Imaginary Documents

Wandering around Deptford for my upcoming Assignment 3, I realised I wasn’t going to have a story suddenly jump out at me from the blue; I had to make the story arise. This was due to the apparent bleakness of much of Deptford apart from the high street. It was what my eyes showed me and was obvious too in the snapshots I was producing. This bleak appearance was however, a blessing in disguise as it made me start actively thinking for the first time what stories I could begin to put together and therefore what imaginary set of documents I could construe.

At first I was a bit tentative about creating an at least partly fictional story as most of what I had learnt about documentary photography so far seemed to veer towards the factual. I decided actually, after all, a lot of documentary is constructed on the most basic level of selection and framing anyway. Therefore, how much of what is selected and framed by the photographer is objective, factual documentary and how much of it is subjective?

Having said all of this, I selected a story which very much had its roots in the notion of this bleakness in Deptford which in my mind was quite factual. I thought I would contrast this with the hubbub of the market on Deptford High Street on a Wednesday, Friday or Saturday.

As I was having the realisation that most documents are on some level subjective and so pulling a story from it was acceptable, I came across some text in my course. This text effectively mirrored what I was thinking but was written more eloquently. Here Jose Navarro, the course author, wrote:

Traditional thinking documentary photography supports the idea that the photographic document is evidence of something that happened out there, something that occurred without being choreographed or prompted by the photographer. Which is precisely what Mohamed Bourouissa doesn’t do. – Navarro (2012)

'la main' - périphérique - Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)
‘la main’ – périphérique – Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)

Bourouissa’s work intrigued me because it featured a style where a story was ‘pulled’ from reality but was done in such a way that it was difficult to tell whether the scenes had been staged. The work I looked at was: périphérique (2005-2009) and in particular la main (the hand) and la rencontre (the encounter); a couple of a series of edgy, unrestful images where the viewer was unsure of the authenticity of the scenes. I looked at these for a while and I’m still not sure whether they were staged or not. This was because it was hard to imagine the photographs being taken without being staged but the actor’s faces were so convincing and the snapshot framing was so dysfunctional that the scenes were believable.

I envisaged a landscape/documentary approach for photographing Deptford, which would mainly rely on found scenes. This would function quite differently as the scenes wouldn’t be staged but as a set I would be creating a narrative within which these found scenes fit in.

'la rencontre' - périphérique - Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)
‘la rencontre’ – périphérique – Mohamed Bourouissa (2005-2009)

One other realisation about tendencies for my own documentary practice was that I invariably seemed to want to try to create single-image narratives. Whether this was down to Assignment 2 – Documentary where I was asked to try to produce single-image narratives I was not sure. Either way I realised I was attempting to complete the assignments in single shots rather than thinking about how multiple photographs could relate to one another.

One possible solution I could foresee would be to focus on creating numerous images which, while quite possibly not depicting single-image narratives, when edited down and then put together produce a more telling narrative than singularly. Bourouissa’s series: périphérique (2005-2009) certainly worked as single-image narratives and together as a series, proving that both approaches could exist in tandem. However, I wanted to concentrate on looking at how multiple photographs could relate to one another in a series.

References:

Bourouissa, M. (2005-2009). périphérique [online] mohamedbourouissa.com Available at: http://www.mohamedbourouissa.com/peripherique/ [Accessed 17 Aug. 2017]

Navarro, J. (2012). OCA Documentary Course.

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Rationale for Assignment 2 – Documentary – Ephemerality of the Image

I had become interested in the idea that photographs could be a mirror of visual culture after reading ‘Mirror of Visual Culture’ by Maartje van den Heuvel (2005). I asserted from van den Heuvel’s essay that it is possible for a photograph to contain properties that mirror photographs in general. One of the properties of photographs, more pertinent nowadays, is ephemerality. Since the advent of digital photography the number of photographs being taken and shared has spiralled upwards dramatically and coincidentally the effective duration of many photographs once shared has decreased. They become forgotten after a few days of being popular on the sharing platforms (even though they are still accessible). A way I foresaw of challenging this notion of ‘ephemerality of the image’ directly was to allow a photographic image to appear in another photograph. The rhetoric behind this was that the photograph represented something of the place it reappeared in and so was indexical to the photograph being taken. As well as this the photograph being taken was indexical to the place. The photograph appearing inside another photograph in the same place the original photograph was taken has been done many times before. However, what set my photographs apart, I believed, were that whatever had taken place in the photographs within photographs had since changed dramatically. In this way the place had been recorded by the photograph as a simulacrum – a copy without an original.

 

Trying Out the Instax Picture-in-Picture Idea 1
Trying Out the Instax Picture-in-Picture Idea 2

Initially I was going to get people like tourists to hold their own picture I’d taken with a ‘Fujifilm Instax Mini 8’ camera in the same place it was taken, from which I would take another picture with my DSLR of them holding the instant photo. The idea behind these images was that the person via the instant photo they were holding proved their presence in that place. I tested this idea out on family members and it worked quite well but when I tried to actually carry out the idea in public spaces with tourists I found it didn’t work so well. It didn’t work well because I wasn’t confident enough to ask the tourists whether they would wait for two minutes for the photo to develop for them to then hold it and pose again. Also I realised that of course not a lot had changed in the time it had taken for the instant photo to develop which meant there wasn’t much point to taking the photographs.

 

Trying Out the Instax Picture-in-Picture Idea with Instax Mini 8 Film

I decided to look closely at what I could change in my project and found that getting the people to hold the instant photograph and posing again wasn’t necessary. Instead I myself could hold the instant photograph and simultaneously photograph a changed scene which assumed a sense of absence in the resultant photograph. Soon after I grasped that the subject of the photograph didn’t have to be a person to reveal change in the city. I was much more comfortable photographing non-human subjects which although not pushing me particularly out of my comfort zone was more practical. I discovered to my tastes the absence of something because it has since changed in this developed idea (with myself holding the instant photos) was more powerful than reconfirming the presence of something (like in the original idea). Furthermore I felt this approach reflected the ephemerality of the image more in line with my assignment brief I’d set myself.

I also decided to use the ‘Fujifilm Instax Mini 8′ camera to give the photographs that appeared within the overall photograph some kind of instant feel to them. As my idea developed I realised that the instantaneity of the film which developed in about two minutes was not strictly necessary anymore. I could have used a much larger, non-instant film or digital camera to document the changes occurring in the city. However I decided to keep using the instant film camera because of the form factor of the images produced by the instant camera. The things I liked about the form factor of the images produced were the size and quality of image. The size was inherent in this kind of instant film camera and I felt added a kind of nostalgic character to the eventual images when the (small) instant photos appeared inside them. The nostalgic character came from the fact that they were so small with distinctive white borders which was indicative of instant photographs. Therefore they didn’t line up very well with the location that were shot in in the eventual photographs but did fit in well with the idea of the tourist culture in London. The quality of the image was quite low but I felt this added further nostalgic character to the images. If I would have taken the photographs appearing in the eventual photographs with a much better quality film and camera, the changing places would have seemed less ephemeral. This further raised questions for the viewer of how the place could be so ephemeral and what implications this might have for the photograph appearing in the place.

The location for each photograph was in the centre of London. I chose this location because with all the tourists and activity in London, the place changes very quickly and so seemed a good location to carry out the project. Also tourists I felt would be the ones using such cameras to document their time in London or another popular tourist destination so my target audience would be able to better relate to the photographs. My target audience was anyone who could relate to the ephemerality of images on social media. Furthermore my target audience was especially people who live in the same city and could associate change in the city occurring quickly too. From my perspective, taking the photographs, I felt like an insider tourist – one who had observed the often obscure ephemeral changes in the city and who wanted to document them in a similar manner.

References:

Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf [Accessed 3/3/2017].

Development of My Ideas for Assignment 2 – Documentary

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

Me:

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.

References:

Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf [Accessed 3/3/2017].

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.