Exercise 2.1

The following notes summarize my reflection on how Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project compares with W. Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor. I have made notes on each of these two essays separately in previous blog entries (see links to my notes on Country Doctor here and to The Dad Project here).

Both The Dad Project and Country Doctor attempt to document a series of events but while the former has a clear chronological feeling to it, Smith’s essay is presented as a series of vignettes or mini stories that are chronological within themselves but that could come in any order within the essay without altering the end result. In that respect, Country Doctor feels more like snapshots at a specific point of somebody’s life, rather than a path along it.

W. Eugene Smith made the effort to be invisible in the scene and consequently Country Doctor is a detached, cold account of the events and consequently, feels objective. At no point in the series one feels that Smith is emotionally affected by what is happening in the frame. His point of view and execution feels like that of a press photographer. His pictures are dramatic, contrasty and skillfully composed and angled to maximise impact. While the pictures, as originally intended for magazine publication, are accompanied by captions, many of them are very clear and unambiguous on what they are portraying and it would be fairly straightforward to follow the story even without the written aids. This contrasts with The Dad Project, which feels a lot more ambiguous and difficult to understand as a sequence. The story in The Dad Project was not about the photographer’s dad, but more about her relationship with him at the time of his terminal illness and death, and as a result she appears in many of the images. The involvement of the photographer with the subject and the difficulty of the circumstances being portrayed makes the photographs in here more subtle, indirect and more subjective. Yet, while it is harder to follow than Country Doctor, The Dad Project still makes visual sense when viewed in sequence.

The format and presentation of Country Doctor was somewhat pre-determined at the time of shooting. W. Eugene Smith was working on a commission from LIFE and the photographs were always intended to be published as a magazine feature. The pictures are also available now on their own, online and in book form, but they seem somehow to have left W. Eugene Smith control once they were shot. As I mentioned previously in my separate notes for Country Doctor (link), it feels like the editorial team in LIFE had a great deal of control over which pictures were included and how they were presented or captioned. I could not find any evidence that Smith made any further attempts to recycle this material into other projects. This also contrasts with Briony Campbell’s approach in The Dad Project, as the material has been presented in a multitude of formats and media, including magazine / newspaper features, exhibitions and in book form. In addition to photographs, Campbell also makes use of video in the project, which altogether enriches the experience. Because the The Dad Project is not merely a chronicle of somebody dying, but instead tries to explore the relationship between the photographer and her father, the project does not feel as if it was complete. The photographer seems to be using this material as a way of continuing that relationship, beyond her father’s passing, and the project seems to be morphing over time to explore different aspects of this. In fact, looking at Campbell’s notes (1), one gets the impression that she only began to figure out how to use the photographs and video footage she captured long after she finished principal photography, and she has allowed the material to be shaped not only by herself, but also by others. This continuous exploration, all of which is happening after the photographs were taken and without any possibility of re-taking them, is probably what Campbell refers to when she mentions that The Dad Project “is the story of an ending without an ending”

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(1) Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. [online] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 11 Sep. 2017]

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Exercise 1.5 – The real and the digital

The following observations come from reading the section “The Real and the Digital” in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75.

The article discusses briefly the relationship between “the real” and photography, in the context of the technological advances that have made the manipulation of images ubiquitous in many of today’s photographic practices. One of the points made is that while we have always been conscious that photographic images could be manipulated or altered in a deceitful way, we have also “…been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more “real” than other kinds of images” (idem, p 74), and that it was “…possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography” (idem, p 74). In other words, the perception of authenticity in a photograph is perhaps more influenced by our understanding of the parameters of each type of photographic practice, than by the way its contents are presented or arranged. As an example, the ethical requirements of photojournalism would perhaps incline more people to believe that a press photograph is a more authentic representation of reality than the output of a conceptual artist using just photography as a medium. The article goes on to argue that “Any radical transformation in this [photographic practice] structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph” as a medium to represent the real (idem p. 74), a situation that was underpinned by recent developments in photography leading to the “…merging and lack of definition between photographic genres” (idem p. 75).

In looking at the arguments made by Wells, one has to wonder to what extent the technological advances are actually driving the changes to photographic practices that she mentions in her article. For instance, Wells quotes Campany to make the point that the definition of photography is less dependent on “…what it is technologically than what it is culturally” (idem p 75), but in the age of social media, how can we separate culture from technology? It is difficult to argue that the smart phone, which is the device most commonly used these days to produce photographs, doesn’t determine at the same time how we choose to consume, as a society, photographic images (eg via image sharing applications). This, in turn, is likely to have had a profound impact on our perception of the structure of photographic practices, as the same image repositories (eg Flickr, Facebook, etc) are likely to be used by diverse practitioners (photojournalists, artists, documentarians) to share their images, thus adding to the lack of definition alluded by Wells in the article.

At the same time, and while it is undeniable that image manipulation has always existed, it is also clear that the proliferation of image sharing apps in recent times, all of which offer image editing facilities, have not only made it trivial to alter photographs, but (by means of their social acceptance as the prime way of consuming images) have also contributed to the establishment of aesthetic codes that validate such manipulations. This may be initially circumscribed to a limited subset of photographic practices (eg vernacular photography, art photography), but the blurring of the corners between practices fostered by the sharing of technological platforms should have contributed, at least to an extent, to create an expectation of manipulation for most photographs.

A point can also be made more directly about the speed and ease with which image manipulation can be achieved in modern times. Without even seeking to compare the quality of output in either cases, it should be clear for most practitioners that software manipulation is significantly faster, and generally more consistently reproducible, than even the simplest of analogue photographic manipulations. This in itself is likely to have contributed to greater expectations, by the viewer, of photographic images departing more and more from reality; under the perception that the ease with which they could be manipulated creates ever-increasing temptation for undertaking seemingly innocent alterations. This seems to have been confirmed, at least anecdotally, by the numerous cases of press photographs being disqualified from industry-run contests in recent years (see for instance here and here). In this case, one could argue again that the technological advances have somewhat contributed to the altering of perceived social and cultural structures within certain photographic practices (eg photojournalism in this case).

 

Exercise 1.4 – Digital manipulation

The idea for this exercise came by while I was walking to work. There are quite a lot of road works along my regular route and in many of these there are quite a lot of manholes which are being re-made / repaired. While looking at some of the workers lying the pavement, I started to wander what would be like if somebody was trapped in any of these holes and emerged all of a sudden in the middle of the works, to the amazement of the workers. As I kept walking, I started looking down and paying attention to the rain water drains on the road and how these, even if relatively large (about a foot and a half on each direction), would still be too tight for a relativelly large person to be trapped in them. This is when I made the connection with the idea of documenting something that appears realistic, but on second though could never be: somebody trapped in one of these drains trying to escape.

I took all the photographs on that same morning to make sure the light was as similar as possible: a picture of the drain, two pictures of my hands and a shot of my head and shoulders from above (holding the camera as high as possible over my head). The original pictures are show below:

I started by importing all the images into Photoshop. With the aid of the quick selection tool, I selected the fingers from each of the two hand shots and copied each one into a separate layer. I then used the free transform tool to reduce the size of the fingers and move them around to the correct position and orientation on top of the drain. With the aid of a layer mask and the brush, I painted back the drain on top of the bits of hand that were not needed. Because the hands came out much clearer than the drain, I then added an adjustment layer for levels and another one for saturation in order to tone down the lightness and colour in the fingers (they became quite red when I darken them down). I subsequently selected the head and shoulders from the final shot, using again the quick selection tool, and added them on to the drain image. Free transform was used again to resize and relocate the head, with a layer mask being added to paint back the parts of the drain that I wanted to show up. I then added a bit of Gaussian blur to the head and shoulders to make them slightly out of focus (focus is clearly above the head, on the top of the drain grill). Additional adjustment layers for levels (to darken) curves (to control contrast) and saturation (to reduce redness) were added to the head and shoulders layer.

DSCF1206-3@0,1x
Semi-finished image from Photoshop

Following the above, the semi-finished image (see above) was imported into Lightroom where additional adjustments were made to come to the final image: perspective was adjusted, the image cropped, further work was undertaken on the fingers to selectively darken them and to create shadows under them, as well as on the head and shoulders to selectivelly darken or brighten certain areas. The final picture is shown below:

DSCF1206-3-2
The photographer trying to scape from a drain

 

Exercise 1.3 – Sarah Pickering

The following comments are made after reviewing the series “Public Order” by Sarah Pickering, available from her website (1)

Approaching this exercise after having read the relevant passages of the course guide is quite challenging, given that I already knew what to expect when looking for these images in Sarah Pickering’s website. Her website provides a link to the series (1), but this includes a slide show of the images with no explanation or background, other than the title to the picture and the date it was taken. Trying to look at these pictures objectively, right from the first image it is clear something is off. The starting picture is titled “Denton Underground Station” (link), which people familiar with London will have trouble recognising, as it does not exist. If that clue was not enough, the buildings running along the side street are all in profile and is clear that they only consist of a front wall: these are clearly fake buildings in a fake area of London. We know from the outset the scenery is fabricated, but we do not know what it is. Subsequent pictures continue to give up clues (like boarded up windows) that something it off, but throughout the series it is not clearly indicated that these are police training grounds, with Pickering giving this up slowly instead. The earliest indication we have of this comes from the picture “Guards / Violent Man” (link), where riot gear can be seen through one of the doorways in this indoors shot. Further clues are provided in later pictures, such as “High Street (Barricade)” (link),  and “River Way (Roadblock)”(link). Knowing in advance that these pictures are about police training grounds takes away the mystery from the viewer, but anyone paying attention to the visual elements without that knowledge could also conclude that these were pictures of a large film set (see for instance “Magdalen Green” (link), where the fake house is built indoors, like if it was within a giant sound stage).

The pictures are detached and calm. There are a record of a place, which is shot as straight as possible. The sensation I get is that something seem to have happened in this place (there is rubble on the floor in some of the pictures and there is no person in sight), perhaps some sort of riot (or the filming of it), but that all is over and now everything is in peace. There is no explanation as to how this peace was achieved and this adds a degree of anxiety in the viewer.

I do not think the pictures are misleading if you consider the series as a whole. It is clear from some of the images that these are not pictures of real houses or real towns, if you look carefully at the visual clues. The curiosity that these pictures generate on the viewer, trying to guess what they are, must lead to something and this is a bit of a mystery to me, although I believe that in the end the deception is only there to challenge our sensorial response (what we see) and to make us conscious that what appears to be is not necessarily what is, that what is photographed is not reality itself. But these are not pictures which are documenting something in the social sense of the word. There is no situation that is being exposed and there is no intrinsic political statement from the subject matter (although the deceit itself can be interpreted as a political statement). In that respect, I do not believe the use of a “documentary style” for the series in this case is misleading or inappropriate as such, but is a valid tool that has been used by Pickering for artistic purposes.

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(1) Sarah Pickering. 2017. Sarah Pickering. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/Works/Pulic-Order/workpg-01.html. [Accessed 11 July 2017].

 

 

 

Exercise 1.2 – Street photography

For this exercise, I walked around London streets from South Kensington all the way to the City of London and back. Taking different 60 photographs in total, 30 in colour and 30 black and white, proved to be more challenging that I thought, and I spread the shut-out over three separate days. Below I provide thumbnails of each of the two final sets:

Colour

Black and white

My favourite shots from both series are show below:

I found myself taking slightly different types of photographs on both sets. The black and white set includes quite a few pictures that rely on reflections, light and shadows and / or are taking indirectly, whereas the colour set includes more straight shots and was focused on objects and situations imagined while walking along. At the moment, I feel more pleased with how the black and white pictures came out, but only because they are more aesthetically pleasing, possibly because I have also been taking more black and white pictures in recent years (most of it in film) and my eye is more atuned with what. However, I feel that the colour photographs have the potential to make a story more interesting by virtue of “normalising” the look and allowing the contents to become more relevant. An example of this is the shot of the abandoned heels, taken on the southern edge of Hyde Park. The scene is normalized by being shot straight in colour, without any manipulation, and one would not think much of this if it was not for the abandoned shoes, which prompt the viewer to ask where these came from, who may abandoned them and why? In black and white, the same scene would not look natural and the shoes would not have stood out as much as they do here.

 

Exercise 1.1 – Citizen Journalism

For this exercise, I had a look at various web pages outlining examples of citizen journalism. I looked primarily at still images, although several of the sites had videos as well, both in connection with specific protest events or interviewing the photographer.

Styles are always different, but most of the photographers I looked at had primarily covered events and protests, and most of them have nearly always done so from an insider perspective (i.e., as part of the protest itself rather than as a bystander). Some of the pictures depict police violence and in some cases, the perspective is not dissimilar from that of the victim of the attack itself (see for example these two pictures by Angel Zayas, here and here (1)), and indeed in many cases these journalists would be direct victims of abuse themselves.

Photo-reportages of protests are not new and we have always been able to see dramatic pictures of these events, even when these were covered by regular press photographers. The advent of citizen journalism has perhaps added a new perspective to the coverage, though, closer to the action and also closer to the intended recipients of the news: a lot of these photographs are distributed through blogs and social media, and likely reach a wider audience than photographs included in press publications.

So we are closer to the action, but one has to wonder if this makes any significant difference in terms of the quality of reportage. For one, being inside the protest, and in many cases being part of the protest, could lead to a degree of bias that may not necessarily be present in the output of a professional press photographer. One could argue that the output of the latter may also be subject to editorial bias by the owners of the paper publishing the photographs, but that does not necessarily leave us any better than before, it just provides a counterbalance to the old bias while leaving the general public none the wiser about what really happened.

The point above is interestingly highlighted by Elena Kirsh in an article published by the Jerusalem Post (2), where she talked about this image (3) of a soldier pinning down a girl that has probably been staged, but has been used on numerous occasions to portray violence in Syria and Palestine. Ms Kirsh goes on to argue that uncontrolled citizen journalism could end up with fake news being spread widely, in some cases aided by unsuspecting newspapers picking up and reporting the images without verifying their authenticity, and that citizen journalisms somehow needs to be moderated or reigned upon by traditional news outlets, citing the examples of the “open newslist” from the Guardian and CNN’s “iReport”. One has to wonder, though, if the solution of any potential lack of objectivity by citizen journalism is for it to be subjected to the editorial control of traditional media outlets. Citizen journalists would in this case become no different from traditional press photographers and their unique contribution to the way of presenting the news (ie as an insider) could be lost in the process.

Aside from the question of objectivity, being closer to the action, which I would argue is perhaps the defining feature of citizen journalism, brings up coverage of events that would generally be ignored by mainstream media but that nonetheless may be of interest to the general public. Angel Zayas again provides examples of this, when he photographs police officers in New York searching, arresting or harassing members of the public. See for example here and here, taken from his previously quoted Instagram page (1).

On the subject of aesthetics, it is interesting to note that some (but to be fair, not the majority) of the examples of citizen journalism pictures that I have seen were highly stylised photographs which probably had a good degree of post processing. A good example of this are these pictures depicting protests by Michael Nigro (see here) and Jenna Pope (see here), both of which were taken from an article on citizen journalism appearing in the Huffington Post (3). These pictures are very likely genuine and depict a situation of interest, but the use of post-processing to make them “pop” may detract from their subject matter and could even give grounds to suspicions that they have been altered somewhat. Traditional journalism has long been obsessed with limiting the degree of post-processing that can be done to a picture (see for instance rules from the World Press Photo contest on manipulation (5)), but citizen journalism is not necessarily bound by these rules and may breach them out of necessity in order to apeal to their target audiences in the various social media outlets that they use.

In the balance, it may be argued that rise of citizen journalism does not necessarily improve the objectivity of documentary photography, but it create additional points of view on matters that be of interest and that in itself is a positive development.

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(1) Angel Zayas Photography (@azp.nyc) • Instagram photos and videos . 2017. Angel Zayas Photography (@azp.nyc) • Instagram photos and videos . [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.instagram.com/azp.nyc/. [Accessed 17 June 2017].

(2) Untangling the Web: Citizen journalists running amok . 2017. Untangling the Web: Citizen journalists running amok . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.jpost.com/printarticle.aspx?id=262434. [Accessed 17 June 2017].

(3) latimesblogs.latimes.com. 2017. No page title. [ONLINE] Available at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/02/viral-photo-of-israeli-soldier-appears-fake.html. [Accessed 17 June 2017].

(4) HuffPost. 2017. Let’s All Commit Acts of Citizen Journalism | HuffPost. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-nigro/post_11089_b_9319686.html. [Accessed 17 June 2017].

(5) World Press Photo. 2017. What counts as manipulation? | World Press Photo. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.worldpressphoto.org/activities/photo-contest/verification-process/what-counts-as-manipulation. [Accessed 17 June 2017].