Assignment 5: Northern England in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems [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

Assignment 5: working towards final images

After a long gap I went out shooting again this week. I went through the new images and revisited the older ones I’ve taken and decided to make myself start building the final assignment instead of continually overthinking things :-)

Today I gave myself the challenge of producing at least one usable final image from each of the shooting locations, using only what I’ve shot already.

Now, I’m not wholly happy with all of these, but it has helped me enormously in terms of seeing the final output take some kind of shape. After considering a mixture of presentation formats I’ve settled on the simplicity of the pie chart construct.

(A reminder of the concept: in a nutshell, it’s deliberately stereotyping places based on their voting record in the EU referendum, to highlight the absurdity of over-simplification – so some of the captions are deliberately provocative)

Burnley 1

Middlesbrough 1Pickering 1Dewsbury 1

Only 11 more to go…

Lessons so far

The main thing I’ve realised in putting these together is just how ridiculously hard I’m making it for myself!

For the images to work, several conditions need to be met:

  • Interesting individual images
  • No people
    • Rationale in a separate blog post
  • Pairs of images communicating the respective labels, taken in the same location
    • e.g. there’s no point in finding a ‘Poor’ in Pickering if the only ‘Rich’ I can find is in Middlesbrough
  • Some kind of visual relationship between the component parts (complementary or oppositional)
    • For this reason the Pickering image above doesn’t work yet – the lower image needs to contain circular elements like the upper image
    • Whereas the Middlesbrough one works via a complementary colour palette
    • And the Burnley one works due to the construct of the shop front layout
    • Whilst the above examples are complementary, the Dewsbury pairing works (in my view) as it juxtaposes opposites – colourful, varied, soft textures vs harsh, monochromatic, rough texture
  • Finally, the images need to work in a pie chart format
    • i.e. the minimum visual data required to make out what the subject is needs to fit into an obscure shape

Assignment 5: word association

Almost a month has passed since I last blogged (busy with other things rather than avoiding study, honest) and this week I planned to throw myself back into the assignment, having closed off most of the other distractions for now.

The idea was to get out to one or more of the remaining locations (Dewsbury, Barnsley and my current home of Pickering) for full days of shooting – but the weather forecast is for persistent rain in all three locations for the rest of the week. I know bad weather shouldn’t be a deal-breaker but having wasted a rainy day in Accrington early on in this assignment I think it’s worth waiting slightly longer for drier weather.

So even though it sometimes feels like I’ve been doing too much planning and not enough shooting, I intend to use at least some of this week to refine my shooting plan per town – not in such a way that restricts me, more in a way that amplifies the points I’m aiming to make.

To recap, the concept is to juxtapose pairs of images of specific northern English towns based on stereotypes / clichés of how the population voted in the 2016 EU Referendum – as a comment on the absurdity of extreme over-simplification.

The visual treatment is based on the images being in the proportions of the Remain/Leave vote ratio so the images will resemble infographics to some degree.

Burnley test round

The text labelling is key – I will be using pairs of increasingly provocative labels to highlight the extent to which we tend to generalise about populations.

The list I brainstormed a while ago is as follows, though here I have reordered it to build up from neutral/innocuous to more judgemental/offensive, to give a loose narrative arc (or at least a sense of escalation):

  • Remain / Leave
  • Globalist / Nationalist
  • White Collar / Blue Collar
  • Young / Old
  • Urban / Rural
  • Rich / Poor
  • Have / Have Not
  • Multicultural Middle Class / White Working Class
  • Upwardly Mobile / Down and Out
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind
  • Establishment / Workers
  • Enemies of the People / The People
  • Strivers / Skivers
  • Foreigners / Racists
  • _____ / _____ (I intend to leave the labels blank on the last pairing, with the implication that the viewer can make up their own stereotypes)

Some of these lend themselves to particular towns more than others and so I will look to group them accordingly:

  • Young / Old and Urban / Rural are most appropriate for Pickering, which has notable extremes of both
  • The Establishment / The Workers could work best in Middlesbrough or Barnsley as both have experienced notable industrial decline in recent times
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind aligns well with Burnley as it has examples of both extremes
  • Foreigners / Racists (undoubtedly the most provocative pairing) will work best in Dewsbury which has a high ethnic minority population

The challenge I’m setting myself whilst I wait for better weather is to think of associations with these words that might lead to subject ideas. Again, I don’t mean this to be prescriptive but to open up some neural pathways :-)

I want to see if I can work in some metaphors and metonyms that allude to the labels in some way; I don’t mind if they are obscure, as it’s mostly for my own inspiration that I wanted to do this word association thing.

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Globalist
    • Travel agents
  • Nationalist
    • Union jack
  • White Collar
    • Skyscraper
  • Blue Collar
    • Working men’s club
  • Young
    • Micro scooter
  • Old
    • Mobility scooter
  • Urban
    • Wine bar
  • Rural
    • Farm shop
  • Rich
    • Car dealership
  • Poor
    • Bus stop
  • Have
    • Smartphone
  • Have not
    • Phone box
  • Multicultural Middle Class
    • Coffee shop
  • White Working Class
    • Chip shop
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building
  • Metropolitan Elite
    • Delicatessen
  • Left Behind
    • Food bank
  • Establishment
    • Council offices
  • Workers
    • Factory
  • Enemies of the People
    • Court
  • The People
    • Shopping centre
  • Strivers
    • Briefcase
  • Skivers
    • Bookies
  • Foreigners
    • Mosque
  • Racists
    • Graffiti

To be realistic it’s very unlikely (and overly limiting) that I’ll be using this as a subject checklist while I shoot – the value in this exercise was simply to expand my horizons on potential subject matter.

In parallel with this text brainstorming, I’m also spending some time this week looking at how other photographers have captured places, specifically English towns, without relying too much on pictures of people. A separate research post on this will follow shortly.

Assignment 5: slight change of scope

Assignment 5 is back in planning phase for various reasons – mostly to do with time (first of all an ambulatory injury and then diary logistics not allowing shooting trips away from home for most of April), but also to do with me revisiting what I’ve done so far and not yet being happy with the way the assignment has been progressing. My last target date of completing the assignment by the end of April – and submitting the whole course for assessment by the end of May) – is no longer viable. So I am in a ‘taking stock and deciding next steps’ phase (again).

Revisiting scope

One aspect of the assignment scope that had been niggling away at me recently came to a head and I think I’ve now resolved it to my satisfaction.

My starting point for the assignment, several months ago now, was very much driven by a socio-political point about inequality being an underlying factor in the Brexit vote. I chose the shooting locations based on a set of criteria that specifically included a high Leave vote (>65%) as this suited my intended message. The shortlist was as follows:

  • Accrington (66.2% Leave / 33.8% Remain)
  • Barnsley (68.3 / 31.7)
  • Burnley (66.6 / 33.4)
  • Hull (67.6 / 32.4)
  • Middlesbrough (65.5 / 34.5)
  • Redcar (66.2 / 33.8)

However: the assignment objective has moved on from making a socio-political point in a straight documentary photography style, towards more of a postmodern critique, using documentary photography to make a comment on the absurdity of over-simplification. The Brexit vote is now the context, the backdrop – not the main content.

With this shift in tone and message, the fact that I had specifically selected locations with high Leave votes risked becoming a distraction – the socio-political message was potentially competing with the more subtle message on over-simplification.

A more neutral framework

I started thinking about other frameworks I could use to select shooting locations, less politically-charged and hopefully better able to communicate the intended message about the dangers of generalisation.

The one approach that seemed to make most sense was to look (dispassionately) at the towns I’ve lived in as an adult:

  • Middlesbrough (65.5 / 34.5)
  • Accrington (66.2 / 33.8)
  • Burnley (66.6 / 33.4)
  • Barnsley (68.3 / 31.7)
  • Dewsbury (54.7 / 45.3)
  • Pickering (55.3 / 44.7)

There’s some overlap with the original list, which is interesting. I’ve lived in a bunch of Leave-heavy areas in my 20s and 30s, peaking in Barnsley, followed by slightly more balanced places in the last 15 years or so.

The good news is that I have already shot in the first three of these.

The other good news is that widening the net a little allows me to use a broader set of ‘generalisations’ to play with, as different areas have their own variations on the media clichés. For example, Dewsbury has a diverse ethnic population and one of the angles locally is the ‘multiculturalism vs nationalism’ trope. Similarly, Pickering offers alternative stereotype pairings such as ‘young vs old’ and ‘urban vs rural’.

The assignment asks for 15 photos – I’m planning to deliver 15 pairs (or diptychs, or composites). I’m thinking three pairs each from five towns. As there’s six in the list above, I need to remove one. My current thinking is that Accrington and Burnley are geographically very close, so I should pick one. From my shoots so far, I think Burnley has more potential.

Wild card

There’s a wild card that I could include that would change the shape of the whole assignment: for four years (up to the start of last year) I spent just over half of the year working away from home during the week, in…

  • Richmond-upon-Thames (30.7% Leave / 69.3% Remain)

Now, Richmond is not only an outlier in my list, it’s quite an extreme Remain outpost full stop – it’s already had a by-election that was decided on the Brexit question and so is probably the most famous Remain-y place in the UK.

For this reason, I feel like there’s a risk that including Richmond might upset the balance of the rest of the assignment (not to mention the tenuous definition of ‘living there’ if I was actually dividing my time between there and ‘home’).

However, I also think that this imbalance might actually be a good thing! It’d be a different visual challenge for a start. It might add a little tonal texture / light and shade to the overall series.

So – I need to decide whether to include Richmond or not. And if I do, I will need to think about if I remove another northern town to make space for it.

This is not an immediate decision though – I can continue working on the ‘northern England only’ version of the assignment for now and decide later if I want or need some variation.

Sources

BBC EU Referendum Results http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36616028 (accessed 19/04/2017)

Assignment 5: research/inspiration: Rosler’s The Bowery…

This assignment has been going glacially slowly recently but this week I had a huge lightbulb moment.

I’ve discovered that it’s possible to be inspired by something without consciously realising it at the time. A seed of an idea planted long ago in my mind seems to be belatedly bearing fruit, and it’s helping me to refine my Assignment 5 approach and to place it in the context of the documentary photography canon.

Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems

The trigger was reading Ine Gevers’ essay on post-documentary photography, a text that I found equal parts enlightening and infuriating. The essay used Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75) as an example of using documentary photography in one’s work rather than being a documentary photographer. This distinction, and some of Gevers’ analysis of Rosler’s work from her post-documentary angle, struck me as worthy of further examination.

bowery_NCRstewed.jpg
from The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems, 1974-75 by Martha Rosler

I had first come across the Bowery work a couple of years ago on an earlier OCA course, in the context of Rosler’s 1981 essay In, around and afterthoughts (on documentary photography) where she refers to her own project. The concept of using documentary photography to critique itself wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time but has become more apparent as my subsequent studies have deepened my knowledge.

I’ve been struggling to articulate what I’m trying to achieve with my Assignment 5, which has morphed from being a ‘straight’ documentary photography project on social inequality into a critique of the tendency to over-simplification that is prevalent across politics, media and photography.

Much has been written about Rosler’s Bowery project, including a whole book by Steve Edwards (2012) and reading the critical appraisals of the work has been hugely enlightening for me – I found myself thinking, ‘Yes! that’s what I’m trying to do!’

By way of example, the Whitney Museum of American Art described the work using the following phrases (my emphasis):

“In her work, Martha Rosler has often employed—and deconstructed—photographic conventions in ways that examine the authenticity associated with documentary photography and the unbalanced relationship between disenfranchised communities and their visual representations.

The resulting disjunction—between words that refer to an all-too-human state and images devoid of people—suggests the inherent limitations of both photography and language as “descriptive systems” to address a complex social problem.” (Whitney Museum)

The Gevers essay had the following extracts that caught my attention:

“Her projects are aimed at calling into question numerous media-related presuppositions within film, video, documentary photography, text, exhibition. She manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word.” (Gevers 2005)

All of this is helping me to place my own objectives in a wider context of art and documentary photography. It’s reassured me that I’m not entirely making stuff up here! I am, I belatedly realise, trying to work within a post-documentary tradition talked about Gevers and practiced by Rosler.

Similarities and differences

The more closely I examine the Rosler work, and (hopefully) better understand the communication intent, the more I can see some similarities with what I am aiming to achieve.

  • Using documentary photography to make a comment on documentary photography as a representative medium
    • The limitations of using simple images to depict complex situations
    • Rosler herself opened the second paragraph of In, around and afterthoughts with this: “How can we deal with documentary photography itself as a photo- graphic practice? What remains of it?” (Rosler 1981)
  • Avoiding depicting individuals
  • Juxtaposing imagery and text
  • Using colloquial or pejorative labels
Burnley test round
test image for Assignment 5

There are however a couple of key differences:

  • Rosler’s work was more concerned with the political context of how traditional documentary photography encourages a social inequality between viewer and subject
    • My target is less overtly political/class-based and more aimed at critiquing the human tendency to over-simplify – not just in political discourse but in mass media and more personalised, social media platforms
  • Rosler’s work was targeted at the representational inadequacy of photographs and words
    • My angle is more on the representational inadequacy of photographs and data

Rather than being disheartened that my idea isn’t quite as original as I first thought, I am actually really enthused that I have found a ‘touchstone’ for this assignment. I feel like I’m on slightly more solid ground now that I am more consciously working ‘in the tradition of…’ someone or something. Such a reference point gives me somewhere to come back to if I am unsure, to consider my work in the context of (but not measure or judge myself against) known work.

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

Gevers, I. (2005) ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ in Documentary Now!

http://collection.whitney.org/object/8304 (accessed 13/04/2017)