MA

Final Major Project: Future Directions

The end of this module and the MA course has arrived so quickly. With my head still spinning from the whirlwind of activity that preceded and encompassed the exhibition and website launch it is difficult to rationalise what might come next. 

I was surprised to be asked a number of times at the Reaching Out Into The Dark private view“So what’s next Justin?”, and as the reality that I’m soon going to be a former student starts to sink in, I’m obliged to start trying to come up with some answers.

Visitors to the ROITD Private View

Visitors to the ROITD Private View

Here is what I have so far:

Project

The work so far in this project feels very provisional, like only a surface scratched, with the FMP outcomes simply demonstrating the potential audience for the work and also how many more facets of this theme there are to uncover and explore. 

I’m proud of what I’ve achieved so far but already have a clear idea of the next few steps for the work, visually, which include:

·     The urgent need to include older people in this work. This is especially important as I’m confronted with lonely older people every day in my job, such that it feels almost criminal not to give them a platform in this project and a prominent one at that! There is also the need to represent younger people (adolescents mainly) and finding a way to reach this group and engage them with this work will be a future challenge no doubt.

·     A need to better represent the internal world of solitude and loneliness, both with more images of interior spaces, and by finding an effective way to visually depict the internal emotional landscape. I think my work already does this to some degree (hopefully), it certainly reflects my own internal emotional landscape in a sense, but there are a variety of emotional responses to this subject (not all of them negative of course) that would be really interesting states to explore photographically if this could be done in a manner that wasn’t too obvious and was based on a coherent visual strategy. My initial goal had been to explore solitude, this gradually evolved to me wanting to explore solitude and loneliness as I started to research the theme and understand the topic more. This further developed into a desire to better represent the positive aspects of a solitary life. Latterly though, I’ve thought a lot more about specific scenarios and how they could be explored, such as feeling alone despite being in a relationship, or the feeling of being alone among a large throng on a busy street in rush hour – all these experiences that are broiling away internally but which may never be discernible on the external surface of our persona, yet have a profound impact on the way we experience the world and relate to each other. This is a really interesting area that I am keen to explore further. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since the exhibition concluded and it might even be separate project, or sub-project, as the potential ground to cover is vast.

My internal emotional landscape?

My internal emotional landscape?

·      I also want to examine the role that technology plays in our modern solitude. There’s an irony that while we were all sold these devices as ways to better connect with each other, we spend most of our time now experiencing daily life with our heads down fixated on a small screen whenever we are out in the world, such that the happenings of the world around us and the existence of other actual humans is no longer necessarily a vital part of our daily experience in the main. We thus live a voluntary solitude, detached from each other and hypnotised by our personal mini computers. It’s not clear whether these were the intended consequences of these devices but this is the reality we are faced with and it’s interesting to consider what that means for our emotional and mental health and what it means for our wider communities and societies. 

·     Reconsideration of the outputs and how best to use them is another element that can further progress the aims of the project. I’ve learnt a number of useful practical lessons during FMP, particularly from putting together an exhibition. Reflecting on the aspects of the planning that worked well and what things I’d wish to do differently in the event of a future exhibition is important learning to take forward. I’m also more convinced of the need for a book as an eventual output for this work. I arrived at this conclusion after seeing the work take shape during the website build and getting a clearer understanding of how the interaction of text and image might work to successfully communicate to the viewer on a page as well as a screen. Continuing to refine and mature the work over the coming year or two will gradually make a book project seem like a foreseeable future milestone of the project I believe and will offer yet another way to present and experience this work.

Considering one of the aims of this project is to stimulate dialogue and help to facilitate discussion about the experience of loneliness and solitude, I’ve always been keen to find a way to take the work outward in the form of a workshop. This had formed part of an (as it now seems) ambitious FMP project proposal, but it remains an important pillar of what I would consider to be a fully realised project.

Shutter Hub’s   Camera Amnesty   campaign to help homeless photographers

Shutter Hub’s Camera Amnesty campaign to help homeless photographers

To that end, I’ve already made initial contact with Shutter Hub, an organisation that has a lot of experience of delivering talks and workshops, about how we might collaborate to bring this work to a different audience in that format. Shutter Hub have already been working with potential target groups in their own outreach work and so it would be a potentially mutually beneficial collaboration that would align with their existing corporate activities. 

 

Practice 

Moving forward I have to consider how I will balance my photographic practice with imminent changes in my job, working pattern and place of abode. The MA has given me a much better understanding of how to approach trying to communicate through photographs and associated/accompanying media, as well as a grounding in how to carry out research to support one’s visual aims. I’ve also learned practical skills that will benefit my practice and my ability to connect and collaborate with other practitioners. The aspects of my practice that I will be concentrating on in the immediate post-MA future are likely to include:

·     Continued regular contextual research to support the ongoing progress of this project but also to provide the basis for potential future work of a different nature. It’s not always possible to directly quantify how the research done contributes to the final work but it certainly does, and this is one of the aspects that sets my current work apart from what I was producing before starting this course. My work now is supported by extensive research of visual and written media and prolonged reflection, whereas before I was just taking photographs that interested me for no clear reason. That’s not a bad thing in itself of course, but I can say that the work I’m producing now is a more eloquent expression of my ‘voice’ than anything I produced previously. This is only due to the research and consideration which underpins it and thus I look forward to further clarifying my voice with ongoing research and learning.

·     Writing will become an increasingly important element of my practice moving forward. I very much enjoyed writing for this project, in the process reawakening an interest in creative writing that I’d had in my much younger days. While continuing to write more critically during the course as well as book reviews elsewhere, I envisage less constrained writing being a larger proportion of my future output. I’ve found writing to be a good way to synthesise my reflections and the conclusions I’ve made about the work I’m doing, and so the writing serves to further my thoughts and offer another conduit to connect with the emotions that I always want to bring to my work. Thus, in the time that’s freed up after the completion of the MA I intend to take a writing course to help develop my competence in this area and will continue to write at every possible opportunity. 

Excerpt of my review of Robert Hirsch’s book  Seizing The Light  on   Amazon

Excerpt of my review of Robert Hirsch’s book Seizing The Light on Amazon

·     Another aspect of my practice that I will be concentrating more on in the future is networking and self-promotion (horrible as that sounds!). The exhibition cemented the importance of this for me, as the private view was attended by a number of people who became aware of me on social media. Edo Zollo, a photographer I’ve looked up to for years, was kind enough to visit my private view and stated that he’d been following me for years and that I was one of his favourite photographers. This was very surprising and obviously great to hear, but it also highlighted the importance of presenting yourself online. He’d never have heard of me otherwise and it’s currently the best way to connect with your audience, communicate your motivations and describe your practice in ways that people will hopefully identify and engage with. I saw this in action during this FMP and I have to take this aspect of my practice more seriously if I hope to reach a bigger audience, position myself for future professional opportunities and connect with potential collaborators. I’m by no means comfortable with what can at times seem like relentless self-promotion but I have to find a happy medium where I’m regularly nurturing this audience of supporters and steadily adding new followers as well, people who are supporters of my practice in one way or another. There is a lot to learn too about how to promote and market specific events. My exhibition only came together at very short notice, so it wasn’t possible to build a solid buzz about it with a long lead-up. In future, the planning of the exhibition will take better account of what’s needed to promote it effectively to give it the best possible chance of success. These practical lessons are one of the most useful takeaways from the MA course for me. Being an artist is great, the licence to stay in your head where dreams live, the onus to be creative, to challenge conventions and to bravely explore new territories. Yet there is no escaping the practical realities involved in researching, producing and promoting the work. I’ve learnt some of these realities first hand (my credit card can certainly give you some chapters about the harsh realities too!) in these final weeks and have a more pragmatic appreciation of what is required to continue making good work, that people will want to see and possibly support, in the future.

Final Major Project: Book Research

Over the last few months I’ve been collecting a pile of books on my desk pertaining to the project, that has been growing at a faster rate than I’ve been able to read them. One of the pleasures of the research for this project has been the way that one thing leads tangentially to another, ever-widening the scope of the research, suggesting new directions and taking in a much broader range of perspectives than I’d envisaged when I originally set out on this work. 

I’ve recently finished reading:

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Stoner by John Williams

Originally published in 1965, this book tells the story of William Stoner’s unfulfilled life. Born to humble beginnings in the 1890s on a farm in Missouri, the course of his life is irrevocably changed after he leaves home to go to college, resulting in a silent estrangement from his parents and a lifelong struggle to find his place in the grand scheme of life. The mastery in this story is in its ability to examine the interior world of Stoner, to describe the way in which he never truly feels comfortable in his own skin, how his life ultimately seems to comprise an accumulation of incidental happenings that surround him and confine him and eventually define him. He is trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage, he is unable to truly flourish at work or explore his academic passions, he resigns himself to a distant relationship with his daughter Grace and seems to settle for an existence where happiness is not to be expected, or even really sought for. There’s a strange nobility in Stoner, who meets events with a benign acceptance, never railing against the status quo and seeming to have a capacity to just carry on regardless. 

There is an incredible loneliness here. He is unable to connect with his wife, despite certainly wanting to at first. He is ultimately unable to connect with his daughter. He lives a loveless life, until a brief interlude later in life that is also ultimately doomed. There’s a resonance here about the way our lives can be so apparently full of accomplishments and yet be incredibly unhappy, in a way that’s almost not worth acknowledging, because we still just have to carry on either way. 

The idea of a loneliness that is not immediately apparent to the onlooker is important, both in terms of being an emotion that I’ve personally experienced but also in terms of the fact that it’s easy to envisage this as being a significantly under-recognised aspect of our modern urban lives, surrounded as we are by all the conveniences and community we could supposedly want.

Relating this back to my own work, I am challenged to think about how I represent the inner life better, either of myself or my subjects. In this book, this was of course done with words and this is possibly something that has some relevance to the presentation of this project also. Finding a way though to let the image suggest something of this inner experience will be key and will also hopefully mean that the images are not too obviously suggestive, which would weaken them to my mind. 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Cover image by Todd Hido

Cover image by Todd Hido

I came to this book via Todd Hido, who has cited Carver as an influence of his work. This book, published in 1981, is a collection of short stories exploring various aspects of relationships and the motivations and passions that underpin how people are with each other. Carver writes with a sharp sense of observation of the human condition. He expertly illustrates the motivations of his characters without having to state them explicitly, their actions revealing what truly drives them, allowing the reader to know them in a way that their partners often seem not to. 

A common thread here for me is the idea that people often don’t say what they truly think or feel, but these feelings somehow find a way to emerge and affect the external world. We all carry baggage of course, things in our history that affect the way we interact with those around us, often without ever specifically identifying or expressing what those things are. Again there’s an illustration of the importance of the inner life here, the mysterious and often uncharted world that we all carry around with us, which plays such an important role in how we live. 

Increasingly I feel that this internal world which is unique to each individual, by definition imparts a degree of loneliness on all of us, alone as we are in this personal experience that no-one else can ever share no matter how close they are to us. This opens up a whole new avenue of potential research and the question is whether I can hope to represent this properly in the FMP work, or whether this is better explored in my future practice once the FMP is out of the way. 

Of course, there’s a degree to which my work is already reflecting my own inner world and while this had been largely happening outside of my conscious control (certainly until the point at which I started this MA course) I can see how important it is to bring (allow?) more of this world into my work, both for the purpose of self-exploration but also for the purpose of experimentation and to differentiate myself from other practitioners. 

Informing Contexts: Final Thoughts & Future Moves

So this is it, the end of Informing Contexts and the beginning of the final stage of this Masters degree. I can’t believe how quickly we’ve arrived here. I’ve learnt loads, with many of the lessons still being absorbed as I try to understand how to relate the learning to my own practice. I approach the Final Major Project (FMP) with some nervousness, mainly just because I’m not sure what the format of the next few months will be, but I’m also excited by the prospect of hopefully being able to put everything together into a cohesive vision of this project.

A frustration of mine has been that the 12-week module rhythm, with the need to prepare for summative assessments at the end of each one, hasn’t always correlated with the speed at which I’m able to absorb and respond to the lessons I’ve been learning along the way. Often I’ve found myself having the biggest revelations and making the largest steps between the modules, as the absence of course demands gives me the time to reflect, let things sink in and embed into my thought process about what I want to do. Due to the demands of my job, I often feel like I’m just hanging on for dear life during the modules trying to keep up, rather than having space and time to truly assimilate the information and allow my practice to develop. This has been a particular problem during this module as I approach the end of my medical training and so have had the most important exams of my career to prepare for, alongside working and doing this MA. Those demands, as well as my struggle to see a way to move forward with the photography (‘the narrative conundrum’ I think I’m now going to call it!) has meant this has been the module I’ve found most difficult so far. 

As previously, I’m confident that the period immediately after assignment submission (which again coincides with another big work thing) will be a productive one, both in terms of the images I’ll be making as well as in terms of putting a clear plan in place to attack the FMP. It arrives too late to be absolutely reflected in the WIP for this module but, as I’ve written elsewhere, I have a much better sense of the images I want to make and how to hopefully create interesting photographs. I will also be bringing people (and possibly also myself) into the work in some way and have only just been able to start experimenting with this. 

Something else that I’m looking forward to exploring further is the internal environment and how this relates to our experiences of solitude. My work has almost exclusively focused on outdoor urban spaces to this point, but reflecting on how people experience solitude and isolation in many hidden or public indoor places (bedrooms, cars, pubs etc.) and inspired by the work of practitioners such as Lynne Cohen and Andrew Emond I am really keen to explore interior spaces and make this an important part of the work moving forward. This actually now feels like a big omission from the project to date, an oversight on my part, and I envisage interiors becoming increasingly integral to telling the story of urban solitude in my FMP.

The work of Andrew Emond, from his    Objects of Consequence    series 

The work of Andrew Emond, from his Objects of Consequence series 

Despite the misgivings I stated above I do feel I’ve made progress during this module. I’ve continued to write, with more book reviews published and in progress.

My most recent book review on   Shutter Hub

My most recent book review on Shutter Hub

I’m aiming to continue developing this area of my practice. I’m still trying to find a short writing course that I think will help me to develop my writing style and that is feasible for me to do over the next few months alongside all my other commitments. The ones I’ve been interested in so far are either too involved (essentially a writing MA) or too inconsequential to be worthwhile. I’m increasingly of the view that text will be a substantial part of the final work, and though this is not likely to be all my own writing, I do feel I’d benefit from having more competence and confidence in this area. Using practitioners such as David Campany and Lewis Bush as inspiration, I hope to make this a solid strand of my practice moving forward. 

I was happy to be selected as a ‘shortlisted artist’ for the Revolv Collective One Year Open Call which will involve some much welcome social media promotion via their channels and may open further opportunities in the future. I have also entered work into the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 161, with the outcome of shortlisting currently awaited.

I’m looking forward to what I anticipate will be the most intensely rewarding period of the MA to come in the Final Major Project. I feel that my work is on the verge of blossoming into something different and hopefully more compelling. I’m excited about the possibilities ahead and have already begun to consider the future beyond the MA, where I know the work will continue (PhD?). I’m relishing the opportunity to spend more focused time researching, exploring and developing new ideas and creating new connections with the work I have planned (workshops, joint projects with key agencies already involved with issues surrounding loneliness and urban isolation etc.). 

I look forward to discovering where the work will evolve to and how it will broaden out to hopefully include people (of all ages), interiors, exteriors and maybe even some daylight! I am less daunted by the FMP simply because I understand now that my work on this issue will not stop there, and I have a sense of where I will be able to take this work forward in the post-MA world that will soon be a reality.

Let’s get it!

Informing Contexts: Week 8 Reflection

“My life is kind of, at least equally influenced by pictures of things, as it is in things. We know what’s nice because we saw it in a magazine…we make lots of decisions about our life, and what we want, who we are and where we want to go, from pictures”

Thomas Demand, 2013

This has been one of the most difficult CRJ entries to write. Week 8 encouraged us to consider and evaluate the ways in which photographers discuss and defend their own practice. This has always been, and remains, something I find very difficult to do. This inherent incapacity coincided with another testing period at work and along with my ongoing inertia with my project, left me stumped. 

It seems, as we get ever closer to the final project, that we’re required to be more specific and more articulate about our objectives as practitioners...not an unreasonable demand at this stage of a postgraduate photography degree. Yet for possibly the first time, I'm questioning whether I was ever that suited to MA study, having had no formal photography training prior to starting this course. Combining this course with an increasingly demanding job hasn’t gotten any easier, and has left me perpetually frustrated that I haven’t got more physical and mental resources to devote to the course and to reaping the rewards of prolonged, intense concentration and reflection on my work. I find myself thinking that I will not truly have internalised all the lessons on this course till probably two or three years after graduation (I’m hoping to achieve that at least!).

So week 8 was a bit like that!

Asked to consider what ideas, aesthetics, techniques, contexts and theories we are exploring in our practice, I initially just baulked and was completely unable to engage with the question. Only after a couple of weeks of rumination have I been able to come back to this question in even a provisional way. I’m still wrestling with these ideas, still trying to absorb some of the lessons we’ve been introduced to during this module and during this course (which has flown by the way!) and still trying to understand my place in the matrix. I apologise in advance therefore, if this entry feels somewhat nascent and unformed. 

The ideas I am trying to explore in my current work have been consistent in big picture terms but have changed in subtle ways on the micro level as I've moved through this course. 

At the moment, I'm trying to examine:

  • Solitude/loneliness as a pervasive and yet under-discussed state.

  • Loneliness as a negative – isolating, depressing, oppressive, diminishing and destructive, leading to communities lacking cohesion and interpersonal connections.

  • Solitude as a positive – regenerative, contemplative, protective and liberating.

  • My own experiences of solitude and loneliness – how/where/why I’ve felt lonely in the past, what my feelings are about these events now and what I hope for moving forward.

  • Solitude and loneliness as these states might be connected to previous emotional trauma/memories/significant moments in time.

  • Solitude/loneliness as experienced at different ages/stages of life and how one's experience might differ depending on your age/stage of life.

What am I trying to say in my work? Well, I'm trying to say loads of things (successfully or otherwise, who can say!):

  • That there's beauty at night

  • That there's room for reflection, contemplation (and possibly temptation) at night

  • That you might be alone but that you aren't really alone – we're all in the same boat, feeling this way is not unique (or as isolating as it may feel at the time). 

I'm also trying to say that I too feel this way, alone, adrift, cut off at times and that I'm trying to understand myself and my situation...how did I get here? How can I bridge the gap between myself and others? I'm trying to say that we need to look out for each other, and look after one another. We need to look outside of ourselves. I'm trying to say that it's ok to be different and to stand apart from the crowd. 

There's a lot there! These elements come in and out of my thoughts at different times as I try to build this project and conceptualise the work. They have also, to different degrees and possibly in less explicit ways, been present in much of my photography since I first started taking pictures back in 2013. 

Artists and practitioners whose work resonates with me, and feels relevant to this project include:

  • Clint Eastwood
  • Sofia Coppola
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Todd Hido
  • Alec Soth
  • Gregory Crewdson
  • Rut Blees Luxemburg
  • Edward Hopper
  • Stephen Shore
  • Rebecca Solnit
  • David George
  • Olivia Laing
  • Mark Rothko
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Sam Mendes
  • Lynne Cohen

For me, these people – filmmakers, directors, photographers, writers, painters – have in common that they produce work that relies heavily on storytelling, narrative, sentimentality, beauty, giving voice to the outsider or disenfranchised and taking an alternative view of things at times. Many of these practitioners have directly referenced solitude as a concern of theirs, or produced work that explores this theme to at least some degree. 

Thinking specifically of the photographers, there's a consistent thread of producing images that challenge the viewer to consider what's happening both inside and beyond the frame – narrative images that demand interpretation or discussion. Most of these practitioners stare directly at bare emotion, have an obvious interest in the human condition, and are not afraid to confront or explore sometimes difficult feelings. Even in the case of practitioners such as Cohen, whose work rarely actually includes humans, there is an inquisitiveness about the impact of humans on the world and the environment and an encouragement to think beyond the boundaries of the image. 

I am predominantly producing images at night at the moment. This aesthetic choice stems from my own comfort with this time of the day and the techniques required to produce interesting images at this time, but it also fits my own conception of solitude, my own feelings around this and my previous experiences. There's also something in there about how I process things visually and the way memories tend to come to me more easily at night, in darkness, than they do during the day. The idea of reaching into the depths of memory or emotion to connect with these feelings certainly works best for me at night. I've written before about how the night stereotypically lends itself to some of these ideas, the ‘dark night of the soul' etc and this also feeds into and informs my practice to some extent. Practitioners in the list above who are also predominantly known for night work (e.g. Luxemburg, Hido, Hopper to a lesser extent) often portray a strand of displacement and disconnection in their work, Hido in particular. 

Increasingly, I’m convinced that I need to introduce people into my world of solitude, whether that's portraiture or as actors in the urban landscape, because the work now seems to be somehow incomplete without finding a way to include the people I’m trying to represent, the people I am trying to 'reach out' to. I plan for people to play a more prominent part in the work in the next phase of the project. 

When considering the context of my work, I'm hoping to argue that the state of solitude is an almost universal one and thus the context is potentially everywhere and everyone. This work should be applicable, and hopefully accessible, to all. I originally conceived of this work as being a useful starting point for a workshop about this issue, hopefully with the aim of providing strategies and resources to help people ‘reach out’ to others and ameliorate this state of loneliness. Moving forward into the final project phase, this has to be a key strand of the work – making it accessible and relatable to people in different strata of society. This aspect of the project is really important to me, but has yet to be fully explored so far. 

Some contexts for this work are easily identified – the book, the exhibition, the short film. These strands interest me in different ways, and feel like essential parts of the final complete whole of my ideal project. Of course, constraints of time/finances/collaborators/my own competence etc. may mean that these avenues are not all available, but they still represent the goal. I would ideally like my work to be available in all of these contexts, but appreciate that that work may necessarily extend beyond the duration of this MA. 

Thinking about the professional placement of this work, I believe this largely depends on how well I'm able to engage potential audiences, where they are, in a way that encourages them to interact with and respond to the work. For example, it's certainly possible to be more strategic about how I share this work via my current social media channels. Finding effective ways to interest my followers could give the project a new lease of life and propel it into a wider consciousness that then opens up the possibility of publication or exhibition. I must engage the audience, I have to generate sufficient interest and feedback from those who do encounter the work, to be able to leverage that for possible professional dissemination of the work. 

Considering critical theory that might underpin this work, I suppose the project relies in some way on the idea of connecting with the viewer through common references and common experiences. We’ve already discussed in this module the idea that a large part of the success of an image relies on its ability to utilise commonly accepted ideas and signs to communicate with the viewer. As the work becomes more personal and more introspective, I have to consider the importance of expressing myself in a way that optimises communication, possibly by using accepted visual references, but that still allows me enough creative leeway to produce work that’s individual and distinctively 'mine'. 

Ultimately, I want viewers to be moved by the work, to feel an emotional connection to the subject and the content of the images. Of course, this relies on me communicating clearly and skilfully. I want the viewer to be able to see something of themselves in the work (another reason why adding people into the mix seems to make sense to me). I want my viewer to be challenged to review their environment, to look around more, to see opportunities for connection where maybe they hadn't done previously. I'd like the viewer to know that I feel the same and that in most ways that matter we're all the same. 

References:

YouTube. “TateShots: Meet the Artist - Thomas Demand”. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpesyyXWMvg[accessed 12 April 2018].