The work during week 11 sharpened the focus on the forthcoming project proposal. The webinar was an opportunity for a group therapy session where we all expressed our growing anxiety and uncertainty about the assignment. Gary, our tutor, challenged us to consider who the audience is for the work we’re proposing to create in the weeks and months ahead.
Now, I haven’t previously given much thought to the identity and needs of the audience (I know that’s not the first time you’ve heard me say that during this module!) and there were certainly some heated discussions amongst the group, with some arguing that they’d rather create work to satisfy themselves rather than aiming to serve an audience at all. I was of the same view to begin with, but having considered things further I have to concede the importance of considering who my audience might be, and how best to reach them with my work. To ignore the audience entirely seems disingenuous, engaged as we are in this effort to create photographic work of a high standard, which none of us are intending to keep solely to ourselves. So, we must therefore concede something to the audience. After putting great effort into creating the work it seems logical to try and expose this it to as many people as possible in the way that it can be received in its best possible light. Only once you’ve accepted the need to acknowledge the audience can you identify it and position your work accordingly.
A draft image for the 'work in progress' portfolio
Gary reassured us that not being able to identify the audience at this early stage is ok, as long as we keep this in mind as a target for the medium to long term, and certainly by the time we come to plan our final projects at the end of this MA. For me, thinking about audience is all part of the necessary change in mindset that I’ve been challenged to make since starting this course. Till now I’ve just taken photographs, with no real intention to speak of. For sure there have been themes that I’ve tended to return to, and I have found fragments of audience here and there, but this has happened without any forethought or strategy. I am starting to look at the process of putting this proposal together as a really important exercise in structuring and sharpening up my thoughts on my work and it’s really forcing me to take a critical approach to my own practice. This can only be beneficial, and once you view the proposal in this light it suddenly seems like a great opportunity rather than an incredibly daunting task that I’m not equipped to complete.
As I start to set down draft thoughts for the proposal, I’m finding that the best way to approach things is to try to answer specific questions rather than trying to shape these vast themes into a coherent argument. How on earth do you neatly summarise ‘urban solitude’? It’s basically impossible! Questions like ‘what am I trying to say?’, ‘what do I want the outcomes to be?’ help me to drill down to the crux of the topic and make things more manageable. I now feel more certain that I’ll be able to articulate my thoughts, at least in a preliminary way, in time to submit the proposal and can then build on it moving forward. I’m sure shooting more will also help to refine my ideas, and that’s something I must place more emphasis on as this module fades into the next.
Week 10 was for me more like week 12 or 13! As I mentioned previously, I’d gotten into a study deficit due to the dual demands of the MA and my actual job, which meant I got round to the work for week 10 a little late. As always, it’s only a couple of weeks after the fact that I seem able to properly contextualise what I learnt during that week, as the dust settles and the information gradually seeps into the cracks in my mind where the weeds of new thought will no doubt eventually grow.
I write this having just recently finished reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes.
For me this book encapsulated a lot of what annoys me about critical theory and how almost intentionally opaque it can be. Photographs are everywhere. Their reach is limitless. Their potential audience is absolutely global, transcending geographical, cultural, ethnic and economic boundaries. Yet, the discourse in which these images are discussed is often conducted amongst somewhat self-satisfied academics who are almost exclusively Western, wealthy, male and white. The language used is almost designed to obfuscate, to exclude people who aren’t in the club from being able to have an opinion. Because if you can’t speak in terms that the academics will understand, or if you lack the intellectual arrogance to simply invent language to support your argument, you do not have a voice in this debate and your contribution is invalid.
Of course, Barthes’ work is considered a seminal text in the study of photographic practice, and I don’t wish to dismiss it entirely. It seems to me though, that the intrinsically democratic nature of photography obliges those who partake in critical appraisal of the medium to reflect that in their analysis. They should seek to elucidate, opening doors of understanding, rather than obscure the art and make the practice of photography seem like a more mysterious and less attainable thing. This is something that is increasingly getting on my nerves.
One of the tasks for this week’s reflection was to consider the relevance of critical theory to my own practice. I’m afraid to say that I don’t see any significant link between some of the high-minded elitist claptrap masquerading as photographic theory and the reasons why I take photographs. I appreciate there may be irony for some in the very fact that I am writing, critically, about this book and critical theory in general, in a way that many may find in itself inaccessible. For that I can only apologise.
I believe strongly that photography is a versatile art form. I believe that the analysis of this practice is important and can be beneficial for those who undertake it (hence me doing an MA). But I also strongly believe that those ‘in the know’ should strive to be as inclusive as possible in their analysis, to widen access to this beautiful practice and to enhance the enjoyment of it for those who are interested in spending more time to understand it. This can be achieved in many ways, both in the production and distribution of the analysis, and I think we all have a responsibility to consider how we can contribute to a more inclusive debate around photography.
So taking that idea further, I have to consider how I will personally rise to that challenge. What will I do to help to demystify things?
Some of my views & reviews via Shutter Hub
I enjoy considering these questions and writing about photography. I'd certainly like to write more, either as a companion to my own work or as a contribution to the discourse of photography that examines the context of images related to each other and in relation to general themes.
So ultimately I’ll have to put my money where my mouth is. Can I contribute to photographic debate and critical theory in an interesting, accessible and no-nonsense style? Or shall I just make a groveling apology to Barthes’ memory and slink off into the distance with my tail between my legs!
Earlier in this module I took part in a collaboration with my classmate Chris Chucas whose work I’ve increasingly come to admire throughout the first weeks of this course. We had both missed the chance to collaborate during the scheduled activities but agreed to try a little side project after discussing it in the webinar that accompanied the work in week 3.
I’d been really impressed by the work produced by the other collaborators. I felt that given the constraints of time and distance separating people, everyone had produced interesting and thought-provoking images. Chris and I decided to do something together and set about deciding on the parameters of our own project.
At the outset, I have to admit that I’ve never considered myself to be a collaborative photographer, AT ALL! One of the things I value most about photography is the ability to preserve my own individual vision. In fact, it’s one of the few areas where I feel that I can express myself entirely, without having to defer to external standards or expectations. I approach all aspects of making images in a very protective way, from the way I shoot to the way I process the work.
One of the reasons to write this reflection now though, rather than a few weeks ago when it was more contemporaneous, is that one of the real revelations of this first module has been the realisation of how much of what we all do involves collaboration on some level. It’s something that I have had reason to reflect on repeatedly throughout this module and not just specifically during the work with Chris. Even in my own practice, I’ve had a long and fruitful collaboration with my printer George at Digitalarte who I have been working with for more than three years now. Not only has he taught me a lot about printing but also many other things that have fed directly into my practice and improved my work and workflow. I have had a similarly fruitful association with my framers Oaksmith Studio. I've also benefitted from the collaborative environment that my photography group members have created.
When you look at things more closely you realise that all image making is to some degree a collaboration. With your subject, with your equipment, with your audience. For me personally this has been a useful realisation, liberating me as it has to some degree from the narrow myopic viewpoint that refused to allow external light to illuminate new and better ways forward.
The project with Chris was framed simply. We would both shoot two images, in landscape format, that would ultimately be combined in some way. Our general theme was ‘loss’ or ‘being alone’ and we briefly talked about some shared inspirations. Chris had posted some lyrics up on the class forum that had got me thinking, from the song Church Street in Ruins, by Bangers:
Hearing the Beach Boys playing on this rainy high-street
Makes me chuckle at the amount of surf shops here.
I've tried, there's just no waves in this town.
Just more coffee shops that we could ever hope to drink in
And I don't care how cheap their drinks are,
I'm better off at home.
I kind of find it offensive that everything's for sale,
Coupled with the realisation that there's nothing here I need.
It's strange, I don't hate my job and I'm not living on the breadline,
But spending money still seems strange to me.
On the plus side when I'm outside I repeat mantra-like
"The last thing I need is any more things".
We spoke a bit about how we interpreted some of these thoughts and I managed to slip in a Tribe reference, because frankly there’s always room for A Tribe Called Quest!
One of the pleasures of this project for me was finding shared perspectives with someone whom I didn’t know beforehand and whose work was so different to mine. Also, the fact that by being open to others it’s possible to derive inspiration from places I wouldn’t usually find it (my knowledge of Punk is zero!). In speaking with Chris and sharing ideas I not only found affirmation of some of my own feelings but also was challenged to broaden my views and think beyond my previously perceived boundaries. Reflecting on this experience and on the output of the rest of the group, as well as the various practitioner interviews provided where people discussed how they had entered into their own collaborative relationships, I would say this is one of the real benefits of collaborative working.
We agreed on a loose deadline by which we planned to have shot our images, and I went out on the streets of East London one night after work. I was feeling really uninspired, and usually in these circumstances I would have given things up and headed home just accepting that it wasn’t my night. Having a responsibility to someone else though prevented me from doing that. Now, it wasn’t about me and my own selfish view point. I had a responsibility outside of myself, to the shared objective of our collaboration.
Images for collaboration - shot February 2017
At this point, Chris had already sent me his images (I hadn’t looked at them though), so I was even more aware of a sense of not wanting to let the side down. I think there’s a lot to be said for deriving external methods of inspiring work and a work ethic, particularly if one wishes to pursue a professional path in photography. ‘Not feeling it’ can’t be an absolute obstacle to producing work, there has to be a way to keep shooting through it, and developing a productive routine that is almost independent of notions of inspiration, is one of the benefits that collaboration might also offer. In general, that is certainly something I must do better at as the course progresses.
Another element to our collaboration was that we would process each other’s photographs. For me this was a massive step. I am super obsessive about processing, always have been, and so the act of sending my RAW files into the ether and just allowing someone else to take charge of the final presentation of my images was both incredibly daunting, but also very liberating because ultimately, no one died! And that’s a lesson in itself, that sometimes by loosening the tight grip on the reigns you might be allowing magic to happen. Another lesson for me.
Image for collaboration - Chris Chucas
Image for collaboration - Chris Chucas
The final images were put together by Chris and I was blown away by them. I’ve never presented work in a diptych before, so again that was another way in which my practice was challenged and broadened by this collaboration. Both composite and diptych have caused me to consider different ways in which I can sequence and present my work in future and I’m grateful to Chris in this regard.
Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration
Chris Chucas - Justin Carey Collaboration
Overall, both in this exercise and on reflection throughout this module, I feel that collaboration is something that is not only unavoidable, but is also a positive force that can be harnessed both to produce work that transcends individual practice but can also strengthen and develop individual perspectives. I’d certainly be open to collaborating with Chris, or other practitioners, in future. As this module draws nearly to a close, I feel I have a better idea of where I want to go with my practice and significant parts of that will involve collaborative working, whether it be in producing images or in developing work to accompany, support or discuss photographic practice.
You can see what Chris thought about our collaboration here
This week’s focus was on critical theory and how we view, analyse and discuss images. I would admit that my initial stance was one of scepticism about the merits of critical theory, as it seemed to be a discipline that largely served to exclude the uninitiated from being able to participate in the discourse surrounding works of art. While I still believe this to be true in some cases, I would say that on reflection there certainly is a role for critical theory in photography. The breadth of potential contributions to the debate around the practice of photography, as well as the analysis of individual or related images, allows for many people to access or contribute to some form of discussion around photographic work. It's also possible to argue that critical theory serves to legitimise and elevate the practice of photography from merely a leisure pursuit to something that does merit consideration and discussion as an art form.
As we saw Francis Hodgson arguing this week, it's important to establish a common measure of photographic ‘quality’ as we seek to identify images that ‘matter’. I felt this to be an immediately challenging and somewhat troublesome idea (eg. who judges quality?). Of course, the concept of quality in photographic imagery could be considered to be largely dependent on the intended purpose of the image and also the audience to whom it's targeted. The family snapshot, the advertising image and the documentary project are all aspiring to different standards of aesthetics and efficacy and different measures of their ‘success’. That being said though, I don’t think this renders the pursuit of quality entirely futile. It still seems to me to be an ideal worth pursuing at least at the level of the individual practitioner. It surely behooves each of us to seek to produce ‘quality’ work, aspiring to reach as closely as possible the mark that one sets for oneself at the very least, even if I personally believe that a universal and standardised measure of quality is probably an unattainable goal.
Of course, on the other side of this argument is the risk that those who are assigned the role of adjudicators of quality end up being such a homogenous group that there's an implicit and unconscious elitism both in selection of images of merit and provision of access to them. One could already argue that the ‘art world’ is not the most inclusive or welcoming environment and by seeking to establish a visual hierarchy there is certainly a concern that it is possible for inequality to become further entrenched.
Save Your Own Damn Self
Another interesting question posed this week was whether we approached our work in a predominantly emotional or cognitive way. Reflecting on this I feel that since starting to take photographs I have largely proceeded in an emotionally-driven manner and put very little thought into things at all. One of the main drivers for pursing an MA in photography was the hope of changing this and finding a more informed basis on which to continue creating imagery that was hopefully improved by being better informed. I suppose as much as I don’t feel that my approach has yet shown much sign of this, the very act of writing this CRJ is a step towards a more considered cognitive approach.
Finally, I recently read a book by David Campany – Photography and Cinema as part of my research into the link between photography and cinema and how this might help to contextualize my own practice and help me understand how I see scenes and create images. While I can’t say that after having read this book I have a clear idea of how my own work can be considered ‘cinematic’, one thought from the book has stuck with me, that being that ‘an image could simply be narrative without belonging to a narrative’. I really like this and hope to work towards producing images with more narrative content moving forward.
Falmouth university ma photography critical research journal