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.


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].

Two Levels to Subjectivity?

Perhaps I have been confusing for the same thing what I perceive as the two ways a photograph can be subjective…

  • the method the subject is approached with
  • how the subject is photographed
I’ll start with the way the subject is approached. For a long time up until recently, I have simply photographed the first thing that has captured my attention. If I liked the resultant photograph I have kept that subject or type of subject in my mind for later reference. In retrospect this type of shooting does seem fairly mindless, although not if I was to produce a visual diary. A visual diary is one idea that has sprung to mind when looking back at my original approach. Another idea is basically the opposite in my mind where I have started to develop a preconceived plan of what I would like to photograph and how. This lends itself to landscape photography in particular I feel (where the photography is much more deliberate) although I have had a feeling that it could be applied to documentary too. These kind of approaches (maps or other systematic forays into the world around us with a camera) are usually biased in some way but peculiarly for me are less biased than wandering around photographing the first thing we see with a camera. I would feel this is the case because of the way our minds work (subconsciously) where with simply wandering there is always a start point and our minds are inevitably affected by aesthetic tastes as we walk around. By approaching the way the subject is photographed in a more biased way beforehand this is less true in my experience as your hand is forced somewhat, so to speak, as to what type of photographs you take. As a consequence the photographs result in being less biased and more room is left for the photographer to be subjective. This is both in the manner you see fit to instigate the photographing process and then the actual photographing process.
This leads me onto the next level of subjectivity – how the subject is photographed. For me this is the more obvious of the two. It includes photography’s history with objectivity (essentially the opposite to subjectivity) where the photograph is taken as literally as possible and how photographers and indeed viewers started to move away from this concept. This was due to the realisation that however the photograph was taken, it would invariably be subjective because it is after all an interpretation of a given scene from which the photographer has selected a framing. Subjectivity consists of any clue or marking that points to the photograph being taken by that individual. Some examples include intentional subject movement, use of shallow depth of field, low camera angles, tight framing and intimate lighting. It is possible to cancel out a lot of these subjective cues through objective, repetitive framing from a central, level viewpoint with inanimate lighting. However, the frame still remains chosen by the photographer and could be seen as an indication of a collective frame of mind by a movement of photographers instead. Therefore on the one hand there are the individual photographers who work subjectively (from which various subjective groups have been formed) to another subjective group of photographers; namely those who photograph objectively.
From these assertions I could observe four alternative ways in which I could potentially move forwards with my photography. These consisted of:
  • producing an (subjective) visual diary with a subjective way of photographing
  • producing an (subjective) visual diary with the viewpoint of the objective way of photographing
  • producing a more systematic (and therefore objective) methodology for producing work with a subjective way of photographing
  • producing a more systematic (and therefore objective) methodology for producing work with the viewpoint of the objective way of photographing
Instead of ‘just’ photographing the first thing I saw, I could produce a more objective methodology, possibly where I made an effort to start more systematically photographing a project or a place. As well as this I could start to produce a visual diary. However, whether I chose to photograph these with objective tendencies or subjectively is another matter (one that is entirely subjective!).

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.