Reflection – October 2015

Just over a month has past since I started Gesture and Meaning.  I am actually enjoying the research and theory much more than I have on any previous courses and I can already tell that this is improving my understanding of photography and the contexts of contemporary image-making.

At times, I have felt frustrated to not be making more progress with the coursework but I am covering a lot of ground, studying the history and work of individual photographers as well as broader movements and ideas.  The more I read, the less panicky I feel about not fully understanding Barthes, for example, as I am sure that – at some point – I will be able to triangulate everything and make sense of it.

On reflection, of my two sets of images for This Is Where I Live, I may actually like the compacts the most. It reminds me that the equipment is not as important as the intention. The first set seems more vibrant and confident than the second. A small, discreet camera meant I felt much less self-conscious, and possibly got more interesting images as a result. My plan to take the second set photos in the same time frame as the first was a mistake – I could have got much better images by giving myself more time and by applying more ‘craft’ as the brief suggested.  I will not get fixated with it though as I am keen to keep moving forward.  I have learned from this and have also evidenced how easy it is to mislead with social documentary.

Some things that have caught my imagination over the last few days:


An incredible set of images by Adam Hinton of inmates in a ‘private’ prison in El Salvador:  Although one’s first primal instinct is to be afraid of these men, Hinton really captures their humanity. I can almost glimpse the young innocent boys they once were and find their demeanour to be calm and quite beautiful. This is a testament to the skills of the photographer and his ability to gain the trust of his subjects.

Driving with Selvi

On Monday we attended the world premiere of this excellent documentary about South India’s first female taxi driver as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Selvi was taken as a child bride and abused by her husband and his friends but, having run away, she found salvation and confidence at a women’s shelter ( and eventually became a taxi driver.  As well as being very moving and uplifting, this film is beautifully shot by Elisa Paloschi.  Much of the footage of Selvi is in extreme close-up so we cannot escape a level of intimacy with her which keeps the viewer gripped for the duration of the film.  This is a powerful social documentary with very specific aims to help vulnerable women and girls around the world.

The Face of Britain by Simon Schama

This is a BBC show, an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery and a book, exploring what makes a successful portrait and what does it tell us about the individual and collective psyche of the time.  From what I have gleaned so far, Schama explores the way we are hardwired to be interested in each other’s faces. It is how we know ourselves and our tribes. It is how we preserve people who have gone.  We gain clues from looking at people which help us survive and develop throughout our lives.  The eye-to-eye connection is how we bond as humans.

The ‘Face of…’  is split into five themes:   Power, particularly focusing on the tension between the sitter and the artist; Love, the poignancy of an image when someone has died or is absent; Fame, how an image in itself can make someone famous; Self-Portraits, exploring the impetus behind this; People, icons which capture something about us as a being and a part of a collective.  There is more detail from the NPG website here.

The first TV episode last night was fascinating. Some of the things which particularly struck me:

  • I had never thought too much about the word ‘deface’ before – it seems to be of 14th century origin. Schama mentioned it specifically within the context of the vandalism of religious imagery as it removes the connection people would have had with Catholic saints via the face.
  • The ‘labyrinth’ of signs and symbols in this portrait of Elizabeth 1 attributed toMarcus Gheeraerts the Younger.  Schama talked about the gauntlet meaning trust and faithfulness; spring flowers denoting eternal life; her grasp of the rainbow to indicate harmony and prosperity; a serpent of wisdom; the eyes, ears and mouth on the robe to represent interaction with the people but also the paranoia that comes with power. This painting was from when the queen was in her 60s and was specifically created to reflect her benevolent omnipotence and timelessness.
  • Horses to indicate an obsession with breeding and fine bloodstock – this is how the aristocracy sought to remind their monarchs that their position was fragile and merely granted by the entitled ancient families of England.
  • Schama explained very concisely how portraits were the preserve of the rich until photography reformed this and gave power back to the people.
  • Victoria and Albert being ‘ostentatious in their modesty’.
  • The tremendous success of the Yousuf Karsh ‘Roaring Lion’ portrait of Churchill. Schama describe the story of Karsh removing Churchill’s cigar and believes the genius of this image is that the artist knew what the people wanted to see.

I am very much looking forward to seeing future episodes.  This week’s Time Out mentions that in the ‘Face of the People’ section at the NPG there are surveillance photographs of alleged militant suffragettes from 1914 which “demonstrate that making images of people can be politicised and used as a weapon”. Interesting stuff.

Julia Margaret Cameron

I have found myself being rather haunted by the Julia Margaret Cameron image of ‘Iago’ (Angelo Colarossi – also the model for the Piccadilly Circus statue of Eros, it seems). Having posted the link to the image on Facebook, most of my peers agreed that it was a very modern-looking image and reminded some of them of the actor Vincent Gallo.  My research led me to this wonderful set of images of Jessica Chastain taken by Annie Liebovitz. I would like to try to make some portraits in that JMC style as I progress through this course.

Where the Children Sleep

I found this set of images to be profoundly moving amongst the slew of photographs of refugees.  Marcus Wennman’s images are quiet, beautiful and absolutely devastating. Clearly this is overt social documentary with a specific agenda. The website states: “Fotografiska and Aftonbladet aim to recognize the vulnerable situation of these children who have been displaced by war in order to support the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR.”


Finally, I am rather shocked by the number of typos in Steve Edwards in Photography A Very Short Introduction – an Oxford University Press publication.  Page 26 mentions a photographer called Weeyee!

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