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I got my assessment result email this morning – I passed with 73%.


I’m VERY pleased with that. I really wasn’t sure I was going to hit those dizzy heights, I must say.

Assessment criteria

  • Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills
    • “Complete fluency of technical and visual skills.”
    • 25/35
    • Pleased enough with that mark, though I’m not sure about “complete fluency” (if it was complete, I’d have got a higher mark…)
  • Quality of Outcome
    • “Highly effective work presented in a professional way, showing strong judgement. Highly effective grasp of ideas and communication of visual ideas.”
    • 16/20
    • Delighted with this, the highest relative mark of the lot… I put a lot of thought into the work itself and presentation online and offline, and am glad it paid off
  • Demonstration of Creativity
    • “Very good synthesis of analytical and creative thinking. Creative, takes risks with imaginative and successful outcomes. Evidence of a developing personal voice.”
    • 17/25
    • Relatively speaking the lowest mark compared to the maximum available, and this is not a huge surprise – taking risks and stretching my creative muscles is something I only really started to get comfortable with during this course
    • Very pleased about the reference to developing personal voice – I do think I am getting there, slowly
  • Context
    • “Very articulate and self aware, very well researched. Demonstrates a developed intellectual understanding and criticality.”
    • 15/20
    • I like that, it makes me sound clever :-)

Overall comments

I won’t quote these verbatim but will pick out a couple of phrases that resonated:

  • “This is very professionally presented submission, showing great attention to detail and pride with your work.”
    • So relieved to see this – I can now admit to a recurrent anxiety I’d had ever since sending the parcel off to OCA that I hadn’t put all the photos in the right order! Turns out I was just being paranoid. Does anyone else have this?!
  • “It will be good to see you continue to explore more challenging and sophisticated ideas, as you have with the ‘calendar’ assignment, where you took the opportunity to take a creative brief and really make it your own.”
    • This I took as gentle encouragement to be a little more confident in pushing myself creatively – my experimentation over this course was tentative and uncertain at times, but I do feel like I’ve finally crossed over into being more confident to take risks

Just realised, passing this means that I have officially completed half of the degree.

Next I need to finish Documentary – onwards!

Final reflections

I reached the end of Gesture & Meaning at the end of December 2016, and spent January on rework and assessment preparation culminating in my final submission at the end of January. I then took February off studying completely (I used the time to set up a photography business and so will no longer be studying full-time but blending study with work, hopefully). I started my studies again this week and decided that after a suitable period of reflection, it would be useful to capture my overall feelings on the course.

The course content was rather eclectic

I’ve made this point a few times at various junctures, usually as a criticism, but my final view on this is that the diverse nature of the course isn’t wholly negative by any means. It has its pros and cons. Sometimes it felt like the first four (genre) sections were written by four different authors, so different are they – not only content-wise (this is to be expected) but also in terms of depth, breadth and the mix of exercises and research.

However, from the standpoint of the end of the course I can now find the positives: the diversity of genres and coursework stretched me out of my comfort zone several times and in the end had permanently expanded my photographic world, which can only be a good thing.


The course title feels somewhat arbitrary

I was particularly attracted to G&M because I am interested in the G and the M :-)

The course introduction includes phrases such as:

“You’ll look at photography that focuses on the human body as a subject”; and

“This course will therefore develop your practice through a greater understanding and comprehension of the messages given through gesture by the human body.”

Following on from Context & Narrative (still my most fulfilling course) I was looking forward to a deeper dive into the specifics of signification through human subject matter. But this didn’t really came through strongly in the course content – it was something I had to consciously hold in my mind whilst I worked through the course rather than an identifiable thread.

My opinion is that the first four sections didn’t uniformly adhere or even align to this stated body-centric focus, and instead were more like standalone potted genre mini-courses. An identifiable line of argument, or shared foundation of knowledge, throughout the overall course were lacking. In comparison, Documentary feels much more consistent and directed towards a coherent destination.

The ‘shape’ of the course is quite odd

By this I mean:

  • the first four sections are very coursework-heavy and finish with a photographic assignment
  • the last two sections have zero coursework, only an academic assignment each

The shift between these two is quite abrupt! I shouldn’t complain, as there was ultimately less work overall in these last two sections. However, having been studying Documentary in parallel I prefer the structure of that: coursework throughout all five (not six) sections and a mix of photographic assignments (1, 2, 3 and 5) broken up with an academic one (4).

Having said that…

I found the academic assignments more fulfilling than I expected

The oral presentation and critical review essay initially looked to me like they might be perfunctory afterthoughts following the photographic assignments, but the truth was surprisingly more positive. I really enjoyed both researching and pulling together both of these two assignments. I think the ability to choose your own areas of research is the key to how satisfying I found these assignments – it related to my following point about honing in on an area of interest. My experience on these assignments makes me less trepidatious about the academic side of Level 3.

The fragmentary content helped me to hone my personal voice

The main positive I identified in the eclectic content approach was that it helped me to identify one significant aspect of my developing personal voice, namely the kind of subject matter I’m drawn to. I talked about this in an earlier blog post, but in summary I realised around Assignment 4 that I was steering the brief on whatever genre assignment I was working on to be fundamentally about some kind of social documentary subject. Finding this thread in my own work was a real lightbulb moment.

I appreciated the value of a good tutor

My tutor Helen was excellent. She provided a really good balance of encouragement and challenge. She articulated the difference in expectations between Levels 1 and 2 very well, and made me step up my game in some key areas that I needed to develop in, from technical matters such as printing and presentation, through to the quality and depth of my visual analysis and my documentation of my working processes.

Working with Helen made me realise that the point of the tutor isn’t to tell you whether your work is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to help you refine and develop your ways of working. Her focus on the process as much as the outcome is one of the key differences I saw from Level 1.

To conclude – whilst I found the course to be a bit of a curate’s egg for most of its duration, my instinct for optimism (or revisionism) leads me to focus on the positives. I’m still glad I did it – the alternatives I had at the time still don’t appeal, even with hindsight – but equally I can see why it has subsequently been discontinued and replaced with Self & the Other.

Now just to wait for the results…

Assessment pack pt 2: production process

I sent off my assessment parcel a couple of days ago after pulling it together over the previous week or so, taking photographs as I went along so that I could present a record of the decision-making and production processes. This is the second post on my assessment preparation, following the first part on research and inspiration.

The main challenge I found in presenting Gesture & Meaning work for assessment is the eclectic nature of the assignments:

  • One photographic assignment each on four distinct genres (documentary, art, portraiture and advertising)
  • An audio-visual presentation
  • A written essay

The outcome of that research and inspiration piece was that I decided that the key to presenting the whole set of assignments in a coherent way was to standardise the presentation in terms of the design principles – colour schemes, typefaces, materials, sizes etc) to provide the consistent framework in which the visually different assignments could sit.

An alternative approach could have been to bespoke each assignment’s presentation to its subject matter, changing the materials, sizes, layouts and typography to best present each individual assignment as a standalone piece of work.

However, I took a step back and endeavoured to correctly frame this for what it is:

  • It is not primarily a presentation of individual art projects
  • It is primarily a presentation of a linked set of artefacts to be academically assessed

With this in mind, and putting oneself in the shoes of the assessors, I determined that consistency of presentation format would give a better impression than eclectic presentation tailored to each assignment.


Upfront planning

First of all I decided on the presentation size: my tutor tried to persuade me to go 16″ x 12″ as a ‘true’ photographic size rather than A3 (a paper industry size), but I instead took the advice of Clive White, a tutor who regularly advises on assessment matters on the OCA forum, who coincidentally posted on the subject on the very day I was researching this: “A3 or 16×12? Once upon a time it went 10×8 then 16×12, 16×12 is just a short hand way for old timers to say A3 […] Nobody is fussed on the difference.” (White 2017). Between this and the fact that I could more easily source A3 portfolio box, paper and divider card I decided to go with A3.

My next decision was how many prints to include. Again I heard conflicting advice! My tutor initially suggested a few samples from each assignment, which was my original plan, but shortly afterwards she passed on advice from a colleague saying it would be better to include everything. Hmm… once again I took to the OCA forum, where issues such as this have been much discussed. I found a sensible opinion offered by the aforementioned Mr White: he advises his students to present a selection to demonstrate print quality, not the entire set as a duplicate of what is on the learning log. Most other OCA students I spoke to online concurred – expecting the assessor to look closely at 40 prints across the four photographic assignments seems a little excessive.

I ordered a half-depth A3 portfolio box from Silverprint. I had previously used the A4 equivalent and was suitably impressed.

For paper I generally use a good quality luster, and Canon make a pro quality luster paper made to work with my Canon Pixma A3 printer. I have seen assessment advice a number of times that recommends matte or luster paper over gloss due to the reflections from the latter. I presume that assessors spend a lot of time looking down onto tabletops under overhead lighting, not straight ahead to a mounted, framed, hung print as one would in a gallery situation.

I wanted to delineate the six assignments more clearly than I had done in the past and so sourced some thick A3 card (‘greyboard’) to use as dividers.

For the section introduction pages I felt that luster might be a touch too ‘photographic’ to carry a mixture of image and typography, so I got hold of some A4 matte paper.

Finally, for the essay I wanted a good quality regular printer (i.e. non-photographic) paper so got some premium A4 paper with a reasonable weight and a subtle texture to the surface

Once I’d gathered all the basic materials I ran print tests of the images I planned to include, as they had all been done at different times, on different equipment (I have changed my computer and printer during the course). I produced variations of Relative and Perceptual colour profiling and experimented with tweaking the output brightness and contrast until I was satisfied on the match between screen and paper.


General structure

I made section introductions for the six assignments, with simple explanatory text, just one or two sentences, plus a sample image and confirmation of what was enclosed.

These were printed at A4 and mounted on the divider card using photo corners.

I aso made an overall introduction sheet and attached this to the inside lid of the portfolio box.


All prints were done with a minimum 30mm border for handling – minimum as some images were done to slightly different ratios to best serve each individual assignment (e.g. the documentary project used 5×7 to better align with the target book layout; the portraits were done at 8×10 as a standard portrait ratio).

I’ll now briefly cover what I included per assignment – a tricky decision given the fragmented nature of the assignments (four photographic including one with a book and one with a calendar format, plus a 16-minute video presentation and a written essay).

Assignment 1

I included three sample images from the 12 submitted as the full assignment.

The main challenge was how to present the book version. I really wanted the whole presentation to be based around A3 materials to avoid anything ‘rattling around’ the portfolio box. My solution was to tightly fasten ribbon to a greyboard card and slides the book under the resultant ‘straps’.


As a symbolic aside: the ribbon formed a cross, and the project was about a church, which I thought was an appropriate coincidence.

Assignment 2

I included three sample images from the 10 submitted as the full assignment.

I felt it important to include the final image as it is different to the other nine, offering a kind of resolution to the narrative of the series.

Assignment 3

I included the final selected versions of each of the four subjects. Coincidentally (but very pleasingly) all four sitters preferred the bespoke shot of themselves, so all four final images sit together quite well I think.

I did have a dilemma here: the original assignment submissions asked for the selected images to be printed large (A4) and the rejected shots at 5×4″. However, as detailed earlier I have been at pains to keep the presentation format as consistent as possible across the assignments. I wanted all the images to be at A3, and I felt that printing smaller versions of the rejected shots was visually jarring. For this reason I chose to exclude the smaller rejected portraits.

Assignment 4

I included all six images from the assignment, for a couple of reasons. First of all, six is such as small number compared to other assignments that selecting three or four out of six felt arbitrary and odd. Secondly, the concept (names subtly embedded into scenes) really needs to be seen as large as possible, so A3 prints is the minimum size that does it justice – I can’t assume assessors look at the online versions on giant monitors.

I discussed with my tutor whether to make an actual calendar for this assignment. Her opinion was that the images work better as a standalone set of photographs and that the calendar format felt like a secondary version of the series. She also took advice from an OCA colleague who agreed that “It doesn’t have to produced as a calendar – it’s mainly about the photography. Design of the calendar can be online”. So the calendar format is presented online but not printed. As per other decisions outlined above, my guiding principle was visual consistency.

Assignment 5

For this I included just the divider with an A4 section intro mounted on it, to keep it consistent with the rest of the submission – leaving it out completely felt wrong.

I did check with OCA whether to provide a DVD or USB drive with the presentation video on it, but was advised not to.

Assignment 6

This is the critical review essay, so it was clearly important to print a good quality copy of the essay. I also decided that the essay needed a cover page for visual appeal, so I took one of the images I discussed (Don McCullin’s shell-shocked marine) and the concept of ‘joining the dots’ to form a graphic design of circular extracts from the photograph.


The dilemma though was how to present an A4 document as part of an A3 portfolio (printing the essay on A3 would just look silly). My solution was to craft a kind of A4-sized ‘tray’ out of three sheets of the greyboard card and sit the document in this recess. A ribbon was added to lift the document out.

And – that’s it.

Wish me luck!


https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/advice-on-printing-for-assessment-perhaps-it-could-be-passed-on/3906 (accessed 09/01/2017)

Assessment pack pt 1: research and inspiration

Before going into any detail on my own assessment pack (in a separate post) I want to start with a little wider context on photographic presentation.

As I have probably mentioned frequently in these pages, Gesture & Meaning is quite an eclectic course, being made up of four genre-specific sections followed by two academic assignments. The challenge for assessment presentation is how to present such a diverse array of projects in a coherent manner.

Helen my tutor suggested looking at photographic presentation in other projects that contain a selection of different materials, to see if there were ideas or directions that I could pursue in some way.

Three projects sprang to mind: Eamonn Doyle’s End, the catalogue that accompanied the 2016 exhibition of evidential photography ?: the Image as Question and the Foto/Industria 2013 catalogue box. Each, in different ways, dealt with the point of collating multiple items into a coherent whole.

Eamonn Doyle’s End

The exhibition of Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin projects, ION and End was the highlight of my visit to Arles this year. It featured a breathtaking array of presentation methods, materials, colour schemes, sizes and sounds, turning the photography exhibition into more of a multi-sensory experience. It made me realise that there are many possible ways of presenting photography and 90% of exhibitions play it rather safe.

I ordered the book that specifically covered the most recent project, End, as soon as I got home. It’s not really a book as such, but I’m not quite sure that the right word is! It’s a kind of a boxset of photographic artefacts. It comes in a white leather-style slipcase, covered in yellow cellophane.

The contents include concertina fold card prints, pamphlets, posters, and even a translucent tracing paper-esque sheet that wraps around a 7″ single (haven’t seen one of them in a while). The prints and pamphlets are slim enough to mount and frame as pieces of art without dismantling them – as I did for my favourite image.

It’s a hugely impressive piece of work, and really plays with what an ‘art book’ is, or can be.

Takeaway points

Thinking of how (or whether) to apply this approach to my own G&M assessment presentation: I concluded that this kind of diversity of material works really well for Doyle as he has the strong backbone of coherent content (the streets of Dublin) running through the work. My challenge is that the four photographic projects are really quite different in genre, content and tone – so applying an eclectic presentation approach might actually make the whole thing just too incoherent.

I came away from examining this particular work with the sense that there needs to be a strong line of consistency in either the content or the presentation method. I will return to this point.

?: the Image as Question

This exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London was on evidential photography, an extremely broad and flexible subject – the kinds of images included reportage, forensic, investigative, judicial, astrological, even record sleeves. The catalogue that accompanied the exhibition was particularly interesting – so much so that I bought one.

It’s presented in the form of an evidence folder, with all the component parts inside held in place loosely by an elastic spine. It means that one can remove or order the contents in an almost infinite number of combinations. It also means that, like the Doyle work above, one can easily remove and frame an individual print (again, I did).

In contrast to the Doyle boxset, this has an eclectic set of contents in terms of subject matter. Like the Doyle set, it uses different materials and sizes of print, in this case tailoring each artefact to the content and format of the original image. So it’s kind of a hybrid format in this sense.

What makes this eclectic mix of both inner contents and presentation formats really work is the ‘wrapper’ – the conceit of treating all the diverse components as items of evidence. The existing cultural code of the ‘evidence folder’ is exploited to provide a veneer of consistency and coherence to what would otherwise be a bit of a mish-mash.

Takeaway points

Again, though this execution is interesting and it ‘works’ for this set of images, I don’t believe that the contents of my four photographic assignments can really be crowbarred together into an arbitrary category like ‘evidence’ as used here, and even if I did go down that route, I’m not sure what the unifying theme and therefore ‘container’ would be.


A couple of years ago I bought this boxset of booklets when I was researching workplace photography. It was the catalogue for a photographic festival that I hadn’t attended (nor even heard of to be honest) in Bologna in 2013.

The catalogue is 17 individual square booklets presented in a grey shell box. The spines are all exactly the same thickness and designed with a small black bar that steps down the set like a staircase. The colour subtly shades from yellow to green and back again. The set is clearly designed to work beautifully together when filed in the box.

The contents are very eclectic though; the loose connection is that they are all somehow related to business, but they range from ad campaigns to company reports to corporate portraits to factories to offices.

I really like the format, as I find it gives a strong, professional backbone of consistency to what is in fact quite a diverse set of exhibitions.

Takeaway points

Though they are physically quite different, this ended up being the strongest parallel to my own implementation. It marries very eclectic content to a highly standardised and consistent set of design principles – not just a surface ‘wrapper’ like the evidence set above, but a design style that persists throughout every one of the 17 booklets.

What I took from this is that if the overarching design ‘rules’ – layout materials, colours, typefaces and so on – are both consistent and professionally done, this provides the connecting  thread to compensate for the component projects themselves being quite differentiated.


Doyle, E. (2016) End. Dublin: D1

?: the Image as Question (exhibition) Michael Hoppen Gallery, London autumn 2016

Various (2013) Foto/Industria: Bologna Biennale 01 Bologna: Contrasto

Assignment 6: Joining the Dots

NOTE: this is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback from my tutor. The revisions are minor structural changes, removal/replacement of sample photos and expanded visual analysis of remaining images.


Joining the dots: overcoming the photograph’s temporality problem

“A narrative is an account of events occurring over time. It is irreducibly durative.”

(Jerome Bruner 1991: 6)

“Photographs aren’t good at telling stories. Stories require a beginning, middle and end. They require the progression of time. Photographs stop time. They are frozen. Mute.”
(Alec Soth 2006)

These quotes, from a narratologist and a photographer, seem to make a similar point; the former appears to provide an explanation for the latter. Whilst a single photograph can share many characteristics of narrative (settings, characters, themes, styles etc) with other forms of communication, it stumbles on the core trait of a narrative: depicting change over time.

However, there is an argument that even if the former statement is true, the latter does not automatically follow – perhaps the singular photograph’s assumed inability to depict a progression of time is just an obstacle to overcome rather than a fundamental truth. This essay seeks to evaluate the intrinsic and extrinsic techniques available to circumvent this temporal limitation of the still photograph.

Narrative can mean both factual and fictional images; documentary is more obviously built on stories, but advertising and fine art can be too. Here we will focus on documentary and constructed tableaux for examples.

General theories of narrative

Ania Nalecka was referring to a photobook when she said “[it] gives you dots to connect, not drawing the lines. The question is how far you put the dots apart.” (2016) but the concept extends to all narratives, which are a combination of author and reader contributions (Barthes 1977: 142-148). In many textual narratives, the author’s portion is almost total, while others use techniques such as the ‘unreliable narrator’ to shift the burden of comprehension towards the reader.

The single photo narrative is perhaps analogous to the six-word short story usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” (citation disputed). In being short on ‘dots’ and long on ‘gaps’, this is an almost photographic narrative; the reader brings 90% of the story. This is how most single image narratives work.

If we accept that any narrative is partly created in the mind of the reader (/viewer) then the temporal limitations of the still photograph begin to weaken. We enter what Stephen Shore describes as the mental model of photography, where the contents of the frame are augmented by cognitive processes by the viewer (2010: 117).

Using Stuart Hall’s communication theory, the photographic message is deliberately encoded at the moment of production with the intent of it being appropriately decoded at the moment of consumption (1980: 128). This decoding places the image in a cognitive context where progression of time can be implied.

Peter Wollen categorised temporal levels of signification in photography as states, processes and events (in Wells 2003: 77). States are unchanging and so have no narrative ability, while processes (dynamically changing) and events (one-off changes) have at least two data points, even if the viewer needs to imagine one of them.

Wollen initially appears to support my hypothesis: “The fact that images may themselves appear as punctual, virtually without duration, does not mean that the situations that they represent lack any quality of duration.” (ibid: 77), though subsequently concludes that: “Still photographs, then, cannot be seen as narratives in themselves, but as elements of narrative.” (ibid: 78). He accepts that an image can represent a durative process or event yet denies its status as a narrative – a distinction I find curious.

I will now examine extrinsic and intrinsic approaches that can provide the additional data points needed to form a narrative from a single image.

Extrinsic techniques

A simple method of providing more ‘dots’ is to use text. This can be as concise as a caption to a news photograph or as wordy as an artist’s statement in a gallery. Barthes describes the three levels of message in the photographic image as denotative, connotative (to be covered shortly) and linguistic (1977: 36). While some images can communicate a narrative with no caption, others need at least minimal anchoring text to convey a meaningful story.

Compare two iconic images from the Vietnam War:

Don McCullin’s photo contains enough information for a viewer to construct a simple, self-contained narrative such as ‘he went into battle, he saw horrors, he is changed’. His uniform and rifle denote ‘soldier’; his dirty hands, face and clothes denote recent action (the ‘event’); his expression, with blank gaze and slightly open mouth, signify his shock at what he saw. The caption provides additional factual information, but even without it, the photo can act as a ‘closed’ narrative.

On the other hand, Nick Ut’s photograph shows that some horrific event has happened but only makes sufficient sense as a narrative when accompanied by a caption that specifies it followed a napalm attack. The text provides the ‘before’ that places the ‘after’ in a chronological context. Without this, the image of a naked child fleeing soldiers is open to misinterpretation; whilst it contains signifiers, it remains incomplete as a narrative without the caption.

The McCullin photo was one of the first images in the Tate exhibition and book Conflict-Time-Photography (2014), which shows us how aftermath photography relies on extrinsic information; a landscape becomes a battlefield, or an execution site, once a caption is added.

John Berger advises caution in adding text to an image as it may multiply the implied veracity of both:

“The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. And the words, which by themselves remain at the level of generalisation, are given specific authenticity by the irrefutability of the photograph. Together the two then become very powerful; an open question appears to have been fully answered.” (2013: 66)

A less direct form of guiding the viewer using extrinsic information is to use connotations based on shared cultural codes. The placement of signifiers (metaphors and metonyms) can provide the cognitive pointers necessary to steer the viewer towards the intended story. When signifier is equated to signified in the mind of the viewer, it can provide a missing data point that can be added to the denoted image to construct an implied narrative. Recognisable characters or other references to commonly known stories can provide cognitive shortcuts.

Elliott Erwitt’s wedding scene projects a ‘love triangle’ narrative by presenting archetypes in an identifiable context. The dress denotes a wedding, and her expression suggests suppressed rage. It’s fair to assume that the man to her left is the groom; his bouffant hair and protective demeanour say ‘nice guy’. The slick-haired, smirking man plays the ‘bad boy’. A concerned best friend is visible to the right. The whole scene implies a preceding infidelity ‘event’.

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

In this example the viewer provides the build-up and the photo provides the punchline. In other instances the image is called upon to project both backwards and forwards in time, or as Berger says, “When we find a photograph meaningful, we are lending it a past and a future.” (2013: 64).

Outside of constructed tableaux, this kind of narrative is harder to achieve than a simple past-present or a present-future pairing. In factual photography the misunderstood notion of ‘the decisive moment’ (usually erroneously attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson) seemed to imply that a well-timed single image could provide the fulcrum of an implied story.

Bate suggests that “The viewer of the picture can run their imagination back and forth across the time before and after the depicted action to imagine the sequence of events constituting the story” (2009: 57-58).

However, I remain unconvinced that this is inherently applicable to factual photography. In reality, it is the retrospective historical viewing, where extrinsic information is added to the image – i.e. the viewer thinks they know what happened before and after – that provides this illusion of peripeteia (in the Goldberg photo here, no-one got shot; he put the gun away).

Ultimately, I prefer Swarkowski’s interpretation that the moment is decisive to the picture, not the story (2007: 100).

Room 17, Riviera Hotel, San Francisco, California, 1987 by Jim Goldberg

Intrinsic techniques

One can organise elements within the frame to visually support a desired narrative reading, though these still rely on shared codes to a degree. One method is to mimic other forms of narrative. For example, one can capture or construct an image that places chronological signifiers in a directional reading from left to right or top to bottom, following conventions of written language (assuming a western audience).

Passerby, 1996 by Jeff Wall

Jeff Wall’s Passerby uses the brightly-lit right-hand edge to depict the present and the murky centre portion to imply an immediate prior event. That the figure on the right is looking back to the heavily shaded/shady central figure gives an impression that something has just happened, or nearly happened. Both figures are in motion, enhancing the sense that this narrative hinges on a split second prior to the shot.

A related approach is to use internal framing devices to communicate separate pockets of time. Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler have used the device of dividing walls to imply discontinuous time in tableaux photographs. The sense here is of the shadow on the left representing an earlier, caged incarnation of the figure on the right, seen emerging into a brighter, more open setting. The window, half shaded and half lit, signifies a transition event.

Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

One can divide the frame to imply alternative scenarios rather than sequential time. The classic example is Reijlander’s The Two Ways of Life, which shows a present and two possible futures, though a contemporary example is provided by Craig Semetko, whose balanced image evokes a love story with alternative endings. The left couple sit together but not embracing, and the sullen figure in front appears to be regretting a lost love. The more tactile couple on the right is being observed by a more relaxed equivalent. The background could be read as a memory, the foreground the present.

Hanoi Lonely Hearts, 2010 by Craig Semetko

An imaginative way of implying a narrative, inspired by both painting and cinema, is by repetition of a character. If multiple figures in an image are sufficiently similar, it can suggest the same character moving through time. Giacomelli’s dancing priests can be read as a single archetype moving around in a clockwise circle before collapsing on the ground, then regaining composure. The strong figure-to-ground contrasts enhances this sense of animated motion.

Senigallia, Italy, 1963 by Mario Giacomelli


I have sought to include a sense of narrative in single images in some of my work to date. I adopted a combination of still life and the Reijlander ‘alternative scenario’ approach in a constructed narrative about a decision to take a career break to study. The image can be read as either two competing halves, or a left-right transition from past to future, but in either case a change of state – an event, therefore a narrative – is communicated by the placement of multiple signifiers.

Two Ways of (Still) Life, 2015 by Rob Townsend

I am increasingly thinking about how to consciously build a sense of narrative direction into single documentary images, even if they also add up to create an overarching narrative in the form of a photo essay.

I believe the examples given – using extrinsic signification and intrinsic visual techniques – provide sufficient evidence that it is possible to tell a story in a single photograph. The key to this position is the Barthesian view that the reader is a kind of author, working with information provided by the originating author to construct meaning (1977: 142-148). Communicating a narrative in a single image is a matter of placing sufficient clues for the viewer to connect the dots.

To return to Soth’s quote: a photograph may be frozen but it does not need to be mute, if you can listen to what your mind is saying when you look at it.

(1986 words)


Barthes, R. (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press.

Baker, S. and Mavlian, S. (2014) Time-Conflict-Photography. London: Tate Publishing

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

Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a Photograph. London: Penguin.

Bruner, J. (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry. 18 (Autumn).

Cartier-Bresson, H. (2004) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. Woking: Aperture.

Erwitt, E (2003) Elliott Erwitt Snaps. London: Phaidon

Goldberg, J (2015) https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/jun/07/magnum-photographers-on-the-images-that-changed-their-lives (accessed 15/01/2017)

Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 03/12/2016)

Koch, R (2009) PhotoBox: Bringing the Great Photographers into Focus. London: Thames & Hudson

Lardinois, B (2009) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson

Marien, M.W. (2012) 100 Ideas that Changed Photography. London: Laurence King.

McCullin, D., Evans, H. and Sontag, S. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House.

Nalecka, A (2016) http://colinpantall.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/farewell-photobook-bristol-2016.html (accessed 02/12/2016)

Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Hamburg: teNeues Verlag

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer. (2nd edn). New York: Phaidon.

Soth, A (2006) https://alecsothblog.wordpress.com/2006/09/13/90/ (accessed 02/12/2016)

Szarkowski, J. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye (2nd edn). New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Wollen, P. (2003). ‘Fire and Ice’. in: Wells, L The Photography Reader. London: Routledge.

List of illustrations

Shell-shocked marine, Hue, 1968 by Don McCullin

Children fleeing a napalm bomb attack, Trang Bàng, South Vietnam, 1972 by Nick Ut

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Room 17, Riviera Hotel, San Francisco, California, 1987 by Jim Goldberg

Passerby, 1996 by Jeff Wall

Stripping, 1998 by Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler

Hanoi Lonely Hearts, 2010 by Craig Semetko

Senigallia, Italy, 1963 by Mario Giacomelli

Two Ways of (Still) Life, 2015 by Rob Townsend

Assignment 6: tutor feedback

I had my final video tutorial with my tutor Helen a couple of weeks ago but have waited until now to write this up as I’ve been working my way through the six assignments for rework in chronological order, and now it’s time to finalise Assignment 6.

General comments

Whilst there were a few positive comments…:

  • “Presented and formatted clearly”
  • “This is a large topic, which you have approached in a well-rounded manner to cover a spectrum of ideas”
  • “I am really pleased to see that you’re engaging with your peers again here and dealing with their feedback”
  • “It’s clear you’ve also worked to source a wide range of relevant images, creating a varied selection across documentary, fine art and constructed genres. Whilst this is certainly ambitious and admirable…”

… most of the feedback was rework advice; following straight on from “ambitious and admirable” was the counterbalance point:

  • “… I feel it conflicts with being able to discuss points and illustrations in significant depth”
  • “if you even had a few less images, this would allow you to demonstrate more fully, the analysis skills you’ve been developing throughout the unit”

In short: I went too broad and shallow in the original version. I covered too many genres and too many specific images, which diluted the focus of the points I was trying to make.

Helen suggested two possible paths to rework:

  • Merging sections
    • The ‘text’ and ‘connotations’ segments are both extrinsic elements and so could be addressed together and judiciously edited
  • Weaving the narrative theory in with technique areas
    • Instead of separating as a precursor segment

Having gone through the essay again after a few weeks of not looking at it, I can see the former approach working better with this material. The challenge with the latter is that the key points of theory are, to my mind, equally applicable to both extrinsic and intrinsic approaches and therefore difficult to synthesise the theory and the applications without repetition. I therefore plan to first of all try the former approach suggested above.

Specific pointers

A few itemised suggestions for improvement:

  • McCullin image:
    • Explain what ‘information’ I am referring to in the accompanying text, and be less prescriptive in assigning a definitive reading
  • Ut image:
    • Reword to be less ‘closed’ and more objective
  • ‘External coding’ section: decide whether to stick to the ‘decisive moment’ point or the ‘rewritten narrative point’ (and if the former, source an example)
  • My own practice:
    • Reword opening to be less negative
  • Sources:
    • Add list of illustrations
  • Fewer images:
    • Remove duplicate examples to male ore room for better visual analysis of fewer images
    • I think the following images can be cut: Cummings; Fink; Riboud; Reijlander; Goicolea
    • I may however add in an image to illustrate the ‘decisive moment’ point
  • Were there any exhibitions that might have influenced you during this project? I would include these and any other works/texts that you looked at during this time in the bibliography – even if you haven’t directly cited them in the essay
    • Good point – one certainly springs to mind (Time-Conflict-Photography) from 2014/15) and is very relevant; I will mention this

Assignment 5: Portrait Not Portrait

NOTE: this is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback from my tutor. The revisions are minor updates to example images, a re-recorded voiceover and an added List of Illustrations.

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



  • As part of the original assignment I did a ‘virtual Q&A session’ by taking questions from other students – to see these questions and the answers I gave, please look at the original assignment
  • There are two key preparatory posts that provide some detail on how I produced the presentation, which may be of interest for assessment:


Whilst not all of the headings normally used for photographic assignments are relevant for an oral presentation, some of them are and so I provide short commentary here.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I was conscious throughout for the need for a clean and consistent look and feel, and so spent a little time upfront deciding on an appropriate presentation template. Elements such as typefaces, white space, positioning of images and text, transitions and colour palettes all came into play, which extended my design and compositional skills beyond the photographic frame. This was both an enjoyable and educational experience.

Quality of outcome

I am happy with the quality of both the content and the presentation and believe that they work together to support the key messages that I wished to communicate. There was a great deal of discernment required to identify which example images best supported my key messages. The image analysis knowledge I applied in the example selection process gave me both good practice and a deeper appreciation of visual analysis generally, and I have developed analysis techniques that I continue to use.

Demonstration of creativity

In this context creativity can be applied to the choice of photographers and images used to support the points being made, and I worked to make it a blend of iconic and less well-known images.


Both the practical (photographic) research and the reading around the critical theory took up an enormous amount of time before I started pulling the presentation together, which may not be immediately obvious from the handful of blog posts I did. It was, however, all worthwhile for the quality and depth of understanding I gained. As mentioned in the voiceover, the most enlightening aspect of this assignment for me was to reflect on my own past work.


(List of illustrations used is provided at the end of the presentation)

Angier, R (2007). Train Your Gaze. Lausanne: AVA.

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

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

Higgins, J (2013). 21st Century Portraits. London: NPG.

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. UK: Laurence King Publishing.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2002) The Photography Reader. Abingdon: Routledge.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

Assignment 5: tutor feedback

Due to circumstances beyond her control, the tutor report back from my Assignment 5 (oral presentation) arrived a little while after the tutorial itself, and I confess that I have had the report a little while myself before getting around to writing this up. I’m reworking the assignment itself today, so this seems like an opportune time to go over the feedback and add my own comments.

General comments

Overall it went down well:

“I found your response to this assignment quite refreshing Rob – the presentation was structured and presented clearly with a pleasing visual treatment, which I felt strengthened its accessibility and my enjoyment of it.”

I was reminded to be more consistent and thorough in documenting my visual analysis:

“Remember to keep building up the depth of your research notes on written assignments as well as practical ones – especially re: image analysis and critical theory relating to illustrations you decide to work with – particularly relevant to the next and final assignment”

Specific pointers

Some pieces of advice, with my comments as appropriate:

  • Section intro slides left blank for up to 20 seconds – some reviewers commented on this
    • I will experiment with reducing this time in rework
  • Add list of illustrations to Acknowledgements slide (original version has photographer names only)
    • Good point – will do
  • As noted by some peer comments – the vocal has a certain echo, that if you have the time and resources, you could consider re-recording
    • Yes, I do intend to re-record now I have identified how to attach an external microphone directly to my computer
  • Daniel Meadows’ example images don’t really align with voiceover point about being non-judgemental / democratic, as boy on left looks ill-at-ease
    • Agreed, there are better supporting examples so I will update this slide to replace that image and ideally add more
  • Although you’ve clearly put a lot of time and research into this assignment and reflection is certainly well evidenced, I don’t feel specific research (into your sources or images) is logged as clearly as it could be. I would say it would be worthwhile writing any of these notes of critique and analysis up and tag clearly in the appropriate section before assessment.
    • Yes, accepted – I can augment the existing notes somewhat
  • You have posted several updates with the planning of this assignment, documenting concept and structure development, questions you’ve had and how you’ve dealt with certain challenges. This is a very useful record, which you’ve managed to make visual with use of screenshots and image ‘boards’ – I particularly find the latter useful in how it alludes to the criteria you’re setting yourself and patterns you might be seeing across certain images. As the actual text for this post is quite short, it would have been fantastic if this could have been followed up with further reflection on final images used (from later in the process), as you don’t refer to them specifically again.
    • Again, I concede that I could fill in some of the written gaps in my decision-making process
    • I have added more notes in the preparatory post I did shortly before completion

Assignment 4: Wish You Were Here

NOTE: this is the reworked version of this assignment for assessment, following feedback from my tutor. The revisions are predominantly in the cover image and the general presentation.

About the work

The city of Nice has been my second home for the last 15 years or so and I was quite affected when the July 2016 Bastille Day attack happened, and again when I have visited Nice since and seen the memorials still covering parts of the city.

At the time of writing this, three months on, the mood in the city is a delicate balance between grief, defiance and optimism; Nice is simultaneously attempting to rebuild its reputation as a tourist destination and honour the 86 victims of the atrocity.

I gave myself the fictional brief to produce a calendar for the Nice Côte d’Azur Tourism Board, in collaboration with the victims’ charity Promenade des Anges, with two objectives:

Firstly, to help to restore Nice’s tourism reputation – by reminding people of how beautiful, friendly, welcoming and joyful Nice is; and:

Secondly, to honour, and raise funds in aid of the families of, the 86 victims – by naming all of them in the images, in a discreet and respectful way

The result is a multi-layered ‘magic realist’ piece of work that first of all presents the viewer with traditional ‘picture postcard’ scenes, then reveals itself to be a respectful tribute to the victims. Each the scenes was also selected for its subtle connotations to the city’s response in the aftermath of the attack.

There is a loose narrative to the sequence that says: we’re mourning; we miss people; we wish we had our loved ones back; but we’re resilient; life is a journey; life goes on.


Prints have been sent to support the assessment submission.

Click on the first image in each set to start a full-screen slideshow. The images benefit from being viewed as large as possible.

“Wish You Were Here”

First as standalone images:

Secondly in the calendar format as requested by the brief, with the addition of a cover page (click the cover image to start a slideshow):


With the exception of the touristic cover photo, the scenes were chosen to signify aspects of the city’s reaction to the attack:

  • Flowers: a metonymic device to connote funeral arrangements and therefore bereavement
  • Chairs: the couple of the left juxtaposed with the single woman on the right is to signify the loss of a spouse
  • Postcards: a linguistic association, bringing out the double meaning in the phrase ‘wish you were here’ – holidays/bereavement
  • Trees: metaphoric connotations of strength, resilience, defiance, survival (I also felt it important to include a picture of the promenade, the actual scene of the attack)
  • Boats: this is maybe the most tenuous/ambiguous of the associations but it’s intended to reflect the metaphor of sailing for life – an adventure, a journey etc (note: the fact that the boats are moored could be interpreted in a poignant way, as in the journeys are over for these people – this wasn’t my original intention but a potential reading that I realised after the event)
  • Bakery: the French buy fresh bread daily, bread is a metaphor for life, so this image is intended to connote ‘life goes on’

The name of each of the 86 victims is included once in the overall set, and groupings of friends and family who died together have been presented together in the same image.


Demonstration of technical and visual skills

This assignment was a test of my observational skills and visual awareness as I needed to first visualise and then find locations and vantage points that met my criteria: representative of Nice; contained relevant connotations; had appropriate space for approximately 15 names – which required careful compositional skills at both the shooting and processing stages.

Another important design consideration was the calendar format; I chose to mimic the overall aesthetic of a generic calendar but also to subvert some key elements of the format, in as much calendars tend to be light and positive in tone, and tend not to have additional layers of more sombre meaning. The balance I needed to find was to work within the overall graphic parameters of calendar design whilst still communicating my underlying message.

In terms of materials and techniques, to achieve the desired effect of the embedded names required using Photoshop to a much greater degree than I had previously. I was pleased to see a comment from peer review that asked whether the names were already in place and I’d photographed them, which means that my Photoshop work must have been convincing. I explain my production process in a separate post.

Quality of outcome

I’m pleased with the quality of the content and presentation as these closely matched the conceptualisation of my visualisations. I got comments from other students which reassured me that the communication of ideas and discernment of images worked effectively in what was quite a delicate balance to achieve:

  • “The subtle referencing is emotive, but without being maudlin”
  • “great concept and just subtle enough not to be overpowering”
  • “beautifully done, so evocative and respectful”
  • “a well judged project”

These are exactly the kind of responses I was going for.

Although this isn’t a corporate calendar as implied by the brief, I still wanted to show application of knowledge acquired during the advertising section. I wanted to include symbolism in the images that made them work at a connotative as well as a denotative level, as this is the essence of photographic advertising.

Demonstration of creativity

This is an area where I often judge myself as lacking, but I am more satisfied with this assignment than the previous three. I feel that the concept and execution show a greater degree of imagination and experimentation than my recent work.

In terms of my developing personal voice, I had a realisation recently that my own work is tending towards ‘expressive documentary’, or in John Grierson’s words, “the creative treatment of actuality”. I am attracted to subject matter that is rooted in reality, and often has a societal aspect to it. I feel that this assignment aligns with this evolving style.

I consider this a work of ‘magic realism’, to borrow a term from literature.


This assignment gave me pause for reflection on what kind of photographer I want to be, and having wrestled with other ideas I alighted on this concept. The coursework and this assignment gave me further insight into the application of photography as a visual language, how one can embed intended messages in a visual format for the viewer to ‘read’.

Although as a highly personal project I tried not to directly and consciously base it on any previous work I had seen, I am aware that it exists in a context of related works, and that I have taken some indirect influence from some of them. This is summarised in a ‘context and inspirations‘ blog post.

In terms of critical thinking, I got the most useful foundations on advertising photography and semiotics from three particular books: Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders (1980), Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements (1978) and Hall’s This Means This, This Means That (2012).

I freely admit that I didn’t produce a ‘corporate calendar for a product’ in the way the brief suggests, but I believe that I have applied the underlying concepts of this genre of photography to an intangible cause rather than a corporate brand.

To me the end result works firstly as an art project to communicate an idea, and is still close enough to resembling a traditional calendar that people might actually want to put it on their wall.


Packard, V. (1980) The Hidden Persuaders (2nd edn). Middlesex: Penguin.

Hall, S. (2012) This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics (2nd edn). London: Laurence King.

Williamson, J. (1978) Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. New York: Marion Boyars.