Informing Contexts: Week 4 Reflection

This week we’ve been looking at how viewers interpret images and whether the intent of the photographer can ever result in a ‘dominant’ reading. We were presented with a range of images, many from advertising campaigns, and challenged to consider how a shared understanding of visual and cultural references might influence their interpretation.

To use a couple of examples here:


The Falling Man   by Richard Drew

The Falling Man by Richard Drew

This photograph immediately evokes my own memories of where I was on September 11th 2001 when these terrible events began to unfold. These events are now so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that seeing an image like this causes so many thoughts to surge forward - ‘The war on terror’, America, New York, George Bush, Tony Blair, Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, missing persons, the sense of a world before and after this moment – to name just the first few that spring to mind. I imagine that most people reading this would understand instantly how this image fits into the wider social, cultural and historical landscape and would need no further explanation of the events that it connotes.

Marilyn Monroe   by Sam Shaw

Marilyn Monroe by Sam Shaw

To me this photograph conjures glamour, sex symbol, JFK, Hollywood, cinema, 1950s. The fame of Monroe, who remains a revered icon many years after her death, allows for a shared understanding of her significance and to be presented with an image of her is likely to result in a number of shared associations. 

So, does the way an image communicates rely entirely on shared references? Must the viewer and the photographer have a shared cultural and visual lexicon for the image to connect? I’m not sure where I stand on this question. Instinctively, I feel like shared references significantly improve the chances of an image being received in the way it was intended. In advertising for example, controlling the likely message your visual information communicates is key. Whether this can ever be controlled absolutely doesn’t remove the imperative of trying to shape the narrative as much as possible.

I also feel like any successful photograph probably succeeds by somehow tapping into a universal sentiment that allows the viewer to relate to the image before them and find something in it to which they can apply a personal relevance, even if only on a subconscious level. Conversely, I also think that it’s possible to make an interesting or ‘good’ photograph without any conscious attention to any of these things. I’m unable to reconcile these two opposing ideas into a coherent conclusion as yet. I think this question relates back to my ongoing struggles with understanding ‘narrative’ and how I might bring this understanding into hopefully improving my own work.

No words are required to understand   what this is

No words are required to understand what this is

Another question raised this week is how text can relate to images and help to mediate meaning. I certainly think it’s possible to communicate with a photograph, without the aid of supporting text. I do however also believe that text can be used to anchor a concept that can then be further explored visually in an image or series of images.

Again using advertising as an example, text can help to establish the narrative of a brand or product, particularly if that product is new to the marketplace. In such cases, it may well be possible to dispense with text once the product and its supposed characteristics have been established and accepted (e.g. Coca Cola) but text may be important in the early stages of a product’s life to guide the customer in the desired direction. 

In all of this it’s important to consider, if not also try to influence, the relationship between images and viewer. This possibly begins with the intent of the work, and aiming to produce work that is considered, well-researched and grounded in a personal truth (whatever that might mean). The relationship between image and viewer strikes me as a mysterious and possibly unknowable one. I don’t suppose we can ever truly know what the viewer will see when they look at our work. There’s a certain arrogance in expecting the viewer to see it in the same way you do, or believing that your interpretation is the only possible reading. There’s no way to account for the viewer’s personal history, their sense of humour, their cultural references, their mood at the time – all factors that might influence the way the viewer receives and interprets the image before them.

There’s also something to be said for creating open-ended narratives, allowing space for the viewer to create their own stories, using your work as the starting point. This potentially offers the work to a broader audience, if in some way you can be all things to all people, simply reflecting the viewers back to themselves in a way that is neither too confronting or banal. So ambiguity of meaning can be a valid approach, and also possibly acknowledges the fact that you can never entirely control the meaning of the work anyway.

The skilled practitioner will be comfortable with this, while being careful to use commonly accepted signifiers as far as possible if the intention is to speak clearly in the work. Whether the use of commonly accepted signifiers results in a limited palette from which to paint and whether that then results in work lacking in expressivity or individuality is something to be considered. These are questions we all must answer for ourselves: what is the intent and how far are we willing to go to try and influence this mystical space between the image and the viewer’s perception?

Increasingly in my own work I’m trying to edge closer to a representation of an internal state that feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, but also somehow mundane and entirely normal. Previously, my strategy has been quite literal, very visual and not very subtle or varied. This approach now seems quite redundant and so I’m scratching around, trying to find a more nuanced way to communicate, a way to do visually what I have not yet managed to do verbally. That’s why it’s so hard I guess. But I’ll keep working at it. 

Surfaces and Strategies: Images and Text

One of the unexpected discoveries of this module has been the role that text has come to play in the production of the images.
For the first time, it has felt apposite to introduce text into the photograph, in a way that I could not have anticipated when I first sought to elicit the reflections of others on their experiences of urban solitude.
As the responses started coming in, and the tender nature of some of the reflections was noted, it seemed to me that there was a strand of emotion and information that would be potentially underused if words were not given a more prominent role in the communication of the ideas of the project.
How to do that of course is the challenge…

Words: Audrey Reglioni, Image: Justin Carey

Words: Audrey Reglioni, Image: Justin Carey

I had originally imagined that words would be an important part of the project but had envisaged this being more in the sense of including my own musings on the subject. During this module, I have been writing sporadically to support the creation of images, but what quickly became clear was that nothing that I wrote, particularly of a fictional nature, could in any way match the honesty and simplicity of the words spoken by those who were kind enough to contribute to the project. Again, this shift in outlook reflects a more general broadening of perspective that has occurred during this last twelve weeks, where I have felt able to loosen my grip on the authorial reins and allow the perspectives of others to be more directly represented.
To me, using the words of my collaborators has required me to ‘get out of the way’ to let them communicate more directly with the audience. This has actually been easier than I thought, I have had little trouble stepping back and allowing people to speak for themselves. More surprising has been how liberating it has been and how the work seems to have taken on a different air, wider and clearer, without losing anything of the essence I feared might be diluted if I did not maintain my sole authorship role.
I can’t say that I know for sure how to fit the words into the work, or whether they will always be part of it. I can say though, that introducing them at this stage has certainly moved things forward and opened up another vista for further exploration.
So far, I have used direct quotes from collaborators in images, in project materials and the Searching for Meaning website. I have also used snippets of lyrics from songs that have inspired the work or have been suggested by respondents. This is another explicit statement of the influences that previously had been less visible (but always present).
This link between photography and writing has long been established and is frequently analysed (Beckman and Weissberg, 2013). While I am a latecomer to this discourse, I hope to continue researching this link and developing a greater understanding of how it relates to my own practice.
Beckman, K. and Weissberg, L. (ed.) (2013) On Writing with Photography, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 

Photo Elicitation

A key aspect of my project proposal was identifying and interviewing people about their personal experiences and perspectives of urban solitude. Quite early in this module however, I was challenged to review the way I’d proposed to engage others with my project to avoid unduly influencing subject’s responses and so narrowing the potential scope of the responses I might receive. Initially I planned to use my own images and set questions to provoke dialogue about the topic, aiming then to feed the interview responses back into the ongoing work. It didn’t take long to realise this approach would be too directive and could hinder freedom of response to the theme.

Image by Rupa Dawar

Image by Rupa Dawar

I was keen to ensure that the interviews didn’t simply end up as my own views being reflected back to me via someone else and so I needed to loosen my approach.

I therefore switched from the idea of straight interviews to a more flexible approach to capturing responses to the theme. I decided to offer various strands to respondents to express how they felt about solitude in the hope that a less structured approach would allow people to choose the method that suited them best, encourage people to be more honest and allow them to more easily access their own feelings on the issue. Aside from the questionnaire, which remains a part of the process, I also offered people the opportunity to submit images that they felt were relevant to the idea of solitude or in some way reminded them of times when they had felt this way. 

It’s been really interesting to see how varied these submitted images are. Of course this was to be expected, but it has highlighted how a wide avenue of investigation would have been lost if I hadn’t chosen to open out the offer to respondents in this way. 

My own response to the submitted images has been interesting too, both in terms of an instinctive reaction to dismissing images that don’t immediately resonate with my own perception of the theme but also how, in reacting in this way, I’ve validated the absolute importance of having sought out perspectives that diverge from my own and how I'm obliged to honour those perspectives and not allow my own individual bias to dominate, as this would ultimately be to the detriment of the project’s aims. 

Image by Leanne McMahon

Image by Leanne McMahon

When all is said and done, I of course retain a curatorial role and I’ve chosen to represent the submitted images in different ways, guided by no particularly criteria. Some images have been used to accompany text or quotes from the respondents, others have been used as projected images to be re-photographed while others have been composited to create entirely new images (allowing me to improve my processing skills too). 

Composite of two images by Leanne McMahon

Composite of two images by Leanne McMahon

When deciding to ask for images I hadn’t thought about what I would do with them or how they might be useful to the work. I suppose I imagined them being inspiration in some way to the ongoing creation of my work, simply feeding into my own vision. I did not envisage that they might ‘become’ the work themselves. This has been an unexpected but very welcome discovery in the project so far. As I collect more images there’s much scope for developing this further.

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!