Assignment 1: initial thoughts

I’ve been thinking about Assignment 1 on and off all the way through the first section of the course and I think now’s the time to get some of these thoughts down in writing.

I’m going to reproduce the text from the brief here, with my own emphasis and comments. I will hopefully find this useful to refer back to! In the past I have been known to drift off the brief somewhat (sometimes this turns out OK, sometimes less so…).

Produce a set of 12 images in your own style that incorporate documentary values.

The first key word appears early: style.

Before closely reading this brief my assumption was that this assignment would necessitate a pretty ‘straight’ documentary style. Much (not all) of the preceding reading and research is predicated on what I consider to be a classic documentary style: neutral, ‘truthful’, objective – recording what is in front of the camera and letting the subject do the talking. No fancy photographic technique.

However, here I interpret that the work can (should?) step outside such straight documentary stylistic constraints and incorporate an element of personal style – which I read as including a distinctive visual style and/or photographic techniques?

I will come back to this question as I have unresolved questions on style…

Base your images on an issue or subject that you feel needs attention or which you already support. The subject can be anything you like provided that the cause you choose can benefit from your work in some way.

Two subjects came to mind early on:

  1. I’ve recently started volunteering for a local food bank
  2. I live in a town with a high population of senior citizens, which has started me thinking about how older people are represented and perceived in today’s society

As interesting as it could be, the former is however very problematic as a project subject: there is a significant degree of sensitivity around the privacy of users of a food bank charity, as these are often the most vulnerable members of the community and deserve their dignity. As volunteers we are expected to uphold high standards including signing confidentiality agreements, assuring anonymity of clients and so on. So whilst I do feel passionate about the subject in itself, I do not feel morally entitled to exploit the people in question for a photography assignment. This is not to say I never will – at some point in the future it might become more appropriate/acceptable for me to bring my photography study into the volunteering environment, but not right now.

The latter subject is less politically/morally charged and so may be easier to engage with; on the other hand, the message is potentially less obvious, more vague? (for now at least). It may take more imagination to make it an engaging set of images.

Right now I am focusing on the latter idea: the representation of older people in society.

Think about gesture, pose, setting and the inferred meaning or message that your work gives to the viewer (denotation and connotation).

I’ll come back to this once I’m closer to actually shooting. I’m slightly wary of over-planning this upfront as it risks taking too strong an ‘angle’, and the whole work could be influenced by a preconceived set of ideas. A more ‘pure’ documentary approach would be to observe rather than impose a message.

Explain the values that each image has, why it is of value and to whom, and how it may be of benefit to either a group of individuals or perhaps an organisation or charity.

Maybe I’m overanalysing, but I’m seeing similar but different words here, and I need to be clearer of the context: values (plural) implies principles, whereas of value (singular) implies of worth. Including both these in the same sentence is confusing me slightly. But I shall aim to keep both in mind while planning, shooting and selecting my images.

Depending on your choice of subject, you may wish to contact an organisation and gain permission to work in an area that would normally be off limits to photographers.

I have contacted the local Royal Voluntary Society, which does a lot of work with the elderly, to request access to one of their centres, to observe their volunteers and their users/clients. I’m awaiting their reply.

Don’t be deterred if your chosen subject been done before – you may be able to introduce a new slant that no-one else has brought to the subject.

Oh, I’m quite sure it has…! Not going to stress over that.

Above all, this assignment calls for style and you’ll need to think carefully about this before you start work. Show how you’ve tested different approaches and finalised an approach and photographic style that you feel is the foundation for your future practice in social documentary.

Now, this is where I start to have concerns. The word style comes up again. I do have a couple of distinct approaches in mind, one of which is more-or-less straight documentary, while the other is more conceptual/stylised. More on this in a future blog post.

The ‘think carefully about this before you start work‘ part concerns me. My preferred way of working (followed for most of the assignments in my last course, Context & Narrative) is to start shooting with a reasonably broad idea in mind, review the first one or two batches of images and see if a thread, or a theme, or a narrative is forming – then continue shooting with this in mind, honing as I go along.

Finally, the ‘foundation for your future practice‘ bit also bothers me a little. I have no idea what my future practice in social documentary might be like – I intend to do, but haven’t started, the Documentary module as my other level 2 course. So such a statement of intent feels somewhat premature. I’m allowed to still be experimenting, right?

Your images must be sized up to be able to print with some quality at 16×12” 320 dpi. You’re free to work in black and white or colour.

I’m a little baffled by the specific size constraints, given that the nominal output format for this particular exercise is a book rather than gallery prints – but I’ll keep it in mind.

Enough for now – I’m going to drop my tutor a line and report progress so far, and ask her a bit of advice on the style question…


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