This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are a minor title change, re-sequencing and image tweaks.
The culmination of my Documentary course journey is my most ambitious and conceptual work to date, and the step change in approach from Assignment 3 is the outcome of lots of reflection on the nature of photography and authorship, researching and writing the critical review essay and completing the Gesture & Meaning course before tackling this assignment. It’s the work I am most proud of.
About the work
Politics, like photography, simplifies.
(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class / 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 Burnley 33.4% striver / 66.6% skiver?)
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 / 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 Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner / 54.7% racist?)
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 Pickering 44.7% globalist / 55.3% nationalist?)
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.
Prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.
Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.
Two Kinds of People?
Whilst I wouldn’t normally explain the context in so much detail I am conscious that not everyone has knowledge of these places, so have added a few comments per town that might help the pairings and their connotations make a little more sense. Just FYI, the sequence reflects the order in which I have lived in these towns over the last 20-odd years.
Middlesbrough is a former heavy industry town (steel, chemicals) and the intention here is to juxtapose the industrial decline (‘Leave’) with attempts at regeneration (‘Remain’).
The complementary colour palette of the first image draws the viewer in to see the stark difference in the shiny office block (connoting middle class jobs) and the boarded-up working mens’ institute.
The second image highlights the financial assistance from the EU paired with the banana, both metaphor (slipping) and metonym (the apocryphal association of EU and ‘bendy bananas’).
The third pairing is intended to juxtapose the post-industrial, almost de-urbanised landscape with an optimistic civic image.
Burnley is an old cotton mill town and its decline started decades earlier than Middlesbrough’s, and so the class/income inequality is the starkest contrast.
Its high street is already full of discount and charity shops but I was particularly drawn to this shop which buys clothes off people – it signified a reversal of progress, and is jarring when paired with an art shop.
The middle image juxtaposes a hopeful, future-facing poster outside the council office with open wasteland just around the corner.
The last image takes the complementary colour palette and pattern of two adjacent buildings and uses metaphor in both parts: dynamic angle and blue sky in the positive segment, and static, closed-off stairs in the negative segment, signifying an inability to go up in the world.
Barnsley had the largest Leave vote and some of the most discordant juxtapositions.
Public art in the first image is paired with a house so long derelict that a tree grows from it – using the tree as a connecting motif.
As the OCA is based in Barnsley I felt it would be interesting to include a reference to education; the Barnsley College facade reflects the town hall to connote the place of education in the local community, while in the larger segment both the message and the medium speak to the nihilism of spurning education.
The third pairing juxtaposes a flat, static, closed image carrying associations of ‘coming up against a brick wall’ with a more dynamic, positive and hopeful one.
In Dewsbury the prevailing Remain/Leave oversimplification is less about class, wealth or age and more about diversity, as it has a significant ethnic minority population.
The first image is provocative in pairing colourful and diverse examples of Asian dress with the monochromatic starkness of the graffiti on the rough surface.
The second is more tongue-in-cheek and uses food as metaphor, comparing bland, safe, conservative Britain with more interesting and diverse ‘foreign’ countries.
The final image overlays the more general message about regional decline by showing the bleak, closed-down town centre shopping arcade alongside a colourful market stall. As in the first one, I used colour to connote diversity.
Pickering, where I live now, adds additional binary stereotypes: rural vs urban, old vs young, right-wing vs left-wing.
The circular matching of a hay bale with a cappuccino (very metropolitan liberal elite) covers the rural/urban split.
The town has lots of nice places to eat yet still has its share of people living in poverty, and I felt that pairing a continental deli platter with a food bank sign got this message across. It’s a small detail but in the food bank image I wanted the sliver of green trees visible next to the brick wall to communicate that rural market towns need food banks too – its not just an inner-city problem.
Finally, and coming back more overtly to Brexit, I used flag imagery to connote exaggerated attitudes to nationalism: there is metaphor at work in the Leave segment, with a thin, constrained UK flag (not coincidentally swinging out to the right…) while the more globalist outlook of Remain voters is exemplified by this fragment of a sign at the local college (not that this is discernible from the crop, of course).
A few general comments 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 work within 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.”
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. The ‘?’ at the end of each caption is intended to provoke thought in the viewer, and at the suggestion of my tutor I also rephrased the series title into a question rather than a statement.
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.
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.
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.
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