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

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.