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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Assignment 1: tutor feedback

I had an excellent Skype tutorial with my tutor Helen that covered not only the assignment but the first section of the course overall, including coursework exercises and research.

Here I will focus on the assignment feedback.

It was generally positive – very detailed in parts (technical details re printing etc). These are mainly my notes from the tutorial with tutor comments inserted in italics.

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity
Presentation:

  • Prints are generally good quality and well presented (border, label)
  • Watch for colour tone issues with printing – little warmer than on screen in places
    • Consider the difference in tone and colour casts between digital files and physical print – ascertain a preference and aim to follow this into print.
  • Action: blog print workflow inc e.g. attention to colour correction
  • Action: demonstrate that images could print to 16”x12” (Photoshop / set canvas / View > Print Size / screengrab)

Assignment Submission:

  • Clear logic to images chosen from analysis of individual pictures
  • Evident intent to show broad range of activities
  • Using 3 individuals doesn’t add much
  • Research of other practitioners – good
  • Was shallow depth of field deliberate choice?
  • Consider what environmental and situational factors pushed you toward your technical choices – how much does this direct the overall visual aesthetic and how much of this can you control? We had a good discussion about this.
    • Mostly – knew lighting was going to be a challenge and chose wide apertures for majority of shots but worked with this as a stylistic decision and built it into the aesthetic
    • I did some shots with flash to get sharper images throughout but these didn’t sit right with the look of the rest
    • Also found flash to be a little distracting for both me and the subjects so leaned more on available light
    • Action: provide contact sheet of longlist selection (annotated if possible)
  • Physical annotated selection process – interesting
  • Book layout: selection/sequence shows some thought e.g. rhythm of repeating colours
  • Be wary of cropping differently for book layout (image 4), better to keep consistency of ratio
    • Not necessarily ‘better’ – more about consistency across layout devices – is the change in ratio necessary? What does it signify to the reader?
  • Text looks too big especially on intro pages (Action: resize in rework)
    • Consider design of other photobooks, how it type used? You could do print tests of the pdf to see how the scale between type and image comes out.

My thoughts

It was a really good call and I came away with lots to consider – although the more I think about it, we talked more about coursework and less about the assignment than I expected. This is fine (very useful for my ongoing development) but with hindsight I wish I’d asked for more comments on the assignment itself. Maybe I’m just getting used to Level 2, a new tutor and current OCA guidelines on how much emphasis to put on coursework vs assignments! I do understand that Level 2 courses have an element of rework and assessment preparation built into their structure (part 6) and so maybe we’ll get to discuss refinements to this assignment in more detail later in the course.

Right – onto part 2!

Assignment 1: peer review

Before submitting the assignment to my tutor I asked other OCA students to review and comment on the images and captions. I was pleased to get a lot of very insightful, thought-provoking (and understandably sometimes contradictory) comments. These are summarised anonymously below, and I’ve noted my response.

To save flicking backwards and forwards, I’ll repeat the set of images here:

The following are in order of receipt – so some comments refer to earlier versions that have since been tweaked. Some are very slightly edited to remove extraneous comments or identifying information.

Comments

“Just had a quick look and I’m wondering why you have those two shots together with their captions underneath as, to me, it kind of jars with the rest of the images. I may be missing something mind!
 
 I like the images btw I think its a strong set and an interesting take on the subject. I really like that window shot – great symbolism.

One more minor point – on the Leslie shot where she’s holding her hand up there’s a blue edging – I assume that’s the lighting? If it is, it may worth mentioning to pre-empt any tutor criticism?”

Response

  • I put images 7 and 8 together in the book layout as they are counterparts taken a few minutes apart: one showing the ‘outside looking in’ view and the other from the inside – I felt the juxtaposition was a good metaphor for the overall project
  • I removed the blue fringing on 3

Comments

“I belong to a church similar to this and was interested how you might approach it. I think the images are of high quality although I thought that No 2, 4, 6 and 9 were cliched and less successful than 1,3,7,8,11,12. For example the Hope one and the last one were original and more complex in reading.

I read your prep. The difficulty I think is about your intention and your connection to your images. Are they about community or about diversity and difference or challenging that stereotype of what a church is? I did also think that the denotive text in the slideshow was too much and too literal. Maybe ‘hope’ is enough text for one of the images – maybe less and a more interpretive label for the images would bring your message home more.

I also wondered about scale. The tutors love variability. Maybe a cropped image of the word ‘hope’ tight to view through the glass would add variability.”

Response

  • Very interesting to get a view from a churchgoer and to see which images came across as cliched
  • The captioning point is valid: they were too wordy and literal – subsequently edited down

Comments

“Contextualisation is critical. Firstly you state you are a ‘lapsed’ catholic i.e. imbued with a perspective that you state is lapsed and then in the next para’ you talk of an ‘other’ Christian perspective. These words tend to suggest a distancing yet that is contradicted somewhat by the imagery – I shall come back to this.

The images themselves are technically competent, sharp, bright (at least on my iPad – which makes most things quite sharp and bright!). I tried the slideshow and then looked at the images as a set, in the way they appeared on screen. My thoughts about the book layout echo what I thought about the images. I couldn’t discern a narrative flow. The issue with books is that there is a convention (Western) that the narrative ‘flows’ from the beginning (page 1) to the end (last page). The book’s sub-title “inside an Elim Pentecostal Church” denoting that there is more than one Pentecostal Church, so it is clearly a mediated version of what Elim has to offer in the range and diversity of Pentecostal Churches.

You say in your introduction you are interested in what a church does with its own community, and also how it reaches out and supports the wider local community. Well it is clear that this church community is an insular one. The imagery is contained within its walls, maybe four square walls, maybe not. However the presence of the ‘wider local community’ is noted by its absence. The ‘outside’ is witnessed by (very) few glimpses through the windows. This visual perspective is amplified by the need for secrecy in password protection &c.

The book: Like the slideshow I found the layout confusing – you say in your reflection that it is a “loose narrative” – well I think that the captions exacerbate this notion. As students of Photography we are destined to develop a visual language, your captions stifle the interpretation of your imagery by telling the viewer what it is they are witnessing, negating the need for an image. If you took the images away, the words would work better on their own to portray (paint if you like) a picture of what goes on in the closed community of one of the Pentecostal Church’s in Elim.

The standout image though for me is Katie in the kitchen. Those gloves protecting her from whomever she might meet – scary

What I would say is that I think this is a very difficult assignment to complete satisfactorily. I had a lot of issues when I attempted it.”

Response

  • The most critical review and the most thought-provoking
  • This brought home to my the importance of the context that the viewer brings to the work, and to what extent I need to clarify my own context (this is a dilemma)
  • My intention was to depict the church as being more open and inclusive than I had expected, but some of the images can be read in the opposite way
  • Specifically different interpretation of symbolism is possible based on the viewer context – in image 6 I saw gloves as a sign of ‘purity’ but the reviewer saw ‘protection’ – fascinating!
  • So this critique was a sobering reminder that I’m not always 100% successful at getting my message across
  • The dilemma alluded to above is this: I want to be able to properly contextualise the images to steer the interpretation, yet I accept that overly-wordy captions are stifling the interpretation
  • I tried to deal with this with a combination of heavily editing the captions (to be less descriptive) and refining the words in the introductory text

Comments

“I’ve just read your assignment, its incredibly comprehensive but by no means boring. I read every word, it was quite encapsulating. As a general statement I have to say you smashed it. My personal view on religious organisations is that they’re quite closed off to people on the outside. This may be because I want to see inside and I don’t have the opportunity but you made it happen for yourself and it’s a brave thing to do.

It’s clear the amount of work you’ve put into this assignment I’m now thinking I need to stop being so lazy! Your first image is so well placed and so poignant it could tell the story in one photograph. I think its clever to use this as your first image and a striking one it is. You only ever think of a minister needing a bible but here you’ve shown a bible and an iPad next to each other and the tools needed to lead a modern day religious talk. When I saw it, I immediately thought of how controversial the old testament seems against the new testament but it got me thinking……is technology the even newer testament? Anyway, I digress. Its obvious I think your work is brilliant but no work comes with a full critique.

If I could change one thing it would be image 3, expression. It bothered me when I saw it and it still bothers me now in that I want to see the ladies face. I want to see her facial expression to know what the arm in the air means. Is she putting her hand up to answer a question. Is she reaching out to god physically because thats how she feels on the inside? Is it part of dancing? This may stand out for me because its something I’ve been working hard to overcome and that is when taking photographs, I may know whats going on but the viewer doesn’t. Getting this across in my work has been incredibly important to me. So for image 3 you have called it expression but I don’t see any (to put it bluntly).

On the flip side every other image represents its meaning in abundance. The image with Katie serving a drink, I would like to have seen a different angle with more of a view of the cakes as it thought she was serving drinks at a meeting rather than it being an actual cafe. Otherwise Rob, I cannot fault it. Its a great piece of work you should be incredibly proud of. I hope I’ve been of some help.”

Response

  • Image 3 obscuring the face was a deliberate decision – I had other options but felt this was most striking
  • In a wider sense I’m becoming interested in the use of hands in photographs, as a secondary signifier of expression (after the face) – might look at this for my critical review assignment

Comments

“You’ve obviously been very clear about what you wanted to portray and the book is well-laid out.

There’s something slightly odd about no. 6 – looks like a double exposure or something around the young woman’s middle.

I was looking as well to see if I could see this was a church/church activities without needing to read text and the clues are there in quite a few of them which I liked (I’m on a constant look out for how text adds or enhances or where the images are illustrations for the text).

Good cover on the book and a very apt choice.”

Response

  • Again on the viewer interpretation point: different feedback on the clarity of intent and on the layout of the book
  • Glad to see that ‘church activity’ is coming through – a major challenge with the subject matter was the lack of obvious religious imagery (robes, crucifix, altar, pulpit etc)
  • The optical illusion in 6 is a reflection – I haven’t tried to fix it but may need to mention it to the tutor

Comments

“Had a look through your assignment pics. Great idea and what I really like is how a narrative develops, moving from ‘inside’ (church) activities to ‘outside’ more community activities.

Para 2: you may want to refer to ‘practising Christians’ rather than ‘Christians’? – I consider myself a Christian (as opposed to Muslim, Hindu etc) but can’t remember the last time I went to church – and next time will probably be in a box.

Para 3: you write ‘but rather finding out what a church does apart from the obvious activities that spring to mind, i.e. holding a service on a Sunday’ however the first three photos (25% of the submission) and possibly even nr 4 , are of holding a service on a Sunday!
But I liked the write up overall – think it is informative yet succinct and deals with what the brief is asking for.

Photos:
Nrs 1 – 3 – as above re Sunday service
Sorry, but nr 3 immediately made me think of ‘Heil Hitler’ – not sure if this is exactly what you are after…
Nr 4 – to me doesn’t really have a sense of community or of an informal service- just two guys in a quiet coffee shop (could well be empty – no-one else queuing etc) – but the guy’s expression is priceless
Really like nrs 7, (my favourite overall) 8 & 9 as they do give a feel of community. So does nr 6 although the expression is rather posed. Also like 10 & 11 as tell of the outside work that the church does. Re nr 9 you might want to say where Katie and friends are – presumably not in Starbucks lol.

Sequencing:
First of all, must tell you that I’ve never put a book together …
Your narrative runs from inside (the church) to outside (helping in the community) which I thinks works really well. However I would move nr 12 to somewhere else as to me this is an ‘inside’ image and maybe move nr 6 (as more ‘outside’ community) nearer the end with the food bank and support service images. Any more ‘outside’ images with the wider community?

Hope this helps and doesn’t come across as too negative – I do think you are on to a good idea here.”

Response

  • Good feedback on the words – now edited for clarity
  • Image 3 and the Nazi salute problem – funnily enough Lesley the subject said the same thing! but with a smile :-) … it did make me look at alternative shots but the ones where there were multiple people with their hands in the air looked even more ‘Nuremberg Rally’ so I stuck with the solo shot of Lesley – I did change the caption to a more succinct ‘Worshipping the Lord’ which I hope helps
  • 4 was a segue into the following shot and a proper intro to Andy – I edited the caption
  • Sequencing: this was tricky… showing more of the wider community interaction was problematic for confidentiality reasons (debt advice, food banks) and so instead I closed with the ‘recruitment’ image – to be blunt the objective of the church is to expand its membership and spread its message

Comments

“I really enjoyed looking at these and I loved the colours and light. Not easy environments to work in I imagine but your colours sing. Please find comments below, please bear in mind that I’m still very new to this!

1 Love this – great contrast of old and new on the lectern and that nice feeling that something is going to happen.

2 Yes, this will be familiar to a lot of people, I like how it includes the “happy/clappy band thing” don’t quote me on that! and a room full of older people learning about love, sex and marriage.

3 Nice composition, nice negative space and I love the purple curtain (purple’s a great colour for religious references!) I did wonder if she was wanting to ask a question until I read the caption.

4 This one didn’t do as much for me but I like bits of it a lot. Is there a blown highlight partway down his spine? Interesting portrait.

5 I liked this one, it reminded me of my youthful church encounters (when my parents were still agnostic). The only thing I’d change would be to see if I could lose the partial figure in the grey top in the lower RH corner.

6 Struggling with this one a bit too, can’t decide if I prefer it to 4 or not… 4 feels more intimate

7 LOVE this one. Those little glimpses are great and it makes me wonder what those people are hoping for.

8 Nice sense of community here!

9 I like this, one of the stronger coffee shots I think. Nice feeling of group and nice that it’s younger women.

10 I didn’t get this fully – are they selling refreshments? She looks really happy to be doing it, which is lovely.

11 Really interesting spin on Food Banks. I think it could work well if you could include a shot of some of the actual food too – if it’s like our foodbanks then the contents will be quite basic and a good contrast to the “Not Just any food bank….” suggested by the M&S bag.

12 – this made me think a bit. Was it in the empty hall?

I hope that you can find something useful here. Really impressed that you took this on. Churches do so much work and it’s generally unrecognised.”

Response

  • A very thorough review!
  • Blown highlight on 4 – once I spotted this it bugged me enough to clone it out
  • Partial figure in 5 – couldn’t remove without spoiling the framing of the audience members top right, but I did manage to darken to de-emphasise
  • Image 10 – it’s not obvious exactly what she’s doing but I think that’s OK, it’s mainly an unposed portrait to represent volunteers
  • Image 12 – it does look empty but I kept in the shadow of an audience member bottom right to denote the audience

Comments

“I really like the assignment. You have shown a real sense of community there. The only thing I’d change perhaps is the caption on #9. With the other photos you have provided a bit of an explanatory caption, but not on this one. Really like the images too.”

Response

  • Good that the sense of community comes through
  • Captions! I spent a lot of time refining these and hope I landed on the right side of adding value without being over-literal :-)

Thanks very much to all that contributed – much appreciated!

 

 

Assignment 1: Not a Building [original]

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


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.

I recently 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

Slideshow

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)

I also wanted to use three people as ‘recurring characters’ in the narrative to provide continuity.

01. Establishing
01. 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
02. 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
03. 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
04. Andy the minster 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
05. 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
06. 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
07. 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
08. 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
09. 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
  • And to repeat Katie as one of the three ‘recurring characters’
10. Gesture
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
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 one or more of the volunteers
  • I was drawn to this shopping bag due to its appropriate text about the importance of eating well
12. Closing
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

Book layout

As per Part B of the assignment brief, I’ve drafted a book layout with the images in sequence and accompanied with captions. Again, clicking on the first image will start a slideshow.

Self-evaluation

Evaluating the outcome against the Assessment Criteria:

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:

  • Materials: I used a fairly wide (28mm) lens for most shots and this meant I needed to get quite close to the action for; lighting was a challenge but I mostly worked without flash as I felt it might be too distracting
  • Techniques: I put a lot of thought into compositional techniques to get the variety of framing and vantage points that I felt it needed; I also considered the narrative techniques around sequencing of images for a coherent ‘story’
  • Observational skills: I needed to be acutely aware of all potential shots – everything was deliberately unposed for a true ‘documentary’ approach – I do think I’ve captured some interesting moments, but equally no doubt I missed some
  • Visual awareness: I remained conscious of the visual style normally associated with fly-on-the-wall documentary, and tried to be faithful to the aesthetics of the genre (e.g. one of the shots I considered but rejected used a slow shutter speed to create motion blur – a compelling image but at odds with the visual style of the rest)
  • Design and compositional skills: I felt the subject matter, combined with the fly-on-the-wall 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

Quality of outcome:

  • Content: I put a lot of thought into what should be in the frame, especially as I was trying to paint a picture of this community in only 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
  • Application of knowledge: I used a lot of the reading from earlier in this section to keep my thinking, shooting and selecting on the right track; including but not limited to: authorial intent, positive/negative spin, decisive moment and the insider/outsider debate
  • Presentation in a coherent manner: whist I had a structure in mind from early on, the sequencing gave me a real headache, and I’m still not sure I’ve got it right; the requirement to produce a book layout initially led me to write overly-wordy captions and eventually I edited these to the point where I’m not sure what the book format adds
  • Discernment: this 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)
  • Conceptualisation of thoughts: some of the images were pre-visualised 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
  • Communication of ideas: my overriding concept – 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 commenter so far 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:

  • Imagination: these exist in the realist tradition, so one won’t see the kind of ‘imagination’ here that might be identifiable in a constructed scene… but in the context of the type of assignment it is, I feel that I have shown imagination in the choice of subjects and compositions
  • Experimentation: this assignment isn’t experimentation in an absolute sense, but for me this kind of fly-on-the-wall work is a new experience
  • Invention: not claiming any particular inventiveness here – I’m working in an established photography style
  • Development of personal voice: it’s a little early to tell whether this type of work forms part of my personal voice, but elements are starting to feel like part of my preferred style (compositional decisions for one; symbolism that tries to depict a person’s thoughts or state of mind is another)

Context:

  • Reflection: this assignment pushed me outside of my comfort zone in terms of capturing other people going about their lives – I have a new-found respect for documentary photographers! It’s been a very 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
  • Research: in addition to the historical and theoretical background 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 (listed in Sources below)
  • Critical thinking: I revisited the semiotics theory 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.

In summary, I found this to be a very interesting assignment and am very much looking forward to finding out what my tutor thinks!

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.

Assignment 1: image selection

The assignment on the Pentecostal church is nearing completion. Tomorrow I have a meeting with the church minister to walk him through the images I’d like to use, and by Wednesday I hope to have written up the whole assignment and made a few sample prints.

Image selection process

I found the image selection process to be quite interesting this time around, so much so that I felt the need to write about it.

1. In the bag: 1203

Over five separate visits to three church sites I managed to shoot a grand total of 1203 photographs: almost exactly 100 times what I actually need! So I only need a keeper ratio of 1%…!

In the bag.jpg

I do need to curb my enthusiasm for pressing the shutter button and think more about what is going to make a good photo. The scattergun approach is easy with digital but I ended up with multiple versions of similar scenes that made the first pass selection a little more time-consuming than it needed to be. I’d love to blame burst mode but I only used that a couple of times; well over 1000 of my exposures were the result of my deciding to press the shutter button for some reason.

2. First pass: 94

My selection workflow is a fairly straightforward incremental sweep through Lightroom using the star-based Ratings function. I will quickly go through the images either skipping or rating a 3. My logic is that I will then review the 3s and upgrade some to 4 and some down to 2 (I save 5 for my real favourites and never use 1).

First pass

Of the 90% I jettisoned at this stage, most fell into three categories:

  • Mediocre – just didn’t stand out enough
  • Technical issue (exposure, framing, focus) – thankfully not too many of these
  • Duplicate scene (the main time drag at this stage is choosing between the several very slight variations of a scene that I generally like, so at this pass I often rate a few versions of the same shot until I have time to pore over the small differences at a later pass. The key to this stage is speed!)

I suppose the flip side question is: what attracted me to the ones that I rated? They all had some kind of instant appeal: the gut instinct that says “that’s a good shot“. Not always easy to define why, but I think one or more of the following would have come into my mind, albeit subconsciously:

  • Composition
  • Lighting
  • Colour
  • Expression or gesture

What I don’t believe I was thinking about at this first pass was:

  • Narrative
  • Denotation vs connotation
  • ‘Meaning’

3. Second pass: 38

A more thorough review this time round, including weeding out duplicates by selecting the best version of a chosen scene. The aim this time is to both deselect (by downgrading as many of the 3s as possible to a rating of 2) and to select (by upgrading the promising ones to a 4). A total of 38 images survived this particular cull.

Second pass

By this stage I was trying to identify where each image might fit in the overall structure. I had in mind a reasonably strong plan on what kind of images I wanted to open and close the set, and some ideas on the content of the middle portions. I was also starting to categorise the photos along the lines of the classic photo essay image types (hook, establishing, medium, gesture, interaction, detail, portrait, closing etc).

4. Shortlist: 24

By this point I was working towards a particular number: I want to have 12 images for the submission, plus a second set of 12 alternative shots in case my tutor advises any swap-outs. To further refine from 38 down to 24 I needed to think more specifically about what messages and/or narrative thread was emerging, and whether the images shortlisted supported or interrupted this message or narrative.

My initial curiosity about the church could be summarised along the lines of: “What does a church do apart from hold a weekly church service?“, and this question provided a framework for the sequence – something like:

  • First few pictures from the Sunday service
    • to establish this as the starting point for my understanding of a church
  • Add in other church events
    • that are more unusual or outside of my sphere of experience
    • such as Coffee House Church
  • Widen the scope to cover activities beyond church services
    • such as the town centre cafe / community centre
  • Widen the scope further to look at what the church does for the wider community, whether church members or not
    • such as the food banks
  • Close by recognising that part of the aim of these activities is to spread the word about the church
    • by covering one of their educational / ‘recruitment’-type events

Final 24

By focusing on the above framework I managed to get the 38 down to 24 that supported my intended message.

5. Final set: 12

Nearly there, now I just needed to divide the 24 into an A-list and a B-list…

This is the tricky part, as by now I’ve already established that all 24 could have a place in the photo essay. So for the first time on a project like this, I took an approach that was both analytical and physical: I printed out b/w draft versions the 24 images onto forms that I made up to capture brief information about the characteristics of each image. I was looking to answer the question: what makes this an interesting enough photograph?

I broke this question down into various dimensions:

  • Szarkowski’s five elements of a photograph from The Photographer’s Eye (1966)
    • The Thing Itself, the Detail, the Frame, Time, Vantage Point
  • A few of the facets of strong composition I admire in the likes of Larry Fink, from his book On Composition and Improvisation (2014):
    • Depth, layering, diagonals, edges, tension
  • Some principles of Gestalt visual design, mainly from Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye (2011)
    • Closure, equilibrium, continuity, proximity, similarity, figure-to-ground
  • Other general good practice:
    • Leading lines, focal points
  • Symbolism:
    • Signifiers/signified, denotation/connotation, gestures, expressions etc

I looked at each image under all of these headings. I scribbled notes and drew lines on the prints. As an aside, having the printouts in b/w and fairly small helped me to focus on the key compositional elements (apparently Henri Cartier-Bresson used to view images from other photographers upside-down to see if they still had the same visual appeal – Lubben 2011: 12).

printouts

This exercise was extremely useful; fairly quickly the printouts were divided into Yes, Maybe, No piles. Then I laid out the draft sequence with the Yes prints, picked out a couple of the Maybes and voila – a final set of 12.

Whilst this kind of analytical approach isn’t scientific by any means, it did help to focus my mind on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of each image. I like to think I’ll use this technique again in future.

6. Book layout

Strictly speaking this isn’t a selection step, but it worked as a kind of a safety measure. I wanted to see whether laying the images out in a book dummy would make me swap any of them. It didn’t, but it did make me consider a couple of alternative sequences.

Book layout PDF

That’s it – I’m meeting the minister tomorrow to see if he has any issues with congregation pictures (really hoping not), then writing it all up for submission!

Sources

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

Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. New York: Thames & Hudson

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Eye (digital edn). Lewes: Ilex Press.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye (4th edn). New York: MOMA.

Assignment 1: research

I’ve been looking at how other photographers have captured religious communities. It’s been surprisingly difficult to find many examples that really fit the criteria that I’m looking for: photo essays observing a particular religious community from the inside.

There are lots of religion-themed photo essays around but many are either too broad in scope (e.g. Christianity in a whole country) or too narrow (e.g. prayer cards). I’ve been looking for examples of a traditional ‘fly-on-the-wall’ observational documentary approach to an otherwise closed-off community.

I think, based on my own experience in securing approval to do my project, religious communities are often understandably wary of misrepresentation by outsiders. The minister of the pentecostal church that I’m observing made the point that worship is a very personal experience and he has a duty of pastoral care to make sure that members of his congregation are not exploited.

That said, I did find a few example projects that I could learn from. I’m particularly interested in the specific subject matter that these projects have chosen, and how the subjects have been represented in the frame in terms of any distinctive visual style.

Jan Sochor’s Palo: African Ritual in Cuba

Sochor - Palo
Palo: African Ritual in Cuba – Jan Rochor 2009

http://www.jansochor.com/photo-essay/palo-african-ritual-in-cuba

Sochor’s subject matter is, to ‘civilised’ eyes, easy to perceive as sensationalist. The Palo religion blends elements of other faiths including Christianity and animism into a distinctive visual spectacle. The photos range from portraits through ritual events to still life compositions of significant artefacts.

The style is colourful and engaging, although Sochor’s preference for a jaunty angle (to suggest edginess, or quirkiness?) gets a little tiring. Close-ups of hands focus the attention on the rituals rather than the individuals, and these detail shots work well. Overall it’s a success: one does get a strong sense of the ‘otherness’ of the Palo people, yet it stays on the right side of sensationalism (just).

Richard Renaldi’s Inside a Mormon Ward

BibleStudy2009CA-2
Bible Class – Inside a Mormon Ward – Richard Renaldi 2009

http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1903792,00.html

On this assignment for Time magazine, Renaldi captured a community of Californian Mormons around the time that the church was embroiled in controversy over its support of anti-gay marriage legislation. Ironically, Renaldi is gay and made no secret of this. The resulting pictures, however, betray no such tension or any agenda from either party – they are a very neutral, objective-looking set of images in a traditional documentary style. Compared to the hyperactive Palo project, this is very much deadpan in style.

The overriding sense I got from the images was however that they really needed the accompanying captions to work; without the words, most of these images could have been of any small-town US community. In comparison, Sochor’s work detailed above is visually so distinctive as to (almost) be able to stand alone from its words.

Chloe Dewe Mathews’ Hasidic Holiday

Mathews - Hasidic
Hasidic Holiday – Chloe Dewe Mathews 2009

http://www.chloedewemathews.com/hasidic-holiday/

Mathews focuses her camera on a particular fragment of Hasidic community life: the tradition for large groups of British orthodox Jews to decamp to the Welsh coastal town of Aberystwyth for a two-week summer holiday. The temptation here is to over-emphasise the juxtaposition of the traditionally quite serious Hasidic Jews with the frivolous atmosphere of the seaside resort – the ‘fish out of water’ trope.

Though generally the images are quite objective or in some cases warm and affectionate, I do think that very occasionally Mathews falls into inadvertently coming across as slightly mocking – the image of the three men in traditional orthodox dress rolling around on the beach has a touch of ‘BBC3 sketch show’ about it. However, this is really the exception that highlights where the line should have been drawn (for me, anyway), and the balance of the series come down on the right side of ‘curious observer’. Again like the Sochor work (and unlike the Renaldi work) these images are so visually distinctive that the captions are almost optional.

Summary

So what have I learned? Mainly that a visually distinctive set of subjects makes the whole enterprise so much easier! The pentecostal church that I am capturing, however, has much more in common with the Mormons than the Palo or the Hasidic Jews. This means that I will have to work a little harder to make the images visually arresting. And I will need to rely on captions to put the images in context for the viewer.

I’ve also learned that a mixture of viewpoints, compositional techniques and focal lengths helps to bring a sense of visual variety – and consequently a narrative thrust – to a photo essay.

Sources

http://www.jansochor.com/photo-essay/palo-african-ritual-in-cuba (accessed 19/02/2016)

http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1903792,00.html (accessed 19/02/2016)

http://www.chloedewemathews.com/hasidic-holiday/ (accessed 19/02/2016)

Assignment 1: progress update

Theme

To recap: I’m doing an assignment on the work of a local pentecostal church. My working title – and one of the guiding principles for the intended narrative thread – is “Not a Building“. This is extracted from a phrase that I picked out of the church newsletter, and have heard repeated by the minister: “A church is not a building, it’s a community“. This phrase gave me the grip that I needed on the subject matter. The phrase inspired me in two dimensions:

  • firstly, the church is its own community
  • secondly, the church works hard to support and serve the wider local community

Shooting

Whilst I’ve been quiet on here, I’ve been busy in real life. I’ve done four shooting sessions with the church, and have several hundred images in the bag. I have taken pictures at:

  • a Sunday service
  • a community café prayer group
  • a food bank
  • a ‘Christianity Explored’ educational course

One final session is planned, this Sunday, at the informal ‘Coffee House Church’ service at the church’s town centre community café. This should give me the spread of activities that I am looking for in order to suggest a narrative about the work of the church in the community.

Selecting

Side-note: in a way this point really belongs partly under the ‘Shooting’ heading above, and partly here… I am trying, as far as possible, to choose interesting compositions (subject matter, vantage points, framing, balance, leading lines etc etc) in camera, and I feel I’ve succeeded on this in some cases. However, a lot of the shooting has been very instinctive and it’s been in the editing process where I’ve identified which images are most visually coherent – and in some cases been kicking myself for not spotting an alternative angle or a crop at the time.

Whether I knew I got it ‘right’ in camera or spotted it on the computer afterwards, I am looking at the images taken and reviewing them against some principles of ‘good practice’ in order to maximise the visual interest in the images – each photo should be A Good Photo as well as supporting the overriding theme.

Three sources in particular are providing some valuable guidance on this:

  • John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye (1966) and its criteria of The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage point
  • Larry Fink’s On Composition and Improvisation (2014) and in particular its emphasis on diagonals, depth, layering and edges in their roles of helping lead the viewer’s eye
  • Gestalt design principles such as figure-to-ground ratio, proximity, similarity, closure etc, largely from Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye (2011)

Research

In parallel with shooting sessions I have been looking at how other photographers have captured religious communities. I’m particularly interested in their choices of specific subject matter and visual style. This is the subject of a separate post.

Sources

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

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Eye (digital edn). Lewes: Ilex Press.

Szarkowski, J. (2007). The Photographer’s Eye (4th edn). New York: MOMA.

Assignment 1: planning progress

I haven’t provided an update on this for a while, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I got started on the Documentary module, which I will continue in parallel with Gesture & Meaning for the foreseeable future; and secondly, I was awaiting a planning meeting with a key individual whose approval is required for shooting at the various locations and events I wish to cover. This meeting took place yesterday and I can now articulate what I’m going to do in a little more detail.

Note that from this point on, and most likely for the entirety of this assignment, I will not be able to post any photos that will be publicly accessible. I will need to protect certain pages on my learning log.

Subject and theme

As previously noted, my proposed subject is a local pentecostal church.

The reason I am drawn to this (I will refine these words into an ‘artist statement’) is that I have been a lapsed Roman Catholic for just over 30 years, and consider myself a ‘humanist’ rather than being aligned to any religious faith – or taking a particular anti-religious stance as some atheists do. Meanwhile, the vast majority of media representation of religion (across all religions) tends to focus on the negative aspects: fundamentalism, diversity issues, sexual abuse and so on. In an increasingly secular world it’s easy to get a very skewed, negative view of religion.

Then I made the acquaintance of a very enthusiastic, positive, progressive and friendly Christian who suggested that there’s more to religion than I thought. With an open mind I’ve decided to investigate what a church community is and does that I am not aware of.

In terms of focusing the subject matter down to a manageable theme, the meeting yesterday with the church minister was extremely enlightening. Initially I thought that the thrust of the photo essay would be built around the Sunday service (I attended one such service and came away full of ideas on how best to capture the atmosphere), with a handful of images that depict other aspects of the church. Following the meeting I’m more interested in flipping that the other way round: a couple of images from a church service and the majority of images covering other aspects of their community work that I wasn’t aware of.

The big message that came across from my research and encounters with the church members is centred around the phrase “a church is not a building, it’s a community“. The church has a number of projects and services that connect it to the wider local community, such as youth activities, food banks, debt advice services, coffee mornings, informal prayer groups and scheduled educational courses on exploring Christianity.

I came away from the planning meeting with a sense that the more interesting story to tell is what the church does between Sunday services…! Everyone knows (or assumes) that church has a Sunday service, but how many people know about all the other activities?

As well as providing a greater variety of imagery, the mix of locations and events may become a necessity as the only real concern that the minister has about the whole project is whether it is appropriate to photograph people worshipping without their explicit consent. He has agreed to consult with his peers, his regional leadership and some congregation members to come to a set of parameters on what is acceptable for me to photograph as part of an actual service. It may be that I am limited to photographing the minister himself, or a handful of pre-approved congregation members; or it may be that I need to anonymise the churchgoers by excluding faces, etc. The exact restrictions will determine how the church service itself can fit into my narrative.

Rough shooting plan

  • Confirm three individuals willing to participate as subjects:
    • the minister
    • someone with a reasonable level of seniority / specific responsibility in the church (minister has suggested someone)
    • someone younger who is actively engaged in the church and represents the ‘up and coming’ element of the church (minister has suggested someone)
  • Shadow each person for a day or so while they are carrying out activities that demonstrate the breadth of community engagement
  • Potential structure:
    • opening shot/s at the main Sunday service to set the scene of the ‘expected’ representation of the church
    • 2-3 shots each from 3-4 different events or aspects of church-community outreach (featuring the three ‘characters’ identified above to represent different facets of the church)
    • conclude the set with an image from a ‘Christianity Explored’ session (the educational project for potential new church members), to give a narrative direction to the series
  • Timings:
    • this is the tricky part!
    • due to the need for scheduling meetings and negotiating with the minister, I am about a week further behind than I’d like to be
    • I have set a target delivery date for the assignment of 24th February
    • the earliest I can get started this week is Thursday 11th – which will give me 11 possible shooting days (including weekends) and 3 days to pull it all together
    • should be fine… :-)

Next steps

  • Research similar projects from other photographers (for inspiration / to avoid too many clichés)
  • Schedule shadowing days with three key individuals
  • Confirm shooting parameters for Sunday service (next couple of days)
  • Shoot at this Sunday’s service, subject to above
  • Carry out shadowing days (ideally between 11th and 19th February)
  • Select, process and finalise images
  • Book dummy layout
  • Submission

EDIT: updated later in the day… the minister has confirmed that I am OK to start shooting at church events on Thursday and at the service this Sunday. So my timeline remains intact!

Assignment 1: Slight change of plan

My assignment 1 subject was going to be ‘the elderly’ but my research has taken me down another path and I am now pursuing a different idea.

In short, one of the first people I spoke to as part of my research invited me to come along to a service at her pentecostal church. I did so, and it was a fascinating experience. As a lapsed Catholic and long-time atheist I found the pentecostal version of ‘church’ to be entirely different to my concept or memory of it. It got me thinking about how the perceptions of religions in a largely secular society are increasingly driven by stereotypes and generalisations, often negative ones.

The demographic mix at the church is only slightly skewed in favour of the older person that I was originally going to have as my overall subject, and also includes a healthy variety of age, gender and race. And as a subject for an assignment on a course called Gesture & Meaning the church quite an appropriate subject – very expressive, celebratory and joyful.

Right now this subject matter appeals to me a lot more than the generic ‘older people’ theme. This is something I am genuinely curious about and can use the photography project as a vehicle for satisfying that curiosity.

So… I have set up a meeting with the church’s Pastor to discuss the possibility of me doing a photo project on the church community. I do need to keep in mind the brief and ensure that this is done in the service of what the brief calls ‘documentary values’.

I will update my preparation after my meeting with the Pastor. In the meantime I will continue with the research into contemporary documentary practitioners.

Assignment 1: Preparation – being there

This post isn’t quite a research point, nor is it an exercise – it’s really a kind of structured response to one of the points raised in the Altruism in practice section in the course handbook. I needed to consider the points raised here as part of my assignment preparation.

I broke the ‘being there’ discussion down into two questions:

  • Consensual or candid?
  • Insider or outsider?

Consensual or candid

I believe that most successful documentary photography employs an element of consent; whilst it is not about every single shot being approved before the shutter is pressed, the general approval to shoot should have been given by either collaborative or authority consent. The downside to this is that the act of observation risks changing that which is observed! A successful documentary photographer makes themselves so unobtrusive that the subjects do not change their behaviour significantly in their presence. I presume this is why some documentary projects are so lengthy – a lot of time may be needed for this kind of trust (or ‘invisibility’!) to develop.

Pure candid photography (along the lines of classic street photography) is potentially an appropriate vehicle for social documentary but is open to accusations of exploitation. Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) is often held up as a successful example of candid documentary, though its scope is a whole nation so it’s a set of broad ‘truths’ about a society that emerge rather than specific revelations about a single community. Candid documentary is also at risk of being too shallow or misinterpreting the situation – missing the important context that might better explain what is unfolding in front of the camera.

Insider or outsider

The subject of whether an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ is better placed to document a community is an interesting one. From my point of view, particularly with selecting a subject for Assignment 1, I need to decide whether to photograph a ‘community’ that I am already part of, or one that I am merely temporarily observing for the purposes of the project.

The classic text on this subject is Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s 1994 essay Inside/Out – I confess that I have not been able to source the original essay but I have read the summary and analysis of it in Basic Critical Theory for Photographers (La Grange 2005). Solomon-Godeau’s examination on the issue can potentially be boiled down to the dilemma in this sentence: “We see truth as being on the inside, yet define objectivity as being on the outside.” (La Grange 2005: 126). Without positioning her views at either extreme, Solomou-Godeau is more critical of outsider photography in that some veers too far towards voyeurism or exploitation.

Whilst the criticism of outsider photography is understandable and often justified, for the sake of balance I offer two concerns about insider documentary photography: firstly, the insider risks being so close to the subject matter to not be able to discern what is interesting; and secondly, it requires a member of the community to be a curious and skilled documentarian like a Nan Goldin or a Larry Clark (and frankly able to afford a camera) and so the concept of insider photography is inherently self-limiting. Some ‘truths’ can only be revealed by an outsider (the notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ i will cover in a separate post).

For me the sweet spot rests between the two extremes, though closer to the outsider end of the continuum; an outsider who embeds themselves in the community long enough to get under its skin (the ‘temporary insider’?), without being a ‘full member’… someone who can, over time, make themselves invisible enough for the scene to revert to its natural state – Chris Killip and (early) Martin Parr for example. There still remains the risk that in the selection and editing of the images, the photographer could be misrepresenting the ‘scene’, but this is the nature of multiple subjective ‘truths’.

Assignment implications

So what does all this mean for my proposed Assignment 1?

My preference is definitely for getting consent to shoot, as the ability to see a community in its own environment, at close quarters, must be more fruitful than stalking people on the street! My problem is that so far, both of the organisations I have approached for permission to shoot have not yet approved my request. I will persist.

I’m clearly not going to live with a community for any length of time like Killip or 1970s Parr, so the ’embedded outsider’ compromise isn’t an option. In this respect I am the classic outsider – swooping in, trying to be a fly on the wall, hoping I can get a feel for the community in a short space of time. Might be challenging! I love a challenge though.

Sources

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press