Assignment 5: Two Kinds of People?

This is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback and reflection. The revisions are a minor title change, re-sequencing and image tweaks.

The culmination of my Documentary course journey is my most ambitious and conceptual work to date, and the step change in approach from Assignment 3 is the outcome of lots of reflection on the nature of photography and authorship, researching and writing the critical review essay and completing the Gesture & Meaning course before tackling this assignment. It’s the work I am most proud of.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 About the work

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

(is Middlesbrough 34.5% middle class / 65.5% working class?)

On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted by the EU Referendum into binary, oppositional tribes.

(is Burnley 33.4% striver / 66.6% skiver?)

A referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of a complex situation was followed by a doubling-down of this regrettable tendency for the politics of division, as new “us vs them” labels emerged overnight.

(is Barnsley 31.7% liberal elite / 68.3% left behind?)

Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity onto a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but diametrically opposed to those who had put their cross in the other box.

(is Dewsbury 45.3% foreigner / 54.7% racist?)

I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in according to their split in the EU Referendum result. I want to encourage some reflection about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’ – how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values; how simplification, though tempting, can be harmful.

(is Pickering 44.7% globalist / 55.3% nationalist?)

The series also acts as a critique of social documentary, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’. With apologies to Martha Rosler, this is Northern England in two inadequate descriptive systems.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.


Contact sheet and full-size images (97MB)

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

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


Two Kinds of People?


Additional notes

Whilst I wouldn’t normally explain the context in so much detail I am conscious that not everyone has knowledge of these places, so have added a few comments per town that might help the pairings and their connotations make a little more sense. Just FYI, the sequence reflects the order in which I have lived in these towns over the last 20-odd years.

Middlesbrough is a former heavy industry town (steel, chemicals) and the intention here is to juxtapose the industrial decline (‘Leave’) with attempts at regeneration (‘Remain’).

The complementary colour palette of the first image draws the viewer in to see the stark difference in the shiny office block (connoting middle class jobs) and the boarded-up working mens’ institute.

The second image highlights the financial assistance from the EU paired with the banana, both metaphor (slipping) and metonym (the apocryphal association of EU and ‘bendy bananas’).

The third pairing is intended to juxtapose the post-industrial, almost de-urbanised landscape with an optimistic civic image.

Burnley is an old cotton mill town and its decline started decades earlier than Middlesbrough’s, and so the class/income inequality is the starkest contrast.

Its high street is already full of discount and charity shops but I was particularly drawn to this shop which buys clothes off people – it signified a reversal of progress, and is jarring when paired with an art shop.

The middle image juxtaposes a hopeful, future-facing poster outside the council office with open wasteland just around the corner.

The last image takes the complementary colour palette and pattern of two adjacent buildings and uses metaphor in both parts: dynamic angle and blue sky in the positive segment, and static, closed-off stairs in the negative segment, signifying an inability to go up in the world.

Barnsley had the largest Leave vote and some of the most discordant juxtapositions.

Public art in the first image is paired with a house so long derelict that a tree grows from it – using the tree as a connecting motif.

As the OCA is based in Barnsley I felt it would be interesting to include a reference to education; the Barnsley College facade reflects the town hall to connote the place of education in the local community, while in the larger segment both the message and the medium speak to the nihilism of spurning education.

The third pairing juxtaposes a flat, static, closed image carrying associations of ‘coming up against a brick wall’ with a more dynamic, positive and hopeful one.

In Dewsbury the prevailing Remain/Leave oversimplification is less about class, wealth or age and more about diversity, as it has a significant ethnic minority population.

The first image is provocative in pairing colourful and diverse examples of Asian dress with the monochromatic starkness of the graffiti on the rough surface.

The second is more tongue-in-cheek and uses food as metaphor, comparing bland, safe, conservative Britain with more interesting and diverse ‘foreign’ countries.

The final image overlays the more general message about regional decline by showing the bleak, closed-down town centre shopping arcade alongside a colourful market stall. As in the first one, I used colour to connote diversity.

Pickering, where I live now, adds additional binary stereotypes: rural vs urban, old vs young, right-wing vs left-wing.

The circular matching of a hay bale with a cappuccino (very metropolitan liberal elite) covers the rural/urban split.

The town has lots of nice places to eat yet still has its share of people living in poverty, and I felt that pairing a continental deli platter with a food bank sign got this message across. It’s a small detail but in the food bank image I wanted the sliver of green trees visible next to the brick wall to communicate that rural market towns need food banks too – its not just an inner-city problem.

Finally, and coming back more overtly to Brexit, I used flag imagery to connote exaggerated attitudes to nationalism: there is metaphor at work in the Leave segment, with a thin, constrained UK flag (not coincidentally swinging out to the right…) while the more globalist outlook of Remain voters is exemplified by this fragment of a sign at the local college (not that this is discernible from the crop, of course).

 Self evaluation

A few general comments on my experience on this assignment before addressing the particular criteria:

This has been the most involving, frustrating, enlightening, circuitous, thought-provoking but ultimately rewarding photography work that I have yet undertaken. It’s taken longer than any other assignment, involved long stretches of inactivity and over the period of the assignment has significantly changed shape in various ways (including literally).

The original intention was to deliver a more traditional social documentary photography project on social inequality, using the EU Referendum result as the starting point for a series of juxtapositions. However, over time I became aware that I was seeking out stereotyped imagery to spell out my preconceived binary messaging, and began reflecting on this. I became more interested in the tendency to oversimplification that I was not only seeing in my own work but was reflected in both the Referendum campaign itself and the aftermath in the media and popular discourse. The parallels between the subject matter and the medium of photography also became more apparent to me as the assignment evolved.

This move away from ‘straight’ documentary photography towards something more like a postmodern meta-critique of documentary photography is a direction very much outside my usual comfort zone and feels somewhat risky and ambitious – which I am ultimately OK with as I appreciate the need to push boundaries as I move from Level 2 towards Level 3 of my studies.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of techniques and design skills, the most obvious aspect of this work is the pie chart format. Deciding on this presentation format was the key turning point in this assignment, as I felt it both suited the ‘data as representational system’ concept and provided a visually distinctive format that would attract the viewer’s attention. As a bonus, it also helped to expand my digital processing (i.e. Photoshop) skills.

The underlying concept tested my observational skills and visual awareness as I needed to locate images in the chosen locations to depict the extremes of stereotypes that I sought. I gave myself an additional challenge in terms of compositional skills with the pie chart format as I needed to find scenes that could work within the unusual shapes.

Quality of outcome

I’m happy with the quality of the content and presentation as these matched the conceptualisation of my visualisation reasonably well. I got comments from other students which reassured me that the communication of ideas was working:

  • “Great messages within. […] The circle and segments is a great format.”
  • “Although I don’t have the cultural and political background, I caught the idea and think it’s a very interesting and imaginative approach.”
  • “I find this is a very strong and engaging concept, the pie charts are inspired and the images are strong and offer insight on the motivations, perceptions and myths for voting patterns.”

The biggest risk I am taking in terms of communication is that I am, in effect, asking the viewer to disagree with what I am presenting – which must be fairly unusual as an approach. The ‘?’ at the end of each caption is intended to provoke thought in the viewer, and at the suggestion of my tutor I also rephrased the series title into a question rather than a statement.

In terms of applying knowledge by far the most useful strand of my recent studies has been the notion of authorship in documentary photography – something that I have intentionally brought to the fore in this work. I incorporated techniques of metaphor and metonymy to help project my intended messages.

Demonstration of creativity

This is an area where I have often judged myself as lacking, but I am much more satisfied with this assignment than the previous ones on this course. I feel that the concept and execution show a greater degree of imagination and experimentation than my earlier work, as I have taken risks in both the presentation format and the communication intent.

In terms of my developing personal voice, I had a realisation over the last year that my own work is tending towards what one might call ‘expressive documentary’, or in John Grierson’s words, “the creative treatment of actuality”. By this I mean that I’m attracted to subject matter that’s rooted in reality, and often has a social documentary aspect to it, but at the same time I feel somewhat limited by the norms of ‘straight’ documentary photography and want to ‘play’ with the format a little. This assignment definitely feels like a key part of what I believe is my developing photographic journey.


This assignment required a significant amount of reflection on what kind of photographer I want to be, and I’m glad I took the time to work through the various stages and rejected ideas to end up where I did with this. This assignment gave me further insight into the application of photography as a visual language, how one can encode intended messages in a visual format for the viewer to decode.

One particular work emerged as an inspiration to the assignment, although it took me a while to recognise its influence: Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-75). In terms of critical thinking, Steve Edwards’ book-length analysis of the work, Martha Rosler: The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (2012) gave me a deeper appreciation of the multiple theories underpinning the work, some exemplified by Rosler’s work and some deliberately rejected by it.

Other important elements of research that supported this assignment came from the work I did on metaphor and metonymy for the critical review assignment, as I found myself attempting to apply some of the ideas I’d written about in that essay.

Finally, I captured much more of my work-in-progress for this assignment than any other – from initial desk research to related photographer work to rejected experiments. I have found this recording of the process to be very useful and intend to do more of it at Level 3.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Assignment 4: The Unphotographable

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

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

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

The Unphotographable:

a comparison of metaphor and metonymy
in documentary photography

Printer-friendly PDF version (8.2MB)


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

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

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

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

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

Language, authorship and ambiguity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Taboo subjects

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

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

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

Temporal shift

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

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

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

Intangible concepts

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

(1997 words)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katherine Cambereri (accessed 25/10/2016)

Gilles Peress (accessed 20/10/2016)

Edmund Clark (accessed 23/10/2016)

List of illustrations

Sunflowers, Ukraine, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

of someone you know, 2016 by Rob Townsend

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

Obala Vojvode Stepe Stepanovica, Sarajevo, 1993 by Gilles Peress

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

Staircase at Auschwitz, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

Prague, 1968 by Josef Koudelka

A Snicket, Halifax, 1937 by Bill Brandt

Control Order House, 2011 by Edmund Clark

Pickering, 2017 by Rob Townsend

Middlesbrough, 2017 by Rob Townsend



Assignment 3: Fracktivism

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

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

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 About the work

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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


Additional notes

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

Comments per image:

1. Frack Free Ryedale sign, Middleton, June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

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

7. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

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

8. Dr Tim Thornton, York, 2016

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

9. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

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

10. Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016

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


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

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

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

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

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

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

Quality of outcome

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

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

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

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

Demonstration of creativity

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Campbell lecture (accessed 03/08/2016)

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



Assignment 2: A Hole in the World

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

This assignment introduced me to the authorial possibilities of documentary photography, particularly the use of metaphor and metonymy, and influenced my future direction significantly.

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 About the work

“Where you used to be, there is a hole in the world, which I find myself
constantly walking around in the daytime, and falling in at night.”
(Edna St. Vincent Millay)

The brief asks for “eight images that individually have a narrative and convey a specific idea”. I chose to explore the emotional state of loss.

The intent is to convey variations on the concept of loss rather than eight subtly different views on the same subject matter, although perhaps inevitably many of the executions allude to the loss of a person. Whilst each image is self-contained, the sequencing does broadly build up in terms of the intensity of the loss.

Though differing in visual style, the images share a still, calm approach to composition and framing that aims to convey a contemplative mood and provide space for the viewer to project their own experiences. The nature of photographing something that isn’t there means that the viewer needs to process from incomplete information, so it’s key that the metaphoric and metonymic connotations ‘work’ effectively.

Loss is an emotional state that we are all familiar with – everyone’s lost someone or something important – and I hope that one or more images makes a connection with the viewer.


Contact sheet and full-size images (26.5MB)

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

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

A Hole in the World

Additional notes

This was very much about applying semiotic theory and choosing signifiers that pointed to the appropriate signifieds. Following is a brief note on each image:

of youth
of youth

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

of livelihood
of livelihood

A closed-up shop to connote loss of someone’s livelihood. It was pleasing that the door number is 121 as this added a secondary layer of signification, implying the loss of the ‘1-to-1’ personal service that independent shops provide.

of townsfolk
of townsfolk

A reference to the multiple loss of life in war, where there is both an individual and a community aspect on both sides of the equation.

of love
of love

Though an accident caused by a temperamental photobooth, the black fourth image seemed to me to be a potent metaphor for the sudden end to a relationship.

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

Thanks to Les Monaghan for allowing the use of part of one of his images from The Desire Project (2016) for this. I specifically want to address some peer review comments on this image, which some viewers felt was out of place visually and conceptually. My rationale with this one is that it represents a collective, public sense of loss for a public figure, and the image was of someone expressing it in public, and I saw it presented in a public place. It is therefore intentionally discordant with the rest, as it is the most ‘hyperreal‘ (per Baudrillard) of the forms of loss, as the rest are more individually experienced as ‘real’.

of someone you know
of someone you know

A metonym of a common form of memorial to communicate a recent loss of life. I selected this particular version for the leaves on the tree and the flowers almost touching, evoking hands reaching out.

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

As the overall theme of the set is well established by the seventh image, I wanted here to encourage the viewer to look around the image a little more before alighting on the particular detail.

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

This, the most carefully constructed image of the set, is intended to connote loss of a family member, with the photograph standing in. The teardrop shape of the vase is also an intentional signifier.


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills:

The set was a mixture of observation (2, 3, 5, 7) and construction (1, 4, 6, 8) and so called up on a combination of visual skills. In terms of expressing my visual awareness I made a conscious decision upfront to do the set in B&W for reasons expanded upon in an earlier prep post

I found that design and compositional skills were more important in this assignment than in previous ones: in contrast to the last assignment where I wanted depth, movement and kinetic energy, for this one I wanted a calm, still, deadpan aesthetic, with use of negative space where possible, to give the viewer ‘space to think’; I also stuck to horizontal ratio for both consistency and to support the calm, static aesthetic.

Quality of outcome

As far as the content of the images goes, I’m pleased that I came up with eight sufficiently different angles on expressing the concept of loss – even if they don’t all ‘hang together’ (less important for this assignment than most, in my opinion).

I believe I’ve presented the set in a coherent manner – as an avowedly eclectic set of self-contained images the sequencing could have been arbitrary; but I did want some kind of connecting logic, so I structured the set broadly in terms of ‘intensity’ of loss (from trivial to tragic). I did swap two images (5 and 6) around in rework on the advice of the tutor.

I consciously applied much of the new knowledge I acquired during section 2, including the strengths of B&W for certain kinds of documentary photography; I also applied semiotics and constructed images theory from other OCA studies.

Discernment played less of a part in this assignment as by its nature most of this was pre-planned. I did however shoot four additional executions that I ended up rejecting as they too closely resembled one of the others other conceptually or visually.

Conceptualisation of thoughts and communication of ideas are the two interlocking factors at the core of this assignment – I tested the images on peer reviewers without telling them the theme and pretty much everyone ‘got it’ – which leads me to believe that my ideas were sound, and I communicated them effectively

Demonstration of creativity

This tested my imagination more than I expected for a ‘Documentary’ assignment, and it moved me out of my ‘traditional documentary photography’ mindset – I think I showed some experimentation in the staged images (1, 4, 6, 8) and in the overall eclectic visual presentation.

Looking at this assignment afresh from the vantage point of the end of the course, it’s become apparent to me how important this assignment has been in the development of my personal voice. It marked the beginning of a gradual realisation that documentary photography could be something more expressive and ambiguous than the traditional didactic social documentary that I previously assumed typified the genre. This is increasingly important to me in my own work, as shown on my approach to the critical review and personal project assignments.


In terms of reflection, I learnt the valuable lesson that documentarians are able to steer the narrative with their choices of subjects, standpoints, specific shots and subsequent editing. Whether this is intentional or subconscious is not always clear, and in a sense is a moot point – the important point to take away from this is that there is always an authorial hand in any documentary photography. This was a revelation to me.

I researched the work of other photographers who’ve worked on similar thematic projects; as always I also looked at what other OCA students have done for this assignment.

One key influence was Alec Soth’s Songbook (2015), not simply because of the B&W aesthetic but rather that he manages to produce images that evoke quite a vague, nebulous theme: “nostalgia for the past and anxiety for the future and the blending of those two feelings together” (Soth 2015). It helped me understand that documentary subjects don’t need to be particularly concrete.

My previous critical thinking studies around semiotics was a big part of this work, so I returned to my go-to book on the subject, This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012); I also did some self-directed research into why B&W is so particularly suited to documentary photography.

Between the first version of the assignment and rework I found Stuart Franklin’s The Documentary Impulse (2016) to be incredibly enlightening in its comparison of didactic and ambiguous documentary, which retrospectively validated some of my own experiences on this assignment.


The Desire Project (accessed 22/05/2016) (accessed 14/10/2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assignment 1: Fun in The Sun

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

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

Original submission | Tutor feedback | Response to feedback

 About the work

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

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

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

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


Contact sheet and full-size images (48.9MB)

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

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


Fun in The Sun

Additional notes

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

1. The Sun Inn

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

2. Regulars

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

3. Darts

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

quiz, people
4. Sharon the landlady

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

5. Quiz team

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

6. Quiz takings

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

7. Andy’s 40th

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

8. Dog friendly

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

9. Acoustic music night

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

10. Exhibition launch

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


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

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

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

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

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

Quality of outcome

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

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

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

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

Demonstration of creativity

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

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


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

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


1 (accessed 03/04/2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Exercise: Kingsmead Eyes


Visit the web pages of the Kingsmead Eyes project. Investigate the original 2009 project and the latest Kingsmead Eyes Speak project.

Write notes in your learning log about how the work is presented on the website, in particular the use of mixed media – stills, video and audio.


On the face of it this seemed similar to the PhotoVoice projects I just looked at – a collaborative work where non-photographers (in this case schoolchildren) are given cameras to document their own lives. However, I found it to have more depth and hold my interest much more than the PhotoVoice projects (possibly due to the lack of full projects online for that particular initiative?).


The depth comes from the approach. The project leaders, photographers Gideon Mendel and Crispin Hughes, first spent a week introducing the project and explaining the concepts of photography (both technical and creative, including the role of documentary photography) before letting the children do their own independent shooting.

The aspect of the project workflow that interested me most (being as I am currently fascinated with notions of authorship in documentary photography) was that the children were guided through the editing process for their own images, rating them from 1* to 5*, and encouraged to critique their own work. This led to a much more personally distinctive set of images, without the invisible hand of a curatorial adult/expert.


The mixed media format of the project is a big part of why it is successful. The structure is that each child has their own page, accessed from an index grid, and the page has a combination of photographs (both of and by the child), audio, handwritten poetry (related to one of their own images) and video. One gets a real sense of individual stories being told, however minimally, and the characters of the children shone through. Small things like actually hearing their own voices over clips of their photos makes it much more immersive and engaging than photos alone. I’m not usually a huge fan of video works over still photography, but I think here it really suits the content, and works here extremely well.


Some of the work is surprisingly strong; some of the kids have a natural eye for an interesting shot. I presume they all got the same upfront photography lessons and prompts, but some of them produced genuinely visually interesting images.

The poetry angle was also fascinating; the idea of writing a poem to accompany a photograph would most likely fill the average adult with dread, but 10 year olds are less constrained by convention and have little comprehension of the embarrassment of appearing pretentious that us adults do!

In all, I found this to be an enlightening project that broke free from the norms of documentary photography to produce something that is both distinctive at the level of the whole project, and allows for the individual’s voices to come through. I wonder how many of the participants subsequently become photographers…?


Kingsmead Eyes 2009 (accessed 23/06/2017)

Kingsmead Eyes Speak (accessed 23/06/2017)

Research point: PhotoVoice

PhotoVoice is a charity with the following mission statement:

“PhotoVoice’s vision is for a world in which everybody has the opportunity to represent themselves and tell their own story.

Our mission is promote the ethical use of photography for positive social change, through delivering innovative participatory photography projects. By working in partnership with organisations, communities, and individuals worldwide, we will build the skills and capacity of underrepresented or at risk communities, creating new tools of self-advocacy and communication.” (Photovoice 2017)

In practical terms: it gives cameras, training and mentoring to specific communities for them to document their own circumstances.

from LookOut UK, 2012-13

The site itself is surprisingly (suspiciously?) short on actual photography; each project has a few example shots and lots of explanatory text. Each project has specific objectives, some internal to the project participants (developing self-confidence / self-advocacy, creative and communication skills etc) and some externally-focused (raising awareness etc). The balance is what I found interesting – some of the projects came across as much more about helping the individuals (in a traditional ‘charity’ sense) with the resultant images as by-products.

The course notes ask us to look at “the documentary value and visual qualities” of the images.

Documentary value

In terms of documentary value, the key aspect of PhotoVoice projects is the adherence to the insider viewpoint – there’s an inherent layer of authenticity. The flip side, as discussed in Solomon-Goudeau’s essay Inside/Out (2005) is that the insider can be too close to be objective, and miss observations that an outsider would pick up on.

Visual qualities

In terms of visual qualities (to the extent that this can be ascertained from the limited examples on the site) there is perhaps inevitably an emphasis on ‘straight’, no-frills documentary photography as these photographers were very much amateurs given some guidance by mentors, rather than experienced or gifted photographers.

Multiple photographers leads to a lack of a distinctive visual style, which from a  viewing perspective makes a lot of these projects of limited visual interest, if not already engaged in the subject matter. However, as touched upon earlier, the aim of these projects is not simply to produce documentary photography but more significantly to provide skills, support and agency to the individuals involved. So perhaps they don’t need to be visually distinctive to be ‘successful’ in this context.


To return to one of my pet obsessions: authorship… these are unusual projects in as much as they have multiple, untrained practitioners producing the work. The key ‘author’ in this circumstance is really the editor(s) – selecting images that meet the communication objective, constructing a narrative out of the multiple viewpoints and moments captured. It wasn’t clear to me whether the participants were themselves involved in the editing process or whether PhotoVoice had the final say on image selection (or indeed whether this varies per project). The extent to which any editorial authorship is intentional or reflexive is, of course, a perennial question for any and all documentary photography.


PhotoVoice (accessed 23/06/2017)

Solomon-Godeau, A. “Inside/Out” in La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Exercise: Post-documentary photography


Read the article ‘Images that Demand Consummation: Postdocumentary Photography, Art and Ethics’ by Ine Gevers (Documentary Now! 2005).

Summarise in your learning log the key points made by the author.


I didn’t get on with this essay particularly well; first of all I found it quite hard going due to its overly complex language, and it took me a few sittings to get through it and digest the line of argument. Once I felt I’d understood its main points I decided that I disagreed with a number of them.

My main issue with the essay, or more specifically the way it is written, is that it generalises to a distracting degree: opinions are attributed to whole groups of people and universal claims are made that are too easily questioned, and I found this tendency to exaggeration diluted the core arguments put forward in the the essay.

As the brief is to summarise the key points I will do so here but can’t resist adding my own commentary alongside, whether I found it insightful or infuriating.


  • Defines post-1970s blurring of disciplines (art/documentary) as ‘post-documentary
  • Focus is “the ethical positions of artists, many of whom make use of documentary photography” (Gevers 2005: 1) [my emphasis]
  • Interested in “stretch[ing] the boundaries of perception in such a way that space is offered to that which exists beyond the stereotype or the already known” (ibid: 1)


  • Starts by framing debate in terms of aesthetics and ethics
  • “In antiquity, aesthetics stood for the capacity to remove yourself from your own framework so you could learn to see the unprecedented from that new viewpoint” (ibid: 1-2)
    • Did it? This is a peculiar definition of aesthetics (“relating to perception by the senses”, OED) that sounds moulded to fit the line of argument
  • “Thoughts about beauty and truth seem to have ended in stalemate” (ibid: 2)
    • I’d be very surprised if thoughts about beauty and truth ever ended
  • Gevers posits that the “function [of aesthetics] of promoting perception oriented towards knowledge and insight is proving to be its opposite; it gets in the way of our view” (ibid: 2)
    • My big beef with the language here, repeated throughout the essay, is that it contradicts another key aspect of the text I agree with…
    • Gevers supports the Barthesian position of the viewer as collaborator (which in turn implies a multiplicity of meaning) yet simultaneously attributes homogenous opinions and behaviours to groups of people en masse – she writes as though she speaks for everyone
    • She uses ‘definitive’ language about matters that are infinitely more nuanced and complex than implied here
  • She closes the introduction with mention of post-documentary photographers that are attempting to foreground ethics over aesthetics in their engagement with their subject matter

Photography: objective, aesthetic, colonial

  • Here she expands on the ‘space beyond stereotypes’ concept mentioned in the preamble, to make the point that too much photography does the opposite: it objectifies
  • Documentary photography got off to a bad start by presenting itself as true and authentic, a reputation that has unravelled over the decades
  • “Although nobody believes any more in the ‘reality effects’ of documentary film or photography, everyone is still expected to behave as though they do.” (ibid: 3)
    • Really? This is another sweeping generalisation that weakens Gevers’ argument; the idea that ‘everyone’ has come to a conclusion about documentary is incredibly simplistic
  • “Representation in its totality is in a crisis” (ibid: 4)
    • I respectfully suggest that this is hyperbole; there are undeniably elements of representation that are questionable, problematic, shifting – but a crisis?


  • Gevers makes a distinction between a documentary photographer and a photographer who uses documentary photography
    • This is the insight that I found the most useful in the whole essay
  • Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula are presented as practitioners who incorporate documentary photography into their work but in a way that holds it up for examination
  • Rosler “manages to subvert such generally accepted qualities as factuality, veracity and objectivity in relation to both the photographic image and the word” (ibid: 5)
    • A fascinating aspect of Rosler’s “The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems” (1974/5) – quite apart from the fact that it self-announces as inadequate – is the exclusion of people (it shows empty street juxtaposed with words for drunkenness)
    • In an odd way excluding the people who are nominally the subject of the work is a way of letting them retain their individuality; it’s the ‘space beyond stereotypes’ that Gevers refers to
    • I want to come back to this idea of deliberate exclusion of the subject in relation to my current assignment – a later blog post I think
  • When discussing Sekula, Gevers uses an interesting phrase: “The photographic work never stands by itself.” (ibid: 5)
    • I get this; there’s an extra layer of context that gives the work the deeper meaning that lifts this kind of work above generic documentary photography
    • I am fascinated by this area of photographic study: how and why documentary photography ‘works’ (or doesn’t), and how this has been / is being examined by photographers / photographic artists

Representation – interpretation – counter-presentation

  • Gevers discusses how documents of inhumanity can be ‘distorted’ by presentation to an audience, using the example of the S-21 archive of photographs covering Cambodian genocide
  • She asserts that the presentation of the photographs as first of all an exhibition and subsequently a book (The Killing Fields, Niven & Riley 1995) irreparably changed the archive: “Suddenly, instead of something that concerned everyone, it now seemed to manifest a clear class difference between the prisoners sentenced to death as representatives of naked life and those observing from a safe distance.” (ibid: 6)
    • I confess that I either fail to understand the point being made, or if I do understand it correctly, I disagree with it – Gevers seems to suggest that the very act of sharing such images is divisive and perpetuates difference
    • Gevers doubles down on this aversion to public presentation of documentary material by accusing MoMA of being “oblivious to [the S-21 archive’s] problematic role in the politics of representation” (ibid: 6) which strikes me as a subjective opinion rather than an evidenced fact
    • “The public, however, regarded the photographs as art, an aesthetic appreciation that was nurtured with no shame whatsoever. Visitor numbers did not lie, after all” (ibid: 6) – this was the extract that I found most problematic in the whole essay; again, false universality in projecting a reaction onto an entire viewing pubic, compounded here by the non sequitur of visitor numbers that implies that its very popularity is proof that it was misunderstood

Alienation as strategy

  • Gevers uses the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers as an example of how, in an age where we are numbed by visual imagery (she mentions Debord’s Spectacle but I was also put in mind of Baudrillard’s hyper-reality), a presentational strategy of not depicting things visually can be more effective than image overload
  • She uses Michael Moore’s use of black screen in his Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary film and Alfredo Jaar’s 2002 installation on Rwandan genocide Lament of the Images (where only one photo was visible and the rest were sealed in black boxes) as examples of such ‘negative presentation’
    • This passage put me in mind of an exhibition I saw in Arles last year by the name of Nothing but Blue Skies (2016) which collated artists’ responses to 9/11 – one whole room was newspaper front pages and another was floor-to-ceiling looped TV views footage, so I really got the sensation of image overload that Gevers refers to. The most interesting exhibit was a video by Michal Kosakowski called Just Like the Movies, a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the New York attacks, so it ‘shows’ you what happened but doesn’t show you the real thing, only the movie scenes that it reminded you of
  • Gevers takes this complaint of over-stimulation of the senses to an extreme in saying that “the whole idea of ‘contemplation’ has become implausible” (ibid: 8)
    •  I find this hyperbolic in the same way I find much of Debord and Baudrillard – they are either catastrophists or deliberately exaggerate for effect

‘The artist’ in aesthetic terms

  • Gevers quotes Alain Badiou on the question of ethics and ‘truth’, concluding that “Truth is therefore not something that can be communicated, it is not just a matter of opinion. Truth is something you encounter (in the form of an event)” (ibid: 9)
    • Without disappearing down a philosophical rabbit hole, is Gevers differentiating between the truth of an event and the “truth” of the representation of that event”?

Personal is political

  • Gevers returns to Rosler to pick up on her stance that documentary photography has moved beyond ‘Grand Narratives’ and onto smaller and more personal subjects
    • Generalisation: both ends of the continuum and a variety of intermediate hybrids continue to exist
  • She moves this line of argument round to an appreciation of Barthes’ concept of punctum: “It is up to the viewer as co-author to give weight to the image” (ibid: 10)
    • I certainly go along with this line of thinking – Gevers gives one of the best articulations of the experience of punctum that I have read:
    • “That is the moment when we no longer just appear to be collecting information in an appropriately distanced manner – aesthetically in the narrow sense of the word – but when, in a moment of being affected, we add something to it” (ibid: 10)
  • This is where the “consummation” of the essay title becomes clearer: the viewer consummates rather than simply consumes the image
    • However, my view on the punctum is that it can’t be deliberately inserted into an image as it is inherently the role of the viewer to bring it to the image
  • What I think she is saying here is that this is the kind of image where aesthetics and ethics are reconciled
    • But to my previous point, this reconciliation is an individual, uncontrolled response and not a universal, controlled one
    • I don’t read this essay as instruction on how to achieve such reconciliation, more a recognition that it can occur

That was heavy going. It provoked a lot of thought. I found some key insights to agree with and want to explore more – and I found a maddening degree of over-simplification that eroded the credibility of the overall line of argument.


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

Exercise: Jim Goldberg’s Open See


Listen to Jim Goldberg talking about Open See and his exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery.

Visit Goldberg’s website and reflect on how or if it works as a documentary project within the gallery space.


This subject continues the debate that I touched on at the end of my last blog post, namely whether it is appropriate to consider documentary photography as art.

To repeat my primary stance on this: it’s about the intent of the presentation:

  • If the intent of displaying documentary photographs on a wall is in line with the original intent of the work (i.e. to inform the viewer of some reality) then it is as valid as any other distribution method, such as newspapers, magazines or books
  • If the intent of displaying documentary photographs on a wall is to sell them as pieces of art to decorate the homes or business of buyers, or as investments – I personally find this problematic

The simplistic distinction I proffered in my previous post was that between a museum curator and an art dealer. At a basic level the word ‘art’ itself can have two overlapping but different meanings in everyday discourse: it can describe a creative output communicated from an artist to an audience, and/or it can describe a commodity being traded. It’s useful to separate these two definitions in one’s mind when discussing documentary photography as art.

I am minded to note the two positive aspects of documentary-as-art in the course notes, as they are points that I had not previously considered that help me understand the place of documentary photography in the art world:

  • The distribution and exposure of art has been democratised and made more accessible
  • The very commodification of the documentary photograph as an art object has generated a new source of income and funding which feeds back into the production of more documentary work

The former point aligns with the informative intent – the gallery wall is a valid communication channel for the work. The latter point assuages ethical concerns about the commodity status of art, to a degree anyway.

Open See

I like Jim Goldberg’s work; I have a signed print of his on my study wall as I type this. His Open See project is one I hadn’t looked at in detail before but subject-wise it very much fits in with the Magnum Photos ethos of photojournalism. In terms of content it is somewhat prescient, prefiguring the focus on Greece’s immigrant population some years before it made major headlines.

Ukraine, 2006 by Jim Goldberg

The communication intent is evident, and there is a creative, expressive overlay to this work that makes it easier to accept as a crossover into ‘fine art’.

If the work is sufficiently visually interesting it can draw the viewer into the message; if it is too abstract it can fail to land its punch. The Ignatieff quote in the course notes articulates the necessary balancing act well:

“Photography which loses sight of documentation risks becoming mannerism, while photography which loses the ambition of art loses the possibility of becoming unforgettable.” (2003)

There is a category of  work that I call ‘expressive documentary’, where the underlying reality of the subject matter is approached in a creative way (echoing John Grierson’s concise 1933 definition of documentary as “a creative treatment of actuality”). A lot of Goldberg’s earlier work was what I would call more ‘straight’ documentary but Open See saw him experimenting a little more. I have no problem understanding how this work is simultaneously documentary and art.

A more problematic example

A trickier case to examine would be when the work has little or no creative artifice, only a serious communication intent, and yet ends up as a commodity to be bought and sold in ‘the art world’. Simon Norfolk’s Staircase at Auschwitz (1998) was by far the most affecting image I saw in person in the last year.

Staircase at Auschwitz, 1998 by Simon Norfolk
Staircase at Auschwitz, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

I saw it at an exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London. An art dealer’s gallery, not a museum; it had a price tag in the accompanying catalogue. The idea that this image was on display at least partly to attract a buyer made me a little queasy.


Open See at TPG (accessed 07/03/2017)

Open See (accessed 07/03/2017)

Exercise: The Judgment Seat of Photography


Read the article ‘The Judgment Seat of Photography’ (Christopher Phillips 1982)

Add to your learning log the key research materials referenced in the text.


This is an enlightening essay on photography as art, built around the historical work of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. It is not, however, specifically about documentary photography as art. Certain aspects of the essay did strike me as relevant and thought-provoking and I will extract these below.

The instruction in the exercise brief to add the referenced research materials to my learning log is somewhat odd: the text has no less than 81 footnotes and only a handful of these came across as being strongly relevant to my current studies.

My preference for how to respond to this essay is to:

  • Discuss the different approaches by MoMA’s first three Directors of Photography and how these relate to the debate of photography as art
  • Discuss the recontextualisation of photography in the gallery/museum, specifically the role of the curator vs the role of the photographer
  • Add my own thoughts on documentary photography being treated as art

MoMAs place in photographic history

Without crediting MoMA with single-handedly elevating photography to the status of art in the 20th century, it is difficult to imagine exactly how the history of photography as an art form would have unfolded had the museum never existed.

MoMA’s first Director of Photography was Beaumont Newhall (1908–93) and my simple take on his tenure (1940–47) is that he was, in a sense, ahead of his time. He saw the potential of photography as art but struggled to articulate this to both the museum’s management and its visitors.

Phillips’ argument is that Newall deferred to the ‘cult value’ of photography over its ‘exhibition value’ (the two kinds of value described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1969). He treated photographs as pieces of art and emulated painting’s modes of presentation; he emphasised the ‘art credentials’ of the photograph by bringing attention to the unique qualities of the materials used and the variability of the printing process. His first MoMA exhibition with Ansel Adams was accompanied by text that introduce “notions of rarity, authenticity and personal expression – already the vocabulary of print connoisseurship is being brought into play” (Phillips 1982: 36).

Newhall’s prolific curatorial output (almost 30 exhibitions in seven years) seems with hindsight to have been a breakneck attempt to educate the US public on the artistic potential of the photograph as quickly as possible. He curated shows covering the history of the medium, the “canonisation of masters” (ibid: 38) and emerging talents such as Levitt and Cartier-Bresson. But it was possibly all a little too much too soon, and he tried too hard to borrow characteristics from other art forms.

Edward Steichen (1897–1973) was already a renowned photographer when he took over the MoMA role (1947–62), with a very different approach. He had a highly democratic, populist vision for photography and did not care for the notion of photography as an autonomous fine art.

His tenure was marked with an emphasis on Benjamin’s derided ‘exhibition value’ of photography; Steichen cared little for uniqueness and ‘aura’ and instead positively embraced the reproducibility of the photograph as a means of illustration – the photograph as mass media object.

Steichen’s exhibitions (including, most famously, Family of Man in 1955) were thematic collections that elevated the role of the curator above that of the photographer (a move that triggers interesting discussions on the notion of authorship and context – of which more below). He held no reverence for the sanctity of the original print or the personal expression that this had implied: “The photographers complied, for the most part, signing over to the museum the right to crop, print, and edit their images.” (Phillips 1982: 48). His installations drew comparisons with magazine layouts more than art galleries, and were considered more accessible to the general public as a result.

Although hired directly by Steichen, MoMA’s third Director of Photography (1962–91), John Szarkowski (1925–2007), again took a different approach to his predecessor. He returned, to an extent, to the ‘cult value’ of photography – white walls, uniform print sizes and wooden frames made a comeback. He built on Steichen’s intervening populism to reintroduce some of Newall’s underlying principles of photography as art, but with an increasingly contemporary twist.

Where Newall had emphasised the uniqueness of individual prints as art objects by comparing them to other art forms, Szarkowski was more interested in the uniqueness of the medium itself. His seminal work The Photographer’s Eye (1964) deconstructed the photograph into five formal elements intrinsic to photography (the detail, the thing itself, time, the frame and the vantage point). His work with photographers was more respectful of individual practitioners with their own ‘voices’ than Steichen’s subjugating curatorial approach.

The photographers championed by Szarkowski, such as Arbus, Winogrand, Friedlander and Eggleston, all worked in what one might term self-expressive documentary rather than traditional social documentary photography. They were all investigating the real world but from a viewpoint inside their own heads.

For me, Szarkowski stood on the shoulders of Newall and Steichen to complete the circuitous journey to accepting photography as a branch of fine art; maybe we had to go through the earlier two phases first and Szarkowski was the right person to bring it to fruition at that point in time.

Curation: recontextualisation and reinterpretation

Stepping back from the detail of these three phases, there is a connecting thread here of recontextualisation: in all three tenures MoMA was at the forefront of attempts not necessarily to promote photography as art but certainly to take photographs out of their original context and present them in a new way. Newall and Szarkowski favoured presentation akin to paintings while Steichen preferred more modern, magazine-like installations. In all cases, photographs were being recontextualised by a curator, and the key difference is the extent of curatorial involvement (interference?).

All photography is inherently taking things out of context. In the words of Garry Winogrand: “When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.” (date unknown). Szarkowski himself has this to say on the subject: “To quote out of context is the essence of the photographer’s craft.” (1964: 70).

The interesting and potentially problematic aspect of this context question is the additional layer of a curator – if the original photographer is already making authorial decisions on inclusion/exclusion at the level of the individual frame and the project body of work, these are potentially subsequently diluted by the selection decisions of the curator, working to their own authorial intentions. Or maybe the original authorial decisions are amplified rather than diluted – who knows?

There is a kind of parallel with the role of the picture editor in journalism – the editorial selection decision ultimately trumps the picture-taking one, in terms of what is presented to the audience. One key difference between a picture editor and a curator is the objective of the curation exercise: the former is trying to best illustrate a news story, the latter is trying to articulate some coherent larger communication message through ‘art’. But in both cases, the press picture editor and museum curator become what Phillips calls an “orchestrator of meaning” (Phillips 1982: 38).

At MoMA Steichen was the most extreme example of this, collating photographs as illustrations of predefined messages:

“To prise photographs from their original contexts, to discard or alter their captions, to recrop their borders in the enforcement of a unitary meaning, to reprint them for dramatic impact, to redistribute them in new narrative chains consistent with a predetermined thesis – thus one might roughly summarize Steichen’s operating procedure.” (ibid: 46)

Szarkowski may have paid more attention to the self-expression of the original photographer but ultimately is still sculpting his own ‘version’ (of Arbus, of Friedlander, etc) from the available work.

Documentary photography as fine art

The essay doesn’t cover this subject specifically or thoroughly but the preceding course notes do raise some points that I’d like to address.

The art curation process described above can, and often is, applied to documentary photographs. This brings ethical questions into play: is it acceptable that images of death, destruction, squalor, sickness and depravity are converted into art objects?

It’s possible and hopefully useful here to make a distinction between the objectives of the museum and the gallery:

  • An artwork in a museum is a public presentation, to be experienced (enjoyed / educated by)
  • An artwork in a gallery is a commodity, to be bought and sold

My personal view is that documentary photography in the informative environment of a museum is a valid and ethical communication form (whether it is ‘art’ is another question). Documentary photography in a gallery, with a price tag attached and wealthy art enthusiasts sipping champagne before it, pondering an investment – that is unethical.

To an extent I believe that some photographers allow or even encourage their documentary photography work to become treated as fine art. If the intent of the image is to communicate a ‘truth’ then why not produce limitless low-cost reproductions? By restricting the reproduction and display of their own work, photographers are effectively participating in the art market with their documentary images.

Luc Delahaye, for example, is one photographer who straddles the worlds of documentary and fine art – he shoots on a large format camera and exhibits wall-sized prints that sell for thousands of dollars, yet the subject matter is the kind of thing seen daily in newspapers, magazines and on news TV – bomb sites, angry mobs, bodies. I find this somewhat distasteful, I must admit.

To close with my take on Benjamin’s theory of two types of art value:

  • Documentary photography should have exhibition value
  • But I’m not convinced it should have cult value


Phillips, C. (1982) ‘The Judgement Seat of Photography’ in October, Vol 22 (Autumn 1982) pp 27–63

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ trans. Harry Zohn,in Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books.

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. 2nd edn. New York: Museum of Modern Art.