Pasted below is the feedback I received from Russell, my tutor, on the work I have done on the first part of the Context & Narrative course for which I am grateful.

Formative feedback

Student name David Gardner Student number 513007
Course/Unit C&N Assignment number 1
Type of tutorial Written / Audio-Visual

Overall Comments

This is a good start to the course and the 1st Assignment.  

The project outcome, reflection and images meets the aims of the brief, but falls short perhaps on the development and realization of the idea (more in Feedback). The reflective elements are detailed and you articulate your case well, but mostly a descriptive and personal account, and for future assignments you will need to show evidence of research. (More in Research).

Re the Brief, you write:

and this was achieved I believe by presenting a greater number of pairs of images than was specifically asked for.’

There is a point to restrictions and limitations, one of which is to make you consider carefully how to achieve the task in a specific number of images – in this case you were required to submit 5/7 images for each set, a total of 10/14.  As I say to all of my students from 1st Year to MA – read the brief and stick to it.

—–   o0o   —–

Feedback on assignment

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

The idea of ‘pristine’ and ‘polluted’ landscapes holds plenty of potential for this assignment ‘Two Sides of a Story’, and I feel you have partly fulfilled this here.

As you say in your notes, at this time of year, before the tourist season is in full swing, and the efficiency and pride of the local councils, meant there was little evidence to be recorded.

On the face of it, the amount of rubbish and other polluting material that I found might appear small and inconsequential.’

Not to undermine the problem caused by this type of pollution or littering (and you articulate that well in you notes), and in order to make a better case and a more substantial disparity in the two stories, an alternative approach to the same issue might have been considered.  

The location is problematic for the reasons you stated and you it would have been worth researching and looking at alternative ways to carry out the project.

To get a better (visual) impact of the problem with those who might choose to deceive the public by eliminating or avoiding eye-sores in natural beauty spots –  tourist brochure, or advertisement – you need more visually compelling evidence – a new housing or industrial estate on the edge of a greenbelt, rural fly-tipping (a real issue), derelict buildings, or the mechanical debris that farmers leave behind or rural workshops or even open-cast mining or fracking.

So, essentially, a project like this needs often needs extended research and reconnaissance to find suitable subject matter.  I understand that time is a limiting factor, and this is a formative work, but it’s worth bearing this in mind for future assignments.  One thing you might do over the coming months when you’re out with the camera, is revisit this theme.

From a technical point of view, and with regard to photographic technique dealing with this subject, landscapes, your approach is sound and informed.

Looking at the first set of 16 images, the landscapes are well composed (as you say in a conventional aesthetic), and offer classic views of the coastline.  There is a good use of depth of field and foreground detail (1-6) and you could make reference here to the work of Ansel Adams, say and his use of ‘near/far’ technique.  The use of natural and man-made artifacts to draw the eye into the frame works very well, with the breakwater, the curve of the sea wall and defenses, and the paths in the woodland shots. The saturated colour and range of times aided by use of a polaroid filter does ‘mimic’ in many ways the postcard shots that commercial photographers know appeal to the holidaymaker.

Shot 6 is an interesting variation with the dark, broken wall in the foreground and perhaps environmental dereliction and disrepair is something that you might have explored.

The second set with the small variation in framing captures the casual littering by some members of the public, although in most cases it is minor It is difficult to get the point across when there is so little to go on, and collecting garbage and faking the shot would rather defeat the object.   The best example is 7a and 7b where you take a woodland beauty spot and show a detail of the ground with a can and a bottle discarded long ago.  Getting closer to the subject matter helps make the point.

You offer another two sets – 14 shots in all of similarly well-composed shots of landscapes with evidence of littering and pollution.

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Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills, Demonstration of Creativity

You demonstrate a high level of engagement through the course exercises.  Your writing is clearly a strength and your ideas and opinions come across well.  As you progress through the course you will adopt a more critical approach to this type of work – analysis rather than reportage.  Vg observations in the ‘Eyewitness’ exercise/

The manipulated image exercise is pretty good – a steep learning curve in Photography for montage – and you can see just how hard it can be to make a convincing fake.

—–   o0o   —–


Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis  

You write in your Reflection,  ‘Once selected, the context or theme for this Assignment required little research as I am a trained environmentalist and I know the local area and its pollution issues well.’

As this is an academic course leading to a degree, evidence of research is an essential element at every stage, particularly in the assignment work. While your environmental credentials have facilitated this work, you need to document what you read or referred to, how it influenced you in terms of articulating the subject as well as determining your style.  Also reference to other professional practitioners is vital, not only for the development of personal knowledge and literacy of the medium, but establishing your own voice and approach to the work.

Edward Burtansky’s work comes to mind for this subject matter

It’s good that you’re reading Bergin and Sontag who will introduce you to a more critical appraisal of the medium.

—–   o0o   —–

Learning Log

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis  

Your Learning Log is set up well, easy to navigate and access each entry through a well-constructed menu.

I notice you attended a couple of exhibitions/courses, but this was back in 2014 (no date on the Macro Course you attended).  Be worth attending exhibitions when you and where you can and of course take advantage of the OCA study visits.  Independent enquiry and how it relates to the development of your work is something the assessors are always looking for.

Looking at your Self Evaluation, the first and second section offer a good insight into your thinking and approach to the assignment, Creativity I have commented on elsewhere, Context, does need further reference to the research carried out and the influence and impact this had on your work.

—–   o0o   —–

Suggested reading/viewing


With regard to the ‘Landscape Aesthetic’ issue, you might want to take a look at Jesse’ book about the subject, ‘Perspectives on Place’.

A review of Burtynsky’s ‘Oil’

A couple of links relating to landscape pollution:

From Landscape Architecture magazine:

—–   o0o   —–

Pointers for the next assignment / assessment

The next Assignment is Photographing the Unseen, quite a challenging brief and one where some research into how other photographers – and your peers at OCA – would be most useful.

The brief suggests you, make a list of at least seven ideas, I would also suggest that you discard the first five that you come up with as they may be the most literal and obvious. You can run these past me at any time.

You can always get in touch with me if you have a question or need guidance for any part of the course.

Tutor name Russell Murray
Date 27 July 16
Next assignment due 27 Sept 16

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I am grateful to Russell for the time he has spent on looking through my Assignment and course work and for his appraisal and suggestions for future work.  These are helpful for focussing my mind on the particular needs of the course and the processes and considerations required to tackle an academic study.  They also banish any complacency I might have been tempted to feel!

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On first reading the comments and feedback I felt disappointed and depressed.  My usual strong tendency to skate over any positive comments received and to concentrate on the negative led me to miss the significance of the first comment that “This is a good start to the course and the 1st Assignment” and instead to feel only the impact of the comments that followed.  I also did not take in the positive comments later in the report and only started to ‘see’ them after several readings.  That is the way I am I fear.  I am therefore starting my response by acknowledging that there are positive comments in Russell’s feedback that I can take heart from and that it would be helpful for me to really take these on board.  

I am pleased that, after overcoming many technical issues and considerable reworking of my Blog since I started with the OCA, Russell now finds it to be set up well and easy to navigate through.  I am also pleased that he observes that I have demonstrated a high level of engagement with the course Exercises  and that he finds my writing to be a strength.  Russell also makes some positive comments about the composition and presentation of the images for my Assignment which are encouraging.  

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I fully take Russell’s point about following the instructions in the Assignment brief to the letter.  My inclusion of additional images over and above the requested number, whilst it felt justified at the time, was, I now recognise, more to do with making public a number of images with which I was pleased than with following the brief.  In mitigation I would say that the final selection was not arbitrary and without thought as I had spent some time going through the images I had taken and weeding out a great many on the grounds of duplication, image quality, strict adherence to the purpose of the Assignment, etc.. I acknowledge, however, that I will need to show more rigour in sticking to the details of the brief in future.

I am, however, much more disturbed and confused by some of Russell’s other observations on the Assignment work.  Whereas he finds that the project outcome, reflection and images meet the aims of the brief, he says that it falls short on the development and realisation of the idea and the lack of research carried out.  In his extensive feedback on the Assignment he makes it clear that in his opinion I have failed to fully answer the needs of the Assignment and that greater thought, reconnaissance and research were required. I have looked at this from all sides to see where he is coming from but I remain with the view that these comments are hard to justify for the following reasons.

The Assignment brief was to take two sets of photographs which showed different sides of a story in order to demonstrate that images can be used to deceive or manipulate a viewer’s perception.  My theme was to take a series of shots of local beauty spots much as they appear in glossy tourist brochures or calendars but avoiding the presence of unsightly polluting elements and then to take a second series in which they were included.  In order to demonstrate the small changes that were required to completely change the impact of the two sets of images I maintained the position of the camera on a tripod in the same location for each pair of images and merely adjusted the focal length and the depth of field.  The Assignment was about demonstration of the ease of deception in documentary photography and not about creating a photo essay on pollution.  

If the purpose had been the latter then I can understand the relevance of Russell’s comments and suggestions. If the purpose of the Assignment and my theme for it had indeed been to create a photo essay on pollution and / or man’s impact on the environment then I would have tackled the project very differently.  Instead of selecting my locations on the basis that they were beauty spots and that they met my vision for the chosen theme, I would have concentrated instead on the other numerous locations known to me locally such as municipal tip sites, fly tipping locations, Milford Docks and oil terminals, polluted watercourses, farmyards and wastelands, etc., but this would have been an entirely different project.  If this had been my project (and it is one that I have in mind to do in the future when I have more time) then I agree with Russell that I would need to specify and detail the research that I carried out as back ground to the project and to make reference to the work of others in the field of environmental science and photography (such as the environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky, incidentally an artist whose work I already know and respect).  However, in the context of my chosen theme and the remit for the Assignment I cannot see that any of this is relevant to the work and that is why I did not include it.  The pollution side of things was incidental to the purpose of demonstrating the ability of photographs to depict different stories.  I feel that Russell and I are at different ends of the spectrum on this and I would be interested to learn his reasons for making the observations he did. I look forward to hearing more from him on this.

Russell does not make any specific suggestions as to how I should rework the present Assignment except to say that I might consider re-visiting the theme at some time in the future.  To me, the theme that he seems to have in mind is about an in-depth photographic and written study of man’s impacts on the environment and therefore a completely different one to the one that I chose for the Assignment.  This is certainly a project that I have in mind for the future, but it is not something that I will have time for unless or until I finish the OCA studies as the level of research, travelling and preparation required to do the project justice will be considerable. 

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As regards the need for further study outside of the course and attendance at OCA Study Courses I acknowledge the value of this and I can confirm that I keep my eyes open for suitable opportunities.  I am reading extensively and looking at photographer’s work and videos of them talking on line at every opportunity. I also go to local exhibitions of photographers’ work whenever possible and I have joined a local camera group which might or might not be of benefit.  None of the local photographers or exhibitors are followers of the contemporary and contextual schools of photography so beloved of the OCA and so will be of little inspiration in that regard, but I might learn some useful tips and techniques and also feel less alone.

OCA Study Courses are always such a long way away and I find it hard to justify the very considerable expense of time and money required to get to them just to say that I have been.  I attended the one held at Artes Mundi in Cardiff in 2014 and found it of minimal relevance although it was good to meet the other students.  I seriously considered going to the ‘New Pastoral Paradigms : explorations in landscape and self‘ event in Sheffield on 23rd July but after much soul searching, discussion with other students and reading up about  Jesse Alexander and watching the video of him discussing his new book “Perspectives on Place” I decided that three days and a few hundred pounds would not be well rewarded.  Having read some reviews of the event since, I believe that this was the right decision for me.  I will continue to keep an eye open to see if there are any other events of interest within a day’s travel time from Pembrokeshire.

The pointers that Russell gives to aid me in the consideration of and preparation for the next Assignment will prove very helpful to me.  I have viewed this up-coming Assignment with fear and trepidation with no idea how I am going to tackle it and it is well outside my comfort zone.  Although Russell only mentions one theme, there are in fact two options, one about photographing the unseen and the other about creating a photographic narrative through the use of either a white handkerchief or a white shirt as a prop.  I have no idea yet which option I will choose………….  Maybe I will really grasp the nettle / bite the bullet / go for broke and attempt both just to push myself and see if I can.

———-     o0o     ———-


  1. David
    23rd was very good and hopefully the videos of the event will be out soon. Is Brighton anywhere near you, if so that the Brighton Weekend is good for meeting up, getting ideas and seeing things.

    • Thanks, Hazel. I look forward to seeing the videos of the Landscape event when they are out and I hope that I am engaged by them. I certainly was not engaged by Jesse’s video of his talk about his book which made no sense to me at all! It didn’t seem to make much sense to him either but maybe that is just his style of delivery.
      Brighton is a very long way away from Pembrokeshire – a 500 mile round trip so would require two days travelling on top of the weekend. What goes on there? Do you have a link to any information?
      Thanks. David

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