Assignment 1: Not a Building

NOTE: this is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback from my tutor. The revisions are predominantly in the book layout and accompanying text.


About the work

“A church is not a building, it’s a community.”
– Andy Boxall, minister of Elim Ryedale Church

As a lapsed Catholic I haven’t been involved in a religious community for over 30 years. My perception of organised religion has been coloured by the negative images projected by mass media, from sectarian conflict through sexual abuse scandals to Islamic extremism. In our increasingly secular society it’s difficult to understand the appeal of organised religion, over and above personal faith.

In early 2016 I met some practicing Christians and realised that there’s a whole side to being part of a religious community that I hadn’t been considering. I got permission to witness and capture the workings of the Elim Pentecostal Church in Ryedale.

My curiosity is not about the nature of religious faith itself, but rather finding out what a church does alongside the obvious activities, i.e. holding a service on a Sunday. I am interested in the nature of church and community – what a church does with its own members, and also how it connects with the wider local community.

Submission

Images

Sample prints have been sent to support the assessment submission.

Click on the first image to start a slideshow.

Book layout

A book version has also been sent to support the assessment submission.

The layout of the book is in the linked PDF and as per the images below. Click on the first image to start a slideshow.


Detailed analysis

The overall structure has a loose narrative of me finding out more about the scope of the church’s activities:

  • Basic understanding: the church service on a Sunday (photos 1-3)
  • Less obvious kinds of church service (4-5)
  • What the church does beyond services, such as its town centre coffee shop (6-9)
  • What the church does to support the wider local community (10-11)
  • Closing with how the church tries to expand its membership (12)
01. Establishing
1.1. The minister prepares for the Sunday morning service
  • Juxtaposition of Bible and iPad signifies a modern and progressive church
  • Empty seats to signify anticipation
  • It introduces the minister but doesn’t yet show his face
  • Skewed angles to get over a sense of quirkiness and dynamism
02. Wide
1.2. Sunday morning service
  • Wide shot to establish that this is, in some ways, like a traditional church service…
  • … but has some significant differences (no altar or pulpit, no religious imagery, a band set up on stage, PowerPoint slides)
  • Subject matter is something that one might not expect to be discussed in church – to signify ‘difference’
03. Gesture
1.3. Worshipping the Lord
  • Church is a blend of community cohesion and individual connection to one’s faith
  • Previous shot established the crowd, so this hones in on the individual immersion in worship
  • Backlighting around the hand and the hair, combined with the diagonals, communicates the euphoric nature of the moment
04. Andy the minster at the informal evening service, Coffee House Church
1.4. Andy the minister at the informal evening service, Coffee House Church
  • To segue from the main Sunday service to the more informal evening service called ‘Coffee House Church’
  • And to introduce Andy properly in an unposed portrait
  • Again the composition is trying to emphasise the informality and dynamism
05. Coffee House Church
1.5. Coffee House Church
  • Musician represents the intimate and informal nature of the service
  • Backdrop of blinds open at various heights to signify an ‘opening up’ from the church on the left to the public on the right
  • And has connotations of religious development (the phrase ‘three steps to heaven’ came to mind…!)
06. Environment
1.6. Hope Central is Elim’s high street coffee house, open to the public
  • To establish the Hope Central environment and intro Katie the volunteer
  • I tried to use diagonals to imply depth and drawn the eye
  • The gloves I liked, not only because they matched the t-shirt but also because of the connotations of cleanliness/purity – which fit with the ethos of the coffee shop
  • One commenter saw the gloves as a signifier of insularity, fear and protection – not my intention but an interesting interpretation!
07. Detail
1.7. Prayer meeting
  • This is one shot that I specifically pre-visualised and conceived to my satisfaction
  • A metaphor for this project i.e. me peeking into an otherwise closed-off world
  • Faces with closed eyes visible in the clear section are to signify private nature of prayer
  • ‘Hope Central’ etched on the window led me to this particular framing choice
08. Interaction
1.8. Post-prayer lunch
  • The counterpart to the last image – camera moves from outside to insider
  • Diagonal composition to evoke a sense of dynamism and movement
  • With hindsight I concede that the round-table composition does imply a sense of insularity that isn’t in sync with the overall impression that I wanted to capture
09. Portrait
1.9. Katie and friends
  • To show that the church membership age range is fairly broad, whereas my prior assumption was that it would be skewed to the older population
10. Gesture
1.10. Volunteers run support services for local people, such as debt advice and food banks
  • An informal portrait combined with environmental cues  to the various outreach services provided
  • And we get a proper look at Lesley, whose face is obscured in image 03
11. Detail
1.11. Food banks operate four times a week in three local towns
  • At the food bank I was restricted to the warehouse as the public area is subject to strict confidentiality – so I looked for an ‘action shot’ with volunteers
  • I was drawn to this shopping bag due to its appropriate text about the importance of eating well
12. Closing
1.12. A ‘Christianity Explored’ educational session
  • The church is unapologetic about its objective to spread the word, and they run courses aimed at potential ‘new recruits’
  • As I’d already featured Andy in other pictures, I chose one where he was in silhouette and the screen message is emphasised
  • The shadow bottom right is to signify an audience member – directly showing such individuals felt inappropriate but I did want to depict this somehow

Self-evaluation

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

In terms of materials I used a fairly wide lens for most shots and needed to get close to the action; lighting was a challenge but I mostly worked without flash as I felt it too distracting. I practiced my design and compositional skills, as I felt the subject matter and approach deserved a dynamic, kinetic treatment – so I used depth of field, diagonals and other leading lines to move the eye around; I also obscured faces in a couple of instances, to emphasise the gesture or some other focal point over the facial expression

I also considered the narrative techniques around sequencing of images for a coherent ‘story’. It stretched both my visual awareness – I remained conscious of the visual style normally associated with fly-on-the-wall documentary – and my observational skills, as I needed to be acutely aware of all potential shots, as everything was unposed; I do think I’ve captured some interesting moments, but equally no doubt I missed some too.

Quality of outcome

I put a lot of thought into the content of the 12 images; I believe that there is a good mix of types of shot (wide, portrait, detail, interaction, gesture etc) to help the rhythm of the implied narrative; the big challenge was denoting religion in a church that doesn’t use identifiable religious imagery. The presentation proved a challenge initially; whist I had a structure in mind from early on, the sequencing was tricky to get right – the requirement to produce a book layout initially led me to write overly-wordy captions and eventually I edited these down.

Another aspect of the presentation that required consideration was the extent of post-processing: as a fly-on-the-wall documentary piece I felt that manipulation beyond simple cropping and colour correction might be inappropriate. For this reason there are a few images that testify to this ‘warts-and-all’ ethos in terms of ‘unwanted features’ in the background of some of the scenes – I am OK with this in the context of a documentary project.

I applied knowledge from this section of the course to keep my thinking, shooting and selecting on the right track; including but not limited to: authorial intent, spin, decisive moment and the insider/outsider debate.

Discernment was an issue early on, as some of the church’s activities (debt advice, food bank) are with vulnerable members of society and it wasn’t appropriate to breach their privacy – so I focused my attention on the volunteers and church members… this has led to one peer reviewer to interpret the church as being very insular (due to lack of wider community depicted) which is the opposite of the impression I want to give – so whilst I thought I’d selected the right set of subjects and specific images to tell the story, it seems that I haven’t been wholly successful (my selection process is detailed in a prior post).

Some of the images were conceptualised and conceived according to plan (2, 3, 6, 12) but the majority were the result of fortuitous shooting while I had a vague concept floating around in my head. The overriding idea I was aiming to communicate – an ‘investigation’ around the appeal of being a member of a church community – was always in mind and was, I believe, delivered by showing a range of church activities that a layman might not know about (that said, at least one peer reviewer interpreted some of the images in a very different way to that which I intended, so my message success is short of 100%).

Demonstration of creativity

While these pictures exist in the realist tradition, I feel that I have shown imagination in the choice of subjects and compositions, and though this approach isn’t experimentation in any absolute sense, it has been a new experience for me.

This assignment marked the beginning what has become part of my developing voice in terms of content I am interested in, namely volunteer organisations of one form or another

Context

This assignment has been cause for much self-reflection as it pushed me outside of my comfort zone in terms of capturing people and activities. It’s been an enlightening experience, partly because I’ve proven to myself that I can do this kind of work, and partly because it’s shown me that I still have a lot to learn.

In addition to the historical and theoretical research on documentary photography (mainly Clarke 1997, Wells 2009, Bate 2009), I looked at the work of a few other photographers who’ve worked on similar projects; for inspiration on documentary photography generally I have looked at a number of classic and contemporary photobooks.

I revisited some key critical thinking on semiotics from Context & Narrative and in particular found the book This Means This, This Means That (Hall, 2012) very useful; I attempted both Debord and Baudrillaud but think I only scratched the surface.

I also found it incredibly useful to discuss the project with other OCA students before submission – their comments were enlightening and thought-provoking, and led to some refinements that I believe improved the overall work.


Sources

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

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

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

Fink, L. (2014) On Composition and Improvisation. New York: Aperture

Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen: Steidl

Lubben K. (ed) (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson

Parr, M. 2012. The Last Resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

Soth, A. (2015) Songbook. London: MACK

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

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