Assignment 2: tutor feedback

I got the Assignment 2 report back from Derek my tutor at the end of last week. It was generally good :-)

Key comments extracted below, with my response as appropriate.

Technical and visual skills

  • “You have translated ideas for the concept into practical constructions (or found images) that convey very different aspects of the word/state of ‘loss’. The variety of subjects, and the various techniques employed, shows a broad set of skills, each communicating the idea well, despite the changing circumstances. It is a disparate set, yet that’s what is asked for in the brief.”
    • Pleased with that – the fragmented nature of the set is an intentional part of both the brief and my submission so I’m glad I didn’t get comments along the lines of it not ‘hanging together’

Quality of outcome

  • “Each image stands up as a metaphor for loss. […] Some individual works are weaker for being simple reproductions; e.g. the two picture shots with white space, yet these do provide punctuation to the rhythm of the sequence. We see them all as a sequence, as they’re viewed as a whole: I’d therefore suggest swapping the flowers and Bowie, placing the flowers before the dog’s grave.”
    • Whilst I do understand his visual rhythm point, the sequencing was really more determined by the content, more specifically the captions: the flowers pic has to come before the Bowie pic due to the coupling of “of someone you know” and “of someone that you think you know” – it doesn’t make as much sense the other way round
  • “I thought that the ‘flowers on the lane’ image was particularly well executed.”
    • Interesting… I felt that the flowers one stuck out a little stylistically – more perspective, less deadpan, more obviously emotive – so it wasn’t one of my particular favourites
  • “I also like the minimalist cropping of the shop front, with the addition of the swirls of whitewash.”
    • Good – I was very drawn to the formal aspects of this one, glad to see it went over well
  • The ‘out-takes’ are revealing in that you have focused fairly keenly on a few ideas from the outset, with very few rejected and only shot a handful shot of each scenario. This shows a high hit-rate of results per shot.”
    • This is very different to my Assignment 1, where I shot hundreds and selection was my big problem – I found this to be similar to my most recent assignment for G&M – that also involved a lot of planning and pre-conceptualisation, and very little shooting – it’s been interesting to work at both extremes of approach over a short space of time!

Demonstration of creativity

  • “Your creativity has also been stretched: From the last assignment that was ‘traditional’ reportage/documentary, this one is quite a departure. I think it has opened your eyes to what you are capable of, which should give you a lot more confidence to be experimental in the future.”
    • It has opened my eyes – I have a wider understanding of the types of work that can come under the category of ‘documentary photography’; the potential degree of authorial intent is the major insight for me… I understood it in theory before but it really came home to me in practice

Coursework and learning log

  • “I find the log to be a great source of ideas mixed with your research. There is clearly a passion that you feel for exploring the subject matter that motivates further research and reflection. The blog isn’t merely passive: you interrogate the sources and compare with others, critiquing and making connections. Each of these bode well for future research and reflection where the research interacts with your own practice.”
    • I’m very pleased with this feedback, maybe even more so than the specific assignment report – research and reflection gets increasingly important over L2 and L3 so I’m pleased to get good feedback on how this is developing

Suggested reading/viewing

  • The Nature of Photographs by Stephen Shore
    • Ordered – another tome for my heaving bookshelf…
  • Photographers and projects:
    • Stuart Roy Clarke’s long term project about football

Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

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.

I aim to convey variations on 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 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.


Click on the first image for a high resolution slideshow.

A contact sheet of the ‘longlist’ (first pass) selection is available here.

(with thanks to Les Monaghan for allowing the use of part of one of his images from The Desire Project (2016) for photo 6, “of someone you think you know”)


This was very much about applying semiotics and choosing signifiers that pointed to the appropriate signifieds:

  • receding hairline (denotation) = lost youth, vitality (connotation)
  • closed-up shop = someone has lost their livelihood
  • names on a memorial = war
  • blank final photo = end of a relationship
  • flowers in public = tragic accident
  • [Bowie one is the exception – it uses simple anchoring text]
  • dog tag on makeshift gravestone = lost pet
  • empty place setting = missing family member

Visual styles

I am aware that the set uses different styles to a degree: a viewer could make a case of one or two of them ‘sticking out’ as inconsistent visually. I am comfortable with this, as the brief is for standalone single images with internal narrative. I’d have been more concerned if they all looked too similar. So the eclectic presentation is a conscious decision.

I specifically want to address some peer review comments on photo 6: ‘of someone you think you know‘ – which some people felt was out of place visually and conceptually. My rationale with this one is that it represents a collective, public sense of loss, and the image was of someone expressing it in public, and I saw it presented in a public place. It is 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’.

Relevance to documentary photography

I covered this in a preparation post but to summarise here: I was initially concerned on how the level of pre-conceptualisation on this assignment fits with the notion of documentary, which I simplistically saw as ‘capturing what’s happening’ rather than “translating concepts into visual products” (course notes: 58).

I have however learnt a valuable lesson on this assignment: 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.


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • Materials: unlike Assignment 1, this didn’t specify sticking to one single camera and lens so I used different equipment and focal lengths as appropriate for each execution
  • Techniques: there are not really any specific photographic techniques used here other than those covered below under observational skills and design and compositional skills
  • Observational skills: the set was a mixture of observed and constructed – for the ones I observed (2, 3, 6, 7) I believe I found a good variety of scenes that fit my brief
  • Visual awareness: I made a conscious decision upfront to do the set in B&W for reasons expanded upon in an earlier prep post
  • Design and compositional skills: 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:

  • Content: 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)
  • Application of knowledge: I 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
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner – as a set of intentionally 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)
  • Discernment: by its nature most of this was pre-planned and so selection wasn’t anywhere near as big a job as it was on Assignment 1; 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: this, and communication of ideas below, 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
  • Communication of ideas: see notes on conceptualisation above

Demonstration of creativity:

  • Imagination: 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 imagination in the staged images (1, 4, 5, 8)
  • Experimentation: I did experiment a little outside of my normal shooting approach and visual style (e.g. the appropriated image in photo 6) – and as noted above the eclectic visual presentation is intentional
  • Invention: not sure I invented anything on this one…
  • Development of personal voice: an interesting one, this… one of the dilemmas I wrestle with on an ongoing basis on both my Level 2 courses is the balance of ‘captured’ vs ‘constructed’ – the amount of previsualisation vs organic idea development through a shooting-refining-shooting cycle – and it’s very interesting that I ended up (inadvertently) delivering an assignment with a 50:50 split of captured vs constructed


  • Reflection: this assignment has opened my eyes to the opportunities and risks of making documentary work with an authorial intent – whether conscious or subconscious – and the ability to steer the narrative; I am increasingly curious about this ‘hidden subjectivity’ in the work of others as well
  • Research: I looked at the work of other photographers who’ve worked on similar projects; as always I also looked at what other OCA students have done for this assignment
  • Critical thinking: semiotics was a big part of it 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


The Desire Project (accessed 22/05/2016)

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

Assignment 2: research

As my Assignment 2 is dealing with Loss, I’ve been looking for examples of other photographers taking on similar projects.

Unsurprisingly, all the projects I found dealt with one particular kind of loss rather than the ‘single image narrative’ construct that this assignment requires, and so each one goes narrow but deep. It’s still been a very useful research exercise though, as it has given me some pointers on the types of scene I could use as part of my own project.

Some of the artists positioned their theme as ‘absence’ rather than ‘loss’, and there is a difference – loss implies a person feeling the emotional state of loss, which is I believe an additional layer on top of ‘absence’, which just means something or someone is not there. Maybe ‘loss’ is ‘absence felt’? In any case, as a concept absence is a close enough cousin of loss that I included these projects too.

Glenna Gordon

Abducted Nigerian School Girls (2014)

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 14.38.43
Glenna Gordon

Gordon looked at the much-publicised kidnapping of nearly 300 girls by the Islamic militants Boko Haram in 2014 from their school in Chibok, a remote village in Northern Nigeria. She conveyed the sense of loss by photographing the possessions they left behind – clothes, jewellery, school books.

This taught me that one way of depicting a loss is by traces that are left behind.

Michael Schmidt

Berlin Nach 45 (2005)

Michael Schmidt

Schmidt took street scenes of Berlin in the 1980s, focusing on the gaps and half-remaining buildings left by bombing, catching a city that hadn’t yet made an effort to rebuild after the war, and wouldn’t until reunification late in the decade. The images are devoid of people, which lends them a calm, contemplative feel, as in so-called ‘aftermath photography’. The overall mood is cold, empty, desolate.

What I took from this is how much the vantage point, focal length and composition can support the intended atmosphere of an image. Schmidt’s images are in the main quite wide shots that carry an almost tangible stillness, allowing the viewer to really soak up the emptiness. I shot my assignment photos as medium distance or quite close shots, but I did try for very straight-on, deadpan composition and framing to keep the images static and calm.  And as a bonus connection, one of my assignment images includes photos taken in Berlin.

Taryn Simon

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (2011)

Taryn Simon

Simon’s is an epic work in 18 ‘chapters’, each dealing with a ‘bloodline’ – the living ascendants and descendants of the subject of a particular human story. What I found particularly interesting was its treatment of missing participants in the bloodline – it’s as simple as it is striking, as the ‘family portraits’ section of each story simply has a blank space for people who were not available to photograph (imprisonment, military service, illness etc) – so it’s ‘absence’ more than ‘loss’ but I still found it useful.

The aspect of this that informed my work was to use blank space or emptiness as a signifier for something that isn’t there. It’s the gap where there should be something that conveys the essence of loss. I use this idea in an image where I leave a dining table setting empty to denote a missing family member.

Phil Toledano

When I Was Six (2015)

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 15.40.42
Phil Toledano

Toledano made a project about the sister who had died when he was six and she was nine. He had virtually no memories of her, and the family had hardly ever discussed her – then after his parents died he found boxes of photos and belongings, which led to the project. What’s particularly fascinating to me about this is that the subject that he has ‘lost’ isn’t necessarily the obvious one: he didn’t remember his sister, so he’s mourning (or at least analysing the loss of) something else – the absence of her, even as a shared family memory while he was growing up? the loss of a part of his childhood that never happened in real life? is it really about the loss of his parents?

In a – very trite and incomparable – way I am including in my assignment an image that has a literal (denotative) meaning and a more subtle (connotative) meaning: I photographed my receding hairline, so the obvious reading is ‘loss of hair’, but what I really want to get across is what it signifies, which to me is ‘loss of youth / loss of vitality’.

Laura Stevens

Another November (2014)

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 15.44.09
Laura Stevens

Stevens used other women to create a semi-autobiographical series depicting the aftermath of a relationship breakup – in her own words, it’s “a photographic narrative based on the experience of losing love” (LensCulture 2014). She chose Parisian women of about her age to act as proxies and staged scenes that conveyed the feelings of having been rejected by a partner.

I had remembered this project from a year or so ago and sought it out again for inspiration. However, I’d decided early on that I didn’t really want people in my images (barring the forehead selfie), as I wanted them to be empty, cool and still. So staging images like Stevens’ didn’t really fit my approach. Interestingly, the one idea that I did like, of a woman dining alone, partly resembles the dining table scene I had already staged when I rediscovered this project – so maybe I was subconsciously thinking of it from my first viewing last year.

There are potentially dozens of others – lots of photographers have dealt with loss as in bereavement in many different ways, and there are a number of projects dealing with the aftermath of wars that could be classed as examinations of loss (the 2014 Tate exhibition and book Conflict-Time-Photography is full of them) – but I wanted to pick out a handful that had some inspirational value, or at least a connection to the kind of thing I already had in mind for my assignment.


Abducted Nigerian School Girls (accessed 19/05/2016)

Berlin Nach 45 (accessed 19/05/2016)

A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters (accessed 20/05/2016)

When I Was Six (accessed 20/05/2016)

Another November (accessed 20/05/2016)

Baker, S and Mavlian, S (eds.) (2014) Conflict – Time – Photography. London: Tate.

Assignment 2: visual style

Just a short post on a couple of decisions I’ve made on the visual style for Assignment 2: Loss.

Colour palette

Although this assignment is at the end of the ‘B&W Document’ section it does say that it can be delivered in B&W or colour.

I’m going to do it in B&W, for a couple of reasons:

  • It’s an inherently negative and potential dark subject and B&W lends itself to the prevailing mood
  • I really like Anders Petersen’s rationale for using B&W:
    • “In black and white you are not caught by the colours, you have your own fantasy and experiences and they are all in colours. So unintentionally you add colours to the black and white photograph.” (FK Magazine, 2012)
    • What he was referring to is the viewing rather than the photographing experience – that the viewer finds a B&W image ‘incomplete’ and is therefore more likely to use imagination and memory to ‘fill in the gaps’
    • Whether this is scientifically true or not :-) I think it sounds plausible
    • It suits my intent here – to tap into universal emotions


In the last assignment (and assignments on other OCA courses) I have made a particular effort to use diagonals and depth of field to evoke a sensation of movement and three dimensions.

However, for this set I want the images to be very still, calm, contemplative. So I am planning on shooting everything as straight-on as I can. I want to minimise the feeling of depth and try to make the images as ‘still’ as possible, visually.

Along similar lines, I plan to shoot everything in landscape ratio – more static, calm, balanced.


Assignment 2: theme decision – Loss

As at the end of last week I was trying to decide between two alternative themes, Loss and Danger.

I did a couple of dummy shots of each idea, and also spent some time thinking ahead to (a) whether I could come up with eight different executions for each idea, and (b) how the overall set might hang together.

I also spent some time working through my nagging concern about the extent to which I might need to stage rather than find these executions.

With all of this in mind, I have made my decision, and it is the first idea I had right back at the start of this section: Loss.

A word on Danger and why it was rejected: the extent to which these images would need to be staged would be great, potentially onerous and most importantly, maybe too easy to call out as faked. I am not, nor ever will be, a thrill-seeker – so the degree to which I am prepared to put myself in any kind of danger for a photograph is quite minimal…

Loss is however an emotion that I believe we can all tap into. We’ve all experienced loss in some form or other.

Defining loss

Just to clarify my own wording above, in the interests of better articulating my intent: loss is not an ’emotion’ as such, rather a situation to which one can have an emotional response. Loss can be felt, and that can make one sad, lonely, angry or some other emotion on the more negative end of the continuum.

The third listed definition in the OED is the one I’m aiming for:

“the feeling of grief after losing someone or something of value” (OED)

What I am looking to depict here is not the ‘losing’ of something, nor is it the ‘thing lost’ – it is the sensation of ‘having lost‘ (something or someone). Peter Wollen’s excellent essay Fire and Ice (1984) puts well a categorisation of three aspects of narrativity (credited to Bernard Comrie) that can be applied to photography:

  • Process (how something happens/changes – generally typified by documentary photography)
  • Event (the moment of happening/change – generally typified by news photography)
  • State (the stable, unchanging situation – generally typified by art photography)

(Wollen 1984)

Through this lens I could clarify what I want to depict: I want to show the state of loss.

Some more notes to hone in on my intent:

  • More than ‘absence’ or ‘gap’, loss includes the inherent meaning of once having had that which is no longer there; it’s missing something in the emotional sense in addition to it not being present
  • There are different kinds of loss:
    • Temporary vs permanent
    • Tangible (people, objects) vs intangible (e.g. faith, confidence, virginity)
  • There is an inherent difficulty in photographing something that isn’t there! I’ll need to be reasonably creative in coming up with images that can provide the viewer with enough information to determine what is missing

Proposed subjects

With loss as the connecting theme, I still need to deliver eight executions that individually communicate this message.

I have some ideas already. Not all of these have actual executions attached yet. They range from trivial to grave. In sequencing I am already thinking that I might start small/trivial and build up to large/serious.

  • Loss of hair / tooth (to signify loss of youth/vitality?)
  • Loss of hope / dignity /  confidence (hard to depict visually?)
  • Loss of loved one: person
  • Loss of loved one: pet
  • Loss of someone you don’t know personally (public figure?)
  • Loss of relationship (breakup)
  • Loss of job / livelihood
  • Loss of community

There may be more than one execution for some of the more significant ones (e.g. loss of loved one).

Next steps

Before I get too far into shooting I plan to do some research on other photographers who have attempted similar themes. I have been given a few pointers from other students.


Wollen, P. (1984) ‘Fire and Ice’ in The Photography Reader (2003). New York: Routledge

Assignment 2: “but is it documentary?”

I’ve had a nagging concern at the back of my mind since I started thinking about this assignment.

The brief includes the following pointer:

“This assignment aims to help you develop your ability to conceptualise your thoughts and communicate your ideas visually. The emphasis is on effectively translating concepts into visual products.” (course notes: 58)

My immediate reaction was: this doesn’t sound much like documentary?

In fact, the best (I almost said ‘only’ but that’s not true) way to deliver this assignment is to consciously construct a set of images.

My instinctive understanding of documentary photography is about capturing rather than constructing – observing what’s already there, not imposing a preconceived idea. This is more about starting with a concept and producing an image to match the concept. It seems to be the ‘opposite way round’ to documentary photography…!

However, I am getting over this.

For a start, I appreciate that not all assignments on a documentary photography course need to be delivered using a documentary photography approach; it can be, as in this case, about developing or honing a particular skill that is useful for documentary photography.

Secondly, it reassured me that the response from other students has been wholeheartedly to construct images – so either the dilemma didn’t occur to them or they got over it.

Most importantly, I was exposed to interesting ideas about the necessary veracity of ‘documentary photography’ images in the essay ‘Some Truths Cannot be Told Except as Fiction’ in Street Photography Now (Howarth & McLaren 2010). It uses historic examples such as Brassaï and Robert Doisneau, as well as contemporary practitioners like Jeff Wall and Mirko Martin, who staged images to varying degrees. Wall’s Mimic (1982), for example, is a recreation of a scene that he had witnessed previously.

jeff wall mimic.jpg
Mimic, 1982 – Jeff Wall

Some photographers are therefore happy to blur fact and fiction in the name of communicating a ‘wider truth’.

The essay quotes Garry Winogrand going one step further than recreation: “If one could imagine it, one could set it up” (Howarth & McLaren 2010: 183).

The French-Algerian photographer Mohamed Bourouissa, mentioned early on in the course, works like this, in projects such as Périphérique (2009).

La Rencontre, 2008 – Mohamed Bourouissa

Bourouissa has said: “What I am after is that very fleeting tenth of a second when the tension is at its most extreme.” (Prix Pictet 2012), and he doesn’t worry about missing it as he believes it’s valid to construct it – others may disagree.


In the end, my concern has been allayed. It has however been very useful to think through these issues in advance of any further work on the assignment.


Howarth, S and McClaren, S (eds.) (2010) Street Photography Now. London: Thames & Hudson.

Mohamed Bourouissa (accessed 13/05/2016)

Assignment 2: brainstorming themes

Ideas so far

My early thinking on this assignment only produced a few theme ideas:

  • Loss
  • Bravery
  • Loyalty

With hindsight the latter two only sprang to mind after I’d seen a bunch of war medals in a charity shop window, and I’m not at all clear whether I could come up with another seven executions!

I did consider some other concepts, a mixture of positive, negative and neutral:

  • Danger, Fear
  • Love, Connection
  • Waiting


I also looked at examples from other students:

  • Silence, Legacy, Memory, Hope, Isolation, Abuse, Depression, Absence

At one point I remembered that an abandoned concept for one of my Level 1 assignments was the Seven Deadly Sins!

  • Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, Sloth

This in turn led to looking at their lesser-known counterparts, the Seven Virtues:

  • Humility, Charity, Chastity, Kindness, Temperance, Patience, Diligence

In the end I decided that neither the Vices nor the Virtues were really connecting with me in any meaningful way right now so I put them on the back burner.


After much thought I have narrowed it down to two potential themes: Loss and Danger. They are both at the negative end of the emotional scale but I think that (a) gives scope for more interesting shots and (b) fits better with doing the assignment in B&W, which is my preference.


  • The first idea I had, and the one that I have most execution concepts for
  • Could be very serious or could be a broader blend of darker and lighter (or at least darkly humorous) executions
  • Overall mood would be calm, still, contemplative


  • A recent idea, so I have fewer specific execution concepts!
  • Inspired, I think, by the Moriyama/Petersen/Sobol work I’ve been looking at recently
  • I envisage close-ups of dangerous scenes/situations
  • Overall mood would be foreboding, visceral
  • I’m less sure that I can produce eight such images – without actually putting myself in real danger! (something I don’t intend to do)

Next steps

I’m going to:

  • Try some dummy shots for both Loss and Danger over the weekend
  • Brainstorm more execution ideas for each
  • Then make up my mind

Assignment 2: early thoughts

The course notes suggest reading ahead to the Assignment 2 brief and making preliminary planning notes. I’ll update this page as I work through the coursework before moving onto the more detailed preparation.


Produce eight images that, individually, have a narrative and convey a specific idea. You needn’t limit yourself to your immediate surroundings as you did in the previous assignment.

Rather than focusing on a theme or activity, work on a concept. The more abstract the concept the better. Abstract concepts name ideas, feelings, qualities or characteristics that are not directly perceived by the senses, e.g. hope, love, exploitation, sadness, freedom and greed.

You can do this assignment in B&W or colour. Discuss with your tutor which medium is most appropriate for your chosen concept.

Provide a short commentary (200 words) explaining your ethos and rationale along with your images.

Initial response

I like the look of this one. I’m drawn to projects where I can depict internal thoughts, sensations, emotions, states of mind etc. The assignments I enjoyed most on Level 1 were a little like this, especially on Context & Narrative – and this is a little similar to C&N Assignment 2: Photographing the Unseen. I did that on the subject of photographer’s block.

On the first day of thinking about potential subjects I came up with:

  • Loss
  • Bravery
  • Loyalty

I will add to the ideas list as I go along.

I’m currently thinking that I will work in B&W for this one, but that’s not set in stone.

More to follow…