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  • Damien Williams

PHO704: Independent reflection

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

Week 1: Understanding the Client and the Brief

What different research methods exist?

Research in it’s purest form generates 4 different types of data. Observational, Experimental, Simulated and Compiled. Of which, photography is almost exclusively concerned with generating observational data. This for my point of view is best when it provokes or promotes conversation, deep thought or at least an emotional response/connection from the viewer.

"Observational data are captured through observation of a behavior or activity. It is collected using methods such as human observation, open-ended surveys, or the use of an instrument or sensor to monitor and record information -- such as the use of sensors to observe noise levels at the Mpls/St Paul airport. Because observational data are captured in real time, it would be very difficult or impossible to re-create if lost."

To this end that sounds very much like documentary photography, where the artist does not intervene in order to obtain their images. This alone is a narrow view of the research required to provide a ‘full’ and challenging approach to a photographic project. It leaves no room for artistic license, interpretation or forming a narrative. Philosophically, does sequencing connote or denote intervention? Where does Art fit within this definition? or does artistic research have a different set of parameters?

Academic/non-academic reading: I think speaks for itself in terms of definition. However, I am reading more and more about human interest and medical journals in order to find a 'way-in' to my project beyond the surface, or conversely, the conceptual. Currently, my reading list is heavily influence by stories and account on identity specified by skin colour.

Black and British by David Olusoga,

How to be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon

Brit-ish by Afua Hirsch

Whilst watching the documentaries:

Enslaved (2020) by Conrelia street productions

I do intend to pursue wider reading on how burns, scars and skin conditions can shape perceptions and identity. If I'm honest, despite now being an important time to join the conversation on race. I have to live with it and feel suffocated by it. Which I why I conceived of a project on the wider ramifications and consequences of skin. This is what interests me more. The broader social discussion about the human condition. The slow journalism approach is fundamental to the project creating the scope for what I require personally from this work. The research and reading is probably the most important part.

Anthropological: It is the creation and communication of meaning. This is surely what we are doing as photographic storytellers. Understanding what I can through observation and social interaction and using images to share my observations of human interactions with each other and their environment. My project is a commentary of how humans interact socially with what we are covered in. It couldn't be more anthropological...surely? This will be the best fit single method, I'm sure. It employs 4 main qualitative methods of collection of 'data' of which two will be central to certain chapters of my work. Participant observation and in-depth interviews. In place of textual analysis, or even as part of it, intuition will be a vital component of the absorbing of the study.

When reading Shirley Read’s essay ‘Finding and Knowing - Thinking about Ideas” (contained in a chapter within Photographers and Research) a quote that struck me and made me consider my own working practices was

“...intuition is not random but channeled by my individual sensibility, a way of thinking and seeing that has evolved over many years of working behind the camera and making and looking at photographs.”

I believe this to be true to my thought process. Although I am not aware of my own influence, there must be an unconscious effect on the reading and artists that I gravitate towards and how these ’research’ effects my thought process.

What research methods have you used in the past?

Having been a headshot and portrait photographer, research isn’t something that I am prone to doing. Geographical research, weather forecasts and looking at seasonal considerations when doing street or travel photography is the extent of what I have indulged in. Beyond contextual research (using google images as a way of seeing what the usual photographic fare is of a specific location or event produces). As mentioned above Intuition as a way of knowing and researching is very important to me as a practitioner. I don’t believe a photographer can operate to the greatest extent of their potential without employing their intuition. So it is only natural that when reading and researching topics; intuition forms an important component in where and how you proceed during the research phase.

How could you utilise other research methods to inform your current project?

My main inspiration will be that of Laia Abril with her project A history of Misogyny… .

Her main approach is journalistic and interview based, channelling what she can gain from media as well as primary and secondary sources. This is reliant on scrutinising the validity of the information given.

I am also, reading

Bending the Frame Photojournalism, Documentary and the Citizen” by Fred Ritchin (aperture) which leads on from the extended use of google as a repository of images and leans towards citizen and found journalism as a viable source. ‘Slow Journalism’ as a concept.

For a project of the scope and personal nature as Skin I am sure I will have to be broad in the methods I use and learn a lot about how I research as much as how to capture and the disseminate what I produce.

What has surprised you this week?

How much scope there is for the progression of a project between shutter actuations has been a big surprise to me. In my first Webinar Laura Hynd was keen for us not to underestimate the "value of research" when it comes to creating work. Laura also said something that I'm sure will be an important component of my research and creative process going forward.

"A project that starts off based as factual can become a fictional one."

Laura Hynd

Another surprise (being new to any form of journalistic approach) is just how rewarding the research process can be both intellectually and visually. There is a real sense of satisfaction when making those intellectual connections. A sense of your world getting bigger and richer.

From a career perspective I am amazed by how many roles there are in the photography industry and the breadth of skills that it encompasses.


Having my eyes opened to the range of roles that are available in the photography industry was fascinating. Up until this point having a camera in hand was the extent of my vision of a possible future in photography. I have spent the past 20 years teaching, talking and observing a creative life that if I was to leave this profession (which I cannot see doing, at least not completely), It would have to be for something practical with a tangible end product.

Grant’s division of professional photographers feels dated, elitist, dismissive and divisive. However, It is something that I will have to bear in mind as I proceed. Having spent a short time as a "weekend" photographer I do understand the lack of satisfaction of not producing work I was artistically proud of or an end product/catalogue that demonstrated very little artistic ownership or merit. I embarked on this course to get away from that, so maybe Scott Grant is right.

Week 2: Other Careers in Photography

Where do I position myself in the photography industry? I almost don’t want to choose where I position myself. In an ideal set of circumstances I would prefer to be versatile and accomplished at everything, however I know that is at best nonsense and at worst unappreciated by the mass audience. My leanings are always towards story and narrative which would lead me towards documentary photography. Taking portraits gives me a great sense of achievement and the challenges of creating beautiful, truthful and above all insightful images starting with an empty studio (making portraits) motivates me to grow as a photographer. However I don’t see that sustaining my interest as I get bored very easily and doing the same type of photography for the next 20 years would be my idea of hell, unless the subject matter is varied both in content and challenge.

My professional background is as a headshot, portrait and events photographer. I also used to work as a school portrait photographer for a very brief time and found collaboration in that sense fairly difficult as the outcome is more transactional rather than aesthetic or critical, which intern impacts the ability to create an unique product or experience with the subject. However, as a teacher and a musician I find collaboration vital to improving my craft. The creative process shared is a wonderful thing. I found this especially during the Positions and Practice module where I formed collaborations as a result of the differences in style and approach from that of my peers. (In my classroom it is no secret that the learning that occurs is reciprocal if it is done properly.) This meeting of differences appeals to my sense of curiosity. There are many ways to be able to do things and see things, so working with other people to combine our views of the world is an exciting prospect. Also, I want to avoid my work becoming stale or static. Each time I work with someone I am challenged to not only be better but to embrace a wider view.

I am surprised by the amount of micro layers there are in the photographic industry and that there seems to be a place for everybody if you can find your own niche/role and your audience. What challenges me is the fact that I’m an introvert and the majority of the opportunities come through meeting people, friendships and collaborative relationships. Being in Singapore with no means of travel and no means of actually meeting my course colleagues makes me feel very remote and I lament the fact that I haven’t done this course in person in Falmouth. I believe the relationship that I would have built on the course may have been important as I move forward into a photographic career as part of a creative network. This challenge is going to really push my tolerance for being an introvert and hopefully will help me grow as a person.

Week 3: Art and Commerce

I do not feel like I’ve found my own personal style. What is style anyway? Surely every artist should want to produce an end product that suits the expression of what they are creating and that must be broader than a repetition of technical outcomes? The identifier if anything should be how the work impacts the viewer. That, in my opinion, should not be limited to a visual style. Quite often I see photographers getting lazy and shooting in a specific way because of trying to brand their work.


my viewpoint is coloured by the pain I am in because my work doesn't have a common thread. The reason I joined the MA course was to find my process through learning about processes that have gone before and understanding historical and contextual aspects of photography. I don't see me in any of the 'work' I have done before. I see stories and narratives in my family photographs and the photographs I have taken for my various schools (which for safeguarding reasons I cannot share anywhere).

This has resulted in a massive dissatisfaction with my output. My ability and artistic and photographic intellect for hire (with the client being the arbiter of quality) left me with an unwillingness to pick up a camera. I require critical motivation for me to even wish to photograph anything other than documenting family or place. which results in capturing rather than constructing narrative. Commercially it is about the impact of the single image, where I now feel constricted unless I am 'weaving' a connection between images and an audience.

My work previously was more about the content than how it was taken. My aim is to not necessarily make my work recognisable because of how I manipulate light but more how I craft my narrative. My previous work (pre-MA) was very much based on the sequencing of the images. The theme was also very important, by this I mean I did a series called 'In transit' which relied very much on the variety of situations and the proximity of the camera to the moment within the theme. I now have expanded my storytelling techniques to become more varied by including artefacts and ultimately an interdisciplinary approach. This still remains to be seen but is very much my aim.

'in transit'

Business scares me. Commerce as a part of business also scares me. The thought of producing 'art' scares me. Therefore the thought of combining the two and contemplating been able to understand how they work does not make sense to me. Can I make observations about how people have become successful? No because I can see no pattern. I don’t understand how people consume Art. Even in my previous career as a musician I became very aware that good music and popular music are rarely the same. I understand how specific individuals can influence what the mass public believes to be good music. I have no idea how this works within visual arts. Now I can’t even understand or express or convince my family that my artistic images or as good as my snapshots of my family. So I will not be trying to weaponise or commercialise my work, I hope to find somebody that understands how the market works in order to learn from or collaborate with.

What was a surprise to me this week was quite how much I need to know about law and business. I’ve always known it is a weakness of mine or rather an area I need to develop hugely, but licensing and contracts have been something that I am not keen to get wrong. I have also found collaborating towards The brief has been a difficult and quite remote process for me. I wish to express what I think and what I feel within the meetings, but my confidence is lower than perhaps it should be because I didn’t read the brief correctly. So I am dealing with my own lack of business acumen and experience. It is always problematic when you cannot trust your own instincts. I am working within a very good group so I am relying on them to inspire and lead me as they have much more experience than I do. However, spirits are low within the group so this is proving to be a difficult time and process. This has been my greatest challenge, especially considering I’m used to being the person in the room that has the plan. However, I am keen to grow and this is why I’m here on this course. I am waiting and reading as much as I can in order to be useful as soon as I can.

Week 4: The Current Commercial Environment

This week the course has continued to broaden my outlook. I’ve changed my view about the commercial environment continually throughout the week. I am really really keen to be producing work that sits within the environment of the FT weekend magazine, or would grace the British Journal of Photography. I’m currently not operating in any commercial environment, which leads me to have to make some very clear decisions and is informing how my research project is presented. I have constantly had doubts about my ability to find, engage, photograph and do justice to the types of stories that publications of this sort would be interested in. I also wish to make art that is unique to me and I believe that the two can coexist but are not of the same genre. I have found the historical aspect and techniques of photography fascinating.

This should not be a surprise to me as my musical background would dictate that I have a healthy respect for practices that have preceded my own birthdate. I didn’t realise I was so historically interested and would not describe myself in that way, however this journey I am making as a visual storyteller is helping me to get to know myself better. My taste in learning from YouTube and Vimeo have changed significantly as I am now seeking out stories and communities rather than improving technique or skills to do specifically with the camera. This is surely making me a much more interesting person and as this continues I’m sure my opinions of my environment and intended environment will change. The commercial environment I wish to explore further is still very much narrative based at the thought of using my time for journalistic means is an intimidating one and one that I still cannot reconcile as my true path. This will probably be where I grow the most and find where I really sit. I do believe that teaching or the passing of information is something that I have done and will continue to do. This will be part of my photography I would imagine it is just that I cannot see it at this moment in time, but I do know it’s there.

The biggest surprise I’ve had this week is that I have lost my way with my project. I have become so obsessed with trying to be abstract and experimental that I have forgotten to focus on the narrative and the work I’m trying to produce. This wake-up call came as a result of the webinar and one of my peers feeling that my project was all about family. When really it is all about skin. The reason for this is as a result of the Covid restrictions my family are the only models I have access to currently, but I am at risk of becoming too obsessed with the technical side and not having the technical side serve my story as it should.

Vortographs (and a photo of the vortoscope I have built). This experimentation inspired by the practice of Alvin Langdon Coburn have proved a distraction from the narrative aspect of my research project. In the webinar one of my peers thought it was a story of familial connections. I can see his point.

My challenge this week has been access. Access to people, and my introvert nature not understanding how to communicate with people in a cold call fashion. This is something that I know I need to learn and I will find the way to ask how to approach subjects. The subject of skin is a very personal subject, it has to be for this project to be a success. So gaining access to people with skin conditions in a country that is traditionally conservative with emotional matters is a challenge I will have to overcome. I also have a narrow range of skin types to investigate. This is when I miss being in the UK and being able to reach out to different communities.

Week 5: Who Buys Photography? Part 1

Most of this week has been focussed on the 1:1 and what the feedback from my first meeting with Cemre has meant for my Project Development. Have a look at Week 5 project development to see the impact of that discussion on my project.

Week 6: Oral Presentations

The webinar and the preparation for it specifically concerning the oral presentation has taken a lot of my attention this week.

Week 7: Who Buys Photography? Part 2

Most of this week has been focussed on the Peer reviews about my Project. Have a look at Week 7 to see the feedback.

Week 8: Photography and it's Fine Art Markets

  • What has surprised you this week?

I am perplexed by my lack of motivation. I am so lost with my project. A massive loss of belief in what I am, doing. I have taken advice from my tutor against my intuition and now seem to be sick in a 'blind alley'. I used to be able to visualise things so well and now I’m second-guessing everything. It is hard to do a project about people without people but this has been my issue for a module and a half now and I would’ve thought I could’ve worked through this. I haven’t been able to. The fine Art market is confusing and I believe will continue to be confused until I have a greater fine art knowledge or at least a repository of knowledge. In terms of the topic I am surprised by the lack of objective knowledge within the critical art world. I (almost) feel that rather than objective and clear factual knowledge we are left with a series of cognitive biases that fail to support artists unless they have money, heritage, nepotist support or the loudest voice in the room. Claire Bottomley remarked that it was "important to challenge the medium" under a slightly different context. I am more and more following this opinion. Specifically with colonialisation.

  • What has challenged you this week?

As said above the greatest challenge has been motivation and clarity of thought. If I could stop now and re-choose my topic I would. Even though I know that a difficult patch was inevitable, I wasn’t prepared for this lack of self-worth that I currently have. Having my work scoffed at by my tutor "You don't know how to light!" (I do, I wanted to present the image in a dramatic format) "What is this apple it on stage?!" (No but I did want to introduce drama as it was something that is lacking in my work... also the elemental nature leaves this still life with no narrative other than APPLE!, which is the point of the artefact) I didn't get heard in my meeting. I felt dismissed.

The 'scoffed' at (pun intended) images that are poorly lit! Boring...Yes. Poorly lit... No! Unsubtle, ill-conceived...okay! Lacking critical depth... out of context yes, in context...? Surely this is what experimentation should be, shouldn't it? They are the start of a process... one that I don't believe in.

This isn’t strictly about the week eight topic, but I am also challenged by the polarised opinions of how to proceed as a fine artist. What is fine art photography? What I hear are people defending their stance and opinions very much in the same way that the Successionists did in the late 1800s and early 1900s pontificating in order to gain validity for their opinions. In retrospect these were reactionary towards oil painting and trying to validate photography as an art form. In the past 130 years things still really haven’t moved on that much in terms of their arguments. If you can’t define it (What Art photography is), Then how do you progress in it? Based on an argument about what criticality truly is and does it live in the commercial sector anywhere.

Week 9: Presenting your Pitch

This week has been a split focus between further developing my project. Specifically the visual style of the images and the fallout from the Live Brief presentation. I was unable to attend in person as I was at work (due to the timezone I was delivering a Parent Student Teacher Conference). To see the project development for this week look at Week 9.

Week 10: The Digital - New Possibilities

  • What was the most important point that has come up in your groups debrief session?

The most important point from this weeks debriefing session was very much understanding what the client wants. I believe that we may have chosen the wrong project, based on the lack of information or rather clarity of information that was given. So I suppose that means then selecting the client and communication, with said client, is also of paramount importance.

  • How are you using social media channels? Could this be improved? If so, how?

I am currently not using any social media. I am starting to see that Instagram could have an impact on my possible career in future. But mainly so that editors can find a curated stream very easily. I am unsure at the moment as to whether to make an Instagram account with my name or continue with the name of the business that are used to have. This is largely to do with having not settled on an artistic vision for my work. Another possibility would be to use Instagram as a place to publish. What I mean by that is Peter DeVito used Instagram for his #acneisnormal campaign. This might be a good way of moving the conversation of skin gradually into the consciousness or maybe a way of maintaining the conversation beyond the confines of a physical exhibition.

  • Are you excited by all the changes the digital has brought upon us?

  • Has your practice changed and adapted? If yes, how?

  • Could you embrace these changes even more?

Coming from a digital photography generation, my only concerns are the line between creating composite images and what should be considered digital photography. I haven’t fully decided where I sit on that argument or discussion, but truth or rather a truthful exchange of expectations for the audience as well as photographer is really important I feel. Where I am less engaged is largely due to being an introvert and not fully understanding the business side, specifically how to monetise digital media socially.

  • What has surprised you this week?

The complete lack of a defined strategy or more to the point the range of strategies that work idiosyncratically rather than objectively has surprised me. There are no rules about social media in terms of making a success financially or even in terms of exposure. During the conversations had in the live lecture The level of anecdotal evidence was high but not much beyond that. Even down to how to use hashtags. This leads me onto my greatest challenge which is having an opinion about something that I cannot research and just have to have experience in. This really challenges me as I feel the need to support the conversation but the best way I can support the conversation is by listening.

Week 11: Show and Tell

  • Define your visual language.

With the sudden turnaround at the end of week eight or nine, it is hard to define my style. I started off doing a more documentary/portrait approach and ended up having my style described as advertising and high concept. This was a major compliment especially having received it from a photographer I hugely respect, however as part of that conversation the comment was made wow this is so different from what you normally do and from what I expected. So maybe my visual language is to be a visual ‘polyglot’ of some description and just remain versatile and look back in retrospect in 20 years if I’ve continued.

Start of the module (experimental)

End of the module!

  • How does your visual language differentiate from other photographers working in the same field or genre?

I have no idea which field or genre I am working in. This Work in Progress Portfolio is very much influenced by John Keatley and Broomberg and Chanarin. I’m not entirely convinced that there is a hell of a lot of ‘me’ in there, but by definition I suppose there is. If I reference Shirley Read from the reading in week one of this module, my intuition is in there if not only at the selection stage so therefore it must be part of my visual language. I have chosen to express this visual glossary in this way, but I was drawn by the style and the concept more than introspecting about a persona or language that I wish to project. I would go as far as to say I’m not sure that using social media would teach anybody about what my visual language is any more than it would have done before I started this MA. This chameleon like existence was the reason why I chose to start this MA. This module has only compounded my inadequacies and is yet to reveal the answers.

  • Who do you look up to?

My long-term hero and person as well as photographer that I look up to is Zack Arias. He has a wonderful eye for light, he is a great teacher and his commercial and artistic work always makes me feel something. Underlying everything he does is truth, generosity and ingenuity of vision. This module has made me look wider and to seek to find that same level of honesty with a lack of intrusion on the subject. Lee Miller seems to have this. I’m still drawn to Alfred Stieglitz and now Alvin Langdon Coburn. I also look up to Sara Lando, Hans Zimmer and Mat Collishaw for their innovation from within their respective arts. Paul Clement, Laura Hynd and Anna-Maria Pfab have been inspirations for their openness, sharing and broad knowledge. Most importantly their engagement and listening has been fundamental in aiding my growth. I have a lot to thank them for.

I am developing a respect for curators. It is not a role that I have been very aware of until recently. It’s as much if not more of a talent than actually photographing. Their intellect and openness has to be incredibly fine-tuned in order to be able to understand and advise and do the job.

  • What has surprised you this week?

The thing that surprised me the most this week is myself. Through the pain of the last three weeks I feel I am starting to find processes that I can trust. I learned that I’ve really missed Laura Hynd’s input in my work. It has been about five weeks and I felt a joy and security in hearing her feedback but also a passion for listening and developing my project that I feel I’ve missed for a little while. That includes my own lacking of passion.

  • What has challenged you this week?

Photographing fruit in interesting ways, and suspending fruit in a photographic set. If I have to photograph another banana I might commit fruiticide!

Week 12: The Journey Continues

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