This Exercise draws my attention to the work of photographer Sarah Pickering and in particular to her series Public Order produced in 2004. Initially, on looking at the first images it appears that the subject is a rather uninteresting and unpopulated English townscape.  The images have a bland and flat appearance and the question that arises in the viewer’s mind is why the photographer thought that there was anything warranting the time and effort taken in recording the images.  On closer examination the fact that there are no signs of habitation and that there are blinds or boards at the windows suggests that there is more going on.  Later images in the series reveal that the streets are mock-ups and the buildings no more than flat facades much as stage sets in Western films.  The explanation for this mock townscape is that it is a police training ground where mock emergencies can be staged and crimes acted out to give officers experience and practice to prepare them for real events.

Two images from the series are reproduced below.  Copyright is with Sarah Pickering.


Image 1                                                                                                                 Copyright  Sarah Pickering


Image 2                                                                                                                  Copyright Sarah Pickering

The Exercise asks me to describe how the images make me feel.  The simple answer to that  question is  – disinterested.  On looking at the first of the two images in the course text (Image 1 above) and without knowing the context behind it, I experienced the usual feelings of bewilderment that I experience with much contemporary photography that anyone thought that the scene was worth photographing unless it was a documentary record for some purpose.   I was also bemused that someone might consider it as art.  I found nothing to engage or connect with in the images.  I then read the accompanying text and looked at the second image in the course folder (Image 2 above) which showed that the buildings were just flat facades with no structure behind. This at least explained the context behind the series of photographs. 

I then looked at the series as a whole on Sarah Pickering’s website .  Having been told by the course text what the context of the images was, any element of surprise which the series might have engendered was lost so I was left with considering the images as they were.  A few of the images included what looked like the aftermath of violent activity, possibly riots, which chimed with memories of news coverage of the Irish ‘troubles’ or disturbances in Toxteth, Bristol etc.  There was a slightly eerie sense of peace and calm throughout the series as there was no activity or sign of life, a bit like the backstreets of a town or city after the football crowds have passed through.  It reminded me of walking the back streets of London at 5.00 am on a Sunday morning – slightly odd and dreamlike but not very interesting.  

I am still bemused as to why Pickering took the images in the series.  The photographs do not appear to have any great technical merit – they are OK but appear no better than any amateur could do.  They have no real impact or apparent meaning. Maybe they look different ‘in the flesh’ and are particularly high definition or something but that is not apparent from the reproductions on the website.  I am sure that if one was actually there and surrounded by the scene there would be a greater sense of presence and engagement and the ‘feel’ of the place would be more powerful, but the small scale and two dimensionality of the photographs does little to convey that.  

It might be explicable if the photographs were taken to provide a record of the installations for same archival purposes but I sense that Pickering had some higher motivation.  This is confirmed by the coursework text which describes Public Order as being a ‘clever piece of art documentary’ that ‘drip feeds scenarios into our subconscious’.  However hard I try to ‘get’ something from this series it does not work for me.  The fact that the Police have such mock up ‘town centres’ in which to train officers is not surprising and is of no great interest.  It would make a much more interesting photo opportunity if the training was actually taking place and mock battles were going on.  

So, in summary, for me neither the images nor the concept have any intrinsic interest or attraction – nothing to hold the attention – and the feelings that they engender are a mixture of boredom and bemusement.  There is also a small element of irritation that such images can be considered as being ‘art’ and that I cannot see why. I clearly have much to learn!

The Exercise also asks me to consider if Public Order is an effective use of documentary or is it misleading.  It seems to me that as the series clearly documents what is there with no artifice then it does provide a true record and is an effective use of documentary.  The fact that the subject of the photographic series is itself an artifice provides some interest when first considering the series before one understands the context but the recording of that artifice produces an accurate and true documentary record of what is there.

For the record, I looked at some of Pickering’s other photographic series on her website and whereas the subject matter was generally of greater interest to me, I still felt bemusement and boredom through being unable to connect and engage with the images. I guess we are just on different wavelengths!


Sarah Pickering’s website

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