Assignment 5: Portrait Not Portrait [original]

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

This assignment is an oral presentation of just over 16 minutes on the subject of Portraiture as a Device in Documentary Photography.

As part of this assignment I’d like to do a Virtual Q&A, so please imagine you’ve seen me present this in a room and I’ve now asked if anyone has any questions. Have a think and put your virtual hand up by using the Leave a Reply form below.


Thank you.



34 thoughts on “Assignment 5: Portrait Not Portrait [original]

  1. Doug Bell 11 November 2016 / 11:40

    An interesting presentation. I struggled a few times with pronunciation but mainly my hearing problems and not being from the area. A few section intro pages were blank for a bit too long. Overall, I enjoyed it and have learnt from it. Tx


    • Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 11:56

      Thanks for the feedback! Happy to answer any questions on the presentation if you have any.


  2. Les 11 November 2016 / 12:14

    Hi Rob, very informative piece. I wonder if you can relate your research to the current “Selfie” culture and vernacular photography. Thinking of Images that are produced for social media that have more of a documentary portrait feel than a traditional portrait. Are these images a new variation of documentary portraiture?


    • Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 12:40

      Thanks. Selfies and social media are very interesting angles that I confess I hadn’t given too much thought in this context! I suppose I’d dissect the difference between a picture having a documentary ‘feel’ and having a documentary ‘intent’. I think inherently selfies generally fall into the category of being both ‘of’ and ‘about’ the person. If the publishing of a selfie has an objective to inform the viewer of something beyond a simple ‘this is what I look like right now’, then it might become a documentary portrait, in the context of a wider body of work? Interesting area though, food for thought. Thanks again.


  3. John276778 11 November 2016 / 14:03

    Firstly I thought the overall presentation, subject and narrative was extremely well done, you should be very pleased with this.
    I thought there were times when the images could have entered the frame a little earlier as you seemed to want to introduce each section, but that had me wanting to see the images/imagery so maybe that was your intention. But I had the slight sense that you didn’t trust the viewer to not move on, that you wanted the viewer to maintain pace with your oral presentation. It is a conundrum and the conflict is an interesting one.
    Coming back to the “viewer” I have to say that I felt included in the conversation – maybe it was that visual technique about holding back… – and that inclusion became very alluring – that thing Ansel Adams said about a photograph, that “there’s always two people involved… the photographer and the viewer.” (three if it’s a portrait!).
    I felt the narrative jumps made sense. It is generally difficult when covering such a wide subject to make the ‘jump-cuts’ seem sensical – perhaps especially in a short presentation such as this, but I never felt as if they were stilted or forced which suggests to me that the image choices were well judged as well as your contextualisation. Another way of saying this is that I didn’t feel you used either “your top ten” or images that have become traditional fare for inclusion.
    And I really think I gained something by viewing it, so thank you.


    • Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 14:55

      Thanks very much for this John, I always welcome your comments. I played around with bringing the images into frame at the very start of each section but in the end felt that if there wasn’t an example image to talk about, one being on the screen might be a potential distraction from the words. I could nip those intros up a little though I think. Glad that you describe it as a ‘conversation’ as I did want the viewer to feel engaged in the content – I guess there’s a parallel there with photography…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Catherine 11 November 2016 / 14:57

    A very professional presentation, with excellent examples, e.g. the difference between metonymy and metaphor in portraiture. The time passed quickly.

    I was interested in your statements regarding Diane Arbus and Richard Billingham. the photographs are taken from a similar distance. It seems well-known that Arbus was creating self-portraits with her ‘Freaks’ (hate the word) but what makes you think that Billingham is distancing himself?
    Also, I have this continuing query regarding the smile in portraiture. I notice that you have included two or three where subjects are smiling. Do you have any particular views on this?


    • Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 15:30

      Thank you. Two very good questions there!

      My interpretation that Billingham was distancing himself comes from my observation he seemed to shoot (or at least to select for publication) a lot of images that depict his family unsympathetically in one way or another; I’m not saying he doesn’t/didn’t *like* his family, just that he was fine in portraying them negatively. He was self-aware enough to realise what aspects of his family’s behaviour were going to make interesting photographs, and felt little need to ‘protect’ them from looking bad.

      I compared Billingham directly to Goldin rather than Arbus. Goldin’s work has more of an undercurrent of celebration and mutuality. I guess it might be the old maxim ‘you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family’…?

      To your question about smiling: most of the historic and a few of the contemporary examples look to me as though the photographer has instructed the subject *not* to smile, or selected the most neutral shot taken, as the person is intended to be a signifier rather than an individual with their own character or emotions. I think in the examples I’ve used where people are smiling (e.g. the Zed Nelson fisherman) it’s a significant part of why these images are more engaging to me – you get a flash of the individual character.

      The flipside is that I think in other branches of portraiture when a subject is *instructed* to smile, that often comes across as false. So to me, a smile in a portrait only ‘works’ if it comes across as genuine. Hope that makes sense!


      • Catherine 11 November 2016 / 16:05

        Was it really fine or was he angry and channelling this into the series? Only Billingham knows I guess.

        Yes – it makes sense re the smile. Just had a though though what if I as a photographer behave in such a way or say something that makes my subject smile – then I’m going to have to be clear on what drove me to this.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 15:45

    [Comment from Clive White on the OCA Forum]

    Intelligent, comprehensive, well structured and presented. It was important to contextualise your own work within the history and culture of portrait photography and to relate how you hope it will inform your own progression. I find it very irksome when students write at length about other photographers work but make no connection to their own and just carry on doing the same old same old.

    To be incredibly nitpicking the slight echo on the audio was a little surprising to begin with in contrast to the very professional visuals but was soon normalised to my ear. In any future projects though it might be good to experiment with having the microphone closer.

    Overall though a convincing and enjoyable presentation with no longueurs, good job!


    • Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 15:46

      Thanks very much indeed, really appreciate the feedback. Audio was my downfall as I discovered that Apple helpfully removed the dedicated microphone jack from the recent iMacs. I had an external mic but nowhere to plug it into… I plan to rework the audio for final submission.


  6. Michael Colvin 11 November 2016 / 16:23

    A very enjoyable, informative and professional presentation. I was particularly impressed with the visual style of the presentation; the text, title sizing and placement of images looked clean and non-fussy. Your voice was clear and the whole presentation flowed well, moving between image and text. Well done!


    • Rob Townsend 11 November 2016 / 16:25

      Thanks very much, I enjoyed yours too! It was one of the ones I reviewed in advance and it made me raise my game :-)

      But ask me a question about the subject matter! Want more questions! :-)


  7. lynda512863 11 November 2016 / 19:04

    Rob, I really enjoyed this informative and extremely well thought out presentation. Very professional. It is actually very relevant to the IAP course – so thanks for that too! I found the pacing good and didn’t mind the delay in waiting for the images to appear as I think those slides act like the proverbial “pause” and it is good to have this time for words to sink in without photographic distraction.


  8. Jan 11 November 2016 / 19:16

    Hi Rob, I found that very interesting and very relevant to my documentary course and good eo see so many photographers I know. Lots of cross over points made :o) New terminology for me to look up…metonymy…

    As I am going through my Martha Rosler reading exercise – now the book has finally arrived – I found I was mulling over her points about how and why we ‘document’ people.

    I was trying to think of some questions for you so…

    1) Bearing in mind you have this pull towards charitable works and volunteers what do you think of her comments that ‘Charity is an argument for the preservation of wealth’? – that it is carried out mainly by the privileged to mollify the ‘deserving poor’?

    2) Bearing in mind the article was written a while ago how do you think, or do you think that Documentary photography has moved on from her ideas of it being ‘more comfortable in the company of moralism than wedded to a rhetoric’?

    3) In looking at your portraiture (obviously I haven’t seen them all) do you think that the direct gaze is the most effective, or do you think it is dependent on the intended visual discourse?

    4) Billingham’s photographs were never intended to be displayed as a body of work. They were snapshots taken for potential paintings whilst he studied art at college, therefore we have no idea what details he planned to include or remove from the final pieces. When shooting on location how conscious are you of placing your subject where YOU want them to be for example as to get a clutter free background etc rather than them being in their ‘natural habitat’ making it a more ‘realistic’ image.

    Hope that helps and they are the kind of questions you want/need



    • Rob Townsend 12 November 2016 / 13:49

      Thanks for a great set of questions! Yes, there is some crossover with the Documentary course (I’m doing that in parallel with G&M). And I recently did an essay comparing the use of metaphor and metonymy for that course, if you’re really interested…

      1) and 2) I read that Rosler essay last year and my abiding memory is of understanding her point but ultimately disagreeing – she is more cynical than me I think. The kind of documentary photography she described as being needed (at the end of the essay) has come about to one degree or another, I believe. Specifically looking at portraiture in documentary, I think the general trend is towards less condescending and more collaborative work. In a genre as broad as documentary photography there’s always going to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ practice, there’s always going to be some leaning towards moralism and some towards rhetoric – and an essay like hers necessarily generalises.

      However, in my own work I ultimately sidestep the question! As my interest is not in the subject matter of charities in terms of who they help, but rather who the helpers are. I’m fascinated by what people do, unpaid and in their own time, to the service of helping others in some way – as I think it gives an insight into human nature (which isn’t always as dark as Rosler suggests). And ‘voluntary’ doesn’t always mean ‘charity’. I’ve also covered protesters, enthusiast volunteers, people who’ve set up community projects etc. So it’s a slightly different angle to that which Rosler discusses, I think.

      3) I personally find the direct gaze can sometimes look a little false, and I try to catch moments where a more natural expression emerges, which sometimes means the subject is not addressing the camera. For me the sweet spot is that the subject knows I’m taking a photo of them, has consented to it, but is not taking instruction from me – if that makes sense. A documentary portrait is ‘effective’ for me if I think it gets across the message I’m trying to communicate with that person, whether it’s a direct gaze or not. By the same token I don’t necessarily think even a ‘traditional’ portrait needs a direct gaze, as long as it somehow gets across some aspect of that person’s character.

      4) I’m more of a ‘hands-off’ photographer when it comes to documentary photography and once I’ve got the general consent to shoot I try to just observe and capture what’s going on. If a scene is cluttered or distracting, at most I would shift my own vantage point rather than interfere with the scene. So I rarely do any ‘placing’ of subjects.

      Funny, I knew that Billingham started with his photos as the basis potential paintings, but hadn’t got as far as thinking about whether he would have excluded details. Interesting train of thought…

      Thanks again for the best set of questions so far :-)


  9. Jane 12 November 2016 / 12:05

    Hello Rob, first congratulations on a great presentation. I too like the overall look and feel and the choice of images works well with your intent. I also felt the pace worked for me with the slight pauses which allowed me to absorb and reflect before moving on. Although, if you had more minutes I would have been intrigued by more about you and your thoughts for the future.

    I have tried to come up with a question for you regarding the work of Lee Jeffries:

    His narrative and captions definitely elicit compassion and empathy. Could it not also be said however, that his images take the subject out of their surroundings and convey them as “noble savages” and engage us with “the other”? And that his treatment and style, the stark, almost caricature like portrayal in grainy black and white (i.e. his aesthetic choice) is far the more important element of these images? (it ended up as two questions!)

    I also wondered about the work of Chris de Bode and the re-balancing of power. He creates the dream for the children for one photoshoot and then presumably takes it all away again. How ethical is this and does this redress the balance or in fact increase it?


    • Rob Townsend 12 November 2016 / 14:05

      Thank you for watching it and commenting.

      I found the Lee Jeffries work interesting. I felt that (photographically) taking them out of their physical surroundings helped to focus on each subject as an individual and on their emotional state, rather than their living conditions. The aesthetic is double-edged I think – it does bring the sense of dark and heavy emotions that Jeffries talks about, but it also does border on cliché. I see what you mean about the ‘noble savage’ stereotyping. My main concern with the aesthetic is whether it starts to (subconsciously?) drive the work itself, as in: does Jeffries exaggerate the emotional state of some of the people he meets, in order to live up to the gloomy aesthetic style he has created? What does he do when he meets a reasonably cheerful homeless person?

      You could be right about the Chris de Bode work, maybe he only brings temporary change to the individuals. Or does he inspire them, change their ideals and behaviours after taking part in the photoshoot? The message I took away was one of ‘you can be whatever you want to be’, which is a very western ideal that might be a novel concept to previously troubled parts of the world. My take is that it redresses the balance of the photographer-subject relationship at the time of the photograph, but not necessarily the power relationship between developed and developing nations as a whole. As long as projects like this are ‘needed’, then there’s a power differential.

      Two excellent questions that open up the can of worms of ethics of documentary photography! A subject for another assignment maybe… :-/

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Rob Townsend 12 November 2016 / 14:13

    [Comment from Stéphanie dh on the OCA forum]

    Very informative presentation Rob. It is clear, the layout is neat, engaging and well structured.
    I really enjoyed your reflection about your own work at the end. I was wondering if in the last part, Future Plans, you’ll have time between now and assessment to introduce a few images too illustrating your ongoing projects and how you are already pushing your practice after the reflection that is this thorough presentation?


    • Rob Townsend 12 November 2016 / 14:13

      Merci! Yes, good point – I should aim to get in some of my subsequent work into the last part before submission. I have one major project to do on Documentary that might lend itself to a few portraits…


  11. Simon Chirgwin 12 November 2016 / 23:35

    I have a fundamental problem with digital slideshows which is that – like silent films shorn of musical accompaniment – they tend to start just to flow by without making me really look, Here there is an accompaniment (so it’s better in that respect) but there still seems to be a gap that could be bridged between the pictures and the speech. I have often wondered about adding an fx track with each picture being introduced by the sound of a slide projector advance being slid over and back might work well here in the same way that Sky football added a swoosh! effect as a quick dissolve went from live action into a replay, largely so the majority of their audience (who were expected to be watching in pubs) had an audio cue to direct their attention back to the screen…


    • Rob Townsend 13 November 2016 / 10:11

      Thanks – sound effects isn’t something I’d thought of before but will consider it for the rework.


  12. Rob Townsend 13 November 2016 / 10:17

    [Comment from Baronc on the OCA forum]

    I liked your descriptions of and the differentiation between portraiture and documentary. You were very nuanced and careful in your selection of words. To me that says you’ve taken the time to do the research and you know what you’re talking about. You’re also telling me something about photography and its place within wider culture, you’re discussing photography beyond the frame of the image.


  13. Judy Bach 13 November 2016 / 17:29

    Really well done Rob , a fascinating, thorough & well executed presentation. I find Boris Mikhailov’s imagery both fascinating and disturbing , I understand he has paid some of his subjects to pose for him , what are your thoughts on his practice ?


    • Rob Townsend 13 November 2016 / 20:28

      Thanks very much.

      Re Mikhailov, I’m really no fan of either his methods or his results! Yes, I also read that he paid some of his subjects and I don’t find this in the least bit ethical given how he then presents them. It’s exploitative in the extreme – almost poverty pornography. I do understand why he used these methods and what he is aiming to communicate, but the fact remains that he took advantage of, and debased, other human beings to make his point…

      Liked by 1 person

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