Category Archives: Assignment 4 A picture is worth a thousand words

Assignment four (tutor feedback and my response)


Feedback on assignment 4

 1000 word essay on an image of my choice

I was delighted with my tutor’s feedback on assignment four. Derek said that is was ‘an excellent choice of image (and title)’ so I was immediately relieved as choosing just one image from the zillions out there was a challenge in itself; here is my essay

His main comments are shown below:

The good

  • Choosing an image on merit – by a relatively new photographer (rather than a classic because others find it worthy) is a result of careful and thoughtful research.
  • I have successfully woven my observations of the image, contextualised by other people’s critiques of similar work and Barthes’ writings.
  • The narrative flows well and my writing is of a high standard

  The not quite so good

  • The origins of a few of my points were not always clear, possibly because I was writing in the third person. An example he gave from my essay was:

Wagstaff shows the suffering associated with depression by suggesting a lack of interest in gardening, by showing the subject as literally being in a dark place.

Derek asked whether this was my personal interpretation or was it from my research? The answer is that it was my personal response. I chose this image partly because when I searched online for other peoples thoughts on this image I couldn’t find any, so I knew all the ideas were going to be largely my own. Therefore, unless I have referenced an idea as belonging to someone else, everything is my own. The  terms ‘dark place’ and the suggestion of lack of interest in gardening is my own interpretation.

  • I should include a sentence or two as to why I rejected images that I had considered in my ‘shortlist’. I have done this now in my initial ideas post here.


Recommended reading/viewing

  • Basics Creative Photography 03 Behind the Image: Research in Photography by Anna Fox ans Natasha Caruana. Ok – this is already at the side of the bed!
  • Charlie Crane’s Project ‘Welcome to Pyongyang’
  • Simon Roberts’ project and book ‘Motherland’.

I will research the above projects and prepare posts about them:

Welcome to Pyongyang

Simon Roberts: Motherland

Thanks again; I am pleased with how this assignment has been received and with what I have learned in this part of the course.


Assignment four, essay

Dulcie Wagstaff
Familiar Gardens 


What on Earth?

This photograph is from the series, Familiar Gardens, by Dulcie Wagstaff, which explores the relationship between the photographer’s ‘love of gardening’ and its therapeutic role in her ‘diagnosis of depression’ (Good, 2018). The intention of this essay is to demonstrate a personal response to the image, using semiotics as tools of deconstruction, to show how it signifies the suffering associated with depression, the role of the garden in therapy, how there is hope for the future, and, through this, show ‘What on Earth is going on in this image. 

Wagstaff’s image is resonant of the work of Francesca Woodman  who depicted ‘dark psychological states’ (Boothroyd, 2004) and of Jeff Wall’s Insomnia which explored ‘psychological distress’ (Cotton, 2015). The positioning of Wagstaff’s subject mirrors that of Wall’s where his subject is ‘resigned to crumpling on the floor in desperation’ (ibid) with both images showing people positioned oddly in ordinary settings. The works of Wall and Woodman have contributed to my understanding of Wagstaff’s image and has informed my interpretation of it.  

The image shows a garden, denoted by the fence, the plants, and the grass. It also shows a lady, in a floral print dress, face down with her head and arms in a hole in the ground. The plants are not professionally maintained, the grass is overgrown and the fence is ubiquitous on building developments nationwide, connoting an ordinary domestic garden. The lady is young; her hair is styled as such, she is slim and her dress is contemporary. I now see a twenty something woman, face down in a domestic garden, on a housing estate in suburbia. She is wearing Wellingtons, as though she intended to do some gardening.

Stereotypical gardeners however, don’t wear pretty dresses or have their head and bare arms buried up to the shoulders. The subject’s positioning subverts our preconceptions of normal behaviour which immediately alerts us that something is wrong. Wagstaff says that ‘my mum used to drag me to her allotment … if I was feeling down’ (Benavides, 2018). Within this context we can see this image as one of a woman with a disturbed state of mind.  

A viewer’s eye is drawn first to the shape created by the fabric of the woman’s dress and then moves upwards to her bottom, before travelling diagonally downwards to her hair as though we are being drawn down into the hole with her. The woman’s head is positioned lower down, which creates movement and ensures  that we rest on her hair and her buried face.

Barthes, in Camera Lucida, developed the concepts of studium and punctum. (Barthes, 2000). The punctum of this image is the ponytail. The image would work well without the ponytail but Wagstaff included it here to add an element of vulnerability, femininity and character to the subject. We can now relate to this woman as an individual. She has her own style, she has arranged her hair that way herself. The presence of this detail serves to highlight the subject as an individual and as such it is easier for us to empathise with her. 

There are several signifiers of suffering in this image. The lifeless plants signify illness; their unhealthiness signifying an unhealthy state of mind. People with depression often lose interest in hobbies; and  this garden is correspondingly neglected.

The woman’s suppliant position connotes a feeling of her worthlessness as though she wants to hide, dig her own grave and be buried. The connotation is that she has no sense of identity (we cannot see her face). Her head is seemingly resting on folded arms; generally considered to be a ‘sobbing’ position. Depressed patients often feel inferior and worthless and this lady’s posture is far from self assured and positive. 

The soil, especially with a significant sized hole, has connotations of graves and ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ from the English Burial Service. Are we seeing here a woman wanting to ‘commit her body to the ground’. Depressed patients often have thoughts of death and the strip of soil is just about the size she would need.

I read the physical closeness of the subject to the garden as being indicative of its importance to her as therapy. The subject is literally ‘in’ the garden as though it is integral to her wellbeing and as though she is surrounded and comforted by it. The comfort and solace, however, progress to hope and recovery; the floral fabric signifies a healthy state of mind, and the roses are a substitute for real flowers in the neglected garden and a reminder of the way things should be. It isn’t accidental that the woman is photographed in a rose fabric. Roses are known as symbols of love and beauty; but don’t forget the thorns; life’s hardships and bad times. There are signs of new growth in the garden that also indicate hope for the future. After all, the soil is not only representing burial but also a source of nourishment, growth and the renewal of life.

At face value, this image portrays a strange happening but on consideration of the ‘vocabulary of visual culture’ (Salkeld, 2014, p 50) we can attach meaning to this image that answers the question of what on Earth is going on here? Wagstaff shows the suffering associated with depression by suggesting a lack of interest in gardening, by showing the subject as literally being in a ‘dark place’ with her head in the soil, using weeds to signify illness and by using the hole as a sign of wanting to be buried. The role of the garden in therapy is signified by the embracing of the soil by the woman as though she is integral to it and wants to merge with it. Hope for the future can be seen in the signs of new growth and in the suggestion that the garden is ready to spring into life once more.



Barthes, R. (2000). Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.

Benavides, M. (2018). Interview: Dulcie Wagstaff. [online] The Miniclick Photo Talks. Available at: [Accessed 24 Feb. 2018].

Boothroyd, S (2014) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts.
WeAreOCA. (2018). Beneath the surface. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

Cotton, C. (2015). The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson. (2018). Familiar Gardens – Dulcie Wagstaff – Photographer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].

Good, B. (2018). Talk: Catharsis with Dulcie Wagstaff and Martin Seeds, 14th August. [online] The Miniclick Photo Talks. Available at: [Accessed 12 Feb. 2018].

Salkeld, R. (2014). Reading photographs. London: Bloomsbury.

Assignment four – self assessment

Reading Photographs

This assignment was to write an essay on an image of my choice. So the usual ‘self assessment’ headings (which are more relevant to photographic assignments) are not quite appropriate, especially regarding technical skills and creativity. However, I will follow as similar a format as possible to reflect on my essay.

Demonstration of visual skills – choice of image

I spent some time in considering my tutor’s feedback to assignment three where he gave me some pointers in choosing the image for assignment four. My work around this and some of the images that I considered, and then rejected, is shown in my post here

The post shows how I considered examples of controversial images, famous images, images by photographers studied within this course, images from newsworthy stories and my own images. In the end I was drawn to an image by Dulcie Wagstaff that I found myself repeatedly returning to. I think I know why this image remained in my mind throughout the consideration process and it is because it was something I felt strongly about. Derek, in his feedback said that I ‘should chose a picture that I feel strongly about as this will be good motivation for research and writing’.

My tutor was right and that is what I did. I have a longstanding interest in mental ill health probably because my own episodes of work related stress over the years share common symptoms associated with depression and anxiety and I am aware that mental ill health is often looked upon as a taboo subject and is not properly understood. It also interests me because of the statistics which predispose women to be sufferers more than men:

In England, women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

(Mental Health Foundation, 2018)

I was also tempted by this image because I could find very little prior analysis by other viewers, so, I was, basically, on my own with it, with no other opinions to learn from. I also could not be influenced by other reviews and would be pleased that all my ideas were my own without influence from other people. I felt also that there was sufficient scope for a detailed analysis … and, importantly, I liked the image.

Quality of outcome

I enjoy writing essays and spent six years doing so as an English Literature undergraduate until I graduated ten years ago. So, although I have written many essays in my time to a 2:1 standard, I am very rusty now!

Before starting, I read the OCAs guide to ‘Academic Essay Writing’  and took on board choosing an essay title that had a clear focus, using a question as suggested, so that I could use the essay to answer the question.  I spent some time considering the introduction and feel that this clearly sets out my intentions for the essay.

I was aware of writing in an appropriately academic style using the preferred third person. There were times when I wanted to use the first person but these were limited to voicing my own opinions. I am very aware of correct spelling and correct punctuation and I am an apostrophe freak. However, I am not perfect and mistakes will slip through.

Throughout my work, evidenced on my blog, I have been regularly using referencing and bibliographies and am used to doing this as a matter of course and I would NEVER intentionally plagiarise and live fearful of accidentally doing this. I am therefore very thorough in how I approach this. My process is to highlight anyone else’s words in red if I copy them into my blog, and immediately make a note of the source, using ‘Cite This for Me’ as a tool to obtain correct referencing and bibliography entries. This way I always know they are not my words and they cannot become accidentally mixed in with my own.

Regarding making drafts of my work, I enjoy the cutting and pasting to arrange the words to be exactly where I want them to be, and to change the flow of the essay easily and I like the minor tweaks to make it just as I want it. (crossing the ‘T’s and dotting the ‘I’s). Going back to my literature days I always considered the final part of essay writing to be ‘the art of arranging words on a page’ (my words).

One thing was the word count. I wrote too much which didn’t surprise me. I was pleased actually that I had found so much to say. Bit by bit I whittled away at the words until I reached 1000. It was my mission to arrive exactly at 1000 without compromising what I wanted to say.

All in all I have produced a one thousand word essay as instructed by the brief and I feel that I have approached this in an appropriately academic style and have successfully  analysed an image as required.

Demonstration of creativity

There was no requirement to be creative, in the ‘image making’ sense, for this assignment. However, I had to chose ONE image from the squillions out there so I suppose it did involve some creative thinking to ensure that the image offered sufficient scope for analysis, that it would be interesting to write about and would provide sufficient material to engage a reader of the essay.

We think of creative writing as the use of figures of speech, metaphors, use of adjectives, alliteration, and so on, and as being the opposite of the more factual approach of the academic essay but essays do have to be readable, engaging and interesting. I really wanted to start with a striking and original opening sentence and my  title ‘What on Earth? with its connection to the ‘soil’ portrayed in the image, I felt was appropriate and interesting and provided a focus for the essay.


When researching Dulcie Wagstaff’s images I was drawn to the work of Francesca Woodman and Jeff Wall. I was very interested in their approaches to portraying psychological problems and I saw links between Wall’s Insomnia particularly, and the Wagstaff’s image that I chose for the essay. Both are domestic situations, both subjects are positioned oddly and are behaving strangely in an ordinary place and both images portray mental health problems.


Mental Health Foundation. (2018). Mental health statistics: men and women. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Feb. 2018].

Assignment four (initial ideas)

An essay on an image of my choice

My first reaction

I am reminded of my school days. At eight years old, when Miss Dickinson asked the class to write an essay on ‘my favourite day out and why’ … no problem. At twelve, ‘money is the root of all evil, discuss’ … ok, interesting. If thirty years later, Dr Morrison asked me to write  an essay on ‘Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as an allegory of Indian Independence’ … ok (ish!) but, if anyone ever asked me to write an essay about ‘anything of my choice’ … panic! Same here with choosing an image of my choice for this assignment!

However, my tutor in his feedback to assignment three, gave me some suggestions for choosing the image. He said that:

  • I should choose a picture that I feel strongly about as this will be good motivation for research and writing. Mental Health is a subject very much in the forefront of the news right now, given a very high-profile by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, who aim to ‘change the conversation on mental Health’ (Heads, 2018). It is also high-profile at my place of work and indeed Worldwide, in light of Word Mental Health Day on October 10th. I have also suffered from work related stress which can have very similar effects to common mental health problems, tiredness, tearfulness, etc. So, yes, I am very interested in this subject and have therefore chosen to write my essay on Dulcie Wagstaff’s image below. (2018). Familiar Gardens



The images that I considered, and why, and rejected, and why

Further feedback from my tutor suggested the following:

  • Look at many images thinking about what you have to say about them. When I think of the squillions of images to chose from, it is daunting and challenging to chose just one of them and for it to be the ‘right’ one. I started to look at well known images on the internet, through the British Journal of Photography copies that I have, through text books and magazines and started to see them differently as though I am starting to understand the visual language.
  • Controversial images would offer two sides to compare. I thought about this image and the controversy surrounding it about the photographer’s obligations to the little girl, the effect his situation had on him, his suicide and the Global message it connotes. The reason this image came to mind is because I have just seen Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park which included his work around this image and Kevin Carter, the photographer.

Alfredo Jaar exhibition at YSP

The vulture and the little girl, 1993. Original title: Struggling Girl.

(People, 2018)

This image is so disturbing. When I had watched the exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park the four people present at the viewing remained silent long after the film had ended. I rejected this image for the assignment because,  well, … I just rejected it.

  • a famous image has the advantage of previous comments though there may be less scope to add your own voice. 

I considered this image:

President Bush

Image from (All That’s Interesting, 2018)

I remember seeing this photograph in 2001 of the (then) President Bush receiving news of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center while he was visiting school children in their classroom in Florida. The image denotes, two suited men, a background of child appropriate posters and young schoolchildren in the foreground. The standing man is informing the seated man of something. It is however, virtually impossible to look at this image with no prior knowledge of its subject matter.

The connotation here is of the President listening attentively and remaining calm while receiving grave news. Bush appears to be actively listening and the way that there is a juxtaposition of the seriousness of the subject with the ‘bear on a bike’ image to the right of the President’s head is striking. The gravity of the situation for, not only America, but for the World, contrasted with the children’s ignorance is compelling. We see a serious president looking appropriately calm but troubled at receiving World changing news.

The context however, changes when viewed as a six minute video footage that shows the President’s actions before and after hearing the news.

I now see the President with a passive ‘what now?’ expression where he is left ill at ease, unauthoritative and wondering what to do. A more appropriate reaction would have been for Bush to leave the room immediately to organise, instruct and direct others. In the singular image however, we do not see how inappropriate his passive response is. I rejected the photograph for the assignment as it has been, and will be, discussed ad in finitum, and I would not be able to add anything new.

I also considered this image:

Nan Goldin’s The Hug

(, 2018)

The OCA coursework directs us to Sophie Howarth’s Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, as part of the research point on deconstruction.
The book’s summary mentions Goldin’s image, The Hug (1980). We have already studied some of Goldin’s work so I was interested in this. I liked it and thought it had sufficient analysis potential.

I considered what was denoted – a man’s muscular arm surrounding a woman’s small waist. We see just the man’s arm and the back view of the woman, a dark glamorous dress, a shock of black unruly hair.

The way that the image captures both a passion and a sense of menace interested me and made me consider the way that this had been connoted by Goldin; the stark setting, the faceless people, the shadows and the man’s obvious strength etc. I thought that this image offered scope for analysis and considered it for the assignment but ultimately I rejected it as I didn’t feel strongly about it like I did with the Wagstaff image.

A further consideration was this image

Jeff Wall ‘View from an Apartment’

Jeff Wall’s View from an Apartment

(Tate, 2018)

The summary of Sophie Howarth’s Singular Images: Essays on Remarkable Photographs, also referred to Jeff Wall’s View from an Apartment. As we have studied Wall previously during this course I was interested in this image. I liked it and thought it had scope for analysis.The setting is a cluttered living room. Two women are involved in domestic activity, ironing and reading; this ordinary life is contrasted with the view outside. My thoughts turn to the traditional private and public spheres of femininity and masculinity. The connotation is that this is a comfortable and casual home life, signified by the ironing board, the television, the seating arrangements, magazines and so on. The couple are comfortable in each other’s company signified by their preoccupation with their individual activities and the reading lady’s slouched position.

I rejected this image again on the grounds that, although I like it and it interests me, and all the minutia of everyday life is fascinating to view and analyse, I do however feel a pull to my first image by Wagstaff and I wanted to chose an image that we had not discussed during the course material.


Another consideration was this image:

I now pronounce you married

McPhate, M. (2018)

When searching for famous photographs I came across this image of Connie Kopelov and Phyllis Siegel celebrating after becoming the first gay couple to be married in Manhattan, New York, in 2011.

Without the context of the wedding, this image could connate a number of scenarios. The building in the background, for me, conjured images of law courts and my immediate reaction was a trial that had gone in one of the women’s favour, or even, God Forbid, a right to die case. I rejected this image as I didn’t think it offered as much scope for analysis as the Wagstaff image.


  • a  personal image might be more difficult to talk about but more emotionally engaging I didn’t chose to use a personal image as I feel that a subjective view of a photograph is different to an objective view. You cannot distance a personal knowledge of people, or of situations when you are ‘involved’. Take this image for instance, how can I not see what you can never see?

 my image

In Barthes’ Camera Lucida he famously omits  the photograph of his mother because it would be ‘nothing but an indifferent picture’ (Barthes, 2000, p 73) to any viewer but himself. Same here.


All That’s Interesting. (2018). 50 Influential Photographs That Changed Human History. [online] Available at: [Accessed 19 Feb. 2018].

Barthes, R. (2000). Camera lucida. London: Vintage.

Boothroyd, S (2014) Context and Narrative, Open College of the Arts. (2018). Familiar Gardens – Dulcie Wagstaff – Photographer. [online] Available at: (2018).

Familiar Gardens – Dulcie Wagstaff – Photographer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018]. (2018). About Heads Together – Heads Together. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2018].

McPhate, M. (2018). Connie Kopelov, of First Same-Sex Couple Legally Married in New York, Dies at 90. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Feb. 2018].

People, C. (2018). The vulture and the little girl. [online] Rare Historical Photos. Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2018].

Tate. (2018). ‘A View from an Apartment’, Jeff Wall, 2004-5 | Tate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2018].

The Hug by Nan Goldin on artnet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2018].ns [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].