I had a lightbulb moment over the weekend.
So far I’ve found Gesture & Meaning to be quite frustrating in its fragmentary nature – it sometimes feels like it’s been compiled by multiple authors given a genre each, and the connections between the sections are minimal. I also felt that such a disjointed syllabus was getting in the way of me discovering my developing ‘personal voice’, something that I was hoping would become clearer as I moved through Level 2. The genre-hopping felt a little artificial, a little forced and I felt it was holding me back. My other Level 2 course Documentary feels more coherent and in line with my own developing practice.
My eureka moment came on a long countryside walk after an email exchange with my G&M tutor Helen.
The email conversation was about subject ideas for Assignment 5 (the oral presentation) and Assignment 6 (the critical review). Helen’s advice was to make sure both assignments relate in some way to my own developing practice. This (obvious and sensible) insight made me question why I had been considering doing my critical review on portraiture, given that I have no practical interest in taking portraits, only an academic interest in the viewing of other people’s work.
Framing the two final assignments in this context (of relativity to own practice) made me realise what I consider to be my own ‘style’, or preferred way of working. I came to the conclusion that my practice might be pretentiously described as ‘expressive documentary’.
By this I mean: I like to work with real life rather than pure imagination; I prefer to capture than to create; there’s a foundation of reality in everything that I do – but I find ‘pure’ (objective, deadpan, neutral, eye-witness) documentary to be a little dull. I like to find ways of expressing ‘truths’ that are visually interesting and thought-provoking rather than in-your-face.
On the revelatory Sunday afternoon walk I mentally ran through my four G&M assignments so far to look for a connecting thread, and I found one…
- Social Documentary assignment: I unsurprisingly used a traditional eye-witness documentary photography approach
- Fine Art assignment: I chose subject matter of social documentary origin (food poverty) but executed in a semi-surreal way
- Portrait assignment: I chose subject matter of social documentary origin (a voluntary group – OK, this is the most tenuous link…)
- Advertising assignment (w-i-p): I chose as subject matter a social ’cause’ in response to a recent event
The thread is now visible to me. I like to choose subjects of documentary interest, whatever the overall genre norms or assignment parameters are.
I was reminded of some reading that I’d done on the Documentary course, with a simple and memorable definition of documentary by the person credited with coining the term, John Grierson:
“the creative treatment of actuality” (Franklin 2016: 6, quoting Grierson 1933).
What I’m realising at the moment is that my area of interest lies in playing with the creative treatment part whilst respecting the underlying actuality.
So in fact, the fragmented nature of G&M has turned out to be a big part of helping me find my voice, in as much as I have aligned my work to a kind of ‘expressive documentary‘ practice, whatever the genre and brief have been. Moving out of my genre comfort zone has helped me refine what I really want to do, what subjects I want to cover, and how I really want to work.
A quietly revelatory weekend, then.
Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.