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 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.



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


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


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.


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 5: Portrait Not Portrait [original]

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

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

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


Thank you.


Assignment 5: image decisions

I believe I’ve finalised the content of my oral presentation Portrait Not Portrait after an intensive few days pulling it together. I’ve done the slides themselves, written a script per slide and done a few runs through.

Screen Shot 2016-11-10 at 11.23.33.jpg

I just need to do the voiceover and it should be ready for upload and comment.

This post is to talk a little about how and why I chose the example images. Apologies, it’s quite long. I used a lot of images!

Overall principles

I looked at the key points I was trying to make per section, and at the examples I had selected and tried to map how I was representing each topic:

  • Eras of time covered in the ‘history’ section
    • In an early version I had too much from the 1930s/40s
  • Colour palette
    • As black and white historically tended to dominate documentary photography
    • In the end it was just about tipped (16:15) in favour of colour
  • Nationalities of photographer
    • As I’m conscious of bias to US/UK in a lot of academic sources
    • In the end it was almost but not quite evenly split between US, UK and the rest of the world
  • Gender
    • There’s been a clear gender bias throughout history, so aiming for 50:50 would have been unrealistic and unrepresentative
    • It was 80% male, 20% female for quite a while, but I ended up taking Dorothea Lange out (sorry, Dorothea) and ended up with 84% to 16%

In the end I’m happy with the edit and the flow. I’m sure I could have built many different versions. I’m sure I’ve excluded some important people and examples.

General images

I sought images for certain pages that didn’t necessarily need to support particular voiceover points but rather could just exist as simple visual punctuation.

The opening and closing slides were chosen for their composition – full-length  body shots – as I needed to overlay text blocks and this would not have worked with closer compositions, with the risk of obscuring facial features. Additionally, as full-screen images they needed to be in landscape ratio, not the norm for portraiture.

The Alec Soth image on the title slide is a great example of both the documentary and portraiture genres as it evokes the aesthetic most closely associated with the former and the single-subject focus of the latter. Getting specific at a graphic level, the horizontal pipe in the background perfectly dissected the image  and gave me space for the text block.

The David Chancellor image is visually useful in the same way, with its strong horizontal delineation that accommodates the text block. The colours and the punctum of the bloodied face are what makes this a striking closing image. As an aside, this is one of the slides where I picked a key colour from the photograph to use as the title text colour – a tiny point but one that I feel subtly helps the image and text work together coherently.

The contents page and the ‘What’ section title also needed images that made no specific point but gave examples of the breadth of the genre. I was drawn to both the composition and the muted palette of the Phil Borges image, as both differed sufficiently from all the other examples to get across my intended diversity . The face paint is later echoed by the Chancellor image, though I only noticed after the event. There’s a tiny punctum in the Borges photo that makes it successful: the biro cap on the necklace. There’s a story there, and seeing the image makes me want to know more.

The Mimi Mollica image is more in the traditional documentary photography tradition as seen by both the mono palette and the setting. It’s the thin, scarred face that makes this image so striking; again it begs for a narrative explanation.

For the brief comparison of portraiture vs documentary I wanted images that typified the genres. I love the Julian Germain image – it has the direct, consensual focus on one person that I wanted to get across, and possesses a warmth and humanity that’s helped by the colour palette and lighting.

The Mary Ellen Mark example is stereotypical documentary. Black and white, gritty subject matter, urban setting, subjects not addressing the camera. This all helped serve my point that documentary photography is about a wider reality over individual subjects.

For the other context slide where I talk about how a traditional portrait is different to a documentary portrait I wanted to make a simple point about the subject focus being the differentiator. The Christoph Soeder image is one I’ve done a visual analysis of already, but in short I felt it illustrated my point about a ‘pure’ portrait being both of and about the individual.

The photo by Brent Stirton uses props and a background that make it clear that the human subject is but one part of a bigger story. I was happy here to invert a couple of the genre norms: the colour palette is one and the gaze to camera (or  not) is the other. I wanted to show that the norms that I had established were not set in stone.


It felt appropriate to open the historical section with an August Sander, and I felt that one of his most famous images would work best.

Starting with the typology section: the John Lamprey diptych was chosen above similar examples by other photographers for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the use of frontal and profile views in one image, particularly against the grid background, really emphasised my point about treating people as specimens. Secondly, the only nudes in the presentation are, in an inversion of the general photographic norm, male rather than female.

For the specific Sander examples I wanted multiple images to emphasise the posing similarities. I chose three with differences in contrast: the first in shades of grey and the latter two with strong figure-to-ground contrast. My intent here was to show that though poses can be standardised, Sander did find ways of providing visual diversity. For me this set of three images is an exercise in first of all spotting the similarities, then the differences.

The Daniel Meadows images were chosen as I wanted to break the run of adult males in this section, so I selected a child and a woman. I found the boy’s face in particular very striking. [UPDATE: on advice from my tutor I will replace this image as it doesn’t align closely enough with my voiceover point about the images being non-judgemental; it could be interpreted that the boy was ill-at-ease and potentially had learning difficulties, and could therefore have been exploited.]

I felt that the social documentary section would work well opening with a Lewis Hine child labour portrait, and settled on this one for the unsettling gaze of the subject, and the diminishing perspective behind. The separation of subject and background seems to me to emphasise that she doesn’t belong there.

I wanted to include at least one iconic FSA-era image and at one point had both this Walker Evans picture and Lange’s Migrant Mother, but the later got cut. As noted in the voice-over, the visual style of this is very distinctive, with lens compression pushing the subject so close to the wall that she looks pinned, which could be a signifier.

The Chris Killip images as a contrast to the previous two head-on portraits to show how documentary portraiture had evolved by the 1970s. I find the graphical form of the first image very arresting – bunched up in an almost foetal position; the despair is tangible. The second image is one that is analysed in an excellent book The Documentary Impulse (2016) by Stuart Franklin, where it is used as an example of ambiguity in documentary photography. This pair of images made my point about a portrait not needing to clearly show a person’s face, and how this can heighten a metaphorical message. I also like the pleasing symmetry of the two subjects both sitting on walls. The distinctive brickwork places the tightly-cropped subjects in a specific urban environment with minimal detail.

Once I move onto self-expressive documentary it seemed obvious (perhaps too obvious?) to cover Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin. With hindsight these two make largely the same point about the autobiographical nature of some documentary portraiture. In both I was drawn to the piercing, challenging gaze.

Richard Billingham‘s Ray’s A Laugh project came to mind while researching this assignment, and I looked for images that most resembled portraiture – most of the images are wider scenes. I think it’s the masks in the background that make this image. It may not be an intended reading but masks always signify identity to me, and I read the overall project as a kind of examination of family roles and identities.


I open the contemporary section with an image by Chris de Bode, whose work I also discuss within the section. I find this opening image visually striking mostly because of the strong gaze.

The Charles Fréger set that opens the typology slide is intended to be a counterpart to the Sander trio from earlier, to draw out the differences in approach. This project and these portraits in particular appealed to me because, as well as getting over my point about diversity of subject, they just look so young and ill-at-ease that I find them fascinating.

Wherever possible I wanted to introduce sufficient contrast to make my points, so moved from Fréger’s deadpan colour poses to Zed Nelson‘s characterful black and white squares. As well as the strong mono contrasts, it’s the expressions that bring these alive, particularly on the chap on the right.

The contemporary social documentary slide is where I talk about Chris de Bode, though I’d used what I consider his best image as the section opener so looked for his second best. Like the earlier shot it combines a great facial expression with good background context.

The Lee Jeffries project I researched produced many strong images but this was most visually striking. It’s the combination of glassy eyes (cataracts?), the deeply aged skin and the running nose. This stood out as the best example of what Jeffries called the ‘heavy emotions’ he encounters in his subjects.

Boris Mikhailov is used as an counterpoint to the previous two examples that social documentary is more ethical now than before, and in some cases it’s the opposite. This particular image was chosen, to be honest, because most of the others were a little too extreme and would have been more jarring in the presentation context.

Finally in this section, I wanted to bring in photographers that push the boundaries of ‘documentary’ and how their portraits can overlap into fine art. Tom Hunter and his Vermeer homage sprang to mind immediately. It’s a good example of an identifiable art style being adopted, and so is a nice gentle introduction to the notion of hybrid genres before getting more conceptual with the next example.

The Aida Silvestri work is something I saw at The Photographers Gallery a couple of years ago and it stayed in my mind. It’s an amazing blend of documentary, fine art and portraiture, and it completely subverts the portraiture norm of showing the face. Obscured face portraits is something of an interest of mine.

Moving from something so conceptual to the straight photography style of Alex Soth might seem like a odd move, but I wanted to close with a style more like my own before I segue into my own practice. Soth is an art-documentarian in a much more subtle way than the others, in as much as his work is shot in a very naturalistic way, yet has an elegiac, melancholy feel to it that is difficult to articulate.


Putting together this last section was almost the inverse of the first parts – rather than structuring a line of argument and then sourcing images that support the theory, for this part I needed to collate a cross-section of my own work for the last few years and retrospectively find common threads, then apply these to the points raised in my analysis of the work of others.

Without going overboard on the self-analysis here, I found examples of:

  • Typologies
  • Archetypes (metonyms)
  • Narrative devices
  • Metaphor
  • Portrait subject as key part of story

One consequence of this assignment is that I’m realising that the most valuable part hasn’t been demonstrating my knowledge of the subject, but examining my own work.

The whole last section has been a revelation to me. I got a lot out of retrospectively identifying what I was doing and why – and more importantly I felt that I got a lot out of articulating what I will do with this knowledge in future.

The cutting room floor

Just FYI, here are some images I considered as part of my research but ultimately excluded:

Assignment 5: progress

As well as doing a mind map recently to organise my overall thoughts for this presentation, I have been working on a number of other strands in terms of context, structure and key messages – summarised here as a progress update as otherwise it might look like the final assignment arrived fully-formed (far from it).

My tutor is always reminding me that I need to document my working processes as I go along, layering up to the final delivered piece of work. I think this applies to academic assignments like critical reviews and oral presentations as much as photographic ones.

To this end, here are some reasonably structured updates on how I’ve been approaching the assignment.


I’m a huge believer in the importance of a good title – I’ve blogged about this before on previous assignments. I often find that a project really starts clicking into place when I believe I have a title that suits it.

This time around I was looking for a succinct main title – short titles suit audio-visual presentations in my opinion – that could be further clarified with a subtitle.

One of the driving forces behind my attraction to the subject matter is my fascination that one genre of photography is used within another, yet subverts its original intent – a ‘true portrait’ is about the individual, while a ‘documentary portrait’ uses an individual to represent a wider point. The former is defined ‘inside-out’ while the latter is defined ‘outside-in’, if that makes sense. I want to get across this ‘it is but it isn’t a portrait‘ dichotomy.

My planned title for the presentation is:

Portrait Not Portrait

My more descriptive subtitle is in effect my working title so far:

Portraiture as a device in documentary photography


I had originally envisaged a simple three-part structure following the advice of my tutor:

  • History
  • Contemporary practice
  • My own practice

Working on the aforementioned mind map made me realise that there is a need for a short upfront section at the beginning to define my terms. It’s just a couple of slides but it really helps to correctly frame everything that follows. In particular I wanted to clearly present my distinction between a traditional portrait and a documentary portrait, as described above.


I’m increasingly a visual thinker, so as well as doing the mind map I really wanted to make sure I had a presentation format that I felt best served the content. T0 this end, after I’d started my research and brainstorming I mocked up the presentation template that I want to the content to drop into.

My main criteria were:

  • Image-centric
  • Clean and contemporary

So far I am working with the template shown below:

Screen Shot 2016-11-07 at 11.13.23.jpg

Seeing the presentation itself take shape in parallel with the content being formed and tweaked is how I work best on things like this. The building up of the presentation in layers, filling in levels of detail iteratively, suits the way my mind works.


Here’s a summary of the planned content of the presentation and the arguments I want to get across.

“What” – definitions

I’m reasonably comfortable with these two slides so far:

  • One defining genres of portraiture and documentary photography
  • One differentiating between a traditional portrait and one used as a documentary device

“Then” – history

In the mind mapping stage I worked out how I want to organise this section – a chronological history seemed inappropriate and potentially overwhelming for five minutes of content, so I think a more useful way of looking at the past is to identify a few categories of documentary portraiture, from a point of view of intent, e.g.:

  • Typology
  • Ethnography
  • Empathetic social documentary
  • Self-expression

This lends itself to map on the types of representation I listed in the definitions section:

  • Metaphor
  • Metonym
  • Narrative device

I also wish to analyse in this section some of the common visual language used in historic documentary portraiture.

I will touch upon some ethical aspects of critical theory (such as the Gaze, the Other etc) but to go too deeply into these could derail the main flow so I need to be careful here.

“Now” – contemporary practice

For consistency I will also look at this from a category point of view, looking at a few different types of documentary portraiture evident among current practitioners.

I want to use this section to highlight some ethical comparisons with how documentary portraiture has been done in the past, in particular ideas around respect for the individual.

I also want to examine the visual language being used by some key contemporary photographers, and how this has evolved from the more straight portraiture employed in the past.

“Me” – my own practice

This is where my recent research has taught me things about my own work that I hadn’t previously recognised. Looking at the different uses of portraiture in documentary and then applying the categorisation retrospectively to my own project archive has been an eye-opener. I am now more aware of how I’ve used people in my projects.

I most often use metonymy, as in using a person to represent a wider group or situation. I very rarely do purely typological projects, however – the use of person as exemplar / archetype is normally in the context of serving a wider narrative rather than being the end in itself. Occasionally I use a portrait as a metaphorical device, and I will include an example or two of this in the presentation.

The research has made me think about how to more consciously use portraiture in projects going forward. It has made me think about the ethical issues around using people as representatives over individuals, and how to mitigate the risks.

Specifically regarding subject matter, I’ve recently realised that a majority of my projects have been one one of two subject themes – which can overlap but are also separable: firstly, social inequality; and secondly, voluntary organisations. Both of these lend themselves to a respectful use of portraiture. I will expand on this a little in the voiceover.


I want the presentation to be very visual. Text should be kept to a minimum. Images and voiceover should carry the majority of the key messages. I’ve been gathering images for the last few weeks and will determine which are best suited to supporting my points per section/slide as I build up draft versions of the presentation. Some examples below:


Last but not least, I’ve been testing out the technology. I’m using Apple’s Keynote presentation app rather than PowerPoint, and I’ve trialled recording a voiceover to match the slides, and exporting the presentation to a video file. Both tests were reasonably successful. My main learning was to get a microphone to plug into my computer, as the sound from the internal mic is distractingly tinny.

Next steps

  • Select example images per section
  • Construct draft slides per section
  • Produce first full draft in next couple of days
  • Refine and publish for comment
  • Finalise for tutor submission

Assignment 5: mind map

I’m starting to embrace mind mapping as a technique for preparing academic assignments, on the advice of one of my tutors. I have used them on and off in the past but they do seem to be particularly suited to critical review essays and this oral presentation, as they help me in structuring the overall flow and argument of the work, in identifying content gaps, and in spotting connections between aspects of my scope.



This will no doubt be a work in progress until I finish the presentation. It’s helping me so far, anyway.

Assignment 5: proposal

After a fairly intense first four sections on this course it was a pleasant surprise to see that sections 5 and 6 have no coursework, only an assignment each.

Assignment 5 is the oral presentation, and the brief is detailed below, with annotation where appropriate.


For your oral presentation, you’re free to choose from any of the study areas on this course – social documentary, fine art photography, portrait photography or advertising photography.

My tutor advised me to make the subject of the oral presentation (and the critical review) something that fits in wth my own practice and/or my developing personal voice. My realisation of recent weeks is that my work is predominantly most closely aligned to documentary photography in some form or other – the subject matter is always based on some reality rather than acts of pure imagination.

I’m attracted to what might be termed ‘expressive documentary’ (or ambiguous, or poetic…) rather than straight, didactic social documentary. I like to lean towards the ‘creative treatment’ part of John Grierson’s definition of the genre as “the creative treatment of actuality”.

With this in mind, I want to make both my oral presentation and critical review documentary-focused to one degree or another. However, I don’t just want to run through a potted history of documentary photography here, I want to look at how it borders with or overlaps into one of the other genres listed above.

After briefly considering the overlap between documentary and fine art, I landed on an examination of the use of portraiture in documentary projects. More details below.

Prepare your presentation in PowerPoint and deliver it to camera. Your presentation should demonstrate your understanding of the underpinning issues behind your chosen area of study and how you’ll adapt them to your own future practice.

Not sure if or why PowerPoint is mandated, as the final output is a video file – I know other students have used iMovie, and I was planning on using Keynote… we’ll see.

Your presentation should look at:

  •  the historical background
  •  contemporary practitioners, visual language, influences and contexts
  •  the relevance to your own practice
  • your future plans and direction and possible projects relating to this area of study.

Your presentation should be 15 minutes long (± 2 minutes).

From discussing this with my tutor, her recommendation is to divide the presentation into three five minute segments, first on the history, second on the contemporary use and third combining the last two points about my current work and future plans.

Post your presentation onto the OCA website or to your own website. There must be a facility for student reviewers to ask you questions about your presentation and for you to reply and post both questions and the answers that you give.

I’m going to see if I can embed it directly here on this blog.

Proposed theme


Portraiture as a device in documentary photography

… meaning the use of pictures of people not to communicate something about the character of the subject (as per the traditional definition of a portrait) but to illustrate a wider social documentary issue.

This can take various forms:

  • Person as symbol (metaphor)
  • Person as specimen (metonymy e.g. typologies)
  • Person to illustrate narrative point

I do want to place certain criteria on the subject however, to avoid the scope become too broad – I want the images I select as examples to resemble a portrait, even if the intent is different.

  • Person is the main subject matter in the frame
  • Person is aware of being photographed

I have a few photographers in mind already – August Sander, Robert Frank, Alec Soth, Zed Nelson, Charles Freger, Daniel Meadows – but I’m sure I’ll come across and include many others…

Next steps

  • Research historic photographers
  • Research contemporary photographers
  • Draft an outline structure

Reflection: personal voice

I had a lightbulb moment over the weekend.

So far I’ve found Gesture & Meaning to be quite frustrating in its fragmentary nature – it sometimes feels like it’s been compiled by multiple authors given a genre each, and the connections between the sections are minimal. I also felt that such a disjointed syllabus was getting in the way of me discovering my developing ‘personal voice’, something that I was hoping would become clearer as I moved through Level 2. The genre-hopping felt a little artificial, a little forced and I felt it was holding me back. My other Level 2 course Documentary feels more coherent and in line with my own developing practice.

My eureka moment came on a long countryside walk after an email exchange with my G&M tutor Helen.

The email conversation was about subject ideas for Assignment 5 (the oral presentation) and Assignment 6 (the critical review). Helen’s advice was to make sure both assignments relate in some way to my own developing practice. This (obvious and sensible) insight made me question why I had been considering doing my critical review on portraiture, given that I have no practical interest in taking portraits, only an academic interest in the viewing of other people’s work.

Framing the two final assignments in this context (of relativity to own practice) made me realise what I consider to be my own ‘style’, or preferred way of working. I came to the conclusion that my practice might be pretentiously described as ‘expressive documentary’.

By this I mean: I like to work with real life rather than pure imagination; I prefer to capture than to create; there’s a foundation of reality in everything that I do – but I find ‘pure’ (objective, deadpan, neutral, eye-witness) documentary to be a little dull. I like to find ways of expressing ‘truths’ that are visually interesting and thought-provoking rather than in-your-face.

On the revelatory Sunday afternoon walk I mentally ran through my four G&M assignments so far to look for a connecting thread, and I found one…

  1. Social Documentary assignment: I unsurprisingly used a traditional eye-witness documentary photography approach
  2. Fine Art assignment: I chose subject matter of social documentary origin (food poverty) but executed in a semi-surreal way
  3. Portrait assignment: I chose subject matter of social documentary origin (a voluntary group – OK, this is the most tenuous link…)
  4. Advertising assignment (w-i-p): I chose as subject matter a social ’cause’ in response to a recent event

The thread is now visible to me. I like to choose subjects of documentary interest, whatever the overall genre norms or assignment parameters are.

I was reminded of some reading that I’d done on the Documentary course, with a simple and memorable definition of documentary by the person credited with coining the term, John Grierson:

“the creative treatment of actuality” (Franklin 2016: 6, quoting Grierson 1933).

What I’m realising at the moment is that my area of interest lies in playing with the creative treatment part whilst respecting the underlying actuality.

So in fact, the fragmented nature of G&M has turned out to be a big part of helping me find my voice, in as much as I have aligned my work to a kind of ‘expressive documentary‘ practice, whatever the genre and brief have been. Moving out of my genre comfort zone has helped me refine what I really want to do, what subjects I want to cover, and how I really want to work.

A quietly revelatory weekend, then.


Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. United Kingdom: Phaidon Press.

Assignment 2: approach

I started this assignment with not just the subject matter – food poverty – in mind but some kind of framework within which I wanted to address the issue, some ‘bumper rails’ that I would work within. I had spent some time thinking about both the parameters I intend to work within, and the principles I would follow.

Poverty can be a wide and complex issue, and one could focus on various aspects or viewpoints:

  • Political: the causes (policies, ideologies etc), the response – or lack of
    • e.g. could juxtapose the political classes and their consumption habits with people experiencing food poverty
  • Practical: the solutions
    • e.g. focus on food banks, how they operate, who works in them
  • Nutritional: the quality of the actual food people are eating due to poverty
    • e.g. using a high-end ‘food porn’ aesthetic but applying it to chicken nuggets and microwave chips etc
  • Psychological: the effects on individuals and families
    • e.g. depicting try state of mind of someone living in food poverty

I’ve been volunteering in a food bank for the last few months and have heard numerous frontline stories of people falling into food poverty and needing help. This experience narrowed the above list down to two: political and psychological. Practical (food bank operations) is problematic for confidentiality reasons – and doesn’t lend itself as well to creative concepts; nutritional just feels quite condescending and not my style.

A political standpoint felt right for a while as my overriding emotion around food poverty was anger. The UK government since 2010 has instigated so-called ‘austerity policy’ benefits cuts that have coincided remarkably well with the rapid rise of food bank setup and use (I’m with Yanis Varoufakis on this: “Austerity is being used as a narrative to conduct a class war” – Guardian 2015).

However, political conceptual art is hard to do well and it’s easy to go all ‘angry sixth former’ if you’re not careful (witness my efforts earlier in the course…).

Psychological fits well with my preferred way of working; I’ve become increasingly interested in the possibilities of using photography to depict internal states of mind. I find projects that allow me to depict thought processes, emotions and sensations are the most interesting ones. On Context & Narrative the assignments I found most satisfying were about exploring creative block, dislocation and the tension between my work life and my studies.

So far these projects have been introspective, from my own viewpoint. The new challenge here is to inhabit the minds of others and attempt to depict my perception of their state of mind.

So the psychological angle is the one I will pursue: how worrying about where your next meal will come from affects your mind.

I would however like to see if I can get in reference to political causes in some way. I’m not sure what this is yet.

More to follow.

Sources (accessed 14/04/2016)

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

  • 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!