I got my assessment result a couple of days ago and I passed Documentary with 72%.


I’m extremely pleased with that. It’s only 1% less than I got on Gesture & Meaning, so I’m consistent!

Assessment criteria

  • Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills
    • Complete fluency of technical and visual skills.
    • 25/35
    • Same comment and mark as I got for G&M; still not sure why “complete” means 25/35 though… :-p
  • Quality of Outcome
    • Highly effective work presented in a professional way, showing strong judgement. Highly effective grasp of ideas and communication of visual ideas.
    • 15/20
    • Very slightly lower than my G&M mark but same text
  • Demonstration of Creativity
    • Strongly creative, takes risks with many imaginative and successful outcomes. Excellent synthesis of analytical and creative thinking. Strong evidence of emerging personal voice.
    • 18/25
    • Relatively speaking the most improved mark, something I am extremely pleased with – I feel like I’d been really stretching my creative muscles towards the end of Level 2, and it’s very satisfying to see that being recognised
  • Context
    • Very articulate and self aware, very well researched. Demonstrates a developed intellectual understanding and criticality.
    • 14/20
    • Same text and very slightly lower score than on G&M, and I’m fine with that

Overall comments

I won’t quote these verbatim but will pick out a few phrases that resonated:

  • “The consistency and design of submission presentation was impressive and should be commended.”
  • The subjects explored within each assignment were valid and meaningful, being handled with an incisive and often playful gaze.
    • Incisive and playful – good adjectives; I would be happy to earn a reputation for the combination of these two
  • The final assignment was a unique graphical representation of a serious contemporary debate and again, was playful in its presentation. The success of this submission should be viewed positively in relation to progression onto level 3 of the programme, but be careful of becoming too formulaic in terms of future submissions.
    • This was the work I was most pleased with (and it took the longest by far to complete) so I’m very happy with this feedback
    • Playful comes up again, and again I like that this is potentially coming through as part of my personal voice
    • I am slightly puzzled by the advice to avoid becoming too formulaic as I felt that overall the assignments were quite an eclectic set, and A5 in particular was visually very distinctive – and so don’t consider my output to have been formulaic (if it means for the future, then fine – I’m not planning on using the pie chart construct again any time soon…)

Right, I am officially over two-thirds of the way through the degree! I’m only a couple of assignments into Level 3 though, so wish me luck…


Reflection: Closing thoughts

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!

Assignment 6: tutor feedback

I had one last video tutorial with my tutor Derek and we collaborated on the notes to produce the final feedback report.

The first half of the report discusses my rework on each individual assignment and is covered in more detail in the main Assignment 6 post.

The additional tutor comments were pretty positive, thankfully. A couple of extracts:

“The coursework has been consistently well thought out throughout the module. There have been many exercises in which you’ve tried something new and learnt from it, which in turn has developed your own voice. It is good to see clear causal links between exercises and the ideas developed for assignments.”

“Research has been a real strength of this module: there has been a clear correlation shown between your research, the direction chosen for assignments and the development of new understandings. This in turn has shown step changes in the assignments, where each one builds on the last, but also progresses your personal practice. The practice has become more personal, and all the stronger for it.”

There is of course always room for improvement as I head towards Level 3:

“We’ve discussed making your reflections – looking back at modules from the position you’re in now – a clearer part of your texts, i.e. in the log, and at the start of assignment commentaries (as well as in the reflective notes later on). If the significant part of the assignment is a real shift in your understanding, then that should be front and centre, as it’s the most important point to make.”

In all, I’m very happy with both my rework and Derek’s feedback on it.




Assignment 6: Pre-Assessment Review

As this ‘assignment’ is comprised of reworking Assignments 1 to 5 and reviewing the overall submission for assessment with my tutor, the substantive output is presented under the categories of those five assignments.

However, it is useful to capture the inputs, processes and outputs of the rework phase, and to take this opportunity to make some observations about the overall learning journey, and the similarities and differences across the series of assignments.

Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

Assignment 1: Fun in the Sun


This was a fairly standard ‘fly on the wall’ documentary photography project about the local pub, and I hadn’t tried to do anything particularly experimental in the original version or the rework.

This is the assignment that underwent the most significant re-edit. The main feedback from my tutor was that the image selection wasn’t the optimal version for getting across the message I wanted to (about the wide variety of community activities the pub organises in order to keep its customers in a declining market). He suggested replacing over half of the images with alternatives from the contact sheet.

In the rework I did swap out six out of the ten images, though a slightly different six than the tutor suggested – I took the general advice on narrative flow and honing the message and applied that to a re-edit. I’m happier with the reworked version, it has a little more humour and communicates the character (and characters) of the place better than the original.

I added a short sentence to the introduction reflecting on the assignment and why I’d reworked what I did from the vantage point of the end of the course.

Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

of livelihood

This was a more expressive assignment and less traditional documentary brief where I was asked to produce eight single images on a shared theme – I used loss.

I didn’t change any of the images, though the sequence was tweaked slightly on tutor advice, in terms of the visual flow.

The main challenge in rework was to better address the inclusion of the one image that was discordant with the rest, from a visual style and creative approach point of view – the ‘Bowie’ image below.

of someone you think you know

I had included an explanation of the rationale in the notes but it was perhaps a little buried, or at least detached out of context from the image itself. On other assignments I’d included a brief comment per image as part of an ‘Additional notes’ section, and so I adopted the same format for the reworked assignment here.

Other than that the assignment was unchanged.

Assignment 3: Fracktivism


This photo essay on the growth of the local anti-fracking movement has some aspects in common with Assignment 1 in as much as it is pretty straightforward ‘traditional’ documentary style (whereas I see Assignments 2 and 5 following a more expressive and conceptual approach). It is very much in the reportage tradition of photo essays, and I intentionally adopted this approach as I was still trying out different ways of working as I progressed through the course.

However, from the vantage point of the end of the course, this is the least inventive (and therefore to me, least interesting) of my assignments, and it doesn’t really strike me as being an example of my developing personal voice. My tutor suggested I make this clear as part of the submission so I added words to this effect in the introduction to the reworked version.

In rework I considered going back to the contact sheet and retooling the entire thing in a more visually innovative way – but ultimately decided against this as it felt like it wouldn’t be true to the story; it would have been somewhat contrived to try to reengineer the narrative in a different visual style from the photos that I’d taken with a straight reportage project in mind (and the transient nature of the subject matter makes reshooting impossible).

So in the end the selection and sequence of photographs remained the same. The only significant change I made was the cover of the book dummy version. In the original, the cover image was also the first inside image, and my tutor quite rightly pointed out that such a sequence came across as unnecessarily repetitive.

On the tutor’s advice I am not planning to get an actual hardback book produced as I don’t feel that this format adds to or particularly suits this project. I have however embedded and linked to the PDF dummy in the assignment post.

Assignment 4: The Unphotographable

A4 page 1The critical review essay originally had a more dry and descriptive title “Comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy in documentary photography” but for the revised version I preferred the more evocative title “The Unphotographable” (a phrase I use in the essay) and moved the previous title to a subtitle.

Some of the changes were visual: I added sub-headings to better demarcate the building blocks of my line of argument, and introduced more example images – in the original version it was over halfway into the essay before I illustrated any of the points I was making.

In the final version there is a pair of images on all bar one of the pages. This spacing of images, along with the subheadings, made the essay both more visually interesting and easier to follow.

I also included a few of my own images, something I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to do in the original version but it feels right now, and I had more to choose from having completed Assignment 5.

In terms of the important content – the text itself – there were a few key edits, over and above general wording tweaks throughout.

First of all I changed the introductory examples of metaphor and metonymy to align both around flowers – it made sense to me to demonstrate that a similar subject can be used as symbolism in the two different ways.

Secondly, I added a paragraph about Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as one of the lightbulb moments of working on Assignment 5 was discovering the theory (Edwards 2012: 106) that the two eponymous systems are metaphor and metonym (rather than specifically photographs and text).

Finally, I felt that the conclusion needed a more robust ending. Given that the essay is a comparison of the two forms of signifier and that I’d summarised their respective strengths and weaknesses, I decided to answer the hypothetical question of which I would choose if I had to only ever use one: “In the hypothetical situation of being forced to choose, I choose metaphor.”

Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People?

Middlesbrough 1This assignment is definitely the most experimental and conceptual of all my work on this course (probably the whole degree so far) and the difference between it and the previous assignments might stand out a lot to an assessor.

As for other assignments, my tutor recommended including some words upfront to position this in the frame of the overall body of work / learning experience. I aim to articulate in the new introduction how the work was informed by various things since Assignment 3 – my critical review research, the last three assignments on Gesture & Meaning, a lot of critical thinking on the nature of authorship in documentary photography – and, to be honest, the passage of several months while I worked on other things.

My biggest concern in terms of people understanding the whole concept (highlighting the absurdity of extreme generalisation) was that viewers might miss the point and think that I am simply misrepresenting the places in question – I needed to make sure that there was sufficient signposting that the message is intended to be subversive, that I am actually asking the viewer to ‘disagree’ with the simplified stereotyping I have presented.

There was an important text tweak recommended by the tutor that I acted on to help minimise this risk: the title was previously “Two Kinds of People”, and he suggested turning the title into a question. This really helps to encourage the viewer not to take the images at face value. I had already added a ‘?’ to the town names in the captions (implying “Is this really what Town X is like?”) and so with hindsight it seems obvious that I should have applied the same approach to the title of the overall series.

There were three specific images that I changed on tutor advice: two photos of existing imagery, a poster and a sign, that I recropped to show more environmental context (to prevent them looking like purely graphical elements in the construct of the pie chart segment); and an image swap-out for a pairing where the intended ‘positive’ image had contradictory connotations, making the interpretation of the image more prone to a negotiated reading.

The final change I made was to add some explanatory notes per town to help illuminate my choices of image and juxtaposition – an assessor may not know, for example, that Middlesbrough was known for its heavy industry, or that Burnley is a former cotton mill town, or that Dewsbury has a high ethnic minority population.

Overall observations

The whole rework exercise was useful in several ways. Most obviously it gave me an opportunity to improve all five of the preceding assignments. It also allowed me to apply knowledge from the latter parts of the course back to the earlier assignments. Last but definitely not least, it really helped me to see the similarities and differences across the assignments, which in turn is really helping me to find my photographic voice.

The most enlightening and fascinating learning I’ve taken from the whole course is the potential of the documentary photographer to exercise authorship. I can draw a line from Assignment 2 (my practice run on intentionally encoding messages in images), through Assignment 4 (the deep dive into the myriad uses of metaphor and metonymy) to Assignment 5 (where I not only applied authorship but made the application of authorship part of the delivered assignment – introducing an element of postmodernism).

In terms of visual style I’m most pleased with the black and white aesthetic of Assignment 2 and the experimental pie chart framing of Assignment 5.

In this light I now find my Assignments 1 and 3 a little quaint in their traditional look and feel! They were however crucial in helping me to find my voice.


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Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

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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.

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

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Grierson, J. (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly, 2.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork

Lubben, K. (ed.) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Norfolk, S. and Ignatieff, M. (1998) For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

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Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People?

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.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 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.


Contact sheet and full-size images (97MB)

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?


Additional notes

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).

 Self evaluation

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.


Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

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

Darwell, J. (2015) The Dark River: Kearsley–Clifton. Southport: Café Royal Books.

Darwell, J. (2015) The Dark River: Clifton–Death Valley–Agecroft. Southport: Café Royal Books.

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King.

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ 20/10/2016)

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Pardo, A. and Parr, M (eds.) (2016) Strange and Familiar: Britain as Revealed by International Photographers. London: Prestel.

Porter, T. (2016) Liverpool South Docks 1975. Southport: Café Royal Books.

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

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.



Assignment 4: The Unphotographable

This is the reworked version of this critical review essay assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are in sequencing, minor text edits and the addition of example images.

My interest in metaphor and metonymy was triggered in Assignment 2 and the subject continued to fascinate me throughout the rest of the course and beyond.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

The Unphotographable:

a comparison of metaphor and metonymy
in documentary photography

Printer-friendly PDF version (8.2MB)


The indexicality of photography implies that ‘authenticity’ is one of its primary qualities, so we generally expect documentary photography to depict concrete events, places, people and things to tell its stories. This is however a limited view of documentary, described by John Grierson as “a creative treatment of actuality” (1933).

Many enlightened practitioners have successfully worked with the ‘creative’ part of the definition by deploying the hidden hand of authorship. Documentarians have long been applying semiotic theory (consciously or otherwise), employing signs to communicate ideas that cannot be directly photographed.

Documentary here describes any photography where there is an intention to inform its viewers of some reality, “beyond the production of a fine print” (Ohrn 1980: 36). Semiotics is the study of signs (Saussure 1983), and for visual communication we consider a sign in terms of its inseparable parts, the signifier and the signified – the thing photographed and what it represents. The linguistic transference that occurs when ‘thing A means idea B’ can take the form of metaphor or metonymy.

A metaphor evokes a similarity between signifier and signified (e.g. a field of wilting flowers connoting death), while a metonym evokes an association – whether a causal connection or a synecdoche – between signifier and signified (e.g. fresh flowers tied to a lamppost also connoting death, in a different way).

As a documentary photographer, does it matter which to use? Is one more appropriate, useful or reliable than the other? This essay examines the respective uses, advantages and limitations of metaphor and metonymy as rhetorical tools for communicating subject matter deemed to be ‘unphotographable’.

Language, authorship and ambiguity

Both types of figurative comparison sit at the foundation of language itself, though often overlooked. According to Bate, Jacques Lacan believed that “metaphor and metonymy [are] the two most important rhetorical figures, because they account for the ‘slippages’ in language that occur in everyday life” (2009: 42).

The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

One reading of Martha Rosler’s meta-critique of documentary photography The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) is that the titular systems are not specifically verbal and visual, but more broadly metaphor and metonymy (Edwards 2012: 106); it just so happens that Rosler used metonyms for the photographs and metaphors for the text cards, having decided not to photograph actual drinkers.

Barthes identifies three messages in a photograph (1977: 36): the linguistic message (accompanying or embedded text, working descriptively as ‘anchoring’ or indicatively as ‘relay’), the denoted message (what is in the picture) and the connoted message (what the components of the image represent). To differentiate between denotation and connotation is to understand the distinction between what a picture is of and what it is about.

Before dissecting metaphor and metonymy it’s useful to consider their common ground as figurative rhetorical tools. According to Franklin (2016: 146), documentary photography can be categorised as didactic (pseudo-objective ‘eyewitness’ work such as photojournalism) or ambiguous – allowing the viewer the cognitive space to bring their own imagination and context to create the meaning in their mind. If didactic images are analogous to prose, ambiguous ones are more like poetry (ibid: 151) – more expressive, fragmentary, potentially difficult to immediately understand, but more rewarding and memorable once the viewer-reader has made the connotative connection.

The distribution channel and the viewing environment can determine whether using ambiguity is appropriate; in photojournalism the image needs to “give up its meaning quickly” (Seawright 2014), but in a book or gallery environment one can create a more engaging, reflective viewing experience.

There is a continuum of authorship: at one end is consciously placing (or finding) signifiers to communicate a message; along the continuum is the photographer working reflexively and introducing signification without overt intent; at the other extreme is the image where connotation is entirely in the mind of the viewer – Barthes’ reader as author (1977: 142). This essay covers the first of these: the deliberate encoding of a photographic message at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (Hall 1980: 128).


Metaphor represents linguistic substitution: one item for another (whereas metonymy represents linguistic combination: one item to another) (Jakobson 1956). Metaphor simultaneously relies on similarity and difference (Fiske 1982: 96); signifier and signified must be sufficiently similar in some quality for them to co-exist in the mind, yet be different enough for the contrast to be evident.

One advantage of metaphor is its flexibility of form: the signifier can be an object in the frame, or a colour, shape, pattern, shooting angle, lighting choice, focal point or even a compositional element such as juxtaposition or position in the frame. A red colour palette can connote danger; a low upwards angle can connote authority; a person on the edge of the frame can connote isolation.

Another benefit of metaphor is that it can work at a subconscious level; a viewer may not know why an image makes them feel calm, happy, angry or unsettled, but it may be due to encoding by the photographer.

Metaphors require some creative cognition in the viewer and can therefore be riskier to employ; the universe of potential similarities to select from can be vast and diverse. The signification may go over the viewer’s head entirely, or there may be a negotiated or oppositional reading (Hall 1980: 128). Thus it is the ‘micro-level’ context that matters with metaphor: the viewing experience needs to provide supporting information such as text or other images, giving some ‘bumper rails’ within which to frame potential readings. The earlier example of death connoted by wilting sunflowers may not be immediately understood as an isolated image, but with relevant supporting text, and positioned between photographs of a derelict building and an execution site, it gives up its meaning more easily.


Metonymy is “the invocation of an object or idea using an associative detail; […] it does not require an imaginative leap (transposition) as metaphor does.” (Bezuidenhout 1998). Not requiring this leap gives metonymy an advantage in some situations: the transference of meaning between signifier and signified relies less on a creative receiving mind and more on knowledge and relational cognition. Metonyms can be therefore be easier to decode by the average viewer.

Metonymy relies less on the specific viewing experience than metaphor does, and can more reliably stand alone – as long as the ‘macro-level’ context exists, i.e. the knowledge that connects signifier to signified is part of a shared cultural code: flowers tied to a lamppost will connote death without further clues, as long as this form of memorial exists in the culture of the viewer.

The downside of using metonyms, aside from the risk of the cultural code not being shared, is that they are normally less ambiguous than metaphors and therefore potentially less expressive or ‘poetic’, which may render them less potent or memorable.

Now to look at when a documentarian might employ metaphors or metonyms – when one may need to portray subject matter that is either impossible or unacceptable to photograph directly.

Taboo subjects

First there is that which is unphotographable not literally but culturally: subject matter that breaks a taboo. There are subjects that are inappropriate or forbidden to depict in certain societies, with general examples being death, violence and sexuality and more specific ones including blasphemy or abortion. The photographer may have limitations placed on the shooting and/or distribution of images, or may self-impose restrictions for ethical reasons, such as the dignity of victims or the sensitivities of the viewing public.

Gilles Peress employed both metonymy and metaphor in this 1993 image of children playing in a Sarejevo war zone; the chalk line connotes murder victim and the shadow connotes a (child-sized?) corpse, but the former allusion is the more immediate and potent. The use of signification makes this image more powerful than a photo of an actual sniper victim, as this doesn’t just say people were killed here’ – it adds ‘and children accepted this as part of normal life’.

There’s a sub-genre of contemporary documentary that employs metonymy in an almost typological way. In 2016 Katherine Cambereri did a project photographing the clothing worn by rape victims, presented against a plain black background. It’s a combination of taboo subject matter and temporal shift, and uses the synecdoche of clothing to represent the victim.

Temporal shift

The second unphotographable category is what might be termed temporal shift. By its nature photography can only capture the present moment – the past is history and the future’s a mystery. What photography can do however is evoke a past (aftermath photography does exactly this) or foreshadow a future.

Simon Norfolk arrived at Auschwitz over 50 years too late to capture the killing that took place, but this staircase carries the message through a causal metonym. The punctum (Barthes 1993: 27) of the distinctive wear pattern on the steps, which when coupled with the caption placing the staircase in Auschwitz unleashes the horrific meaning of the image – the sheer volume of death. Metaphor is present as a secondary device; stairs as an allusion to ascension to heaven and the ‘other side’ in the blurry reflection to the right. This is a photo of a staircase, but about genocide.

Anticipatory or foreshadowing photographs are less common, but Josef Koudelka’s wristwatch image from the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague is a good example. Despite the reality that the photo denotes the time the invasion reportedly started elsewhere in the city, it takes on a connoted meaning by using the watch as a metonym signifying anticipation, emphasised by the purposeful posing of the arm over an eerily empty street. It is a photo about invasion taken before the invaders arrive on the scene, and so becomes a photo about a future event.

Intangible concepts

The broadest category of unphotographable subjects is intangible concepts such as thoughts, emotions, sensations and characteristics. How can one photograph indecision, infatuation, anxiety or stoicism? Wells suggest that “Objects do service as carriers of emotions” (2009: 98). This is an area where metaphor is more flexible and potentially more successful than metonymy.

Bill Brandt’s A Snicket, Halifax (1937) shows how long documentary has embraced metaphor. The steep, narrow, gloomy cobbled hill powerfully implies the struggle inherent in the lives of the northern working class he was chronicling, without depicting people.

An advantage of metaphor mentioned earlier was its ability to work beyond the constraints of the frame; it can extend into the presentation format. Edmund Clark’s Control Order House (2011) examines the life of a terror suspect held without charge under a form of house arrest. In the exhibition installation one room is covered floor-to-ceiling with all the JPGs from his memory card, unedited – a potent metaphor (to a photographer anyway) for permanent surveillance.


I’m increasingly deploying a combination of metaphor and metonym in my own work. In the example in the introduction I used flowers to metonymically connote bereavement. My final Level 2 assignment was concerned with regional stereotyping in the aftermath of the EU Referendum, and metaphor and metonym were employed as authorial devices to communicate stereotyped ideas.

Taking the broadest view, it can be argued that all documentary photography is metonymy – specifically synecdoche – in that it uses fragments of the world to represent a wider subject. Within the frame however, metonyms are particularly suited for subject matter that is not technically unphotographable but rendered so by taboo or timing; an associative detail does its best to stand in for the thing not shown.

Metaphors, on the other hand, excel at mentally evoking subject matter that is genuinely not physically photographable – the intangible concepts category. Provided the viewing audience can be reasonably expected to decode the message, in the appropriate context and perhaps after a suitable period of contemplation, then the world of metaphor offers the open-minded and expressive documentary photographer a potentially infinite box of rhetoric tools.

In the hypothetical situation of being forced to choose, I choose metaphor.

(1997 words)


Baker, S. (ed.) (2014) Conflict Time Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Barthes, R. (1993) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage Classics.

Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

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

Fiske, J. (1982) Introduction to Communication Studies. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press.

Grierson, J. (1933) ‘The Documentary Producer’, Cinema Quarterly, 2.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. 2nd edn. London: Laurence King.

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2006) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. New York: Aperture.

Lubben, K. (ed.) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Norfolk, S. and Ignatieff, M. (1998) For Most Of It I Have No Words: Genocide, Landscape, Memory. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.

Ohrn, K. B. (1980) Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press

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

Saussure, F. de (1983) Course in General Linguistics. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th edn. Abingdon: Routledge.

Bezuidenhout, I. (1998) A Discursive-Semiotic Approach to Translating Cultural Aspects in Persuasive Advertisements (accessed 13/10/2016)

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ (accessed 20/10/2016)

Jakobson, R. (1956) The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles (accessed 22/10/2016)

Paul Seawright interview (2014) (accessed 19/10/2016)

Katherine Cambereri (accessed 25/10/2016)

Gilles Peress (accessed 20/10/2016)

Edmund Clark (accessed 23/10/2016)

List of illustrations

Sunflowers, Ukraine, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

of someone you know, 2016 by Rob Townsend

The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (extract), 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

Obala Vojvode Stepe Stepanovica, Sarajevo, 1993 by Gilles Peress

Well, What Were You Wearing? (extract), 2016 by Katherine Cambereri

Staircase at Auschwitz, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

Prague, 1968 by Josef Koudelka

A Snicket, Halifax, 1937 by Bill Brandt

Control Order House, 2011 by Edmund Clark

Pickering, 2017 by Rob Townsend

Middlesbrough, 2017 by Rob Townsend



Assignment 3: Fracktivism

This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are a change of cover image for the book version and some text editing.

This assignment is the most ‘traditional’ reportage-style documentary work I’ve done, and whilst this isn’t the direction that I am generally taking my photography, I applied this approach at the time to broaden my experience of different ways of working.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 About the work

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a controversial method of extracting gas by breaking apart underground rock. In May 2016 North Yorkshire County Council approved a planning application for fracking at ‘KM8’, a site close to the village of Kirby Misperton – in the face of 99% local opposition.

There had been a growing protest group called Frack Free Ryedale, built around opposition to KM8. Once the council had approved the application, people in other parts of Yorkshire increasingly became aware that they too were living in towns and villages that had licences to pursue similar fracking operations.

New local protest groups sprouted up rapidly over the next couple of months – there are over 35 Frack Free groups in Yorkshire at the time of writing – and local people who had never protested about anything in their lives became passionately engaged in anti-fracking activism.

What had started as a loose collection of small, parochial and – to be honest – quite inexperienced protest groups began to realise the benefits of working more closely together in a coordinated way in order to raise awareness about the dangers of fracking.

All this culminated in a mass rally in York that attracted activists from all over the country, and caught the attention of the national news.

This is the story of how some of Yorkshire’s least likely activists got their act together over the summer of 2016.


Contact sheet and full-size images (64.1MB) | Book dummy layout (28.7MB)

Sample prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.

Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.



As requested, a PDF book dummy is available to view or download here. Alternatively, if you prefer to stay on this page, click the first thumbnail below to see a full-screen slideshow of the PDF layout as inline images:


Additional notes

  • I sequenced the final edit roughly according to a ‘shooting script‘ that I had planned, to ensure my intended narrative was getting across
  • I have attempted to convey the ‘growth and consolidation’ aspect of the narrative by a few editing and sequencing techniques:
    • Gradually increasing the number of people in each shot over the set
    • Geographically expanding from the original local area to the rest of the county
    • Moving from a rural environment to an urban one
    • Images are generally more static towards the beginning and more dynamic / active in the latter half
    • Having a couple of blank pages in the first half of the book format to act as ‘breathing space’ before the busier second act

Comments per image:

1. Frack Free Ryedale sign, Middleton, June 2016

Calm, quiet, rural, no people, retro sign, old bike – all helps to set the scene as a sleepy North Yorkshire idyll.

2. Frack Free Hambleton rural march, Sutton Bank, June 2016

Small-scale fundraising, very local, rural setting, with ‘one man and a dog’ as metaphor for low involvement.

2 or 3
3. Frack Free Ryedale ‘Nanas Tea Party’, Little Barugh, July 2016

Introduces the idea of ‘unlikely activists’, selling cakes to raise funds (I also love the polite slogan on the t-shirt).

4. ‘Living with Fracking’ film and talk, Harrogate, July 2016

I wanted a portrait early on to give a face to the movement, and I chose this one because the sideways glance implies she’s not quite sure what she’s doing. The people in the background help to communicate that the word is being spread.

5. Map of fracking licence areas, Harrogate, July 2016

I needed a device to show how the geographic spread of the problem and therefore the protest movement was expanding – this map provided that.

6. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

This image is where the narrative pivots and the protest gets more organised, and it is loaded with symbolism: there are signifiers for ‘rebellion’ (he’s on yellow lines, the lines swing leftwards, long hair, leather jacket, interesting-looking cigarette) and the demon graphic on jacket evokes the evils of fracking.

7. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

I was attracted to this sign at the point of shooting due to the coarse slogan (quite daring for this crowd) and the walking motion of the legs coupled with the obscured top half of the body – signifying that the protest movement itself was getting moving.

8. Dr Tim Thornton, York, 2016

I wanted to get across the communication aspect of the York rally, not just the mass of people marching, and Dr Thornton is one of the high-profile local campaigners. The loudspeaker to the left gets across that he is speaking to more people out of frame – supporting my intended ‘growth’ message.

9. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

People on the move as part of the march signify both the growth and the forward motion of the protest movement, and the skewed angle and the perspective helps get across this message. The wording on the banner gets across the ‘consolidation’ message that is an important part of the intended narrative.

10. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

I envisaged this shot right from the start, and arrived at the demo venue early in order to get a suitable elevated vantage point. Text-wise, I thought it important that the ‘Don’t Frack Yorkshire’ was more prominent than any of the other smaller, more locally-themed banners


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

As suggested I used a variety of materials, with two cameras and three lenses and a variety of focal lengths.

In terms of use of photographic techniques, I employed a little selective use of shallow depth of field but for the most part this is shot in a fairly ‘straight’ photojournalistic style.

In comparison to Assignment 1, where I shot in a fairly loose, reactive way, here I had a plan in mind on what kind of shots I wanted – so my eye was more keenly looking for particular moments that I had (at least partly) pre-visualised, which was a new way of testing my observational skills.

My visual awareness is demonstrated by the variety of photo essay shot ‘types’ (portrait, wide, medium, environmental, interaction etc).

I used my design and compositional skills to find interesting framing and vantage point opportunities, especially in the more dynamic second half – I looked for movement, leading lines and front-to-back depth to help give a sense of activity

Quality of outcome

I’m pleased with the final photo essay from a content point of view; I believe I covered all the types of subject that I wanted to in a small final set. I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner; I put a lot of thought into the sequencing in both the planning and editing stages on this assignment.

The major new application of knowledge that I brought to this was the notions of reflexivity and authorship – that I could impose a narrative on real events through my own perception filters and intended message.

After the feedback on Assignment 1 that my selection discernment could be improved, I put more thought and structure into this one, and gathered valuable feedback from other students before the final edit.

I wanted to communicate the idea of the rapid growth and mobilisation of the protest movement and I believe I succeeded in this. In terms of conceptualisation of thoughts, these images were at least partly pre-visualised, to an overarching narrative that I had in mind – making it a kind of combination of the approaches from the preceding two assignments.

Demonstration of creativity

These images were captured rather than constructed, so not displaying pure imagination in the ‘fictionalised documentary’ sense; however, given the ‘straight’ documentary format I believe that I have demonstrated some imagination (subjects, compositions, vantage points, selections, juxtapositions etc).

This assignment represented some experimentation for me – it’s the first time I’ve so consciously applied a structured authorial approach to a subject

With the hindsight of rework, this project doesn’t naturally fit in with my developing personal voice; I’m not sure such ‘straight’ photojournalism style work is really my style, but I chose to do this assignment in this way in order to get some practice – I’m still ‘trying on’ different styles and techniques, working out what feels comfortable / enjoyable / challenging and so on.


With regard to personal reflection: as noted above, I found this assignment most interesting as evidence of the subjectivity, reflexivity and authorial control of the photographer – I have a clearer understanding now of how a documentary photographer can really mould or manipulate the visual assets at their disposal to tell whatever version of the story they want to – it’s both liberating and slightly disconcerting!

As part of my research I looked into the visual language of protest photography to identify (if not necessarily avoid) some the common tropes.

I did a compilation of some useful critical thinking on reflexivity and authorship that helped me on this assignment, but by far the best book I’ve found on documentary photography is the relatively new The Documentary Impulse (2016) by Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin; the other particularly useful resources were the David Campbell lecture suggested in the assignment brief, and Hurn & Jay’s On Being a Photographer (1997).


Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Hurn, D. and Jay, B.(1997) On Being a Photographer. USA: Lenswork

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. 2nd ed. New York: Phaidon Press.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. 4th ed. New York: Routledge.

David Campbell lecture (accessed 03/08/2016)

David Campbell article (accessed 03/08/2016) (accessed 09/08/2016)



Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

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.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 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.


Contact sheet and full-size images (26.5MB)

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

Additional notes

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:

of youth
of youth

Receding hairline is intended to signify not only lost hair but lost youth and vitality.

of livelihood
of livelihood

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.

of townsfolk
of townsfolk

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.

of love
of love

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.

of someone you think you know
of someone you think you know

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’.

of someone you know
of someone you know

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.

of a loved one - 1
of a loved one (i)

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.

of a loved one - 2
of a loved one (ii)

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 (accessed 22/05/2016) (accessed 14/10/2015)

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.

Assignment 1: Fun in The Sun

This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. I revisited the selection stage and replaced just over half of the images.

Reworking this assignment gave me an opportunity to apply some of the learnings from the journey I had made throughout the course, in particular the need to keep a coherent communication intent in mind and hone the image selection to support that message.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 About the work

In the face of a nationwide downturn in usage, how does a successful pub attract and keep customers? The UK pub sector has been in steep decline since 2008, and by 2015 year an average of four pubs per day were closing down1 – though some pubs are bucking the trend. In 2010 my local (The Sun Inn in Pickering, North Yorkshire) was threatened with closure when the last owner threw in the towel. Under new ownership it was refurbished and now stands as an example of what a pub can do to attract and maintain customers in a tough market.

The key to The Sun’s reinvention is community. It blends traditional pub character – it’s won multiple CAMRA awards – with a range of communal activities that give people a reason to come along when they might otherwise have got out of the habit.

There are interactive activities such as quizzes, vinyl nights, folk music sessions, karaoke and family fun days in the beer garden, plus art exhibitions and one-off functions. When I think of my involvement with my local community, I think of The Sun – my friends hold functions there, I host charity quizzes there, I hold an annual photo exhibition there.

This photo essay depicts the range of activities my local pub carries out that help to engender a sense of community for the people in the town – to show what a pub can do for its customers alongside the obvious sale of alcohol.


Contact sheet and full-size images (48.9MB)

Sample prints have been sent to OCA as part of the submission pack.

Click the first image below to start a full-screen slideshow.


Fun in The Sun

Additional notes

A quick note on each image and why it was included:

1. The Sun Inn

Establishing shot to show bright, vibrant activity against backdrop of dark street scene.

2. Regulars

To establish the ‘normal’ activity of the pub before bringing in specific events.

3. Darts

A still life composition to give some contrast to the overall flow, and to allude to a traditional pub activity without showing people participating in it.

quiz, people
4. Sharon the landlady

Introducing Sharon, a classic ‘friendly but formidable’ landlady, by showing her in command of the room on a quiz night.

5. Quiz team

I wanted to show participants in the quiz night and add a little character, show people letting their hair down.

6. Quiz takings

The scribbling on hand signifies the informality of the event, while the open hand connotes trust, openness, friendliness; diagonal moving right and up signify positive movement.

7. Andy’s 40th

A scene which I think captures the spirit of a northern working class ‘bit of a do’; the central subject acknowledging the camera and smiling drew me to this particular image.

8. Dog friendly

The Sun is very dog friendly, as the owners have three of their own and support a local dog rescue charity – it’s a big part of the pub’s character (and Jasper here matches the flooring and furniture rather well).

9. Acoustic music night

I’m trying to get across a sense of not only the character of the establishment, but of the individuals that frequent it and participate in the community activities – and I love the facial expressions in this.

10. Exhibition launch

The Sun is very supportive of local artists and gives over the walls of its function room for month-long exhibitions all year round, and April is my turn. The hint of the Tetley sign through the window is a nice juxtaposition between traditional boozer and nouveau arts venue.


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

With regard to materials, as specified I used one camera, one lens (Leica Q with fixed 28mm f/1.7 lens). I tried using flash for some of the shots as lighting was often very low, but it was a little too distracting so I reverted to wide apertures and high ISO.

Many of the images have a shallow depth of field, which was partly due to the limitations of lighting leading me to wider apertures and partly as a deliberate technique to emphasise foreground subjects; if I’m honest, for some of these images I would have preferred more depth of field but I needed to compromise.

This assignment really tested my observational skills and visual awareness for a couple of reasons: first, the venue was very familiar and ‘seeing things anew’ was a challenge, though repeat visits yielded fresh discoveries; and second, as I had to be alert to potential shots and react quickly due to the unposed nature of one-off moments – I probably missed more ‘decisive moments’ than I caught.

I appreciate that ‘classic’ documentary often adopts a very straight, dry design and composition style but I chose to inject a little more visual interest; I worked with deliberately saturated colours and strong contrast to support the vibrant nature of the subject matter. I tried as far as possible to find interesting subjects, framing and vantage points to avoid an overly repetitive ‘deadpan’ look and feel – I looked for movement, leading lines and front-to-back depth to help give a sense of what was going on in the scenes.

Quality of outcome

The limitation of 10 images made discernment and selection of content a challenge – I wanted to get over enough of a range of activities, and a good mix of ‘types’ of shot (wide, portrait, detail, interaction, gesture etc) to maintain the rhythm of a good photo essay. In rework I replaced six out of the ten shots and am happier with the overall flow and content of the version submitted here.

I endeavoured to apply the knowledge I’d acquired from this introductory section, including but not limited to: the definition of documentary; objectivity, ‘realism’, discontinuities and so on.

I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner; I put a lot of thought into the sequencing (in both edits) to give a loose sense of visual narrative.

Whilst most of the images weren’t pre-visualised to a great degree, there was a broad conceptualisation of thought in as much as I had an idea I wanted to communicate – simply that a pub can be a community hub as well as a watering hole – and I think I succeeded.

Demonstration of creativity

The set is very much ‘realist’ i.e. captured rather than constructed, so ‘pure’ experimentation / invention are not so much in evidence; however, given the chosen format I believe that I have demonstrated some imagination (subjects, compositions, vantage points etc).

There are aspects of this set that I recognise as connecting to some of my other work – compositional elements, candid moments and so on; one thing that I would welcome as part of my developing personal voice going forwards, subject matter permitting, is that I enjoyed capturing something positive and celebratory – much of the documentary tradition is concerned with issues, hardship and negativity, and I think there’s room for documenting more positive aspects of life.


On reflection, this assignment has opened my eyes to the possibilities of making documentary work on what might otherwise be considered mundane subject matter – interesting stories exist on your doorstep; I have a fuller and richer understanding of the work of the practicing documentary photographer.

In addition to reviewing the established critical thinking on documentary photography (mainly Clarke 1997, Wells 2009, Bate 2009), I researched the work of a few other photographers who’ve worked on similar projects (similar but not significantly so: mostly about alcohol rather than pubs); for inspiration on documentary photography generally I have looked at some classic and contemporary photobooks, listed in Sources below.


1 (accessed 03/04/2016)

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

Parr, M. 2012. The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

Rosler, M. (2004) ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography)’ in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.