Before submitting the assignment to my tutor I asked other OCA students to review and comment on the images and captions. I was pleased to get a lot of very insightful, thought-provoking (and understandably sometimes contradictory) comments. These are summarised anonymously below, and I’ve noted my response.
To save flicking backwards and forwards, I’ll repeat the set of images here:
The following are in order of receipt – so some comments refer to earlier versions that have since been tweaked. Some are very slightly edited to remove extraneous comments or identifying information.
“Just had a quick look and I’m wondering why you have those two shots together with their captions underneath as, to me, it kind of jars with the rest of the images. I may be missing something mind!
I like the images btw I think its a strong set and an interesting take on the subject. I really like that window shot – great symbolism.
One more minor point – on the Leslie shot where she’s holding her hand up there’s a blue edging – I assume that’s the lighting? If it is, it may worth mentioning to pre-empt any tutor criticism?”
- I put images 7 and 8 together in the book layout as they are counterparts taken a few minutes apart: one showing the ‘outside looking in’ view and the other from the inside – I felt the juxtaposition was a good metaphor for the overall project
- I removed the blue fringing on 3
“I belong to a church similar to this and was interested how you might approach it. I think the images are of high quality although I thought that No 2, 4, 6 and 9 were cliched and less successful than 1,3,7,8,11,12. For example the Hope one and the last one were original and more complex in reading.
I read your prep. The difficulty I think is about your intention and your connection to your images. Are they about community or about diversity and difference or challenging that stereotype of what a church is? I did also think that the denotive text in the slideshow was too much and too literal. Maybe ‘hope’ is enough text for one of the images – maybe less and a more interpretive label for the images would bring your message home more.
I also wondered about scale. The tutors love variability. Maybe a cropped image of the word ‘hope’ tight to view through the glass would add variability.”
- Very interesting to get a view from a churchgoer and to see which images came across as cliched
- The captioning point is valid: they were too wordy and literal – subsequently edited down
“Contextualisation is critical. Firstly you state you are a ‘lapsed’ catholic i.e. imbued with a perspective that you state is lapsed and then in the next para’ you talk of an ‘other’ Christian perspective. These words tend to suggest a distancing yet that is contradicted somewhat by the imagery – I shall come back to this.
The images themselves are technically competent, sharp, bright (at least on my iPad – which makes most things quite sharp and bright!). I tried the slideshow and then looked at the images as a set, in the way they appeared on screen. My thoughts about the book layout echo what I thought about the images. I couldn’t discern a narrative flow. The issue with books is that there is a convention (Western) that the narrative ‘flows’ from the beginning (page 1) to the end (last page). The book’s sub-title “inside an Elim Pentecostal Church” denoting that there is more than one Pentecostal Church, so it is clearly a mediated version of what Elim has to offer in the range and diversity of Pentecostal Churches.
You say in your introduction you are interested in what a church does with its own community, and also how it reaches out and supports the wider local community. Well it is clear that this church community is an insular one. The imagery is contained within its walls, maybe four square walls, maybe not. However the presence of the ‘wider local community’ is noted by its absence. The ‘outside’ is witnessed by (very) few glimpses through the windows. This visual perspective is amplified by the need for secrecy in password protection &c.
The book: Like the slideshow I found the layout confusing – you say in your reflection that it is a “loose narrative” – well I think that the captions exacerbate this notion. As students of Photography we are destined to develop a visual language, your captions stifle the interpretation of your imagery by telling the viewer what it is they are witnessing, negating the need for an image. If you took the images away, the words would work better on their own to portray (paint if you like) a picture of what goes on in the closed community of one of the Pentecostal Church’s in Elim.
The standout image though for me is Katie in the kitchen. Those gloves protecting her from whomever she might meet – scary
What I would say is that I think this is a very difficult assignment to complete satisfactorily. I had a lot of issues when I attempted it.”
- The most critical review and the most thought-provoking
- This brought home to my the importance of the context that the viewer brings to the work, and to what extent I need to clarify my own context (this is a dilemma)
- My intention was to depict the church as being more open and inclusive than I had expected, but some of the images can be read in the opposite way
- Specifically different interpretation of symbolism is possible based on the viewer context – in image 6 I saw gloves as a sign of ‘purity’ but the reviewer saw ‘protection’ – fascinating!
- So this critique was a sobering reminder that I’m not always 100% successful at getting my message across
- The dilemma alluded to above is this: I want to be able to properly contextualise the images to steer the interpretation, yet I accept that overly-wordy captions are stifling the interpretation
- I tried to deal with this with a combination of heavily editing the captions (to be less descriptive) and refining the words in the introductory text
“I’ve just read your assignment, its incredibly comprehensive but by no means boring. I read every word, it was quite encapsulating. As a general statement I have to say you smashed it. My personal view on religious organisations is that they’re quite closed off to people on the outside. This may be because I want to see inside and I don’t have the opportunity but you made it happen for yourself and it’s a brave thing to do.
It’s clear the amount of work you’ve put into this assignment I’m now thinking I need to stop being so lazy! Your first image is so well placed and so poignant it could tell the story in one photograph. I think its clever to use this as your first image and a striking one it is. You only ever think of a minister needing a bible but here you’ve shown a bible and an iPad next to each other and the tools needed to lead a modern day religious talk. When I saw it, I immediately thought of how controversial the old testament seems against the new testament but it got me thinking……is technology the even newer testament? Anyway, I digress. Its obvious I think your work is brilliant but no work comes with a full critique.
If I could change one thing it would be image 3, expression. It bothered me when I saw it and it still bothers me now in that I want to see the ladies face. I want to see her facial expression to know what the arm in the air means. Is she putting her hand up to answer a question. Is she reaching out to god physically because thats how she feels on the inside? Is it part of dancing? This may stand out for me because its something I’ve been working hard to overcome and that is when taking photographs, I may know whats going on but the viewer doesn’t. Getting this across in my work has been incredibly important to me. So for image 3 you have called it expression but I don’t see any (to put it bluntly).
On the flip side every other image represents its meaning in abundance. The image with Katie serving a drink, I would like to have seen a different angle with more of a view of the cakes as it thought she was serving drinks at a meeting rather than it being an actual cafe. Otherwise Rob, I cannot fault it. Its a great piece of work you should be incredibly proud of. I hope I’ve been of some help.”
- Image 3 obscuring the face was a deliberate decision – I had other options but felt this was most striking
- In a wider sense I’m becoming interested in the use of hands in photographs, as a secondary signifier of expression (after the face) – might look at this for my critical review assignment
“You’ve obviously been very clear about what you wanted to portray and the book is well-laid out.
There’s something slightly odd about no. 6 – looks like a double exposure or something around the young woman’s middle.
I was looking as well to see if I could see this was a church/church activities without needing to read text and the clues are there in quite a few of them which I liked (I’m on a constant look out for how text adds or enhances or where the images are illustrations for the text).
Good cover on the book and a very apt choice.”
- Again on the viewer interpretation point: different feedback on the clarity of intent and on the layout of the book
- Glad to see that ‘church activity’ is coming through – a major challenge with the subject matter was the lack of obvious religious imagery (robes, crucifix, altar, pulpit etc)
- The optical illusion in 6 is a reflection – I haven’t tried to fix it but may need to mention it to the tutor
“Had a look through your assignment pics. Great idea and what I really like is how a narrative develops, moving from ‘inside’ (church) activities to ‘outside’ more community activities.
Para 2: you may want to refer to ‘practising Christians’ rather than ‘Christians’? – I consider myself a Christian (as opposed to Muslim, Hindu etc) but can’t remember the last time I went to church – and next time will probably be in a box.
Para 3: you write ‘but rather finding out what a church does apart from the obvious activities that spring to mind, i.e. holding a service on a Sunday’ however the first three photos (25% of the submission) and possibly even nr 4 , are of holding a service on a Sunday!
But I liked the write up overall – think it is informative yet succinct and deals with what the brief is asking for.
Nrs 1 – 3 – as above re Sunday service
Sorry, but nr 3 immediately made me think of ‘Heil Hitler’ – not sure if this is exactly what you are after…
Nr 4 – to me doesn’t really have a sense of community or of an informal service- just two guys in a quiet coffee shop (could well be empty – no-one else queuing etc) – but the guy’s expression is priceless
Really like nrs 7, (my favourite overall) 8 & 9 as they do give a feel of community. So does nr 6 although the expression is rather posed. Also like 10 & 11 as tell of the outside work that the church does. Re nr 9 you might want to say where Katie and friends are – presumably not in Starbucks lol.
First of all, must tell you that I’ve never put a book together …
Your narrative runs from inside (the church) to outside (helping in the community) which I thinks works really well. However I would move nr 12 to somewhere else as to me this is an ‘inside’ image and maybe move nr 6 (as more ‘outside’ community) nearer the end with the food bank and support service images. Any more ‘outside’ images with the wider community?
Hope this helps and doesn’t come across as too negative – I do think you are on to a good idea here.”
- Good feedback on the words – now edited for clarity
- Image 3 and the Nazi salute problem – funnily enough Lesley the subject said the same thing! but with a smile :-) … it did make me look at alternative shots but the ones where there were multiple people with their hands in the air looked even more ‘Nuremberg Rally’ so I stuck with the solo shot of Lesley – I did change the caption to a more succinct ‘Worshipping the Lord’ which I hope helps
- 4 was a segue into the following shot and a proper intro to Andy – I edited the caption
- Sequencing: this was tricky… showing more of the wider community interaction was problematic for confidentiality reasons (debt advice, food banks) and so instead I closed with the ‘recruitment’ image – to be blunt the objective of the church is to expand its membership and spread its message
“I really enjoyed looking at these and I loved the colours and light. Not easy environments to work in I imagine but your colours sing. Please find comments below, please bear in mind that I’m still very new to this!
1 Love this – great contrast of old and new on the lectern and that nice feeling that something is going to happen.
2 Yes, this will be familiar to a lot of people, I like how it includes the “happy/clappy band thing” don’t quote me on that! and a room full of older people learning about love, sex and marriage.
3 Nice composition, nice negative space and I love the purple curtain (purple’s a great colour for religious references!) I did wonder if she was wanting to ask a question until I read the caption.
4 This one didn’t do as much for me but I like bits of it a lot. Is there a blown highlight partway down his spine? Interesting portrait.
5 I liked this one, it reminded me of my youthful church encounters (when my parents were still agnostic). The only thing I’d change would be to see if I could lose the partial figure in the grey top in the lower RH corner.
6 Struggling with this one a bit too, can’t decide if I prefer it to 4 or not… 4 feels more intimate
7 LOVE this one. Those little glimpses are great and it makes me wonder what those people are hoping for.
8 Nice sense of community here!
9 I like this, one of the stronger coffee shots I think. Nice feeling of group and nice that it’s younger women.
10 I didn’t get this fully – are they selling refreshments? She looks really happy to be doing it, which is lovely.
11 Really interesting spin on Food Banks. I think it could work well if you could include a shot of some of the actual food too – if it’s like our foodbanks then the contents will be quite basic and a good contrast to the “Not Just any food bank….” suggested by the M&S bag.
12 – this made me think a bit. Was it in the empty hall?
I hope that you can find something useful here. Really impressed that you took this on. Churches do so much work and it’s generally unrecognised.”
- A very thorough review!
- Blown highlight on 4 – once I spotted this it bugged me enough to clone it out
- Partial figure in 5 – couldn’t remove without spoiling the framing of the audience members top right, but I did manage to darken to de-emphasise
- Image 10 – it’s not obvious exactly what she’s doing but I think that’s OK, it’s mainly an unposed portrait to represent volunteers
- Image 12 – it does look empty but I kept in the shadow of an audience member bottom right to denote the audience
“I really like the assignment. You have shown a real sense of community there. The only thing I’d change perhaps is the caption on #9. With the other photos you have provided a bit of an explanatory caption, but not on this one. Really like the images too.”
- Good that the sense of community comes through
- Captions! I spent a lot of time refining these and hope I landed on the right side of adding value without being over-literal :-)
Thanks very much to all that contributed – much appreciated!