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.


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.

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.


Charley Murrell: Constructed Childhoods!__personal-projects/–constructed-childhoods (accessed 01/08/2016)

Hannah Starkey: Untitled (accessed 01/08/2016)

Exercise: Jeff Wall


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


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).

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.

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 (accessed 01/08/2016)

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

Exercise: Hasan and Husain Essop


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.


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.

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 (accessed 01/08/2016)