Assignment 2: Running on Empty [original]

This is the original version of the assignment as submitted to my tutor. The reworked final version for assessment is here.

About the work

In the UK 13.2 million people, or 21% of the population, live in ‘relative poverty’, meaning household income less than 60% of national average (so less than £272 per week)1. Some suffer greater hardships than others.

One indicator of extreme poverty is ‘food poverty’ – the inability to consistently buy adequate and nutritious food. Based on food bank usage data it has been estimated that around 2 million people in the UK have experienced acute food poverty in the last year.2

These are the people stuck on level one of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – expending all their energy focusing on the absolute fundamentals of physiological survival.

This series uses a surreal treasure hunt metaphor to examine the psychological aspects of food poverty – the state of mind of someone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from. It combines the contents of a three-day emergency food parcel with a journey through a suburban landscape.

(the more detailed Statement of Intent is in a previous post)


Full size images and a contact sheet are available here.

Sample prints have been sent to the tutor.

Click on the first image to start a slideshow.

Running on Empty


  • Vertical letterbox format was chosen for the first nine images to accentuate the feeling of ‘tunnel vision’
    • I wanted to evoke the sensation of a narrowing of focus, of an inability to concern oneself with matters beyond the basics of survival, of an emptiness beyond this single-mindedness
    • I experimented with including a defocused background to place the image in a context, albeit an unclear one – but abandoned this for the simplicity of the white background
    • I reverted to a regular format for the final image to signify a resolution to the narrative
  • Most of the first nine images were shot from a particular vantage point, with a diminishing perspective to imply the continuing journey
    • The final image was shot head on to imply reaching a destination
  • In some cases I tried to match the foodstuff to the location in some way, e.g.:
    • The instant mash was flat so lent itself to the car windscreen
    • The pasta sauce jar was in a slightly open door (‘ajar’)
    • The beans against a similarly coloured background
    • The fruit and fruit juice in a tree
    • The food bank image connoted a welcome with the component parts of a cup of tea and biscuits


Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • Materials: I felt it important to use actual foodstuffs as props rather than allude to hunger in a more abstract way, and using the actual contents of a three-day emergency food parcel grounded the subject matter in reality
  • Techniques: I printed on regular photographic paper but with a deliberate use of negative space to form a vertical letterbox format as explained in the notes above
  • Observational skills: the main way in which I needed to demonstrate observation was the sourcing of locations (see notes above)
  • Visual awareness: I was aiming for a jarring juxtaposition of real (colour, sharp street scenes) and surreal (the introduction of the foodstuff)
  • Design and compositional skills: I used compositional techniques, largely around vantage point and perspective, to support my intent (as described in notes above); post-processing was a challenge; I had variations of colour / b&w, white / blurred background, text / no text – until I settled on the simplicity of colour images on white background and no text

Quality of outcome:

  • Content: once I decided on the basic concept (after much thought and experimentation) the content was a case of matching the props to the locations in a visually interesting way
  • Application of knowledge: of all the reading in this section I believe the elements that made the most impression on me were the artistic styles, notably surrealism – which I realised can be conceptual surrealism rather than melting clocks or mad Photoshoppery
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: the vertical letterbox format is a very important part of the presentation, as explained in notes above
  • Discernment: as planning and pre-visualisation played such a major role in this assignment there was not the usual challenge of selecting images from a long list; so unusually for me the selection decisions were made in advance and I only shot what I knew I would use
  • Conceptualisation of thoughts: this is by far the most pre-planned and pre-visualised assignment I’ve undertaken, and the one with the most overt conceptual intent
  • Communication of ideas: I think I’ve succeeded in getting over my intended message, and have had peer review comments that reassured me that the execution has ‘worked’ as intended to communicate the underlying concept

Demonstration of creativity:

  • Imagination: as noted, I believe I’ve demonstrated a certain amount of imagination in the core concept of the set i.e. the surreal introduction of packaged food into a suburban landscape
  • Experimentation: within the overall conceptual framework I experimented throughout the planning and post-processing stages
  • Invention: I’m not claiming to have invented the ‘object in unexpected place’ trope but I hope I’ve shown some inventiveness in the specific executions (matching props to locations etc)
  • Development of personal voice: this is an interesting one actually; one aspect of this is very much part of my developing voice – I like projects where I can depict an internal state of mind – but in another sense the planning and pre-visualisation is not my usual way or working (I’m usually more organic: think-shoot-refine-shoot-select etc)


  • Reflection: I’ve found this section and this assignment fascinating in terms of using photography as art, from the point of view of an artist with an intent in mind – I used to have an aversion to describing myself as an aspiring artist but much less so after this assignment
  • Research: a couple of visual influences came from specific photographers in my research: Robin Maddock’s III for its use of everyday objects in surreal urban settings, and Berenice Abbot for her use of vertical letterbox format (thanks to fellow student Carol Street for the pointer); the use of foodstuffs as props in projects about food poverty was partly inspired by the excellent Stefen Chow project The Poverty Line that Helen my tutor suggested I look at
  • Critical thinking: though not on the reading list, one excellent book about art put me in the right frame of mind about art photography throughout this section and this assignment: Hugh Moss’ The Art of Understanding Art (2015); I also found much of use in reliable set texts such as Bate (2009), Wells (2009) and Clarke (1997) – particularly around conceptual art

In summary, I’m pleased with the way the assignment worked out despite being somewhat out of my comfort zone, and I feel like I’ve expanded my photographic horizons. The end result closely matched my pre-visualisations and I believe that my concept has been successfully communicated.


1 UK Government Briefing Paper No. 7096, 6 November 2015 “Poverty in the UK: Statistics”

2 In April 2016 the UK’s biggest food bank network, Trussell Trust, reported that its 424 centres provided emergency three-day food parcels to feed 1,109,309 people in the previous year. It’s estimated that Trussell Trust accounts for just under half of UK food banks. Whilst accurate data is difficult to calculate, a fair assumption is that doubling Trussell’s data might arrive at a realistic estimate.

UK Parliament: Poverty in the UK (accessed 11/04/2016)

Food Bank Usage (accessed 28/04/2016)

Berenice Abbott (accessed 26/04/2016)

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (accessed 14/04/2016)

The Poverty Line (accessed 14/04/2016)

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. London: Laurence King.

Moss, H. (2015) The Art of Understanding Art: A New Perspective. UK: Profile Books.

Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a Critical Introduction (4th ed). Abingdon: Routledge.


7 thoughts on “Assignment 2: Running on Empty [original]

  1. Judy Bach 29 April 2016 / 13:50

    Well done , an interesting approach to highlight what has sadly become a lifeline for those living in poverty .

    Liked by 1 person

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