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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: Critical Basis For Presentation

As I reflect on nearing the end of the FMP, I’m obliged to consider what has and hasn’t worked in the way the work was presented on the website and at exhibition. The two key decisions about the presentation were 

·      grouping the images into triptychs 

·      presenting the images alongside text

I will endeavor to explain these decisions in this post.

Prior to starting this course I’d always thought of making photographs in terms of trying to create the single killer image, something as interesting and as beautiful as possible for its own sake. I’ve written in earlier modules about how repeated exposure to the work of professional practitioners on this course, and the opportunity to hear many of them discuss their work in interviews, gradually forced me to reconsider the importance of creating the single impactful image. It’s certainly easier to appreciate the value of a thoughtfully curated series of images when you feel the impact of the work either in a gallery or in quiet contemplation of a photobook. The potential for communication of a series of images is exponentially increased over what’s possible in a single frame. This understanding of the true importance of stringing images together arrived for me around the same time as I was trying to understand how to create visual narrative, for which analysis of Gregory Crewdson’s work was particularly helpful. 

So, I was struggling with the idea of narrative and how to create this both within an image and within a series of pictures. At this stage I was still shooting empty urban scenes exclusively and was not able to create anything that I felt effectively communicated the project’s themes. Feedback was always along the lines that the pictures were nice enough, but that the underlying message was not discernible.

Big lightbulb moment came at this exhibition

Big lightbulb moment came at this exhibition

Visiting the London Nights exhibition in May was a key moment, as I’d been wondering about how to solve the narrative question for quite a few months without feeling any closer to figuring it out and so was unsure how I’d be able to produce a successful Final Major Project. At London Nights I saw lots of inspiring work, but a series of images presented in triptych really stuck with me – the connections suggested between each photograph were close yet non-specific enough, that the viewer was able to make links of their own without feeling that the photographer was being too didactic. 

Attempted diptych

Attempted diptych

At that stage I’d already experimented with a couple of diptychs, which I’d found unsatisfactory, but the third image seemed to bring balance and a plethora of additional narrative possibilities. The whole narrative thread opened out in front of my eyes and I resolved to try this with my own work. It was a ‘lightbulb moment’ in the journey of this project.  

Attempt to create an image with some internal narrative

Attempt to create an image with some internal narrative

Once the penny had dropped, I tried creating semi-staged images, in a nod towards Crewdson, to see if I could create more visual intrigue in this way. Unsurprisingly, it did not work too well. The triptypchs didn’t work too well either initially and I felt this was mainly because they didn’t have an entry point – a way to invite the viewer into the story. I realised this would be best achieved by portraiture, using people to spark off the narrative, with the other two images inciting further questions. Images by artists such as Tom Hunter came to mind, whose portraits can on one hand seem almost mundane, but on the other hand are deeply suggestive and sometimes carry layers of additional meaning. I thus used work such as this as a role model to work towards. 

Living In Hell  by Tom Hunter, from   his website

Living In Hell by Tom Hunter, from his website

The key then was to make more portraits and as I was also convinced of the importance of including myself explicitly in the work, I accepted that self-portraits would be required too. I felt a responsibility to match the degree of exposure that my collaborators had offered to the project, and that the work would not be complete without an attempt at honest self-examination of my own state in relation to the issues under discussion.

Making more portraits confirmed that introducing people into the work was the key to bringing the triptychs together. The stories that each portrait suggested based on my own personal knowledge of the subject, or on elements that were suggested from the image itself or from discussions during the shoot, guided further shoots to create images that worked with the portraits or that allowed links to be made with other images made during the project. 

I had also explored the use of text earlier in the project and subsequently abandoned the idea as I felt that I’d somehow lost my way in telling the story I wanted to tell. One of our tutors had also commented to the effect that I’d lost my own voice in trying to seek the views of a large number of other people and I’d taken this to heart as it was a very perceptive observation. I continued to collect writing from collaborators though and to interview the people I was shooting. I was also writing poetry inspired by the project theme and in response to some creative writing that one of my collaborators had written. 

Page example from  Hackney By Night  by David George

Page example from Hackney By Night by David George

Once the triptychs started to take shape and I felt more confident that they’d be able to suggest a story, the potential interaction of words with these images was again interesting to me. Works like Hackney By Night by David George and London Ends by Philipp Ebeling, where text either accompanied the images in a standard ‘image facing text’ (Hackney By Night) kind of way, or in a more whimsical thread running through the book (London Ends) also proved that this might be an effective way to present the work. 

Page example from  London Ends  by Philipp Ebeling

Page example from London Ends by Philipp Ebeling

In each of the above two examples, I was particularly interested in the fact that the text did not necessarily appear to relate directly to the image(s) it appeared with in the presentation. This seemed to offer another opportunity to introduce interpretative uncertainty for the viewer, keeping them a little off balance when trying to understand the work and seek for answers within the triptych. I definitely didn’t want to end up with captions, but with text that further opened out the potential interpretations of the pictures, with the aim to offer as broadly applicable a perspective of the issue as possible, such that the viewer is more likely to be able to connect with some aspect of the work. 

The writing in Hackney By Night is a great example of writing that expands the mood of the images without seeking to directly explain them. Again, as I was aiming for an emotionality in the work, I very much wanted to use any device that could increase the emotional temperature of the work and support the mood I was trying to create for the viewer. 

The way the text was finally used to accompany the work differed on the website and the exhibition. On the website, each triptych is accompanied by text and can be considered as a self-contained ‘packet’ of narrative information. At the exhibition, I chose not to accompany each triptych with text directly, preferring rather to position text in the space in a way that gave the text more independent emphasis and allowed the viewer to reflect on the writing and then move towards another grouping of images in a more flexible way. 

Exhibition visitor reading text

Exhibition visitor reading text

It was interesting to see then, that exhibition visitors seemed to respond in equal measure to the text as well as the photographs. There were a number of people who took pictures of the writing and posted to social media for example, demonstrating that they’d received the text on an equal footing to the images rather than as a narrative sidekick. This response again confirmed the benefit of staging an exhibition, as providing an alternative way to present the work and allowing it to be received and interpreted differently.

Exhibition visitor posted text on Instagram following the private view

Exhibition visitor posted text on Instagram following the private view

Another element that I experimented with during the exhibition was of combining triptychs to create larger narratives. These groups of six photographs came about when planning the exhibition layout on my computer and realising that grids of images gave the work a different feel again. Having two portraits in each group suggested potential relationships between people that were not seen in a single triptych. This was quite fun to play with and the typical response from visitors to the exhibition was of trying to make connections when confronted with the six images, which kept them engaged for longer and forced them to reflect more deeply on what they were seeing. These 6-image grids were the most talked about element of the exhibition without doubt, and the aspect that provoked the most questions from visitors. 

6 image grid on show at the FMP exhibition

6 image grid on show at the FMP exhibition

It was really satisfying to get direct feedback on the mode of presentation, when the viewer was finding a single or multiple implied stories, but was not able to satisfactorily resolve them immediately and was thus provoked to ask a question about the work. Having viewers arrive at widely varying interpretations of the same set of images was even better!

Overall then, I believe that the decisions to present the work in triptych and alongside text were both successful at this stage of the project. It is possible that as the work continues and the range of responses to the issue increases, these decisions may no longer serve the best communication of the themes and I would be happy to concede them as they are by no means non-negotiable. As stated previously, I feel that there’s still a long way to go with this project and the work will no doubt change course again before reaching its natural conclusion. As I look ahead, I anticipate the addition of video to the work as well as a wider variety of scenes and portraits but there will almost certainly be other unexpected developments and I look forward to steering a course into the future.

Final Major Project: ROITD Website Outcome

Early on in the planning of the potential outputs for this project I envisaged a website as a significant, and possibly the most important, outcome of the FMP. As the FMP period continued and the chances of staging an exhibition appeared to recede, I further concentrated my focus on producing a website to display the work and which could serve as a hub from which the project would continue to grow and deepen post-MA.

I had purchased a suitable domain some time back in preparation for building the website, but only began outlining how I wanted the site to develop in the last month or so as the project and the planned triptych format started to take shape. 

The aim was to produce a visually interesting and informative website, that would be able to provide a deeper experience than available at the exhibition. In keeping with the breadth of responses to the themes of this project, I was keen to present information in a range of formats – 

·      factual information and links

·      contextual information about the issue of urban solitude/loneliness

·      interview excerpts from those who’d collaborated in the project 

·      creative writing from collaborators and myself

·      songs that respond to the theme

Due to the multi-format nature of this information I was confident that a website would be a perfect platform for presenting the work. The challenge was to do so in a way that was engaging without being overly dry, or that took the emphasis away from the images.

Example of a page from Raphaël Dallaporta’s work  Domestic Slavery    from artist’s website

Example of a page from Raphaël Dallaporta’s work Domestic Slavery from artist’s website

Useful references for this work included Domestic Slavery by Raphaël Dallaporta and Imperial Courts by Dana Lixenberg. These two examples showed that communication of the themes and message of a project could be enhanced and its impact amplified, by accompanying text (Domestic Slavery) and that a multimedia presentation can result in a richness and depth of coverage of a theme that isn’t possible using still images alone (Imperial Courts). 

These projects, particularly Imperial Courts, were exemplars of the sort of treatment I was aiming for with my own website. I have always felt that this project will not have been fully explored without film, more creative and investigative writing and potentially full interview transcripts also being presented alongside the photographs. This deep exploration of a theme really appeals to me, as it allows me to continue my enquiries following completion of the MA and also because the scope of this topic is so broad as to almost demand more than the 6 month treatment available during the FMP.  

As the image-making started to come together, so the potential website layout also became clearer. I was thus able to start building the website at the beginning of November, using placeholder images to give a sense of what the eventual layout would look like and how the text would relate to the pictures in the final presentation. 

I was fortunate to be able to draw on some rich textual material from my contributors and the beginning of the website build coincided with further written submissions. I’d also been working on some writing of my own which continued alongside the website draft. November was thus a busy month of more shooting, website planning and building, writing and exhibition planning and I was pleased with the progress I was able to make in a short time.

Once the date of the exhibition was decided, I aimed to have the website ready to publish on the day prior the exhibition. This was to act as a primer and public introduction to the topic and would also be available to support the physical exhibition (e.g. I was able to refer exhibition visitors to the website for more information and images when meeting them at the gallery).

Text presented alongside images on the project website

Text presented alongside images on the project website

At time of launch, the website consisted of 36 images in 12 triptychs. Each triptych is presented with an accompanying text excerpt. The text being of varying length and type (interview transcript excerpts, creative prose or poetry) and in some instances chosen to seemingly reinforce the putative theme of the triptych and in others to challenge it. 

The website also includes information and statistics about the issues of solitude and loneliness and the emotional and psychological impact it has. In addition, the website includes contact information for agencies that are somehow related to this issue. 

Information about solitude and explaining the project in more detail on project website

Information about solitude and explaining the project in more detail on project website

The reaction from people who’ve visited the website has been very positive. I have received comments on the images, the impact of their presentation alongside text, the usefulness of the information that adds context to the topic and the value of including contacts to helpful organisations. 

I’ve been gratified to hear from a number of people that the work on the website has moved them emotionally, including a couple of visitors who have been moved to tears by the work. This was pleasing to hear from the point of view of confirming the success of a key project aim, that of engaging with the viewer’s emotions and producing work that carried an emotional weight. Again, I feel this was more successfully achieved by combining text and images than would have been achieved simply by images alone.

Links to relevant organisations on project website

Links to relevant organisations on project website

The website has also acted as a starting point for dialogue with people who are themselves interested in investigating this issue and with agencies who are already doing so. I have been able to refer them to the website for a quick appraisal of where I am with the work so far and what my standpoint is, and this has been a great platform from which to discuss potential collaborations or to launch ongoing dialogue about the issues involved. 

Overall then, I would say the website has been the most successful aspect of the project, because of its permanence and the fact it will allow the work to be visible and accessible in a way that suits the viewer. Based on the responses I received during the exhibition, there’s also likely to be a benefit from the ability to engage with the work online anonymously and at one’s own pace, my suspicion being that people are more comfortable engaging with and reflecting on this work when they feel under no pressure to react to it for an external observer or where they are not in danger of having a potentially emotional response noted by someone else.

In the near future I aim to add a short movie to the website, as well as more transcripts from recent interviews that were conducted just prior to the website being published. I will also continue to add images as the project continues in the weeks and months ahead.

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.
 
Reference:
Beckman, K. and Weissberg, L. (ed.) (2013) On Writing with Photography, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.