Reflection – January 2018

I am busy decluttering and regrouping for the new year. My ‘intentions’ have been mind-mapped.

‘Make more art’ has made it into the top three key elements. As well as committing to the 365 project again, I have included:

  • Experiment bravely
  • Fill more sketchbooks
  • Embrace failure (mistakes are spellbooks)
  • Enter competitions
  • More intentional image-making
  • Visit more galleries, more regularly

Recent random thoughts…

Will the recent change to the character limit on Twitter and how we refine our propositions. It is often said that distillation is a creative superpower. Trying to portray an idea in a single image sometimes feels as hard as trying to articulate a challenge or a problem in one word in the business environment. We watched the movie Arrival last week which led me to read up on the (now discredited) Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and linguistic relativity. Does the use of say, emojis, change the way we think?

Useful insights from Jeremy Bullmore, non-exec director of ad agency WPP:  “By definition, a good creative brief contains a bold hypothesis. To generate hypotheses you need to speculate: you need to progress from the known to the unknown. But you cannot paint the future in the colours of the past.  Other people’s imaginations need to be engaged, excited, signed on as accomplices. And the choice of the language you use is not arbitrary and inconsequential; for an insight to have real potency, the language in which it is couched is at least as important as the inner truth itself. For an insight to have real potency, literal accuracy is less important than its power to evoke.

Bullmore also famously wrote: “People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon.” and then declared it to be demonstrably untrue here.  He makes the point that birds intentionally seek materials for nest-building. We must always put in the work.

Talking about market research he says, “Giving high potency to an insight is an intensely creative act: it requires a massive injection of imagination. As with any other creative act, it also demands an understanding of what is already in the receiver’s mind; and just as importantly, what is not already in the receiver’s mind. Metaphors, similes and analogies work only when the reference points are already familiar to their audience.”

I seem to recall Mark Twain saying, “Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.”

This is a wonderful perspective:

“If advertising images are to blame for instilling a sickness in our souls, the images of artists are what can reconcile us with our realities and reawaken us to the genuine, but too-easily forgotten value, of particular bits of our lives.”  We know that art is appropriated by advertising and vice versa and in our spectacle society wheels turn within astonishing wheels.  There are some good examples here of where the two overlap.

I regularly see ads in street art format on the walls of buildings in Shoreditch. If I must be bombarded with sales messages, I personally would rather see this aesthetic than traditional outdoor poster sites. But it infuriates some of the street artists who will spray over the messaging and admonish against the commercialisation.

Is the constant digital feedback loop for consumers – and the behavioural analysis that is now technologically possible – different from the classic advertising persuasion piece? This seems to be much more in favour of the individualism of the target, albeit rather creepy when machines ‘know’ so much from our browsing history.

Having rarely worked with a tripod except when shooting video, I am surprised by how detached I feel from the experience, compared with holding the camera up to my face. The slower process is enjoyable and I can understand why Alec Soth favours this with his portraits of strangers. There is time for a connection to form with the subject matter but it feels more like the camera is doing the job, rather than the photographer.  Odd.



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Assignment Four – images and submission notes

As per my statement of intent, this work aims to “reflect, support and extend the Foul Play brand, positioning it at the high end of the market, appealing to the true crime aficionados as well as those aspiring to become part of this growing and powerful community.” As this is a new launch, it must use some of the existing visual language representing this genre to attract readers to the brand, as it establishes its personality and credentials.

Target demographic

  • Millennials
  • Primarily females
  • Cosmopolitan/metropolitan
  • Digital natives
  • Comfortable financially, living in small urban spaces
  • Multi-media-savvy
  • Active on social media
  • Consumers of true crime podcasts/TV series/books

Brand identity

  • Eerie, mildly threatening feel
  • Non-sensationalist
  • Eschewing grisly crime scenes
  • Absolutely no sexualisation of passive victims
  • Stylish, high-end
  • Unashamed

The images have been constructed to create some frightening scenarios, encouraging the viewer to gaze and confront their fears within a safe environment. I have referenced some familiar visual tropes of the genre (black and white with red accents, use of creepy masks, amateur weapons, shadows) but have tried to elevate the imagery avoiding the wholesale deployment of clichés (crime scene tape, bloodied knives, abandoned barns in the woods/top of an improbable hill, silhouettes coming out of the fog).

Final product

The magazine is being crafted by an independent publisher so I believe the calendar can have a handmade feel. This will also appeal to the millennial audience which favours artisan products. It will be bound by simple bulldog clips, in keeping with an investigation/case-file approach. This must be a functional product or it will be disregarded. The paper will be lustre so notes can be written in the date boxes.


As far as we are aware, there is currently no direct magazine competitor to Foul Play at the high end of the market. As well as desk research on multi-media images associated with the genre, I have considered some of the major brands which are targeting this eclectic audience:

Key considerations in the creation and selection of the final images

  • Anonymity – adds to the mystery of the scenes and rejects the idea of personality cults around criminals
  • Women are the powerful observers – and effectively authors – of the image; no sexualisation or passivity – even the victims must have agency
  • Non-sensational – no blood, no aftermath crime scenes
  • On brand and appropriate/appealing to the target audience




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Preparation for Assignment 4

4.8.17 – the first discussion with Grace Harrison about the concept of Foul Play magazine and me possibly helping with some of the photography.

29.8.17 – test shots in Arles – identified issues over colour temperature for night shots.

29.9.17 – further discussion with the ‘client’ to get more of a sense of the brand identity for Foul Play.  I have always been wary about the sensationalism around crime, particularly serial killers, but I am starting to understand why this might be intriguing to women and how they are using it for self-empowerment and to build supportive communities.

6.10.17 – mooted the idea to my tutor. Jesse said it sounded interesting and to have fun with it.

20.10.17 – first sight of the galleys for the magazine. The imagery currently used doesn’t feature people much but this seems to be practical/logistical rather than deliberate.

24.10.17 – test shots in Sidmouth. Aiming for a Nordic Noir feel with some Edward Hopper isolationism thrown in.

17.11.17 – researching the true crime phenomenon more and discovering how some women find it to be a very empowering genre, allowing them to confront and take control of fears. Re-scanned Over Her Dead Body to see if there are any links. Not really.

22.11.17 – researching creative approaches to calendar production on Pinterest (eg using bulldog clips to bind or even a trouser-hanger, clipboard, small wooden stands. A reminder that the images do not have to be square or rectangular, can bleed into the date part of the calendar, the dates could be printed on part of the image (CSI feel) or on tracing paper and overlaid or designed as a pattern (maze? or streets).

24.11.17 – search for props, police crime scene tape, masks etc. Resisted temptation to go down the zombie bride route.  Silver shock blanket?

25.11.17 – test shots from 17.30 to 19.00 in Shoreditch. Definitely too dark already.

1.12.17 – interviewed one of the founders of Foul Play to flesh out the company profile and brand identity. Promotion is currently via word of mouth and social media. This will be ramped up as the brand develops and could extend to merchandising. The Foul Play Instagram account shows some of the associated imagery. I have set up a Foul Play Pinterest board to capture some images which may be inspiring or discouraging…

2.12.17 – more confident now in my decision to anonymise all the people in the images.  It will help to imply the ambiguity and nuances of so many criminal situations. Anyone – everyone – could commit a crime or be a victim or both.  This also removes the idea of personality cults which often grow around serial killers or other ‘interesting’ criminals.

9.12.17 – shoot in Allen Gardens using the shovel, pig and evil duck masks. Freezing cold so time pressures and interruptions from tourists.  Luckily more ambient light than previously.  Decided to be relaxed about motion blur and let it add to the atmosphere.

16.12.17 – planning to keep the design very simple; not cluttered or clever. I had toyed with including the yellow markers for crime scenes as numbers in the calendar but I think it is a bit too low-end for the Foul Play brand and would distract from the images.

21.12.17 – Grace has written an article about how women are ‘reclaiming true crime’, explaining that part of the interest seems to be around self-preservation.

22.12.17 – thinking about size. The assignment brief specifies A3 but for my previous assignment, Jesse thought the portrait images looked amateur at A4 (which was in accordance with the brief) and suggested smaller, so it seems there is leeway. I definitely don’t want an A3 landscape calendar – too corporate somehow.  The target audience is made up of digital natives used to looking at things on their smartphones so small should be fine.  Plus they are likely to have small flats or houses with limited wall space. A5 would be cool but will make the date boxes tiny and non-functional. If it is just decorative, what is the point of the dates? It has to be functional or it will reflect badly on the brand.

26.12.17 – shoot with my Dad brandishing various threatening tools. I was worried that axes and saws are rather associated with ‘slasher’ movie. Tried a meat fork but too small to catch in car headlines. Settled for a large and heavy spanner in the end.

27.12.17 – shoot with my niece to add a female presence. Wanted to avoid her looking too much like a passive victim so directed her to run. This also hopefully leaves some ambiguity over whether she is victim or perpetrator. Not an eerie image in itself but should work within the overall concept.

28.12.17 – decided not to include a ‘cybercrime’ image (Matt on his laptop in the dark, shot through the window). This wouldn’t fit with the other scenes and could be jarring. Plus it would require the use of a mask to continue the motif of anonymity which could be confusing. The actual ‘Anonymous’ mask symbolises a hacktivist movement and any association with ‘true crime’ would be controversial and tenuous.


29.12.17 – assembly time!

30.12.17 – final notes ready for my last minute submission before the hard deadline of close of today…



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Statement of Intent: Assignment Four – a 2018 calendar for Foul Play magazine

This work aims to represent the Foul Play magazine brand, a new high-end publication for ‘true crime’ fans. As a launch and with a quarterly frequency, Foul Play needs to insinuate itself quickly into the lives of its target audience. A calendar will ensure daily visibility in the homes of its readers for a full year.

Foul Play has an eclectic audience but the target demographic is millennial females, likely to be cosmopolitan, digital natives. Readers will mostly be comfortable financially, although possibly living in small urban spaces, and media-savvy. They will be active on social media and familiar with the recent explosion in popularity of true crime podcasts and TV series.

In line with the brand, the images will have an eerie and mildly threatening feel but will be non-sensationalist, avoiding any grisly fascination with crime scenes or the sexualisation of passive victims.

The final product will be functional but also stylish, with photography that allows the viewer to contemplate the scene and confront their fears within a safe environment. The images will reference the familiar visual tropes of the genre but will elevate the narrative and move away from the clichés.

The calendar will reflect, support and extend the Foul Play brand, positioning it at the high end of the market, appealing to the true crime aficionados as well as those aspiring to become part of this growing and powerful community.

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Test shots – assignment four



A sculpture in the Nomadic Gardens – shows how well street art can work as an eerie backdrop





It was tempting to set up crime scenes but it would be hard to be anything but sensationalist which goes against the Foul Play brand






This was a play on the final scene of Blair Witch. Can’t really work without the preamble of the movie though.



Creepy but a bit too self-consciously breaking the fourth wall. Brecht has no place in this project!

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Unwitting participants in the scene. This approach has potential but would take too long. I have realised people generally don’t look like they are up to no good.



Allen Gardens, E1 – good lines and a realistic backdrop.



A dodgy corner near the Nomadic Gardens – has potential although may be too dark and has drug dealing connotations which detract from the less mundane ‘true crime’ genre.



A broken playground structure looks eerily like a cross or some kind of lynching post.

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Another trial of using passers-by to create the eerieness – hasn’t really worked.



This would be great for video.


Even the boring bins in our block of flats can look eerie in the right context


Bags flapping in the trees and dark shadows – again probably better for video


Nighttime Edward Hopper scenes



No dynamism or agency in this shot



Too dark and frustratingly unreadable





  • Colour for dusk or night shots is always going to be problematic (colour temperature).
  • Black and white fits the genre – worth exploring if grain adds anything.
  • Not sure if I have the time and resources to create the ambiguity I would like. Might need to settle for mood rather than much storytelling.
  • It would fit with the Foul Play brand to not have people but I would like to use the human figure in keeping with the Gesture & Meaning theme. The ‘Aftermath photography’ approach would work well except that I want to avoid specific references to actual crimes as this would imply some editorial coverage in the magazine which would not be the case.
  • Motion blur is fine and can add to the atmosphere.
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Foul Play magazine – research

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I have interviewed one of the founders to try to get a little more information.

What is your mission statement? 
Our mission is to create the first ever truly high-end, non-sensational true crime print magazine.
What is the purpose of the magazine?
Foul Play is a new kind of true crime magazine which explores the wider issues and the cultural and social significance of crime. Brilliantly written, beautifully produced and thoroughly researched, it’s the first magazine to be produced by and for discerning true crime fans.
How would you describe the brand identity?
The brand identity is minimalistic and moody. We’ve chosen subtlety over any images directly showing crimes or anything grisly. We’re trying to show a different and less obvious approach to true crime. Our aim is to break away from the tradition of sensational imagery and gore and instead go for an eerier tone.
Who is your target audience?
Our target audience is anyone who is into the new wave of intelligent true crime output. Fans of podcasts like Serial and S-Town, documentaries like Making a Murderer and books like The Fact of a Body. This is a magazine for discerning true crime fans.
How do you want your readers to feel?
We want our readers to finish the magazine potentially with a different outlook than when they started. We’re trying to approach subjects in a way that proves that there is a human element involved when we’re telling these stories. We want our readers to feel sympathy with victims of terrible crimes but also that someone in prison has their own loved ones. We want our readers to learn things that they didn’t know about the law, to learn about the impact that a terrible crime has on a small community or to look at crime in a totally different way. We’re not just focussing on serial killers but the whole spectrum of crime and the wider impact that it has on society.
What other brands would you consider to be competition?
There are other true crime magazines but they are not direct competition because we are trying to create something entirely different. Our main competition would potentially be podcasts who are creating this content for free. Podcasts like My Favorite MurderThey Walk Among Us, Casefile, Last Podcast on the Left, Criminal are all reaching our target audience who are proving that people are willing to spend money on true crime – merchandise, exclusive content, advertising.
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A4 – initial ideas and research

My chosen brand for this assignment is Foul Play magazine, a new independent publishing initiative. The founders have a passion for the ‘true crime’ genre which is moving into the mainstream as a result of the popularity of the podcast Serial.

“We reject sensational exposés and instead choose to investigate the cultural and social significance of crime.

Rather than encouraging readers to revel in macabre details of a human being’s demise, we direct you to look at what led to that crime or how its aftermath was dealt with. Sometimes we’ll find corners of the story that may seem insignificant, but we think are worthy of our time.

Foul Play is not looking to profit from pain or hound people for the perfect paparazzi shot of a murderer. We won’t be tapping any victims’ phones for a juicy scoop. We report about crime remembering that there are humans on both sides:  the victim and the perpetrator.” Source:

I have an uneasy relationship with this fascination for crime. I don’t like reading thrillers or viewing anything anxiety-inducing and I would never watch a horror movie as it would disrupt my sleeping and peace of mind tremendously.  Even memories of watching Sixth Sense over a decade gives me shivers.  And I have always wondered about people who relish the genre.

And yet, millions of people find this to be not only great entertainment but also, paradoxically, a way to overcome anxiety and confront natural fears head-on.  For a lot of women, this is actually soothing. The theory is that repeated exposure, with perceived distance and safe context, can reduce the amygdala response to horrible things. We learn that if the association does not always have a negative outcome, we become less fearful.

Dr Mathias Clasen from Aarhus University:  “When our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in the East African savannah, it was important that they were prepared for possible attacks by predators and vermin.  They had to train their reactions to stressful situations, and the desire to do so became stored in their DNA – which we still carry today. When we watch a horror movie, we’re satisfying that desire. We’re training our danger preparedness.  We use fiction as an ‘emotional simulator’ to broaden our horizons. Horror fiction exercises our reactions to what’s terrible and frightening.”

Clasen talks about his interest in taking mental journeys ‘into the wild’ where we can have terrifying vicarious experiences. He also observes that some of the horror fiction that resonates with us is metaphorical (eg the Exorcist and the generation gap in the 70s which alienated many parents from their children) or just very primal (the Zombie phenomenon being related to a revulsion to rotting flesh or our natural fear of sharp-toothed predators creating a fascination with vampires).

This is ancient and universal. People have been telling scary stories around campfires for thousands of years. This helps children to learn about good and evil, about where danger may lie. Imagination is a huge part of our humanity and, when combined with fear, it can take us to very dark places.

Here is an interesting example:

My Favourite Murder takes a humorous approach and has a massive following of ‘murderinos’ but it also has some serious feminist messaging around staying safe, while still being sexy, avoiding bad decisions and the dangers of ‘toxic masculinity’.

Matching the Foul Play brand profile 

I would like to explore the edges of things: exploit the crepuscular hours – the moments when day dissolves into night; the construction and ambiguity of a scene; the sometimes fine line between innocence and guilt, victim and perpetrator.

  • Feeling of isolation (small figures in a large space)
  • Use of shadows – playing on fears of the dark
  • The victims, if portrayed, must still have agency

Things to avoid

  • The images should be non-sensational, no gratuitous gore
  • Jack the Ripper associations
  • Hawksmoor associations
  • Beautiful, dead women
  • Weegee-style realism?

Initial scenario ideas

  • A large, creepy figure semi-camouflaged to create a start when seen
  • Matt sitting at his desk, in the dark, shot from outside the window
  • A woman banging on the large church doors
  • A bike and a spilt-open bag on the ground lit by street lamp
  • A figure in car headlights (holding a knife)
  • A man with a shovel (behind the swings in Allen Gardens)
  • Shot from the ground (POV of the victim)?
  • Hands through (prison) bars
  • Digging up a skull (or washing in the sink)?

Possible locations

  • Denis Sever’s House (would need to be pre-arranged, probs not enough time)
  • Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (too heavy-handed?)
  • Vacant lots and building sites (can’t always get people in)
  • Use ‘desire paths‘ metaphorically? (deviating from the established way could expose the walker to danger but also indicating the strength of human will and collective action)
  • Isolated parts of the local parks (will people think these are actual crime scenes?)
  • Paths by the railway tracks

Key issues to explore

  • Construction/ambiguity/chance
  • Denotation/connotation
  • Cultural prejudice to the horror genre (not just where there is an absence of morality or poor aesthetics)
  • Feminism and true crime
  • The interplay of culture and biology


Flight Patterns, 2014 – Juan Fernando Herran. We saw some of this work in Arles this year. The aesthetic is appealing but also the idea. Herran has captured the movement of drug runners and criminals on mopeds as they conduct their illicit business in Columbia.

From the Arles catalogue:

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Gregory Crewdson.  Many of his images have the eerie stillness I would like to capture, often containing elements that ask more questions than give answers.


I asked my Facebook friends to share some examples of images or movie moments that they find to be eerie. Some people opted for straight horror (such as Ringu or The Shining) and clearly, for others it was a very personal response to images seen as a child such as this one where something usually cute and comforting looks evil:


Or where something evil takes on the form of someone familiar, such as your Dad:


This image only becomes truly chilling when you know the backstory:


This is uncanny and unsettling, made more so if you have seen this moment in the movie:


I had not seen this image by Peter Doig before but Michael Colvin mentioned it as a good example and I agree. It is simple and mysterious, placing the viewer in the position of the hunted, although we have no idea if this is a good or bad cop.


There is more information here including the reference that it is based on a still from Friday 13th.

The Blair Witch Project is famous for being terrifying for what it didn’t show. The documentary style and hype about whether it was real or not, helped. But how brilliant to be able to make twigs and stones and marks on walls so chilling. The ‘best’ frights come from being given space to let our imagination run wild.


This is all well and good. I know what I would *like* to create. The more valid question at this point is “What *can* I create with very limited time and resources?” I guess I better let my imagination run wild.



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