Assignment 5: [draft for review]

This is a draft version of my proposed Assignment 5 for peer review – any feedback is most welcome.

Northern England in Two
Inadequate Descriptive Systems

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(Remainer or Leaver?) On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted into binary, oppositional tribes.

(Liberal elite or left-behind?) A referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of a complex situation was followed by a doubling-down of this regrettable tendency for the politics of division, as new “us vs them” labels emerged overnight.

(Young and naive or old and bigoted?) Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved veracity on a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, often falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people, even places, as not only homogenous but also diametrically opposed to others who had put their cross in the other box.

(Upwardly mobile or down and out?) I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in, all in the North of England, through the lens of the EU Referendum result. I want to encourage some reflection about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values; how simplification can be harmful.

(Striver or skiver? Globalist or nationalist? Rich or poor?)  I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

[click first image for a full-screen slideshow]


EU Referendum results per town:

  • Barnsley: 68.3% Leave / 31.7% Remain
  • Burnley: 66.6% Leave / 33.4% Remain
  • Dewsbury: 54.7% Leave / 45.3% Remain
  • Middlesbrough: 65.5% Leave / 34.5% Remain
  • Pickering: 55.3% Leave / 44.7% Remain

The title is an homage to Martha Rosler’s project The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75), from which this work takes some inspiration.

Self evaluation

[to follow…]


7 thoughts on “Assignment 5: [draft for review]

  1. sarahjanefield512666 23 June 2017 / 07:03

    The way the pie chart also becomes the shape of a lens is an interesting signifier. This ‘us vs. them’ mentality perpetuated by media and politicians (who can’t help but speak in irritating memes constantly) is something I find extremely frustrating and I think academics/artists/thinkers may have some level responsibility too.


  2. photosociology 23 June 2017 / 20:03

    Hi Rob. The thing that I notice on first viewing is that the largest portion of the pie chart, one the whole, shows scenes that I assimilate with the poorer and more deprived areas, and the smaller part with the better off and less deprived areas. I wondered whether the demographics of the towns and city’s you made your photographs in would back that up (I’m guessing Pickering wouldnt)?


    • Rob Townsend 23 June 2017 / 21:44

      Thanks for your comment!

      Indeed – and that’s exactly my point :-)

      The results of the EU Referendum per town plus subsequent media stereotyping implies the interpretation you made – and my intention is to highlight how simplistic and contentious that assumption would be… So your reaction is appropriate for my intention :-)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Holly Woodward 24 June 2017 / 10:41

    I really like the pie chart idea, Rob. I am wondering whether the division in each image reflects the Leave/Remain demographic in that place? If not, why not? I think I would expect it to. Also, I am seeing no 9 as a bit squint, FYI. Does it need to be rotated slightly?


    • Rob Townsend 24 June 2017 / 10:53

      Thanks – the splits are the Leave/Remain ratios but rather than *demographics* (complex, nuanced, multi-faceted) the images are intended to portray *stereotypes* (binary, simplistic). The reality will be that a wide variety of people (age, class, ethnicity etc) voted for each of the two options but what I’m trying to highlight is the absurdity of drawing blunt conclusions on the population of a whole town. The ‘?’ in each caption is supposed to encourage the viewer to question what they’re seeing. I’m attempting the slightly tricky feat of asking the viewer to disagree with what I am presenting! :-/

      Liked by 1 person

    • Rob Townsend 24 June 2017 / 12:22

      By the way – I thought 9 was OK but 10 now looks wonky to me!


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