Research notes – Gregory Crewdson

I initially came across Gregory Crewdson when flicking through an American photography magazine. One of his famous tableaux images (link) was featured as part of an advertisement from a well-known print manufacturer. I remember looking into him at that time and noticing that, like Jeff Wall, whose pictures I had seen before, Crewdson primarily works with carefully staged scenarios. Unlike Wall’s, Crewdson’s images have a distinct quality that make them immediately obvious as to being staged (see this, for example), but at the same time intriguing enough for one to stop and ask why has this been set up and what is the photographer trying to tell me.

I decided to look at Crewdson images again for this part of the course because for one of the exercises as well as for assignment 2, I was going to rely heavily in props and made up situations, and I wanted to try to understand how these images work at a general level, without any pretensions as to being able to produce anything near that quality, at least for the time being.

The image referenced in the first paragraph is part of Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses” and this was my starting point. The book covering this (1) is generously sized but does not do justice to some of the images, which are printed to very large formats (about 1.5 by 2.2 meters). Crewdson’s subjects can sometimes occupy a very small part within the frame, and looking at the original size print would have helped to look at the details of this. Many of the images share common visual elements, and in some cases I found that there were pictures that were too similar and I started to question whether it was necessary to include all these images in the book. I presume not all these pictures are shown together in a show, so it may just be a case of the photographer trying to give us the full set of images produced for the series, like a full body of work, rather than a condensed, curated view.

In “Beneath the Roses”, Crewdson presents us with dark, eerie view of suburban life. The images were mostly taken at night or during the twilights. Artificial light plays and important role in the images, in some cases being the only source of light – some of the images were taken inside a soundstage – but even in the outdoor pictures artificial light is used to emphasise the location of the subject (see this, for example, where the car at the junction is illuminated from the inside). I also like how Crewdson mixes light sources, with many pictures having a mix of both warm and cold light that emphasizes the vivacity of the images. Most of the indoor images are contrasty but have a slight HDR quality to them, probably created by the lighting effects employed during production. This emphasizes the sense of staging that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Crewdson’s subjects are rarely doing something in the pictures. Most of the time they are static, motionless – standing or sitting – or just walking, seemingly aimlessly. There is almost no interaction between subjects in the frame and this also adds to the oddness of the images. Some of them look like taken from a dream, like the image of a man digging out suitcases and moving boxes in the middle of the forest (link). In others, the action of people make no sense, like in the image of a lady, who has presumably just got off a taxi and is standing in the middle of the road barefoot, pensive, with people remaining in the taxi looking to the front, away from her, oblivious to the fact that she left the taxi door open (link). I looks like rather than showing the decisive moment, Crewdson images are taken moments before or after that, capturing instead an odd moment. All in all, the people in these images look lonely and the overall impression one gets from the images is that of sadness and self-absorption.

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(1) Crewdson, G., 2008. Beneath the Roses. 1st ed. New York: Abrams.

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Exercise 2.4

The following comments are made after reading the relevant entries in the course guide and looking at the work of Peter Mansell, Dewald Botha and Jodie Taylor.

In first instance, I felt quite a lot of affinity with Peter Mansell’s work and his way of approaching photography. Like him, I am also trying to transition from a photography where aesthetic considerations come first to creating images that come from somewhere more personal and reflective, that have more meaning than beauty. Mansell does not talk about the journey much, and this is the part in which I wish I could have more information from his experience, because it does feel quite confusing at the moment for me. He does talk, though, about the great relief he felt when he started being able to tell his story in visual terms, as he seemed to have difficulties in communicating his frustrations to other people via words:

I learned as a disabled person to hide, ignore and push through the manifold irritants and barriers to getting on and not share them with anyone.

As I progressed I found that I was being drawn to use photography more and more as a form of expression. The process of creation often saw me though pain and anguish while the end product acted as a visual statement about my existence and that experience. In a way it sort of objectified my situation or experience and by so doing released me emotionally.

Mansell has found a personal subject that has allowed him to release that experience that he struggled so much to put in words to others. I am also looking for that, but for me the biggest obstacle seems to be fear. Not fear of failure because in many ways I have already been there, but is more a fear of rejection and isolation. If I were to use photography as a way of conveying my personal experience and feelings, as a means of communicating with others, I fear that I cannot either be brave enough to do that with honesty, or that if I do that, I would end up burning too many bridges. I am already burning bridges in any case by trying to move away from a purely aesthetic perspective in photography to a more reflective one. For people, it is hard to find interesting pictures of mundane objects and I feel that I have not develop the narrative yet to sustain this. I fear that if I go all out on this, I would end up burning all my bridges without building anything else durable. That fear, I must continue to fight in order to move forward.

Mansell also talks about the differences between photography and the likeness of its subject, which is one of the aspects of the medium that fascinates me the most. Because photography is a way of reproducing reality with great detail, it is often confused with it and this is possibly a mistake. Mansell makes reference to this when he mentions that “photography offers the appearance of transparency while simultaneously offering a distinct, coded transcription of the real” (1). I personally think that the “coding” is the area of photography where I would like to focus for the following months: how I interpret my reality or somebody elses reality and how the end product reflects that interpretation, hopefully in a way that is distinguishable from other forms of interpreting that reality.

While I related quite a lot at first with Mansell’s way of looking at photography, I was visually captivated by Botha’s Ring Road series (2). In the brief text accompanying his work, Botha makes various references to displacement and disconnection, which from the background provided in the course guide, possibly comes from the feeling of being an outsider as a South African living in China. I like the fact that Botha started the project as a mere physical exploration of the ring road and gradually transitioned to a personal reflection on “displacement and survival” (3),  how he coped away from his home country. The images in the series all have a feeling of sadness, of starkness that comes from the absence of people and general emptiness of the roads themselves. At the same time, the physical structure of the road seems to encapsulate and limit the field of view in the images, sometimes acting as a barrier that prevent us from seeing what is going on. This was particularly the case in this image, where the concrete walls of the road prevent us from seeing the houses at the back with some clarity. This effect goes well with the multiple mentions that Botha makes in the accompanying text of what he calls “invisible limitations”, which, based on my interpretation of the accompanying text, is likely to be more about our self-erected barriers to connection, and the quest to bring some barriers down, perhaps by recalibrating our expectations. This, like Mansell’s words in the interview quoted in the course guide, also resonate with my current struggle to find that inner motivation to recalibrate my photography into something I am proud off and can reach out to others.

I also had a look at Jodie Taylor’s work in the series Memories of Childhood (4). While I did not particularly connect with the images, I found intriguing the approach used by the photographer and in particular I quite liked the use of film cameras, 6×4 prints and cheap photo albums as means of evoking the era which the series is trying to remember. It shows the importance of preparation and emphasises the idea that every decision within the creative process has to be justified and when this justification is well thought out, the whole work comes together in a better way. The subject of returning to the place where we were born is in itself quite intriguing. For multiple reasons, I am not able to do that right now, but I have been thinking instead about my earliest memories here in England, when I first arrived 26 years ago, and I wonder if it would be worthwhile relieving some of such memories and visiting some of those places before I forget them forever.

———————————— ooo ————————————

All the three authors mentioned above had made work which is in many ways deeply personal and introspective. Yet, in many cases the aim of the work itself is to reach out. This seems to be particularly the case of Mansell’s work, where he is using images to express himself, but is also subtly perceivable in the work of Taylor and Botha. I feel that if the aim of the work is to reach out, to use it as a mechanism for coping with our personal circumstances, and the work itself is good enough to reflect that, then the artistic experience will be enriched by allowing the viewer to relate to that experience and come to his or her own conclusions, and the work should be sufficiently robust to withstand multiple interpretations without loosing its main character. The problem, of course, is that when the work becomes too personal for an artist, then it is no longer just a piece of art but also part of something intimate, and as such is very hard to leave it to its own devices. I guess part of maturing as an artist is understanding that people come in all sorts of shapes and forms and that the viewer is not always going to relate to the experiences depicted and in many cases will end up being hostile to something they cannot relate to or understand. When the work is about something personal, particularly something we have been struggling with for some time, then it is probably best to be able to let go, to release whatever is it we were dealing with through the pictures, and then leave them in the open for somebody else to deal with it.

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(1) Boothroyd, S., 2015. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 2nd ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts. p 128.

(2) Dewald. 2017. Ring Road – Dewald. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.dewaldbotha.net/ring-road.html. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

(3) Boothroyd, op. cit. p 66

(4) WeAreOCA. 2017. Photography and Nostalgia – WeAreOCA. [ONLINE] Available at: https://weareoca.com/subject/photography/photography-and-nostalgia/. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

 

Exercise 2.3

The poem I have selected for this exercise is “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, originally published in 1849:

I.

Hear the sledges with the bells–
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

II.

Hear the mellow wedding bells
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

III.

Hear the loud alarum bells–
Brazen bells!
What tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor
Now–now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear, it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows ;
Yet, the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells–
Of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells–
In the clamour and the clangour of the bells!

IV.

Hear the tolling of the bells–
Iron bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy meaning of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people–ah, the people–
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All alone,
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone–
They are neither man nor woman–
They are neither brute nor human–
They are Ghouls:–
And their king it is who tolls ;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls, rolls,
Rolls
A pæan from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the pæan of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells ;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the pæan of the bells–
Of the bells :
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the sobbing of the bells ;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells–
Of the bells, bells, bells–
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells–
Bells, bells, bells–
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells. (1)

 

The poem is highly onomatopoeic, with the use of many words that evoke sounds, and this is what attracted me to it in the first place. The first time I read it, I had the feeling that the poem was about cycles, going through life’s stages from youth to death, covering innocent joy, hopefulness, despair, resignation and sorrow. These stages were all represented by events or activities where we expect, or traditionally would have expected to hear bells.

The second time I read it, I felt that the association between sound and events was the main idea, and what primarily came to my mind was classic conditioning and learning by association, as if the different ways in which bells can sound predetermined how we react, and the emotions we feel. I also have the impression that the signs are all signals on how to interpret events, rather than a reflection of our own or the author’s direct experience (ie the signs (the bells), rather than being in the middle of the action, evoke a chain of feelings and reactions). It all feels detached and third hand.

The third time I read the poem I went line by line slowly to try to decipher if there was any additional connection that I missed. It seems to me now that Poe was probably more pessimistic about this poem that I thought at first. There seems to be a connection between the first and last part of the poem which I had not noted as first. In the last part, Poe derides those who take joy on death. He seems to be  specifically referring to people in here, although he deflects his commentary somewhat to attribute the delirium to their “king”, which I would assume is Death, and proceeds to describe it by using some of the same words used in the first part of the poem, which I consider to be about pure, innocent joy. The overriding sensation I had after this third reading is that reality is always different from our idea of it and that what may seem innocent can turn out to be sinister and vice-versa.

Looking at all the things that I have taken out of this poem, I still think that Poe is trying to talk to us about life’s ups and downs, but he may also be telling us to be on the guard because we tend to react to signs, to what we perceive  (the different ringing of the bells) in ways that somehow are predictable, or driven by stereotypes or prejudice, but not necessarily always right or appropriate, and sometimes these signs may mislead us.

————————————— ooo —————————————

To depict what I took away from the poem, I wanted to make a series of photographs about signs that we could interpret to mean something based on our current experience. These signs will themselves be wrapped around a cycle of life theme, which I have associated to each part of the poem: innocence/enjoyment, growth/success, despair/failure and maturity/death.  In the poem, many of these themes were wrapped by the sounds of the bells, different bells, and these sounds were probably universally understood as signs for what each part of the poem depicted. Everybody at that time knew the sound of bells tolling for death, and the sound of bells on sledges. Nowadays people may no longer know these signs. They may not be able to make such associations, so the signs would need to be updated. What can be a sign that is universally associated with these things?

  • As I said before, the first part of the poem evokes in me a feeling of joy and innocence. It also takes me back to my childhood. I have tried to put in images signs that convey all this: moving swings, toys, laughter
  • Part II of the poem deals with marriage in a literal sense, but I interpret it as encompassing our growth as beings and the potential prosperity that comes with it: becoming educated, taking a profession, earning a living, moving to our own place, starting a family. The signs I have chosen to evoke this include college results, coins, a happy face.
  • Part III of the poem is about a fire in the literal sense, but I have taken it to represent the adversity, despair and failure that we encounter in life so often. The bells used by fire engines in the 19th century have now been replaced by loud sirens and flashing lights, usually in blue. It is also the colour coming from the top of police cars and ambulances. The blue intermittently flashing colour is now associated with emergencies. Blue is also a colour associated with feeling down, depressed and these are feelings associated with despair, loss of hope, which is one of the feelings I have associated with part three. One of the pictures I have taken for this part feature blue light as a sign. Another modern worry, and one that has been in the news quite recently, is excessive debt. One of the images I have taken depicts bills on the post as a sign of this. I also have taken some images here making reference to alcoholism.
  • Part IV of the poem is about death in the literal sense, but to me this is to do with resignation and acceptance of fate. It is about maturity, the twilight years and the inevitable end. The signs I have decided to depict in this part include images of people sleeping, resting hands, medicine. It is also, as I noticed above, indirectly connected with the first part of the poem, not only because the same words are used in both parts, but also in the frantic rhythm that such words evoke. The overarching feelings that both parts evoke are completely different, and yet they are almost the same rhythmically. I have tried to create a connection with the first part by arranging the image of medicine in the same way as I arranged the image of toys in the first part.

8 images were chosen for the final selection, two for each part of the poem. Most of the images I have taken all have an element of deceit or ambiguity: almost all were taken with props or staged. Some of the images selected also try to convey mixed feelings: the third image of a person seemingly happy could also be interpreted as that person being sad or reflective, his facial expression masked by the angle of view. Only a few images were taken straight without interference or modification. This was done in part out of necessity, to implement ideas that came to my mind, but also being conscious of the feeling that I had when reading the poem that not all we see can be trusted and that signs can also be misinterpreted.

The final selection is included below:

DSCF7120OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA069A3525OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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(1) Robert Giordano. 2017. The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe – Poestories.com. [ONLINE] Available at: https://poestories.com/read/bells. [Accessed 11 November 2017].

 

 

Exercise 2.2

In the following, I discussed how I re-captioned various photographs taken from London’s Evening Standard. In many cases, the image is so neutral that it can be re-contextualised by the caption in many ways while still being an effective part of the message.

The first picture was taken from the London Evening Standard of 3rd October 2017. Its original caption is shown below the image

069A3327
Brave: Mohammad Ali and Martin Luther King come together in 1967 (left) at a fair-housing rally in Louisville after King joined the fighter in condemning the Vietnam War

The original caption, which is very much in line with what Barthes described as the “anchor” type of message not only put the image in the full context of the events where it was taken, but they also guide our feelings towards the subjects depicted by putting the word “Brave” in front of the text. Could the results be changed completely by just changing that word? The rest of the caption is very descriptive, so it would not be inconceivable that a contemporary newspaper in America could have put the same caption preceded with a negative word:

Shameful!: Mohammad Ali and Martin Luther King come together in 1967 (left) at a fair-housing rally in Louisville after King joined the fighter in condemning the Vietnam War

The viewer relies on the veracity of the text to provide the right context to interpret an image. But a caption does not need to be accurate and indeed, an image, specially one where there are no iconic elements that tie it with a particular interpretation, could be reused for many purposes by virtue of the analogical nature of its message. In the image we have Mohammed Ali and we know foremost that he was a boxer. In addition to the general knowledge that boxers give press conferences before their bouts, we also know that Ali was famous for his cockiness and for constantly taunting his opponents. In the picture, Ali seems to be speaking with a reporter. The image also includes Martin Luther King, whom we know for being a political activist (but not a boxer). He does look rather distracted in the image, almost like stunned. For an alternative interpretation of this image, however implausible, we could insert this caption:

Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King give a press conference before their heavyweight championship fight next week in Houston

A similar effect of implausibility could be achieved with a relay type of caption like

– ‘ I am definitely greater than Dr King!’ –

The second picture was taken from the London Evening Standard of 3rd October 2017. Its original caption is shown below the image.

069A3321
Macchiato moment: stay sharp during meetings, like at W1A above, with a caffeine hit

The photograph was illustrating an article on strategies to maintain our attention span and being more productive, and the caption alludes to that (“stay sharp during meetings”) while also referencing one of the strategies mentioned, that of drinking coffee, by using words like “macchiato moment” and “caffeine hit”.  The picture itself, a caption from the BBC comedy “W1A” depicts a meeting, with one person being shown quite prominently, while the others, in the periphery, are one partially visible or obscure each other. The person in the middle is also the only one having a hot drink, evidenced by the mug, while the rest appear to be drinking water. It is hard to ignore the giant black and white image of a person’s face on the background. We are not sure what this is, but it can be used to support various caption ideas:

-‘I would not turn around now if I were you!’ –

-‘Do you want another coff…? Oh, what the heck is that…!’ –

The third picture was taken from the London Evening Standard of 3rd October 2017. Its original caption is shown below the image.

069A3326
Nikki Amuka-Bird,…in rehearsals for The Lady From the Sea with director Kwame Kwei-Armah, far left, and Helena Wilson, centre.

The image featured in an article on actor Nikki Amuka-Bird, who is staring in The Lady From the Sea, an Ibsen play to be staged in the Donmar Wharehouse, in London. The original caption places the image in the context of a rehearsal, where we see the director giving instructions to the actors, but the image is sufficiently generic to be reused for many other purposes with the correct caption.

‘Reverend Lewis talks to church volunteers after the fundraising event held in Edgbaston last Monday.

The fact that he is gesticulating and the two ladies in the image seem to be attentively looking at his hands could also inspire some alternative relay captions:

-‘The cat was this big!

The story was told with all the details

The final picture was taken from the London Evening Standard of 4th October 2017. Its original caption is shown below.

DSCF8382
Some like it hot: Balfour Beatty has won a large contract in Miami but shares still fell

The original article was an economic piece about various companies, including construction company Balfour Beatty, which has recently won a large contract in Miami. The image of Miami illustrates this point, although other than the reference to the location, there was not much connection between the image and the article.

In the image, other than the art deco buildings and the palm trees clearly anchoring the image in Miami, we can see a person riding a skateboard through the middle of the road. In some places, this may be considered dangerous or illegal and I could see this image being used to highlight this:

Skating in the middle of the road may seem fun, but it could be dangerous if you are not careful.

It can also be used to achieve the opposite:

Skating on the road in areas with low traffic can be safer than using the pavement, where there is little room for manoeuvre when encountering pedestrians.

 

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]