Assignment Two – People and Place – People and Activity

The object of this assignment (the PDF can be found here) was to plan and execute a series of photographs of people engaged in some meaningful activity, an event, putting to use the lessons learnt from the preceding exercises. The important part of this assignment was to engage the viewer with a narrative; “explain the activity” and use “telling moments”.

The words ‘meaningful’ and ‘event’ that were part of this remit left the creative context of this assignment wide open to me. An event, to me, is anything that happens. Life is an event and so is all that takes place within it. So by definition any event must be meaningful too or it just wouldn’t occur. This left me a fairly large remit to ponder. It also became something of an obstacle, as when I started thinking about it, the open-ended context was almost too large. I started to narrow it down to what I enjoy photographing and then to what would suit the assignment and finally what would be practical for me to photograph and translate my ideas in to photographs.

I was very keen from the outset that this would be an assignment undertaken with ‘people unaware’ as stated at the beginning of the project. As I looked around other student’s learning logs I became conscious that almost all the assignments involved people being aware of or looking directly in to the lens. This perplexed me somewhat as, as far as I was concerned, the whole premise for this part of the module was to be taking the photographs with people as the unwitting participants. I would not claim that my subjects were unaware of me but certainly I have not got any (nor set out with any idea of) conscious interaction with them. As I have said earlier in this project, there is a fine line between what makes a portrait and what makes reportage. Complete awareness is a key part of this.

I feel this ‘awareness’ aspect is important in this style of photography. Although as the photographer I am trying to be unobtrusive it is unrealistic to think that no one will notice me photographing them and the environment, especially when I am in amongst them with my camera in this fashion. However, the circumstances of the shoot mean that the awareness of the subject/s is kept to a minimum. People are here for the event, not to be photographed by me (or anyone else). There will be tourists here who look a lot like me and will also be taking photographs (as will some of the locals). In the hustle and bustle going on no one is particularly interested in another person with a camera. This leads me to a couple of conclusions. One, the photographs I get are quite genuine as people in this type of environment (see below for the ‘event’ description) are inherently used to having cameras around and frankly couldn’t care less. Two, that due to this they are genuinely unaware that they are having their photograph taken. That isn’t to say that occasionally people don’t look directly in to the lens or at me, but it is usually quite fleeting glance before they get back to the matter in hand. So, does this affect the final shot (if I even take one) or indeed the whole environment in which I am shooting (if it does, am I getting the ‘truth’? Also see below)? They, the subjects, are obviously aware, so are they playing to the camera even just a little? My feeling used to be (many years ago, before the proliferation of camera phones and compact cameras etc.) that even if people did not consciously seem to care about the camera that a small part of them was playing to it in some way which of course affected the outcome of a photograph. Now I am starting to believe that people genuinely don’t notice the lens bearing down on them (even when it is visible and not hidden) as it is such an inherent part of our first world culture. I say first world as it is very noticeable the difference in reaction I get to the camera when I travel to a ‘developing’ nation and try to photograph in the same way. No more or less interesting, just different.

With all this in mind I finally came down to choosing what is, by social consensus, a fairly ‘normal’ event. The Mid-Autumn Festival is a Chinese festival, which occurs every year and is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, during a full moon, which is in late September or early October (in the Gregorian calendar). The night bazaar is held in Chinatown in Singapore and offered up a good opportunity to shoot in the way I described in the previous paragraph. This year the festival fell slightly earlier than usual which was convenient for my timescale. I brainstormed some ideas about what, how, why, who, when and set them out on a mind map which you can find here.

I then had to decide what my agenda was, both for me and for the viewer. Would I give a truthful representation of what I was seeing and recording or would I skew the results somehow to tell a different story? Would my viewer find it more interesting to see the ‘truth’ or a story that I had decided to tell (and therefore not the whole ‘truth’ maybe)? If I did decide to skew the results, would my viewer be able to tell that I had done this? If they couldn’t and the narrative was coherent, would it matter anyway?

I decided that I would represent the ‘truth’ of my subject matter by attempting to tell a chronological story. So I would be using a style of photo-reportage. The reason I have put ‘truth’ in inverted commas is that I believe, even though photographers may have the best of intentions, it is almost impossible to tell the truth via this medium (photo-reportage). I consciously or unconsciously edit the photograph from the first click of my shutter to the last click of my mouse button. However, I would try my best to be truthful to this event.

I determined to use a wide-angle lens. This was for a number of reasons. Technically it gave me a wider aperture to work with meaning I could use a lower ISO to give me a higher shutter speed as I was aware that this shoot would take place at night under fluorescent lighting. As I had enjoyed my brief foray in to wide-angle use earlier in the project, I decided I would like to try it again. As my intention was to get in close to the action, a wide-angle lens (along with the small body of my camera) would be the least intrusive looking of the lenses and hopefully the least noticeable. As I would have a fixed lens the framing would be consistent and once I was happy in my shooting environment (as I mentioned here, it can take me some time to acclimatise to my surroundings before shooting effectively), I would be able to frame easily and consistently without needing to think about the frame size. I would also be able to give context by introducing plenty of background to the images. I was aware that I needed to engage the audience with what is essentially an ordinary event. A wide-angle gives a view that, hopefully, the viewer will not be expecting and so will draw them in to the unfolding story.

I would not crop my photos but leave the full frame for the viewer to contemplate the possible untold stories coming from the people and places on the peripheries of the frame. This was in part to leave people asking questions but also in part to attempt to get me away from my need to modify my framing so that, at times, I almost leave more out of the frame than in (often by means of cropping). It was an attempt for me to consciously frame and shoot what I wanted and also to have more flavour of the street style that this project demanded.

Ordinarily I may have been tempted to shoot for black and white on a night shoot as the high contrast and lack of light normally lend themselves to this. However, on this occasion, I would use colour, as the colours involved are pertinent to the telling of the story.

During my production of the finished assignment I felt I needed to have strict control over the order the images were seen in by the viewer or the narrative would clearly breakdown (here we come back again to the ‘truth’ element of the assignment). For this reason I have not put the images on my blog but rather have decided to have them as a standalone, downloadable document for viewing (see the foot of the page). I have added a small amount of text to each image to clarify and explain the narrative, but the idea is that the image explains the bulk of the story.

To give me some more insight in to photographic narrative I used a book called ‘Context and Narrative’ (2011) by Maria Short. The book is photography specific, a text aimed at getting the photographer to develop their own narrative within their work. It asked me questions such as; what value does the viewer attach to the photograph? What is the photographer’s intention or agenda in portraying the moment, person or place? Do I need a ‘lead’ picture – one that sums up the intention? Will the viewer follow an identified sequence? I have tried to adhere to these questions where possible in the hope of forming a more lucid narrative for the viewer.

References and influences used for this assignment are:

‘Street Photography Now’ (2011) – Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren
‘Train Your Gaze’ (2007) – Roswell Angier
‘Context and Narrative’ (2011) – Maria Short

My final document for the assignment is available for download here. I have left my thoughts and reflections about the success of this assignment in a further blog post here.


One thought on “Assignment Two – People and Place – People and Activity

  1. Pingback: Assignment Two – People and Activity – Personal Reflection and Critique | BA Blog

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