Saturday, 8 July 2017

Assessment results

Assessment Event Student Name Sarah-Jane Field
Student DOB
Student No. Unit Tutor Degree
Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills
Materials, techniques, observational skills, design and compositional skills
Quality of Outcome
Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.
Demonstration of Creativity
Imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice
Reflection, research, critical thinking (learning logs and , at levels 5 and 6 critical reviews and essays)
Andrew Conroy
BA Hons Photography

PHOTOGRAPHY 1: ART OF PHOTOGRAPHY Feedback (please comment on achievement against assessment criteria)
Complete fluency of technical and visual skills.
Highly effective work presented in a professional way, showing strong judgement. Highly effective grasp of ideas and communication of visual ideas.
Strongly creative, takes risks with many imaginative and successful outcomes, strong evidence of personal voice
Very articulate and self aware, very well researched, demonstrating a developed intellectual understanding.
Range 0-40
Range 0-20
Range 0-20
Range 0-20
Visual Arts Level 1 Summative Assessment Mark (%)
Overall Comments and Feed Forward
This was an original and creative submission. The assessors particularly commended your book submission for Assignment 5 'This Family' and also your Assignment 4 'Mother's Name is Eve'. Both of these assignments evidence a strong personal voice along with considerable technical skill. As you identify yourself there is now a need to better organise your significant amount of work to a more coherent form. All of your assignments, research and reflection should now be consolidated onto a well designed learning log. The assessors look forward to seeing further development of your projects in your next assignments. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Final post for TAOP and a note to the assessors

I have been through this blog which is a full and complete record of my work on TAOP.  Looking back and in light of what I have learnt the layout is far from perfect and I have used the template supplied by OCA for my next blog.  However, I am unable to reconfigure this one in time for assessment and I think doing so would take up time I am better off using elsewhere at this point.

Only the final assignment uses a password which I will send to the OCA assessment email address. In addition there is a Blurb book which includes the images for the final assignment.

PLEASE NOTE: I have been through the blog looking for links to my old Flickr account which I was compelled to delete.  I hope I have caught all of those links and replaced them with working links to a new account.  If I have missed any, please forgive me.  All of the assignment work is on a website page dedicated to that project.  Again, not in the way I would have chosen, looking back - but this is a learning curve.


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Final re-edit Assignment 5 and printing

I have had an expensive lesson about printing a Blurb book.  I received the book I ordered back this week and hated what I'd done to the images.  I'd lifted the blacks too far so they had lost their atmosphere.  And in addition the font was too big so it looked more suited to a children's book and I didn't like the some of the captions or the introduction.  So I've redone it and hope it will be better when I receive it back.  I do not want to submit something I am not happy with for assessment and would prefer to simply have prints done rather than do a book I think is rubbish.

I am also perturbed about my decision to do colour now but I am sticking with it.  I think the set is more suited to colour and I like some of the rich colours which, as I said in my original accompanying notes, give more life to the images than black and white do.  However, it is much harder to manage colour than it is black & white and I think some of the white balance is not quite as it should be despite my efforts.  I hope the printed book comes back better now the images have been reedited.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015


Number of images
The main gist of the feedback was that I had far too many images.  Ostensibly my reason for this was that I searched and searched for the correct figure to submit in the course document but couldn't find it - despite it plainly being there for all to see.  I have to wonder why that might have been and do think I found it difficult to separate my emotions from the images, and say as much in the accompanying text.  Whatever the underlying reasons may be for not editing it according to the course stipulations, a happy outcome of not doing so before submitting the assignment for feedback is that I now have an opportunity to edit with more space and time between taking the images and discovering what the narrative is really about.  (What that does for any possible assessment mark is anybody's guess but I've always been here for the learning and experience rather than the marks).

Following a Skype chat with Andrew I found editing down to 12 images relatively simple and painless, whereas I don't think that would have been true a month or six weeks ago.  I submitted at the end of June, having taken the images over Easter.  I did a final edit last night at the beginning of August.  I remember Elina Brotherus suggesting a six month hiatus between taking and editing so I'm almost there time-wise.

Having left things this long I am beginning to see the point of a break more clearly than I did before. For one, although I had set out to photograph my family on holiday in Italy in my mother's house, and to do so from within the walls of her house - signifying something to do with seeing through a daughter's eyes - I can now see that the narrative is very much about my mother and my relationship with her, which I wasn't totally convinced by before.  I also think the narrative is far more apparent and resonates more powerfully now that the set of images has been condensed, although 12 does feel rather too ruthless, to be honest.

Colour vs. Black & White
Another suggestion was to consider colour.  I must say right at the beginning of the process I was torn between the two and felt very sad to be letting go of colour as an option.  Andrew pointed out that black and white might be too obvious a route and so colour was certainly worth considering. I have to say it felt a relief to think I might present the images in colour and have so decided that will work better.  I talked about my reasons for choosing black and white in the A5 introduction and say:

"I chose black and white because there is a type of crystalisation in the images, a freezing of time, which feels more frozen without colour.  The colour edit I nearly used seems far more vibrant.  I can almost hear the cicadas and the silent buzzing or humming of the empty spaces as I went about photographing them.  But I don't get that in black and white.  By removing the colour I feel like I have removed the life and left only shadows and impressions.  I know of course this is all in my own perception and interpretation but that is how it felt.  I might actually prefer the colour edit personally... "

Reading this back I can't help wondering why I thought at the time that removing the life would be better.

Finally, Andrew suggested that I include text to give the images some context as they are more subtle than work I've submitted before.  I did have text below each image to begin with then removed it following some peer feedback but I know if I'd been committed to the text I'd written I'd never have let go of it, regardless of what anyone said.  So I must have a good think about how and what I write. I do agree that context will be very useful, although I am thinking I will write something to go at the beginning rather than captions.

The chat Andrew and I had last week was really good and helped a lot.   I have to say learning this way is quite tough and isolating at times and having real live support feels incredibly useful.  I certainly felt a bit lost with this assignment at times, I suppose because I attempt to venture into something pretty difficult for me.  I know the blurry images of A2 or the light in A4 is something solid for anyone looking to grab hold of - and that people will either like it or not depending on taste. But the thing to grab hold of in A5 may be less obvious but perhaps feels more dangerous, for me at any rate.  Andrew and I also chatted about different ways of presenting the work for assessment (the thought of which still gives me horrors, I must admit).  And I will get on with that over the next couple of weeks.

Feedback here:

Overall Comments

As everything from The Waltons to The Kardashians demonstrates, popular culture has represented ‘the family’ in diverse and contradictory ways, yet it is consistently thought of as being at the centre of normative social life. What you’ve submitted here offers a characteristically interesting, well researched and personal take on the idea of ‘the family’, and your ability to spot and use domestic details in a poignant and tender way is really striking. Stylistically, the influence of Jim Mortram is clearly evident, and provides the viewer- or certainly this viewer- with a bittersweet frame of reference and entry point into the set. Your blog entries around this project give an extremely clear indication of the extent to which you’ve thought about the work, and while it’s not without its flaws, this is an assignment that once again shows you to be a thoughtful, observant, determined and highly promising artist-photographer whose work is personal and emotive.

This assignment features a lot of work. I cover this in my specific feedback, but a more ruthless cut would have been welcome! It’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re not looking at as tightly a focused series as we might have been, and a couple of photographs repeat the point of others without necessarily adding to the meaning of the work overall. But, this aside, you’ve produced a(nother) ambitious and engaging piece of work; one that bodes extremely well for your continued studies (and beyond).

Feedback on assignment
Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

In a recent chat you noted how each of your previous assignments had put you at their centre, and that for your final piece of work on TAoP you were keen to take a different approach. You’ve definitely done this, once again demonstrating the breadth of ideas that you’re having and your stylistic versatility and willingness to always take chances and follow your creative impulses. At the same time, I think this work absolutely does still have you at its centre, albeit in a more tangential way. Your voice is apparent throughout the set, and this submission acts as a subtle complement to the assignments that were much more directly about you. Equally, in spite of the shift in style, what you’ve submitted here is still recongnisably ‘your’ work. The portraits here show a growing range of technical skills and an awareness of how subtle inflections in a subject can communicate an entirely different set of meanings- good.

While the series, at least in the most reductive sense, is ‘about people’, the photographs where people are (in a literal sense) absent not only convey a very poignant atmosphere, but also help the viewer to fill in those all-important ‘gaps’ with their own readings. This said, I think this is one of the areas that would possibly benefit from a little refining/ editing: you’re cramming a lot in here, and I sometimes got the feeling that a smaller set would have made for a slightly greater impact. Indeed, sticking to the letter of the assignment’s law, in submitting 33 photographs you’ve gone way over what’s outlined in the guidance notes:

create between 6 and 12 images- you can choose.

33 is almost treble the recommended upper limit, so this is definitely something you’ll need to look at before submitting for assessment. What you’re trying to do/ communicate with the work is pretty clear, but it’s important to go through the series again and think about how you could hone it down to its core essence without losing any of its qualities/ meanings. As things stand, I’d be extremely surprised if the assessors didn’t pick up on the excessive number of images you’ve included and use it as a reason to question your judgment. It’s one thing to produce extremely interesting and promising work- which you’ve consistently done throughout TAoP- but this does need to be allied to a strong sense of discernment. The work and ideas are certainly ‘in there’, but with a more focused edit these would be much more clearly evident.

A practical example of how you could potentially scale everything down a touch: as the series heads towards its conclusion and the emphasis shifts more towards your mother, I did get the feeling that you could have culled a few images and been a little more direct. Photos number 29, 30, 32, and 33 of your mother are all interesting in their own right, but in terms of what they contribute to the overall ‘narrative’ I did wonder whether there was a little uncertainty on your part as to which ones to include/ exclude. #32 is most striking for me: you’ve captured something incredibly vulnerable and poignant in your mother. #33 is very much in contrast with this, and there’s something quite severe and defensive (and also very striking). While these two are very to the point and have a clear sense of purpose, #29 and #30 feel less essential: #29 is fairly interesting in its own right but, for me, doesn’t add a great deal more to what you’ve already said. #30, while showing your mother in a slightly different light, feels a little more throwaway and less vital. Whether you remove them from the series ahead of submission ahead of assessment is entirely up to you of course, and something I’m happy to discuss further… but I do think that a more ruthless approach to your final edit is what’s needed here. Perhaps because this is the final assignment on the unit- and because it’s featured such obviously personal work- it’s been harder to be restrained than might usually be the case. This is totally understandable, but do keep in mind that the process of creating meaning is not just something that happens when you shoot an image, but when you sequence a series of photos. In some ways, this can be the toughest part, but it’s really important to develop your ability to refine a project down to its core elements: less… is… more…

Having said all this, you’ve still produced a series that is touching and personal and says quite a few things about your family and your relationship with them. You’ve communicated an impressive range of emotions, from everyday joy to something altogether more ambivalent, and as the sequence shifts away from a focus on your children to your mother, we seem to reach the very poignant essence and emotional heart of the work. It’s really likeable stuff, and with some further thought could be even more affecting.

Just a couple of quick bulletpoints/ questions to end on:

- Are you sure that colour doesn’t work? I’ve only seen the people-less photographs in colour, but I think it would at least be worth giving some further thought to using them. I get why you’ve gone with b/w, but it does seem like it frames the work in a particular way- I won’t say ‘obvious’, but it does seem like a fairly standard device to have employed. Maybe when you’ve brought the number of images in the sequence down to something closer to the recommended limit, it’ll be easier to ‘see’ the project working in colour- the meanings you’re reaching for could even cause it to resonate in ways that you hadn’t anticipated.

- I appreciate that you’ve not wanted to include much in the way of text, but the assignment guidelines note that ‘…you are about to illustrate a story for a magazine. You have a cover to illustrate, and several pages inside […]. Even though there may be no text, you should write captions (of any length) to explain and link each picture’. In terms of what you’re doing, I can see how this could be problematic- but a short overview of the work that sums up your rationale for the work would certainly be useful. Let’s catch up on Skype and discuss this further.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

As usual, your accompanying texts are highly engaging, dedicated, and clear indicators of how much you’re launching yourself into your photography and studies. Could you perhaps manage everything just a touch more efficiently though? There’s a lot on your blog- certainly not to any unmanageable degree, but would it be worth condensing a few of the sections?

Suggested reading/viewing

This is another area where you’ve pushed on with real determination, and you’re always eager to look beyond the obvious in search of useful material- excellent stuff.

If you’re not familiar with them anyway, you might want to have a look at the following films, all of which offer reflections on the idea of ‘family’:

Buffalo 66 (Vincent Gallo)
Les Quatre Cents Coups (Francois Truffaut)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)

(You might also find something useful in Julian Roman Polser’s The Wall)

Pointers for the next assignment steps

Your work on this unit has been consistently engaging, thought-provoking, personal, eye-catching, daring, and ambitious, and you’ve made the most of the opportunities that it has presented. This in itself is extremely commendable, as at this comparatively early stage it would have been entirely understandable if you’d taken a safer and more conservative approach to your work. I’m very glad that you didn’t: it’s been a pleasure to see how you’ve developed over the course of TAoP, and even from a very early stage it was clear that you were always striving to produce evocative and meaningful work. I don’t doubt that this will continue, so please do continue to challenge yourself and take the more difficult (but ultimately more rewarding) paths. The more you do, the more you’ll improve on both a technical and creative level and be better placed to successfully visualise your ideas. Keep pushing!!!!!

Saturday, 27 June 2015

JIm Mortram Small Town Inertia

"While it covers difficult subjects – disability, substance abuse, self-harm – Mortram's work is rarely without hope, and never without dignity. It is also deeply moving, focusing upon the strength and resilience of the people he photographs. " Dave Stelfox, The Guardian

Jim Mortram is a photographer working in Norfolk.  According to an interview with The Guardian he only works within a three mile radius.  He photographs people who are on the margins of society; people struggling and perhaps living on benefits for a variety of reasons.  His work challenges the status quo that suggests people struggling are somehow 'scroungers' or trying to live of the system.  His subjects are often vulnerable people who are ill or caring for others, as he does for his mother, and who for one reason or exist on the peripheries of the economic system.

His photographs remind me of Chris Killip's, whom I wrote about earlier in the course, and the writer of The Guardian article also connects them.

The reason I am writing about Jim Mortram's work here in conjunction with A5 is because he portrays intimate and difficult scenes of people in way that is not about vanity, or prettiness, revealing fear, darkness, vulnerability and awkwardness but also strength and immense presence where people might assume it doesn't exist.  He works collaboratively and gets to know the people he photographs.  He does not see them as objects to be used but by getting to know them and spending time with them, he enables the people in his photographs to have a voice.  His photography, as far as I can make out, is not coming from the place of 'the gaze'.  He is a positive enabler rather than a metaphorical 'collector of butterfly wings', or specimens of humanity, like so many other photographers far more established or famous than he (although that will change and I suspect his work will be become extremely well known in time.)

I am impressed by his approach and attitude towards the people in his photographs and compare that to how I photographed my mother for A5.  (I'll talk about that further in the A5 supporting statement rather than here.)

As well as photographing the people in his town, Jim Mortram cares for his elderly and unwell mother.  He fits the work he does around that.  Many of the people in his work (I hesitate to use the word 'subjects') are also ill or caring for people who are.  There is a great deal of empathy in his work and he puts it down to his caring role.  He feels he has learnt a great deal through that.

I feel as I look at Mortram's work and read about it, that his photography is about so much more than 'photography'.  He is really using the medium to communicate, and not only his voice.  Somehow he manages to make it possible for a whole community to express their frustration, sadness, anger, despair as well as hope and strength.

Jim Mortram's site

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Assignment 5 Context & Narrative

Link to images

Please note that the link above is a second submission following feedback from Andrew Conroy. The first submission can be seen here.  You will note that some of the things I mention below describe how I felt about the first set of images I submitted.

(These sets of images are password protected.)

I wanted to do something for A5 that continued the story I think I have been trying to tell since starting this course.  The previous assignments ended up being very much about coming to terms with a new paradigm, as well as some introspection; trying to figure out how I tick, why and what led me to this point in my life.  I knew I wanted to turn outwards at this juncture, having done quite a lot of self portraiture. Not only because it felt somewhat narcissistic but also because I felt it was the right time to stop looking inwards quite so much.

One of my ideas was to extend something I was doing already, photographing my local area. Although I did not do this for the course the result is a set of images that I printed and exhibited in a local cafe, and have sold several prints. You can view these here and there is some research here. They are images mostly of walls but not all.

The other thing I was really interested in was prisons.  But I learnt that since I was not in any way established with a body of work behind me, I wouldn't have a cat's chance in hell getting in to any prisons.  I have very recently come across Amy Elkins' work where she got round the problem of not being able to enter a prison by writing to prisoners on death row and working collaboratively with them that way.  The results of several years' work can be seen here.

I am also in retrospect interested in the symbolism of 'prison' walls and what it was about that made me consider this as a possibility.

After chatting with Andrew Conroy and dismissing some ideas, I eventually settled on documenting a family, which is an idea I've had for a while, and since I already sometimes take family portraits it felt like a good focus. However, this didn't seem to lead on neatly from the work I'd done already for TAOP, so in the end I decided to use my own family which felt like a natural and sensible progression.

I chose a regular holiday in Italy at my mother's house.  Apart from the practical reasons I thought that photographing from a place that is very much about my mother would be a useful exercise.

In A4 I looked at object identification from the point of view of a developing infant.  The first object being the mother (actually her breasts and then her).  It takes some time for the infant to recognise the self as a different object to the mother and how this process unfolds informs further object recognition.

So, by looking at my mother's space and at the people in my mother's space I think I was perhaps going back to that place - a place where mother and baby are not quite separate -  in order to try and reframe the process of separation, somehow taking control it it myself.  Marriane Hirsh certainly discusses how photographers use their work to rewrite their internal narratives in Family Frames.

But such work can also be used to explore and discover and I think I have tried to do that here.  I look at these photographs and see a fragile mother who washes and cleans and looks after my children for me.  She is involved in the family and she is sad when we leave, although exhausted as I do so little whilst I am there, leaving all the the 'mothering' to her.

I have made sure all the images are inside the house.  I have deliberately kept inside my mother's house as these images are about me looking and seeing from some part within her.  Is it about trying to identify with her, to try and understand some of our history.  I very consciously chose to do this - keeping inside always and editing to ensure everything was seen from within her thick Italian stone walls, built to withstand earthquakes.

At this point I think about my initial ideas - scenes from my local area which ended up as a series of images that are mostly of walls and one in particular of a window with the word Mum placed across it, and then the other idea - prison.  And it's difficult for me not to make connections and links.  The images I use are inside my mother's house - not outside.   I wonder if I have been exploring my way of seeing, which is somehow 'imprisoned' inside the metaphorical walls built with the history I have with my mother, impacting on my life in a profound way.  Somehow I am trapped inside these 'internal and maternal prison walls' and there is a desire in me to understand, record and explore that, and certainly to break out of that. (Perhaps this contradicts an earlier post about the other work - I don't see why both interpretations aren't valid however.)

Regardless of what I thought the images might be suggestive of, my mother felt that I must hate her when she saw one of the images. There are two in particular at the end which are not flattering photographs and in many ways very unkind.  The photographs I refer to are definitely not vanity shots and I did warn her that she would not like them. I think about how I would feel to have such photographs of me 'out there' and I don't suppose I would very much.  In fact I'd be quite upset.  I have talked about it elsewhere so don't want to go into it too much in this document.

Her reaction was utterly understandable and had made me think about how photographers, especially those exploring difficult human depths and emotions, such as mental illness, age, and frailty, approach sensitive subjects.

I think about my approach and compare it to Jim Mortram's - he gets to know the people in his work and checks in on them continually, finding a way to record their worlds without intruding on them.   They share something of themselves with him.  Many of his images are of people in a vulnerable state.  He works collaboratively.  I, however, took the image of my mother and used it to communicate something about me.  It is not a collaborative exercise for me.

I wanted to use these images but in the end I am not entirely at ease about making my mother feel uncomfortable.  I wondered if I should use the series but cover the ones with her in them with a black mask therefore mimicking the SA newspapers during the state of emergency as mentioned in my post about The Bang Bang Club.  I don't think this would have been the right thing to do though - she is not after all an authoritarian state. It would however have expressed a certain sense of authentic rage, I'm sure.

I also thought about submitting an entirely different edit which was colourful rather than black and white, but suggested a sense of alienation and separateness, which would have been authentic too but abstract.  Since I have already submitted some quite abstract work I think it would serve me better to submit something more tangible.  Although, I must say, the more I look at the two edits, I do prefer this coloured one.  I think it lacks anything of a 'Freudian Family Romance' and is far truer and more reflective of my reality within those walls.

In the end I am going to the use the black and white images, despite my mother's distress, because the narrative is clear, albeit a romanticised one.  However I will submit them privately, using a password. Other students whom I have met are welcome to have the password.  (Following feedback from AC I changed from back and white to colour and have explained why in the feedback post I wrote)

I do feel that by doing so (opting for B&W as I originally did) I am making a compromise which I'm not entirely happy with, I have to say. But I also realise that this is an exercise at the end of course for a university and not my 'big work' if ever such a thing were to materialise.  It has been a stepping stone and I have learnt from it, but I must end this module and make a decision about which one to do next.  So that is how I am going to end it otherwise I could think about what to do forever.  It is quite hard to let go of for some reason.

I have not used any words with the images (following feedback I have now used words although am still not entirely happy with them at all).  I would like them (the images) to speak for themselves.  I have not put them into a book here (although I have prepared one if that is recommended - which it was and so am now supplying that along with the blog for submission).  I think that might detract from the images and make the exercise about something other than the story I hope they tell.

I chose black and white because there is a type of crystalisation in the images, a freezing of time, which feels more frozen without colour.  The colour edit I nearly used seems far more vibrant.  I can almost hear the cicadas and the silent buzzing or humming of the empty spaces as I went about photographing them.  But I don't get that in black and white.  By removing the colour I feel like I have removed the life and left only shadows and impressions.  I know of course this is all in my own perception and interpretation but that is how it felt.  I might actually prefer the colour edit personally, but the one I'm submitting expands on the type of work I'm submitting for assessment.

The blog post about Family Frames is the main supporting material although all the other links and reviews on the A5 entry page have salient points in too.  However, I have linked back to posts on this page which I hope expand on ideas I've introduced in these paragraphs.  I have deliberately tried to keep this entry as clear and clean as possible, speaking with my own voice and using my own words.

Images can be found here and will need a password which will be supplied to Andrew Conroy and the assessors.  I am happy as I say to share this link with the small number of fellow students whom I have met on study visits, privately or at the Thames Valley meet.  Please email me if you are interested.

Demonstration of technical skills
I am more adept in Lightroom than I am with a camera but that is changing the more I work and get to grips with equipment.  I panic less when things don't go right and find ways to fix them or use alternative methods.  I like to experiment with composition and enjoy looking at other photographers to find inventive ways of composing that challenge the run of the mill.  Sometimes I'm successful with this and other times less so.  At this point the willingness to experiment is a good thing I think.

Quality of outcome
I think some of the photographs demonstrate a good degree of lighting, light use, composition, and story telling.  There is a mood in the series that is translated effectively.  I am torn within myself about using other ways of presenting the images and am still thinking about how I might do this more creatively. I know other students put things in films and on YouTube for instance.  It's very effective and I know works well.  But I'm wary of it - content rather than form is more important to me at this stage.  But I also think about how music and filmic editing can manipulate emotion and I think I'd hesitate to go down that route - a possible mawkishness is not what I'm after with these images.  I also think about Brecht and how he wanted his audience to think rather than be overwhelmed with emotion.  I do not know whether or not to present the Blurb book (which I have prepared) for assessment or to simply submit the online images. I need to think about how I present all the sets from TAOP in a cohesive package.

Demonstration of creativity
I feel like the the last series, on the surface at any rate, looks the least 'creative' in comparison to A3 &A4, but only because it is a quieter, less showy set of images.  I do feel my 'voice' has developed and continues to do so.  I look forward to finding more creative and imaginative ways of working, perhaps playing with some of the ideas I've discovered by looking at other photographers over the course.

I am certain my context and reflection is of a high standard and enjoy this part of the course very much.  I look forward to developing these skills as I take on another module and my youngest son starts school, freeing up more time.  I suspect my research needs to develop some sort of academic rigour but that will come the higher up the levels I go.  I could have written about more influences such as Ray's a Laugh for instance but at the time of writing this I have not.  Perhaps by the time I submit for assessment I will have done but I needed to draw a line under this and think about moving on at some point.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich & Joao Silva

I read The Bang Bang Club quite a few years ago, long before I became interested in photography, and found it utterly compelling although harrowing.  The fact that I had grown up in SA where most of it takes place, and that the photographers worked at The Star newspaper where my mother and step-father were journalists might have made the book fascinating in itself but it is also well written and extremely moving.

I read it again last year (while I was probably meant to be reading the dreaded Sontag book).  I am writing about it now because I think it raises several important points about ethics of, and voyeurism in, photography.

The Bang Bang Club is written by surviving members of a group of photographers who worked during the troubling and extremely violent years following Nelson Mandela's release from prison and before he became president.  We left SA in 1986 when I was 16 and Mandela hadn't yet been released; not until 1990. Those intervening four years and the ones after his release saw the violence escalate to barbaric levels. However, it had certainly started in force before we left.  I do remember hearing about the necklacing, where someone is put inside a tyre filled with fuel and burnt alive when I was a young teenager living in Jo'burg.  The violence was undoubtably one of the things that made us return to the UK.

Because of my mother's job, I knew in the years before we left that much was not reported fully or at all.  The Star and other centre and left wing papers got around restrictions imposed by the ruling National Party by leaving huge gaps across newspapers where column inches should have contained text and images, but instead contained just a few words along the lines of 'due to the State of Emergency we cannot print this story/photograph' or, simply, 'This article has been censored'.  The lack of information, the absence of print, said a great deal, not only about the violence but also about the government and what the editors of those newspapers thought about the censorship.

Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silver worked at a time in SA when the boundaries of a didactic and authoritarian state were being violently dismantled.  They witnessed and photographed some shocking things, young people murdered by angry mobs using machetes, necklacing as well as shootings.  They did not hold back from photographing the most disturbing scenes, and the book looks at the opposing tensions they all felt in their jobs.  They wanted to record what was going on, not only the sickening treatment of the black population but also the fighting between the Xhosa and Zulu factions.

In order to fulfil these assignments they all had to find ways of coping.  Emotional detachment, propped up with alcohol and drugs led to problems for each of them.  But the most tragic was Kevin Carter who shortly after receiving a Pulitzer prize for his photograph of a vulture sitting behind a starving child committed suicide.  I have to say when I look at photographs of him I imagine I see the frailty in his expression and gestures, and his eventual suicide does not seem surprising given the trauma photographing such scenes must have had on all of them.  Not only were they witness to truly shocking scenes, they each had to come to terms with the fact they had witnessed these things without intervening, choosing instead to take photographs.

The moral implications are are not clear cut.  It was of course imperative the world outside of Soweto and other townships were aware of what was going on and photography has the capacity to share stories at a very immediate and visceral level. There is something about images being pre-verbal, and maybe therefore capable of 'speaking' to our emotions in a very different way to words (sure there is a dissertation in that sentence but I'll have to expand another time).  And had anyone intervened they would very likely have been killed. As it was each of them risked their lives each time they ventured out, some were indeed shot and recovered, but Ken Oosterbroek was shot dead in a gun battle shortly before Carter's suicide.  So, although the moral implications might be difficult, there is no denying their immense bravery in telling stories about atrocities and telling them from as close to the centre of it all as you can be.

The authors explore this dilemma, about how complicit they were by the fact they were present at all, choosing to photograph what was going on.  I am not sure that even they are always a hundred percent convinced by their arguments. "I was one of the circle of killers, shooting with a wide-angle lens just an arm's length away, much too close", says Marinovich when describing one of his first encounters with gang murder close-up, and "I was as aware of what I was doing as a photographer as I was of the scent of fresh blood, and the stench of sweat from the men next to me."

But the authors also say that if the pictures of atrocities exist they should be seen. "To censor pictures that are too strong, indecent or obscene was to make decisions for the reader that was not theirs to make."

In the end photographers have to try to live with themselves, whatever they choose to shoot. Kevin Carter describes how the trauma affected him and the authors agree they all felt the same at times.

"I suffer depression from what I see and experience nightmares.  I feel alienated from 'normal' people, including my family.  I find myself unable to relate or engage in frivolous conversation.  The shutters come down and I recede into a dark place with dark images of blood and death in godforsaken dusty places."

Carter's image of the little girl and the vulture caused uproar as well as praise.  People wanted to know what happened to the child, why had he not helped, how could he have taken a photograph of a child suffering like that rather than dropped his camera and run to pick her up, did the vulture take the child.  He gave vague and contradictory answers.  The reality is he had been working, looking for a story, and Marinovitch describes a probable quotidian and emotionally detached scenario that took place.  All those questions by all accounts put an incredible amount of pressure on a man who had always struggled mentally.  The intense focus on him and his photograph, the emotional difficulties witnessing so much extreme violence must have caused him, cannabis (or daga as it is know in SA) and cocaine all contributed to eventual serious clinical depression.  After he lost some rolls of film for Time magazine he was found dead with a pipe leading from his exhaust to the inside of his car.

Ultimately the elections took place and the four journalists had documented, at enormous cost to themselves, an incredibly important process where human beings were as vile as they can possibly be to each other.  You can see some of the images Kevin Carter photographed here, including the first photograph of a necklace killing which is so shocking and utterly horrifying to think about.  It is of course critical that these actions by humans against other humans are recorded and shared.  Who does it though and how is another matter.

The book is really worth reading whether you're interested in photography, journalism, even South African history or not.  It is written with an admirable honesty and sense of humility, a retelling of a moment that must have been extraordinarily painful to revisit at times.

Quotes from The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich & Joao Silva Random House Books 2001