I have found it valuable to continue to submit my work for a range of opportunities and helps to focus my work towards a public outcome and find its audience.
Submitting writing has created some valuable opportunies to see how my own research applies to the discourses around photography. For everything that I submit, I have attempted to use part of my current research to create a more robust argument, which I have found really useful in informing my practice and the to support the development of my FMP outcomes
Capture Photography festival based in Vancouver, Canada were seeking submissions to contribute a text for the next edition of the festival in 2022. The submitted text asked for is a sample of writing and would lead to a commissioned text for the festival catalogue. For this submission, I chose to revisit an essay that I originally wrote for a call for papers, for Canadian art journal ‘Esse’ (Fig: 1), which was not selected but received some useful feedback for its development. This was a useful text to look at again and re-write as I was considering the way that some vernacular images are used between family members in a kind of transactional way. This additional attribution to the photograph is something that I am returning to again for the FMP and also it informs the submission for source magazine.
Figure 2: Phil Hill (June, 2021) Updated Essay for Capture Festival
Source Writing Prize
I took the opportunity to consider in a bit more detail the cut image from my family archive that triggered my FMP project (Fig: 3). In particular, what it is that draws me to this otherwise innocuous image. The text is an extension of a CRJ post that I created (Fig: 4), referencing Barthes’ ‘Winter Garden Photograph’ and the power that the absent photograph still has as a photograph, or in the case of my family photograph, the power of the part that is missing
Off the back of the ‘Communities and Communication conference that I did in April, I was invited to submit my paper for the upcoming conference publication, which is to be in the form of a 6000-word paper on the topics that I was discussing there. Some of the research that informed this discussion, which was around the community of Watford, where I live. Research on ideas around photographic nostalgia are important for my current project as well as community in the form of family.
I have had some success having single images accepted for awards during the MA, for example the Kuala Lumpur Portrait Prize, and 2021 Portrait of Humanity. I am really pleased to be a part of these awards however, I wanted to start focusing on competitions that took series entries as I felt that the narrative of my projects were lost by viewing single images.
Although he is strictly writing about the structure of the written narrative, James Wood in his book ‘How Fiction Works’ provides a strong set of parameters on how to utilise narration within a story (2019). This is useful for me to reflect on as my body of work will be heavily reliant on sequencing a strong narrative that uses a ‘narrator’ effectively.
There are a couple of key takeaways for me in Wood’s discussion on the unreliable narrator. Referring to W.G. Sebald he notes the way that worlds are created in which the rules are already widely known by everyone reading the book, which then leads to an opportunity to undermine this world, these rules, in a way that the reader knows that the narration is unreliable (2019:14). This is also in reference to the way that Barthes highlighted nineteenth century writers who would use common cultural or scientific knowledge as a way of a short cut (p. 16). Photography in a sense creates these shortcuts by the visual language present in the image however it is important not to overlook this fact. My project and photography exist in the world but some elements may not be acceptable to all that view it. I will want to construct a world through the sequence, which at first is familiar but has a number of features that starts to undermine and unravel the accepted rules of the world. I will need to define the rules of my world that I am presenting to you. As Wood puts it: “reliable manipulation” (2019:15) of the narrative to create the sense of the unreliable narrator.
The question for my work is who is going to be the narrator? Will it be me, one of the people photographed, or another character not seen? Wayne C. Booth places an emphasis on the distance between the characters of a narrative and the author (1975: 155). Wood notes: “As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking” (2019, p. 16), which suggests that the distance is created automatically by the reader of the work. I see my role in constructing the world in which the narrator operates, although I am not sure on who will be identified as the ‘narrator,’ I don’t think it will be me and will be created from the quotes that I have been collecting about the work. Perhaps the main reason for me not being considered as narrator, is as Wood notes: “first person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person ‘omnicient’ narration is generally more partial than omniscient” (p. 14). For my work of photography, the reader is less able to suspend disbelief of my authorship, which would draw attention to and increase the artifice associated with this construction – leading to a poor execution of the concept. If as Wood is suggesting that the third-person is actually more unreliable and bias, then effectively, the narrator can be made from the text that accompanies the images.
Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
I have written briefly about photography and belief (Fig: 1) in relation to David Levi-Strauss’ essay (2020). My project is also exploring the subject of belief, so it is important to take some time to reflect on what this means and how it can be represented in the project. Neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow considers this in her book ‘The Science of Fate’ (2021) which looks at a range of scientific studies related to ideas of belief and perception and crosses over very well into my own explorations as well as the philosophical debate within and out of photography on the ways in which we construct our realities.
Figure 1: Phil Hill (June, 2021) Writing on belief in photography.
I am interested in the reasons why people chose to believe. In some cases, and most relevant during this pandemic, why a person might choose to believe something that runs contrary to the overwhelming evidence that exists (Fig: 2). Critchlow refers to our brains as being a kind of “belief engine” (2021, p. 131), which will seek out supporting information for belief and ignore anything that appears to contradict this view point. Critchlow suggests that once the belief has been established, then it becomes increasingly difficult to change that mindset, as she notes: “And, given the scale of the brain’s eagerness to assign casual meaning to casual events, it’s easy to see how quickly one could arrive at an erroneous conclusion […] from essentially random occurrences” (p. 137). For example, my families own experience of being working class can feel that the system is stacked against you and by extension that authority and the state is also complicit in this – leading to a mistrust of any kind of authority, and a withdrawal. It is not too difficult to understand a leap from that, to a position that considers the pandemic some kind of extension of this, however misinformed that might be.
Critchlow discusses the way that we form belief, which is based on how we construct the world from our experiences, as she notes: “there is no such thing as objective reality” (p. 110). This of course connects to the discussion around photography, for example Susan Sontag’s Opening chapter to ‘On Photography,’ highlighting Plato’s allegory of the cave as a primary way that photography reconstitutes reality, but also the differences between knowledge and belief (1979, pp. 3-26). Photography is unable to present reality, because we are also flawed in presenting reality, as Critchlow states: “I don’t men to suggest that the physical world does not exist, rather that every person on this planet perceives it in a slightly different way. Everyone is living in their own ‘bespoke’ reality” (2021, p. 111). Critchlow’s arguments also seem to suggest links to Graham Harmon’s Object Orientated Ontology (2018), as it seeks to push the de-privileging of human interpretation as the primary factor for understanding the world.
An important takeaway from Critchlow is the way that belief is entrenched, potentially never able to come around to a different point of view. It is how we are able to make sense of the world and each of our brains are hard pressed to give that up: “Future reality starts to mould itself around the belief” (Critchlow, 2021, p. 137). Philosophically, the idea that reality is constructed has only been reinforced on a neurological level and crucially points out that: “our brains are invested in maintaining rather than changing our beliefs” (p. 138).
What is the impact that this has on my project? I am not aiming to change the opinion, or belief of anyone in my family. This would be quite an unethical position in terms of the power structure of me as the photographer. By the same token I am not a passive observer here, this is my family and the interactions that I have with them are always going to be very different to anyone else. I do not hold the same beliefs as my family so part of the project is to put this as one of the central focus of the sequence of the work. We all have a unique interpretation of the world, some of this might be misinformed and misguided, but ultimately who is truly able to make accurate judgement of the world when we are all flawed in the way that Critchlow suggests.
Critchlow, H., 2021. The Science of Fate. 1 ed. London: Hodder Paperbacks.
Harmon, G., 2018. Object Orientated Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. 1st ed. London: Pelican Books.
Levi Strauss, D., 2020. Photography and Belief. 1 ed. New York: David Zwirner Books.
Sontag, S., 1979. On Photography. London: Penguin.
Now that I am starting to get more of a grasp over what exactly I am going to be sequencing a project out of, it is important to come back to review the ethics of my project, it will be important to include those I am photographing in order to create a collaborative approach to the work and also have the consent of those I am photographing. I have spoken about the project with my family, however this is a continuing dialogue to ensure that the reading of the final outcome will be both faithful and respectful to them.
Themes are developing in my work that could be viewed with a kind of othering of my family, which I could be doing as much as anyone looking at the series. Kirsty Mackay noted in an interview with her collective ‘The Other,’ “Photography’s always been very good at portraying victims and not as good at portraying the perpetrators. And if you are looking at poverty, for instance, through a middle-class lens it’s easy to miss out a lot of the nuances and tell a very single sided story” (Mackay, et al., 2021). I am not looking at poverty, but being that my family is working class, the project would inevitably attract some attention in this area. My intention is not to portray my family as victims – they are not. The focus is that there are a number of beliefs, which are formed by the individual, but also by outside influences and that we start to subscribe to the labels that we are given. I have written about this previously after listening to Nichola Twemlow discuss this in relation to her experiences with social work (2021). Mackay et al also discuss this specifically to photography, where they note in particular about those in power applying the labels and also how this starts to shape and effect those given the labels. If someone is photographing you and also telling you the reason is because you are working class, or poor, then how does that start to effect and impact the relationship between photographer and the person being photographed? The portrayal could be misleading (2021). It is crucial that I continually ask myself these questions, even when I am photographing my family and subscribe to some of the labels. I am the one with the camera, so also the one with the power so there needs to be a collaboration as even though I share much of the same experiences as my family this does not mean that I am immune from exploiting them. This again feeds back into Mariamma Attah’s discussion around ideas of socially engaged practice (Fig: 1), where I analysed the key points of this concept and how I can apply them to my project.
As my project is my own family, I am well placed to navigate the nuances that Mackay et al suggest might be missed by a complete outsider. It is also worth noting that this is my story to tell. However, I am still an outsider in the sense that I am the one with the camera looking in. The dialogue is important t have with the people in the project but also with myself. Savannah Dodd discusses this in the article ‘The Ethics of Documenting your own Family,’ which points out the need to not overlook such questions just because they are your own family, as Dodd notes of Amanda Mustard: “It’s a gift to have the perspective and personal experiences that allow access to important stories that may not be told with depth otherwise. But with greater depth comes the need for greater ethical care.” (2021).
Dodd, S., 2021. The Ethics of Documenting Your Own Family. [Online] Available at: https://witness.worldpressphoto.org/the-ethics-of-documenting-your-own-family-7225ca8bd59a [Accessed 11 June 2021].
Mackay, K., O’Brien, K. & Coates, J., 2021. The Other: On class in the industry [Interview] (26 May 2021).
Twemlow, N., 2021. Communities and Communication Conference 2021: Connections. Staffordshire, Staffordshire University.
Meeting with Colin whilst Wendy is away. Meeting was really positive as I took Colin through my current progress and everything that I have been working on since the end of the module he supported before the FMP. One of the biggest takeaways was to really work on the text elements of this project and all of the quotes I have been collecting from the members of my family. The text could work in its own right and carry the narrative all the way through the work. At the beginning of the work, the text that also starts off the sequence will be important and could pose a question that has enough ambiguity and doesn’t tie the work down. Also important to place myself in the work more, so worth exploring this too.
Now that I am starting to consider ideas around belief in my project I have come to a text by David Levi-Strauss called ‘Photography and Belief’ (Levi Strauss, 2020), which although he is primarily concerned with the idea of evidential belief of the object, the essay sits very well in a number of areas that I am exploring. Chiefly, Levi-Strauss is debating the connection between photographs, memory and belief, starting with the familiar saying “seeing is believing” (2020: 11) and what that actually means in relation to how we experience things through photographs. Much of the book is regarding the most recent shifts in ‘technical images’ – a term coined by Villem Flusser and utilised by Levi-Strauss here (p. 43) – that have led to ‘deepfakes,’ for example, how are we supposed to trust the images that we see? Although the focus of my project is far removed from ideas of Ai and digital fakery, there are links here with the family album, and the images that started off my project (Fig: 1). The images that I have been looking are a kind of self-illusion, edited and disrupted from the original meaning. As Levi-Strauss points out: “Memory, because we remember primarily through images, and we believe what we remember (sometimes to our detriment); sight, because “seeing is believing” (p. 11). Looking at an image that has been defaced, cut, or edited in some destructive way at first disrupts the memory and then starts to prompt the question of why this has happened. Otherwise benign, the idea that a rift of some kind happened here plays heavily on the reading of the ‘edited’ photograph because “seeing is believing” in the object sense. You might not see what was in front of the camera in that part of the image, but you are now acutely aware of what is not.
The missing part of the image plays a significant role here too. In the absence of the object, we are encouraged to fill in the blank space with our own speculation, our own narrative. If we relay on images to form our memories, then potentially, in the absence of one, we are left to fill the void with something from our own personal library, in an abstract sense. The power of photography is demonstrated in the absence of a photograph so in effect seeing is no longer believing. Roland Barthes was acutely aware of this paradoxical statement when presented what is possibly the most famous image that no one has ever seen – The Winter Garden Photograph (1993: 67). This image is described so well in fact, that we are able to envisage it without ever seeing it. For Barthes’ it was punctum, highly personal and as he notes “it exists only for me” (p. 73) refusing to print it within the book and there have been suggestions that the photograph never existed in the first place, Barthes describing a photograph to us as an exercise in the power of photography, or more aptly, the power of our own memories to conjure such imagery. Within this part of Camera Lucida there is even a portrait by French photographer Nadar of his mother (or wife), which could be there to underline Barthes’ point and further serve to trigger the construction of The Winter Garden photograph from our own memory by utilising an image from canon (Fig: 2).
Ultimately, Barthes never needed to print the image at all as it is ubiquitous: “one of the many thousand manifestations of the ordinary” (1993: 73), which is the point of the description – although times have moved on since the publication of Barthes text, we are already familiar with this image from our own archives and the canons of photography that continue to inform memory.
Returning to the context of my family album’s ‘edited’ images, it could have very easily been Barthes’ stadium as I move through the album. They spark a general intrigue seeing members of my family from a different decade to how I remember them, which is especially true of those members who I have not seen for over 20 years. For my mother, the image was punctum, it wounds her. The image in this state has changed meaning as an object removed from the benign and vernacular. It crosses the boundary into punctum for me looking at it as I am able to visibly see the emotional attachment to the photograph.
Barthes, R., 1993. Camera Lucida. London: Vintage.
Levi Strauss, D., 2020. Photography and Belief. 1 ed. New York: David Zwirner Books.
Off the back of the Communities and Communication conference that I took part in April (Fig: 1), I was invited to submit my paper for their upcoming publication. I am really please that I am able to submit an academic piece of writing for a university publication as this was one of the goals of the FMP. The paper will be an extension on the presentation that I delivered, with a deadline for submission just after the FMP deadline. I will have my work cut out putting together the writing as I am required to produce a 6000 word paper.
It is giving me the opportunity to revisit in detail a lot of the research that I have been considering throughout the FMP and see new relevance for it for the FMP. In particular, I am forming discussion around the idea of Roland Barthes’ ‘Iddiorrythmy’ (2013) Susan Keller’s Community as an ongoing search between the individual and the community whole (1988), Graham Harmon’s Object Orientated Ontology (2018). I am also able to apply in greater depth the way that I am also looking at photographic memory and nostalgia.
I will be able to apply much of this thought and discussion when I come to write the Critical Review.
Barthes, R., 2013. How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of some Everyday Spaces. Translation ed. New York: Columbia University Press.
Harmon, G., 2018. Object Orientated Ontology – A New Theory of Everything. 1st ed. London: Pelican Books.
Keller, S., 1988. The American Dream of Community: An unfinished Agenda. Sociological Forum, 3(2), pp. 167-183.
I had a meeting with Emily Macaulay today of ‘Stanley James Press’ to talk through how I might turn my project into the book. This was highly productive and extremely valuable to hear her extensive experience in creating book projects with photographers. I was very pleased to be able to discuss the project with her, as she has worked on some titles that I really enjoy, including Alma Haser’s Cosmic Surgery (Fig: 1), a Limited edition of Sugar Paper Theories (Fig: 2), Simon Robert’s ‘Brexit Lexicon,’ and also Portrait Salon exhibition catalogues, which always bring a unique quality to them over the standard image and caption on page (Fig: 3).
Macaulay, was interested in the project and how I have been considering the published object to be about trace and memory, we spent some tie discussing this and how it might come together as a book. McCauley is keen to understand how I have been putting together the project up until now and her process would then be to look at how formatting would best serve the story. Should we end up working on the book together, it would become a collaborative process over a period of time that could involve both the design and the production of the book.
There is much potential to develop my project in this way and dependent of the economics of the publication – an unfortunate but essential consideration – it could be either a full book, or closer to a zine. I am hoping for something in the middle, akin to the book that I produced with Out of Place.
One of the key questions that I was keen to talk through was the idea of fund raising for the title. This of course depends on the outcome. Cosmic Surgery, for example was funded through a highly successful Kickstarter campaign but this comes with it’s own pitfalls. Kickstarter expects a fee for its service and according to Macaulay was an extremely intense period of promoting and pushing the project through this platform. Alternatively, there is an opportunity to ‘pre-sale’ the title but that would of course depend on the amount of interest I was able to generate in the book and would also mean that I would need to produce some to show the product that people are buying into. That said, Macaulay did suggest that it was possible to ‘pre-sale’ the idea but that this would need some specific marketing to allow people to get on board without seeing the finished product.
A real positive from the meeting was how Macaulay was very used to working with independent photographers, such as myself and aware of the process of creating a book with varying budgets. Moving forward, I will follow up soon to see if it is possible to create my book designed by Stanley James Press.
Figure 1: Phil Hill (May, 2021) Family archive objects re-shoot
I have been waiting for a break in the weather to continue photographing family and also places associated with my project. This has given me the time to reconsider some of the objects that I have been photographing as still life (Fig: 1).
Initially, I made flatbed scans of many of the cuttings and images (Fig: 2), which worked as a starting point to consider what I had within the archive. It was always my plan to treat all of the objects including the photographic prints – the same in terms of how they should be photographed as a still life set up. For this change, I settled on a fairly neutral tone in order for the objects to be viewed in their own right (Fig: 3). Colour theory and the impact that this might have on the image is something that I initially gave little thought too apart from the decision to not use a straight white, which I felt would create far too much contrast, or black, which could lead to the objects becoming lost within the image. After some consideration, I felt that I wanted to bring more of myself into the work even if I am not directly in front of the camera. To do this here, I am referencing some of my own baby objects and christening items and decided to use a light blue background, or a baby blue (fig: 4) as if to signal that this is part of my childhood, albeit subtly. Aesthetically, the blue creates a nice contrast to the faded and high red tones in many of the archive images that I am working with (Fig: 5).
The re shoot was also an opportunity to create a consistent series of images that up until now have been photographed using different methods and techniques, which might become challenging when it comes to the sequence. There is still some work to be done to clean up the consistency between these images in terms of the placement of shadow creating gradients that mean placing some images together might become problematic as a result of not having access to a good infinity curve. I may have to go back and make further re shoots when a sequence is settled.
Colin suggested during the recent group crit that I could aim to be reliable in order to be unreliable. As the author of the work it is important for me to be able to effectively apply the concept of the unreliable narrator in a reliable way – the best authors of literary work, for example, can create a narrative with an unreliable character because the readers trust the author to do so. In my own case, I potentially need to ensure that what you are looking at is technically and aesthetically sound so that the reader might trust that the sequencing is purporting to unreliable narration. As Wayne C. Booth reminds us:
“My subject is the technique of non-didactic fiction, viewed as the art of communicating with readers – the rhetorical resources available to the writer of epic, novel, or short story as he tries, consciously or unconsciously, to impose his fictional world upon the reader”
(1975, p. 1)
I also made some additional discoveries whilst going back through the archive and also some new connections with objects previously I didn’t photograph. For example, My parents used to keep scrap books of cards and other bits considered important – there is one for their wedding, and another two for both me and my brother. One of these books is called ‘Cuttings Book’ (Fig: 6), which resonated with the way that I have started to work with the Manual intervention images – perhaps the parts of the image cut away ended up in this book. Some other interesting discoveries, were in a couple newspaper clippings found in one of the albums, which become more intriguing o the reverse – suggesting a crime of some sort (Fig: 7). I am unsure of how to utilise these in the wider narrative but am becoming more interested in creating a few false turns and dead ends within the sequence to increase the sense of mystery.
Despite much of my attention still wanting to create portraiture and also images of significant place, the objects represent an important development in my approach to the work. I am effectively taking from one archive and creating one of my own, a form of changing narratives through appropriation and selection in order to present what I want to be shown – for my purposes. As Sophie Berrebi notes: “There are no such thing as ‘found objects’, but only objects that are ‘set aside’, selected and re-contextualised” (2014, p. 41). The family album is a form of official state narrative, it is constructed to project the idealised version for others to see (Manual intervention images not withstanding), Berrebi acknowledges this within the way that we also view the ‘document’ or archives of other state narrative, referring to a response to Foucoult by Jacque Le Goff and Pierre Toubert: ‘there is no truthful document’, yet it is also the job of future historians to analyse these archives and as they go on to point out: “to deconstruct, to demolish this montage, to destructure this construction, and analyse the conditions of production of these documents-monuments” (p. 42).
In the images I construct that create new imagery of my own past archive, I am analysing its contents but I am also creating another ‘document-monument,’ which ultimately would need to be de-constructed in the future.
Berrebi, S., 2014. The Shape of Evidence: Contemporary Art and the Document. Amsterdam: Valiz.
Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.