Assignment 2 – First Thoughts – Unphotographable

What sort of things can be – and how could you go about portraying them in photographs?

Time – You can’t photograph time, but you can photograph representations of it

  • Clock
    Ages or Ageing

Energy – Difficult to photograph directly, but perhaps could photograph

  • Athlete
    Children playing

Feelings – How do you photograph feelings or emotions, indirectly through

  • Facial expressions
    Diary entries
    Gifts e.g. flowers with note
    Elliptically, e.g. steaming kettle for anger

Other unphotographable topics –

  • Thoughts
    Morals, morality, conscience
    Ethics, beliefs
    Dilemmas, frustrations


Possible approach to topic – choose the topic of freedom and the limits to it, how would I photograph that:

  • Freedom of speech – Speakers Corner
    Right to roam – footpath sign, perhaps ‘No entry’ sign
    Protest – protest march, St Martins Church where South African protests were based
    Mobility – freedom to cycle, drive, walk, etc., restriction of crutches or wheelchair
    Open spaces and fenced off areas
    Freedom and slavery – slavery monument, slave ship like Turner’s painting



What did I learn from this exercise?
This made me think around a topic and how to portray something obliquely, not always by an obvious association

Photographic interpretation of poems

When researching the exercise on choosing a poem and producing a photographic interpretation, I came across a book called Positives by Thom and Ander Gunn. The introduction of the book states “Thom Gumm is a poet, his brother Ander a photographer. In Positives they have joined forces to produce a book in which poetry and visual imagery are used to counterpoint and reinforce each other; and to produce between them an effect more powerful and more moving than either would on its own.”


Each page of the book has a poem on one side and a photograph on the other.


It is really interesting to study, each of the photographs is in black and white, sometimes the photographs pick up on an obvious image from the poem but on other occasions they are more of an interpretation rather than a representation.


The book is:

Gunn, T. and Gunn, A. (1966|)

Exercise: Poem

The aim of this exercise was to develop metaphorical and visceral interpretations rather than literal ones.


It requires me to select a poem and then interpret it through photographs, not a description of the poem but a response to it.


I chose the poem “The Child on the Stairs”by Moniza Alvi,

The Child on the Stairs

I hear you running up and down the stairs,

but the minute I grab hold of the banister

you turn your face the other way.

I’m convinced you’re my childhood

haunting a favourite place.

You hide from me, embarrassed,

but I was a kind of lodger in your house,

so now I can’t help recognising you,

even though you make yourself invisible.

You prowl around me when no one’s looking,

and hurry away, as from an illicit meeting.

Okay, I won’t let on I know you,

but you must also keep our secret –

this constant patter of my early footsteps

on the present-day stairs.

To me this poem is all about memories of childhood and its elusiveness.

The key words/feelings that it evoked for me were:

  • Secret
  • Childhood
  • Past in the present
  • Stairs and noise
  • Activity of childhood
  • Elusive

The poem explores evanescent feelings of times past and how they occur in the present. Images to evoke the meaning of the poem need to be adult responses to memories of childhood. I have tried to produce images that give a dream-like or transient feel in the same way as the memories are evoked in the poem. Because memories are so intangible and not always firm or clear cut I have tried to do the same with the photos so, for example, with the image of the Teddy on the stairs I chose a long shutter speed but hand held the camera to get the effect that I wanted. I used such methods or post capture processing on all of the images to try to create a more dream-like overall effect.


My photos to try to summon up the instinct of the poem are shown here:

Research Point: Sophie Calle and Sophy Rickett

Sophie Calle received an email from a lover essentially breaking off their relationship, ending with the words ‘take care of yourself’


She used this message as the core of a work of art that she created as a response to the receipt of the message. She passed on the email to over a hundred other women in a wide range of fields and then recorded their response to it. The first showing of ‘take care of yourself’ was at the Venice Biennale in 2007 where it was critically acclaimed.


It seems to me that the narrative of this work was in the vast array of reactions to the letter (including song, dance and a forensic study) and it is a feminine response to a rejection. It is far more than just photographs but a multi media response.

I also found a couple of articles by art critics at The Guardian and Frieze. There is the text of an interview with Sophie Calle at Interview Magazine.


Sophy Rickett worked for a period as an artist associated with the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. There she built a relationship with the scientist Dr Roderick Willstrop. He had designed a telescope in the 1980s and had a large number of photographic images either on negative or digitally from his research of the skies. Rickett took these images and reprocessed them putting her artistic slant on to Willstrop’s scientific photographs. Her Gallery describe how “Rickett is interested in the process of de-accessioning and the advancement of obsolescence. She uses the project to explore ideas around how meaning and interpretation can be fluid and contestable. The project tests the border between collaboration and appropriation, and explores ways of blurring the boundaries between them.”


Again this work of art does not consist solely of photographs, it includes a video and a 2000 word essay composed by the artist to consider the various aspects she confronted as part of the project.


There are the text of interviews with Sophy Rickett on Photoparley as well as on Thinking in Practice. The text of the essay is also included at The Photographers’ Gallery. There is also a review of the exhibition in London Art Reviews.


I found researching these two artists fascinating, both have appropriated something else (a message or astronomical photos) and turned them in to a work of art. Both used different media in their work and both have strong messages that are difficult to convey in other ways. Both works convey messages of emotion and concern. I particularly like the way that Rickett’s work takes existing scientific images and manipulates them to produce artistic results.


What did I learn from the exercise?

For me there were two big learning points from this research.


Firstly the original concept was stimulating, especially in Calle’s case where a message from her boyfriend breaking off their relationship spawned a work of art. In Rickett’s case it was the concept of taking the scientific photos and converting them into an art form. The big learning point is that it is not just the end result that counts, but the intention behind the work and how it was achieved.


Secondly, how both artists used photographs as part of a multi-media approach to the subject. Done well this can be very successful and enhance the images


Exercise: How does The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor

While Smith took some compelling photographs and produced a great story with Country Doctor, to me he seems more removed from the story than Briony Campbell does in The Dad Project.


Smith seems more of an observer telling the story whereas Campbell is part of the story, just as much as her father.


I think that by ‘an ending without an ending’ she means that although one part of the story (the life of her father) has come to an end, other parts of the story (her relationship with her father, the memories of the project, the feelings created by the photos) will all live on.


What did I learn from the exercise?

These were both very interesting projects in their different ways. Smith took time to integrate himself with the family before he even started taking pictures to put his subjects at ease and to ensure the images didn’t seem posed.I think I saw from this how everday scenes can be built up to form a narrative.

Campbell’s work seems as much a photo diary as anything else. My biggest learning point from this was just how involved it was for everyone, Campbell took the photos but her father was very deeply involved, Campbell was immersed in the project.


Feedback from 1st assignment

I have received feedback from my tutor on the first assignment. Generally speaking the feedback was very positive about what I had tried to achieve although maybe I could have adopted a simpler approach to the topic. He commented that series 1 photos were the weaker of the two which I agree with. In series 1 I was trying to make it obvious that one of the people had a disability and maybe I made this a bit too obvious.
He also commented that some of the images were a bit flat and that maybe I could experiment with tonal processing a bit more.
In my Learning Log I needed to make the Learning Points more of my personal reflections on what I have learned rather than just quotes from books I have read. I will rename the “Learning Point” category on my blog as “Literature Research” and will try to incorporate within it what I have learned from the particular extracts. I will also try to make what I have learned from the course a bit clearer in the write up of the exercises.


What did I learn from the feedback?

It was good to receive the positive comments on my understanding of narrative. I can see now that my photos were a little weak for the first series and I could have added a bit more variety to the images. I certainly take on board the comments about the photos being a bit flat and that I need to be more more active in processing them.

Reflections on Part 1 of the course

I am pleased now that I chose this course as the third one I have undertaken at this level. The exercises have been challenging and made me think a lot more about the image and how it comes to fruition. I think this is complementing my Art of Photography course very well and helping me to build upon it. I am already starting to think a lot more deeply about the images I want to create and how to depict subjects and themes.

The course has been my introduction to the work of Paul Seawright who I had not come across before. I was particularly taken by his work Sectarian Murders which brought home to me how photographs can make you think rather than just reveal themselves at a first, casual glance.

I have found the exercises challenging, the assignment was the hardest thing I have had to do on an OCA course so far. I have learned a lot from this first part of the course and from now on I will be thinking a lot more about how to produce images that ‘give up their meaning slowly’. I know I have used this phrase of Paul Seawright’s a lot in different blog entries – but it has really struck a chord with me.

Assignment 1: Two sides of the same story

The assignment requires you to produce two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story with 5-7 images in each set. The images have to be “candid and taken from real life”.

The two sets of images are shown below , a 300 word introduction to what I was trying to do can be found here: Assignment 1

My reflections on the Assignment can be found after the photographs.


Set 1: One of these people has a disability


Set 2: Both of these people have a disability


Comments on this assignment

I think that this was the most difficult task I have attempted in all the OCA courses that I have completed so far. Initially I found it difficult to understand the requirements of the assignment – I would come up with several ideas of how to tell the same story from two different angles – but then find that they didn’t meet the other requirements of the assignment i.e. had to be from ‘real life’. Originally I thought about doing a couple of versions of a ‘Brillo box’ – the first being the mass-produced cleaning product, the second being Andy Warhol’s production of his artwork. But I couldn’t work out a way of doing this to meet the other requirements of ‘candid shots from real life’.

In the end I decided to look at disability – both physical and mental and perhaps explore the hidden side of mental ability. In the video by Paul Seawright referred to in the course guide, he talks about photos that ‘give their meaning up slowly’ and this is what I aimed for with the second series of photos. It would have been easy to pose my mother with a leaflet on dementia or had a relevant book in the background – in fact before enrolling on this course that’s probably what I would have done in this type of exercise. Because of what I have read and tried so far in this first part of the course I decided not to go for an easy option and to make the decoding of the series a little more difficult.

I’m fairly satisfied with the result, but it is by no means my best work, certainly not technically. I am pleased with the way that Series 1 demonstrates the mobility problems of one person, but I found the representation of the effects of dementia a much greater challenge.

I’m pleased with the technical quality of some of the photos, but they aren’t all quite up to the same standard as I found the lighting conditions very challenging in a couple of locations. But then taking photos ‘candid and from real life’ presents these challenges and I have to learn to deal with them.

Were I to repeat the exercise perhaps I would choose the locations with a bit more care which would give more control over the lighting conditions. I might try to think of other ways of depicting mental health (although I put a lot of thought into this one!).

I still like the idea of the two takes on the Brillo Box theme, pity I couldn’t get a way of including candid and ‘shots from real life’ into it. I might just have a go at it myself, outside of the course requirements, just for the fun of it.

Going through this exercise has taught me a lot about how to convey messages subtly and how good images reveal their meanings slowly. My challenge from now on is to produce work that meets these criteria.




Exercise: The Real and the Digital

Images taken by a camera have always been manipulated; I remember going to see an exhibition of photographs of the royal family by Cecil Beaton. He described the care that would be taken in developing the films and how the prints would always be made to show royalty at their best, removing any imperfection. Images of Soviet Russia’s Politburo were scrutinised to see who was in and who had been airbrushed out of the photo.
I suppose the saying ‘the camera never lies’ dates from the earliest times of photography when manipulation of images was always possible, but nothing like as easy nor as comprehensive as it is today. Despite the fact that images were manipulated the general belief was always that a photograph showed things ‘as they were’.
It is only relatively recently that everyone has had the opportunity to manipulate images using apps on their mobile phones. But now it is so commonplace ‘the camera never lies’ is shown as the falsehood it has always been. People now have a much healthier distrust of images than ever before.
I don’t think that this necessarily matters so much, what is important is the context within which the image is shown. For example a photograph of a news event on the front page of a newspaper is very different to an image of a group of friends posted on a social networking site.
This does provide a real challenge for institutions such as news media, just one example of a manipulated image used to misrepresent an event could lead to considerable damage to the reputation for honesty of that organisation. I still remember the story broadcast by the BBC that the Queen was very angry after a photo shoot with Annie Liebovitz. ( and ) What was broadcast as a true story turns out to have been edited in the wrong order and the ’event’ described just did not happen. The BBC had to make a complete apology for the broadcast.
Organisations that purport to show images that represent news events need to be very specificin their requirements for the images that they use. It is why some of them are so rigorous in enforcing a ‘no manipulation of images’ rule even if it is simply adjustment to exposure etc.
Separate issues are posed to photographers who describe themselves as ‘documentary photographers’ etc. I think that Liz Wells is correct when she talks of ‘titles’ such as documentary are of little use as labels for the kind of work that is being produced.
What is important now is the image. Is it being paraded as a true representation of a particular incident or time or is it being displayed as an image that, of itself, is worth studying? In the former instance then it is vital that no manipulation of thje image has taken place. In the latter case then to me, it does not really matter how it was produced.
As David Campany is quoted in the article “Photography is what we do with it”.

Exercise: Composite image

This exercise involved using “digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually
appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be.”

I had the idea of superimposing a picture of a train or a lorry on to a river scene so that it looked as if the vehicle was travelling across the water.

I thought about the angles that I would need to take the photos from and the relative scale of the images and the train. I thought that the best option would be to take two photos, one of a river view looking down from the centre of a bridge and then one from a railway bridge looking down on a train passing below. In this way I thought that the angles and scale of the two photos would be about right.

I was lucky in that the local heritage railway had just started running steam trains for the summer, so I was able to get the photo of the train from a bridge near to where I live. I then walked the length of the River Wensum in Norwich City Centre taking photos from the different bridges. This enabled me to choose the best background to complement the photo of the train.

The final result can be seen here: Rivertrain comes to Norwich

This exercise was great fun, both in conceiving the final image and then using Photoshop to create it. I learned just how much thought has to go into preparing the final image from scale, perspective, angle of shot and weather conditions. Last year I had attended an Evening class session on how to use Photoshop – I’m really pleased that I had done that and I was able to put what I had learned to good use in this exercise.