Whilst I tried to avoid any direct, conscious influences on this assignment – as it was a very personal project that I wanted to deliver in the way that felt right to me – I am aware that it exists in a context of related works and it is inevitable that some will have provided some inspiration to me.
In this post I look at such context and inspirations under four headings:
- Photographic responses to tragedies
- Artistic responses to the Nice attack specifically
- Concept of embedding realistic text in photographs
- Calendar design
Whilst there is a significant body of work built up over the years around the response to, of aftermath of, specific tragedies, I was more specifically interested in those that are in some way centred around the people impacted by such events – either in terms of honouring the direct victims or examining the impact on those left behind. My project is intended to be simultaneously a memorial to the dead and an expression of the emotions that the survivors and the bereaved might be going through.
My tutor Helen gave me a few pointers. Paul Fusco’s 1968 RFK Funeral Train series is perhaps a touchstone for this kind of photography.
It focuses on the mourners lining the route more than it does Robert Kennedy, and the movement of the train gives a motion blur to the images lends an air of bewildered sadness, whilst simultaneously speaking of the transience of life. It’s hard not to see the people mourning not so much the death of an individual but of an ideal, a potential future.
OCA student Stéphanie d’Hubert (who coincidentally commented on one of my preparatory posts for this assignment) did a photographic and video project The Crowd about her individual response to the Paris terror attacks in January and November 2015. It’s a very personal reaction to being away from her home country at the time of the attacks, as evidenced by the subtitle Je suis trop loin (I am too far away).
Stéphanie uses photos and video to communicate “the profound sense of disorientation and disconnection that ensued in the aftermath of these events”. It’s expressive, visually poetic and experimental. It is though a very different approach to the one I ended up taking. It’s good to see however the many different ways there are to react to events such as these.
These two examples both express the emotions of the bereaved, the left behind, the indirectly rather than directly affected. I wanted to dig further to find examples of work where the victims themselves are more prominently referenced.
Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder series (1988) came to mind. In this he does not name the victims of the murders but describes them using text from newspaper reporting of the time. Each image is about a particular murder, and the text description is key part of the photograph.
As an aside, one of the most powerful aspects of the presentation of the images is the deliberate use of white space around both the image and the text; it gives a sense of silence and thinking space that enhances the sensation of considering the death of an individual.
Faces of Srebrenica (2015–ongoing) is a collective project by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty to bring together photos of those killed in Srebrenica in the massacre of July 1995. So far photos of about 2,400 of the estimated 8,000 men and boys have been collected.
It’s an extremely simple but potent device. Each image is cropped to a headshot (with a few exceptions) and the name and age of each victim is given. It’s the accumulation of similar-but-different faces that gives this its power. One can simultaneously consider the scale of the massacre (and therefore the wiping out of a couple of generations of a community) and of the individual stories behind each picture, since these are predominantly edited from family snapshots donated to the project.
Responses to the Nice attack
There were (still are) a huge amount of memorial responses around the city itself, most of which are individual spontaneous expressions of grief (flowers, candles, toys etc) – in huge numbers though they form a kind of accumulated visual expression of public and private grief, almost sculptural in look and feel.
Some more intentionally ‘artistic’ works also started appearing:
The city’s official response was a pair of banners outside the mayor’s office listing the victims’ names.
Though very simple and without any particular artistic intent, it was the only act of memorial I saw that was built around the victims’ names en masse*. Looking back, I think seeing this is most likely what planted the seed of the idea of using the names in my project. I had seen individual names as parts of the huge public displays of grief, but this was where the scale of the attack really sunk in.
* EDIT: the Nice football team subsequently designed a commemorative shirt with the names of the victims formed into a heart:
Aside from the inclusion of names, the other thing I took from the public memorials was that I didn’t want to produce work that actually depicted these memorials themselves – I wanted to perform a kind of temporal shift to depict a future Nice where these memorials are no longer in sight but the victims are still being remembered.
I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with examples of where I’ve seen photographers manipulating images by introducing fake-but-realistic text into them. I’m sure I’ve seen projects like this (certainly advertising campaigns) but am really struggling to bring details of specific examples to mind… So I tried some research to come up with examples that I hadn’t seen before but illustrate that the concept isn’t entirely revolutionary. A fellow student suggested that some of Julian Calverley’s advertising work fits the description, although I think this is a little heavy-handed and I was looking for more subtle examples.
I did find Jenny Holzer’s 1990s Marquee images working in a similar visual style, but hers are examples of real-life text that she had placed there, then photographed – so a different execution, even if a similar outcome.
Taking a sideways look at this, one of my acknowledged inspirations for this idea was the work of Charley Murrell in Constructed Childhoods (2010), in as much as that used the device of inserting a realistic element (albeit imagery not text) into a scene that on closer inspection is proven to be a composited construct to make a point.
This is the kind of thing that I’ve been calling ‘magic realism’ (a term borrowed from literature) in a photographic context.
The last context in which I position this work is that of calendar design. To me this is the least important context, as I see my main set of six images first and foremost as a self-contained art project, and a calendar as second priority to meet the brief. I am however aware that calendars do have their own visual vernacular that I should either follow or knowingly subvert.
In terms of photographic imagery, calendars – especially those pertaining to places – have a distinctive look. They are technically high quality, free of blemishes or other distracting elements, often feature quite bright and saturated colours and are generally aesthetically pleasing – an idealised depiction of the place being portrayed.
I did try to follow these norms, generally speaking.
In terms of layout, the predominant style for a wall calendar is that in which the image and the month data are the same size, as per examples below:
However, I wanted as much as possible to downplay the calendar aspect of the presentation and focus on the imagery. Also, the brief asks for one page to cover two months, which led to odd potential layouts bearing in mind I wanted to keep a standard (landscape) ratio for my images, as they are first and foremost ‘scenes’. Arbitrarily cropping to a non-standard ratio in order to fit in the month text wasn’t a viable option.
So I made the decision to deploy a reasonably unorthodox (but not totally unknown) design approach of having the dates run in a linear style rather than the more normal tabular one.
This was an instance therefore where I acknowledged the design norms of the medium but decided to deliberately avoid some of them in order to better achieve my communication objectives.
RFK Funeral Train pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx (accessed 12/10/2016)
The Crowd (Je suis trop loin) stephaniedhlearninglog4.wordpress.com/…/assignment-5-the-crowd-je-suis-trop-loin (accessed 12/10/2016)
Sectarian Murder paulseawright.com/sectarian (accessed 12/10/2016)
Faces of Srebrenica rferl.org/a/27114531 (accessed 12/10/2016)
Julian Calverley http://www.juliancalverley.com/commissioned/ (accessed 12/10/2016)
Constructed Childhoods charleymurrell.wix.com/charley-murrell-photography (accessed 12/10/2016)
Jenny Holzer http://interiorator.com/jenny-holzer-marquees/ (accessed 14/12/2016)