Exercise: “Seeing is Believing”

The Brief

Read the WeAreOCA blog post ‘Seeing is Believing’. Read all the replies to it then write your own comment, both on the blog page and in your own blog. Make sure you visit all the links on the blog post. Base your opinions on solid arguments and, if you can, refer to other contributors to the blog.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 78)

I’m the 77th respondent to this exercise, some 8.5 years later and it is quite difficult to find something fresh to say after all these years. I’ve read through the comments and clicked on the links (dare I say – thankfully not all of them work!) and I’ll watch the Slavoj Žižek video later – I did have a quick look at the first few minutes, but didn’t want to get distracted from all the comments waiting for me.

Although I tend to agree with Obama’s decision not to publish the photo because of  fear of  retaliation or propaganda, not to mention the risk of creating a cult-hero status among Al Quada and other radical groups similar to what was created by Che Guevara’s death (commodification – just take a walk in Havana, Cuba to see how marketable Guevara has become), one does have to wonder if that was the real reason for suppressing the image(s) or ordering the destruction of them. The CNN video on this page – https://www.cnn.com/2014/02/11/politics/e-mail-photos-destroyed-osama-bin-laden/index.html – offers some interesting food for thought, reporting that it may have been a violation of the law to have destroyed those images. Compare the public’s need to see the evidence of Bin Laden’s death to the photographic evidence provided of Elvis’s death.  Forty-two years after Elvis’s death and there are still people claiming that he is alive (https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/weirdest-elvis-presley-sightings-conspiracy-2125270-2125270). This ties in with Stan’s notion that “truth lies in beholding, not portraying”. The viewer will believe what he/she wants to believe whether he/she sees it or not – each person’s “crap detector” is different.

Since Jose first posted this article, the media rhetoric has gone ballistic. Fake news abounds on the internet and in social media. How do we discern who to trust? Do we trust the well known news corporations like BBC, NBC, CNN, CBC, Fox? Are the narratives they broadcast not governed by their owners’ corporate agendas and infused by their politics? (https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/04/18/jeff-bezos-amazon-washington-post-217994). I won’t even go down the route of politicians’ agendas 🙂 !

Peter’s statement/question that “truth may be equally or better represented in fiction than fact; does it matter if the image records an incident or is constructed to represent one – even one that hasn’t happened but tells the story?” is something that I’ve been struggling with in this section of the course work. In reading Joan Fontcuberta’s essay in Truth & Fictions (Pedro Meyer) he references Picasso’s painting of Guernica. Picasso was not an eyewitness to the bombing and he questions how Picasso came by his information about the event. Picasso’s painting has today become a symbol of modern warfare. Is this Cubist painting any less of a documentary value than a photograph of the event? I don’t believe so. Fontcuberta poses a couple of questions that I think are key to understanding this dichotomy: “what matters in a document – the intention that originated it or the effect it elicits? What is important – its aesthetic status as evidence or the social function that is assigned to it? (Meyer, 1995:8).

In this media-frenzied society we find ourselves today with a 24/7 news culture it really is a question of each (wo)man for him/herself to use our discernment and question the evidence around us if we don’t want to be manipulated by images.



Lesser, C. (2017) What Makes Guernica Picasso’s Most Influential Painting – Artsy. At: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-guernica-picassos-influential-painting (Accessed  27/11/2019).

Meyer, P. (1995) Truths & Fictions | a journey from documentary to digital photography. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Mylrea, H. (2019) The weirdest Elvis Presley sightings and conspiracy theories. At: https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/weirdest-elvis-presley-sightings-conspiracy-2125270-2125270 (Accessed  27/11/2019).

Navarro, J. (2011) Seeing is Believing | The Open College of the Arts. At: https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/photography/seeing-is-believing/ (Accessed  26/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Documentary – Fact & Fiction | Photography 2 Course Manual. (PH5DFF120419) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Schafer, J. (2018) What Does Jeff Bezos Want? – POLITICO Magazine. At: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/04/18/jeff-bezos-amazon-washington-post-217994 (Accessed  27/11/2019).

Research Point: Hannah Starkey and Charley Murrell

Charley Murrell’s work revolves around the negative impact the role of advertising has on our youth and the perceptions they have of themselves. Murrell created this series as her final project in university and used her bedroom as her studio as well as shooting in the children’s homes. Her Constructed Childhoods is simultaneously poignant and also rather chilling and most definitely thought provoking. The children in her photos act out their adult roles before her camera, but it is her use of signifieds in each image that causes the viewer to do a double take and come in for a closer examination.

In Fig. 1 we see a little girl sitting before a dressing table, putting on make up. Her actions are not those of a little girl playing dress up, but rather resemble those of her mother if we look at the angle that the head is held and the upward lift of the chin as she gazes into the mirror. But it is her returned gaze that stops us in our tracks. The overly large (Photoshopped) eyes are dead, expressionless – as if she has been exposed to more than she should have been at that age. There is no innocence reflected back at us. Very chilling!

Murrell is not averse to using a slight touch of humour to get her point across either. In Fig. 2 we have a little boy posing in front of a mirror, flexing his muscles as if he has just completed a weight lifting session. He proudly pushes his chest out and looks down at his “action figure abs” (again Photoshopped) – the culprit responsible for his body image issues standing in a similar pose on his bedside table. I did have a chuckle when I viewed this image as this is the only image in this set that addresses boys’ body image issues and it has been done in such a way that would deliver the message to children of that age group. But at the same time I was saddened that children should perceive that their toys are representative of the ideal bodies to which they feel they should aspire to achieve.

Hannah Starkey is well known for using light/shadow and mirrors and reflections in her work. She uses actresses or strangers who she asks to pose for her in her work. She often positions her subjects with their backs to the camera which set up an ambiguous dialogue between subject and viewer. What is the person thinking/looking at/doing? As Charlotte Cotton states: “we are not given enough visual information to make characterization the focal point of the image … we make meaning from a dynamic process of connecting interior space and objects …” (Cotton, 2009: 60). Her photography is a staged naturalism that echoes the self-conscious and unconscious (Campany, 2003:187).

It doesn’t seem that Starkey has a website as I had to jump around to find her Untitled series. What I found probably doesn’t come from a particular series per se. Personally I think her work falls more into the art photography category and don’t really quite see the “documentary” side of things in her work. Yes, she photographs women sitting in cafes or restaurants with far away expressions on their faces, often alone, or with their backs to the camera. Yes, her photographs are beautiful tableaux, but do they really convey “the psychological and physical space of an individual in contemporary Western society, during a climate of uncertainty” as Bright states (2011:95)? Perhaps Sean O’Hagan (2018) describes her work best as being “traditional observational documentary … (that is) … deftly choreographed”. I can go along with that – that’s pretty much what Jeff Wall does, except that his work seems to have more narrative attached to it.

In comparing Murrell’s and Starkey’s work, I find that Murrell has a very clear message or narrative that she is trying to get across, and she most assuredly succeeds in doing so. I feel rather ambivalent about Starkey’s narrative, but to be fair, perhaps if the work that we are being asked to critique was located in one place and could be viewed as a series, instead of stand alone images, I may have a different take on things.

The course manual asks me to consider what aspects of their work I might consider adopting in my own practice. If I have to be honest, I don’t think I’d adopt any. I’m not really interested in staging tableaux nor do I have space or the inclination to do studio work.


Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Campany, D. (2003) Art and Photography. New York: Phaidon Press Limited.

Cotton, C. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson.

Jobey, L. (2018) Photographer Hannah Starkey on her everyday heroes | Financial Times. At: https://www.ft.com/content/dccde37c-e098-11e8-8e70-5e22a430c1ad (Accessed  25/11/2019).

Murrell, C. (s.d.) Constructed Childhoods. At: http://charley-murrell.co.uk/childs-play/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

O’Hagan, S. (2018) ‘Photographer Hannah Starkey: ‘I want to create a space for women without judgment’’ In: The Observer 08/12/2018 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/08/hannah-starkey-photographer-interview-space-for-women-sean-ohagan (Accessed  25/11/2019).


Figure 1. Murrell, C. (s.d.) Constructed Childhoods. At: http://charley-murrell.co.uk/childs-play/ (Accessed 24 November 2019)

Figure 2. Murrell, C. (s.d.) Constructed Childhoods. At: http://charley-murrell.co.uk/childs-play/ (Accessed 24 November 2019)

Figure 3. Starkey, H. (2016) Untitled, Paris, September 2016. At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hannah-starkey/untitled-paris-september-2016-a-KanX8fOZB2diX1GqgJepPQ2 (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

Figure 4. Starkey, H. (1998) Untitled – October, 1998. [c-print] At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hannah-starkey/untitled-october-Nn_xJTdQkyhd7HsYXPfnRw2 (Accessed on 25 November 2019)

Alma Haser and Jeff Wall

The course manual describes Alma Haser’s work as “(embedding) the true and invested stories she reads or learns of an incorporates them into choreographed and staged scenes” (Open College of the Arts, 2014: 76). Mention is made of her Paper series, but I could not find that on her website. However, it seems that most of her work does involve using paper of some sort. I really cannot make the connection with her work and performative documentary, unless the documentary connotation should come from the process she goes about to make each photograph. Haser herself describes her work as being an expansion of traditional portraiture and uses various origami techniques, collage and mixed media to create layers on her photos, rendering a rather Cubist impression. Her photos go through a 2D -> 3D -> 2D process. Her work is, therefore, constructed portraiture.

When I first looked at her I Always Have to Repeat Myself series I was immediately reminded of Ed Spence’s work. Ed Spence is another Vancouver artist. The manual pixelation of parts of the images is quite similar.


Ed Spence, Careful! You’re Falling Inside Yourself Again, 2015
Unique archival pigment print with glue

On the other hand Jeff Wall’s photography resemble historical tableaux. He does, after all hold a Ph.D. in art history. He presents his images in huge lightboxes, printing his work out on transparency film and allowing the light to shine through from the rear, achieving a cinematographic effect.  Much of Wall’s work is inspired by master painters like Delacroix, Manet and even from literature (Ralph Ellison – The Invisible Man). His work consists of many images which are stitched together, created almost in a similar manner as a master painter would have created a tableau.

Wall very often recreates scenes that he observes while out walking. He uses large format cameras and this allows him to capture an incredible amount of detail in his work. This creates a certain tension when viewed in a gallery – the viewer often interacting with his work by standing back to take in the entire scene and then moving in closer to observe the minutiae. Much of Wall’s work is suggestive of various social issues: racial tension, class, gender or conflict. He classifies this work as ‘near-documentary’ (Jeff Wall | Gagosian, s.d.).

By depicting incidents that he witnesses but does not attempt to photograph in the moment, he opens up formal and dramatic possibilities for pictures that, he has said, “contemplate the effects and meanings of documentary photographs.”

(Jeff Wall | Gagosian, s.d.)

Below is a video of Wall talking about his process for ‘near-documentary’ photography. Wall’s work is always performative as he hires actors to work with him to recreate the photographs he sees.  I recall seeing a video on the way Wall works a while ago on TV where he was shooting Boy falls from a tree. There was film footage of his day’s shoot where a boy of about eleven years old would climb up into the tree and fall down (onto a thick mattress), trying all sorts of poses according to Wall’s memory of when he actually fell from a tree in his youth.

I really can’t see a similarity between Alma Haser’s work and Jeff Wall’s. Now if the comparison had been between Gregory Crewdson and Wall – entirely different matter …



Eugène Delacroix (1827) The Death of Sardanapalus. H. 3.92 m; W. 4.96 m.: Louvre. At: https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/death-sardanapalus (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Haser, A. (s.d.) Alma Haser. At: http://www.haser.org/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Hokusai, K. (s.d.) Ejiri in Suruga Province (Sunshū Ejiri), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjūrokkei) | Japan | Edo period (1615–1868) | The Met. At: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/55735 (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Interview: Alma Haser | Photoworks (s.d.) At: https://photoworks.org.uk/ideas-series-interview-alma-haser/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Jeff Wall | Gagosian (s.d.) At: https://gagosian.com/artists/jeff-wall/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Jeff Wall: ‘I begin by not photographing’ (2010) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yG2k4C4zrU (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Krieger, D. (s.d.) Alma Haser Brings a Handcrafted Surrealism to Photography — Humble Arts Foundation. At: http://hafny.org/blog/2017/7/alma-haser-brings-a-handcrafted-surrealism-to-photography (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Manet, E. (1882) A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. At: https://www.manet.org/a-bar-at-the-folies-bergere.jsp (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Photographer Jeff Wall & A sudden gust of wind (s.d.) At: https://publicdelivery.org/jeff-wall-gust-of-wind/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Stallabrass, J. (2010) ‘Julian Stallabrass, Museum Photography and Museum Prose, NLR 65, September–October 2010’ In: New Left Review Sept/Oct (65) pp.93–125.

The Destroyed Room | NGV (s.d.) At: https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/multimedia/the-destroyed-room/ (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Wall, J. (1979) Picture for Women. [Transparency in lightbox  Cinematographic photograph] 1425 x 2045 mm. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/jeff-wall/jeff-wall-room-guide/jeff-wall-room-guide-room-1 (Accessed  24/11/2019).

Exercise: Hasan and Husain Essop

The Brief

View the video on Hasan and Husain Essop at the V&A exhibition Figures and Fictions and write a short reflective commentary in your learning log or blog.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 76)

So this is where I find the documentary lines becoming quite blurred. The underlying premises of documentary photography is to make the viewer an eyewitness to an event, and furthermore to inform or educate said viewer. Although John Grierson in Franklin, 2016:6 states that documentary is ‘a creative treatment of reality’ just how far can one really stretch the limits? David Bate states “A spectator can participate by seeing ‘with their own eyes’ what the photographer has seen” (Bate, 2009:59) and this further implies a trust agreement between photographer and spectator.

Although the Essop brothers photograph conflicting aspects of their identity as Muslims and their place in a Western society, notwithstanding that their work is highly creative, I would really not go so far as to classify their work as documentary for a few reasons. Firstly they as photographers have not “seen” the event. They have collectively imagined it: “we are creating works in our mind and conversing and debating about it until we both have an agreement” (Video: Figures & Fictions: Hasan and Husein Essop – Victoria and Albert Museum, s.d.). Secondly, the work consists of digitally stitching many photographs of themselves acting out a part together to create one image. They photograph themselves as means of working around certain religious restrictions. This method is explained in this posting.

“…in Islam that it’s not very permissible to put up pictures of people on your wall”.

(Victoria and Albert Museum, s.d.)

Their later work has a rather chilling message as can be seen in this video.  Although they state that they are just trying to show the world not to believe everything that is seen in the media, I do think the topics they have chosen to represent are in extremely poor taste and certain images are quite offensive and I feel they make a mockery of people’s sensibilities, especially if they are putting this series out for “educational purposes”.

So to sum up, I’d regard this type of photography more as performative art photography, or even digital art photography.


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

Constructed perspectives with Hasan & Husain Essop – YouTube (2017) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=np4_Yqi2Pag (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Franklin, S. (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Hawkins, L. (s.d.) How To Create Two of the Same Person in One Photograph Using Photoshop. At: https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-create-two-of-the-same-person-in-one-photograph-using-photoshop/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Video: Figures & Fictions: Hasan and Husein Essop – Victoria and Albert Museum (s.d.) Directed by Urdaneta, F. At: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/f/figures-and-fictions-hasan-and-husein-essop/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).



Figure 1. Hasan and Husain Essop. (2009) Fast Twins. At: http://www.goodman-gallery.com/exhibitions/134 (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Figure 2. Hasan and Husain Essop. (2009) Blessing Meat. At: http://www.goodman-gallery.com/exhibitions/134 (Accessed on 18 November 2019)

Exercise: Tom Hunter

Tom Hunter’s work explores themes that are relevant to his local neighbourhood. Living in Ellington Road in a squat in Hackney he produced The Ghetto in a response to a news article which described the area as crime-ridden and derelict. The photographs featured his friends and neighbours and was an attempt to save the community from developers.

At college Hunter was heavily influenced by Vermeer’s work and he studied his work in depth. Using a 5 x 4 camera he became totally fascinated by the colour and depth of light that was revealed in these transparencies. While still living in the squat at Ellington Road, Hunter and all his neighbours received eviction notices. The notices were addressed to “Persons Unknown” and Hunter made a series of staged photographs influenced heavily by the work of Vermeer. His intention was to draw attention to this group of people (himself included) who were living in the squats, that they be accorded dignity and acknowledged that they too had voices to be heard. His most well known photograph in this series, Woman Reading a Possession Order which won the John Kobal photographic award in 1998, was inspired by Vermeer’s Girl reading a letter at an open window. Interestingly, there has always been some speculation as to who or what the letter in the painting contained, but recently it has been discovered that the figure of Cupid in Vermeer’s painting was overpainted by a subsequent owner and restorers have now revealed about half of Cupid’s figure which is painted on the wall above the girl. Vermeer used the Cupid motif in a few of his paintings, so a viewer’s interpretation now, upon seeing the representation of love in the original oil painting will be definitely slanted towards the letter being a love letter.

In Hunter’s representation, the woman is also standing in front of a window, the light streaming in to highlight her features. Her pose is the same as Vermeer’s girl, but instead of a spilled basket of fruit on the table as in the original, we see a baby sprawled out looking at its mother. Hunter uses art historical references to lend gravity to his work and uses elements of fiction in his work. Sometimes he just poses his subjects, other times he will stage the whole scene, arguing “that his fictions aren’t necessarily less truthful than straight documentary” (Smyth, 2012).

His Living in Hell and Other Stories series is a recreation of real-life stories/tragedies that happened, pulling captions for the images from local newspaper headlines, allowing the viewer to recreate the historical narrative for himself. Apart from the Dutch masters, he also draws much inspiration from the pre-Raphaelite painters who also passed social commentary in their works of art. Even though his work is staged in this series, it is made on location so it retains a certain degree of veracity.

I have always been a fan of Tom Hunter’s work since first coming across it in the C&N module. The way he draws inspiration from Renaissance painters is quire remarkable and the the way he makes use of the symbolism in art history and blends it with today’s social commentary is brilliant.



Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister: Vermeer (2019) At: https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/en/research/vermeer/ (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Photographer Spotlight: Tom Hunter (s.d.) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=20&v=BuuMLEAF9Dk&feature=emb_logo (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Smyth, D. (2012) Think Global, Act Local | Tom Hunter. At: http://www.tomhunter.org/think-global-act-local/ (Accessed  16/11/2019).

The Essay – Under the Influence – Tom Hunter – BBC Sounds (2011) Directed by May, J. 31/03/2011. 24 min 4 secs. At: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b00zt7ky (Accessed  18/11/2019).

Exercise: Peter Dench

The Brief:

Read the article on England Uncensored by the BBC Picture Editor Phil Coomes … Dench talks about his “humorous approach with an underlying social commentary”. What do you think of this approach? Does it work? What are the ethical issues?

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 73)

As I commented in my previous blog about Dench’s work I found his England Uncensored the least offensive of his projects and I don’t really have a problem with this body of work. His other work definitely shows a bias towards boobs and booze which may seem humorous in a slapstick fashion at the time of viewing, but one really does have to wonder about the ethics of his work in The English Summer Scene, The British Abroad, and Alcohol & England.

In today’s social media run world, where employers frequently turn to Facebook, Instagram and other platforms to “investigate” potential employees to see whether they will be a suitable fit in their organizations, what part do images like those above play in that person’s future employability. Take the photograph (Fig 3) of the man being arrested for instance. That would definitely be a no starter for him if that photo comes to the attention of HR. The photos could also become cause for dismissal, depending on the position one holds in an organization.

On the other hand one could argue the case that the behaviour depicted in the photographs are the result of the subjects’ own actions, so they should live with the consequences. One also could claim that Dench was outside, presumably in a public road when that photograph (Fig 3) was taken, which would put him well within his rights to technically take that photograph. But what of those that are on private property? We have seen lately the repercussions of “innocent” photographs coming back to haunt people, for example Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau and his three instances of wearing “blackface”, as well as the Ralph Northam scandal in the USA.

Is Dench exploiting people not rationally able to make informed decisions about whether their photographs should be out there in cyberspace? Did he obtain a model release from them, I wonder and how valid would that model release be if they were as drunk as they appear?


Coomes, P. (2012) ‘England Uncensored by Peter Dench’ In: BBC News 29/02/2012 At: https://www.bbc.com/news/17190001 (Accessed  15/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Schneider, G. and Vozzella, L. (2019) ‘How Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and aides made his blackface scandal even worse – The Washington Post’ 26/05/2019 At: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/how-va-gov-ralph-northam-and-aides-made-his-blackface-scandal-even-worse/2019/05/25/9a096912-7da0-11e9-8ede-f4abf521ef17_story.html (Accessed  15/11/2019).

What we know about Justin Trudeau’s blackface photos — and what happens next | CBC News (2019) At: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-votes-2019-trudeau-blackface-brownface-cbc-explains-1.5290664 (Accessed  15/11/2019).



Figure 1. Dench, P. (s.d.) the english summer season. At: http://www.peterdench.com/the-english-summer-season/DENCH_ENGLISH_SEASON11/ (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Figure 2. Dench, P. (s.d.) the british abroad. At: http://www.peterdench.com/the-british-abroad/British_Abroad17/ (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Figure 3. Dench, P. (s.d.) alcohol & england. At: http://www.peterdench.com/alcohol-england/A_E34/ (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Exercise: Martin Parr


Read the document ‘Martin Parr: Photographic Works 1971 – 2000’ by the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television.

Watch an audio slide of Parr talking about his progression from B&W to colour photography and The Last Resort (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TJinAgBYaLs). Another link that is no longer operable. This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by KS VISIONS.

In this video Martin Parr acknowledges and defends what he calls the “hypocrisy and prejudice” in his work. What do you think about this statement? Write a short reflective commentary in your learning log.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 72)

Because the recommended video to watch is no longer available I have watched another video (link in the bibliography), which hopefully addressed some of the topics in the unavailable one.

The video was really a reiteration of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television document that we were asked to read, except some opinions and comments were offered by Val Williams, David Hurn and Colin Jacobson.  The National Museum document gives a brief biography of Martin Parr: born in middle class suburbia, involved in bird watching and inherited his father’s love for collecting things, introduced to photography at an early age by his grandfather. His first series was produced at the age of sixteen where he photographed Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop. He studied photography at the Polytechnic College in Manchester.

He was interested in portraying ‘Britishness’, especially in his early work (June Street, Butlins by the Sea). The ordinary and banal were of particular interest to him and he documented these as a record because he realised that these were aspects that were fast being eroded and a dying way of life.

In the 1980s Parr began to use fill flash, medium format cameras and colour in his photography. His work became subjective exploring Britain’s cultural and social life from his own perspective. He was obsessed with class and consumerism and spent three years making The Last Resort, a project depicting working class families at leisure in New Brighton. The work is full of paradoxical juxtapositions: children lie suntanning and playing next to earth moving machinery; people sit eating among debris and litter. The series is quite depressing, but at the same time extremely thought provoking. The series was made in the Thatcher era and it was a political response to show the population that everything was not as great as Thatcher purported it to be. The series was well received in Liverpool when it opened but Parr picked up a lot of flak when it was exhibited in London. Those not familiar with New Brighton (outsiders) thought that the pictures were an afront on morality and an exploitation, because they did not understand what was happening.

His next project, The Cost of Living focused on middle class society. Parr realised that he was benefiting financially from his series on the working class and decided that the middle class had not really been examined in detail. Val Williams describes this series as being a sort of self portrait of Parr. Continuing with his fascination with consumerism, Parr explores new retail generation. Unlike The Last Resort, his subjects in The Cost of Living show restrained attitudes – nothing is done in excess.

While photographing Hebden Bridge in the 1970s where he lived for five years, trying to capture traditional aspects of life and the sense of community. He became quite fascinated with capturing and documenting life in the Methodist churches surrounding Hebden Bridge. When the people realised he was documenting the church, instead of becoming involved with it, Parr picked up a bit of flak from some of the locals. Parr came to realise that “however involved you get, you can never be part of the thing you are photographing” (Martin Parr interview). I think there is a definite ring of truth to that statement as the camera really does act as a barrier of sorts between you and your subjects.

We all approach themes or subjects that we photograph with a prejudice of some sort, whether we realise it or not. More often than not, its something that has been inbred in us, a by-product of the way we have been brought up or the way that life has shaped us along the way. But in Parr’s case I think the middle class prejudice works in his favour allowing him to weed out idiosyncrasies which we are so used to that we don’t see any more, bringing to the foreground objects that we wouldn’t even give a passing glance to, basically documenting life.



Martin Parr interview (The World According To Parr, 2003) (2018) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCRyB2SFQZ4 (Accessed  15/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.


Figure 1. Parr, M. (1983) GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85. At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/CS.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOBOYVPREJ&SMLS=1&RW=1680&RH=886 (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Figure 2. Parr, M. (1983) GB. England. New Brighton. From ‘The Last Resort’. 1983-85. At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/CS.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOBOYVPREJ&SMLS=1&RW=1680&RH=886 (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Figure 3. Parr, M. (1986) GB. England. Bristol. Conservative Election victory party aboard SS Great Britain. From ‘The Cost of Living’. 1986-89. At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/CS.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOBOYV08XL&SMLS=1&RW=1680&RH=886#/SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOBOYV08XL&SMLS=1&RW=1680&RH=886&POPUPIID=29YL53ZP8U4D&POPUPPN=45 (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Figure 4. Parr, M. (1986) GB. England. Bristol. Laura Ashley sale. From ‘The Cost of Living’. 1986-89. At: https://pro.magnumphotos.com/CS.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOBOYV08XL&SMLS=1&RW=1680&RH=886#/SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOBOYV08XL&SMLS=1&RW=1680&RH=886&POPUPIID=29YL53ZP8ZEW&POPUPPN=43 (Accessed on 15 November 2019)

Exercise: Documentary Dilemmas

The Brief

Read Brett Roger’s introduction to the online gallery of Documentary Dilemmas at: http://collection.britishcouncil.org/whats_on/exhibition/11/14136 (the link doesn’t work – its requesting a username and password).

Follow the ‘Glossary’ link.

Look at the work of the photographers highlighted above and others.

You might find it useful to read the Arts Council document Changing Britain as a brief contextual background to Documentary Dilemmas.

(Open College of the Arts, 2014: 71)

Well once again a link that doesn’t work so I’m unable to read Brett Rogers’ introductory essay. All that I can glean from the British Council’s website is the following information:

In her essay in the accompanying catalogue she outlined the historical background to the ‘renaissance’ of documentary photography which took place in Britain during the 1980s, starting with the work of established figures such as Martin Parr and Paul Graham and exploring the work of those they have influenced such as John Kippin, Anna Fox and Antony Haughey.

(British Council – Visual Arts, s.d.)

The artists who exhibited at this exhibition were:

  • John Davies (researched during Landscape module – here and here). Documented topology and archaeology of Sheffield, focusing on the industries in Northern England, relationship between social and industrial history
  • Anna Fox (researched during IAP – here and here)
  • Julian Germain (researched during IAP – here). Documents various social groups in snapshot aesthetic
  • Paul Graham (researched (during Landscape module – here) Documented political and social landscape
  • Tommy Harris – could find no work on the internet by him, nor any reference articles.
  • Anthony Haughey – documents diaspora, migrants,
  • Chris Killip (researched here )
  • John Kippin – integrates text into images to challenges the perceptions of documentry
  • Karen Knorr (research during IAP – here)
  • Martin Parr (researched during Landscape – here and during IAP here and here)
  • Paul Reas (researched during Landscape – here )
  • Paul Seawright (researched during Landscape – here and here in C&N)
  • Jem Southam (researched during Landscape – here and here

We are also directed to follow the ‘Glossary’ link which I managed to locate. However, much of what is discussed in the Glossary segment is about work that we have already covered in this course, so I am linking back to them and not re-commenting:

The Changing Britain document is mainly a PR document on the history of the British Arts Council and also referred to quite a number of photographers also previously researched:

  • Bill Brandt (here and here)
  • Daniel Meadows (here and here)
  • Paul Graham (during Landscape module – here)
  • Vanley Burke – a Jamaican photographer now residing in the UK. I’m not quite sure why he is featured in this section of the course work as his online portfolio features B&W work. A few very interesting photographs on South Africa though.

British Council – Visual Arts (s.d.) DOCUMENTARY DILEMMAS | Past | Exhibitions. At: http://visualarts.britishcouncil.org/exhibitions/past/documentary-dilemmas-1993 (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Haughey, A. (s.d.) Anthony Haughey | Artist, Lecturer, Researcher. At: http://anthonyhaughey.com/ (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Open College of the Arts (2014) Photography 2: Documentary-Fact and Fiction (Course Manual). Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Vanley.co.uk-Portfolio (s.d.) At: http://www.vanley.co.uk/portfolio (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Research Point – Senses of Place

The Brief

Compare and contrast the strategies that these photographers adopt in conveying a sense of local identity. Do you think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting? Can you find any evidence for the view that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’?

I researched David Goldblatt during my Landscape module, so won’t include him here.

Alex Webb

Webb was born San Francisco, but raised in New England. He attended photo workshops while in high school in New York. He went to Harvard and simultaneously studied history and literature while studying photography at Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. He initially worked in B&W, but started photographing in colour in 1978 after visiting the American South, the Caribbean and Mexico. He has published 17 books.

Webb prefers not to label his work as street photography, as he regards street photography as something fluid and having no preconceptions or preconceived agenda, in contrast with photojournalism. His work is done in public spaces and regards street photography as a type of borderland between documentary and art photography.

He switched to working in colour when visiting the Mexican border and Haiti. Colour is very much part of the culture of these places. What intrigues him most is the contrast between the US and the countries he visits – the different sense of community, and communal values and of course, the sense of colour. Although his work has political, economical and sociological overtones, his first impulse is the esthetic of the work – the form and content. He finds colour is integral to the experience of culture in these foreign countries.

Webb tends to read up just enough about the place he is visiting to get him by, but prefers to work organically, trusting in the moment rather than be led intellectually by something he has read. Its sometimes easier to respond to a place if you just experience it without any preconceptions, I’ve found. Once you’re on the ground, you can often talk to local people to get their input and extra information.

He makes interesting use of juxtapositions and and paradoxes in his work and rather like Simon Roberts also incorporates borders of some sort into his images. Form and content are very evident in his work as can be seen below with the gaze of the man in the phone box being echoed by the man further back in the alley and then the gaze of the guard on the roof – all three subjects form a triangle, while the frame is divided vertically by the foremost telephone box. This vertical division also incorporates darkness (on the right hand side) and light (on the left hand side) with tonal contrasts between the top and bottom of the image as well.

Fig 1 From Istanbul: City of 100 Names series by Alex Webb

In the image below there is a similar division in the frame, a repetition of darkness and light as well as an echo of green and brown tones in both quadrants and this division seems to convey two narratives taking place simultaneously.

Fig 2 From Istanbul: City of 100 Names series by Alex Webb

These strategies are continued in the work Webb did in Haiti, as can be seen below. Again his excellent use of shadow and light, punctuated by contrasting colour schemes, the vertical division of the frame and mirrored glances and gestures.

Jens Olof Lasthein

Swedish photograher Jens Olof Lasthein photographs in panoramic format. This allows him to incorporate several different elements into the frame which would not normally be possible with a regular format camera. He often allows a spherical barrel distortion to take place in his images which seems to extend the ‘stage’ of his photographs or emphasize the discontinuities that are in the images. He spent six years photographing the Caucasus mountain region in southeastern Europe that used to belong to the Soviet Union, but now consists of sovereign states and breakaway regions such as South Ossetia, Dagestan and Chechnya. This area is a borderland between east and west, Christianity and Islam and different cultures and languages.

Lasthein’s use of colour is quite muted. His palette, on the whole is quite cool with lots of dark tones, greys and blues. This seems to reflect the overall mood and distrust that is evident in his subjects – their unhappiness even. In Fig 5 below all the subjects have averted their gaze from the photographer and their body language (crossed arms) shouts out distrust. The contrasting splashes of colour serve as anchors in the image.

Fig 5 Meanwhile Across the Mountain: Grozny, Chechnya 2011 by Jens Olof Lasthein

I have been focusing on everyday life, which is influenced both by animosities and suspicions across the borders, but also by what is shared—and unifying—about the region’s history. For an outsider, this all presents a paradox; for the locals, this is just the way it is. Being an outsider, I was personally very attracted to this complexity.

(LensCulture, s.d.)

The barrel distortion in Fig 6 echoes the strangeness of the landscape – are those lookout towers next to each oil rig? Does the woman carry a stick or metal bar for protection in this surveillance world? Her capri shorts offer almost the only splash of bright colour in the image, just echoed slightly by the orange and teal oil rigs in the middle ground on either side of her, again anchoring the viewer’s attention on her. Its an image that has more questions and plenty of strangeness e.g the curved shadow of a vertical structure.

Fig 6 Meanwhile Across the Mountain: Balakhani, Azerbaijan 2014 by Jens Olof Lashein

The socio-political climate is quite evident in his images. Like Webb, Lasthein prefers to work organically, allowing impressions to inform his work as he shoots. He likes to get to know his subjects well and finds that this will then lead on to other circumstances which he would normally not have encountered had he not taken the trouble to establish that rapport. ‘Repeatedly, I carefully make contact with people and build up a modicum of trust, only for it to be shattered by the sudden intervention of the authorities’. (Lasthein, s.d.). His modus operandi is to shoot intuitively and analyse afterwards. He acknowledges that the world is full of contradictions which can’t always be easily understood and this paradox really does come through in his work.

Marco van Duyvendijk

Marco van Duyvendijk is a Dutch photographer,  Fotomuseum Den Haag describes one of van Duyvendijk’s distinguishing features of his work as his “flamboyant” use of colour.  I’m not so sure I’d agree with that. Looking at his Mongolia series, much of the overall colour palette is quite muted ochre tones, especially those images taken outdoors. Where there does seem to be a bit of colour is in his portraits where subjects are wearing traditional dress, or a costume/uniform of sorts.

I did not find the same level of engagement with the place or people as is evident in Webb and Lasthein’s work, even though van Duyvendijk spends months or years working on a project. I also thought that the series (at least what I can see on his website) lacks a cohesiveness. Van Duyvendijk’s work seems to alternate between travel/landscape photography and portraits. Most of the portraits are done in deadpan aesthetic. The course manual states that this work was commissioned by the Mongolian Consulate to document the nation’s shifting identity. While traces of modernity come through in the portraits (Western clothing, gymnastic activities, etc.)  I found these less compelling than those that showed the traditional Mongolians. The traditional portraits held more of a narrative as far as I’m concerned.


Philip Cheung

Philip Cheung is a Canadian photographer, based in Los Angeles and Toronto. Unfortunately it seems that he has taken his West Bank project offline, but I managed to find four images from that series under his Commission work – not really sure if that is enough to critique on.

I do prefer Cheung’s work over van Duyvendijk’s as the portraits show more a sense of place which adds to the narrative. The two night images are vibrant in colour and densely saturated, showing a good use of contrasting colours on the colour wheel. In contrast to this, the two day images are quite muted in tone featuring mainly greys and green shades. There is a quietness about the day images even though one subject is wearing a gas mask lending a rather surreal impression to that image.

To get a better sense of Cheung’s work I looked at a few of his other projects. The Edge is a project about the dynamic between the landscape and activity along the UAE coastline. The overall palette in this series is of pastel shades – soft and muted, which in itself is a contrast to the harsh desert conditions. The towering, modern city of Abu Dhabi dominates the background of many images as local people go about their daily activities along the beach and coastline. An image of man-made artificial waterways that wind their way through the skyscrapers carrying boatloads of tourists to their destinations is juxtaposed with an image of a mountainous region that has a stream through the valley.

Mikhael Subtozky

Mikhael Subtozky hails from my native country, South Africa and I have passed through the town of Beaufort West many times in my youth. After crossing the mountains from Cape Town, the town is the last bastion of civilization (so it seemed to me) before embarking on a long, dreary road through semi-arid desert land before reaching the next city about 542 km away. As a child I always hated this section of the road trip because it was deadly boring. There would be a little hill on the horizon and only scrub land between yourself and that, and when you reached the hill, there would be another one waiting on the horizon again and so the road would go on.

I would say that Subotzky, from what I can remember of the place, has rendered an accurate depiction, but is perhaps biased towards one segment of the population as he has mainly depicted the lower socio-economic segments of the population in this series. That it is a rather depressing town comes through very well in his work. How could it not be depressing with a prison situated right in the middle of the town (on a traffic circle) like a big bellybutton, around which all incoming and outgoing traffic to major metropolises have to pass?

Subotzky photographs in a social documentary mode and there is a clear narrative running through his work. He has captured the forlorn-ness (is that even a word?) of the town, the homelessness that is very prevalent there and the underlying danger that exists in every South African town or city. A man stands guard with a machine gun while residents collect their social assistance money, another stands resting his foot on a hospital drip stand, armed with a sword. Subotzky’s use of shadows and his washed out colour palette conveys this sense of danger and hopelessness.

Looking back at all these photographers above, but perhaps especially Philip Cheung’s The Edge, one can see that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’. In The Edge we see Abu Dhabi used as a thriving tourist metropolis and business centre, as well as an entertainment hub and the beach as recreation place for both local and tourist population. I find this sense a little less obvious in Marco van Duvendijk’s Mongolia, but it is amplified in Jens Olf Lasthein’s work. Here agriculture mixes with leisure space, demolished buildings and railway tracks become playgrounds. In Webb’s work places of commemoration abut places of recreation, darkness juxtaposes light. There is also a subtle difference in comparing Subotzky’s and Goldblatt’s work to that of Webb, Cheung, van Duyvendijk, and Lasthein. Both Goldblatt and Subotzky understand the underlying culture, the paradoxical differences that exist within the subcultures and have used their insider knowledge to highlight aspects of this in their work.



British Journal of Photography (2017) Book: Meanwhile Across the Mountain by Jens Olof Lasthein. At: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/07/jens-olaf-lasthein/ (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Cheung, P. (s.d.) COMMISSIONS. At: https://www.philipcheungphoto.com/commissions/y2cj1e7dbx9i9kggkboure9jrpcgj5 (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Circuit Gallery (s.d.) Philip Cheung. At: http://www.circuitgallery.com/artists/philip-cheung/ (Accessed  13/11/2019).

van Duyvendijk, M. (s.d.) Mongolia. At: https://www.marcovanduyvendijk.nl/portfolio/mongolia/ (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Grygiel, M. and Mazur, A. (s.d.) Interview with Alex Webb. At: http://fototapeta.art.pl/2005/axwe.php (Accessed  12/11/2019).

Lasthein, J. O. (s.d.) Meanwhile Across the Mountain. At: https://www.lasthein.se/meanwhiletext (Accessed  13/11/2019).

LensCulture (2014) Philip Cheung – The Edge. At: https://www.lensculture.com/philip-cheung?modal=project-524426 (Accessed  13/11/2019).

LensCulture (s.d.) Meanwhile Across the Mountain – Interview with Jens Olof Lasthein | LensCulture. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/jens-olof-lasthein-meanwhile-across-the-mountain (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Magnum Photos (s.d.) Alex Webb • Photographer Profile. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/alex-webb/ (Accessed  12/11/2019).

Magnum Photos (s.d.) Mikhael Subotzky • Photographer Profile. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/mikhael-subotzky/ (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Marco van Duyvendijk | Fotomuseum Den Haag (2010) At: https://www.fotomuseumdenhaag.nl/en/exhibitions/marco-van-duyvendijk (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Risch, C. (2018) Q&A: Alex Webb On Street Photography as “Exploration and Discovery with the Camera” | PDN Online. At: https://pdnonline.com/features/photographer-interviews/qa-alex-webb-on-street-photography-as-exploration-and-discovery-with-the-camera/ (Accessed  12/11/2019).

Subotzky, M. (s.d.) Beaufort West works / MIKHAEL SUBOTZKY ARCHIVE. At: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/works/beaufort-west-works/ (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Webb, A. (2004) Istanbul: City of 100 Names (A.W.) — Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/istanbul-city-of-100-names (Accessed  12/11/2019).



Figure 1. Webb, A. (2001) Istanbul: City of 100 Names (A.W.) — Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/istanbul-city-of-100-names#4 (Accessed on 12 November 2019)

Figure 2. Webb, A. (2004) Istanbul: City of 100 Names (A.W.) — Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/istanbul-city-of-100-names#5 (Accessed on 12 November 2019)

Figure 3. Webb, A. (1987) Under a Grudging Sun: Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/under-a-grudging-sun#9 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 4. Webb, A. (1986) Under a Grudging Sun: Etroits, La Gonave, Haiti. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/under-a-grudging-sun#4 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 5. Lasthein, J.O. (2011) Grozny, Chechnya 2011 from Meanwhile Across the Mountain. At: https://www.lasthein.se/meanwhileacrossthemountain/image/0 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 6. Lasthein, J.O. (2014) Balakhani, Azerbaijan 2014 – Meanwhile Across the Mountains. At: https://www.lasthein.se/meanwhileacrossthemountain/image/66 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 7-8. van Duyvendijk, M. (s.d.) Mongolia. At: https://www.marcovanduyvendijk.nl/portfolio/mongolia/ (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figures 9-12. Cheung, P. (s.d.) COMMISSIONS. At: https://www.philipcheungphoto.com/commissions/y2cj1e7dbx9i9kggkboure9jrpcgj5 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figures 13-15. Subotzky, M. (s.d.) Beaufort West works / MIKHAEL SUBOTZKY ARCHIVE. At: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/works/beaufort-west-works/ (Accessed on 14 November 2019)

Exercise: We English – Simon Roberts

I reviewed Simon Roberts’s We English project during the Landscape module (post here), but don’t mind this repetition as I really like Simon Roberts’s work. We are asked to read Max Houghton’s article on We English in Foto8 Issue 25 and also Stephen Daniels essay that appeared in the We English Monograph and write a reflective commentary.

Houghton touches on the fact that Roberts’s first major work, Motherland, was a self-funded project with no publishing deal in sight at the start of the project. This book, however, was sold out and its success enabled Roberts’s subsequent project, We English to be launched. The project took about five months to make: Roberts traveled around England in a camper van with his wife and child. Houghton also touches on Roberts’s marketing strategies for his project. He made use of his personal contacts (picture editor of BBC news website), launched a website requesting the public to send him interesting locations/activities to photograph in response to a weekly dispatch by The Times who announced his impending location. Key to representation was the idea that Roberts wanted to hear from the public on what was relevant to them. The website gathered the ideas that served as inspiration for his work. All of these techniques are well thought of by various sponsors. Roberts believes in building good relationships with his sponsors and also provided prints to the National Media Museum.

Simon Roberts had a few definitive criteria that he set when starting out the project:

  • he used a 5×4 camera
  • he was drawn to the idea of the collective use of the landscape and wanted to document how people interact with it
  • he wanted to document how the English spent their leisure time
  • compositionally, he had a rule that people should not occupy more than one third of the frame.

His work contains a theme that runs through the photographs, i.e. boundaries (natural boundaries between sea/sky/land and path and fields. Much of his work triggered personal memories for him as some of the places he photographed were places he had visited as a child and which he could introduce to his wife and child.

Stephen Daniels offers a brief history of the impact of photography on tourism and the role photography has played in determining a cultural character and identity for England. There are several ways in which the relationship between land and leisure can be characterized:

  1. Romantic approach: large scenes with very few or no people present
  2. Picturesque: old fashioned scenes that indicate a human presence, e.g. cottages, haystacks
  3. Then there is the documentary approach which includes people and landscape, showing people going about their business and leisure activities.

Looking at the contact sheets for this work, it is quite clear that Roberts’s work falls in the documentary category, but the work has a picturesque aesthetic too.

From We English contact sheets by Simon Roberts

Taking the reader through the progression from the upsurge in landscape art in the eighteenth century, the effect that steam trains had on tourism and leisure activities, to the collective, social pleasure of enjoying the outdoors, to the use of the outdoors for ideological purposes in our current decade, Daniels makes it clear that although places and activities that were pursued in the past may have changed over the last one hundred years, many of the activities and places visited have remained fashionable to visit and questions how much can be attributed to ‘national or patriotic identity’.



Daniels, S. (2010) Simon Roberts | The English Outdoors | We English Monograph. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Stephen-Daniels-We-English-essay.pdf. (Accessed 10 November, 2019)

Houghton, M. (2009) ‘Work in Progress | Simon Roberts | We English’ In: Foto8 (25) 2009 pp.25–33.

Roberts, S. (2007-2008) We English. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/We-English-Plates.pdf (Accessed 10 November, 2019)