Positions and Practice

Rubbish & Recycling: Reflection on a Mini-Project

The end of module 1 sees us facing a blank abyss of teaching-free time, time that I’d secretly hoped to fill with back to back Mad Men episodes.

Don Draper thinking about lying down on his sofa in   Mad Men

Don Draper thinking about lying down on his sofa in Mad Men

Now this was possibly just because I’d forgotten how appealing it was to imagine a world where I could spend the majority of my working day lying down on a sofa, but it was mainly because I’d found the process of preparing the end of module assignments really gruelling. So I was looking forward to the mental break. 

The week 13 work was mercifully light, with a teaser for module 2 and an introduction to the photographic work of Ed Ruscha, an artist I’ve been inspired by since visiting his retrospective at the Hayward Gallery back in 2009.

The week ended with a challenge, a mini project to produce a series of images as a small book in response to Ruscha’s books.

Ed Ruscha, shot by   Hedi Slimane, 2009

Ed Ruscha, shot by Hedi Slimane, 2009

This activity instantly fired my imagination...I love the literality of Ruscha’s photographs, how lacking in self-consciousness they appear.

He seems to take an almost disinterested look at his subject, presenting it simply as it is, with no additional photographic angle added.

He’s not trying to romanticise or polemicise, he’s just showing stuff and the rest is up to the viewer. 

His various interviews over the years seem to support this idea, of photography as something he uses simply as a tool to do a job. 

But I remember seeing some big prints of his aerial car park images at the Constructing Worlds exhibition a few years back and being really astonished by the beauty and visual interest he’d managed to extract from such an apparently mundane subject. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’m totally buying his total nonchalance about photography, but whatever the case I was looking forward to getting into this activity.

I considered a few different ideas, initially planning to shoot car parks (I’ve always been interested in them), then thought about shooting old cars. 

Around about this time we received our assignment feedback, which I found pretty deflating, so with the words of Don Draper ringing in my ears I decided I really needed to do something different for this project, just to mix things up and shake it off. 


I ended up shooting rubbish! 

As I walked around my neighbourhood I was struck by how much stuff people just dump on the streets. I’d never quite appreciated this before and having left my house in search of old bangers I turned to shooting bins and urban debris.

I’d already decided I was going to be shooting exclusively during the day as a departure from my usual practice. In response to Ruscha’s work I wanted to shoot in a nimble, ‘artless’ manner. This also seemed appropriate for the subject matter. So all images would be made using my phone. 

I’d been wanting to experiment with making a book and had in fact included this in my project proposal. I’d only recently realised I could make books via Lightroom, so decided this would be a good chance to get my head around that as well. So the brief was set, I was going to shoot rubbish on the streets with my phone and create a book using Lightroom. 

This process was really interesting and enjoyable. I enjoyed just walking round my local area, something I never usually do, and my wandering took me to places I’ve not seen before. I enjoyed the process of just being observant during the daytime, really taking in my environment. Maybe everything interesting doesn’t happen at night after all! 

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Contrary to my usual practice, I walked around listening to music, casually snapping away whenever I came across something that was interesting. I was much less concerned with line, light or composition and just made photos in each case and moved on. I found this quite liberating too, with less ‘riding’ on each shot.
In keeping with the subject matter, final image selection was not especially discerning and the edits in Lightroom were minimal (again, in contrast to my usual practice) and then I moved on to putting the book together. One of the unavoidable conclusions from walking around shooting was that we’ve got too much stuff. There’s so much stuff just discarded, unceremoniously chucked out, its fate unknown – nobody seems to care that we’re polluting our own neighbourhoods just to get rid of the things we don’t want any more. It’s nuts! 

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This conclusion influenced the way I approached the book. I’d taken these simple iPhone photographs of rubbish. It seemed nonsensical to produce a glossy archival hardback book of these photos. Equally, I can’t ignore the fact that whatever I produce is likely to end up contributing to the pile of crap on the pavement at some point in the future, so I felt that a small simple book with images on basic paper, with soft cover, would be the way forward.

Rubbish & Recycling in East London
Rubbish & ...
By Justin Carey
Photo book

Since producing the book, I’ve thought about how these images might be better displayed in a more congruent way. On one hand there’s the ironic angle where the book is presented with lots of packaging in a big cardboard box filled with crepe paper and an accompanying essay about the evils of modern capitalism and consumer culture. Almost like rubbish as a collectible. On the other hand, it seems wrong to produce a book at all. A book of rubbish photos about rubbish is destined for only one place…so why do it?

I have thus resolved to create a digital display of the images with an accompanying statement that hopefully explains the rationale behind the decision to display them in this way and the idea underpinning the project.

I feel like there’s more in this project and will have more to say in due course.

Positions and Practice: Week 12 Reflection

This week saw the submission of the two final assignments for this module, a project proposal and accompanying work in progress (WIP) portfolio. The production of this work has been quite a traumatic, but ultimately very enlightening process that will be formative for everything else that I produce moving forward on this course.
The difficulties approaching this work were largely due to a lack of structure in my thinking and in the approach to my own work. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve not really had any kind of ‘practice’ to speak of before starting this course, which should have probably been a clue that struggling through the ‘Positions and Practice’ module was a possibility! 

Project Proposal front page

Project Proposal front page

For a number of reasons I found the task of delineating a question for the proposal, explaining why it was important and proposing how my practice would be equipped to examine it unbelievably hard. Some of the reasons were bound up in my own perceptions of what a photographer is, some were a result of my sporadic practical work which in some ways inhibits creativity, while I also just felt ill-prepared for this sort of academic challenge having not previously had to write any such document.

s the deadline approached, it seemed to get harder and harder to narrow things down into a coherent idea and while all my time seemed to be taken up trying to do this, the production of practical work also suffered. My head was throbbing with pressure, and nobody ever produced anything interesting with a throbbing head! 

Speaking about the difficulties is kind of redundant now though, as the deadline passed and the work was submitted. What is useful, is to outline some of the lessons I’ve learnt from the process. 

Forgive me for introducing these in bullet-point format, it just seems kind of appropriate (nothing like a good bullet-point to make it seem like you’ve got something sensible to say!).

Proposal Lessons:

  • The act of writing a proposal is useful in itself, helping to shape up vague ideas and obliging you to flesh them out, structure them and consider how you can actually make them come to life.
  • If you can’t sell your idea, then no-one should be expected to buy it.
  • Being able to articulate what you want to get out of the work is not a bad thing. It’s not something to shy away from or be coy about.
  • Writing a proposal is a bit like a contract and a road map. In the case of these personal projects, it’s really a commitment to myself to continue working at this idea, and now I have the beginnings of a clear direction to take with the work and an idea of where I’d like to end up. None of these would have been present without writing the proposal and I have never approached making images in this way before.
  • Opening up one’s work and ideas to external scrutiny is incredibly valuable. It’s definitely daunting, but also a tool for genuine epiphanies and growth.
A draft image that didn't make the final WIP portfolio

A draft image that didn't make the final WIP portfolio

  • I have to give my work attention and the room it needs to develop. By that I mean I need to take my practice seriously. The clue really is in the name ‘practice’! I found that in the final week approaching the deadline, the act of getting out and making photographs really helped to explore and solidify some ideas, while also throwing up other ideas that I intend to explore now that the looming deadline is out of the way. I’ve spent a lot of time in this first module reading and researching, but one of the key lessons I will take away from module one is the need to put as much focus on visual research too. It really pushes the work forward. I also have to thank my classmates Chris Chucas and Rita Rodner for proving to be great examples of this in their own work throughout the last few weeks. Ultimately you need to ‘make the work and get it out there, because otherwise it’s just in your head and that’s not a good place for it to be’ as the esteemed Dr Wendy McMurdo herself would say. This is a massive lesson learned in the production of the proposal and WIP portfolio.
  • The possibilities for your work are almost limitless once you stop to really think about it. It’s important to be open to the work of other artists, to be willing to soak up ideas and to be open to collaborating with other practitioners.

Meeting the challenge of adapting to this course and the mindset required has been difficult but also great fun. I’m so glad that I decided to do this, and I’m keen to reflect on this module and put the lessons into practice. 

Positions and Practice: Week 11 Reflection

The work during week 11 sharpened the focus on the forthcoming project proposal. The webinar was an opportunity for a group therapy session where we all expressed our growing anxiety and uncertainty about the assignment. Gary, our tutor, challenged us to consider who the audience is for the work we’re proposing to create in the weeks and months ahead.
Now, I haven’t previously given much thought to the identity and needs of the audience (I know that’s not the first time you’ve heard me say that during this module!) and there were certainly some heated discussions amongst the group, with some arguing that they’d rather create work to satisfy themselves rather than aiming to serve an audience at all. I was of the same view to begin with, but having considered things further I have to concede the importance of considering who my audience might be, and how best to reach them with my work. To ignore the audience entirely seems disingenuous, engaged as we are in this effort to create photographic work of a high standard, which none of us are intending to keep solely to ourselves. So, we must therefore concede something to the audience. After putting great effort into creating the work it seems logical to try and expose this it to as many people as possible in the way that it can be received in its best possible light. Only once you’ve accepted the need to acknowledge the audience can you identify it and position your work accordingly. 

A draft image for the 'work in progress' portfolio

A draft image for the 'work in progress' portfolio

Gary reassured us that not being able to identify the audience at this early stage is ok, as long as we keep this in mind as a target for the medium to long term, and certainly by the time we come to plan our final projects at the end of this MA. For me, thinking about audience is all part of the necessary change in mindset that I’ve been challenged to make since starting this course. Till now I’ve just taken photographs, with no real intention to speak of. For sure there have been themes that I’ve tended to return to, and I have found fragments of audience here and there, but this has happened without any forethought or strategy. I am starting to look at the process of putting this proposal together as a really important exercise in structuring and sharpening up my thoughts on my work and it’s really forcing me to take a critical approach to my own practice. This can only be beneficial, and once you view the proposal in this light it suddenly seems like a great opportunity rather than an incredibly daunting task that I’m not equipped to complete.
As I start to set down draft thoughts for the proposal, I’m finding that the best way to approach things is to try to answer specific questions rather than trying to shape these vast themes into a coherent argument. How on earth do you neatly summarise ‘urban solitude’? It’s basically impossible! Questions like ‘what am I trying to say?’, ‘what do I want the outcomes to be?’ help me to drill down to the crux of the topic and make things more manageable. I now feel more certain that I’ll be able to articulate my thoughts, at least in a preliminary way, in time to submit the proposal and can then build on it moving forward. I’m sure shooting more will also help to refine my ideas, and that’s something I must place more emphasis on as this module fades into the next.

Positions and Practice: Week 10 Reflection

Week 10 was for me more like week 12 or 13! As I mentioned previously, I’d gotten into a study deficit due to the dual demands of the MA and my actual job, which meant I got round to the work for week 10 a little late. As always, it’s only a couple of weeks after the fact that I seem able to properly contextualise what I learnt during that week, as the dust settles and the information gradually seeps into the cracks in my mind where the weeds of new thought will no doubt eventually grow.
I write this having just recently finished reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.

Barthes photographed by   Henri Cartier-Bresson  , 1963.

Barthes photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1963.

Here we have a writer, who starts his critical appraisal by admitting that he doesn’t really take photographs, setting out to identify what Photography is ‘in itself’. He argues at length for the particular qualities that make certain images stand out above others, the aspects that attract and retain his attention and provoke an emotional reaction. He seems to conclude that without these special qualities (the ‘punctum’) the image can only ever be appreciated on a technical or cultural level (the ‘studium’) but will not be truly memorable. 

A large part of his thesis is based on an image of his late mother in her childhood. He talks about this photograph at length, returning to it and its qualities often. The book contains a number of photographs that he uses for illustrative purposes, but Barthes chooses not to include the image of his mother that he refers to repeatedly, arguing that it cannot possibly have the same significance to the reader as it does to him so there’s no point including it. 

For me this book encapsulated a lot of what annoys me about critical theory and how almost intentionally opaque it can be. Photographs are everywhere. Their reach is limitless. Their potential audience is absolutely global, transcending geographical, cultural, ethnic and economic boundaries. Yet, the discourse in which these images are discussed is often conducted amongst somewhat self-satisfied academics who are almost exclusively Western, wealthy, male and white. The language used is almost designed to obfuscate, to exclude people who aren’t in the club from being able to have an opinion. Because if you can’t speak in terms that the academics will understand, or if you lack the intellectual arrogance to simply invent language to support your argument, you do not have a voice in this debate and your contribution is invalid. 

Of course, Barthes’ work is considered a seminal text in the study of photographic practice, and I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely. It seems to me though, that the intrinsically democratic nature of photography obliges those who partake in critical appraisal of the medium to reflect that in their analysis. They should seek to elucidate, opening doors of understanding, rather than obscure the art and make the practice of photography seem like a more mysterious and less attainable thing. This is something that is increasingly getting on my nerves.
One of the tasks for this week’s reflection was to consider the relevance of critical theory to my own practice. I’m afraid to say that I don’t see any significant link between some of the high-minded elitist claptrap masquerading as photographic theory and the reasons why I take photographs. I appreciate there may be irony for some in the very fact that I am writing, critically, about this book and critical theory in general, in a way that many may find in itself inaccessible. For that I can only apologise.
I believe strongly that photography is a versatile art form. I believe that the analysis of this practice is important and can be beneficial for those who undertake it (hence me doing an MA). But I also strongly believe that those ‘in the know’ should strive to be as inclusive as possible in their analysis, to widen access to this beautiful practice and to enhance the enjoyment of it for those who are interested in spending more time to understand it. This can be achieved in many ways, both in the production and distribution of the analysis, and I think we all have a responsibility to consider how we can contribute to a more inclusive debate around photography.

So, taking that idea further, I have to consider how I will personally rise to that challenge. What will I do to help to demystify things? 

Some of my views & reviews via   Shutter Hub

Some of my views & reviews via Shutter Hub

I enjoy considering these questions and writing about photography. I'd certainly like to write more, either as a companion to my own work or as a contribution to the discourse of photography that examines the context of images related to each other and in relation to general themes.

So ultimately I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is. Can I contribute to photographic debate and critical theory in an interesting, accessible and no-nonsense style? Or shall I just make a groveling apology to Barthes’ memory and slink off into the distance with my tail between my legs!

Reflections on a Collaboration

Earlier in this module I took part in a collaboration with my classmate Chris Chucas whose work I’ve increasingly come to admire throughout the first weeks of this course. We had both missed the chance to collaborate during the scheduled activities but agreed to try a little side project after discussing it in the webinar that accompanied the work in week 3.
I’d been really impressed by the work produced by the other collaborators. I felt that given the constraints of time and distance separating people, everyone had produced interesting and thought-provoking images. Chris and I decided to do something together and set about deciding on the parameters of our own project.

At the outset, I have to admit that I’ve never considered myself to be a collaborative photographer, AT ALL! One of the things I value most about photography is the ability to preserve my own individual vision. In fact, it’s one of the few areas where I feel that I can express myself entirely, without having to defer to external standards or expectations. I approach all aspects of making images in a very protective way, from the way I shoot to the way I process the work.
One of the reasons to write this reflection now though, rather than a few weeks ago when it was more contemporaneous, is that one of the real revelations of this first module has been the realisation of how much of what we all do involves collaboration on some level. It’s something that I have had reason to reflect on repeatedly throughout this module and not just specifically during the work with Chris. Even in my own practice, I’ve had a long and fruitful collaboration with my printer George at Digitalarte who I have been working with for more than three years now. Not only has he taught me a lot about printing but also many other things that have fed directly into my practice and improved my work and workflow. I have had a similarly fruitful association with my framers Oaksmith Studio. I've also benefitted from the collaborative environment that my photography group members have created. 

When you look at things more closely you realise that all image making is to some degree a collaboration. With your subject, with your equipment, with your audience. For me personally this has been a useful realisation, liberating me as it has to some degree from the narrow myopic viewpoint that refused to allow external light to illuminate new and better ways forward.
The project with Chris was framed simply. We would both shoot two images, in landscape format, that would ultimately be combined in some way. Our general theme was ‘loss’ or ‘being alone’ and we briefly talked about some shared inspirations. Chris had posted some lyrics up on the class forum that had got me thinking, from the song Church Street in Ruins, by Bangers:

Hearing the Beach Boys playing on this rainy high-street
Makes me chuckle at the amount of surf shops here.
I've tried, there's just no waves in this town.
Just more coffee shops that we could ever hope to drink in
And I don't care how cheap their drinks are,
I'm better off at home.
I kind of find it offensive that everything's for sale,
Coupled with the realisation that there's nothing here I need.
It's strange, I don't hate my job and I'm not living on the breadline,
But spending money still seems strange to me.
On the plus side when I'm outside I repeat mantra-like
"The last thing I need is any more things".

We spoke a bit about how we interpreted some of these thoughts and I managed to slip in a Tribe reference, because frankly there’s always room for A Tribe Called Quest!

One of the pleasures of this project for me was finding shared perspectives with someone whom I didn’t know beforehand and whose work was so different to mine. Also, the fact that by being open to others it’s possible to derive inspiration from places I wouldn’t usually find it (my knowledge of Punk is zero!). In speaking with Chris and sharing ideas I not only found affirmation of some of my own feelings but also was challenged to broaden my views and think beyond my previously perceived boundaries. Reflecting on this experience and on the output of the rest of the group, as well as the various practitioner interviews provided where people discussed how they had entered into their own collaborative relationships, I would say this is one of the real benefits of collaborative working.
We agreed on a loose deadline by which we planned to have shot our images, and I went out on the streets of East London one night after work. I was feeling really uninspired, and usually in these circumstances I would have given things up and headed home just accepting that it wasn’t my night. Having a responsibility to someone else though prevented me from doing that. Now, it wasn’t about me and my own selfish view point. I had a responsibility outside of myself, to the shared objective of our collaboration. 

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Images for collaboration - shot February 2017

Images for collaboration - shot February 2017

At this point, Chris had already sent me his images (I hadn’t looked at them though), so I was even more aware of a sense of not wanting to let the side down. I think there’s a lot to be said for deriving external methods of inspiring work and a work ethic, particularly if one wishes to pursue a professional path in photography. ‘Not feeling it’ can’t be an absolute obstacle to producing work, there has to be a way to keep shooting through it, and developing a productive routine that is almost independent of notions of inspiration, is one of the benefits that collaboration might also offer. In general, that is certainly something I must do better at as the course progresses.

nother element to our collaboration was that we would process each other’s photographs. For me this was a massive step. I am super obsessive about processing, always have been, and so the act of sending my RAW files into the ether and just allowing someone else to take charge of the final presentation of my images was both incredibly daunting, but also very liberating because ultimately, no one died! And that’s a lesson in itself, that sometimes by loosening the tight grip on the reigns you might be allowing magic to happen. Another lesson for me.

Image for collaboration -   Chris Chucas

Image for collaboration - Chris Chucas

Image for collaboration -   Chris Chucas

Image for collaboration - Chris Chucas

The final images were put together by Chris and I was blown away by them. I’ve never presented work in a diptych before, so again that was another way in which my practice was challenged and broadened by this collaboration. Both composite and diptych have caused me to consider different ways in which I can sequence and present my work in future and I’m grateful to Chris in this regard.

Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration

Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration

Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration

Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration

Overall, both in this exercise and on reflection throughout this module, I feel that collaboration is something that is not only unavoidable, but is also a positive force that can be harnessed both to produce work that transcends individual practice but can also strengthen and develop individual perspectives. I’d certainly be open to collaborating with Chris, or other practitioners, in future. As this module draws nearly to a close, I feel I have a better idea of where I want to go with my practice and significant parts of that will involve collaborative working, whether it be in producing images or in developing work to accompany, support or discuss photographic practice.
You can see what Chris thought about our collaboration here.

Positions and Practice: Week 9 Reflection

This week’s focus was on critical theory and how we view, analyse and discuss images. I would admit that my initial stance was one of scepticism about the merits of critical theory, as it seemed to be a discipline that largely served to exclude the uninitiated from being able to participate in the discourse surrounding works of art. While I still believe this to be true in some cases, I would say that on reflection there certainly is a role for critical theory in photography. The breadth of potential contributions to the debate around the practice of photography, as well as the analysis of individual or related images, allows for many people to access or contribute to some form of discussion around photographic work. It's also possible to argue that critical theory serves to legitimise and elevate the practice of photography from merely a leisure pursuit to something that does merit consideration and discussion as an art form. 

As we saw Francis Hodgson arguing this week, it's important to establish a common measure of photographic ‘quality’ as we seek to identify images that ‘matter’. I felt this to be an immediately challenging and somewhat troublesome idea (eg. who judges quality?). Of course, the concept of quality in photographic imagery could be considered to be largely dependent on the intended purpose of the image and also the audience to whom it's targeted. The family snapshot, the advertising image and the documentary project are all aspiring to different standards of aesthetics and efficacy and different measures of their ‘success’. That being said though, I don’t think this renders the pursuit of quality entirely futile. It still seems to me to be an ideal worth pursuing at least at the level of the individual practitioner. It surely behooves each of us to seek to produce ‘quality’ work, aspiring to reach as closely as possible the mark that one sets for oneself at the very least, even if I personally believe that a universal and standardised measure of quality is probably an unattainable goal.
Of course, on the other side of this argument is the risk that those who are assigned the role of adjudicators of quality end up being such a homogenous group that there's an implicit and unconscious elitism both in selection of images of merit and provision of access to them. One could already argue that the ‘art world’ is not the most inclusive or welcoming environment and by seeking to establish a visual hierarchy there is certainly a concern that it is possible for inequality to become further entrenched.

Save Your Own Damn Self

Save Your Own Damn Self

Another interesting question posed this week was whether we approached our work in a predominantly emotional or cognitive way. Reflecting on this I feel that since starting to take photographs I have largely proceeded in an emotionally-driven manner and put very little thought into things at all. One of the main drivers for pursing an MA in photography was the hope of changing this and finding a more informed basis on which to continue creating imagery that was hopefully improved by being better informed. I suppose as much as I don’t feel that my approach has yet shown much sign of this, the very act of writing this CRJ is a step towards a more considered cognitive approach.

Finally, I recently read a book by David Campany – Photography and Cinema as part of my research into the link between photography and cinema and how this might help to contextualize my own practice and help me understand how I see scenes and create images. While I can’t say that after having read this book I have a clear idea of how my own work can be considered ‘cinematic’, one thought from the book has stuck with me, that being that ‘an image could simply be narrative without belonging to a narrative’. I really like this and hope to work towards producing images with more narrative content moving forward.

Positions and Practice: Weeks 7 & 8 Reflection

Weeks 7 and 8 coincided with the first real challenge of the course as I prepared for the first MA assignment, a presentation exploring my current practice, while at the same time also trying to complete a comprehensive mortality audit at work, the data for which had to be collected, analysed and presented for a deadline that fell 3 days before that of the MA assignment. To make matters worse I was also working nights over the weekend when both presentations were due.
Till now I’ve largely managed to balance the demands of the course with those of my job, but this was the first time where the combined demands of both seemed unmanageable. I was able to meet both deadlines successfully but there was certainly a toll: the quality of work suffering in both cases as well as me being largely absent from the course in that period. Reflecting on things, I’m satisfied that I was at least able to complete both tasks this time, as at one stage it didn’t seem practically possible, but I have to review whether there’s a better way to balance things in future to reduce the stress when things kick off again.
One positive and unexpected outcome was that I was able to closely combine creative output with medical work under high pressure, for pretty much the first time. Previously I’ve always felt unable to be creative when the demands of my job are high, which has frequently led to prolonged photographic fallow periods where I don’t shoot much or even think much about shooting. Here though, I was able to switch from one task to the other, under duress, and still find some useful creative insights. 

his is a skill that I will have to hone further moving forward.

The focus quickly moves now to the project proposal, which is due in four weeks. Preparing the presentation has helped to consolidate my thoughts a little about what I want my project to focus on, and I’m looking forward to a bit more research and having more time to shoot over the next couple of weeks before settling down to finally put the proposal together. 

I’m working my way through a pile of books that will inform my proposal as well as the project itself. I’m currently reading a book by David Company as I try to drill down into the idea that my imagery is ‘cinematic’ – something I’ve heard often (and also thought about the work of other photographers) but never really understood. 

Following the psychogeographical thread that was handed to me by Gary McLeod and Matthew Beaumont in his thoroughly engaging book ‘Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London’ I’m also looking forward to piling into some more books on/around this subject:

I’ve really enjoyed how this course has stimulated me to read and research and opened my perspective in many ways, a massively unexpected bonus in addition to the opportunity to talk to interesting and talented people about photography.

Positions and Practice: Week 5 Reflection

The ethics of photography is not something that I’ve previously considered in much detail, just assuming that it didn't really apply to me. After all, I typically shoot empty spaces, at night, with no-one else involved. I've certainly felt unease on occasion when seeing photographs of homeless or otherwise disadvantaged people presented in a way that seems to place their plight below the photographer's desire for self-promotion, but apart from that it's not an issue that's been at the forefront of my thoughts.
Unsurprisingly though, I find myself writing yet another reflection where one of the key realisations is that I have much to learn and much to incorporate into my own thinking, particularly with regard to my own practice. The work of the photographer Jeff Mitchell  was in sharp focus this week, as his image of refugees travelling from Croatia into Slovenia taken in 2015 was famously used by UKIP in their Brexit campaign last year. 

I found Mitchell's own response to the use of this image rather interesting, as instead of being outraged, he seemed to take a much more sanguine view of things:

"Photographers are there to record stories, as they happen and when they happen, in the best way we can. But what happens after that, how our images are used, can be out of our control…
My job – telling the story of the migrants – had been done. It’s just unfortunate how it’s been picked up.
It’s difficult for any agency – Getty, Reuters, AP – that circulates photographers’ images. They’re out there. And it’s not just Ukip. Newspapers also use shots in the wrong context. It depends on the political slant of any organisation.
You have to remain impartial. I’m there to record what happens. I know it sounds simplistic, but you shoot what’s in front of you."

Jeff Mitchell's best photograph: ‘These people have been betrayed by Ukip’. The Guardian, 22nd June 2016

In Mitchell's view, his work was done. What happened next was out of his hands and thus, by implication, not really his problem. The buck seems to have been decisively passed! The discussion around this topic on the forum this week suggested a range of views in response to this view. From my initially neutral stance where it seemed to me that, as the image was obtained and used in a legal manner, there was no real blame to be apportioned, I think I've been convinced to consider that as image makers there may be at least some responsibility for where the images ultimately end up.

This is of course a complex challenge particularly, as Mitchell highlights, in the 'digital age', but it is one I increasingly feel we are obliged to engage with in some way. If nothing else, I think it’s important to strive to protect the clarity of one's own voice and if the images are going to be used in a manner that seems contrary or incongruent with the motivation that underpinned the creation of the image, as artists we should seek to defend ourselves. Of course, this is a context-dependent argument, with the reason the images were created in the first place needing to be considered.
This is an extension of the idea of 'authorship' that we explored in week 3. In the case of Mitchell's work, he seems to have a less rigid view of 'authorship' and is seemingly less concerned that his photograph has been appropriated to promote a message that he may not personally agree with. Accordingly, I feel that the 'ethics' of photography is an individual and context-dependent thing and depends on a number of factors, including the sort of photography one engages in and the intended use of the images created. I can only really comment on my own motivations and respond to a personal ethical challenge. Reflecting on my own motivations for taking photographs, I would have to say that there's an element of selfishness there. A desire to express something internal, almost regardless of how, or by whom, it is received. It's like self-analysis. As such, it’s important to me that I represent the impulse that has inspired the photograph as honestly as possible. Admittedly I don’t always understand that impulse - which partly explains why I find myself studying an MA in photography - but if I have an ethic it’s the idea that I have to be as faithful to this internal impulse as possible. My hope is that the work might connect with others out there who share or are able to identify with the same impulse (I’m already hating the word ‘impulse’!)…if my work was able to connect with, or initiate communication or dialogue with others in some way, I’d be very gratified.
It’s also very important to me to support other artists as far as possible, particularly those who’ve had a role in supporting or inspiring my work. Sometimes just a few encouraging words is enough, but of course purchasing and promoting their work is even better.
As outlined here, my ethics strike even me as rather limited in scope and poorly-formed. I don’t yet feel fully-equipped to address the deeper questions of why I shoot what I do and why anyone should care. These questions seem to hang ominously over me at present, prodding me for a response. I'll need one...soon!

Positions and Practice: Week 4 Reflection

Week 4 focused on how the photography profession is perceived by non-photographers and the influence on the medium of the ever-advancing development of photographic technology. It was interesting to hear the reflections of my classmates, particular those who are working professionally as photographers. The general sense is that the profession is poorly-understood with sometimes only limited knowledge about what a photographer's job actually entails and what it should therefore be worth. There was also a feeling that people see photographers as having an easy life, doing something that any person could do and that this can even feed into the shoddy way that some photographers go about their work. I feel myself somewhat unqualified to offer opinions about this, as I largely identify as being in the 'non-photographer' camp, or at least I did before commencing this course.

My instinct is that photographers are maybe at least partially to blame for how they are perceived by the public. As we've already discussed, imagery is everywhere, the majority of which was created by photographers. As such, their contribution to daily life is vast, and massively under-recognised. It would not be unreasonable to expect the profession to be more forward in highlighting this important role and seeking to receive appropriate consideration accordingly. Maybe part of the problem is the disparate nature of the profession, with there being so many different types of photographers, as well as it being an often solitary practice. These facts don't lend themselves to presenting a united and powerful professional voice, that is capable of making the point that image makers should be valued for the important work that they do.

In my own practice I’ve certainly felt unable to fully own the title of 'photographer'. This may be a result of my other professional role which dominates a large part of my time and thoughts, but is also due to never quite feeling that it was credible for me to claim to be a photographer without devoting all my energies to it full-time. I think it's important to conduct oneself in as professional a manner as possible regardless of where on the photographer's spectrum you may be placed and maybe the fact that there are some people who operate in a less than professional manner partly explains why the profession is so poorly regarded.

With regards to the relentless advance of photographic technology, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the equipment choices available and lose sight of what you're actually trying to achieve, ending up simply consumed by the pursuit of the next piece of equipment that will supposedly help to elevate your work. This is a position I found myself in early in my photography journey, but it’s a false position to my mind, and it’s better to concentrate on honing the craft and using the technology as a tool, rather than seeing the latest camera as an end in itself.

Also this week, following on from the collaborative focus of week 3, I was delighted to produce a small piece of work with a classmate Chris Chucas. It was a rewarding experience that I’ll write about in a separate post.
The research for my project continues, but as I have been admonished this week, I need to 'stop thinking and go shoot!'

Positions and Practice: Week 3 Reflection

This week, the emphasis has been on collaborative practice. This is a new idea for me, having never previously considered myself to be a photographic collaborator. Of course, it quickly becomes clear that there's more to the idea of collaboration than at first appears to be the case. As Daniel Palmer argued in 2013 in A Collaborative Turn in Contemporary Photography? (Photographies, 6:1, 117-125, DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2013.788843) 

"...photographic images are produced not solely by the lonely eye, or the black box of the camera (or now an interaction with software) but through an engagement with worlds that are collectively produced and experienced."

I have been challenged to reassess my views on the primacy of authorship and what that concept actually means. Is retaining authorship at all costs as important as all that? Is single authorship ultimately a false construct? I'm struck by the idea that authorship actually maybe relates to power, and where the balance of power lies in the production of an image. Photographers do ‘capture’ and ‘frame’ their subjects after all. Maybe also, if this is the case, then ceding this power opens up the possibility of producing images that can have cumulative impact…maybe two (or many) heads are better than one.

The collaborative images produced this week by my classmates were all interesting in arriving at a shared vision that seemed to be more coherent and more unified than might have occurred with just a single author. My own concerns about who would do what in producing the image, or who would claim ‘ownership’ of it once complete seemed to be superseded by more tangible benefits of cooperation and mutual inspiration. Each contributor seemed to have benefitted from the input of their collaborator and was moved to produce something ‘more’ than they might have done if working alone.

Stephen Willats, whose own practice relies heavily on actively donating this authorship role to his subjects reflected on this in his 1983 essay The Camera as an Object of Determinism and as an Agent of Freedom
"The divestment of my traditionally given authoritative position in the origination of a photographic image does not lessen its strength but rather, I have found, ensures its pertinence and meaning; for who are better able in the end to present themselves in the reality they inhabit than the subjects."

I am convinced of the potential benefits of collaboration, as either an adjunct to practice or an integral part. Of course, the necessary proportion of collaboration will vary with each practitioner, but this is something I am keen to explore more going forward.

Positions and Practice: Week 2 Reflection

This week’s focus has been on the interdisciplinary nature of photography. It only takes a moment to be overwhelmed by the many areas of personal, professional and intellectual life that are in some way influenced or interacted with by the photographic image or some derivation of it. Photography in an obviously recognisable form is ubiquitous of course, but this week challenged me to consider how it has also seeped into the core of so many other areas of life, and been changed, misrepresented or exploited in both positive and more questionable applications. From medical imaging and its central role in diagnostic and subsequent clinical care, to photo-composites aiming to arrive at a visual mean or archetype of a proclivity or ethnicity, the image has been unwittingly recruited into many roles.
The challenge this week was to consider where these links might particularly relate to one’s own practice. I have been intrigued by the link between photography and memory for some time. I have often felt a subconscious impulse to shoot a particular scene that then seems to gently tug at a thread deep in my memory, unravelling it enough for me to realise that something has been disturbed, without being able to grasp it solidly enough to recall details. Images suggest emotions and imply connections that are sometimes quite unsettling. This link with our psychology is something I want to explore further and is likely to be an ongoing component of my research on this MA.
Some introductory reading in this area threw up some interesting introductory ideas. For example, in Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour, Linda Henkel (Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 396–402) was able to demonstrate that the act of taking photographs on a museum visit impaired the ability to be able to recall details of the exhibits seen, compared to those who simply observed the exhibits without taking photographs. While Schacter et al. (Psychology and Aging 1997, Vol. 12, No. 2, 203-215) demonstrated that review of photographs could induce false recollections in older people. In Looking at Pictures but Remembering Scenes (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition 1992. Vol 18. No 1. 180-191), Intraub et al. discuss how ‘boundary extension’ occurs when we recollect images, leading us to perceive and recollect ‘more’ of a scene than was actually presented in a photograph.
All of these ideas challenged my original notion of photographs triggering memories for me. I’m forced to acknowledge that photographs are not always ‘truthful’ either intrinsically, or in our recollection of them, and the idea that images can induce false memories, which can then become incorporated into our personal histories is intriguing. Another unavoidable conclusion is that the idea of the photograph as ‘evidence’, as being by definition an accurate representation of what was seen, or was present, is not as indisputable as it may first appear. This is an interesting way to consider some recent controversies such as the furore surrounding President Trump’s inauguration photographs.
Another strong interdisciplinary connection for me is with photography and music. Music often triggers my ideas, it helps to clear my mind, inspire a creative attitude and helps me connect with the mood of the places I photograph.

An example - This song:

Inspired this image, that I shot back in 2015:

Our Love Comes Back In The Middle Of The Night

Our Love Comes Back In The Middle Of The Night

There’s a continuum between memory, emotion, imagery and music for me that I aim to understand more as the course progresses, and this week feels like the first step on that journey.
This week I've also learnt that photography has so many potential applications beyond the immediately obvious. There are endless opportunities for collaboration with non-photographic practitioners and across photographic disciplines as long as one is open enough to see the possible connections.

Positions and Practice: Week 1 Reflection

An interesting and challenging start to the course. I’ve never previously considered, in any detail, the idea of photography in a truly global context. Once the thought is introduced however, it’s difficult not to be somewhat intimated by the potential breadth of the argument and its implications. Photography is an incredibly pervasive practice, that everyone save for those in the most isolated cultures interacts with multiple times per day, often subliminally. The influence of imagery is undoubted, yet how much of the imagery we consume is done so willingly? And how much do we consider the unseen agendas that have selected and presented these images for our attention? If we were privy to these agendas would we be more discerning about what we allowed ourselves to see? Would we try and take a more mindful role in guiding the images that ourselves, and others, create?
The internet is a powerful pathway by which images can quickly reach billions of retinas worldwide. It’s not possible to imagine that an image may not have global reach once uploaded. So, is there a responsibility to consider the impact and meaning the image carries when it arrives somewhere you may never see and is read by people whose perspective you may never understand? If so, how much responsibility? There’s no universally acceptable image that appeals to everyone and offends no-one, no image can be truly universal, so is this an unfair expectation of the photographer (or any maker of images)? And surely we have to retain the right to freedom of expression even if this offends? A thorny issue for sure, with previously tragic consequences (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-30708237) for those who have crossed a line drawn by others.
This week I’ve been challenged to consider the homegenisation of images that occurs as a result of corporate and political imperatives, and the threat this poses to expression and recognition of individuals and cultures that fall outside of the approved categories. As Bate wrote with regard to stock photography:
"the more a global stock image-world becomes a homogenous image-bank, the less easy it is to acknowledge or accept different views of the world."

Photography: The Key Concepts. 2nd ed. David Bate, p. 207

The awareness of this increasing homegenisation of images makes me more determined to remain open to as many sources as possible, and to seek them out if possible. It also challenges me to seek out common image tropes in my own work so that I can actively decide if they belong there, and remove them if they don’t.
This week also introduced me to the idea of photography as a window and mirror. Not an entirely novel idea I suppose, but it’s been interesting to consider whether my work is more mirror or window. I think it’s been more a reflection of internal states and conflicts so far. Gazing into my mirror has certainly allowed me to examine certain things about myself in more detail, even if it’s kinda foggy sometimes!