Development of My Ideas for Assignment 2 – Documentary

Here are some questions I posed to my tutor and his responses regarding Assignment 2:


I was interested in brief encounters with strangers in the city street and how then those moments are gone. As a person growing up in a big city like London these fleeting encounters represented something of a feeling of loneliness which I would think I wasn’t alone in feeling. Also they mirrored my own perception of different photographs’ instantaneity as you’re about to take them – one minute they’re there and then they’re just a (semi-permanent) memory. What better way to capture a fleeting moment than with a camera which produces material images that only appear virtually nowadays? One method to visualise these fleeting moments might be through changing light and how that too is transient.

I then read Maartje Van Den Heuvel’s essay: ‘Mirror of Visual Culture’; the part which made the most impression on me was how the media and its images help to create a virtual reality which photographer’s have begun to reflect upon in their work. One potential outcome of this realisation on my part was I could see how transient this virtual world is and yet how prevalent at the same time it has become. This for me is mirrored by the core feature the virtual world is made up of: images – of particular interest for me images including photographs.

By recording the fleeting encounters with my camera in an ephemeral manner I could connate that the image itself was fleeting just like the encounter.

I also noticed while re-reading the brief for Assignment 2 that I would have to submit the assignment on a blog. I began to see a link between the work I might be producing for the assignment and the way it was displayed in the blog format. This link was that both the blog (which is a form of the virtual world and so highly transient) and the photographs (both in form and content) are fleeting in terms of their materiality. One way I could envisage submitting the second assignment in blog format was to rephotograph the photographs taken for the assignment but on a black backdrop so it appears like the photographs are floating in space. The connotations of this could be that the fleeting moment had gone and exists in a vacuum only. Yet here it is, on my blog representing itself as a mirror of visual culture. Where before the image might have appeared in a newspaper/magazine, now the photograph is represented in a vacuum of space. This viewer of the blog could infer loneliness from this which also coincidentally would be the theme for my photographs recording the fleeting encounters.

 Ways to create the photographs themselves – I could carry it out literally and walk by random people in the street and take their picture. However they would be likely to notice me, thereby disrupting the semantics of the image and besides, I wasn’t sure I’d have the guts to carry out this approach. I could photograph their back as they walk away or I could photograph them from the side and create a ‘slice of reality’. This seems like the most plausible approach and maybe with the strongest visual credence.

The last alternative was to actually meet the stranger in the brief encounter in the following way:

  • Go up to people with an Instax camera
  • Ask to photograph them, they get to keep the photo!
  • But in return you get to take a photo of the photo up close with them out of focus in the background.
  • Displayed on a blog this reflects the fleetingness of the photograph and the fleetingness of the media world.

A link to memories with the fleetingness reminding you of lost moments. Also the people out of focus in the background is a reference to this being a memory formed.

I have been carrying out the approach where I photograph my brief encounters with people from the side or their back using lighting which reflects loneliness in my eyes.

I wanted to check with you the last alternative of meeting the stranger and taking their picture with an Instax camera for two reasons:
1. is this not then a constructed photograph?
2. the Instax cameras are quite expensive for me so I wanted to see whether you thought this approach was a constructed photograph before committing to it also.


My Tutor:

Ephemerality of digital imagery is interesting as an abstract concept. If you shoot people walking away it will be harder to make a strong image. You’ll rely more on the concept, so it’ll have to be clear.

The Instax idea sounds alright. Yes it’s constructed in a way but you’re encouraged to interrogate documentary in the broadest possible sense. I think you’ll be fine if you include a clear rationale.


My Reaction:

From my tutor’s response I was able to identify firstly that the first method of photographing people from the back or side would not be as visually powerful. Secondly and more importantly for me his response confirmed my ‘new’ idea was sound and related back to documentary in his opinion. Furthermore I could now see the real direction my work was leading towards which consisted of ephemerality of the image. In particular I established:

‘By recording the fleeting encounters with my camera in an ephemeral manner I could connate that the image itself was fleeting just like the encounter.’

I would be photographing fleeting encounters carried out using an Instax camera which further reflects the ephemerality of the image. Also I would make sure my project’s rationale was clear so as to back up my somewhat complicated message.


Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: [Accessed 3/3/2017].


I originally started Assignment 2 with aspirations to portray an abstract theme of ‘Loneliness’ through my 8 single-image narratives. In hindsight I perhaps theorised too much on the aesthetics of the images without applying practical experimentation in order to arrive at images which better suited my brief. This is part of the learning process however and I noted down this observation for later assignments.

The problem was that the images I produced initially, in my opinion, showed not ‘Loneliness’ but ‘Containment’. Lighting in the photographs produced was a major factor why the photographs worked not as intended – as ‘Loneliness’ – but rather as ‘Containment’. I theorised that by photographing a city in the early or late hours of the day when the lighting was quite dramatic I could draw attention to single figures in the composition at decisive moments. I felt I was successful in this regard but the overall aesthetic did not imply loneliness in the city. Instead the lighting combined with the single figure compositions only heightened a sense of containment within the city with quite an oppressive feel to the images pervading throughout. Therefore I was not fulfilling my brief I had assigned myself.

I have decided to put the images I produced on this blog post so the viewer can decide for themselves whether they fulfilled the assignment I had in mind but I was not convinced. Since in my mind I was attempting to develop (amongst other things) the skills of conveying a specific abstract theme to my intended target audience, I was not satisfied with simply changing the title of the series to ‘Containment’ from ‘Loneliness’.


While continuing the now titled: ‘Containment’ project in my own time I referred to my tutor for a bit of advice on how best to proceed with Assignment 2 – Documentary. I already had a few new ideas I had been experimenting with and once I had put my questions to him I found his response helped clear up in my head what I wanted to do.

Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 5

I observed Short described the study of signs (semiotics) in a clear and concise manner, without being either too pedantic or complicated. She compared the dyadic and triadic systems for signs of de Saussure and Pierce respectively, for which Pierce used an additional element. Even though de Saussure’s model was easier to grasp, I felt that Pierce’s model satisfied all aspects of any sign’s reading. This was because it introduced the ‘object’ and the ‘interpretant’ in place of just the signified.

Once aware of how to recognise a sign in photography, it is important to be clear what kind of a sign it is. There are three types – symbolic, iconic and indexical. Indexicality in photography interested me the most as this property is intrinsic in every photograph. It means its there-ness – it is a part of something that happened and was recorded through light by the camera. This differs from the symbolic (where something represents something else) and the iconic (something which is perceptibly similar). Reading about the various types of signs did make me wonder whether they could be used in combination. Because indexical signs could be apparent within a photograph as well as be the photograph itself I wondered what the implications of an indexical sign appearing on an indexical photograph would be. Would the effect be like a double negative or compound the indexicality to the viewer?

Signs give extra information for the photograph to be read as the photographer intends. In this way they act as a visual metaphor, reading to the viewer pointers for meaning to be inferred. They can be subtle and unobtrusive or fill the entire photograph. They can also be a mood in the photograph so not something tangible. Ways I could envisage signs appearing in the photograph as visual metaphors after reading Chapter 5 of Context and Narrative would be:

  • a simple object out of place or unusual in the context of the photograph which signified something more
  • the use of focus where sharply focussed symbolises in the present while out of focus in the background is more distant and of the past
  • a visually recognisable sign or symbol appearing high up in the frame of the photograph standing for power or authority
  • lighting in the photograph creating a pointed mood because of the time of day which lends to the subjects of there photograph

Implementing signs into photographs I would imagine is easier if the photographer has time/inclination to construct the photograph. Because a lot of documentary is unconstructed where the photographer has to work quickly it becomes harder to think about which signs should appear where in the photographic frame. Yet this placement can give the signs extra meaning or none at all if left out of the frame. Short alludes to this in Chapter 5 and gives some pointers as to how to work with this – ‘If the photographer is clear as to the function, purpose and intention behind the photographs, these [on-the-spot] decisions are easier’ – (Short, 2011). For this reason, I would think it is very important to have a clear rationale or concept behind your images beforehand so that you can implement the signs as you see them.


Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.120-141.

Context and Narrative by Maria Short – Chapter 4

Right at the start of Chapter 4 – ‘Narrative’, I liked the description Short uses for the question what is narrative in photography. Here Short describes the techniques used to provide narrative in photography to be ‘seen as a kind of visual punctuation.’ – (Short, 2011). From this I gathered certain techniques provide the framework from which a photographer could structure their vision, much like the commas and full stops in this written sentence.(!)

The chapter starts properly by identifying what narrative is and I reconfirmed in my head it is essentially a story. However, because the medium is photography the format can be linear or in other ways too because it is a visual medium. I saw this as the ‘visual punctuation’ informing the visual word order and meaning of the sentence.

The first half of the chapter is dedicated to narrative within a series or set of photographs and while this may be less applicable to me for Assignment 2 of documentary, where I have to produce single-image narratives, it will no doubt prove of use beyond the assignment. Some techniques key to providing a strong narrative within a series or set of photographs Short outlined consisted of aesthetic continuity, so a theme is formed, size of the images in relation to each other as they appear and juxtaposition of the images in the series. I felt the latter of these techniques (juxtaposition) could also be assigned to the components of a single image in order to provide narrative there as well.

This led me onto the second half of the chapter ‘Narrative’ dealing with single-image narratives. Short initially poses the question: ‘what exactly is narrative within a single image and how does a photographer work to convey or create it?’ – (Short, 2011). I was left slightly frustrated after reading the page she poses the question on because she seems at first to not answer the latter part to the question directly or at least not as I had expected. I would have expected the answer to be solely the juxtaposition of compositional elements within the single-image. Reading this page and beyond again however, she does indeed hint at the juxtapositional element of not only composition but light and colour too when she asks: ‘What is the relevance of the empty space/dark sky/colour of the carpet?’ – (Short, 2011). She then additionally goes on to add in the next few pages ,methods for creating meaning in single-images – some of which I want thought of before. For example, she states that it is important to have clear preconceptions about the aim of the project. At the same time she suggests how ‘being open to unexpected elements contributing to the photograph’ can add extra, unforeseen meaning. This is later backed up at the end of the chapter with the case study. I had begun to understand that experimentation with photographs as they are being taken and after they are taken improve on concepts, which is very important. It is good practice to have a clear reason for taking the photographs in the first place though.

Another aspect I discerned from the single-image narrative part of the chapter was about immersing yourself in a project to the point that you are absorbed by your practice and are not thinking about creating art. This approach can yield work which is art once it has been selected from the larger body produced form the documentary practice. Short used the example of Cartier-Bresson’s lesser known photojournalistic bodies of work like his coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral to illustrate this concept. Perhaps I had been taking a wrong or at least starkly contrasting approach to that of Cartier-Bresson’s practice. Whereas I had tried to produce documentary images which could be considered as art, Cartier-Bresson produced large volumes of work where he was completely absorbed in producing images before selecting images he felt were art. Ironically, I had been heavily influenced by Cartier-Bresson’s art photographs in the first place as they seemed to exist as single decisive moments in time and I had only observed them singularly previously. Therefore it was a bit of a revelation at least some of them weren’t taken with art in mind particularly, like with Short’s example of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. This reminded me of an article I had recently been reading by Eric Kim about forgetting composition when shooting photographs, entitled: Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. I had been browsing the internet, looking for inspiration for my assignment when I came across this fairly provocatively titled article with regards to street photography. I found it useful however in a similar way to Short’s example of of Cartier-Bresson’s coverage of Mahatma Ghandi’s funeral. The emphasis was to take photographs first and worry about (composition in this case) later. Kim still gives a list of basic compositional techniques to bear in mind before going on a shoot but argues: ‘use composition as a tool after you’ve taken a bunch of photos, in order to know which photo to keep (and which to ditch).’ – (Kim, n.d.). He then backs this up with a quote: ‘I would rather choose an emotional photo with soul (with poor composition), rather than a soul-less photo (with a great composition)’ – (Kim, n.d.) which resonates with some of what I had been thinking. Short is of the opinion that ‘total immersion in the process enables the photographer to be highly tuned into the vital aspects of the photograph’, so much so that as an experienced photographer absorbed in the process you can anticipate ‘At what angle and place in the frame movement will be frozen’ and ‘How and where light is falling’ – (Short, 2011). This implies once the photographer is absorbed in the project completely, composition becomes natural. It seems that with ‘total immersion’ in a project the photographer gets the best of both worlds – soulful photos (as there is now a more meaningful interaction with the subject) and good composition. If the composition isn’t exactly right the photographer could presumably select another photograph to use from the many they’d taken. One of these photographs is more likely to be ‘art’ than shooting sporadically and without absorption into the process.


Cartier-Bresson, H. (1948). Mahatma Gandhi’s last days and funeral procession, 1948. [online] Magnum Photos. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Kim, E. (n.d.). Don’t Think About Composition When Shooting Street Photography. [online] Eric Kim Photography. Available at: [Accessed 23 Mar. 2017].

Short, M. (2011). Context and Narrative. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing SA, pp.96-119.

Study Visit to Deutsche Börse Photography Competition and Roger Mayne Exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery (18/3/2017)

On 18/3/2017 I went on a fun and rewarding study visit with some of my fellow students from the OCA to the Photographer’s Gallery in London.

First off we went for a group critique where we shared some of our own work with the group and then everybody offered their opinions on the projects shown. I found a lot of the work shown by others to be inspiring and an indication of how creative everybody was in the group. What I also found interesting was to hear how people came about their ideas for their projects and in particular the experimentation process. I got to show some of my work and the photographs I quickly printed off were my work so far for Assignment 2 Documentary. The photographs were well received by the others which I was happy about and one comment that cropped up quite a bit was each photograph captured a decisive moment. One area for improvement I picked up on was quite a key one and that was the abstract concept behind the photographs – that of loneliness didn’t quite fit. I was disappointed by this of course but I made a note to see which abstract concept did fit for the photographs. Also I decided to think critically concerning how I could get the photographs for my project to resemble an intended abstract concept and adapt the photographing process in the future to fit this theme. Overall though the group critique was positive and I learnt a lot from sharing my work.

Afterwards we moved down to the Deutsche Börse Photography Competition 2017 and the first artist I looked at was Sophie Calle. She presented her work with accompanying text. I felt the text was sardonic and self-criticising regarding the death of her mother, cat and father in that order. This I felt was unusual for exhibition text but in a strange way it made the photographs even more poignant. I did feel the text was necessary to a degree in order to explain some of the photographs, although others were quite self-explanatory. The range of size for the photographs printed varied greatly, from simple postcard sized prints to a print of a giraffe so large it wasn’t hung in the exhibition space. I thought this variety in print size Calle used made the viewer have to stop and think about what they were seeing and in this regard it worked – I for one wasn’t sure how to react to the different prints in one space. However, they were evidently in chronological order – the same order her mother, cat and father died, from left to right round the room as you entered it.

These photographs and text were followed by the large-scale prints of Awoiska van der Molen. It was obvious a great deal of care and attention had been taken with the vastly impressive prints and they all had the same framing and were of similar size for continuity, I presumed. The same care and attention could be said of the photographic process van der Molen had undertaken when photographing and it was this that interested me most. She had built up a relationship with the environment around her for weeks on end before taking the photographs. This kind of dedication to creating a bond between her and her (non-human) subjects was inspiring and it probably made the photographic process more humbling and rewarding. I felt this really came across in the prints (although the massive scale of them did help too)! Some landscape photographers rush around trying to capture as much of the scenery as they can in as little time so it was refreshing to see this approach. The prints were also mostly very dark in tone, lending an atmosphere and character to the photographs she must have felt herself while taking them.

The third (and my favourite) artist shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Competition 2017 was Dana Lixenberg. Her work in 1993-2015 was all black and white prints with similar framing and depicting mostly people of the Imperial Courts housing project in Watts, Los Angeles. I had already seen one of the photographs for the exhibition in my documentary course but to see the same one again but on such a large scale was inspiring for me. Also the fact that it was part of a much larger body of work added to me seeing the photograph in a new light. The thing that impressed me most about all the images on display was the obvious relationship and trust she had managed to build up with her subjects even though she was from a different place. In a way this was similar to van der Molen’s work although with people instead of place.

The fourth and final artist(s) shortlisted were Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs. The obvious thing to take in when entering there exhibition space was the totally different way the space was used. It was dark to accommodate the various slideshows which flickered through either still photographs or video clips. I found this approach to be different but at the same time there was almost too much going on and I was less intrigued by the video clips. The stills showed change the on duo’s road trip across Europe, both from place to place and with changes happening in those places.

Lastly we moved further down to the Roger Mayne exhibition. I was particularly looking forwards to seeing his work because I was aware he was a documentary photographer who shot predominantly in black and white. This then I thought would be of interest to me for Part 2 of my course which I was currently on. Although there were many photographs to look at, I discovered each was a delightful slice of life from the past. The black and white medium in my opinion helped with this immensely. This was because I immediately accepted the photographs (which were consistently displayed in black and white in the main rooms) as fact. I didn’t notice the framing particularly, which was a good thing, it meant I was absorbed by the photos themselves. They depicted life in the 1950s and 60s in a very candid and honest way. There was often a lot going on in the frame but I found the way he arranged the people in the frame (not by placing them but by changing his composition) made the photos tell a story more often than not. It was refreshing to see the children playing in the run-down streets of London, Nottingham, Leeds and Sheffield as well as adults working because the photographs served to show a record of how life was at that time. In the room at the end of the exhibition there was a slideshow playing colour photographs but I didn’t find these as immersive as the black and white photos although the way they were displayed on the slideshow was interesting.


Deutshce Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2017. [Exhibition] 3rd Mar – 11th Jun 2017. The Photographer’s Gallery, London.

Black and white?

Black and white affects the reading of the image and is something I was acutely aware of without ever really understanding why the effect is so different from colour.

Black and white makes the viewer more distant from the photograph, because the image is reduced down to form and structure. In other words as Henry Carroll states: ‘black and white simplifies what colour complicates’ – (Carroll, 2015). This struck a chord with me because I felt I was able to read the components of black and white photographs more easily than similar colour photographs.

Attempt at seeing in black and white 1

As a photographer you have to learn to ‘see’ in the black and white medium and not just convert it from black and white afterwards because then those forms and structures probably won’t be as pronounced as if the photographer was looking for them in the first place. This is illustrated by Henry Carroll in a book I’ve been reading called ‘Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People’, where he says: ‘All too often people compose their shot using the language of colour and then hope that it will translate into black and white later. Neither of these approaches work.’ – (Carroll, 2015). I have been guilty of using that approach in the past but have since experienced what Carroll observed; instead it is better to be on the look-out for shots that would look good in black and white first.

Attempt at seeing in black and white 2

In my opinion it is psychological too, as negative emotions are more easily related to in black and white. There’s something melancholy in my mind associated with black and white because it reminds us subconsciously of photography’s nature – a memory of something from reality which can’t be replaced. This makes me feel if I were to produce 8 black and white single-image narratives for assignment 2 I would be inclined to choose a more despondent theme for the photographs. On the flip side of this is the photograph’s other attribute – the potential for it to be reproduced indefinitely. This reproducibility allows the viewer to look at the black and white photograph especially with a sense of importance – this same photograph could be seen in newspapers etc and indeed had been. This would be by association – in the past black and white photographs were observed as more truthful and people had grown up with them in their culture – there was a sort of aura embedded into the collective psyche surrounding black and white photographs.

One strategy I felt would prove pointless with an optical viewfinder camera like mine was to shoot in black and white preview mode and view it on the LCD screen after the fact. While this definitely wasn’t as immersive as shooting with an EVF ‘in the present’ and viewing the scene before the camera in near-enough real-time, I was pleasantly surprised to find that before ‘chimping’ I could start to imagine what the preview would look like. Therefore I started to think in black and white, with particular attention paid to light and shadows and seeing potential for reducing the scene down to its abstract, core features.

Above I’ve displayed a couple of examples of me trying to ‘see’ in black and white before taking the shot (even though the optical viewfinder let me see in colour as a preview!).



Carroll, H. (2015). Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People. London: Laurence King.

My Ideas for Assignment 2 – Documentary So Far

My brief for Assignment 2 is to produce 8 single-narrative images under one theme of my choice. The only limitation on the theme choice is that it must be something that is an abstract concept. Some examples of an abstract concept would be: Hope, Love, Exploitation, Sadness, Freedom and Greed.

My initial reactions to this brief were that I could imagine producing a negative abstract concept as a theme more readily than a positive one. Although this might well be perceived as a negative reaction, my head started reeling off ideas when confronted with abstract concepts and most of them were negative… This either said something about my state of mind or, as I felt was more likely, I was better at visualising negative abstract concepts in my head as photographs.

However, some of the negative abstract concepts which soon sprung to mind were:

Loneliness, Sorrow, Unease, Separation and Confusion

In contrast the main positive abstract concept I envisaged was Happiness and I had little idea of how I would visualise that concept into 8 single image-narrative images without it being overtly obvious. For example I imagined a colour photograph (as I saw colour as a happier, more immediate medium) with people smiling but I had trouble finding non-blatant alternatives to this theme.

With the negative abstract concepts though, I was already thinking of juxtapositions where the theme could be inferred from each of the single-images.

For example with Loneliness, a single figure could be juxtaposed with the rest of the frame or instead a single figure could be juxtaposed with a group of happy people.


After thinking about the brief some more I have potentially realised a possible explanation for conceptualising the negative abstract concepts more easily. This would be based on an uneasy or negative memories/experiences and since photographs are of the past even though they are taken in the present and looked at in the future, it would make sense to pre-visualise a negative emotion of my past and find evidence of it in the present for future viewing.

This recognition of photography’s nature would offer potential viewers an insight into the world – my world – through the external; perhaps making the documentary process more subjective and modern which was one aim I wanted to achieve as I’ve gained more knowledge about the genre through the documentary course. In early documentary there was an assertion that photography could be purely objective but I would argue that very little of photography is objective and more usually it is subjective where the photographer has some role to play. Of course this is dependent on which context the photograph is viewed in but in most cases we tend to view the scene as the photographer intended or at least as the photographer framed it, thereby allowing for their interpretation of it.

If there was acknowledgement by the photographer of this before the photograph, with preconceived ideas of past memories for example, this might be reflected back in photographs of the world around the photographer in the present time. The photographer may see composition or lighting or objects/people which mean something indirectly of the past memories and could be utilised as a sort of visual metaphor for what the photographer’s state of mind was. This would differ from the already subjective approaches of social documentary photographers in the 1930s because my mood for the photographs would be preconceived. If I was to carry out such photography, then I should make sure to carry out the project in the ‘real world’ so my target audience of the general public had a better chance of identifying with my photographs.