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  • Damien Williams

PHO702: Independent Reflection

Week 1

“why choose (why photograph) this object, this moment, rather than some other?” (Barthes, 2000:6)

Prior to reading The Social Photo and in reflection of my practice… I did a lot of reflecting whilst recovering from Knee surgery. I was inspired to look at my Instagram, which I have decided to use as a communication of my eventual practice, project by project. Pointing back to my website (which is in need of a brutal cull). I have not decided whether to ‘archive’ or ‘story’ past projects as new projects are started or even visually separate with blank squares to form ‘chapters’. It just made me angry. There was nothing of me there so I decided to cull.

“Delete, Archive or Keep”

This was the maxim of choice. That should be easy…right? Well yes it was. I deleted almost everything… in my mind I did. in the end I archived most but felt I had to have something only feed. So I selected by Genre. Street or Candid stayed. I then found the single images that I felt had some element of my vision in them. I have a total of 6 images. incidentally, two were taken minutes apart. I felt cleansed by the experience and left it there.

Then Matt Day, a photographer from Ohio that I follow on Youtube, Did the same thing and shared his thinking.

“I’m not posting hashtags with what camera I used… or captions or anything I am trying to approach individual photos very differently and how I share the work itself… but on Instagram I like the idea of putting the photo out there and letting people come up with their own analysis, their own interpretation of… letting the photo just be a photo”
(Day, 2021. Jan 18th)

This got me thinking about why I had chosen those six images. Why those moments out of all of the moments I had captured. Barthes quote (above) leads this reflection better. This should have been the selection criteria for the cull. Irrespective of the medium of exhibiting the work. My feed had a little of this idea of shooting for the moment and slowing down to consider WHY THIS MOMENT? WHY THIS OBJECT? But not enough. This is what I want to be able to communicate with my images now that I can shoot though choice. This will be the best way for me proceed in what I choose to take and then share. To link this to Nathan Jurgenson’s The Social Photo, does the profligate social photo essentially just form a lack of critical curating?


Does the function of sharing become the most important part of the process and override curation?

"All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players." (Shakespeare, 1623:96)

Jurgenson speaks about whether we are recording a moment…

the effect of the social photo conditions how we experience the world, how we recognise instances within it as significant or meaningful or funny or important or worthy(Jurgenson, 2019:28)

Jurgenson articulates a direct correlation between how we regard and use language and how we use photography…

I feel this is a dangerous way to contextualise photography as language is very individual to each user of the language. The comparison holds to a degree especially as language across the globe is in a state of flux but social media has changed how we use language so to say the social photo is the same as it’s cause/symptom simply does not make complete sense. Especially as imagery is central to the dissolution of how language communicates information. Memes are very interesting and visual. They are also a better fit for Jurgenson’s assertions in the text.

The camera provides us with an opportunity to capture a thought or moment, which can make things less boring to us and possibly to an audience, it gives something a purpose and reason. Jurgenson describes “This documentary consciousness gives one something to do, to turn every moment into one that is potentially productive, like a tourist of our own experience” (Jurgenson, 2019:37). This reminds me of Todd Hido reframing images through a car window. Is it not that we need to frame images and now real life with the multiple screens we use to alleviate having to be present in every moment? Watching gigs events and performances through our devices. [image]

I believe it is less about the use of photo as a medium or aide memoire than simply the gear and our willingness to maintain a persona. This discussion does not serve to further photography, rather is a self-validation of a media puppeteer to elevate and justify his cause by ‘attaching’ it to the writings of Sontag and others.

Jo Spence said it best when she discussed the family album being propaganda. Surely, Social Photo is an extension of this. Less misogynistic than Spence asserts but equally as exclusive of truth/reality. [Jo Spence quote]

Independent reflection task:

Where are you now?

I’m at a crossroads it’s a function and process of making my images. Although I am a capable producer of images I am spoils with an embarrassment of directions to go in. I have made images for other people for so long I don’t know what type of images I want to make or how and why I want to make them. I am happy with environments I planned to take my practice in from the end of the positions and practice module, but feel I moved away from that in the sustainable prospects module and not necessarily in a positive way for the final half of that module. Now I am confused more confused than ever before and only know that my most recent work was lacking truth which was replaced with false intellect.

The nature and intent of your practice

I wish to be narrative and thematically based. I do not wish to be dictated to by anyone with a less critical or storytelling I than myself. I want to make the decisions during the creative process rather than suiting someone else. I realise that this precludes commercial work, but this is where I believe having commercial as one half of my practice and personal as the overriding half is vital. I very much enjoy collaboration and love the process of working with other people. Therefore saying that I didn’t wish to suit somebody else is still my aim but to the meeting of minds is very much an aspiration.

What context could your work be consumed in

In the past it was web-based. I created for social media, primarily my website and sadly other people's marketing either personal or occupational.

Aspirationally and moving forwards...

This is the decision I no longer wish to commit to in a wholesale fashion. I wish to take the positive elements of my versatility and continue them (moving forward) in my practice. Very much photographer as author. However, I come from a music and film/video editing background and wish to utilise the whole of my creative faculties to produce my voice from my unique perspective. This would mean that the context, or should I say contexts, will be influenced by the work. As an educator I understand the importance of environment. I would hope that my work informs and therefore the audience would be, in-part at least, a learning community. So the decision on the context may be part of the work when required. It may also be the subject of the work when required.

Your practice in the context of other visual practices and critical ideas

I am yet to find my visual style. I use medium format film as a preference when documenting my family. My family currently are the only subjects that I have been happy documenting for myself. The council estate that I grew up on is also a place that I enjoy documenting, more specifically my children’s interaction with where I call home. My children have grown up in Asia and to see them interact in the place that I interacted as a child interests me, however I’m not sure specifically how. I am interested in biography, injustice, the human condition when placed in a situation of prejudice. Throughout this MA I have increasingly become aware of the colonisation of photography and the theme that I live in (which is being the outsider). The outsider has become the overwhelming theme in my intended work for my FMP. It did initially start with how and why people consider race an actual thing. My understanding of race is that it is an outmoded concept that no longer exists now that people travel freely and reproduce beyond their skin code. As a Black male teacher in an international context with mixed race children (who I just consider to be children) who has lost promotions and been demoted based on the visual incongruency of my Britishness, this life experience has become quite a powerful informer my life-long point of view and my view of the human condition. This conversation and existence is increasingly becoming a topic of my work.

My interest in thought processes will almost certainly be a driver in my work. The way that John Berger sees and thinks about seeing. The political clarity that Jo Spence possesses when she processes the world around her. The way that Roland Barthes feels and how Todd Hido relates things to previous experiences and allows for curiosity and interpretation. These are attributes that I would like to embed (more) into my practice.

The visual touchstones of my work would be: Todd Hido, Dan winters, Zack Arias, Cian Oba Smith, Francis Wolf, Irving Penn. The Documentary approach of David Alan-Harvey, Sophie Harris-Taylor, Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, W Eugene Smith and Alec Soth. But this is slightly disingenuous as I’m drawn to the stories. I’m drawn to film directors or rather auteurs . This may well be the identifier of my issue of coding my work. Throughout the course I have been drawn to the method of expression that Laia Abril has used. Sara Lando for her mixed media approach is a direction that interests me, as is the photo montage of Dora Maar. The use of texture that Laura Hynd and Sally Mann employs. The sense of geometry that Jess Bonham, Alvin Langdon Cockburn and John Gribben playfully experiment with alongside colour aesthetic that Luke Stephenson and John Keatley integrate into their practice.

Yes, this is a varied palette but depending on what I wish to express on what I have to say, I’m sure I will be influenced by them and many more.


Matt Day: Site accessed: 26th January 2021

Barthes: Camera Lucida or Image music text

(SHAKESPEARE, W., & FURNESS, H. H. (1963). As you like it. New York, Dover Publications.) Jurgenson, N. the social photo

Sontag 'on photography'

Hido T.

Berger Cataract

Spence J


Week 2

Truth vs Authenticity: Conceptually I have a healthy dose of cynicism towards both. As a Theory of Knowledge teacher the shortened version of that curriculum is that Truth both exists and is unobtainable because of subjectivity. As an ex-Film teacher, my preference is fiction rather than as I find a higher sort of truth, one that reflects human experience more clearly (although this may also reflect my Epistemological cynicism of questioning: what is truth? Is Objective truth possible or even a commendable aim? Is everything a political statement of some sort). And yet in my photographic context (primarily portrait, travel and documentary) I am conflicted between zero/minimal manipulation of an image and creating a completely free subjective expression of my conscious gaze.

Authenticity: What is real? What is original?

In the sense that, chronologically, we are constantly living new, never to be repeated moments on a linear continuum, aren’t all photographs original?

John Berger spoke of a photograph being ‘a slice of time and space’, I paraphrase, but essentially a moment worthy of elevating above others to record and relive.

So isn’t authenticity very much a luxury. A luxury of commentators, media readers and historians/social scientists? Which raises the question why are we concerned with truths, credibility and validity of moments past that can never be void of human biases?

Truth, reality (or rather realness), non-objectified intervention all leads down the path of candid/documentary/vernacular photography. Having tried my hand at street photography, truth in my opinion is an obtainable because, well I am 5‘10“ which influences the power/narrative in my images. As an ex-film teacher very early on in cinematography we taught the camera angles part of mise en scène. Which teaches us how to manipulate have a subject is seen in order to serve the narrative. Which means that audiences are either willing or on willing participants in this language. With the advent of social media, this language is even more widespread. Just look at house selfies are taken, with the subject using the tools (both hardware and software) to present their best representations of themselves.

In short, authenticity is in short supply. Unless you widen the definition to subjective and constructive truths. And you view the photograph in the way that John Berger does in understanding a photograph where he talks of the paradox of the photograph.

“The photograph is an automatic record through the mediation of light of a given event: yet it uses the given event to explain its recording. Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious” (Berger, 2013:19)

Which in short means that photography as a medium celebrates the authors rights and selection of what is recorded, however I feel all art is a reflection of a reaction to life depicted using reality or surreality. Indexical representation maybe, to a degree but the choice of what and how to include Mise-en-scene is an artificial decision. Decisions made based on narrative or message the photographer/photo editor wishes to convey. Which is at the mercy of their cognitive and subconscious biases as much as poetic and artistic license. Then there is the question of audience. I made most of my images for a narrative that I didn’t control. Vernacular photography that was used for advertising. Editing by selection and omission.

The partnership of words and images are a powerful and confusing force, usually parasitic for one side of that partnership. As I learned last module.

All of these factors can influence authenticity and truth. Before, during and after the act of making the images. We haven’t even discussed propaganda, echo-chambers and filter bubbles contextualising images in a different way than intended.


Berger J. understanding a photograph

Week 3

To make a photograph…

“Practitioners of staged and constructed photography invent their motifs, freely combining the real and the invented, photography and painting, photography and stage design, weaving historical and mythological references into their works, and do not hesitate for a moment to manipulate reality. They do not behave destructively, however, but investigatively and analytically. The question is not what reality is, but what modes of representing it are available.” (Köhler 1995:8)

or to take a photograph…

“Photographs, it is argued, are fictionally incompetent because they are incapable of depicting unreal or imaginary subject matter or can merely achieve these through derivative means” (Scrutton 2009:589)

Here are two very opposing views. Is it simply vernacular versus succesionist ideals or as suggested in both a question of verification and the human need to know truth from fiction?

Constructed realities… the idea doesn’t offend me in the slightest. I see it as an extension of filmmaking. Essentially film stills, in a way that Dziga Vertov constructed the realities in Man with a movie camera… not shot as Kino Pravda (as the physical style of the movie would suggest) but finding, staging and constructing a narrative from footage thus creating an art documentary. The obvious appeal to me is the use of montage and Kuleshov effect. My entry point however, was the music and how the movie interacts with multiple scores generated across the best part of a century, and still maintains it’s integrity as a work of Art.

What appeals to me most about Vertov’s work is its energetic narrative – ostensibly a street photography project and travel documentary rolled into one. Which was revolutionary in its time (and a reaction to propaganda) in its minimal use of text. It is dependant on the viewer accessing more information (Barthes semiotic assertion of the link between a weak signifier and a strong signified isn’t lost on me) to discover that this is in-fact a constructed reality from multiple days and locations. However, whatever narrative we initially absorb from the work, there is undoubtedly meta-commentary on the artificial nature of art (and in this case Soviet/Communist existence) in general and cine/photography in particular.

I feel by posing a cognitively dissonant question, exploiting this weak link between signifier and signified (posing the connotative rather than presenting the denotative as documentary) is a not only my intention for this particular project, but also pivotal to the success of the project. I hope to subtly combine a couple of images (maybe by use of diptych) where the signifier is stronger (maybe by repetition, title or inversion) with others where the signifier is much weaker, hoping that the juxtaposition will allow the viewer a partial contextualisation in order to lead them into a cognitive environment that will allow them to introspect and construct their meaning from their own reality.

As humans we learn and even communicate difficult realities through play and simulation. Why should photography be excluded from that as a means of mass (and intimate) communication.


Maybe the Scrutton's quote above refers to narrative-making as derivative, or the act of recreation/reproduction. With life as the source material. Which sounds less damming as a commentary on the type of work that Gregory Crewsdon does. Surely, his big sets and high production values are just a logical progression from the 8x10 tintype portraits from the turn of the 20th century. Can you argue that those portraits, the family album as a propaganda tool or the abhorrent anthropological propaganda from earlier than that, (I’m thinking of the Racist, colonial photography of Cesare Lombroso profiling and predicting criminality 'Criminal Man' in the name of science...pseudoscience) are not from the same constructive or reproduced DNA?







Dziga Vertov:


Week 4

The intent to my photographic practice has definitely changed. Largely due to embarking on this MA, but also due to a lack of artistic and creative satisfaction in my work which led me to start this. Visually I am still looking for a set of consistent characteristics that my work should embody. I somehow don’t believe that I will find a narrow set of characteristics. In life I try to be three of the constraints of being categorised in a very simple way, and technically I am not faithful to a camera brand or type or format. I much prefer to work on a project by project basis. The lack of ability to do this is what led me to not wanting to work for advertising or marketing on a local level. I am also a video editor and I am used to trying to establish meaning with all of the visual media in front of me. Building in the edit as they say. Conceptually I wish to experiment on this module and break many rules in order to find myself or voice. This module I aim to be less obvious and challenge the eye of the viewer. This may be interpreted as challenging the gaze of the viewer or creating work that the gaze is the subject.

Photographic ambiguity is definitely an intent in its own right. In order to truly understand what I mean by this you need to know that I see photographic ambiguity as a product rather than a technique. In my last module I was asked to be more evocative and less descriptive in my work. The story is largely done before the image is taken. The image in portrait is to show the person and not to tell the story in itself. When I get back to portraits next module (possibly) then this will be my intent. As it stands now the ambiguity that I wish to explore is that of silhouettes and abstract stilled life.

The levels of success or not where I want to be so I would say largely unsuccessful. However I firmly believe that each failure is an opportunity to experiment and sometimes you have to keep following that path until the correct path appears. My last module I consider was a module of 2 halves. I didn’t experiment enough in the second half and failed to produce work that fulfilled my gaze or understanding as a practitioner. I’m a firm believer that as animals we learn through play and this is what I intend to do more of now.

Week 5

My gaze is voyeuristic and inescapably political – I walk around different cities, countries, and photograph what seems to be, from the perspective of a White, middle-class, British male, worthy of seeing/sharing – implicitly commenting on what I find to be ‘other’ or ‘relatable’. Herein lies the issue, I am all of those things except white! My perception and my gaze is inextricably linked to my social environment. Having grown up in the UK as a black male, my gaze is politically defensive of my colour and The view from being other. Where as my university education, classical musical background, and being an expat international school teacher in Asia please all informed bye being other and not being white. The drive to assimilate into this society that I have been living in for the past 20 years, is at odds with my upbringing. I would hope that my photography does not indicate my skin type or colour. However, the more that I am aware of my responsibilities as a photographer the more I feel my ethnic background should inform my gaze.

Jacques Lacan’s research into the formation of identity, particularly the ‘ Mirror stage' is prescient for me. I genuinely have no true idea of my appearance. I rarely see images of myself as I am behind the camera. I rarely look in the mirror, often getting dressed in the dark, as you would be able to tell if you saw me. This is not deliberate but does cause a surprise to me sometimes as to what my face expressions actually look like which is different from how I visualise them when I make them. Maybe my inner residual appearance actually does differ from my outer appearance. I do wonder if this shows in my photography.

I do not assert control over my subject matter. I have spent too long photographing for other people in order to be able to answer this question fully. However, the expat audience that I serve through conversations and social media definitely steers how I see, but I am still at the stage of trying to get things right rather than to be poetic about my inner views.

Ostensibly I am a portrait photography who is most proud of the environmental portraiture that I do. I am currently looking at photomontage, this would allow me to assert greater control over the subject matter that I tackle and the method with which I do it. The aim is to make commentary rather than simply take an image. Actually being a portrait photographer and having access to the variety of skin and stories in a society that is very private has presented a huge narrative issue. During this current restricted period I aim to use found materials, and utilising my basic Photoshop skills, moving towards the abstract imagery as an idea that I would like to pursue. Possibly following the thematic idea of the interplay of 'space and time'. John Berger also comments on this being what photography can do. Making the link between the similarity of music and images and how they are both 'composed' in a way that oil painting isn't. So the idea of montage especially, as I have a film editing background along with the use of sound (potentially), is an idea a new interdisciplinary practice that I would like to experiment with and/or employ.

The current idea is to investigate the phenomenon of Memes and the people who have gained fame and infamy or even notoriety as the subject of this viral movement. There is a musician called Brandon Etheridge who creates musicals from every day speech on Youtube. Essentially as (almost) interdisciplinary responses. This is an obstruction and essentially a meme meme where the subject is an aware of the level of fame and not in control of it. This present them as being an outsider in their own fame fame. This being an outsider is a recurrent theme in what will be my photographic practice. My challenge is to harness and control my own history and pain with being the outsider. This situation is where my gaze could be both an asset and a detriment.


Berger J:

Figures: [citations and Brandon Ethridge image]

Week 6

This week is the week preparing for the presentation and most interestingly the 1:1 and portfolio review.

Week 1 (Project Development) revision

"I am resolved to not using anything I have used in the past because I have grown as an artist and wish to enter this phase with no baggage."

After the past 2-3 weeks of reading and learning I realise that it is all about the baggage I was attempting to avoid. My gaze is a result how I see the world and how sees me. Any and every way that I depict or represent the world is essentially an objectification of me and my interaction with identity. A representation of whatever I am photographing: geographical, social, political biographical, topological... all representative of time, space and the association between the two. after all I have spent most of my life as a musician.

Back to Week 6 proper... 1. How do you critically articulate the intent of your photographic practice verbally or in writing?

My intent is to inform. Simply to reflect a little heard voice. The voice from the inside of 'other'. I realise that being an artist in an expat community that the sense of 'other' and looking at life is a complex and usually quite a narrow view. This is not necessarily a negative thing, but I view it as an opportunity to speak from a more unique angle. This is an opportunity to challenge my 'Whiteness', which is odd considering I am Black. My intended series examines the interplay between White and Black. The in-congruency of the shadows, the shades of grey. I aimed to print it and exhibit it in an exclusive artistic environment. Essentially the gallery where representation is notoriously narrow or featured in a way that reinforces the differences and presents things as novelty (with the sense of other). The way that I see it the only way to counter this is by challenging the novelty and finding a community of other black artists that will show their work. Just making the environment a less hostile one.

2. How was your photographic practice critically, visually and contextually and thought?

The feedback that I received was to look at the "Light of autobiography", to think bigger than images and move towards an installation of Light and potentially sound... due to my musical background. Which leads me towards my practice being thought of as inter-disciplinary. The use of non-traditional portrait was appreciated and, I fell, defines me as cerebral and conceptual or even post-modern in my approach. Definitely non-traditional of unorthodox. Not sure how I feel about that as that has an air of exclusivity that is the opposite of how I want to interact with my audience. Another strand to me practice that was part of the feedback was my use of simplicity. Especially in context with the musical (abstract) expressionism of the (20th Century 2nd Viennese school). Happily also, 'artistic value linked to broader visual cultures'. That would be the versatility that I have shown throughout my practice which is something I battle with, both positively and negatively.

3. How do you reflect on your photographic practice (e.g. editing/research et cetera) in order to progress it (consider successful and less successful work)?

Currently my journey is philosophical. I started the course as a camera operator. In search of meaning. Intention is now critical to my practice, which Which it wasn’t before. But progressing from good intentions to meaning is going to be the biggest challenge. What does my intention actually look like?The way visualise this in order to create what I want to create rather than create something and justify afterwards.

4. In what professional/viewing context should your work be seen in. Why?

This abstract work should be viewed in an art gallery. Preferably lots of white space in between the images which have a predominantly black background. The reason for this is the gallery is a hostile environment that supports A class divide. Either upper to middle or middle to work in class.. This is inevitably going to be part of my practice, even if it is just the chip on my shoulder that motivates be to break through the invisible wall. It also supports a colonial disparity that even unintentionally distorts the gaze of the viewer away from the intended message from the artist as other. This is usually interpreted as not being art or pity.

Fig 1. [citation]

Week 3 revision:

Looking back at what I wrote in week three, the idea of constructive approach is now much more important to my self portrait series. I’m now looking at how the size of the image will affect the meaning. More importantly how the size of the image will make the kind of statement about the community that I’m trying to reach out to. After having a conversation with Colin and the portrait review with Arpita Shah, I now believe that making my self-portrait an object is a much more powerful statement. Initially I was looking to create a series of abstract images that lived in exhibition sized form and were strictly black and white images. Now constructing the approach of making something that renders as a vinyl object, and to be explored at night time lit dramatically is much more freeing. However, it ceases to be simply a self-portrait and now becomes a presentation/representation of self within a modernist view.


Light of Autobiography show. Guardian newspaper

Figures: Fig 1. Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama exhibition 2017

Week 7

Moholy-Nash famously stated, “it is not the person ignorant of writing, but ignorant of photography, as somebody said, who will be the illiterate of the future”.

But, mustn’t the photographer, us, who is unable to read his own pictures, be no less deemed an illiterate?

In thinking about this, how do you interrogate your images, and what strategies do you use to reflect on them?

Essentially, I invest in my intuition until I don't trust it. Paul Clements advised us to trust our intuition or at least aim to get to the point where you can. I think it is important to have this trust as, it is important to make art for you. I am also aware that there needs to be a process in which to ensure you are not simply swayed by mood or environment.

I have probably already decided that there is something worth looking for in the image... whether I like it or not or if I respect it or not.

Beyond that...

For my faults, I still start with the technical. Exposure, composition, light (direction and shadow), perspective and communicated meaning, mood, colour and luminescence.

I am looking to see if I have favourably represented the message/subject/participant/organisation.

I look for anything that will be criticised negatively by trolls. This is an important part of the process as I would like to build a reputation.

As a result of this MA I have added a stage. Which is... context. How it relates to the work I am either currently doing, (I am starting to think in series of work rather than individual shots. This will prevent me from sharing even if I continue to work on it), or the work I wish to be know for (either by style or subject matter).

At this point, I should probably think about location and context of the work, but to be honest, this either happens or doesn't dependent on if I'm asked or not.

After this I rely on peer feedback. Usually a family member or friend.. dependant on what I wish to communicate. I will utilise a range of people in order to see a range of responses that have a variety of connections to what I am making.

Then I will allow my intuition to make the final decision based on all I have heard and previously thought.

And, how do you want them to be read?

My ego says dominant and beyond that I don't care, my fragile ego is pleased if the few people that see it have an opinion and will happily accept positive negotiated readings. The pessimist in me really doesn't care as long as people respect either the technique or the message.

Do you play on any existing ideas, and are any contexts particularly important to you?

Nothing is original and everything is contextual, especially the 'reading' of the work. So everything is an idea that exists even if it is something that is little spoken of, or frameworked in a different or unusual context. Paul Clements (again) said that just because something has already been done doesn't mean that you can't talk about it. So it is 'presentation' or 're-presentation' that is important to me.

Do you recycle any cultural myths, and if you do, for what reason?

Yes, because at this stage that is called learning. to learn to present the aspects of culture, either mythological or 'true' ("There is no truth only perceptions" - Elias Daudrill) is the usual way for me to understand and then adapt.

In a sea of images today, can we be original anymore?

Yes! Originality is dependant on a lack of exposure to what is being presented. The judgement on whether someone's art is deemed original depends on the interactions with Art the viewer has already had. Which allows for both originality and not within that scope.


Film Courage Channel:

Week 8

In order to help in the process of creating my Audio presentation I thought I would reflect on one of the images that inspired my WiPP, by answering:

10 Critical questions to ask myself

(Initially I did this about one of my own images as well... which was interesting as an exercise)

Somnyama Ngonyama: 2015

1) What are you looking at?

Firstly, This image is striking! Defiant, still, peaceful and controlled. A Black and white image that is a self-portrait. Where the dynamic range has been adapted to excentuate the 'Blackness' of the subject as a celebration of their identity. An evenly lit film shot and darkroom printed image. Zanele Muholi has appropriated traditional dress and artefacts to fulfil their intent. If I'm not mistaken it was taken on an RZ67, shooting 6x7 format. Which is a departure from their usual digital imagery. The context/intended location is a gallery.

(Think about colour, composition, lighting, perspective, subject matter, equipment used, format, film used, location, context etc)

2) What do you know for certain about this image?

Firstly, This image is striking! Defiant, still, peaceful and controlled. It was released into the world in 2015 as part of the Somnyama Ngonyama series. Somnyama Ngonyama translates to "Hail the Dark Lioness" from isiZulu. It was part of a world tour starting in 2016 and was curtailed by Covid-19 in 2020. It was one of 80 portraits taken and exhibited in the series.

Muholi playfully employs the conventions of classical painting, fashion photography, and the familiar tropes of ethnographic imagery to rearticulate contemporary identity politics. Each black and white self-portrait asks critical questions about social (in)justice, human rights, and contested representations of the Black body. (Mussai 2020)

Muholi uses their skin colour as a canvas (which as one of my original chapters for my RP was Skin: as canvas), this was my interest piqued and matched my intent. Implicit in the image is the strong binary nature of the Black and the White in the high contrast painterly image. Which, without shades of grey was the type of dramatic and yet layered statement I am drawn to. Is this something that I would read that others wouldn't? Yes, and that is something I would like to replicate in my practice. However, without my biases and prior experience it is simply a beautiful, powerful and striking image.

(Think about the time and place, subject matter etc. What else was happening in the medium at this time? What do you know for certain and why do you know this? Is it implicit within the image or are you bringing your own knowledge and experiences to it? Is this knowledge shared by other people, if so who? Or is it more personal to you? How does your research relate to your understanding of the image?)

3) What is the mood of this image? Why? What is it exactly about the image that makes you think this?

Muholi has created quite an extensive range of images for this series (80 in total). They has maintained Black and White as part of their focus. I'm not sure that I have seen a set of images that celebrate in this way. Particularly with the dynamic range being treated in such a way. I'm sure others have used national dress or wearable artefacts as directly as this in the context of decolonisation of the gallery space or as a form of visual activism. I am drawn to them because of their use of artefacts. Laia Abril's use of artefacts in a very different way with a different result in the "On Abortion" chapter of her work A history of Misogyny was someting that has appealed and inspired me since the first module. But, what this example shows me is that I have to make them work in my own way. I am using a variety of shades of black and white in my work in a very deliberate manner which is definitely a takeaway from this series.

(Does it relate to other images you have seen? If so what images, what photographers, why, when and where were they taken? What is similar and dissimilar about them? How do they relate to your own research, and the material discussed in lectures etc. How does it relate to your style and work?)

4) Is the photograph taken in any particular style? Why do you think this?

The fact that this image was intended for a gallery/exhibition space and done by a self-styled 'visual activist' makes this so much more of a statement. Not to mention that the use of their-own image shows they is seen in different ways and that they is prepared to be a participant and not a voyeur in their own work and message. Which helps to fulfil another part of their intent which is to form a wider community through their work. The work can be understood on it's own but you do need to have context of them as an artist to get the full message.

(What was the original context of the image? (e.g. book, exhibition, newspaper, advert etc) How does the context influence your interpretation? Can the image be understood alone or do you need to view it in the context of other work? Is this work by the same photographer or by other artists? How does that effect your interpretation of it? How does this relate to your own work? If the image was discussed in a lecture or tutorial, what was the context of that discussion, what other artists were mentioned, what do they have in common)

5) In what context is the image viewed?

As, said above, understanding their political and social beliefs and a little bit of the history of their journey and that of the LGBTQI community in South Africa underpins the viewers understanding of the work.This period of history is also contingent to the work being seen and the message being supported. I feel it is a symbiotic relationship. More works like Zanele's will grant permission to more artists to advance the dialogue and to form the community that has been lacking both for the LGBTQI community and breaking down the class structure within the Arts. So the context of the Gallery is important to how this work is viewed.

The images do not really relate in any strong visual way to other images I am looking at as I am looking at a diverse range of approaches and work. Ranging from Roni Horn and Bill Viola's investigation on the form and shape of water, to Laia Abril's investigative approach to research.

Roni Horn- No title - part of Still Water . The Crossing by Bill Viola, 1996, via (The Guggenheim Museums, New York)

To Sally Mann's Proud Flesh for her use of wet plate and the imperfections contained with.

Hephaestus_Proud_Flesh, Sally Mann

and Ng Hui Hsein (as referred by Colin Pantall) Thank you!

[NG Hui Hsein from assorted exhibitions]

(Think about other work the photographer has produced. Can you relate the images to any other work? Why? Think about the influences that affected the photographer and their style and way of working. What was important e.g. background, other artists, personal experiences, beliefs, politics, culture, period of history etc. How does this work relate to other images you have been looking at?)

6) What do you know about this photographer? What would you like to find out?

I already know about Muholi's Activism and nationality which they goes on record about. Also, their aim to fight to support acceptance for people who are ostracised. I would like to know more about their process at the conceptual stage. Specifically the stage from idea to first realisation. I am in awe of the sheer bravery that they demonstrates. Putting their ideas out there under threat of death and/or harm. How does they keep their family safe when politics and violence are threats? How far do they allow their ethical responsibilities to shape their work?

(What makes you think this? (Perhaps it is one of the elements you identified in 1. or it is your existing knowledge of this photographer, or it is your knowledge of other photographs). How does the photographer achieve this mood and can you relate it to your own practice? What is the relationship of the photographer to the subject material? How is that perspective conveyed visually? Does it effect your interpretation?)

7) What is the photographer trying to say? Are there any ideas or points of view

within the image? How successful is the image in communicating this? What is

their intent in producing this work? How are these ideas conveyed to you?

Zanele Muholi aims to represent marginalised groups by becoming “them” literally and symbolically. They uses representative self-portraits (or self-representations) to give exposure to "them" to allow them to know they are "seen". This is the intent of my work but, starting with myself because I am not within a 'like' community. I am attracted to the 'pride' and above all the 'strength' in the beauty of the images.

(Again, you may need to research the photographer and their work, relating the

visual image to the influences and experiences of the photographer as in 5. How

does the photograph relate to the intent of the photographer? How do both the

visual outcome (the image) and the photographers intent relate to your work?

What is similar and dissimilar? What are you attracted to in this image?)

8) Does the image suggest or refer to anything else? How is this achieved?

The image refers to associations of pride within the community depicted, however, those association were created in counterpoint to the perception of those cultures as other, which is perpetuated by other cultures either through ignorance (lack of exposure) or political means (propaganda). This is not read as part of the message unless you have a deep sense of contextual knowledge of where they comes from and their background, but I feel the images work as 'non-activist' art (a shallower level) as they are so well taken and composed. The title helps, as do the names of the images but the text is not contingent to the whole narrative. For two reasons, 1. The titles are in isiZulu and require translation. 2. The images are such strong statements of emotion that you just need to be in the room to feel the emotive meaning.

(Think about what associations the photographer may have intended and what

you bring to the image yourself. Who is the intended viewer of the image? How

might they react to the image? Why might this image trigger such a reaction? Do

you need to know anything to understand the image? Do you need to rely on text

or a title to guide you to the understanding or interpretation the photographer

may have intended?)

9) What do you like and dislike about this image/body or work?

(How does the image make you feel? Was this intentional on the photographers

part? What is similar and dissimilar between your work and this work think

about this in terms of the image itself and your intent. What are the theoretical

ideas and concepts behind this image? Do you have the same concerns? What

about other photographers/artists you have been looking at?)

10) How would you evaluate this image in terms of the questions you have

considered above?

This image is highly successful. It communicates on a primal emotional level but stands up to more critical scrutiny. The intent was to 'shine a light' on communities and allow all to feel valued, beautiful and 'seen'. I would have simply not managed to do it nearly as well through lack of bravery (to use myself and be as vulnerable as they have made themself. Also, making those connections that get the work seen. I am already applying the use of range, saturation and luminescence. What can I do more of? I really enjoy the contexts and artefacts that are used. The lack of over-arching narrative, whilst maintaining a theme. Lacking a didactic approach and trusting the viewer to get it and defiantly not caring if they don't. The responsibility is with the viewer not an adapted message, which leads me to the last part which is, bravery of message, method and the tenacity of breaking contextual and locational barriers to present the work.

(How successful is the image? What does it communicate? Was this the intent of

the photographer? What would you have done differently? What ideas could you

apply to your own work?)


Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama: 2015

Roni Horn

Bill Viola

Laia Abril: On Abortion

Ng Hui Hsein

Sally Mann: Proud Flesh



Week(s) 9

At the start of this module my project was 'Skin' which was an attempt to discuss identity in a way that wasn't simply about racial inequity and prejudice. Through being in Singapore and due to the lack of travel it was restricted in a way that prevented me from having the diversity of access that was required for me to fulfil my intent. Plus it was a gargantuan project! As a consequence the last module ended up being a fight to avoid a commentary on race. This module has given me a greater appreciation of the theoretical pathway of the philosophy of photography. Which has manifested itself in me understanding that I know very little about representation, re-presentation, power and social aesthetics. There has been so much work done in all of these areas through so many forms of philosophical, social and cultural discourse that finding contemporaries for the work I am doing is intimidating. The difficulty is that the starting point is vital to contextualising the work accurately and as society changes the 'reading' (a la Roland Barthes' semiotic theories and Stuart Hall's reception theory) changes... potentially. It has resulted in thematically looking at 'the outsider' and narrowing my work to spending time looking at different types of outsiders in detail. My intent for 'Skin' was to share and inform giving empowerment and voice to the participants in the narrative documentary I was essentially creating. On reflection I was missing what I have noticed from the majority of the works I have read and seen... my own commentary.

It was easy for me to read or hear something similar to

"every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.”
-(Wilde: [citation required]

and dismiss it. To feel that the intent is different from this, but at this point my series has to be this. When I discovered this (around week 4 or 5) I had to commit to doing a self-portrait or self-presentation series not just as a pragmatic adjustment to Covid-19 but as as attempt to reach and find the openness to produce work of consequence moving forward. I have to pursue this in order to develop as an artist. This is the reason why I have created this abstract project on my experiences... 'sickeningly biographical' as Laura Mvula said in interview at the Oxford university union. With a transition to really learning to represent others. By learning to represent myself. Looking inward to reach outwards.

Critical contextualisation of practice: As I have said (waffled-on) above, This module has enabled me to understand my aim and scope of my project, and with my practice in general. Prior to this unit, I admired too many photographers for their whose work it was almost indiscriminate and without a discernible pattern. Now I believe thatI am more drawn to the intent and then appraise the work with that as a focus. I had no idea of the aesthetic I have been chasing but now I am developing the aesthetic to suit the message. Kara Walker's silhouettes and creation of objects has helped me to develop an understanding of the history of the representation of African-American as a narrative in photography (The Katastwóf Karavan. Prospect4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, 2018). Ingrid Pollard and Stuart Hall's discussion on colonisation within photography has been interesting reading and allowed me to place where I want my work to be without depicting my work with an inappropriate representation. Zanele Muholi is the beacon that demonstrates the empowerment I want in my future work and their Self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama: 2015 was a touchstone conceptually and aesthetically. Specifically the treatment of shade, dynamic range and visual tonality. I have been able to theoretically and practically link the aesthetic and philosophies the subject matter I wish to explore. I have radically moved away from more traditional portrait photography and much more successful at analogous and evocative imagery. The reading about Barthes’ semiological ideas of the link between signifier and signified in photography has also aided me in the development of less didactic 'show and tell', giving me more of an idea of how to communicate with the viewer by working with cognitive consonance and dissonance. Which will help me not to rely on words for meaning.

Professional location of practice: I feel that this area still requires some development. However, staging ideas is something I feel comfortable with. I usually have a clear vision of how I want to see certain things but only when I can visualise the finished work. The location often involves an exhibition or installation space. Which is reasonably interactive, or the lighting is controlled (I was told that I had too much drama in my work during the latter part of the last module). I am not sure where or how else my practice might be viably located at this point. The concept of my images (being printed onto vinyl and up-lit as unique objects) is key to the concept of depicting the objectification of being a visual outsider in the community. Also, the physicality of the objects and them not being reproduced (and kept with imperfections) is important to my intent. In terms of placing the work in a traditionally incongruous or 'hostile' environment like a white walled gallery space, this is up for debate. This works in trying to reach out to other outsiders to 'take-back' the colonised space, as Zanele Muholi has for their work on Somnyama Ngonyama: 2015. But I like the idea of informing but installing the objects outside and allowing people to interact without cost. Similar to Kara walker's interdisciplinary work The Katastwóf Karavan. Prospect4: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp, 2018. Which informed the work as mentioned above. These options (and others) I intend to explore further but will reach a definitive decision nearer completion of the work.

Critical analysis: This is an aspect of my understanding of photography that has developed hugely over the course of this unit! An aspect of my practice that will continue to grow. I call it the 'rabbit-hole'. As a musician the creative well for my compositions always come from the rabbit-hole of critical analysis. Through analysing what interests me in other artists works I have been better able to define what I would like to, or need to develop in my own. I have always chased ideas, concepts and technical aspects of other photographers works but adding the philosophy and being better able to contextualise critically to the world in general (and Art historically) has really opened up many avenues, whilst narrowing what I want to do, how and why? Many of the images from earlier in the course that would definitely be included in the final project, I have now chosen to leave out as a refinement to the intent. Less is definitely more at moment in time. My last module I included images I knew didn't fit but couldn't articulate why or why I had taken them. This was definitely an aspect of my practice I feel I am better equipped to strengthen.

Written and oral communication skills: This is an are in which I am traditionally strong, given the fact that I have been teaching, coaching and presenting for over two decades. However, developing the subject-specific terminology has been, and will continue to be, a challenge. I have struggled with the more abstract, philosophical content of this unit in the time scales given, being dyslexic and marking epistemology essays doesn't help either. I have had to adapt my workflow and feel that I may be better for it. I'm wary of using terminology incorrectly and remembering who said what and when, which makes citation a challenge too. I think this will develop with continued exposure to the writers and thinkers we have been looking at, who I have greatly enjoyed. Whilst continuing to refine my workflow. This will aid my confidence and accuracy... I hope.


Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey [citation required]

Laura Mvula, Full Q&A Oxford Union 5th March 2019

Roland Barthes:

Stuart Hall


Week 10



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