Preparing for Informing Contexts: Human Choices

I set out to create a set of images that focussed on one particular community group. The Carnival was a relatively accessible choice for me to look at as I was already familiar with the events, as they were very much part of the yearly calendar growing up. I also knew of a few of the individuals how had good connections within the world of the carnival (Fig. 1). It was this initial connection that had led me to look at the Somerset Carnival circuit, understanding that access is critical in creating the kind of work that I wished to make. 

Figure 1. Mike, Frome Town Crier & key participant in the carnival who is also the step dad to an old school friend of mine. (Hill, 2019)

In terms of the Human choices that I would make during the project, I found that I would have to come to terms with the representation of the people that I was photographing. As I continued to work on the portraits, there would be an initial interaction between me and the subject in the form of an introduction to myself and the aim of what I was trying to do with the image. The initial introduction would also include a quick photograph being taken in a style that they were very used to: a large grin, maybe a thumbs up, or assuming the pose and acting out of the performance of the character that they were dressed as (Fig. 2). This was a result that each subject was quite happy to do and also with the result. The image could also be considered nothing more than the thin layer of performance of the character, not the person I was photographing. I made a conscious decision to pose my subjects in a very straight-on manner, with the hope of making an image that I would in essence have more control over the subjects instinctive reaction, which in turn I would have more ownership. 

Figure 2. Initial reactions from many of the carnival participants. 'Sunday Afternoon Theatre Company at Frome Carnival.' (Hill, 2019).
Figure 2. Initial reactions from many of the carnival participants. ‘Sunday Afternoon Theatre Company at Frome Carnival.’ (Hill, 2019).

I have come to understand this is however still a kind of performance, one of my making and choosing. It is one that I am confident creates a successful image and provides a deeper look into the subjects and the culture that they participate. Todd Hido takes this even further through the detailed control of the environment even before the subject enters into it, saying:

“You can have an amazing story to tell but you have to get the setting right”

(Hido, 2014, p.97).

Hido also goes on to discuss that he does this in order to create a situation in which the subject can do something natural within it. Susan Sontag suggests that the photographer projects themselves on to the subject and the skilful photographer has the image pre visualised before the photograph is taken (Sontag, 1979, p.117). I have started to apply this to my practice, however I do have some development to continue in this area. I have found that, one of my key weaknesses in creating environmental portraits is the lack of awareness of what is happening in the background of my images. So concentrated am I on the subject and creating the posed images (Fig. 3). Before starting the MA, I would always tend to isolate my subjects against some kind of ‘clean’ background which although creates an image that I am happy with, and one that I have pre-visualised in many cases, and also go so far as to controlling the environment, as Hido does. This approach does tend to remove the context of the image as it sits within the narrative of the project. I am happy to have this approach challenged and will continue to work on my consideration in placing my subjects within the environment.

Figure 3. Example of an uncontrolled background in an attempt to shoot an environmental portrait. (Hill, 2019).
Figure 3. Example of an uncontrolled background in an attempt to shoot an environmental portrait. (Hill, 2019).

The question of how to pose my subjects within my images came up a number of times during the last module. Paul, for example questioned the looking off camera approach as a very common, and potentially overused method in photographic portraiture at the moment. Where I do not necessarily disagree with his assessment and especially the aversion to smiling in perceived ‘serious’ photographic work, Hannah Starkey (Starkey, 2019) consciously avoids getting her subjects to look directly into the camera suggesting that this can have a real impact in how the reader attributes narrative to the work. Looking away and off into the distance reduces the confrontation within the work and allows the reader to get in between the exchange of author and subject and create their own narrative of the work (Fig. 4&5). 

Figure 4. Looking directly into the camera. (Hill, 2019)
Figure 4. Looking directly into the camera. (Hill, 2019)
Figure 5. Looking off and away from the camera. (Hill, 2019)
Figure 5. Looking off and away from the camera. (Hill, 2019)

More and more now, I am appreciating the interplay between Author, subject, and reader. I am beginning to understand the crucial importance of the reader after reading Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ Essay (Barthed, 1977, p.142 – 149), and how I have limited, if any control of how others interpret and read my work. Even though I do not completely agree that the reader can completely disregard the author of the work, especially in our modern age where so much information exists about the artist of a piece of work. As it impossible for the read to not bring opinion in isolation, it may be impossible to be completely removed from the artist of the work.

Nadav Kander reflects on this, and puts the more emphasis on the reader as ultimately being the author of the work discussing that the interplay between all three key elements is fundamental to the strength of the image through a triangle that exists between Artist, the scene, and the reader (Fig. 6).

Figure 6. Illustration depicting Nadav Kander's triangle (Kander, 2019).
Figure 6. Illustration depicting Nadav Kander’s triangle (Kander, 2019).

Moving forward into the new module, I intend to start looking at the environment of community more closely and investigate the infrastructure of how it functions through photographing the architecture, such as meeting halls, and community hubs. This is an initial approach whilst I start to build the relationships needed to introduce portraiture back into the work. I also feel that it will be crucial to my development to focus on the environment and then start to introduce a human element to the images. I am also looking to start exploring my technical and aesthetic choices for my ongoing work. Up until now I have been relying on a style of image making that served me well whilst I was an editorial freelance, however I feel that it is important to challenge and explore moving forward. As I continue to use digital, I may even consider looking at a post production method of applying this aesthetic to my work – The technical choices that I make to my work related to the aesthetics will have a big impact on the context in which that work is read (Short, 2018, p.55).


Barthes, R., 1977. Image, Music, Text. Trans ed. London: Fontana pRESS.

Hido, T., 2014. On Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude. New York: Aperture.

Hill, P., 2019. Mike Bishop, Town Crier. [Art].

Hill, P., 2019. ‘Sunday Afternoon Theatre Company at Frome Carnival’. [Art].

Kander, N., 2019. Prix Pictet: A Lens on Sustainability. Photography as Witness [Interview] (5 November 2019).

Short, M., 2018. Context and Narrative. London: Bloomsbury.

Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.

Starkey, H., 2019. Photography as Witness [Interview] (5 November 2019).

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