down to the ‘simplification’ message.

All politics, and very specifically a referendum, is predicated on simplifying impossibly complicated situations to a point of almost meaningless bluntness. It forces a diverse population to sort into binary tribes. All nuance is lost. From 24th June 2016 the UK population was, if you believe the media, sorted into the Metropolitan Liberal Elite and the Disenfranchised Left-Behinds.

The simple act of placing an X in one of two boxes on a form carried with it an implicit expectation:

  • Remain meant “I protect my happy life”
  • Leave meant “I change my unhappy life”

Yes, I’m over-simplifying. Deliberately.

Photography = simplification

The main epiphany of the last three months thinking about, but not working on, the assignment has been the solidification of this fundamental point:

Photography itself is simplification

The documentary photographer is a professional over-simplifier. A subject is chosen, an authorial stance is adopted (knowingly or otherwise), decisions are made at the shooting, editing and presentation stages that boil down the complex world in front of the camera into a series of two-dimensional rectangles of time and light.

I’m not saying this shouldn’t happen – it would be impossible for any medium to adequately record a 360º, 100% view of any reality… even rolling 24-hour video surveillance has to choose a location and a viewing angle. There’s always something not shown that may or may not be pertinent to the ‘truth’ being captured.

What I want to do with this work is get viewers to acknowledge and think about this inherent simplification. Maybe also to consider the risks it brings, and what we as humans can do to mitigate these risks.

I’m hoping that the parallels between photography and politics will become apparent through the imagery; I will however weave this into the Statement of Intent as well to reinforce the message.

Application to the assignment

This navel-gazing has to lead me somewhere practical :-)

Since restarting my studies I’ve been revisiting some of the images taken so far with this ‘lens’ of over-simplification, and determining which images still make the cut (spoiler: not many).

To get the over-simplification message across I feel like I might need to be more deliberately stereotypical in my subject matter – to make the juxtapositions overtly more jarring. I want to present the message that says something like: “Town X is 33% like THIS and 67% like THAT” with the intended reaction that I have gone too far, that my characterisation has tipped over into caricature.

I want people’s reaction to be to disagree with me! Or at least what they think I am saying.

This feels like quite a tricky endeavour. Quite a fine line to walk.

But I think I can pull it off.

Next steps

  • Rate images taken so far against the new criteria
    • Including the new set I took yesterday in Middlesbrough with this approach in mind
  • Schedule more shooting days in other towns
  • Start building up a longlist of candidate images
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