Assignment One – Documentary Values

“The examination as the fixing, at once ritual and ‘scientific’ of individual differences, as this pinning down of each individual in his own particularity … clearly indicates the appearance of a new modality of power in which each individual receives as his status his own individuality, and in which he is linked by his status to the features, the measurements, the gaps, the ‘marks’ that characterize him and make him a ‘case’. [1]

As more and more interactions take place on social media platforms, the tone seems to be becoming increasingly shrill and hysterical. There is a meme-ification of outrage, a stampede towards public-shaming and hatred, fuelled by the distance and parapets created by technology. In this forum, fact-free assertions abound. A loop of action and reaction is repeated endlessly. Lack of compassion or reasoned thought leads to bullying, fights, stand-offs, the taking of sides, death threats, e-lynchings, blocking, reporting and in some cases imprisonment. This is our new coliseum.

Even the mild-tempered are quick to ‘unfriend’ those who do not agree with us. I believe this trend towards surrounding ourselves only with those who think the same way as us is dangerous. Censorship never ends well. And yet there are daily calls to ban this person and silence that person. A culture of victimhood has risen up – a depiction of history and culture as something that can wound. Stopping hate speech is a worthy aim but who decides? When do ‘we’ become ‘the Other’?

Socially constructed standards of what is the norm can change very quickly. The rapid rise of fascism in the Middle East and the ascendancy of Daesh, based on a death cult ideology has evidenced how we are all vulnerable to persecution were there to be a dramatic change to cultural, social or political power.

What if it were our traits or orientations or beliefs that were considered to be anti-social or threatening. What if a different government decided you were a ‘person of interest’ or an illegal?

This series of images aims to highlight how quickly social, cultural and political perceptions of acceptability could change and to show the fragility of our definitions of conformism and acceptable behaviour. I support the cause of unconditional freedom of speech and freedom of thought and I hope these documentary images remind us all to be compassionate, at all time, as things are not always as they seem. Our freedom and individuality must not be eroded. Rather we should be actively seeking to encourage tolerance and open discourse.

The initial idea for my surveillance project was inspired by the images taken of the Suffragettes in 1914. Just over 100 years ago these women were criminalised for beliefs and activities, which sought to achieve the goal of simply being allowed to vote. It is almost unthinkable now that 50% of the UK population may not have a political voice, simply based on gender. And I believe it is worth remembering that homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967 and same-sex marriage was only legalised the year before last. Being gay is still punishable by death in Iran, Yemen, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.  Six of my participants in this project are gay.

I realise this work cannot make a huge difference as we slide towards a hysterical social media world of action/reaction and censorship but I hope it may connect, in some people’s minds at least, to movements such as…

Monica Lewinksy’s work to combat public shaming and cyberbullying:

And the #ClickWithCompassion campaign:

The Spiked agenda:

Index of Censorship:

Nick Cohen:


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Issues explored

Documentary truth

We know that photography has a special relationship to “the real” and is perceived to be indexical. But as Bate observes, documentary photography “hovers between art and journalism, between creative treatment and actuality.” [2]

In documentary work, denotive truth is expected to be dominant. In this series it is more connotative. All the subjects look guilty of something because the images are encoded as a surveillance picture. The implication is that someone is actively tracking these people and recording their images. This is not a passive CCTV and we can tell from their clothes that this is happening now – a glimpse of a dystopian future.

All of the subjects are close friends of mine. All but one were aware of, and complicit in, the construction of these images.

The subjects all look somewhat suspicious as a result of the staging, editing and treatment of the images. Are these images ‘true’? Whilst the visual representation has been distorted to make these people look shifty, there is truth here. They are real people; all of their ‘anomalies’ are real. They are subject to state and commercial surveillance (albeit more reactive) everywhere, every day in London. And their freedoms are extremely fragile.

These images are not evidence but I hope that the truth I have inferred transcends the denotative. Would this count as ‘expressive realism’?

Power relations

I have photographed all these people many times before; they often use my portraits of them in the social media profiles. They trust me to represent them faithfully. No one even hesitated to agree to be part of this project. I have not told all them which trait I have selected.  They have not insisted that I show them the final chosen image before submission of the work.

Although I gained permission to photograph my friends for this project, I feel an uneasy sense that I have exploited them and appropriated possibly incriminating images and ideas through my photography. They subjected themselves passively. The ‘unreturnable gaze’ unsettles me. And what if these images and reports fell into the wrong hands? Or what if I ever turned against my friends? The conditions of reception could change.

The public and private uses of photography

How we reveal ourselves is more important than ever. The viral spread of images via social media can ruin lives. Often these images have been doctored, incorrectly captioned or entirely taken out of context.

The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag revealed countless examples of how we all have images of ourselves we’d prefer were never used to represent us publicly.

State surveillance

The false ‘Citizen Reports’ for this project imply state surveillance.

Ironically the state does not really need to actively monitor us as we now share our self-surveillance openly and have surrendered most of our privacy rights, partly due to fear seeded by government and media scare-mongering. With the ‘Selfie’ we believe we can control our own brand/image/destiny. And social media provides a face and voice to many previously silent and unseen which can be positive and negative.

Tagg says of photography: “Its status as a technology varies with the power relations which invest it. Its nature as a practice depends on the institutions and agents which define and set it to work.” [3]

Style considerations

Overall my aim was to ensure a ‘legibility’ of the intended code of the image, whilst producing something interesting and visually pleasurable for the viewer.

Colour: I considered using colour or even a more stylized futuristic approach but eventually decided that viewers would make sense of my aims more readily if the visual language was familiar. These images have a deliberately cold war style aesthetic, which I hope will resonate with my audience. I also hope that the black and white treatment gives more of a sense of timelessness.

Quality: I used a 70-200mm f2.8 lens for all of the images except Jackie and Gemma which were taken with a 70-300mm. I have made some alterations in Lightroom using the clarity settings and adding a heavy grain to add to the rapid-fire surveillance feel.

Posing and composition: my primary objective was to stress the individualism of each subject, even though ‘on paper’ they could be considered to be representative of a type. Other key considerations here were to make a series that was interesting as a whole (ie not too repetitive) but with each image having merit and visual appeal in its own right. At the same time, they needed to look authentic. The face had to be clearly visible, whilst we can believe that the photographer was not. I hid behind trees and fences and tried to include some of this blur in some images, where it worked with the overall composition. At the editing stage I deliberately chose one of the images as ‘breaking the fourth wall’ in a slightly Brectian Gestus/Fabel way to establish/acknowledges my involvement and unsettle the viewer.  The implied voyeurism should lead the viewer towards seeing these people as criminals to challenge and encourage reflection.

Props: I had considered using props or backgrounds to emphasise the anomalies and add interest but I quickly realised this would be too heavy-handed and would detract from the apparent authenticity of the images.

Usage of text/anchoring

How would these images live without the text? They don’t contain much evidence on their own but will absorb meaning from the context in which they are seen. Terry Barrett quotes Gisele Freund, a photographer and writer who says “few people realize that the meaning of a photograph can be changed completely by the accompanying caption, by its juxtaposition with other photographs, or by the manner in which people and events are photographed.” [4]

Bate reminds us: “Meanings are not fixed, but polysemic, mutable and contingent on the context.”

Contextualising my work

My original inspiration for this project came from seeing the movie Suffragette and studying some of the powerful surveillance photographs from that period. The images were an important part of the campaign by the authorities to repress this movement.

Contemporary influences included:

Robert Zhao Renhui’s A guide to Flora and Fauna of the World

We saw this project in Arles last September and although the images are not of people I was struck by his artist’s statement: “Several specimens in this project are based on fact; others are based on proposals, hypothesis and papers written by scientists.” I found the idea of being able to make work based on ‘proposals’ to be quite liberating.

Arne Svenson’s The Neighbors

I found this series to be absolutely beautiful – although the premise is controversial, the treatment is so gentle and well-executed.

Sophie Calle’s detective style projects have great appeal – particularly the idea of unwitting collaborations. “Such projects, with their suggestions of intimacy, also questioned the role of the spectator, with viewers often feeling a sense of unease as they became the unwitting collaborators in these violations of privacy. Moreover, the deliberately constructed and thus in one sense artificial nature of the documentary ‘evidence’ used in Calle’s work questioned the nature of all truths.” I find Calle’s work particularly interesting in the context of Val Williams’ comments about the gender differences in approach to social documentary.(Liz Wells, p96)

I was also moved and fascinated by the Living Room story from Love & Radio which blurs fact and fiction and explores the idea of one-sided intimacy.

Daniel Mayrit’s You Haven’t Seen Their Faces

I cannot claim this as an influence as I have only just got around to reading the February 2016 edition of BJP this week but it features this book (whose title is a play on the name of the 1937 book by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell). Mayrit has repurposed press images of “the 100 most powerful people in the City of London” in response to the Met’s use of CCTV images after the 2011 riots. From the article: ‘Using video surveillance, as the Met Police does, doesn’t make for a candid representation, he contests; instead it evokes a sort of panopticon, the realization that there is always some entity looking down on us. In short, he says, he hopes to “turn the camera the other way round, against power”.’

Daniella Zalcman’s Lost Generations of Txema Salvans’ The Waiting Game.

Two documentary projects by photojournalists – one ‘fact’ but presented as ‘fiction’ and the other vice versa.

Evaluation against assessment criteria

Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

I think I have managed to capture some quite interesting images, which are well-composed whilst retaining an authentic feel as surveillance images. My skills with this particular approach improved a little with each shoot. I managed to a variety of ‘ordinary’ backdrops and have used the available light well.

Unfortunately I don’t think I have spent enough time planning and working through various ideas for the book so this looks a bit shambolic. I will ensure this has been resolved before assessment time.

I also don’t think the Citizen Reports have worked as well as I had hoped. The hard copy feel is more private detective than state surveillance . I’d thought about having a space in the report for the images but I wanted them to be large and it looked strange. The importance of the reports and the anomaly data also creates a challenge when it comes to displaying the images here on my blog.

Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualization of thoughts, communication of ideas

I am pleased with the concept but I have struggled to articulate it clearly in words as there are so many strands of thought feeding in to it. I think I have applied my knowledge reasonably well but could possibly have made this more structured with more time.

Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice

I believe I have been quite creative with the brief instead of tackling any of the old favourites of ‘concerned’ photography/traditional social documentary.  The surveillance style is one I have used – and liked – previously in other projects so it feel authentically like an expression of my personal voice.

Context reflection – research, critical thinking

I could not find that many examples of well-known contemporary photographers experimenting with this style to specifically contextualize my work but I am hoping my tutor and other students can suggest some projects to look at. My research skills and critical thinking have definitely improved since beginning this course as I have developed a deeper understanding of the key concepts and significant photographers, writers and artists who have influenced the social documentary genre.

  1. Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish. London: Penguin
  2. Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury
  3. Tagg, J (1988). The Burden of Representation: essays on photographies and histories. London: Macmillan Education Ltd.
  4. Barrett, T. (2005) Criticizing Photographs: an introduction to understanding images. New York : McGraw-Hill

The images

Grace: anxiety disorder

Grace: anxiety disorder

Jean-Philippe: immigrant

Jean-Philippe: immigrant

Lee: atheist

Lee: atheist

Katy: socialist

Katy: socialist

Jess: working mother

Jess: working mother

Preom: muslim

Preom: muslim

Jackie: cancer survivor

Jackie: cancer survivor

Ian: homosexual

Ian: homosexual

Ray: composer

Ray: composer

Gemma: magsitrate

Alex: banker

Alex: banker

Brian: dyslexic

Brian: dyslexic

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One Response to Assignment One – Documentary Values

  1. Catherine says:

    You got me quite scared! I think there’s much truth in your project, unfortunately. Brilliant concept and so well-resented. Great links as well.


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