Probing photo murk.

Tag: assignment

Twenty Minute Project

Term two of the MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography is go! Having completed my Easter project and theory essay and survived the hand in procedure and the following drinking session it’s on to the next assignment. This time we had a guest tutor, Peter Fraser. Whereas last term’s assignments were quite prosaic and left us with relatively few choices to make, Peter’s assignment was fantastically vague. He asked us to sit somewhere safe for twenty minutes with our eyes shut and once the twenty minute was up to open them and take some pictures.

He rationalized this with quite a bit of talk about the role of the subconscious in art and how this was meant to help us tap into it. Anyway I tried it a couple of times and I can’t say I felt much different after each session than I did before, or saw any appreciable difference in the photographs I took. I suppose that either means I’m already well tapped into my sub-conscious (or should that be self-conscious?) or perhaps that I was just doing it wrong. Here are a few from a session I did in my garden on Sunday.


MA: Assignment – Journey II

Got some useful guidance from my tutor about my first week’s shooting for the journey assignment, he suggested focusing in on just one aspect of the road I was walking, and pointed out that lots of the photographs I have taken seemed to relate to nature and rubbish. I decided to primarily focus on the latter subject, since it relates more directly to the theme, in that the rubbish at the sides of main roads can be seen as a sort of remnant of many journeys. Both issues feature though, and fit with other themes I’m interested in, for example the environmental impact of travel and the ways cities integrate themselves into landscapes.

For some reason my mind also kept being drawn to the titular metaphor in the Strugatsky’s novel Roadside Picnic, in which a character suggests that our attempts as human beings to comprehend the bottomless complexity of the universe (embodied in the novel by artifacts left behind by an alien visitation) are about the equivalent of the attempts of woodland animals to understand the things they find left behind by picnickers. Plastic wrappers, motor oil, a broken radio. I’ve spent the week feeling rather like a woodland animal grappling with an unknown place and in constant danger of becoming road kill, so perhaps its not an entirely fatuous thing to reference.

Anyway the result isn’t a project that remotely justifies the two weeks of shooting time I had, or even one that particularly meets the brief we were given, but just for the sake of my sanity it seemed it was better to have and submit something fully formed and not very good, than something unfinished. I think given more time invested in this you might start to find some more interesting subjects than fairly generic piles of crap. Also I did want to do something slightly abstract from the start, and part of my frustration seemed to stem from only being able to come up with fairly literal ideas so I guess I should be happy about that at least. Also I have what I think is a rather suitable title for this series:

This Is Rubbish: A406

MA: Assignment – Journey

Building on last week’s assignment, a three photo essay, this time we were sent off for two weeks to shoot a longer twelve photo story on the theme of ‘journey’. Funny how things reverse themselves, last week I had too few ideas, this time I felt like I had too many. Too many was just as problematic though and I had a hard time focusing in on just one. In the end I decided to try and walk the route of the North Circular, photographing as I went.

The North Circular is part of an inner London ring road, and stretches for about twenty three miles from near Kew gardens in the west of London, to the Woolwich ferry crossing in the east. Although the M1 is considered Britain’s first motorway, the North Circular was a proto-motorway well before the M1 was finished. Most people would normally drive along it, but I decided to walk because as someone who’s never learnt to drive I find the reliance on driving in London rather alien. Equally as an avid walker I find our unwillingness to walk more than short distances around the city rather strange, not least because it produces a rather disconnected relationship with the city. Anyway here are some images from what I’ve shot so far:

My response to the assignment: On paper this idea seemed promising, in practice it wasn’t. I’ve never been somewhere in inner London where you could walk for half an hour and not meet another person coming the other way, but the north circular is such a place. The result was a series of photographs largely devoid of people, and for that reason pretty boring. On top of that I found the walk deeply depressing and uninspiring, which undoubtedly affected the quality of the photos and my willingness to take more of them. There’s no more of a downer as a photographer than the feeling that everything you’ve taken that day is total shit.

I have another week, and a few other ideas, so hopefully either my tutor can point me in the right direction to improve this project, or give me the impetus I need to abandon it and start again. We will see…

MA: Assignment – Three Photo Story

This week’s assignment was to shoot a story in three photographs, caption them and write a 150 word introduction to them. What the story was and what sort of narrative we constructed around it was left pretty much up to us. Because of the Vietnam conference and more time than usual at work my shooting time was very limited this week, as were suitable ideas, and I ended up doing three separate stories none of which I like:


Sir John Soane was a British neo-classical architect responsible for designing iconic buildings like the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery. After his death his home in Lincoln Inn fields was made a museum by act of parliament, open to ‘amateurs and students’ of architecture. Soane’s origins were humble, his father had been a bricklayer, but his career was launched when a design of his for a triumphal bridge won a prestigious prize. It was discovered recently that the ornate frame Soane commissioned so he could display the drawings in his home had been sat in storage for nearly a century. The frame was dirty and missing much of its original decoration but after months of restoration work it was finally returned to the walls of the museum as part of a major renovation project currently taking place in the museum.

Making Marmalade

Marmalade’s origins are unknown but there are references to similar recipes dating from as far back as the Roman Empire and it is believed it was spread through Mediterranean European countries occupied by the Roman empire. Although Henry VIII is believed to have eaten it, marmalade only began to become popular in England around the seventeenth century when citrus fruits became more commonly available. Separating and then boiling the peels of these fruits with sugar releases pectin which causes the mixture to set into a jam like mixture. The large quantities of sugar in marmalade preserve the mixture by absorbing water, thus preventing molds and bacterias from surviving.

Your Time

There are believed to be around four thousand rough sleepers in London. In late 2011 a one legged man began sleeping on the steps of an abandoned furniture shop on Queens Road, Peckham. Over the following weeks he became a familiar sight to many Queen’s road locals. The shop he in front of was called ‘Your Time’ and there I’ve spoken to several people who commented that there was something remarkable about the juxtaposition between this name and the man sleeping on its steps in the bitterly cold winter weather. In early 2012 the shop front was boarded up, forcing the man forced to move on and sleep elsewhere. In response to this a number of local residents left angry messages on the hoarding of the shop.

My response to the assignment: Problem number one with this assignment was I had no good ideas for it and little time to find any. The course has only been running a little over a month but already I feel attrition has started to settle in a little and its getting harder to think of things to shoot each week. I think this is the closest I’ve come to totally failing to produce anything remotely worthwhile for an assignment. Here are a few comments about each individual story:

Rehang was actually gleaned from material shot for work, and despite that probably works better for me than the other two sets. The environment is more interesting which helps, there was more variety in action and I think the back story is rather more interesting. At the same time its not pullitzer prize winning stuff and I feel a bit like I’ve cheated by using something I had to shoot for another purpose anyway, hence my attempts to do something else as well.

Making Marmalade is just boring frankly, its two people making food, although there were one or two interesting moments they didn’t fit within the narrative which already misses out so many stages in the making process that it basically dosen’t make sense. Also irritatingly the passage of time and the change from natural to artificial light messes up any sort of narrative for me.

Your Time might as well be one photograph not three, I was caught up with the idea of trying a series of photos within each other after looking at a book of similar photographs. It might have worked better if the homeless man who it’s really about was there on one of the three occasions I went down to shoot and I could’ve talked to him more and perhaps included him in one or more of the photographs. On the other hand I suppose you could read his absence from the pictures as being what they are all about anyway. But the main point is that they’re boring.

Cult of the Conflict Photographer

I spent Friday and Saturday at a conference at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) listening to a variety of academics and journalists discussing the legacy of the Vietnam War. The topics were diverse, but one that came frustratingly close to surfacing but which didn’t quite make it into the open was the issue of the hero worship often afforded to war photographers, a sort of cult of the conflict photographer. Don McCullin, who was one of the speakers at the conference, is a good example of this. His photographs are incredible, but they are only half the story for many of his admirers. The man himself is arguably as important as the images and latterly the issues they depict. As if to demonstrate this at the end of his appearance he was swamped by eager fans and scalp hunters, after his autograph or a quick photo with the great man.

A good example of this cult is in Shaped by War, the IWM’s current retrospective of McCullins career. The exhibition is scattered with his possessions, including a helmet and combat boots, and a Nikon F camera hit by a sniper’s bullet in Cambodia. These objects have little or nothing to do with photography, but I’d argue they are part of the mystique of the photographer who owns them, and function in in a similar way to Catholic relics. They are insignificant objects gifted significance simply by virtue of their ownership. I don’t wish to pick on McCullin, who I actually rather admire (in fact I suspect he might well be someone who would prefer to be without this attention as evidenced by his dismissal of the ‘war photographer’ label). By contrast some photographers actively set out to cultivate this popularity. Robert Capa’s career was an exercise in legend building. Slightly Out Of Focus his memoir of the second world war is as much about creating a Robert Capa myth as it is about recounting his experiences in Europe.

How and why has this cult emerged, and what is the significance of it? Perhaps journalists are easier to idolise than the troops who fight wars. Soldiers form a depersonalised mass, with individuals rarely standing out from the army as a whole. In the past individual soldiers were often publicized for displaying positive qualities that their commanders wished to promote, for example the Soviet Sniper Vassilly Zaytsev. Today the public are perhaps too savvy to accept such obvious attempts to manipulate our feelings, and not ideologically partisan enough to accept individual achievements like ‘fifty enemies killed’ as meritorious. Soldiers as a group are instead often seen as complicit in the brutality of war, whether it be violence visited on an opposing force or on civilians. Journalists by contrast reveal this legitimate or illegitimate brutality, none more so than the photographer who must bravely be in close proximity to these events in order to record and report them. To borrow a line from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the photographer must be really ‘in the shit’.

Many of the hero worshiped photographers also fit into a popular tradition, the ‘live fast, die young’ profile of James Dean, or more recently many popular musicians, for relevancy to the Vietnam War say Jimmy Hendrix. War photographers live hard and on the edge, in the sense of choosing to cover grueling, dangerous events that most people would run a mile from. Consequently many suffer post-traumatic stress disorders, and, at least according to popular culture, some mitigate this with excessive drinking and drug taking. As an example take Dennis Hopper’s crazed photojournalist in Apocalypse Now. Whether this perception is borne out by reality is almost irrelevant, its the belief in it rather than the reality that matters. This combined with a sense of the wasted talent of those war photographers killed doing their job produces an attractive, romantic fatalism about the profession that has again little or nothing to do with the photographs it produces, but is all about the people who produce them.

So does this cult really matter at all? Arguably yes, as I began to suggest in the previous paragraph I think that as long as we blindly idolise the profession and focus heavily on the individuals involved we aren’t going to be able to properly engage with what matters most, the product and the manner of its production. War photography is vastly problematic, the fact that photographers shoot frames rather than bullets does not mean they aren’t able to be complicit in the events they are photographing, particularly when they work in close cooperation with a military force, something which is increasingly the norm. War photography can easily verge on being a form of journalistic imperialism, today more than ever. In Vietnam you could perhaps make the argument that these photographers justifiably documented a conflict that few Vietnamese had the resources to. With the proliferation of image making devices and data distribution networks even in undeveloped countries I think today we have to ask ourselves as professionals if it is better for us to defer to occupants of conflict zones in the production of war images. It’s outdated to believe that we must travel around the world to produce these definitive images on behalf of the people to whom these events are actually happening.

On another level one can argue that it doesn’t matter at all, because the type of photographer who is hero-worshiped is a dying breed. One of the speakers at the conference, veteran journalist Philip Knightley, made the point that the days of the wandering combat correspondent who goes where he wishes and reports what he wants are over. Governments are too aware of the effect the media can have on public opinion, and journalists are also now often seen as fair targets by enemy forces. The reciprocal relationship of embedding is far less romantic than the free roaming photographer of the Vietnam era, but it is increasingly vital, and needn’t necessarily mean inferior journalism, just a different journalism. So the traditional war photographer may become extinct because the environment in he existed is gone, and like a teenage fascination with an increasingly prehistoric rock band, the cult will perhaps also disappear over time.

(photo montages courtesy of Michael Home)

MA: Assignment – Enviromental Portrait

This weeks assignment was environmental portraiture, the idea of which is to say something about your subject using the environment they are in. Here are a couple of faves from each one:

Michael Craig-Martin (artist and teacher)

Julie (ninety years old, walks on Hampstead heath more or less every day and has done for sixty years)

Mina Stevens (artist)

My response to the assignment: The first thing you’ll probably notice about these is I shot them on colour for a change. I felt colour was a requirement for this assignment simply to separate out subjects and environments a little, and also because I knew colour would be a very important feature in the artwork of one of my four subjects. I hadn’t shot any in the Rollei up to this point either and felt it was something that was overdue. I can’t say I’m overjoyed with the results but that probably reflects my total lack of knowledge of colour neg scanning more than anything else.

As to the actual shoots, they were OK if rather rushed and lacking in inspiration. In most cases I had about five minutes to decide what I wanted to do and get on to shooting. I found it much harder to take a photograph I was happy with than last week, perhaps because the added background elements make for a bit of a compositional nightmare in many of these shoots. Also for some reason my focusing seems to have gone west on many of these, possibly because I was further from my subjects and found it harder to tell when I had achieved focus, possibly just because I was distracted with trying to figure out what to do with each shoot while chatting in a vain attempt to keep my subjects a little bit relaxed while I worked.

MA: Assignment – Formal Portrait

Another week, another assignment, this time formal portraits. Our tutor suggested this might be the hardest yet, at least in the sense that because everything is theoretically within our control during the shoot. I struggled with that, controlling myself and a camera is already too much, anyway here are a couple of favorites from each shoot:

Danny Abse (doctor and poet)

Vaughan Smith (freelance cameraman and filmmaker, Frontline Club founder and Julian Assange’s host while he is under house arrest pending extradition from the UK)

Alex Jennings (screen and stage actor, currently starring in Collaborators at the National Theatre)

My response to the assignment: Once again just organising the shoots was tricky. This was my own fault as I decided I wanted to photograph public figures, specifically people I’d like in my portfolio anyway because they interested me for one reason or another. I drew up a short list, did some research, sent lots of e-mails and made quite a few phone calls, and by Sunday evening I had quite a few maybes but nothing definite. Monday morning was spent drinking lots of coffee, worrying and chasing people up. Fortunately by mid morning I had three shoots organised and one day left to do them in. One of my subjects I already knew pretty well, which helped.

To make life a bit more troublesome I also decided to return to the Rolleiflex for this week. My reasons for doing so were that the work of Dimitri Kasterine and Ida Karr kept coming to mind while I was thinking about how to take these photos. Both used a Rolleiflex to great effect, Kasterine advocated a Rollei because it allows you to take photographs quite surreptitiously, before your subject can assume the public mask that all well known people seem to have. See his pictures of Dirk Bogarde, David Niven and others to see what I mean. I’m not good enough to manage this, but its something to aspire to. Karr on the other hand was I think was a real master of the square format, as well as being an incredible environmental portraitist. More on her next week probably.

I used natural light throughout apart from the Jennings shoot, which relied on the light from his dressing room table. I think it suffered for this unfortunately, perhaps I’ll get a chance to reshoot with him in better light. I struggled with the direction aspect of all three shoots, tending to focus instead on chatting to my subjects in an attempt to relax them. I don’t like making people perform for me, but I understand its probably a vital skill to be able to communicate what you want and get people to do it. Anyway it was once again a great, if at times slightly demoralising, learning experience.

MA: Assignment – Relationships

Our third assignment, and in my opinion the toughest yet, was to photograph three relationships between two people. After lots of failed attempts to organise shoots and work my way into interesting situations I ended up photographing several subjects rather close to home. My uncle and aunt who have a long distance relationship with their eldest son who lives in South Africa, Thai boxers (one of whom I know) training with their trainers, and an elderly lady and her carer. With the photos from the last shoot I don’t feel comfortable publishing these at present so I’ve blurred the images:

Long Distance Relationship

Kickboxers Training

Caring for the Elderly

My response to the assignment: Once again this assignment was tougher than the last. It was one with enormous potential to get some really interesting pictures of people, but I found the time limit really difficult to work within. John, our tutor, had showed us several great photos during the briefing to get us thinking, but most of them seemed to have been shot as part of long term projects where the photographer had been able to work his or her way into a situation, rather than being shot in a week. Anyway I e-mailed, phoned and spoke to lots of people, many said no, those that said yes almost all did so with the caveat that it couldn’t be this week. By Sunday afternoon I had exhausted pretty much all my ideas, was feeling fairly depressed about the whole thing and had nothing to show for it.

In the end I had to fall back on people I knew to varying degrees. The first was my uncle and aunt, I thought the long distance angle might be an alternative take on the theme, since its non-physical and tricky to picture. In the end the photographs are almost as much about their relationship as their relationship with their son. Second I photographed the frail mother of a family friend with her carer. I wasn’t particularly comfortable doing this one, it definitely posed some difficult ethical questions I’ll have to think over. Lastly I arranged to photograph at a kick boxing gym, initially thinking I’d go for anger, albeit in a controlled situation, actually the photographs ended up mainly focusing on a technique called pinching where two fighters grapple with each other. On camera it looks really interesting, halfway between a fight and an embrace, and its definitely something I’m going to revist as a subject especially since my photos from that evening aren’t brilliant.

MA: Assignment – Street

For our second assignment thirty LCC masters students were let loose on London with the brief to go and take some street photography style photos. I somewhat rashly decided to shoot it with my Rolleiflex, for several reasons I won’t go into here. I ended up shooting about nine films, or just over a hundred images. It was both a pain and a pleasure to do, I’ve just finished scanning the negs (pain) and here are a few I liked at first glance (note these have been cropped and lightly edited, the ones I’ll be presenting tomorrow are straight from the scanner):

My response to the assignment: Although I understand the value of engaging in this type of photography as a learning excercise, I’ve got admit I really dislike many things about it as a genre. If you want to talk about doing photography for photography’s sake alone that’s fine, but I don’t buy into some of the purist dogma you often hear about street photography that suggests that photographing subjects covertly or by suprise, and without their consent necessarily results in pictures with more meaning or value than ones taken with the subjects implicit or explicit agreement. For a while I considered doing this entire assignment as a massive setup in a similar style to many of the photographs in Phillip-Lorca diCorcia’s Storybook Life, i.e persuading people I know (or people I didn’t) to pose in apparently spontaneous street style scenes, purely so I could see what reaction I would get to the photographs from people who didn’t realise they were, to be blunt, faked.

Amongst the photographers who’s work we looked at during the assignment briefing was Bruce Gilden, who’s style of street photography basically consists of shoving a flash in his subject’s faces and then photographing their reactions. Maybe it says more about me than anything but I find this sort of thing really unpleasant. I was very concious of trying to make myself as invisible as possible while shooting this project, not so much to avoid interferring with the scene, but more because I really dislike the idea of needlessly bothering or distressing people going about their lives, lives I know nothing about. Extreme example, but imagine being recently bereaved, travelling home and having a photographer ram a camera in your face. Anyway I’ve ranted before about this, and I can sense this post is becoming incoherent beyond repair, so I’ll leave it at that for now.