Assignment 5: portraying people without people

No people

One of the decisions I made early on in Assignment 5 planning was to exclude people. This in itself is making the whole thing more of a challenge, as it’s generally accepted that including people as subject matter is more successful that not doing – the viewing eye is drawn to human subjects, and documentary photography tends to be about issues that involve and affect people. So to exclude people seems to be a perverse limitation I’m putting on myself! But I can explain…

The whole concept underpinning the work is concerned with the dangers of over-simplification, manifesting here as deliberate stereotyping of people who live in a particular town (based on EU referendum voting data). However, I am morally opposed to using actual people to portray deliberate stereotypes, as I strongly believe that to do so is disrespectful to the individuals in question.

I wasn’t consciously aware of the precedent at the time of making that decision, but I was reassured to see that Martha Rosler held a similar moral stance in her seminal work The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1973-75), which I have retrospectively realised was an inspiration to my own work here. She depicted empty street scenes so that the drinkers that were the nominal subject of the work would not be “twice victimised: first by society, and then by the photographer who presumes the right to speak on their behalf” (Owens 1985: 69) – a damning but valid criticism of most documentary photography.

Symbolism

To communicate the notions of various pairs of opposing stereotypes circling around the cliché of ‘there are two kinds of people in the world…’ I need to apply the theories of semiotics and create signifiers to stand in for signified hypothetical people.

This means working with metaphors (signifiers that evoke similarity) and metonyms (signifiers that evoke association) to stand in for that which I am not depicting visually. I am increasingly fascinated with the notion of authorship in documentary photography and the deliberate embedding of messages that are not always immediately obvious. I wrote my critical review essay on this topic.

Of the two, it seems to me that metonyms are more useful (certainly easier to find and less obscure) for this assignment. In a recent post I brainstormed a list of potential subjects against the shortlist of caption pairings. It was a long list, with 30 signifier/signified combinations, and except where noted below are all the connotations I had chosen were metonyms (associations) rather than metaphors (comparisons):

  • Remain
    • Straight road
  • Leave
    • Exit sign
  • Upwardly Mobile
    • New build
  • Down and Out
    • Derelict building

Research

Last month I went on a very interesting study visit to the Strange and Familiar exhibition of photographs of Britain by international photographers, and subsequently bought the accompanying book. I was particularly interested in looking for images of British communities that didn’t include people yet still managed to evoke a sense of the presence of people. I also reviewed a number of photography pamphlets I’ve acquired from Cafe Royal Books who specialise in British documentary photography, notably from the 1960s-1980s.

A few summary takeaways:

  • Lots of examples of formal graphical elements in the composition
    • Lines, shapes, repetition etc
    • So a visually appealing image and use of leading lines to manage the viewer’s focus are important when there are no people to look at
  • International photographers leaned on metonym more
    • I presume the objects themselves held some novelty, and using them to make an association with the people not in the frame would be more attractive to the outsider, maybe?
  • British photographers in the CRB series made more use of metaphor
    • e.g. decaying buildings = deprived communities, long road = isolation, empty room = loneliness, etc

Learning

I need to lean less on metonymy and find more metaphors!

Sources

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

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

Owens, C. (1985) ‘The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernists’, in Foster H. (ed) Postmodern Culture. London: Pluto Press

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