Assignment 5: word association

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

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

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

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

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

Burnley test round

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assignment 5: framework and presentation questions

My last post on Assignment 5 from a few weeks ago was optimistically titled ‘The clouds part‘, but I’ve spent most of the time since being dissatisfied with my work to date and struggling to ‘find a way back in’ to this assignment… so the clouds hadn’t so much parted as shifted around slightly. However, I am finally starting to see real chinks of daylight.

My concerns

There have been two related obstacles:

  • Dissatisfaction with the content of the photos so far
  • Concerns that my concept may not be clearly communicated

Unhappy with my photographs

My basic problem over the last few weeks has been dissatisfaction with my photos taken so far.   I’ve taken over 500 photos in four locations over five shooting days since November last year. Very few of them are standing out as good photos individually, and almost no pairs of images to juxtapose are making themselves apparent to me. I have a strong sense of how I want these images to end up looking like, but am not yet being successful in finding subjects that match my visualisations.

Part of it is down to an ongoing debate I’m having with myself on whether to include people in the project or not (I will do a separate blog post on this particular point). Part of this is related to the conceptual communication point I come onto next.

Lacking confidence in the communication of the concept

As mentioned in several recent posts (a fact in itself that reveals how unsure I am about its clarity) my overarching communication intent is about the perils of oversimplification, and the conceptual approach I am taking is to juxtapose binary stereotypes (which happen to be based around the EU Referendum vote).

My fear is that using stereotypes to draw attention to stereotyping as a phenomenon is inherently risky, as there is a danger that the viewer simply sees the stereotyping… :-/

I needed to find a way of making the use of stereotypes more self-evidently deliberate and therefore significant.

My ideas

I have been wrapping my head around these two interrelated dilemmas and am gradually evolving my approach in a way that I think might – might – resolve both concerns.

Framework

First, I came to the conclusion that to improve the success rate of the photos themselves I needed some kind of framework to the images I want to capture – a shooting list. I’ve been shooting with two sets of keywords in my mind but it’s still been a little too vague to be useful. I need to really hone my visualisations down to a subject matter level.

In order to do this I also started thinking of ways of making the underpinning ‘stereotypes’ concept more obviously deliberate. I started thinking of how supporting text can be extremely useful, and so how to work stereotypes into the captions. To this end I enlisted some OCA Facebook buddies to brainstorm Remain and Leave stereotypes with me, and between us we came up with the following list:

  • Rich / Poor
  • Have / Have Not
  • Posh / Plebs
  • Experts / Man in the Street
  • Multicultural Middle Class / White Working Class
  • Metropolitan Elite / Left Behind
  • The Establishment / The Workers
  • Enemies of the People / The People
  • Thrivers & Strivers / Skivers & Survivors
  • Smug Liberals / Angry Bigots
  • Swots / Uneducated
  • Fat Cats / The Great Unwashed
  • White Collar / Blue Collar
  • Upwardly Mobile / Down & Out
  • Globalist / Nationalist
  • Unpatriotic / Patriotic
  • Losers / Winners

A subset of these, or something similar, could become briefs for specific image pairings, and in turn appear as captions of some kind.

Presentation format

I’ve been trying to think creatively about how to visually communicate the message about binary oversimplification by using the exact Leave/Remain vote percentages from the specific towns and cities as the ratio of the two parts of the composite image.

My initial approach to this was quite straightforward, juxtaposing the pairs of images as two appropriately scaled rectangles:

However, I wasn’t sure whether this really drove home the binary categorisation that I was looking to project. I started thinking about infographics and data visualisation, and hit upon the idea of using a pie chart (it was National Pie Week…) with the segments labeled to form the captions:

Please note that I am not sure about these specific images – these are just mockups to test the concept.

My current feeling is that the visual concept does broadly work in terms of data visualisation, but it’s not necessarily easy (depending on the specific images) to visually decipher the two component parts due to the irregular frame shapes.

Hmmmmm…

Next steps

  • Review existing images (again) against the ‘stereotype pairings’ discussed above
  • Shoot new images with stereotype pairings as image briefs
  • Consider the pie chart visual treatment more, and potentially gather some peer feedback

Assignment 5: mind map

I’ve done a flurry of planning and preparation posts for this assignment this week, and it’s just occurred to me that I haven’t posted a copy of the mind map that captures it all together in one visual view.

img_3192

Whilst I’ve been aware of mind mapping as a technique for a long time, I hadn’t really tried to apply it to my studies until my tutor Derek recommended it to help with structuring the critical review essay. I don’t know whether I’ll always apply it to photographic projects, but for something as pre-planned and complex as this project it felt like a useful way of drawing together the various threads.

As for the last few times I’ve used mind maps, this isn’t a definitive plan and I reserve the right to deviate from it, but it will be a useful aide memoire for me, particularly as I go through the selection and editing stages.

Just in case anyone is interested, I use an application called SimpleMind for the iPad.

Assignment 5: authorial considerations

I’ve been thinking about my personal project for what seems like several months now (my earliest recollection of the overall theme is from May and by July I’d settled on this particular idea). Over the last three months in particular I’ve been refining my visualisations of the kinds of photographs I want to make, and I’ve increasingly realised that I have some objectives with this assignment, above and beyond representing the subject matter itself.

Authorship

Probably the most enlightening knowledge I’ve gained on this course has been the extent of authorship in documentary photography – and the opportunities it presents.

Like many people I came from a starting point that (most traditional) documentary photography is, broadly speaking, a reasonably accurate and objective representation of reality. Over the last several months of study I’ve appreciated that all photography has an element of authorship, whether conscious or subconscious. Every decision that the photographer makes before, during and after shooting is subject to their own reflexivity and intent – choice of subject matter, colour palette, vantage point, lighting, focal points, composition decisions, juxtaposition, selection, processing, sequencing, presentation method – everything.

When looking at a photographic body of work as, say, an exhibition or a book it’s very tempting to think that this is the only way this was ever going to turn out. But the photographer made so many decisions during the planning and production of the work that there’s an almost infinite number of variations possible, and is any of them any more or less “true” than any other?

So for this assignment I decided to overtly embrace authorship – to think consciously about what I want to say, and how to make the photographs say it. A (tiny) part of me sees this as being untrue to the spirit of documentary photography but a much bigger part wants to push myself towards this very deliberate authorial approach.

Expressiveness and ambiguity

of livelihood
from Assignment 2, ‘A Hole in the World’

I want to try to be more expressive and less literal than usual in my images for this assignment. Looking back on the three photographic assignments so far on this course, I’ve surprised myself by preferring the more conceptual Assignment 2 to the more mainstream documentary photography of Assignments 1 and 3. There’s something a little more satisfying to me personally in directing the viewer towards an idea that I’m trying to communicate, over and above just presenting events in the world as they happened.

So I want to play more with the “creative treatment” part of John Grierson’s famous description of documentary as “a creative treatment of actuality” (1933). To this end, I’m thinking more consciously about applying principles of semiotics in the images. I got very enthused by the possibilities of this whilst working on my critical review essay on the use of metaphor and metonymy in documentary photography.

I think this explains my over-arching objectives for the assignment, without getting down into the details of the assignment itself, if that makes sense.

Next I’ll do a post going into more detail on the visual concept I have in mind, and how I plan to engineer the images to my chosen authorial standpoint. These two posts together should felt the reader to understand both where I’m coming from and where I’m going with this!

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

Assignment 1: early thoughts

As suggested by the course notes (and after my experiences on Gesture & Meaning where I am now on the third idea and still haven’t taken a single shot…) I’m starting thinking about my first assignment early. I first read the brief even before I started the course (I downloaded the sampler PDF) and so have already had some time to think about it.

The main points in the brief say (my emphasis):

Produce a small photo essay of 10 images that demonstrates your engagement with the lives, experiences and histories of your local community and its people.

You’ll need to decide on a single theme, topic or activity to focus on. Discuss your ideas with your tutor before committing to it.

Do this assignment with only one camera and one lens.

Initial thinking

Now, as cliché as it might sound, when I think of ‘local community‘ I think of ‘local pub‘. We live in a small North Yorkshire market town with a friendly community vibe. The nearest pub, The Sun Inn, is just a few minutes walk down the road, and is a warm-hearted and vibrant meeting place with lots of regular activities and events, some of which I take part in, some of which I just know about.

These activities include: quiz nights (I write and host a quiz to raise funds for a local good cause on a regular basis); amateur singing and music nights; vinyl appreciation nights; a weekly ‘beer bread and cheese’ night for a local charity; and last but by no means least, they use their function room for exhibitions by local artists on a rotating monthly basis (I held my first photography exhibition there in April last year, and will do so again in 2016).

On top of all this, it’s a nice friendly ‘local’ with lots of regular faces and a constantly rotating selection of guest beers. And it’s won various CAMRA awards. I consider myself lucky to have such a great boozer on my doorstep.

So: my draft plan is to take my camera along to The Sun several times over the next few weeks, observe the place during quiet and busy times, normal nights and regular events, weeknights and weekends – to see if an interesting theme or narrative emerges.

Sounds tough but I think I’m up to the challenge ;-)