Assignment 5: further refinements

I said early on in this assignment (many months ago now) that I wanted to document my working process and draft ideas more than I had previously done, and this has certainly proven to be the case – I just had no idea just how much the project would evolve in the intervening time. Looking back it’s been a necessary but sometimes meandering journey to get to where I need to be with this work.

Last week, after a flurry of activity were I posted up some work-in-progress images, I took some time to ponder how the overall work was coming across now that I could see it taking shape as (potential) final images.

A couple of changes are needed I believe:

Captions

Up until recently I was working on combining data, images and provocative text captions to get across my message (about divisive over-simplification).

Middlesbrough 1

Looking at the images I produced at this stage, I’m now of the opinion that these text captions are overkill – they are directing the reading too much, and competing for attention with the images. One thing I realised is that the message would still work if I removed the images! – which, for a photographic project, didn’t feel right.

A rethink was needed. I am currently working with captioning each image simply with the town’s name, but with the addition of a question mark – to imply that I am challenging rather than reinforcing the stereotyping I am depicting. I’m aiming to say “This is <town x> – or is it?”

Middlesbrough 1

Title and statement of intent

However… the oppositional pairings of labels that I had been planning to use as captions are, I still think, a powerful aspect of the message that I don’t want to completely lose. They have framed my shooting and selection decisions, and I do want examples of them to be floating around in the viewer’s mind when they view the images.

After deciding to simplify the captions as depicted above I had the opportunity to discuss the work with an OCA tutor (not my own tutor Derek as it happens, but Les Monaghan – a tutor I first met last year and met again at the weekend in connection to his project Relative Poverty). His view was that I needed something to frame the context that the pie chart splits were the Leave/Remain percentages, as this isn’t clear. His suggestion was to make the overall project title more explanatory (my current working title is Two Kinds of People) and he suggested I go for something like Leave/Remain, Leave or Remain, Leave vs Remain etc.

My reaction was (and still is, to be honest) that I don’t really want to be so overt with the title – but I do completely see what he means about helping the viewer a little more. I’m also wary of elevating the Brexit element too much, as to me this is the context of the ‘oversimplification’ message and not the core message itself.

With the above in mind, my current solution is to keep the title but update the statement of intent (again!) to add more of a frame around the context – including some of the oppositional pairings that up until recently were going to be captions. I hit upon the idea of using the pairings as a kind of verbal rhythm through the statement.

So my statement of intent currently looks something like this:

Two Kinds of People

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

Are you a Remainer or a Leaver? On 24th June 2016 the UK woke up to find itself newly sorted into binary, oppositional tribes.

Are you the liberal elite or the left-behind? The referendum that was itself fought on an extreme oversimplification of an impossibly complex situation was followed by a doubling down of this unfortunate tendency for the politics of division, as new labels emerged overnight – some neutral, some self-identified, some insulting.

Are you young and naive or old and bigoted? Data is a potent simplifier; percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Narratives emerged to explain the result, often falling into the generalisation trap and painting whole groups of people as not only homogenous but also diametrically opposed to whoever had put their cross in the other box.

Are you part of the multicultural middle class or the white working class? I looked at the last five towns I’ve lived in through the lens of the EU Referendum result, with the aim of provoking thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values.

Are you striver or a skiver? An enemy of the people or one of the people? A foreigner or a racist?  I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are real, even if none are wholly ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Burnley 1Pickering 1Dewsbury 1

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Assignment 5: updated title and statement

Title

For the longest time I had in mind a specific title for this work:

I Woke Up and Everything Was Fine

The significance of the phrase was to evoke the overly-simplistic mindset of voters in the EU Referendum: that the vote would either validate a comfortable life or transform an uncomfortable one – continuity vs disruption.

However, as time has passed (quite a lot of time as it happens) my intended message has evolved, and I’m trying to distill it down to be potentially less obscure (or even confusing). To start with my interest was in the vote aspect of the referendum – why people voted how they voted. But as more time passed I became much more interested in the aftermath: how new tribal identities – some self-identified, some insulting – had emerged, and how the over-simplification that beset the campaign was carried over into stereotyping and name-calling that still persists.

So with all of that in mind I am now considering the working title to be:

Two Kinds of People

This better fits the ‘politics of division’ / oversimplification message that I’m aiming to communicate. It is of course a reference to the aphorism: “There are two kinds of people in the world…” – sometimes used seriously but more often these days the lead-up line of a joke. The association of the phrase with jokes based on absurd over-simplifications is hopefully going to help my satirical message intent.

Statement of Intent

This refinement of concept and title means that I have redrafted the Statement of Intent, again:

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

In 2016 the impossibly complex issue of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was distilled down to one question: Remain or Leave? This ruthless simplicity eradicated nuance from the debate and we were all suddenly obliged to fit into binary categories – do you want continuity or disruption? The New Statesman summed it up the day after the vote: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.”.

Narratives that emerged to explain the shock result represented a doubling-down of the politics of division that had beset the campaigning; new tribes emerged overnight – some self-identifed, some insulting: you weren’t just a remainer or a leaver, you were a remoaner or a brexitard; the liberal elite or the left-behind; an intellectual or a bigot.

I revisited a number of northern English towns that I have lived in, looking at them anew through the lens of the referendum result. Data is a potent simplifier. Percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Numbers, words and photographs are all, in their own ways, inadequate descriptive systems.

With these images I aim to provoke thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values. I also intend this to be a kind of postmodern meta-critique, to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer – I can depict these towns exactly as I want to; all of these images are accurate, even if none are ‘true’.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Assignment 5: updated Statement of Intent

As the concept and communication intent of this assignment have been evolving since its inception last year, I thought it was time to articulate my current thinking in an updated Statement of Intent. (original for reference). As ever this is subject to change, but it reflects the way I am currently approaching the work.

I Woke Up And Everything Was Fine

Politics, like photography, simplifies.

In 2016 the impossibly complex issue of whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union was distilled down to one question: Remain or Leave. This ruthless simplicity eradicated nuance from the debate and we were all suddenly obliged to fit into binary categories.

It became tempting to believe that such a blunt instrument could either cement your comfortable existence or drastically change your miserable one; that this one magic bullet will fix everything. The New Statesman summed it up the day after the vote: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.”

It may have solidified into accepted wisdom now but one aspect of the result was a genuine shock: the extent to which economically deprived areas, particularly in the north of England, had voted Leave. The narrative that emerged to explain this was a doubling-down of the oversimplification that had beset the campaigning; new tribes emerged overnight: you weren’t just a remainer or a leaver, you were a remoaner or a brexitard; the liberal elite or the left-behind; multicultural middle class or white working class.

I revisited a number of northern English towns that I have lived and worked in, looking at them anew through the lens of the referendum result. Data is a potent simplifier. Percentages and charts can confer an undeserved authenticity upon a situation. Is a town really 33% intellectual, 67% bigot?

With these images I aim to provoke thought about the absurdity of such ‘weaponised generalisation’; how much easier it is to lean on divisive stereotypes than to understand the nuances of human behaviour and the range of opinions and values. I also want to bring to the surface the subjectivity of the documentary photographer.

Photography, like politics, simplifies.

Assignment 5: draft Statement of Intent

This follows on from my recent summary of preparatory work so far on Assignment 5.

This is my draft Statement of Intent. It is not an explanation of my planned methodology but simply the text I plan to use to accompany the final work. It is, of course, very much subject to change, bearing in mind I haven’t taken a single photo yet. But I’m finding it useful to write a version of this upfront, to help frame my ongoing work on this project.

I Woke Up And Everything Was Fine

The EU Referendum was defined by a ruthless simplicity: a yes/no question that sorted people into binary categories, with none of the nuance and diversity of opinion of a general election. It’s all too easy to fall for the promise that such a blunt instrument can either cement your comfortable existence or drastically change your miserable one; that this one magic bullet will fix everything.

After the initial jolt of the Leave result, the second shock on 24th June was that so many of the most socially and economically deprived parts of the country – including places I’d grown up in, lived in, worked in – had voted decisively to Leave the EU, even though many of these places had been the recipients of significant EU funding. It may have been expected that the Conservatives in the home counties would opt to Leave, but the extent of the out vote in the ‘traditional Labour heartlands’ was unsettling.

To a lot of disenfranchised working class voters, the referendum wasn’t specifically about EU membership; it wasn’t even really about immigration, or at least immigration was a symptom rather than the root cause. It was a rejection of globalisation, corporatism, inequality – and it’s been brewing for decades. The New Statesman summed it up: “This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.” – it was status quo vs change, the haves vs the have-nots. For many voters it was a last throw of the dice: ‘It can’t get much worse, can it?’

This is not a post-mortem of the campaigns themselves, or arguments for and against either option. It is simply about how these two constituencies – the Remainers and the Leavers, the haves and the have-nots, the globalisation winners and losers of the last four decades – coexist in the same towns and cities. They always have done, but the referendum brought the previously ignored fault lines in society into plain view by asking an over-simplified yes/no question.

This is an unapologetically personal look at the situation and not a comprehensive nationwide analysis. My interest is in northern English towns that voted heavily to Leave. They are the places I know, or thought I knew.

More to follow…