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

misc

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

Fracktivism-4

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.


Sources

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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.


 

 

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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.


Submission

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.

Context

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.


Sources

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’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf(accessed 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 5: tutor feedback

Having completed the assignment less than a week ago, thanks to a very prompt tutor response I’ve already had the video tutorial to discuss it and we’ve collaboratively produced the feedback report.

It was generally positive, thankfully. I was unsure whether I had gone too ambitious / obscure with the concept but it seems that I got the message over reasonably well, albeit with some recommendations for fine-tuning it before submission for assessment.

The ‘Overall comments’ section was encouraging:

“A strong idea and a unique and inspired presentation makes this assignment stand out. There are a few areas that were discussed that could lead to a slight strengthening of the content, particularly subject choices and cropping. As there are plenty of images to choose from this shouldn’t pose any problems for a simple re-edit. The project was worthy of a larger-scale choice for level three; as such it has taken a lot longer than Rob’s usual turnaround. The experiences gained during this process will serve him well at the next level.”

The key points of the more detailed feedback are summarised below:

Assignment submission

  • The work is topical, contentious, provocative and engaging
  • Being ‘brave’ enough to try something more experimental is to be applauded
  • Pie chart format is visually engaging and attracts the viewer’s attention
  • Need to make sure however that content within images is also strong and the work doesn’t just rely on the visual concept – some images are not as strong as others:
    • Use of appropriated imagery needs to be be made clearer (through re-cropping / choosing alternative versions of the shots)
    • Potential ambiguity in subject matter leading to weaker juxtapositions, could confuse the viewer if not sufficiently ‘polarised’
    • Don’t need to be so ‘neat’ about making subjects fit into the obscure shapes as they are deliberately fragments of the scenes
  • Sequencing: currently the sequence is mixed across the five towns arbitrarily, but it would be more effective with some logic behind it
    • Suggestion to try in rework: sequence images in chronological order by my own period of residence, as this represents a personal journey
  • Some concern that the overall message (highlighting/subverting stereotyping) is potentially open to misinterpretation and a subtle change to the title may help provoke the viewer into more thought on the content
    • Suggestion is to highlight the ambiguity by turning the title into a question, e.g. “Two Kinds of People?”

Coursework

  • The coursework looks good and up to date – steered towards researching and gaining the experience required for the assignment

Research

  • Research is wide-ranging and critically aware – some recent references are missing: an update would better illustrate the depth of contextualisation

Learning Log

  • Reflections are mature, objective and reasonably concise

Onwards to rework and preparation for assessment! The final stretch…

Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People [original]

NOTE: this is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.


About the work

Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class and 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 Pickering 44.7% globalist and 55.3% nationalist?)

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 and 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 Burnley 33.4% striver and 66.6% skiver?)

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 Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner and 54.7% racist?)

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.

Submission

Click the first image for a full-screen slideshow.


Self evaluation

A few general notes 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 fit into 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.”

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. 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.

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.

Context

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.


Sources

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

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

Assignment 5: [draft for review]

This is a draft version of my proposed Assignment 5 for peer review – any feedback is most welcome.


Northern England in Two
Inadequate Descriptive Systems

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(Remainer or Leaver?) On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted into binary, oppositional tribes.

(Liberal elite or left-behind?) 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.

(Young and naive or old and bigoted?) Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved veracity on a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, often falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people, even places, as not only homogenous but also diametrically opposed to others who had put their cross in the other box.

(Upwardly mobile or down and out?) I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in, all in the North of England, through the lens of 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 can be harmful.

(Striver or skiver? Globalist or nationalist? Rich or poor?)  I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.


[click first image for a full-screen slideshow]


Notes:

EU Referendum results per town:

  • Barnsley: 68.3% Leave / 31.7% Remain
  • Burnley: 66.6% Leave / 33.4% Remain
  • Dewsbury: 54.7% Leave / 45.3% Remain
  • Middlesbrough: 65.5% Leave / 34.5% Remain
  • Pickering: 55.3% Leave / 44.7% Remain

The title is an homage to Martha Rosler’s project The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75), from which this work takes some inspiration.


Self evaluation

[to follow…]

Assignment 5: more work in progress

I’m building the candidate images for each town as I go along, even though I have still to shoot in one town (Barnsley).

I’m not sure about all of these; the tricky thing is most definitely the pairing of two photos together to make a single image. Some are working better than others. However, I resolved early on to document more of my work in progress, and I am finding the process useful – not so much regarding feedback (not expecting any on w-i-p) but simply to make me complete and publish images – even if they need refinements – on an assignment that I have found easier to procrastinate away from than to knuckle down to! It does feel like I’m getting closer to images that I am happy with – so these are all useful as they are either final images or learning points :-)

I’m looking for 15 images in total, three each from five towns.

So far I have three for Burnley:

… three for Middlesbrough:

… and one each for Dewsbury and Pickering:

Assignment 5: (another) alternative title

I’m still thinking about the advice I was given to make the project title link to the content (and concept) more clearly.

For today anyway, I’m falling out with the last title idea I’ve been working with – Two Kinds of People – as the project deliberately doesn’t include people, and depicts whole towns using stereotypes.

I’ve already acknowledged a inspirational debt to Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1972-74), and I’m currently pondering whether to go one step further and make the title an homage to it:

Northern England in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems

… but I might change my mind tomorrow!

Assignment 5: further refinements

I said early on in this assignment (many months ago now) that I wanted to document my working process and draft ideas more than I had previously done, and this has certainly proven to be the case – I just had no idea just how much the project would evolve in the intervening time. Looking back it’s been a necessary but sometimes meandering journey to get to where I need to be with this work.

Last week, after a flurry of activity were I posted up some work-in-progress images, I took some time to ponder how the overall work was coming across now that I could see it taking shape as (potential) final images.

A couple of changes are needed I believe:

Captions

Up until recently I was working on combining data, images and provocative text captions to get across my message (about divisive over-simplification).

Middlesbrough 1

Looking at the images I produced at this stage, I’m now of the opinion that these text captions are overkill – they are directing the reading too much, and competing for attention with the images. One thing I realised is that the message would still work if I removed the images! – which, for a photographic project, didn’t feel right.

A rethink was needed. I am currently working with captioning each image simply with the town’s name, but with the addition of a question mark – to imply that I am challenging rather than reinforcing the stereotyping I am depicting. I’m aiming to say “This is <town x> – or is it?”

Middlesbrough 1

Title and statement of intent

However… the oppositional pairings of labels that I had been planning to use as captions are, I still think, a powerful aspect of the message that I don’t want to completely lose. They have framed my shooting and selection decisions, and I do want examples of them to be floating around in the viewer’s mind when they view the images.

After deciding to simplify the captions as depicted above I had the opportunity to discuss the work with an OCA tutor (not my own tutor Derek as it happens, but Les Monaghan – a tutor I first met last year and met again at the weekend in connection to his project Relative Poverty). His view was that I needed something to frame the context that the pie chart splits were the Leave/Remain percentages, as this isn’t clear. His suggestion was to make the overall project title more explanatory (my current working title is Two Kinds of People) and he suggested I go for something like Leave/Remain, Leave or Remain, Leave vs Remain etc.

My reaction was (and still is, to be honest) that I don’t really want to be so overt with the title – but I do completely see what he means about helping the viewer a little more. I’m also wary of elevating the Brexit element too much, as to me this is the context of the ‘oversimplification’ message and not the core message itself.

With the above in mind, my current solution is to keep the title but update the statement of intent (again!) to add more of a frame around the context – including some of the oppositional pairings that up until recently were going to be captions. I hit upon the idea of using the pairings as a kind of verbal rhythm through the statement.

So my statement of intent currently looks something like this:

Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

Are you a Remainer or a Leaver? On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted into binary, oppositional tribes.

Are you the liberal elite or the left-behind? The referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of an impossibly complex situation was followed by a doubling down of this unfortunate tendency for the politics of division, as new labels emerged overnight – some neutral, some self-identified, some insulting.

Are you young and naive or old and bigoted? Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, often falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but also diametrically opposed to whoever had put their cross in the other box.

Are you part of the multicultural middle class or the white working class? I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in through the lens of the EU Referendum result, with the aim of provoking thought 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.

Are you striver or a skiver? An enemy of the people or one of the people? A foreigner or a racist?  I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Burnley 1Pickering 1Dewsbury 1

Assignment 5: updated title and statement

Title

For the longest time I had in mind a specific title for this work:

I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine

The significance of the phrase was to evoke the overly-simplistic mindset of voters in the EU Referendum: that the vote would either validate a comfortable life or transform an uncomfortable one – continuity vs disruption.

However, as time has passed (quite a lot of time as it happens) my intended message has evolved, and I’m trying to distill it down to be potentially less obscure (or even confusing). To start with my interest was in the vote aspect of the referendum – why people voted how they voted. But as more time passed I became much more interested in the aftermath: how new tribal identities – some self-identified, some insulting – had emerged, and how the over-simplification that beset the campaign was carried over into stereotyping and name-calling that still persists.

So with all of that in mind I am now considering the working title to be:

Two Kinds of People

This better fits the ‘politics of division’ / oversimplification message that I’m aiming to communicate. It is of course a reference to the aphorism: “There are two kinds of people in the world…” – sometimes used seriously but more often these days the lead-up line of a joke. The association of the phrase with jokes based on absurd over-simplifications is hopefully going to help my satirical message intent.

Statement of Intent

This refinement of concept and title means that I have redrafted the Statement of Intent, again:

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

In 2016 the impossibly complex issue of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was distilled down to one question: Remain or Leave? This ruthless simplicity eradicated nuance from the debate and we were all suddenly obliged to fit into binary categories – do you want continuity or disruption? The New Statesman summed it up the day after the vote: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.”.

Narratives that emerged to explain the shock result represented a doubling-down of the politics of division that had beset the campaigning; new tribes emerged overnight – some self-identifed, some insulting: you weren’t just a remainer or a leaver, you were a remoaner or a brexitard; the liberal elite or the left-behind; an intellectual or a bigot.

I revisited a number of northern English towns that I have lived in, looking at them anew through the lens of the referendum result. Data is a potent simplifier. Percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Numbers, words and photographs are all, in their own ways, inadequate descriptive systems.

With these images I aim to provoke thought 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. I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are accurate, even if none are ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

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

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

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press