This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are a small sequencing change and some editing of image notes.
This assignment introduced me to the authorial possibilities of documentary photography, particularly the use of metaphor and metonymy, and influenced my future direction significantly.
About the work
“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself
constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)
The brief asks for “eight images that individually have a narrative and convey a specific idea”. I chose to explore the emotional state of loss.
The intent is to convey variations on the concept of loss rather than eight subtly different views on the same subject matter, although perhaps inevitably many of the executions allude to the loss of a person. Whilst each image is self-contained, the sequencing does broadly build up in terms of the intensity of the loss.
Though differing in visual style, the images share a still, calm approach to composition and framing that aims to convey a contemplative mood and provide space for the viewer to project their own experiences. The nature of photographing something that isn’t there means that the viewer needs to process from incomplete information, so it’s key that the metaphoric and metonymic connotations ‘work’ effectively.
Loss is an emotional state that we are all familiar with – everyone’s lost someone or something important – and I hope that one or more images makes a connection with the viewer.
Sample prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.
Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.
A Hole in the World
This was very much about applying semiotic theory and choosing signifiers that pointed to the appropriate signifieds. Following is a brief note on each image:
Receding hairline is intended to signify not only lost hair but lost youth and vitality.
A closed-up shop to connote loss of someone’s livelihood. It was pleasing that the door number is 121 as this added a secondary layer of signification, implying the loss of the ‘1-to-1’ personal service that independent shops provide.
A reference to the multiple loss of life in war, where there is both an individual and a community aspect on both sides of the equation.
Though an accident caused by a temperamental photobooth, the black fourth image seemed to me to be a potent metaphor for the sudden end to a relationship.
Thanks to Les Monaghan for allowing the use of part of one of his images from The Desire Project (2016) for this. I specifically want to address some peer review comments on this image, which some viewers felt was out of place visually and conceptually. My rationale with this one is that it represents a collective, public sense of loss for a public figure, and the image was of someone expressing it in public, and I saw it presented in a public place. It is therefore intentionally discordant with the rest, as it is the most ‘hyperreal‘ (per Baudrillard) of the forms of loss, as the rest are more individually experienced as ‘real’.
A metonym of a common form of memorial to communicate a recent loss of life. I selected this particular version for the leaves on the tree and the flowers almost touching, evoking hands reaching out.
As the overall theme of the set is well established by the seventh image, I wanted here to encourage the viewer to look around the image a little more before alighting on the particular detail.
This, the most carefully constructed image of the set, is intended to connote loss of a family member, with the photograph standing in. The teardrop shape of the vase is also an intentional signifier.
Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:
Demonstration of technical and visual skills:
The set was a mixture of observation (2, 3, 5, 7) and construction (1, 4, 6, 8) and so called up on a combination of visual skills. In terms of expressing my visual awareness I made a conscious decision upfront to do the set in B&W for reasons expanded upon in an earlier prep post
I found that design and compositional skills were more important in this assignment than in previous ones: in contrast to the last assignment where I wanted depth, movement and kinetic energy, for this one I wanted a calm, still, deadpan aesthetic, with use of negative space where possible, to give the viewer ‘space to think’; I also stuck to horizontal ratio for both consistency and to support the calm, static aesthetic.
Quality of outcome
As far as the content of the images goes, I’m pleased that I came up with eight sufficiently different angles on expressing the concept of loss – even if they don’t all ‘hang together’ (less important for this assignment than most, in my opinion).
I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner – as an avowedly eclectic set of self-contained images the sequencing could have been arbitrary; but I did want some kind of connecting logic, so I structured the set broadly in terms of ‘intensity’ of loss (from trivial to tragic). I did swap two images (5 and 6) around in rework on the advice of the tutor.
I consciously applied much of the new knowledge I acquired during section 2, including the strengths of B&W for certain kinds of documentary photography; I also applied semiotics and constructed images theory from other OCA studies.
Discernment played less of a part in this assignment as by its nature most of this was pre-planned. I did however shoot four additional executions that I ended up rejecting as they too closely resembled one of the others other conceptually or visually.
Conceptualisation of thoughts and communication of ideas are the two interlocking factors at the core of this assignment – I tested the images on peer reviewers without telling them the theme and pretty much everyone ‘got it’ – which leads me to believe that my ideas were sound, and I communicated them effectively
Demonstration of creativity
This tested my imagination more than I expected for a ‘Documentary’ assignment, and it moved me out of my ‘traditional documentary photography’ mindset – I think I showed some experimentation in the staged images (1, 4, 6, 8) and in the overall eclectic visual presentation.
Looking at this assignment afresh from the vantage point of the end of the course, it’s become apparent to me how important this assignment has been in the development of my personal voice. It marked the beginning of a gradual realisation that documentary photography could be something more expressive and ambiguous than the traditional didactic social documentary that I previously assumed typified the genre. This is increasingly important to me in my own work, as shown on my approach to the critical review and personal project assignments.
In terms of reflection, I learnt the valuable lesson that documentarians are able to steer the narrative with their choices of subjects, standpoints, specific shots and subsequent editing. Whether this is intentional or subconscious is not always clear, and in a sense is a moot point – the important point to take away from this is that there is always an authorial hand in any documentary photography. This was a revelation to me.
I researched the work of other photographers who’ve worked on similar thematic projects; as always I also looked at what other OCA students have done for this assignment.
One key influence was Alec Soth’s Songbook (2015), not simply because of the B&W aesthetic but rather that he manages to produce images that evoke quite a vague, nebulous theme: “nostalgia for the past and anxiety for the future and the blending of those two feelings together” (Soth 2015). It helped me understand that documentary subjects don’t need to be particularly concrete.
My previous critical thinking studies around semiotics was a big part of this work, so I returned to my go-to book on the subject, This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012); I also did some self-directed research into why B&W is so particularly suited to documentary photography.
Between the first version of the assignment and rework I found Stuart Franklin’s The Documentary Impulse (2016) to be incredibly enlightening in its comparison of didactic and ambiguous documentary, which retrospectively validated some of my own experiences on this assignment.
The Desire Project http://lesmonaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/the-desire-project-at-frenchgate-centre.html (accessed 22/05/2016)
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.
Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.
Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture
Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.
Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK
Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.