Part Five – Assignment Five – Making it Up

OCA Context & Narrative Assignment One

For this final assignment I really struggled to settle on a subject, and went through a couple of ideas, which fell by the wayside, including self-portraits showing my former military life and my current civilian life.  Searching for inspiration I revisited some of the photographers who I’ve looked at during this course, and went back to Elina Brotherus, having seen her appearing as a guest mentor on Sky Arts recent “Master of Photography” program, and finding her images intriguing, in an uncomfortable way – why does she shoot her images in that way?  Where does the inspiration come from?

One composition which Brotherus has used a number of times, in particular in her “Artist and Model” series of images, is a solo figure, central in the frame, either with back to the camera, or facing square on, expressionless and I find it to be a captivating composition, even if it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, being so central and static. I wanted to combine this with other aspects to add to the uncomfortable feeling and after a walk through our local woods I decided to photograph my young niece alone and place her in a situation where she appeared out of place.  I wanted to do this using a combination of location, props, clothing and her expression, to use the juxtaposition, to create the feeling of her being in the wrong place.  My plan was for Elizabeth to be stood, alone, with space around her, wearing her bright red party dress, carrying her favourite doll – baby George, and to be stood, straight on and facing the camera with a completely dead-pan expression. Almost looking like a lost child on initial viewing, but then looking closer to see that she isn’t upset, or looking lost, she’s just there, with no explanation.

Execution

My initial plan was to use the local woods and I looked at various locations within the woods, wanting to find a clearing, but with trees to use to frame the subject, and hopefully have a spot of light coming down, and narrowed it down to a couple of areas.  I also planned on a couple of alternative locations around the local area, with a variation on the woods, to see if they worked any better, such as the local park, down on the beach, and also on the local high street.

To place Elizabeth within the scene, I positioned Elizabeth straight on to the camera, and framed her in the centre of the frame, with space all around her, although this goes against my natural instinct when capturing portraits, of coming in close to the subject, and turning them at an angle to the camera.  Having her dead centre, gave the feeling of awkwardness, uncomfortableness, and I also allowed the contrast of her and her red dress to draw the viewers eye to see her as the main subject, even though she only takes up a small percentage of the image.

The lighting was all natural light, and I was able to make use of a shaft of light coming through the tree canopy to highlight Elizabeth, drawing the viewers eye even more.  Initially she was holding her dolly in her arms, but I felt that this alluded more to her being lost, hugging her doll for comfort, which I didn’t want, so I got her to dangle her doll by her side, almost as though she’s bored of him, and can’t actually be bothered to look after him anymore. I shot a number of different shots for this, trying out different focal lengths to see which achieved the effect I wanted.  I also tried portrait format as well as landscape, and found that both compositions worked quite well, and fit to what I pictured. Below are my two selections from the woods.

Alternative Locations

Although the woods were my initial plan, I looked at other locations and tried them out too, such as the beach and a field with long grass

Whilst I liked these images, as part of a set, I don’t think they would work as a standalone image.  I did toy with the idea of submitting a series of images for my assignment, but decided that a single image may be stronger.

As well as the “nature based” shots I took Elizabeth down to the local High Street, where I wanted her stood along in the middle of the pedestrian area, with people milling past her.  I wanted to show the movement in the people, so got Elizabeth to stand very still whilst I slowed the shutter speed down enough to get the movement in the people, whilst still keeping it fast enough should Elizabeth move.

 

OCA Context & Narrative Assignment One

Nikon D800 | 50 ISO | 1/4th Sec | f/22 | 24mm Focal Length

Whilst walking back to the car I spotted a more derelict and scruffy area so took a couple of shots there too, which actually ended up being one of my favourites, and my chosen image for submission.

OCA Context & Narrative Assignment One

Nikon D800 | 100 ISO | 1/125th Sec | f/8 | 24mm Focal Length

OCA Context & Narrative Assignment One

Nikon D800 | 100 ISO | 1/125th Sec | f/8 | 48mm Focal Length

This one was also another favourite of mine, for a number of reasons – the expression on Elizabeth’s face, the leading lines of the alleyway, the way the doll appears to be peeking out from behind Elizabeth.  The reason I didn’t select this one as my image was partly because I decided to stick with the landscape, more cinematic, format, and also, the blue car at the back of the alley (which I didn’t notice at the time) distracts my eye too much from the main subject.

Contact sheets of all of the images from the shoot: (Click to view larger)

Reflection

This assignment was a struggle for me, coming up with a concept, with no idea where to start, or what narrative I wanted.  I went through a number of vague ideas before coming to this one after again looking at Brotherus’ work.  I’m happy that I was able to capture the images that I wanted to, in the way I wanted to, with the added bonus of finding alternatives, which maybe turned out better than the original planned images in the woods.  Whilst trying to decide which image to actually use I asked for some peer to peer feedback from fellow students on the OCA Level 1 Facebook group and had a couple of comments.  I’d deliberately been rather vague over the context as I wanted to see what the image said to those viewing it, without having a back story.  One comment which struck a chord with me was that it looked like a still image from a TV crime drama, which is a style of image I like, and I assume comes from my video production background.  There were also comments likening the woods image to “Little Red Riding Hood” which although it wasn’t my intention, I realised the connection during editing, another reason to not choose that image as that wasn’t where I was going with the image.

References

“Master Of Photography”. Master of Photography. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016. http://www.masterofphotography.tv/

“Photography”. Elina Brotherus. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016. http://www.elinabrotherus.com/photography/#/artist-and-her-model/

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Part Five – Project 1 – Setting the Scene

The photographer has the tools to be able to tell a story, and create a reality in the eyes of the viewer, and make the subjects appear in a particular way – which may or may not be true to life.  The camera never lies – but the photographer might.

The scene above from Goodfellas is a single long take of the main character entering a club.  I’ve never seen the film so have no preconceived ideas about the characters or their background, other than the fact that I’m aware the film is about the Mafia mob in the US.

The scene gives a few bits of information on the main male character, without explicitly giving the information to the viewer, and it delivers the information through a number of cues.  Listed below are my impressions and the clues:

He has power – he has a nice car, and enters the club through a more private entrance, so he doesn’t have to get involved with the queues.  As he walks through into the club people make way for him.  As he enters the main club a table is brought out and set up right in front of the stage – the best seat in the house.

He has money – again the car shows this, along with the tip for the valet, another tip for a different member of staff and the fact he’s given the best seat in the house.  He’s also well dressed, as is his wife/girlfriend.

He is also well-known – as he walks, he passes pleasantries with various people,  exchanges jokes, talks to people in the main club, and gets bought a bottle of wine by another table of club-goers.

Part Four – Assignment Four – Reading Photographs

shell-shocked-marine

“Shell Shocked Marine” by Don McCullin

This particular image is one of the most powerful images I have ever seen, and affects me on two levels, both the look in the Marines eyes – the “thousand Yard Stare” and also, the further context of why he has that look in his eyes in the first place, and how it relates to my life and the people I know.

Taken by McCullin in 1968 in Hue, Vietnam, he spent two weeks in the conflict zone, and produced some of his most iconic and heart-breaking imagery during his time there, from dead Vietnamese soldiers, US soldiers tormenting an old Vietnamese citizen, to US soldiers caring for their wounded.

But the image that stands out for me, and always has since I first saw it is the shell shocked Marine, a shot of a US marine of the 5th Batallion, sat clutching the muzzle of his rifle, staring ahead, not looking at McCullin or his camera, at him or his camera, but over his head, staring at nothing.  McCullin took it during the Tet offensive, in the city of Hue, just below the demilitarised zone separating North and South Vietnam.  Don McCullin had found him sat motionless on a wall, staring ahead, and was informed that the marine was shell shocked, a phrase that has nowadays been replaced with PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Discorder.  There was no reaction at all from the soldier whilst McCullin took 5 photos, no movement, no blinking, nothing. He discussed the soldier in an interview with the Tate Modern he never blinked an eye, his eyes were completely fixed on one place. He was staring off into the horizon and every negative I took of this man is identical I checked them all out thoroughly.” Looking at the photo, you can see there is nothing there, and I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and suffering he was going through, within himself.  To have not even reacted to someone kneeling down in front of you with a camera and taking 5 photos, shows that although he was there physically, mentally he was somewhere else.  I have often wondered what became of this marine, and hoped that he found some peace in some way.  In researching for this essay and reading the transcript of the Tate Modern interview, McCullin goes on to talk about how once he’d taken the 5 photos, he went elsewhere to carry on working, in a different yard and heard an explosion from an incoming mortar.  He didn’t go to find out (and is a bit ashamed that he didn’t) but believes it is possible that the marine may have been killed in that explosion, as others in that area had been injured. This marine was just one of many, many military personnel both during the Vietnam conflict, and all other wars before and since, who have suffered mentally. Soldiers come back from the battlefield with missing limbs, physical scars, injuries we can see with our own eyes.  It makes it easier for us to deal with, those of us who haven’t had to deal with the same physical injuries – we can see it, it’s obvious, easier to talk about perhaps.  I’ve worked with members of the armed forces with missing limbs, you can chat about it, have a laugh about it, classic military banter.  But there’s so many with their wounds hidden, not physical injuries we can see, and their pain can only be seen behind their eyes, or not seen, as there is nothing behind their eyes, no life, no happiness, only the blank stare left behind after witnessing things too painful to deal with.  Some of them may be able to keep their suffering buried well, only revealing it in times of stress, but the psychological wounds are still there.

Don McCullins image is still, in my opinion, the definitive example of its type, and transfixes me whenever I see the eyes of that marine.  When I was fortunate enough to be able to visit a recent exhibition of his, near Don McCullins home in Somerset, seeing the image as a physical print (having only ever seen it as a digital image on a computer monitor) the impact was even greater.

Looking around for similar images of soldiers in more recent conflicts, I haven’t been able to find anything which has quite the same power.

The nearest I have found is the “Marlboro Marine” by Luis Sinco, a New York Times photographer.

p0020-the-marlboro-marine-poster-compressed

The photo shows a grimy, bloodied marine, cam cream smeared, smoking a cigarette, staring off into the distance, paying no attention to the camera, or photographer. It shows the classic American “hoo-rah” marine, hard, battle worn, but still going, able to take a moment during a lull in the battle to have a smoke.  Almost a “poster child” for the all-American marine.  However, it doesn’t have quite the same impact as Don McCullins “Shell Shocked Marine” – in “Marlboro Marine”  the cigarette in his mouth, and the way he’s leaning against the wall, doesn’t give any clue to exactly what he has gone through, although there are some clues in the blood and dirt on his face.  In McCullins image, the tightness of the grip on the rifle, and the upright, almost leaning forward sitting stance of the marine shows the tensions and stresses going on within the marine.

The marine was part of a battalion who had taken part in a battle in Fallujah, Iraq. The battle had carried on for 24 hours straight, and Luis Sinco was the photojournalist embedded with the Marines. “I was scared shitless,” he recalls. “We came under heavy fire, and I remember running across the street with bullets flying everywhere. We encountered three insurgents who were horribly, horribly dead. One had half his head blown off, and another guy was half-alive, speaking in Arabic. You could tell he was saying ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ The brutality was so extreme and so relentless.” When the building they were taking cover in was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, Sinco found himself slumped against a wall with Miller and took the photo.  After the image hit the media, the photographer was asked to track down the Marine.  A few days later Sinco found him, James Blake Miller a 20-year-old from Kentucky.  As the publicity around his image grew, Miller was even offered the chance to cut his tour short, as the general public didn’t want to see him injured or killed during his tour in Iraq, but Miller declined, insisting on finishing his tour with his comrades.  A year later Miller was medically discharged from the military with PTSD and still suffers now.

Don McCullin on the Shell Shocked Marine – http://www.tate.org.uk/tate-modern-mobile/conflict-time-photography/mccullin/moments

Rolling Stone article on “Marlboro Marine” – http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-troubled-homecoming-of-the-marlboro-marine-20080403?page=3

 

Reflection

The “shell Shocked Marine” has always been my choice of image for this exercise – it’s a powerful image, a simple image, in its most basic form, it’s just a portrait, but the context of the image, alongside the expression of the soldier give the image its power.

In terms of my translation of the image, I may have gone off track a little, but PTSD is a subject very, very close to my heart, and alongside a number of friends who are dealing with it, I have a very personal connection to someone suffering with this hidden injury and have witnessed how it can affect someone, long after the events that caused it.  This close connection may be one reason the image resonates with me, and possibly prevents me from and dissecting or deconstructing the image properly.  Maybe there is no hidden language within the image?  It was a shell shocked soldier, captured on film, documented by Don McCullin – it kind of tells its own story very obviously and doesn’t really need any interpretation. Perhaps I’m trying to push myself to look for more than is needed?

Part Three | Project Three – Self Absented Portrait

Self-portraits without the photographer present.  so pretty much just photos from the photographers viewpoint, telling a story about who they are. I get that.  Its the photographers point of view, how they see their life (or want others to see it.)  Looking at the work of Nigel Shafran, in particular “Washing Up” I don’t quite get it.  To me, and my traditional, non-arty photographers eye, all I see is a series of rather dull photographs of someones sink and draining board, shot on different days, with various items on there.  Most of them have piles of washed crockery on the drainer – from this I guess he doesn’t dry up (and that’s a good thing as drying up spreads bacteria or something?) Occasionally there’s something a little different there – a white shirt being washed in one, a bunch of flowers standing in the sink in another.  And it appears he moved house at some point, or visited friends as we see a couple of different sinks.  And that’s it, I get nothing really from it, this is the kind of work that really doesn’t raise any kind of interest in me at all. I don’t really see them as still-life compositions in any way, they just look to me like someone has walked into the kitchen and taken a “snap” (I don’t like to use that word much!) without much thought, it just doesn’t do it for me.  The course text suggests a few questions for me to reflect on for my learning log: “Did it surprise you that it was taken by a man? Why?” It didn’t surprise me, to be honest it makes no difference in my mind as to the gender of the photographer.  Although to be honest, the projects by women at least manage to raise a little bit of interest! Maybe it’s the lack of people in them that I find boring, I flicked through some of Shafrans other works and was rather stunned by the epic dullness of “Supermarket Checkouts” a batch of images taken on the conveyor belts in various supermarkets, showing what was being bought (by the photographer?  Or by the person in front?) – the most interesting of the shots was one where there were around 10 packs of sandwiches and a few muffins on the conveyor belt – that actually had me wondering if it wouldn’t be more cost-effective to have just bought a loaf of bread and a block of cheese….

 

Nigel Shafran – Washing Up – http://nigelshafran.com/category/washing-up-2000-2000/

Part Three | Project Two – Masquerades

Nikki S Lee “Projects” – where she takes on a role within a group of people, becoming one of them – feels to me like she’s taking the mickey out of the various groups/stereotypes involved.  Although she’s masquerading as a member of the group, its still all about her, but almost like an impressionist, pretending to be someone else to raise a few laughs, and the audience all know that really it’s the impressionist they’re seeing, not the person they’re impersonating.  But then again, if the others involved don’t have issues with it, and happily let her get involved, then who am I to complain!  Did they feel like she was taking the mickey out of their cultures and lifestyles, or were they happy that someone was interested enough in their lives to get involved and document it, albeit in a more unusual way, taking on their identity and losing her own identity within theirs.  In researching Lee I was interested to read a short interview with her, in which she says she doesn’t actually own a camera, and isn’t really a photographer as such – if she wants to produce a photo, she hires a photographer!

Trish Morrissey took a different take on getting involved with a group in her “Front” series, approaching family groups enjoying a day out at the beach and swapping places with a woman in the group, even to the extent of borrowing her clothes.  The replaced woman would then be the one to take the photo, with Morrissey replacing her within the family group/  It’s certainly an interesting concept, but I think I feel a little sorry for the replaced woman, who is now just a name on the photo caption!  She has a photographic record of her family on their day trip, but she isn’t captured in the image for future record – I can’t help but wonder how confusing that could get for further generations, trying to figure out who the strange woman in the photos is!

I think I prefer one of Morrisseys other works “Seven Years” where her and her sister recreate family photos from a few decades ago, taking on the roles of other family members within the photos, and using the family home they lived in, and other areas from that time of their lives.  This is something that I could never do – not because I don’t want to (although I don’t!) but more because as military family we moved around for the whole of my childhood, posted every 2 or 3 years, and living in military married accommodation.  I no longer have access to any of the locations where our family photos were taken, the nearest would be places we used to visit on the Isle of Wight when we went there to visit my Grandparents and other relatives! That said, I loved my childhood – it was never boring!

 

Nikki S Lee Projects – http://www.tonkonow.com/lee.html

Interview with Nikki S Lee – http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/en_uk/show/nikki-s-lee

Front – http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-front/workpg-01.html

Seven Years – http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-sy/workpg-03.html

 

Part Four | Reading Photos

Photography has a language all of its own, it has taken me a while to get my head around translating it, or at least trying to, until I began my studies, the language behind most of my work photos in the RAF was pretty obvious, with no real translation required.  Except I suppose for Public Relation images I took – they were taken in such a way as to show a particular event or story, or element of a story, in a particular way, to tell the audience what we wanted them to see.  It was just marketing – showing off the good bits.

Up until I began my OCA studies I’d always had minor issues with the arty “language” side of photography – when I was in my early 20’s, before joining the RAF, I attended a photography evening class at a local college up in Lancashire where we lived at the time.the first couple of evenings were okay – we had a night out in a graveyard taking spooky photos, but I never really learnt what I wanted to learn – how a camera works, and how using shutters and apertures could make the camera do what I wanted it to do.  One evening, maybe 4 or 5 evenings into the course, we discussed emotions in images, looking at what straight lines in images suggested (harshness probably) and what curved lines suggested (softness?  I don’t know, I can’t remember) and then the tutor brought out some of his images for us to “translate”  I have a very clear memory of us all gathering around a lightbox with a 10 x 8 transparency on it, showing a bit of grey rock, with some orange lichen growing on it.  The tutor went around the group asking how it made us “feel”. What?  How it made us “feel”?  Nope, it didn’t do it for me – it was nice and sharp, punchy colours, nice contrast between the colours, but other than that, I had nothing.  Luckily that was the last evening of the module which I had paid for and I never went back after that!  A few years later I discovered photography in the RAF and was happy to discover that I didn’t need to decide how a broken bit of an aircraft made me “feel”!

So, fast forward 16 years of simple, straightforward photography and here I am starting to get to grips with translating images, trying to understand the meaning behind an image, the narrative of a photo, and kind of “getting” it.

Context and Narrative

Interestingly, the other day I was taking one of my regular morning walks, and often try to head along the seafront here in Weston-super-Mare, and although I don’t take a proper camera, I do always have my phone.  One morning a couple of weeks ago, I spotted some writing in the sand, which was left from the day (or night) before.  It hadn’t been a particularly high tide, so the sea hadn’t washed it way.  The writing just said “Sorry!”
So, thinking it was a funny thing to write in the sand, I took a photo, with the intention of posting it on Instagram as part of my current “photo a day” challenge for 2016, and carried on walking along the beach. then I found more words, and took a photo, and then carried on, and found more along the beach.  In total there were 6 phrases written, but the last one I saw, which I think was actually the first in the sequence, I failed to photograph as there was a woman walking her dog right across it, and I didn’t want to look like I was trying to photograph her!  In hindsight i should have gone back, as now I can’t even remember what it said, but it was the beginning of the phrases, which ended with the “Sorry”.  Below are the ones I did photograph:

"What do I do"

“What do I do”

"End it"

“End it”

"Where do I go"

“Where do I go”

"I am disgusting"

“I am disgusting”

"Sorry!"

“Sorry!”

It left me wondering more about the story behind the words, the context in which they were written, who had wrote them and why they felt moved to write those words in letters 2 or 3 feet high on the sand. Was it a cry for help?  But one they felt they couldn’t write in a more permanent way, or to speak to someone directly?  They would have known when they wrote it that it would wash away the next time the tide came high enough.  All I can figure out is that I think it was a girl – some of the “i’s” were dotted with a little circle rather than a dot, and she was feeling some difficult emotions.  Perhaps getting the words down on the sand helped to clarify something in her head, or maybe released some pent up emotions.  Whoever she was, I really hope that she found the answers to the questions, and that she has found some happiness, and hasn’t done anything to hurt herself.

Part Three | Project Two – Memory – Exercise

One of the most powerful memories I have from when I was a child, is one that still brings forth strong emotions.

OCA Context & Narrative Exercise

When my father was in the RAF he was posted to RAF Gutersloh in Germany, and we lived in a German town called Harsewinkel.  I was 11 when we moved there and 14 when we left. Whilst living there us children attended Kings School, which was an English school on the local Army base, purely for military children.  I loved every moment of my time whilst we were there – the school was superb, and left it’s mark on me in a big way.  The teachers were some of the best teachers available, the Ministry of Defence made sure that the best teachers were hired for their military children.  The place we lived was brilliant, the houses, the location, the friends I made – every aspect made for a wonderful few years.  So when we came to leave, I didn’t want to go.  The same went for my 3 brothers, and parents.  No one wanted to leave, but we had to.  That’s the nature of a military life, you go where they send you, you don’t have a choice in the matter, whether you like it or not.

My final memory of that posting was the drive away after “marching out” from the house we lived in, having handed it back to the RAF.  My brothers and I all sat in the back, mum and dad in the front, and as we drove off the sun was setting, streaming through the clouds, a beautiful orange glow in the sky.  There were tears and sniffles from all of us in the car, and then Jan Hammers track “Crocketts Theme” came on the radio, adding to the emotion and atmosphere of the moment, which still stays with me today.

I wanted to capture the moment from a point of view of my teenage self, viewing the sunset from the back seat of the car. The only thing that is lacking in the photo is the scattering of clouds that caused the sunset to stream down in rays, the rest of it works for me, and sat here now I can feel the emotions, and hear the music.