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.


Submission

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.

 

Fracktivism

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:

Fracktivism-1
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.

Fracktivism-2
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).

Fracktivism-4
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.

Fracktivism-5
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.

Fracktivism-6
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.

Fracktivism-7
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.

Fracktivism-8
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.

Fracktivism-9
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.

Fracktivism-10
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


Self-evaluation

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.

Context:

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).


Sources

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 https://soundcloud.com/mattjohnston/david-campbell (accessed 03/08/2016)

David Campbell article https://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/ (accessed 03/08/2016)

http://eitherand.org/protest-politics-community/dead-end-streets-photography-protest-and-social-co/ (accessed 09/08/2016)


 

 

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Assignment 3: Fracktivism [original]

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


About the work

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 county council had approved the fracking 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.

Submission

As requested, a PDF book dummy is available to view or download here (warning: large file).

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:

Contact sheet of the ‘longlist’ is available here.

Supporting information

The following notes do not form part of the submitted work itself, rather are some pieces of supporting information deconstructing the shooting and selection of these images, relevant to the academic nature of the submission. I would not normally explain a photographic project in such detail as I would hope a regular viewer would not want or need this additional ‘making of’-style information, so if you prefer to simply view the project in its own right, please disregard this section.

Structure and sequencing:

  • 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

Notes per image:

Fracktivism-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
Fracktivism-2
Frack Free Hambleton rural march, Sutton Bank, June 2016
  • Small-scale fundraising, very local, rural setting
  • ‘One man and a dog’ as metaphor for low involvement
2 or 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
Fracktivism-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
Fracktivism-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
  • I had shots of the map alone but preferred this one with audience members
Fracktivism-6
Anti-fracking rally, York, July 2016
  • This image is my favourite in the set, as it is loaded with symbolism
  • He looks like a seasoned protester = this is where it gets real
  • He’s on double yellow lines = he’s a rebel
  • Long hair, leather jacket = he’s a rebel
  • His choice of cigarette looks slightly ‘herbal’ = he’s a rebel
  • Demon graphic on jacket = evils of fracking
  • Lines veer to the left = the anti-fracking movement is in opposition to the right-wing government
  • This image is where the narrative pivots and the protest gets more organised
Fracktivism-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 I was attracted to this particular shot due to the walking motion of the legs coupled with the obscured top half of the body – signifying that the protest movement itself was getting moving
Fracktivism-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 speaker to the left gets across that he is speaking to more people out of frame – supporting my intended ‘growth’ message
Fracktivism-9
Ant-fracking rally, York, July 2016
  • I needed a shot of people on the move as part of the march, to signify both the growth and the forward motion of the protest movement
  • The skewed angle and the perspective helps get across this message
  • The wording on the banner is perhaps a little obvious but it gets across the ‘consolidation’ message that is an important part of the intended narrative
Fracktivism-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

Self-evaluation

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • Materials: as suggested I used a variety of focal lengths, with two cameras and three lenses
  • 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
  • Observational skills: 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
  • Visual awareness: as noted above, the look of this is largely a standard documentary photography aesthetic, though I did attempt to include a variety of shot ‘types’ for visual diversity (portrait, wide, medium, environmental, interaction etc)
  • Design and compositional skills: I tried 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:

  • Content: 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
  • Application of knowledge: the major new 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
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: I believe I’ve structured the set in a coherent way; I put a lot of thought into the sequencing in both the planning and editing stages on this assignment
  • Discernment: after the feedback on Assignment 1 that my selection discernment could be improved, I put more thought and structure into this one, and gathered feedback from other students before the final edit
  • Conceptualisation of thoughts: more so than Assignment 1, these images were at least partly pre-visualised, to an overarching narrative that I had in mind – so I was applying a conceptual framework to this subject, just not a constructed one like Assignment 2
  • Communication of ideas: I wanted to get across the rapid growth and mobilisation of the protest movement and I believe I succeeded

Demonstration of creativity:

  • Imagination: 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)
  • Experimentation: for me this did represent experimentation – it’s the first time I’ve so consciously applied a structured authorial approach to a subject
  • Development of personal voice: to be honest I think the jury is still out on this one; I’m not wholly sure whether such ‘straight’ photojournalism style work is really my personal voice, but I consciously 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

Context:

  • 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 concerning!
  • Research: I looked into the visual language of protest photography to identify (if not necessarily avoid) some the common tropes
  • Critical thinking: I did a compilation of useful commentary 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)

Assignment 3: narrative planning

Even though on the face of it this assignment has more in common with Assignment 1 (traditional documentary photography style) than Assignment 2 (more conceptual / constructed),  I’m developing it in a way that combines elements of both approaches.

As it is intended to be a ‘visual storytelling’ piece of work, it can’t just end up being a set of thematically-connected images (like Assignment 1 was), it needs to have an extra element, a backbone of narrativity.

This means that I need to do more structured planning upfront and direct the images (at both shooting and selection stages) towards a particular narrative intention. I have spent the last few days doing some detailed reading and planning around how this can be approached, and the advice I found from both David Campbell and Bill Hurn fits with an idea that I’d had a few weeks ago when first thinking about the assignment.

Basically, I’m trying an approach where I write out the narrative in words first, see if it makes sense, then match images to the intended messages in the written version.

It’s been very iterative: whilst I’ve had this words-first approach in mind for a while, it’s only after attending some local anti-fracking events (for both research and shooting) that I have really honed this narrative to a point where it makes sense.

The draft written version

I reserve the right to deviate from this, but it’s the first written version of my intended narrative:

  1. The anti-fracking movement started small, parochial and endearingly amateurish
  2. These aren’t your regular activists and are kind of learning ‘on the job’
  3. Some small-scale local activities take place to try to raise the profile of the issue
  4. Word gets around as speakers from Frack Free Ryedale started holding meetings in outlying towns and villages
  5. The scale of the potential problem becomes more apparent to people in the wider region
  6. More people from other areas of Yorkshires start to get mobilised
  7. A more diverse set of people get involved – families in particular
  8. Increasingly large groups from different towns start working together
  9. People started to look and act more united for the common cause
  10. Finally the various action groups see the benefit of working together as a mass movement

The short version is the movement’s journey:

  • Growing from small, parochial and fragmented…
  • … to large, regional and coordinated

Further considerations

The David Campbell lecture talks about some of the dimensions of narrative that can be applied in a photographic story:

  • Time: this will be implied in the growth narrative (and also broadly follows the chronology of the photos themselves, I think)
  • Space: the geographical spread of the movement is part of the story, and will be illustrated specifically in an image I visualise to be in the middle of the set
  • Drama: not too sure there’s a huge amount of drama? we’ll see
  • Causality: I’ll be trying to point out the connection between the ‘communication campaign’ in the middle of the set and the subsequent mass interest
  • Personification: there’ll be lots of people shots but I might use one person twice to make a connecting point between the early and later phases in the story

There’s a particular visual device that I want to see if I can use to help carry the growth narrative: I’m working on the idea of having a steadily increasing number of people in the photos as the set progresses – one person in the first picture, hundreds in the last. I am not totally wedded to this concept, and I may deviate from it a little or a lot – but I’m practicing a little deliberate authorship here :-)

OK – next thing to do is to review the shots I have taken so far to see if I already have images that meet my narrative intention. If so, great – if not, at least I will have narrowed down the remaining shots I need so I can be quite focused on any subsequent shooting opportunities. This much I learnt from the Hurn & Jay book… (1997).

Sources

David Campbell lecture https://soundcloud.com/mattjohnston/david-campbell(accessed 03/08/2016)

David Campbell article https://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/ (accessed 03/08/2016)

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

Research point: performative documents

We are asked to:

“Investigate Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods and Starkey’s Untitled series. How do these photographers employ imaginative and/or performative elements to construct their narratives? In what sense is the end result ‘real’? What aspects of their work might you consider adopting in your own practice?” (course notes: 81)

Charley Murrell

While the name hadn’t rung a bell, I immediately recognised the project from previous research. Like the Essop brothers, Murrell used composite images of the same person for Constructed Childhoods (2010), but the twist here is that children are depicted simultaneously in an everyday environment and as an idealised figure in media imagery.

Murrell
from Constructed Childhoods, 2010 by Charley Murrell

It’s very imaginative, and like other projects in this section it offers up a new and interesting way of communicating what could otherwise be a documentary-style message – but to go back to my hobby horse, it’s not really documentary, it’s ‘semi-documentary’ or ‘pseudo-documentary’.

To what extent is it real? Well, for me it may be ‘set’ in the real world but it lacks the core of actuality that I look for in documentary photography. That’s not to say I dislike it at all; it’s quite thought-provoking. But to present it as documentary photography is to miss the point; it’s an alternative to documentary photography.

Hannah Starkey

I had briefly looked at Starkey for the Context & Narrative section on constructed images, and really liked what I saw. She has a very distinctive, dreamy visual style. She uses windows and reflections a lot, which make me think of alternate worlds that her characters are daydreaming about.

She has a knack of capturing a mood, often quite lonely and melancholy, with her images. But like Murrell, I really wouldn’t have considered this having documentary value. Even more so that Murrell’s work, it is detached from reality more than it is anchored within it. Treating this as documentary photography is to broaden the definition to include entirely fictional constructs, at which point the label is pointless.

I actually like Starkey’s work a great deal– it’s hypnotic, beautiful, thought-provoking – but it’s not ‘real’. The images evoke plausible narratives, but one doesn’t get the sense that these are real people experiencing real thoughts. The construct is too… artful?

As this is the penultimate piece of coursework in this section, and the last that asks us to review particular photographers and their work, it feels like I should circle back to the reflective piece I did on how I find the definition of constructed images as ‘documentary’ to be problematic.

Having reviewed the work of Tom Hunter, Hasan and Husain Essop, Jeff Wall and now Murrell and Starkey, I feel like I understand better why these artists are included in the course notes on Documentary… it is undoubtedly important to push the acceptable definitions of a genre, to challenge prevailing thinking and to reach for the edges of the practice.

I understand and accept that all these types of constructed ‘semi-documentary’ (my favoured term) photography belong in an augmented view of the genre, revolving around documentary photography like Saturn’s rings – but I stop short of really considering them, in my mind, documentary photography.

To reiterate, this absolutely does not mean that I see no worth in ‘constructed documentary’; on the contrary, I’ve found some of the most interesting work I’ve seen in recent months in this genre. I’m not averse to the idea of incorporating some of these approaches into my own practice – just maybe not on documentary projects.

Sources

Charley Murrell: Constructed Childhoods http://charleymurrell.wix.com/charley-murrell-photography#!__personal-projects/–constructed-childhoods (accessed 01/08/2016)

Hannah Starkey: Untitled http://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/hannah-starkey (accessed 01/08/2016)

Exercise: Jeff Wall

Brief

Read the article on Jeff Wall in Pluk magazine. Briefly reflect on the documentary value of Jeff Wall’s work.

Response

I looked at Jeff Wall for Context & Narrative last year, and managed to get to see an exhibition of his around the same time. Much of my pertinent opinion of Wall is contained in that earlier blog post, but to summarise here: his work generally leaves me cold.

Part of me admires the effort he goes to, most of me wonders why he bothers. As a comparison, I find much more to enjoy in the work of that other big name in constructed photography, Gregory Crewdson. So it’s not that I have a fundamental dislike for the genre, just that I find Wall mostly overrated (there are exceptions: I really liked Insomnia, 1994, and some of his other work that is influenced by earlier art, especially paintings, is interesting).

JW-MIMIC-700
Mimic, 1982 by Jeff Wall

However, when his work is described as “near documentary”, he sometimes loses me. It’s too far removed, for the most part. When it is a recreation of a specific witnessed event, such as Mimic (1982), I can get on board, as it’s based on a real thing that happened.

But as per my personal interpretation of documentary photography, once an image moves into the realm of ‘something that could have happened’, it crosses a line and ceases to have significant documentary value.

I’m not pointing this out to be a purist – it’s more a case of my view being that that if one is going to invent a pseudo-documentary scene, that there should be some kind of point – communicating a message, evoking an emotion, something.

A View from an Apartment (2004-5) took weeks of meticulous planning and involved people living in the space… and the end result is a very big so what? It’s incredibly clever and well-executed (and visual interesting from a point of view of having the whole scene, inside and out, looking sharp), but… what is it saying? I’ve read a whole essay on this photograph, in Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs (2005), and I’m none the wiser.

T12219_10.jpg
A View from an Apartment, 2004-5 by Jeff Wall

In summary, I find the documentary value of Wall’s work to be quite minimal. Some of his work is interesting in a documentary sense, but most of his typical work is bewilderingly over-engineered and ultimately quite shallow.

Sources

http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/pluk_JeffWall.pdf (accessed 01/08/2016)

Howarth, S. (ed.) (2005) Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs. London: Aperture

Exercise: Hasan and Husain Essop

Brief

View the video on Hasan and Husain Essop at the V&A exhibition Figures and Fictions and write a short reflective commentary in your learning log or blog.

Response

Setting aside my recent hangup on whether constructed images should be considered documentary photography (I decided I could live with “semi-documentary“…), I found the Essop bothers’ approach really fascinating.

They responded to an external (in their case religious) constraint in a highly innovative way:

“There’s this idea in Islam that it’s not very permissible to put up pictures of people on your wall and we grew up with that… It’s like [Hasan]’s managed to find a loophole: use yourself – any judgment that occurs is going to be only on yourself.” (V&A 2011)

What this means is that they act out all parts in their mises-en-scènes and digitally stitch them together to make composite pseudo-documentary images. It’s a really interesting reaction to the limitation, and further proof that there are many ways of portraying documentary ‘truths’ without depicting real-life scenes.

2016-02-02-11_03_22-young-south-african-artists-thought-provoking-work-pushes-cultural-boundaries.jpg
Hasan and Husain Essop

Their images are meticulously planned and executed – they have to be, as they essentially need to align multiple elements at different times, like a kind of temporal jigsaw puzzle. However, it’s this meticulous planning that makes me see these as incredibly clever pieces of art, but not so much true to the spirit of documentary photography.

To reiterate though – they are inspirational to me, not because I plan to emulate their style, but simply because they found a new and interesting way of working. I admire that.

Sources

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/f/figures-and-fictions-contemporary-south-african-photography/ (accessed 01/08/2016)

Exercise: Tom Hunter

Brief

Read the article ‘Think Global, Act Local’ by Diane Smyth. Research Tom Hunter’s work.

Finally, listen to Tom Hunter talking about one of his most iconic images, Woman Reading a Possession Order, on Radio 3.

Summarise your thoughts in your learning log or blog.

Response

Notwithstanding my earlier rant about using the term ‘documentary photography’ to cover what I consider “semi-documentary”, I really rate Tom Hunter’s work.

He skilfully blends inspiration from painting, Vermeer in particular, with what would normally considered social documentary photography subject matter. Listening to the radio essay it’s clear that Vermeer isn’t only a visual influence – notably composition, colour and lighting – but also a subject matter influence, as in Vermeer also used his local community as the basis of his art.

The Vermeer influence is most strong in his project Persons Unknown (1997), from which this is taken, but Hunter has said that Vermeer’s visual style continues to exert an influence over his work in a less direct way.

Hunter clearly defines himself as an artist first and foremost – the words art and artist are peppered throughout his essay, whilst documentary is absent. I’m not suggesting that art and documentary are mutually exclusive, of course – I’m just observing how Hunter positions himself and his work. In the context of John Grierson’s famously succinct definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality” (Grierson 1933), Hunter’s work leans more on the former than the latter.

I admire the work, not just at an aesthetic level – I saw it in the flesh last year and it really is a beautiful picture – but as a successful piece of social (semi-) documentary, in as much as the publicity surrounding it actually led to the possession order being retracted.

I also really admire the deployment of a non-documentary visual style to a traditional social documentary subject – it really helps to make the project stand out from the noise of more traditionally shot photography.

Sources

http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/ (accessed 01/08/2016)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zt7ky (accessed 01/08/2016)

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/nov/04/photography-tom-hunter-best-shot (accessed 01/08/2016)

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

Assignment 3: theme and early planning

I’ve not quite finished the coursework for this section but have started on the assignment in the background. Now feels like a good time to summarise where I’ve got to so far, as I have a significant shooting opportunity tomorrow and the real work starts in earnest.

Brief

It’s always good to take a look at the brief early and often. Here it is in summary, with my emphasis:

Produce a photo story of 10 images that, as a set, tells a story and conveys a narrative. As in Assignment One, engage at local levelDo this assignment in colour.

Note:

  •  This is NOT a ‘day in the life of…’ exercise; it is not a visual chronology unless your theme naturally has one
  • Structure your visual story as you would a written story. Present your viewer with the theme, further developments and complications and, finally, a resolution – or non-resolution that poses further questions. Edit and sequence your work accordingly
  • Go for visual variety – use a variety of lenses, viewpoints and compositions – but ensure visual and conceptual consistency across the images

Theme

By far the biggest local story in Ryedale, North Yorkshire is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking – a controversial technique for extracting gas from shale rock deep underground. Four miles away from my home town of Pickering there is a village called Kirby Misperton, which at the end of May 2016 had a planning application to start fracking approved by the county council – the first since a UK ban on fracking was lifted in 2012.

The story as I currently see it is not the fracking application process itself – that’s currently in a bit of a lull while a legal review is being undertaken – but rather the residents’ response by way of the setup and activities of various Frack Free action groups.

Frack Free Ryedale had been campaigning locally against the fracking application since 2014. Since the decision to approve, the group has swelled in numbers and been even more vocal than before. At the same time, a number of other local Frack Free groups have emerged, as different parts of Yorkshire become more aware of the dangers – and as residents began to realise that their own towns and villages have been granted licences to pursue the same kind of planning application, i.e. it could be their town next.

These Frack Free groups have however been quite fragmented, small-scale and parochial – I know of at least 12 in North Yorkshire alone (and across the rest of Yorkshire, some places such as Leeds have even got rival Frack Free groups…!).

So the focus is on the people, the Unlikely Activists: villagers, older people – not your usual protesters at all.

Working title: Fracktivists

Progress

I’ve been lucky in that a friend of mine, a retired GP who lives down the road, is one of the leaders of Frack Free Ryedale. He’s kept me informed of local events that I could take my camera along to. He’s been doing a tour of some of the newer Frack Free groups giving talks on the health risks of fracking.

So far I’ve taken some photos at three fairly small events:

  • A local countryside march for one of the newer local Frack Free groups
  • An educational talk by Frack Free Ryedale leaders to one of the newer local groups
  • A tea party organised to raise funds and awareness at a village near the Kirby Misperton site

The first really big one though is a public march in York tomorrow (Saturday 30th July) which is hopefully going to attract people from all the outlying Frack Free protest groups to take part in a single event. This will hopefully be crucial in not only getting some good shots but honing my narrative intent in order to take relevant pictures at subsequent events.

Next steps

  • Take photos at the York march tomorrow
  • Confirm further shooting opportunities locally over August
  • More structured planning on the shape of the narrative:
    • Identify key messages
    • Identify starting point, main markers/milestones, proposed ending image
    • Identify different types of images to select or take, research (revise) photo essay best practice
    • Research similar projects from other photographers
    • Re-read Hurn and Jay (On Being a Photographer) for tips on planning shoots

That’s it for now. More to follow!

Exercise: England Uncensored

Brief

Read the article on England Uncensored by the BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes.

Dench talks about his “humorous approach with an underlying social commentary”. What do you think of this approach? Does it work? What are the ethical issues?

Response

It sometimes feels like we’re asked to look at the work of Peter Dench rather a lot on this course…

The inevitable Martin Parr bit

The Martin Parr comparisons are so overwhelming that Dench not only acknowledges it but gets it in first:

“Rarely does a day go by in my professional life when Parr isn’t mentioned by, or to me. It’s impossible to photograph England without seeing Parr parts in many shots; crying children, litter, dogs with their tongues hanging out, bad food, bad weather. As a photographer I embrace that influence. I would like to think I would have arrived at the style of photography I have regardless of Parr; he certainly hastened the process and blazed a path for its acceptance as a photographic way of seeing.” (BBC 2012)

For me, he clearly takes a lot of inspiration from Parr but doesn’t add back in a huge amount of his own distinctive style. He seems to hone in on a subset of Parr’s typical subject matter – the grimier, bleaker side of Englishness.

Humour as a social commentary device

What they have in common that is relevant to the question posed here is the use of humour to deliver an underlying serious point. In this respect I think Dench is often more successful that Parr, who can sometimes be a little too subtle in his underlying messages and just comes across as sardonic or kitsch.

Dench’s subject matter is darker than Parr’s and his humour is often correspondingly a little bit spikier. The contrast between the intentionally funny pictures and the more serious ones is more heightened in Dench’s work.

I generally agree with his sentiment that “The humour disarms viewers allowing the impact of a more serious image dropped into the sequence to be tenfold.” (BBC 2012), although with England Uncensored (certainly with the images in his online portfolio, might be clearer in the book) it’s actually quite hard to see which ones he thought were ‘serious’.

A better example of his ability to introduce gravity into a seemingly sardonic set of images is A&E: Alcohol & England, which starts off with witty shots of groups of people in pubs but descends into arrests, vomit and bloodied limbs. Here I think the approach does work, as there’s a narrative direction.

Ethical issues

I guess the question is here because of the images that Dench takes that don’t paint the subjects in the best light. Is he exploiting people? Yes, he is I think. With the alcohol shots one could argue – equally strongly – that the subjects are bringing it on themselves by behaving badly in public, or contrarily that they are not in control of their faculties and so deserve a duty of care. I sense that Dench follows the former argument. With England Uncensored, he does come across as a little condescending, and his shots often lack the warmth that often saves the work of (yes, I’ll mention him again) Martin Parr.

Sources

England Uncensored interview http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/17190001 (accessed 29/07/2016)

England Uncensored http://www.peterdench.com/england-uncensored/ (accessed 29/07/2016)

A&E: Alcohol & England http://www.peterdench.com/alcohol-england/ (accessed 29/07/2016)

Exercise: Martin Parr territory

Brief

Read the document ‘Martin Parr: Photographic Works 1971–2000’ by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

Watch an audio slide show of Martin Parr talking about his progression from B&W to colour photography and The Last Resort.

In this video Martin Parr acknowledges and defends what he calls the “hypocrisy and prejudice” in his work. What do you think about this statement? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

Response

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Martin Parr Putting on a Jumper, 2016 by Rob Townsend

I’ve blogged about Parr more than any other photographer over the last few years – from reviewing The Last Resort and his joint exhibition with Tony Ray Jones, to attempting to first of all better understand his appeal and then emulate his style – and I’ve moved from dislike to ambivalence to respect, as I gained a greater understanding of why he works like he does.

My real epiphany was an exhibition I saw at the Hepworth in Wakefield earlier this year, followed by a talk by Parr that I attended at Photo London in May.

I finally ‘got’ Parr. From my Hepworth post:

“Having previously dismissed Parr with the common criticisms – cruel, mocking, patronising – I came to the realisation that he’s not really (intentionally) any of those things. He is curious, probing, prolific and highly observational. He is a thinker and a writer as much as he is a photographer.”

From both the video clip and the NMPFT essay, one thing that comes across increasingly is the level of subjectivity and authorship in his work. The clip includes Parr discussing setting up an ‘arguing couple’ shot for the From A to B project (1995), where he cheerfully admits that he asked the woman to “look miserable”. Similarly, the essay quotes Parr describing his teenage project at Harry Ramsden’s chippy as portraying it “bleaker than it really was” (NMPFT 2002). So Parr clearly isn’t one of those photographers who just neutrally shoots what appears in front of him… he is seeking out particular pictures that present the message he is interested in conveying.

One of the things that I realised over the years about Parr is he is an equal opportunity satirist: he is as comfortable puncturing the upper class and the working class, and especially his own comfort zone, the middle class (this is also where a little acknowledged hypocrisy comes in). He spots the absurdities in all strata of society and picks them out, magnifies them for examination. This expansion of subject matter and approach is discussed in the NMPFT essay:

“The traditional subjects for documentary photographers had, for many years, been the extremes of society – the very rich and the very poor. Middle class consumerism was virgin territory, and the ‘subjective documentarist’ was a new phenomenon.” (NMPFT 2002)

Regarding hypocrisy: his full quote is:

“But I’m a very big hypocrite, insofar that I’m making things and objects which become part of the thing that, if you read my photographs carefully, I’m preaching against. I love the fact that my work is surrounded by hypocrisy and prejudice, and all these things that people don’t expect photographers to be pursuing.” (Parr 2000)

I think he’s being very honest here, more so than most photographers! He’s much more self-aware than I originally gave him credit for. Lots of photography, including documentary photography, is inherently hypocritical – an accusation usually denied except in Parr’s case.

Regarding prejudice: Parr is equally refreshingly open about his reflexivity and authorship. I made a note of something he said at the Photo London talk, about how people react to his photos: “People bring their own prejudices” (Parr 2016) – so prejudice isn’t just something that the photographer brings to the photo, the viewer adds their own. Parr holds up a mirror to the viewer. It’s quite fascinating, psychologically.

I think the closing words of there NMPFT essay summarise Parr extremely well:

“Parr gives us symbols, icons, clichés and trivia. He is a cultural commentator but doubles as a pessimist. He is a satirist and an exaggerator. He is consummate photographer with a love of tradition, and a wicked streak.” (NMPFT 2002)

It’s taken me a while to realise the extent to which Parr has helped to change the face of documentary photography.

Sources

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJinAgBYaLs (accessed 29/07/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/parr.pdf (accessed 29/07/2016)