I’ve completed all the assignment rework, had my final tutorial, and all that remains is printing and posting the submission. I’ve signed up to Level 3 and started reading the Body of Work and Contextual Studies course handbooks, but before really getting my teeth into those I want to close off Level 2 with some final reflections on the overall Documentary course.
It was more cohesive than my other L2 course
I completed Documentary some months after Gesture & Meaning, and I generally found this to be the more focused of the two, with G&M being rather fragmented (I can see why that has subsequently been replaced if I’m honest; that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it or get something out of it, rather it’s simply a comparison of their respective structures and contents).
Documentary seems more designed to build up your understanding gradually, adding layers of insight and deepening your appreciation of the genre by accretion.
I realised that documentary isn’t really my genre
I came into Level 2 thinking that documentary photography was something that I was quite interested in, but the irony is that the more I learned about documentary photography, the more I felt like I was moving away from it – BUT! this is not a criticism of the course by any means. In fact, it opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the world. Let me explain…
Authorship, authorship, authorship
The mind-expanding learning on this course was the notion of authorship. I’d always thought of documentary photography as truthful, accurate, objective – until I did this course. It opened my eyes to the realisation that everyone has an angle, all ‘truth’ is partial, nothing is truly objective and the documentary photographer is as much an author as any kind of artist, albeit working with actuality as raw material. This lightbulb moment changed my outlook and had me wrestling with my own strengths, weaknesses and intentions.
I prefer speaking for myself than on behalf of others
Once the realisation had sunk in that as a documentary photographer I am – intentionally or not – an author (a narrator, a spokesperson, a manipulator), I began to feel uneasy about telling stories on behalf of others – which is pretty much the definition of a documentary photographer! I realised that I had started intentionally leaving people out of my projects for fear of misrepresenting them.
This came to a head on my Assignment 5 (the personal project), where intentional, overt stereotyping was a significant part of the concept – and I just couldn’t ethically defend making people stand in for extreme stereotypes to help me make a point. This is perhaps a negative/defensive way of looking at things, so I will now talk about the more positive aspect of this…
I prefer to transmit ideas than to tell stories
Closely related to the last point: after my Assignment 5 I made a survey of my OCA work for the last four years – which assignments I was proud of, which I still felt a connection with, which I was unmoved by, which I was ill-at-ease with. Generally speaking I feel better about the ones where I was investigating an idea. On this course in particular, I distinguish between the assignments where I was telling stories about the activities of others (1 and 3) and those where I was presenting an idea for the viewer to think about (2 and 5).
Even on Assignment 5, which originally was planned as a straight social documentary project on Brexit, I moved towards a position where I was examining a specific aspect of the situation that I felt wasn’t being discussed. I started to consider the overused phrase ‘thought-provoking‘ in a literal sense – I want my images to make people think, not to tell them about something. It seems more difficult but also more rewarding.
I’ve become more interested in producing visually arresting work
My own taste in photographic art is definitely moving towards more distinctive, visually interesting work. I think I’ve started to find most ‘straight’ documentary photography a little repetitive. This may be a product of my 21st century attention span! Things need to look new and different to catch my eye. Now, I’m still very sure that good – really, really good – documentary photographers can produce work that grabs the attention, I’m just no longer sure that I want to be (or am good enough to be) one of them.
My interest in more visually unusual work was definitely piqued by my Assignment 5, where I felt that deciding on the particular presentation format (pie charts) was the real lightbulb moment. I am increasingly drawn to more conceptual (often abstract) photographic projects, and want to see if this is an area in which I can work.
Photography is a language
Specifically, I became fascinated in the opportunities to use photography as a visual language to get messages across – by way of tools of rhetoric such as metaphor and metonymy. I find an almost puzzle-solving-like satisfaction in determining the best way to get a particular message across. It does sometimes feel like an act of translation more than creation.
So – the irony is that studying documentary photography for 18 months gave me a taste for a kind of photography that is quite far removed from traditional documentary ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Onwards to Level 3!