Assignment 2 – Initial idea 2 – Dissagreement

How do we deal with disagreements? I have been thinking about this a lot in the context of recent political events that have polarised public opinion, including the Brexit referendum and the independence referenda in both Scotland and Catalonia. From a purely observational perspective it seems we more or less follow the same mechanisms when dealing with disagreement: we shout and fight, we get mad with others, we put forward our arguments and most of the time we pretend that we listen to someone else’s. Then we sulk and retreat, in some occasions for a few minutes and some other times forever. The matter that we disagree with seems to be put in the back of our heads, but is it really there?

Perhaps more interesting that the external manifestations is the internal process of dealing with disagreement. What, from inside us, drives our reaction? Why is it that in many cases we are capable of reflecting ex post that the way we have behaved is incorrect but still do it again exactly the same over and over again? Why is it too hard for us to accept other people’s views, or at the very least cope with the fact that they are entitled to their opinion? More importantly, perhaps, how do we move on from the frustration that disagreement may bring, accepting that is a fact of life, rather than allowing it to surface every now and them and make us eternally bitter, with ourselves and with others? It seems, at least for some, that conflict and confrontation are hardwired into our human nature (a discussion about this can be found here), so this may explain our tendencies to disagree, to rebel against others challenging our closely held beliefs. The physical representation of disagreement in imagery has ranged from direct depictions of wars, insurrection and other atrocities, animals looking horns; to indirect representations via symbols of disagreement (eg thumbs ups / thumbs down, signs pointing in different directions, etc). But the process of dealing with conflict internally, and the stages this process goes through, may be harder to depict. One way of trying to make sense of this is to look at Kohlberg’s moral development theory (see link to the relevant Wikipedia page here), which describes various stages of moral reasoning within humans, typically moving up as we age (but in some cases with people being stuck in a particular stage for a very long time, regardless of their age) and which tries to explain the evolution of the motivations behind our reasoning when dealing with moral dilemmas, including conflicts / disagreements. Without going too deep into this, the stages could be summarised as follows:

  1. Obedience / punishment orientation: when actions / decisions are dictated by the need to avoid punishment
  2. Self-interest orientation: when actions are determined purely by a personal gain motivation
  3. Interpersonal accord and conformity: when actions are determined by social customs / norms and the need to conform to social standards.
  4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation: when actions derive from a desire to conform to legality and to maintain order / status quo
  5. Social contract orientation: when actions derive from a desire to achieve the greater good for the majority of people, understanding and respecting the opinions of others.
  6. Universal ethical principles: when decisions are driven by abstract reasoning about what is just, rather than on norms and conventions.

Most of the stages shown above are observable at some point of individual and social development, except perhaps for the last one which appears to be theoretical (Kohlberg believed it existed but could not find any examples of it)(1). While this theoretical framework about our moral motivations may be disputed by many (2), it does provide a basis for the graphic exploration of the different ways in which we deal with conflict / disagreement, perhaps by looking at ways of illustrating the behaviours associated with these stages, or by depicting signs/situations that may evoke feelings associated with such stages: punishment, greed, social conformity, law and order, respect for others and justice/fairness.  Another approach would be to emphasise, within the photo essay, only a few stages over the rest, by way of commentary on what one feels about the lack of evolution of our moral compass as a society and how the system seems to operate at one stage on paper (eg social contract) while many individuals seem to operate under a moral compass seemingly motivated mostly by self-interest or fear of authority / social order.

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  1. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. 2017. Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development – Wikipedia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development. [Accessed 07 November 2017].
  2. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. 2017. Kohlberg – Moral Development | Simply Psychology. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/kohlberg.html. [Accessed 07 November 2017].
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Assignment 2 – Initial idea 1 – The moment of death

I have been thinking about the concept of death for some time, not only in the usual sense of the end of life as we know it, but in the more cartomancical interpretation of death as change, particularly permanent and irreversible one. There are potentially many of these changes throughout life, and sometimes it becomes clear when they happen, but in many other occasions we are not paying enough attention to notice, or we simply do not have the foresight to see them, only manifesting themselves many years later. The worst cases are those in which we refuse to admit change, even though it is painfully obvious, or when we are too pessimistic and believe there is inevitable, fateful change when there is still hope.

It is quite interesting then, that I have recently come across, as part of my research into Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, a video (see link below) in which towards the end Calle talks about another work titled Pas Pu Saisir La Mort (Impossible to catch death), which consists of 11 minutes of video showing the last moments in the life of Calle’s mother.

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She mentions in the interview that it was not possible for her to “…know if she was alive or dead. That moment that I have caught, where you don’t know, you could put your finger, like on the last book, the last mile, the last phrase, the last words, but the last second, the last breath was impossible to catch”(1). While I am not particularly concerned about the moment of physical death, I share her view that is quite hard to capture the precise moment when “death”, as a metaphor for irreversible change, takes place. In the case of Pas Pu Saisir La Mort, this was shown as successive persons putting their fingers in front of Calle mother’s nose and mouth, trying to ascertain if she was still breathing. In this work, the materialization of the concept is made clear by the context (somebody lying on their death-bed, people trying to ascertain), but in a more ideal sense, when we are dealing with circumstances that are less tangible, like broken relationships, falling out of grace with a mentor, leaving the village we were born into to seek a new life, it is hard to sense when permanent change happens.

I have been thinking for some time about how to represent this irreversible change in photography. In video, as seen in Calle’s work referenced above, the moment of change can be broken down to fractions of a second or slowed down to allow the viewer to digest and understand the moment. In literature, a moment can also be stretched over several paragraphs, freezing time even more effectively than movies. Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga was a master of this, particularly in his short stories such as Wild Honey (translation available here), Adrift (translation available here) and The Dead Man (original Spanish here, summarised in English here). A photograph, on the contrary, seems to contract rather than stretch time, showing just a frozen moment, fractions of a second. Unless that moment is followed and preceded by other moments, like in a sequence, it is hard for an image to capture the essence of a concept in just a moment. As a best approximation, one could imagine, for instance, that a carefully selected still from Calle’s Pas Pu Saisir La Mort could successfully convey the idea that we are in front of somebody who has just died. But that in itself does not fully evoke the feeling of uncertainty, the anguish or the resignation that change brings, particularly when one realises that the change has happened. Furthermore, those feelings may be fully interiorised by the affected subject, which further complicates their graphic representation.

My first attempts at trying to capture these feeling was through photographing temporary objects: bags, leaves, cigarette buts. These objects may degrade and change over time, some faster than others, but I was primarily concerned about their permanence among us, which is even shorter. A leave or a plastic bag do not stay still on a windy day, and many of these objects are swept on a daily basis. We see them today, and maybe again tomorrow, but then they disappear from our lives for ever, never to be seen again. That is the essence of change, expressed through objects to which we have no attachment and consequently, incapable of generating any concern or anguish to us, but change nonetheless.

Another possibility, which is one I could explore in this assignment, is to look for signifiers of permanent change, items that evoke the idea rather than the idea itself. There are many of these that are universal, others are more local and yet some others are quite personal, and sometimes it is hard to perceive which is which. An additional challenge with this approach is that some of these signifiers may be temporary in themselves, part of a change which we perceive as permanent but that with sufficient time, mainly beyond our lifetime, may actually turn temporary. At some point, it becomes debatable if a change is permanent or not and I think it would be interesting to see how my selection of signifiers tallies up against the opinion of the viewers.
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(1) Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. 2017. Venice Biennale: Sophie Calle | Tate. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/venice-biennale-sophie-calle. [Accessed 21 October 2017].

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.

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.

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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].

 

Research Notes – Duane Michals

The following notes are taken after looking at some of Duane Michals work in the ArtBlart website (link)(1)

I was initially attracted to Michals series of pictures, and in particular to “Things are Queer” (link) and “The Spirit Leaves the Body” (link). There are text captions in these series, but they seem to be marginal and serve no other specific purpose other than providing a title and setting the correct order of the sequence. Both series start and end with the same photograph, but I did not get the impression I was looking at the same thing at the end, as I was at the beginning. The sequence builds up an idea and by the time one looks at the final photograph, the cumulative information makes one interpret that frame differently. In the case of “The Spirit Leaves the Body”, I thought of the final frame as representing a body without a soul, yet this image is exactly the same as the initial one, when the soul was supposed to be still in the body, and then we gradually see it leaving through the sequence. The soul is indeed invisible, and if we were presented with only the first and final images, eliminating the intermediate part of the sequence, and were told that in the first image the soul is present in the body but in the second image it is gone, we would probably laugh at the suggestion, perhaps pointing out that there is no soul and both images are printed from the same negative. Yet, the sequence that Michals has put together has created an illusion of the soul, and has made us believe in the invisible. The actual execution seems very simple, likely done using double exposure in camera, something that we have played with on numerous occasions, but the idea in itself is not as straightforward to come about, and to have it done as a circular sequence, starting and ending in the same place, makes it even more intriging.

“Things are Queer” also starts and ends with the same image, but on this occasion my reaction was slightly different from that of “The Spirit Leaves the Body”. By the time I got to the final frame, I was not sure the picture hanging over the wash basin was there in the first image (it was). I completely ignored that detail when looking at the first picture and so Michals seems to be telling us that not all is what we think, and sometimes it is, but we choose to ignore it. The sequence itself is a clever idea, reminiscent of the puzzles of the mind played by Escher, but on this occasion I felt that the series in itself was not as important as the message it conveyed. That message, which I personally think is about incredulity, and perhaps not trusting our own senses, is also present in “The Spirit Leaves the Body”, albeit not as strongly.

I was not as moved by the standalone image and caption combinations that I have seen from Michals. I felt that in many cases the images were playing a minor role to the text. This is the opposite of the effect that I had when looking at the series, and does perhaps betray a certain bias of myself towards visual forms of communication. Notwithstanding this, I found the image “This Photograph Is My Proof” (link) as the one in which text and image were almost in equal footing. The text is clear in what it does, but while the photograph itself shows a seemingly happy couple, we know nothing else about them. It is not even possible to know, at least for somebody discovering Michals now, whether the man depicted in the image is the photographer himself or an actor. Furthermore, we do not know if the events were depicted candidly or were staged. The text refers to the image as “proof”, yet the image itself is proof of nothing because what is supposed to prove, love, is intangible. The final feeling I have from this image is, just like in the series commented above, of incredulity, but perhaps more so because the signs depicted in the image all point to the same direction (let’s call it “happiness”) whereas my mind seems to be going in the opposite one. In the case of “The Spirit Leaves the Body”, we were persuaded to believe in the intangible soul leaving a body by the trick of the camera. Michals tries to do the same with just one image, but while the signs of affection are there (smiles, togetherness), it somehow lacks irrefutability. Perhaps the problem in this case is the text, which thinks too much of the image, much more than what it can actually offer.

In “A Letter from My Father” (link), another standalone image-caption combination, the relationship between image and text is quite feeble. The impression I had when looking at this is basically the same I had when looking at Sophie Calle’s work in the context of the 2017 Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize (see my original comments here), that the image here is almost and afterthought, used just to prop the text but not actually adding much, to the point that I could get exactly the same result by reading the caption on a standalone basis.

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(1) Art Blart. 2017. Duane Michals This Photograph Is My Proof | Art Blart. [ONLINE] Available at: https://artblart.com/tag/duane-michals-this-photograph-is-my-proof/. [Accessed 01 November 2017].

Research notes – Revisiting Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen

I first looked at Karen Knorr’s work in the context of my first OCA course, Expressing Your Vision. My initial notes can be found in here.

Gentlemen (link) is a series of photographs mostly taken inside gentlemen’s clubs in London. The photographs are accompanied by text, constructed by Knorr from parliamentary speeches and newspaper articles. The captions include references to issues such as privilege, exceptionalism, nostalgia, misogyny and warmongering. The images are not always related to the captions, and the two sets of information, images and text, provide alternative narratives that complement each other and almost run in parallel. There are some vague references to the text in some of the images, as if the photographer was attempting to keep the two systems on a leash, to prevent text and images to completely break away from each other. I can see those connections in images like “The time has come” (link), where references about “playing the trump cards” can be linked, perhaps ironically, to the feeble-looking house of cards shown in the picture. In some other cases, the references are more direct, as in “men are interested” (link), where a reference to women being more interested in service is accompanying by the photograph of a male butler. However, while the text may provide an insight into a line of thinking that is perhaps as outdated as the idea of gentlemen’s club, the images themselves portray a world with too much time to spare, where people just kill time by reading or eating, or napping and do not much else. I thought originally, when I first looked at this work, that the pictures were all carefully staged. I still believe this may be the case, but I am now left wondering if Knorr actually used actors to stage the images, rather than genuine members and staffers of the relevant clubs, as the images themselves convey a message which is far from flattering to its subject matter.

 

 

 

 

Research notes – KayLynn Deveney

The following observations have been made after looking at the work The Daily Life of Albert Hastings, by KayLynn Deveney.

The first think that I found interesting about Deveney’s work is that she focuses on seemingly unimportant objects and situations, in the context of home life. I also feel the need to photograph these things, albeit not only in the context of the home, but also in the street (abandoned flowers, leaves, cigarette butts, coffee cups, etc), but why? I have not been able to determine it yet, but I believe Deveney provides a clue when she mentions that she photographs “…experiences not usually considered significant enough to warrant a snapshot” (1). This to me relates to the idea of “invisibility”: those who are left behind or ignored by their acquaintances or by the social system in general. It may also be a response against the general human process of synthesizing and distilling information into what is relevant. I have at times related to these ideas, but some other times I wonder if it just a quest for details that will lead nowhere. I hope the reason is there somewhere for me to eventually find out.

The second aspect of this work that I found intriguing is that it is very much a collaboration with the subject, I would say even a frank dialogue on equal footing. This is different from the collaboration in Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field, which I have discussed elsewhere (link), where the artist was somehow mediating between the “collaborator” and the art work, and perhaps akin to the collaboration seen in Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself (link to my comments), as Calle would tend to somehow insert her own images alongside the input from the various collaborators (eg an allegoric picture), making it appear as complementary to the input. In The Daily Life of Albert Hastings, the subject of the series, Mr Hastings, has a direct input on the work (by way of his captions to Deveney’s images, and his opinions and ideas somehow shaped the which Deveney approached the work. In some occasions, as she would say, the captions “…created a new context…” for the photographs, while “… adding a critical second perspective to this work.” (1).

In the end, because the way it evolved, Deveney’s work does not seem to be simply about chronicling the life of somebody, but more about relationships, and how the best ones are those in which both parts have a chance to contribute and enrich each other.

The images in the series are warm and inviting. Deveney plays with the exposure, with some images being dark on purpose (particularly some of the indoor shots like this one and this other one). These images, rather than being sinister, reinforce a feeling of homeliness which suits the overall theme of the series. I like the way Deveney uses props to frame her subject or convey a feeling. The overall impression I have from looking at these pictures is that of a stable, organized, and even somewhat proud living, but one which is very lonely and just mended together, which I believe is perfectly summed up by the daffodil in a cup picture (link)

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(1) KayLynn Deveney Photographer. 2017. The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings — KayLynn Deveney Photographer. [ONLINE] Available at: https://kaylynndeveney.com/the-day-to-day-life-of-albert-hastings. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

Research notes – Rethoric of the image

The following observations are made after reading the essay “Rhetoric of the Image” by Roland Barthes (1).

Barthes breaks down the signs contained in a photograph in three distinct layers, each of which he calls a “message”. The layers include the “linguistic message”, the “denoted image” and the “connoted image”. With regards to the linguistic message, which includes the subtypes of “anchor” and “relay”, as described in the course guide (2), an important point mentioned by Barthes is the constant accompaniment of text and images in today’s society, to the point that he believes that “In order to find images given without words, it is doubtless necessary to go back to partially illiterate societies” (3). This is something we may take for granted, and I personally had not thought about this before, but indeed, it is hard to find an example where there is absolutely no text accompanying a photograph these days. Even in the case of an untitled image hanged on a wall, at the very least one would expect to see the name of the author somewhere. The significance of the text context is explained by Barthes later when he discusses the photograph’s polysemous nature. As an image may have multiple interpretations and society has developed techniques (including the use of the linguistic message) to guide the spectator towards certain signifieds in order to “…counter the terror of uncertain signs” (4). Barthes seems to suggest that without adequate guidelines as to which are the intended signifieds, people may be overcome by anxiety when confronted with an image in its pure state, resulting from an “uncertainty…concerning the meaning of objects and attitudes” (4). I would like to explore this idea further with a little experiment, the details of which are included in a separate entry in my blog (link).

Throughout the essay Barthes makes reference to his view that photography poses a message without a code. This seems to derive from the analogical nature of the photographic image, which reproduces without relay the entirety of a scene. This results in photographs having a “having-been-there” quality to them “…for in every photograph there is the always stupefying evidence of this is how it was…”(5). This evidence seems to derive from the photographer’s limited ability to thinker with the object of the photograph (other than by trickery), as opposed to other forms of reproducing objects such as painting or drawing, which rely on a style or norms of reproduction (ie codes) to decide how and how much of nature (ie the object) is reproduced. Barthes essay was written way before advances in post processing have made quite trivial for the photographer to alter the object photographed in a way that could distort that evidence of “how it was”, but his point is still valid in the context that is very difficult for the photographer to completely erase the evidence, for there are small details that will always scape our eyes; and in any case, no matter how distorted the final image is, some evidence should remain unaltered in the final result.

Barthes also mentions that the interpretation of the linguistic and iconic elements of an image draws from our cultural background. In the essay, he uses as an example a french advertisement for pasta products (see here), and at some point he remarks that the use of an italian word (“Panzani”) and imagery that denotes “italianicity”, are more likely to be noticed by a French viewer, based on “…a familiarity with certain tourist stereotypes”(6) than for an Italian, who is very likely to encounter both icons and language in real life frequently and would therefore rarely notice them in a photograph. The direct implication of this is that the message or content of an image needs to be targeted to its audience; but in the context of a photographic project, which tends to be fixed from the perspective of the author, it helps explain why some images are not always understood by the viewer. The challenge as a photographer, then, is to find imagery that transmits the photographer’s message in a way that appeals to as wide as possible audience. This can be particularly relevant for me as a migrant, in as much as there may still be nuances of the local culture that may escape my understanding and vice-versa.

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(1) Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. HarperCollins UK. Pp 32-51

(2) Boothroyd, S., 2017. Photography 1: Context and Narrative. 4th ed. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts, p. 55

(3) Barthes, op. cit. p. 38

(4) Idem, p. 39

(5) Idem, p. 44

(6) Idem, p. 34

Experiment – Images stripped of text references

While reading Barthes’ essay The rhetoric of the image (1), I came across the following passage which left me intrigued:

“…all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a “floating chain” of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others. Polysemy poses a question of meaning and this question always comes through as a dysfunction, even if this dysfunction is recuperated by society as a tragic (silent, God provides no possibility of choosing between signs) or a poetic (the panic “shudder of meaning” of the Ancient Greeks) game; in the cinema itself, traumatic images are bound up with an uncertainty (an anxiety) concerning the meaning of objects or attitudes. Hence in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs; the linguistic message is one of these techniques.” (2)

To the extent that an image can have multiple interpretations, Barthes seems to be suggesting that in the absence of any clues as to what the intention of the artist is, it is likely that the infinite possibilities of meaning that could be attributed to such photographs would end up causing uncertainty and even anxiety on the viewer. It is possible that such uncertainty, and this is my own hypothesis, would cause the viewer to reject, dismiss or ignore an image without clues on meaning.

I tried to test this hypothesis in a crude way. My intention was not do something very rigorous about this, but just to see if a simple test would yield results in the direction that I was expecting. In the same essay, Barthes suggest that nowadays images are nearly always accompanied by textual references, and that such references can be a way of anchoring meaning in images in such a way as to reduce the anxiety caused by their polyseism (3).

In this experiment, I took seven images in black and white and stripped them of nearly all metadata (only the copyright information was left, buried into the exif data, to identify the images as mine). The images I used for this experiment were a mixture of quasi-abstracts and every day objects taken under poor lighting conditions (eg at night, using either moonlight or diffused / direct street light. It would have been possible to identify most of the objects in the images, but not necessarily why an image of them had been taken. The images taken are shown below:

For this experiment, I created two new accounts in 500px.com, a social media website for photography.  In this website, every new picture uploaded into the public profile goes through various streams that are visible to every member and visitor of the site. After posting, an image first goes into the “fresh” stream, and if it receives a sufficiently high score (given by the number of favourites / likes or comments left by other users), it will then move to a second stream called “upcoming” and, if it continues to receive likes, to a third stream called “popular”. Within each stream, pictures will move up and down in the order in relative terms to each other (ie the images with the highest number of likes and comments will stay at the top of each stream and consequently, be more visible to users. The advantages of this system (for the purposes of my experiment) is that the images posted were guaranteed to be visible to a large number of users, as opposed to other types of social media where the visibility of content would be a function of the number of followers or friends that a particular user may have.

The first account that I created had no personal details of myself, no name, no visible email address and no picture profile. My first and last names were substituted by just a couple of underscores.  Other than these two signs, there were no other letters in my profile, which looked like this:

Profile

I then proceeded to upload to this new account each of the aforementioned seven pictures. In addition to being stripped of any information that could give clues as to how and with which equipment they were taken, they did not contain any location information, title, caption or description and they were not placed in any specific photographic category or gallery.  All images were posted around the same time in the morning, for seven consecutive days. When clicking on a particular image, the viewer would see no textual clues accompanying the image, as shown in the example below

image 1.png

After uploading the seven pictures, I created a second account in the same site, this time filling part of the profile information, including my name and location, as well as adding a picture profile. I then posted again the 7 images, one at a time every day for a week, but on this occasion I left all the image metadata intact, including keywords, camera, lens and exposure details, as well as the location where each picture was taken. I also gave a title to each image and classified them into a specific category. When clicking the picture, the viewer would find something like this

image 2

The idea I wanted to test was if by adding more contextual information about a picture, including the name of its author, title, description, location where taken, etc, the reaction from viewers was more positive, as measured by the number of likes, comments and favourites that the images got. I am also conscious of the possibility that the additional information added to each image may have enhanced its discoverability (ie, ability of a person looking for that type of image to find it), so for each image I have also calculated the ratio of likes to views. All things being equal, whan I am trying to measure is whether more people liked the image with additional information after viewing it, compared with the pure image without contextual information. Here is a summary of the results:

Total number of likes Ratio of likes per views
Image Without additional context With additional context Without additional context With additional context
1 5 12 17.86% 17.91%
2 14 11 29.79% 21.57%
3 12 24 38.71% 12.12%
4 13 29 27.08% 18.35%
5 18 36 50.00% 13.79%
6 19 21 38.00% 11.23%
7 4 18 16.00% 15.93%
Average 12.1 21.6 31.06% 15.84%

The results were slightly surprising. It is true that when adding more contextual information to each picture the absolute number of likes per image was noticeably higher than without the extra details, almost double the average number of likes per picture, but when measuring the percentage of likes against the total number of views per images, the results essentially inverted and the number of likes per view was significantly higher in the cases where the image was presented without any additional contextual information, than when additional information was given. A greater percentage – nearly 1 in 3 – of those who viewed the images without contextual data were more included to like the image, than those who viewed the images with the full context added, where only 1 every 6 people liked the image.

These results could possibly be the result of chance, but also may be a reflection of how people look at images online these days. When I do it myself I primarily look for something that hooks me and if that happens, then I keep looking a the image and may like it. It is possible that most of the people who were attracted to the images reacted in the same way. In this case, it is also likely that context has only helped to increase the exposure of the image (hence the larger amount of views) without necessarily providing any enhancement to its attractiveness.

Many of the images had clear shapes on them to guide the viewer as to what they were looking at. I feel now that I would like to repeat this experiment by using only very abstract images, without determined shapes, to make it more difficult for the viewer to relate to the image, to see if the reactions are the same with and without contextual information.

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(1) Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. HarperCollins UK. Pp 32-51

(2) Idem, Pp 38-39

(3) Idem, p 39

Reasearch notes – Chantal Akerman

The following observations are made after looking at some excerpts from Akerman’s documentary film D’Est (link to Wikipedia entry) available in YouTube.

The entire documentary, which is just under two hours long, traces Akerman’s trip to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It includes portraits of people doing ordinary things at home, like eating and listening to music, as well as people walking on the streets and / or relaxing at a social club. The documentary is not available in its entirety in YouTube, so it is hard for me to know how the various vignettes captured by Akerman come together as a whole film and whether there is an overarching narrative on top of them.  My favourite excerpts from the documentary are the following ones:

This excerpt starts with some incidental music on the background (a violin piece) that soon moves away. I do not know if the music was there in ambient or added in post processing, but its sadness fits well with the scene, which is just people in some sort of open field (perhaps a bus station) standing waiting for something or walking. The camera pans the scene slowly and in an irregular pace, slowing down or even stopping for a second in certain places. Most of the people do not mind the presence of the camera and chose to ignore it, sometimes not even looking at it, but others seem to object quite strongly, although it is impossible to know what they are saying and no subtitles are provided. The whole scene, which lasts for about 6 minutes or so, has a very strong feeling of intrusion. The camera is very close to its subjects, and the pace with which it pans gives the sensation that it is scrutinising everybody in the scene. It makes for some uncomfortable watch, and I am surprised people did not object to this more vehemently. At some point I even though that the whole scene had been staged and these people were just extras doing a part, but on second though that seems highly improbable. After the scene in the open, the movie moves to the inside of what appears to be a bus or a train station, packed with people sitting, waiting or talking over pay phones. There is even more people in here, but the camera maintains its close, inquisitive and slow irregular movement, unstoppable and not caring about anything.

 

The next clip takes place in what appears to be a grand ballroom at a restaurant or social club. A live band is playing and people gradually starts to fill the dance floor. Unlike the previous sequence, the camera here is static and located relatively away from the subjects, recording without discrimination everything that comes in front of it, offering a truly fly on the wall experience. The sequence reminds me a little bit of my childhood, watching people at family parties when they had no idea how to dance or were tone-deaf and would simply twist and turn hysterically in the middle of the dance floor. The attitude of some of the characters veers towards ridicule Particularly a character that enters the frame at a later stage and then tries to interact with the musicians in the middle of the song, to finally climb on top of the podium. It is not clear if he finally speaks to the musicians or if they just ignore him. He then proceeds to leave the frame unceremoniously, as if he was slightly ashamed of not having been able to made contact. I like this sequence very much because is an observational piece: the position of the camera and the angle of view allows the action to come to our view, in all its details, and we can choose to focus in whatever captures our imagination, without any prescription and without anybody else editing what we see. Is as close as we can get to actually being there. I am left wondering if it would also be possible to achieve the same sensation with a still. A picture so encompasing, immersing, that makes us feel inside the frame.