PHOTOGRAPHING THE UNSEEN – EXERCISE

THREE CASE STUDIES

I am asked to look at individual bodies of work created by three Level 3 OCA students each of whom were exploring themes in their work that are not necessarily visible.  All use metaphor to portray their ideas rather than a more straight forward method of representation. The three pieces of work are as follows.

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‘Check up’ / ‘My Space’ by Peter Mansell

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Copyright Peter Mansell

Following a traffic accident when he was 20, Peter has lived ever since as a paraplegic.  Peter found that his photographic projects were a means of exploring the reality of his situation in a way that other forms of representation failed to do.  In his own words he says “The fact that it’s a photo means there is a direct relationship with reality at its centre and thus offers me the chance to make a particular statement about my experience.” His images portray scenes from his life and environment from his perspective and viewpoint.  They have a ‘matter of fact’, unemotional quality about them that gives a stark impression of the limitations, banality and bleakness of the life that he is now confined to.  None of the images that I have seen from the series portray any living person or thing.

The course work includes a revealing record of an interview with Peter which helps to put the work in context and explain some of the processes and thinking behind its creation.  Despite this, I am still not clear about the true purpose behind the work, but from what Peter says I would suggest that the following might be included : –

i). It is a means by which Peter is able to engage in an activity which, whilst taking him out of his situation for a while and giving him a purpose and a goal, paradoxically also focuses on his situation and its reality.  

ii).  It is a means by which Peter can demonstrate the reality of his situation to others so that they can be more fully aware.

iii).  It is Peter’s way of accessing and engaging with the deepest and most meaningful elements of his life as it now is, however bleak they may be, and of finding some release from his pain.  

iv).  It is a way by which Peter can demonstrate his sense of loneliness and isolation.

The most revealing statement made by Peter with respect to the work is as follows : –

As I progressed I found that I was being drawn to use photography more and more as a form of expression as the process of creation often saw me through pain and anguish while the end product acted as a visual statement about my existence and that experience. In a way it sort of objectified my situation or experience and by so doing released me emotionally.”

This seems to make it clear that the purpose of the work was more to do with Peter’s need to do it for himself and for the benefits that he experienced from doing it rather than for any consideration of those who might view it and their reasons for doing so.  

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Ring Road‘ by Dewald Botha

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Copyright  Dewald Botha

Dewald Botha is a South African living in the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, China, a place where he has often felt like an outsider.  He started to use his camera to explore his feelings of being smothered by the busy-ness and intensity of life in the city and chose particularly to walk and photograph in the vicinity of two major ring roads skirting the city where he sought pockets of calm.  

In a brief explanatory text he states

“The project, which started out as an exploration of a physical object which can be seen as one single structure (the ring road itself), slowly turned into a more complex personal journey of self-reflection about displacement and survival. ‘Ring Road’  developed into a metaphor for distance placed and personal limits reached within the confines of language and local culture. 

‘Ring Road’ questions and explores exactly that which allows us our freedom, or what we believe the definition of freedom is, but which we turn into our own invisible limitations and boundaries. Do we create these limitations out of a need for knowing where limitations lie in today’s unlimited and undefined world? Are we experiencing a sense of being lost or displacement, and attempting to rectify or stabilise our sense of self through redefining the parameters which we have in some way become disconnected from?”

I have to confess that this explanation does nothing to help me understand or appreciate the project.  I have read it several times and have now written it out in full to see if it would help but it makes no more sense to me now than the first time I read it.  An examination of the images which make up the project does nothing to elucidate things and had I not read the explanation the images would not have spoken to me of the emotions or purpose that Dewald suggests.  All the images appear to be taken from within the bridge structure looking out onto the ordinariness of the outside world. The overwhelming sense that I get from looking at the images in the project is one of feeling lost and lonely, of someone hiding from the world and looking out on it from the safety of a shell in order to find something reassuring. Maybe this is what Dewald is trying to reflect.

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Memories of Childhood‘ by Jodie Taylor

Taylor2

Copyright Jodie Taylor

I have been unable to access the whole body of this work but I think that I have seen enough to give me a sense of its content and direction. Jodie has returned to her childhood roots where she grew up in order to explore the apparently un-photographable subject of nostalgia.  She does this by photographing locations which meant something to her back then and which presumably were places where significant things took place.  In order to further enhance the nostalgia theme she shot the images on film, printed using a 6″ X 4″ format and then mounted the photographs in a cheap plastic album as would have been used at the time of her childhood.  Nowadays these locations as depicted in Jodie’s photographs have an ordinariness and mundanity which is not appealing and have little or no significance to those of us who were not there at the time.  There is no accompanying text and so the significance of the locations and the reasons why they were photographed is not known.  This means that the viewer has to put their own meaning on the images and the artist presumably supposes that they will be able to do this.  I have to say that they meant little to me and held no great interest.

We will all have our own memories of childhood and the places that were important to us, but not all of us will want to revisit them or, if we do, will experience them with pleasure.  They will hold bad memories as well as good and so often they will have changed out of all recognition and hold none of the magic that they used to, being reminders of the fact that time has passed and the world has deteriorated.  

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The Exercise asks me to identify which of the projects resonates most with me, and explain why.  I regret that none of them really resonate with me as, for me, they hold more than an element of self indulgence and the purpose of the works is undisclosed.  I do not know what the aim of the artist is or what they wanted their audience to ‘get’. 

However, if I had to choose one it would have to be Peter Mansell’s series in which he portrays the realities of his life as a paraplegic.  I find this to be an evocation of everything one would not want life to be. The starkness and mundanity of the scenes portrayed in his images sets out with great clarity the lack of stimulation, the lack of anything of interest and the clinical blandness of his surroundings and his perspective on life.  It is an utterly depressing vision of life that clearly highlights the depth of isolation and the spatial and physical boundaries that limit his horizons.  I wonder why he has chosen not to portray some of the good things that must be part of his life (e.g. people, things of beauty, his interest in photography, other areas of interest) that can mitigate some of the starkness and emptiness.  Anyone viewing these images would feel that they would do anything to avoid changing places with Peter and a sense of sadness for his condition and its effects.  Was this Peter’s purpose?  

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I am also asked how I feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images I have created.  This is an interesting question which I will look at first through my experience as a viewer of these three projects.  

My first thoughts when viewing each of them was that they had a large element of self absorption and self indulgence about them and that the artists were less interested in the response of any future viewer than in the personal exploration of their own thoughts and feelings.  As a viewer of photographs or, indeed, any art work, I am always keen to look for the artist’s purpose in creating the work and the vision or message that he/she had in mind when creating it.  If the meaning and purpose of the work is unclear I can devote a limited amount of time to trying to search for them, but if they remain unclear my patience and interest will disappear and I will have to fall back on whether I find the work attractive or otherwise engaging.  

I gave each of these projects considerable time and attention in order to give me the chance to engage with them and find their depths but I struggled. Even the accompanying texts did little to help me to understand the purpose or meaning of the works and the personal response that I had for each of them was negative.  This did little to assist me in finding the enthusiasm or motivation to continue to explore them and I wonder if this would come as a disappointment to the artists or whether they would be unconcerned.

So how do I feel about the response of others to my own work?  The loss of authorial control would not concern me provided that any viewers of my work also ‘got’ what I was wanting to portray and any personal thoughts or emotions that they had of their own were in addition to, and did not detract from or negate, my own intention.  I would be happy for the viewer if he/she was then able to get more from the work through their own additional take on it. 

However, I would be very disappointed if the viewer did not ‘get’ my purpose in creating the work. I recognise that it is very important to me that any viewer likes the work and that their respect can be earned for its creation.  Whereas I recognise that it is unrealistic to expect all viewers to respond positively to all my images, it is important to me that any viewer understands and accepts my reasons for creating the work and that my expenditure of time and effort in its creation is justified.   I am to some extent concerned that I have so much hooked into the positive response of others to my work, but I find it difficult to justify the time and effort spent if others don’t like it.  In order for me to be comfortable with producing an image for public consumption I have to be clear as to what the photograph means to me and why I produced it and considered it to be worthy.  I would not be comfortable with producing an image that was obscure or ambiguous as I would not be able to defend its production against critics or sceptics. This probably means that I will never be an artist in the accepted sense of the word.

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REFERENCE SOURCES

Peter Mansell’s MA Blog                  https://anomiepete.wordpress.com

Dewald Botha’s ‘Ring Road’             http://www.dewaldbotha.net/ring-road.html

Jodie Taylor’s  ‘Memories of Childhood’   http://weareoca.com/photography/photography-and-nostalgia/

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