Study Hangout – 6th May 2018

Today I attended a very informative and for me productive study hangout comprised of three attendees. We were myself, Bryn and Anne and it was informative because we were all at similar stages of the Documentary module although Bryn and Anne were slightly ahead so I could gain some insight into how they were preparing for assessment and finalising their blogs.

We talked in depth concerning each others assignments; particularly Assignment 5 which I have nearly completed and Bryn and Anne had completed and were reworking/amending. I mentioned I was now much more comfortable with the direction my Assignment 5 was heading and was nearly complete.

Both Bryn and Anne were feeling positive about their Assignment 5’s; Bryn’s assignment Experiencing Space consisted of taking on the self-initiated task of completing a project within a one-day time frame. He’d prepared extensively for this one day so that he could document his experiential and contemplative visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to see the work of James Turrell’s Deer Shelter Skyspace (2018). I liked the way the whole integration of photography and behind the scenes video worked together to form Bryn’s experience of the day. In terms of the photography I liked the progression from day to night and how it transformed the Skyspace. Here Bryn’s choice of black and white for me accentuated the interesting compositions he found in the Skyspace.

Anne had been completing her Assignment 5 Accident on the Line which was based in the Gloucester Docks as well as reworking other assignments and posts. She was pleased with the eventual outcome and I felt she had produced a well-researched and intriguing project which provided a very different perspective on the docks she is familiar with. Anne did have to make several decisions on the production of her book but it seemed she was satisfied with these decisions in her final version of the book.

In terms of preparing for assessment, Bryn and Anne’s approaches contrasted somewhat. On the one hand Bryn was a fan of letting the assessors see how his study workflow had developed from Assignment 1 all the way to Assignment 5. He felt Assignment 5 and the work leading up to it was a much more cohesive way of working but wanted it to be obvious how much it had come on as his ideas and methods for conceptualisation and research had matured. On the other hand Anne also wanted to the development to be obvious but had a different style of making this apparent. Here she reworked certain posts or exercises or assignments and kept the original so it was possible to compare and contrast the original with the rework to see how it had improved. Of course Bryn reworked some assignments also and kept the originals so they shared some aspects of reworking style. For my own preparation I could foresee myself working in a hybrid of both these styles. I would be reworking the assignments in separate blog posts while keeping the originals like Anne. Meanwhile I would be leaving the exercises and research so the development in how I documented my experience of the Documentary course was obvious.

While talking about my Assignment 5 so far, one of the points we brought up was the issue of ethics surrounding photographing strangers. Bryn was quite adamant about not photographing strangers as a matter of principle unless they were a small figure used for scale appreciation within a landscape. The other occasion he would be okay with photographing people would be if he had their permission and was on a commissioned project. Anne was of the same opinion concerning the latter occasion; she would always ask a person their permission for a portrait and basically do the opposite of someone like Bruce Gilden. This prompted an interesting comparison of the styles and ethics of Bruce Gilden, Sebastião Salgado and Martin Parr. On one side of the fence there was the work of Bruce Gilden, who obviously doesn’t care about ethics when photographing people. Also his style is very crass, often making people appear less beautiful than they look ordinarily. Martin Parr followed close behind in regards to ethics and style although he works in a less brash way. His work has often been a kind of caricature of British life and so for me there was more vindication for photographing like this. On the other side of the fence was Sebastião Salgado’s photography which aims to bring out humanistic sides to people in his photographs and he works closely with the people in the photographs to produce the photographs he does.

© Martin Parr (1985) Holidaymakers Queuing for Ice Creams - The Last Resort
© Martin Parr (1985) Holidaymakers Queuing for Ice Creams – The Last Resort

I discussed with Anne and Bryn during this debate about these three photographers that I sometimes felt intrusive when producing my Assignment 5 as I had photographed strangers without their permission. My saving graces though were that the tourists were either from a middle distance so that they appeared relatively distant in the frame or the smartphones they were holding to take their photos/selfies were covering their faces. Therefore I felt quite comfortable with the ethical side to my project even though the style of photography was closest to Martin Parr out of the three photographers mentioned above.

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Development of Assignment 5 – Documentary

I have been preparing for Assignment 5 by reading the brief and making a mind map as suggested while reading Behind the Image – (Fox and Caruana, 2012). I found this experience extremely useful in formulating ideas and structuring which were the most important issues to consider surrounding the project.

Mind Map Created for Assignment 5
Mind Map Created for Assignment 5

My basic idea I arrived at was I would be taking a spoof tourist role, documenting my experience in the city from the perspective of a tourist in London, with myself falling for the usual tourist traps and hotspots/landmarks that a usual tourist would but with twists in the photos used to document this act. The twists would be present in order for the viewer to be able to discern it was a spoof tourist role I was taking. The problem I could foresee with this was getting the spoof aspect to be obvious enough that the viewer could discern this was a parody.

I have felt sometimes my work when it is formed from theoretical ideas to practical photographs lacks subtlety. I would like to veer away from this trend but I’ve found it really hard to do for the conceptualisation of this project, perhaps because tourism and photography are intrinsically linked and tourism has many crude traits. One solution to this problem would be to embrace the crudeness although photographers like Martin Parr with Small World (Parr, 1995) have already thought of this. My approaches include photographing with my main camera through the ‘viewfinder’ of my smartphone the shots a tourist might take. This introduces a (crude) first-person perspective to my photographs, is it subjective though? Also if I was in the first-person would I mimic being a tourist or a voyeur of tourists, i.e. am I looking through a viewfinder that is first or third person and simulating the experience or observing the experience?

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos (1990) ITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From 'Small World'
© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos (1990) ITALY. Pisa. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From ‘Small World’

Another approach, in order to negate the difficulty of just imitating Martin Parr etc and photographing tourists in their natural habitat, would be to photograph my local area from the standpoint of a tourist, embracing the vernacular of the tourist aesthetic to make it obvious I’m a tourist. However, I could perhaps offer insight into some of the less obvious spaces of my local area. The difficulty with this is that most of the tourist photos I see are selfies and achieving a series of shots where the selfie doesn’t just look like someone taking a usual selfie is challenging.

I looked back at why it was I wanted to take the role of the spoof tourist and one reason was the repetitive nature of the tourist activity really interests me; the fact that there are loads of tourists but often they partake in the same or similar experiences. Therefore I considered doing the same-ish shot of a tourist taking a picture of a landmark but with a different tourist each time multiple times. Then do this with a set of the most famous landmarks which would explore the souvenir of the experience the average tourist often feels they want to take away with them also.

References:

Caruana, N. and Fox, A. (2012). Behind the Image. 1st ed. Lausanne: AVA Publishing, pp.28-29.

Parr, M. (1995). Small World – Magnum Photos. [online] Pro.magnumphotos.com. Available at: http://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53G7RT3 [Accessed 29 Apr. 2018].

Cruel and Tender Exhibition

The ‘Photographic ‘truth’’ section of the Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph (2003) exhibition’s Teacher’s Pack summed up nicely some notions about truth in photography. It addressed some issues I had been contemplating recently: ‘What we see in a photograph is always the result of a choice the photographer has made as he or she edits and sifts through the world around.’ – (Tate.org.uk, 2003) being a prime example. Documentary photographers can’t on their own cover everything in the world at any one time so of course it is subjective the information they seek and put forwards in their photographs. The way they put forwards this information in the photographs is subjective too. Because each photographer has varying interests and learned experiences in the world they approach photographing it differently. This thought has been conceived by myself before in: Two Levels to Subjectivity?.

It also raised questions over: ‘How can its [the photographic print] flatness ever make a true representation of a complex, three-dimensional scene?’ – (Tate.org.uk, 2003). The Teacher’s Pack didn’t answer this question directly; however it did get me thinking of how the 2-d shape of the photographic print medium could possibly be used to create a 3-d space. My mind wandered to the work of Tom Hunter’s (1993-1994) 3-d model project: \‘The Ghetto\’, street.’. Here he cleverly used 2-d photographs in a 3-d miniature space from the perspective of someone from the outside looking in, which lent perfectly to the photograph’s flatness. It made me wonder about how sculpture and photograph can intertwine and implementing this in my own work.

© Robert Heinecken (1966) Figure Sections/(Multiple Solution Puzzle)
© Robert Heinecken (1966) Figure Sections/(Multiple Solution Puzzle)

I performed a search on a search engine and found the exhibition Photography into Sculpture (1970) in the Museum of Modern Art. One of the first artists I looked at who featured in this exhibition was Robert Heinecken and he used photographs in sculptures which were then seemingly incidentally photographed. I liked the way the photographs were still clearly discernible but yet part of a bigger picture (or puzzle in this case). The puzzle was a sculpture which cleverly had multiple ways for it to be solved or viewed at (or photographed from). This was open to viewer interpretation which I liked and it also made me ponder on whether the artist had intended for the sculpture to be viewed in a certain way when he made it. Therefore the manner the sculpture was photographed (one edge of the sculpture facing towards the viewer so two sides were visible) intrigued me. Obviously in the exhibition you would be able to see the sculpture from all four sides but in the photograph you were more limited which is true of most photographic framing. This goes back to subjectivity in a photograph, the photographer has to make a choice (subconsciously or not) how to frame their subject.

© Fazal Sheikh (1993) Alima Hassan Abdullai and her brother Mahmoud, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1993, from the series A Camel for the Son
© Fazal Sheikh (1993) Alima Hassan Abdullai and her brother Mahmoud, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1993, from the series A Camel for the Son

A way to add extra information to inform the viewer is to contextualise the work through the use of text. Many documentary photographers have traditionally used captions or supporting texts for their photographs/projects. Fazal Sheikh takes this a step further by ‘recording all the information concerning the person photographed, time, place and other information, but also in the way he displays and organises the methods of distribution for his books which benefit human rights agencies’. This kind of comprehensive text contextualisation is clearly a conscious decision by the photographer to aid the viewer in their understanding of the photograph/project. I would say this methodology works for certain subjects. The subjects Sheikh decided to commit to for one of his projects in a Somali refugee camp for instance, benefited from this recording of extraneous information other than ‘just’ the photograph. This was because in my opinion the people depicted gained extra status for the reader of the photograph’s gaze. The dignified way the photographs were taken also added credence to the fact the refugees were real people but who had suffered worse than other people.

The Teacher’s Pack compares Fazal Sheikh’s way of working with Martin Parr’s work (like The Last Resort (1983-5)) and I thought this was an apt comparison. Parr often gives less respect to his subjects; photographing them satirically and captioning them minimally. I would suggest both projects work but in different ways. Sheikh treats his subjects respectfully and with dignity and presents them in a serious manner, for the reason it is a serious project. Parr on the other hand lets his photographs speak for themselves, as good humour doesn’t need explaining. There is a more serious edge to the images though as they tend to depict the more rundown sides to the beaches of Brighton in that time.

References:

Heinecken, R. (1966). Figure Sections/(Multiple Solution Puzzle). [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://news.artnet.com/market/aipad-still-beautifully-unsettling-after-all-these-years-10075 [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Hunter, T. (1993-94). \‘The Ghetto\’, street.’. [online] Available at: http://www.tomhunter.org/the-ghetto-street-2/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Parr, M (1983-5). The Last Resort. [online] Pro.magnumphotos.com. Available at: http://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYDYDHEB9 [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Photography into Sculpture (1970). The Museum of Modern Art [Exhibition] April 8–July 5, 1970.

Sheikh, F. (1993). Alima Hassan Abdullai and her brother Mahmoud, Somali refugee camp, Mandera, Kenya, 1993, from the series A Camel for the Son. [Photograph] Retrieved from: https://303magazine.com/2017/08/common-ground-dam-fazalsheikh/ [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].

Tate.org.uk (2003). Teacher’s Pack – Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. [online] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/download/file/fid/6437 [Accessed 5 Mar. 2018].