Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People [original]

NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.


About the work

Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class and 65.5% working class?)

On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted by the EU Referendum into binary, oppositional tribes.

(is Pickering 44.7% globalist and 55.3% nationalist?)

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.

(is Barnsley 31.7% liberal elite and 68.3% left behind?)

Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity onto a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but diametrically opposed to those who had put their cross in the other box.

(is Burnley 33.4% striver and 66.6% skiver?)

I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in according to their split in 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, though tempting, can be harmful.

(is Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner and 54.7% racist?)

The series also acts as a critique of social documentary, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’. With apologies to Martha Rosler, this is Northern England in two inadequate descriptive systems.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Submission

Click the first image for a full-screen slideshow.


Self evaluation

A few general notes on my experience on this assignment before addressing the particular criteria:

This has been the most involving, frustrating, enlightening, circuitous, thought-provoking but ultimately rewarding photography work that I have yet undertaken. It’s taken longer than any other assignment, involved long stretches of inactivity and over the period of the assignment has significantly changed shape in various ways (including literally).

The original intention was to deliver a more traditional social documentary photography project on social inequality, using the EU Referendum result as the starting point for a series of juxtapositions. However, over time I became aware that I was seeking out stereotyped imagery to spell out my preconceived binary messaging, and began reflecting on this. I became more interested in the tendency to oversimplification that I was not only seeing in my own work but was reflected in both the Referendum campaign itself and the aftermath in the media and popular discourse. The parallels between the subject matter and the medium of photography also became more apparent to me as the assignment evolved.

This move away from ‘straight’ documentary photography towards something more like a postmodern meta-critique of documentary photography is a direction very much outside my usual comfort zone and feels somewhat risky and ambitious – which I am ultimately OK with as I appreciate the need to push boundaries as I move from Level 2 towards Level 3 of my studies.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques and design skills, the most obvious aspect of this work is the pie chart format. Deciding on this presentation format was the key turning point in this assignment, as I felt it both suited the ‘data as representational system’ concept and provided a visually distinctive format that would attract the viewer’s attention. As a bonus, it also helped to expand my digital processing (i.e. Photoshop) skills.

The underlying concept tested my observational skills and visual awareness as I needed to locate images in the chosen locations to depict the extremes of stereotypes that I sought. I gave myself an additional challenge in terms of compositional skills with the pie chart format as I needed to find scenes that could fit into the unusual shapes.

Quality of outcome

I’m happy with the quality of the content and presentation as these matched the conceptualisation of my visualisation reasonably well. I got comments from other students which reassured me that the communication of ideas was working:

  • “Great messages within. […] The circle and segments is a great format.”
  • “Although I don’t have the cultural and political background, I caught the idea and think it’s a very interesting and imaginative approach.”
  • “I find this is a very strong and engaging concept, the pie charts are inspired and the images are strong and offer insight on the motivations, perceptions and myths for voting patterns.”

In terms of applying knowledge by far the most useful strand of my recent studies has been the notion of authorship in documentary photography – something that I have intentionally brought to the fore in this work. I incorporated techniques of metaphor and metonymy to help project my intended messages.

Demonstration of creativity

This is an area where I have often judged myself as lacking, but I am much more satisfied with this assignment than the previous ones on this course. I feel that the concept and execution show a greater degree of imagination and experimentation than my earlier work, as I have taken risks in both the presentation format and the communication intent. The biggest risk I am taking in terms of communication is that I am, in effect, asking the viewer to disagree with what I am presenting – which must be fairly unusual as an approach.

In terms of my developing personal voice, I had a realisation over the last year that my own work is tending towards what one might call ‘expressive documentary’, or in John Grierson’s words, “the creative treatment of actuality”. By this I mean that I’m attracted to subject matter that’s rooted in reality, and often has a social documentary aspect to it, but at the same time I feel somewhat limited by the norms of ‘straight’ documentary photography and want to ‘play’ with the format a little. This assignment definitely feels like a key part of what I believe is my developing photographic journey.

Context

This assignment required a significant amount of reflection on what kind of photographer I want to be, and I’m glad I took the time to work through the various stages and rejected ideas to end up where I did with this. This assignment gave me further insight into the application of photography as a visual language, how one can encode intended messages in a visual format for the viewer to decode.

One particular work emerged as an inspiration to the assignment, although it took me a while to recognise its influence: Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In terms of critical thinking, Steve Edwards book-length analysis of the work, Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012) gave me a deeper appreciation of the multiple theories underpinning the work, some exemplified by Rosler’s work and some deliberately rejected by it.

Other important elements of research that supported this assignment came from the work I did on metaphor and metonymy for the critical review assignment, as I found myself attempting to apply some of the ideas I’d written about in that essay.

Finally, I captured much more of my work-in-progress for this assignment than any other – from initial desk research to related photographer work to rejected experiments. I have found this recording of the process to be very useful and intend to do more of it at Level 3.


Sources

Edwards, S (2012). Martha Rosler, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems. London: Afterall

Rosler, M. (1981) ‘In, around, and afterthoughts (on documentary photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

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