Conversations with Karl Ohiri and Paul Sng

Karl Ohiri

Figure 1: Karl Ohiri (2013) from ‘How to Mend a Broken Heart.’

I was able to talk with Karl Ohiri about his experiences of working with personal family stories. I was also interested to get some insight into his use of the defaced images from his family archive, which he used for the series ‘How to mend a broken heart’ (Fig: 1).

I asked Karl about his thoughts about why someone would keep a photograph after they defaced it. Ohiri felt that although the memories might still be quite painful, the photograph also still has a resonance. They still have connections for us. At some point there was this perception of happiness for the persons depicted in the, albeit a warped sense of this happiness.

We also discussed how the photograph on its own and outside context is perceived as innocent. This is especially true for the photograph within the family album that is rarely interrogated. The fleeting moments of a casually taken photograph cannot portray the nuance and complexities of the situation and contexts taking place outside of the frame. Additionally, the photograph represents a point in time after which anything is possible. It is only when the physicality of the photograph has been revisited, in the case of defacement, that we are able to gain a sense of something else that has taken place.

As our discussion was over the phone, Ohiri was not able to see the photographs from my archive that I was referencing (although I have sent them over now). He made the point of stating that “I can only visualise these images from my own library images” (2021), which creates a link to the research into the absence of the photograph and the way that we refer to images that we already know (Fig: 2).

Ohiri also made the point of saying that in the event of limited information it can create a void in which we speculate and fill with our own stories. Ohiri’s statement towards the end of our conversation confirmed my own conclusions and it was valuable to hear from someone with experience working with similar themes.

Figure 2: Phil Hill (June, 2021) Discussing the power of the absent photograph.

Paul Sng

Paul Sng is a documentary filmmaker, currently working on a film about the documentary photographer, Tish Murtha. He also runs a website and social media platform called ‘Invisible Britain,’ which is about telling the stories of under represented individuals in the UK (Fig: 2).

Figure 2: Paul Sng (2021) Homepage of Invisible Britain website

Sng put some important questions to me whilst we were discussing my project: The importance of defining the audience? and why am I telling the story? These are especially important considerations for my project owing to its personal nature. Sng made the point that I do have the right to tell the story, which is something that is supported by Savannah Dodd, who suggests that being so close to the story means that I am best placed to understand the complex narratives and impacts that they are having (2011). However, it might be easy to take things a lot further because of the amount of access that I possess and also the willingness for the persons in the photographs to oblige to what they are being asked to do. I feel this is a continuing dialogue that needs to take place, especially as I see the project being iterative at different stages of its publication. Sng said that my story was compelling and there is something of interest in the work that I am producing. However there it is important to have a good sense of ethics and ensure that there are high levels of trust for all involved (Sng, 2021).


Dodd, S., 2021. The Ethics of Documenting Your Own Family. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 11 June 2021].

Ohiri, K., 2021. Conversation with Karl Ohiri [Interview] (12 July 2021).

Sng, P., 2021. Conversation with Paul Sng [Interview] (13 July 2021).

Looking at Alec Soth

Figure 1. Alec Soth (2015) in conversation with American Suburb X

I had been avoiding Alec Soth, as I very much like his work and also very familiar with it visually. However, It was mentioned to me that my work has some similarities (albeit i’d argue tenuous), so I decided that it might be good to look at Soth for this task, which has turned out to be a revelation to how I am approaching my own practice. The interview that I am using is a conversation that Soth had with American Suburb X (Soth in ASX, 2015).

Figure 2. Alec Soth (2014) from Songbook.

I found his discussion about the work ‘Songbook’ (Fig. 2) particularly interesting as Soth quickly moves into the way he created this work aesthetically, utilising black and white images with direct flash, which he is mimicking the look of press photography of the 1950s. This is something that resonated with me immediately as I have been writing about a documentary aesthetic, which has been driven by the look of this style of photography from the earliest FSA imagery and also how the look of press photographers, such as Weegee, who Soth also referenced in this interview, which was a nice validation for a post I did earlier in the module (Fig 3). Soth states “the work is referencing another time,” which is how we look at the period of the post war era as a sense of wonder, and how people have a deeply romanticised version of the past. From here Soth also makes reference to community and how there is a sense of loss of it, yet it has never really gone away. I had also been looking at a recent publication by Eli Durst, called ‘The Community’ in which he also creates images using this aesthetic, and seems to also reference another time. I have been discussing this aesthetic in relation to my own work, which is colour, however I don’t think that I have been able to truly resolve the reason why I have not created my work in black and white despite choosing to reference and research a range of black and white photography until listening to this interview. I believe that my work exists on the spectrum of the documentary aesthetic, however unlike Soth and Durst, my project is based on the present, so to use Soth’s conscious referencing to a romanticised past would be confusing and my use of colour makes sense in this context.

Figure 3. Phil Hill (March 30, 2020) Discussion on the ‘Documentary aesthetic.

Soth also referred to a range of his works, which might be aesthetically different but are connected to each other and that every project that he creates is what Soth termed “Stuff that happens in America” but they are also about himself and some of the work is more inward looking than others. I have been struggling to resolve my project in terms of the editing of my work in progress portfolio, owing to a range of disparate imagery. My intention is to look at my connection to community, or lack thereof, which also makes my project a kind of autobiography in where I fit in. It has been useful to re-examine Alec Soth in relation to my own work. I think that in terms of how he resolves the autobiographical elements of his images could prove useful in the editing of my own WIPP.

Another interesting question posed to Soth was regarding his association with Magnum Photos, in what interviewer Brad Feuerhelm termed “the slippery position of being an artist and working with Magnum,” however after all our examination of National Geographic a few weeks ago, the statement of the ‘Magnum Artist’ feels like an oxymoron when considering how we perceive Magnum as a collective of documentary photographers. However, Soth states that Magnum has been misunderstood as being a news agency and confused by some its founding photographers who were closely linked to war photography, citing Robert Capa and Heri Cartier Bresson as “surrealists who exist in the real world,” and I wonder wether this statement sums up what I am aiming to say about this documentary aesthetic, which gives off the assumed authority of veracity but are aesthetic constructions in the same way National Geographic utilises similar tropes in the pursuit of empirical authority and arguments that have been put to the work of Sabastiao Salgado that we looked at a couple of weeks ago.


Durst, E., 2019. The Community. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 30 March 2020].

Soth, A., 2014. Songbook. 1 ed. London: Mack.

Soth, A., 2015. Brad Feuerhelm of ASX in conversation with Alec Soth [Interview] (4 November 2015)