Photographing the unseen; how my assignment developed
What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable?
Tangible subjects can be directly photographed; it is the intangible subjects that may be seen as un-photographable. Physical subjects, like people, buildings, animals and so on, can be captured directly by the camera, as they exist in a physical sense. However, the non-physical subjects such as nostalgia, dreams, emotions, memories, feelings, time, sensation, and so on, are not necessarily excluded from photography but they do rely on representation in the form of semiotics and metaphors to imply the meaning in the image.
Practitioners that inspired me
Briony Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ is a photo essay telling the story of the last few months of her father’s life. Love, caring and grief are intangible subjects that Campbell has photographed using symbols and narrative to add context and meaning to her images. One of her images is shown below. Without the caption, the meaning would not be clear. However, when Campbell states …
Sitting in the garden became an event, then a days activity, and eventually a strain that he endured only to comfort us. Or was it to comfort himself? I wondered endlessly, but really there was no difference.
… we can engage with the difficulties of movement that her father endured, we can imagine his family trying to lift him out of bed, getting him settled in the garden and the shared desire to make each other as happy as possible. The image comes to represent a life and feelings, and engages reciprocal feelings in the viewer.
Image by Briony Campbell ‘The Dad Project’
Interestingly, the image below is the only one without a caption. We learn from the previous image that Dad had died. So, this image of nearly nothing but softly focussed flowers needs no further explanation. In fact, the absence of a caption serves to emphasise that there are no words, at a time like the death of a loved one, that can come close to expressing what is felt.
Image by Briony Campbell ‘The Dad Project’
For further research into Campbell’s work see my posts here The Dad Project and here The Dad Project and Country Doctor compared.
Kaylyn Deveney’s ‘The Day to Day Life of Alfred Hastings’ is a photo essay taken to show the ordinary aspects of life that are not usually considered worthy of photographing. The photographer has added another dimension to the interpretation of the images by asking the subject of her images (Alfred Hastings) to write the narrative for each image. This shows how he has interpreted her images and shows the viewer an insight into how he sees his life. Below is a link to further research and analysis of this work.
I looked at the work of other OCA students and noted some of the subjects that they had covered; experience with dyslexia, blindness, balance, pain and pain relief. I also looked at the news to see topical subjects of the day; mental health, addictions, deprivation, poverty and sexual abuse. I then took some time to consider other unseen subjects and consolidated my thoughts and ideas in a mind map.
How might you go about portraying ‘the unseen’ using photography?
Photographing ‘the unseen’ relies on ‘showing’ not ‘telling’ with images that are ‘about’ something rather than ‘of’ something and I am very aware that It is important to be crystal clear about what I intend to say with my images. Going back to my literature days (again) I learned of showing and telling through the works of Jane Austen and can’t help but compare ‘telling’ to tangible photography and ‘showing’ to intangible photography.
In Pride and Prejudice we are shown that Lydia is immature and silly when she comments, of Brighton, ‘that is the place to get husbands’. (Austen, J. 1990). We are not directly told ‘Lydia is silly’ but through her dialogue the reader can work it out. Similarly, in photography, by using visual metaphors and symbols a viewer can work out the meaning of a photograph when the message is not immediately obvious.
With showing, not telling, in mind I hope to portray ‘unseen’ subjects by inferring a subject rather than obviously capturing it. If I choose ‘illiteracy’ for example. I can perhaps ‘hide’ the labels on supermarket products to show how hard it is to identify the product if you cannot read the label. In this way I can allude to the difficulties of being illiterate.
List a few examples of things you are experiencing or have been thinking about
- Working for a living but wishing I could retire early and be a full time student
- The good and the bad of getting older
- Having too much that I want to do and too little time to do it
- How television news is always bad
Make a list of seven ‘unseen’ ideas for assignment two
- Being shortsighted
- Stress and mental health
- A long marriage
- Stop the World I want to get off
- Getting older
- Gendered social codes
Clearly I didn’t want to stop at 7! Seriously, I surprised myself with my list; the more I thought about it the more ideas I had. My first inclination was to chose either ‘illiteracy’ or ‘gendered social codes’. Both these are areas where I have a particularly keen interest but I wanted to explore all of the above ideas before I made a final choice. Below are my responses to the ideas I have had.
Idea 1 (Illiteracy)
I eventually decided on illiteracy as the theme for my assignment so I have included a link to an additional post to show how I developed this idea in to the assignment.
How my illiteracy idea developed
Idea 2 (being shortsighted)
I liked the idea of this as it is easy to assume that everyone sees things as you do and poor sight is actually hidden. However, I didn’t think that it provided many opportunities to show images that repeatedly brought something new to the series.
I liked the idea of capturing what it is like to have poor sight. My sight is perfect with my contact lenses but without them I am short sighted to the point that life would be difficult. From the other side of the office I couldn’t even tell if someone was male or female, supermarket shelves would be a blur of colour, I couldn’t see which bus to catch and could definitely not drive my car. I thought it would be interesting to photograph this unseen difficulty by comparing images in and out of focus and the effect that this may have on everyday life. I considered going a whole day without my lenses to help me to experience poor sight in an everyday context in order to inform suitable images.
with contact lenses …
… and without
Idea 3 (stress and mental health)
I saw this article on obsessive-compulsive disorder while looking on line at the BBC news today this is what my OCD looks like and recognised the images as a photo essay and relay narrative in describing the experience of OCD sufferers in a variety of situations; I felt that it would have answered the brief of ‘photographing the unseen’ and I wished that I had thought of it. I don’t have OCD and I am in no way suggesting that what follows is linked in any way, but it put me in mind of how I like very much to be organised and how my life seems to be split into definite ‘pots’ as I call them. So, there is a family and friends ‘pot’, a work ‘pot’, study, yoga, gym, housework, social and leisure ‘pots’ and so on and I am happiest when all my ‘pots’ are ‘full’. This may form the basis of the next assignment of ‘putting yourself in the picture’.
Idea 4 (dreams)
I have enjoyed the poem interpretation exercise which put me in the mind of interpreting dreams through photography. I chose to interpret Kubla Khan and concentrated on a dream like representation due to the fact that Coleridge was in a drug induced dream when he composed the poem. Below is an example of my work on this and a link to my exercise post. I would be interested to return to dreams as a project in the future.
Exercise: Kubla Khan interpreted through imagery
Idea 5 (a long marriage)
A difficult subject to portray through photography. The love and the caring. The laughing and the team work. The knowing everything about someone and being proud of them. The not being able to live without them. When I think of this as a subject it feels like a good idea and something to return to later perhaps.
Idea 6 (stop the World I want to get off)
It seems that contemporary life is hectic. People are tired, stressed, too busy, don’t have time for things, they try to recharge their batteries at the weekend and then it starts again on Monday. I considered this rollercoaster life as a possible subject for this assignment. I thought about an image of a meal being served with too much food overflowing on to the table to represent the overload of ‘having too much on your plate’. It shows how I am trying to think more creatively and metaphorically but a little clichéd perhaps.
Idea 7 (getting older)
Getting older in a world that values youth. I am keen to show older people in a positive light; there are too many negative images out there. I know a lot of older inspiring people such as my aunt and uncle both in their eighties who teach ballroom dancing on cruise ships and have literally danced their way around the world for fifty years. Perhaps in the future I could seek out more people like them and use their images to fulfil a different brief.
Idea 8 (gendered social codes)
This is a subject that made my shortlist. After researching Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen and learning of social codes (the suits, oil paintings, chandeliers, playing cards, etc.) relating to the Gentlemen’s clubs and their members, it made me think of social codes in general and how one ‘learns’ to be masculine or feminine. The codes of gender are so engrained in us as a society that we fail to see them on a daily basis; they are just ‘there’. Hagan said in The Observer, that ‘the trappings of inherited wealth and privilege, alongside the invisible, but strictly defined codes of the British class system, have long provided fertile raw material for photographers’ (Hagan, S. 2017). Crisell described the world portrayed in Gentlemen as a world of ‘three piece suits’ (Crisell, H. 2017). I would like to portray similar codes in relation to gender rather than in relation to class.
This work on the British Class system and its identifying ‘symbols’ made me consider the different rules in society for men and women and how we conform to society’s expectations of gender. My idea for the assignment was in relation to the actions, mannerisms and gestures that are typically masculine and adhere to the social codes of masculinity.
I am often aware of the differences between masculine and feminine social behaviour and I am interested in the social construction of gendered behaviours. I am particularly interested in those gestures and actions that , as a woman, I NEVER do. I feel that I have been socially ‘created’ as a woman and I can remember being taught by my mother to be ‘feminine’.
I made a start on this subject for my assignment and, inspired by the way that Peter Mansell included narrative shown below in his photo-book ‘Paralysis Un-seen’, I prepared one in a similar format.
Peter Mansell ‘Paralysis Un-seen’ (above)
My interpretation of Mansell’s narrative (above)
I took a few images on my phone as a quick test to see if my ideas would work.
I considered the way that men sit and stand and generally take up more space than women. As a female I would never in a million years sit like my husband does in the right hand image and would never stand with my hands in my pockets either. My ideas surrounding the assignment went on to identify further actions that men do but women don’t (generally). Things like using inside breast pockets (women’s clothing does not have these), wearing a tie, dragging their tee shirts over their heads (see below) and sitting while dangling their arms through their knees. I even tried to sit, while driving, like he sits while driving, with his legs akimbo. Even though I was in the car ON MY OWN I found it near on impossible to sit with my legs apart; not because it was uncomfortable (far from it) but because from being able to understand, I was always told, ‘close your legs’. A fascinating subject.
Implement one of the ideas
I decided on illiteracy, with gendered social codes being a close second.
Austen, J. (1990) Pride and Prejudice. UK Oxford University Press
Campbell, B. (2017). The Dad Project – Briony Campbell | Photography & Film. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/#BrionyCampbell_0237-1000×667.jpg [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].
Crisell, H. (2017). Inside London’s Exclusive Gentlemen’s Clubs. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/20/t-magazine/art/karen-knorr-photograph-london-gentlemens-clubs.html [Accessed 22 Oct. 2017].
Hagan, S. (2017). Gentlemen by Karen Knorr review – eminently clubbable. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/31/gentlemen-karen-knorr-london-clubs-mocking-rich-powerful [Accessed 27 Oct. 2017].
KayLynn Deveney Photographer. (2017). The Day to Day Life of Albert Hastings. [online] Available at: https://kaylynndeveney.com/the-day-to-day-life-of-albert-hastings [Accessed 9 Nov. 2017].