In our earliest years we know a patch of ground in a detail we will never know anywhere again – site of discovery and putting names to things – people and places – working with difference and similitude – favourite places, places to avoid – neighbours and their habits, gestures and stories – textures, smells – also of play, imagination, experiment – finding the best location for doing things – creating worlds under our own control, fantasy landscapes. (Professor Mike Pearson)
Make a series of six to twelve photographs in response to the concept of ‘The Square Mile’. Use this as an opportunity to take a fresh and experimental look at your surroundings. You may wish to re-trace places you know very well, examining how they might have changed; or, particularly if you’re in a new environment, you may wish to use photography to explore your new surroundings and meet some of the people around you. You may wish to explore the concept of Y Filltir Sgwar further, or you may deviate from this. You may want to focus on architecture and landscape, or you may prefer to photograph the people who you think have an interesting connection to the square mile within which you currently find yourself. You’ll need to shoot many more than 12 photographs from which to make your final edit. You should try to make your final set of photographs ‘sit’ together as a series. Don’t necessarily think about making a number of individual pictures, but rather a set of photographs that complement one another and collectively communicate your idea. You may wish to title your photographs or write short captions if you feel this is appropriate and would benefit the viewer. However you choose to approach this assignment, it should communicate something about you: your interests, motivations, and your ambitions for your photography. Think Assignment one ‘Square Mile’ Assignment one ‘Square Mile’ Photography 1: Expressing your Vision 15 of it as a way to introduce yourself to your tutor. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond to this brief, as long as you try to push yourself out of your comfort zone in terms of subject matter. Try out new approaches rather than sticking to what you think you’re most successful at.
Initial thoughts and research
As the concept of 'milltir sgwâr' was new to me, I did some research to gain an understanding of its meaning and application. An article from Wales Online (https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/local-news/what-make-us-all-welsh-2299244) talks about "the influences on our doorsteps - in other words, the influences that shape our core identities", while another article from Jim Berrins (http://viewsfromthebikeshed.blogspot.com/2012/11/whats-your-square-mile.html) refers to "the patch of ground you make your own; a place that shapes you and which is shaped in return by your connection" .
My initial thoughts gravitated towards a sentimental and romantic notion of 'milltir sgwar'-this connection with your homeland and how it defines you. I naively felt if I was back in Dublin this exercise would be so much easier-I soon to learn that it's challenging no matter where you are.
I was reading a lot about different styles of photography as well as being offered advice and sources of information from fellow students, and as a result, found it difficult to find a focus. I was overwhelmed by the amount of information and was procrastinating rather than getting out and making a start.
My first attempts were a tour of the village and I didn't feel the photographs worked as a series or had any real emotional resonance. They were too linear and literal- 'here's the chippy, here's the closed travel agents, and this is the allotments, the school my kids went to etc.). I struggled to make them work as a set and something my tutor mentioned in our first conversation about being able to put a series of photos together (that work) being tougher than one good, great photo, echoed around my head as I began to experiment and play with ideas for an angle that resonated with how I was feeling.
I began to look at the work of the photographers recommended in the brief and two, in particular, helped me shape my approach:
I was immediately taken in by Venetia Dearden's work. One particular series of photographs, Eden communicated a sense of place through her portrayal of people, their way of life, and how she blends that with the landscape. Her work has a distinct and recognisable style and is often quite intimate in how it portrays people, often within their daily context.
Despite not being able to relate to, or critically read his photographs, I picked up some valuable insights from my reactions to his photographs. Having browsed through 'Journey on a Train' I was encouraged to write about it in unflattering terms on the OCA forum. This sparked a reaction and got me to reflect on why his photos had made me react the way I did. I hadn't really looked at them (or as one response on the forum suggested I wasn't showing any critical engagement) but they did elicit a negative emotional response. On reflection, a couple of things crystallised for me, I was reacting to, rather than looking at the photos-they are somewhat metaphorical and this requires a different way of reading them. Secondly, my own prejudices and expectations were getting in the way of allowing me to give the photos a chance and unlocking their meaning.
A fellow student sent me a link to a website (https://www.photopedagogy.com/threshold-concept-7.html) that explains 7 key 'threshold concepts' or big ideas that are intended to help students develop a deeper understanding of photography. Some of these concepts, the ones I understood, influenced my approach and made me pause for thought. These included "#5 photographs are not fixed in meaning; context is everything" and "#6 photographs have their own visual language and grammar".
My Square Mile
Having abandoned my first efforts and having read and reflected more on the topic, a new approach began to take shape.
I'm not from England and 'here' is not my birthplace nor culture. However, I've been here almost as long as I lived in Ireland-and although the cultures are similar- on occasion I struggle with aspects of identity. I sometimes find myself on the outside looking in- both self-imposed and as a consequence.
I was born in Dublin and lived there till my early twenties before moving to Germany as part of the Irish economic diaspora of the early eighties. I spent 14 years in Germany before coming to the UK, finally settling down and raising a family.
Soon, I began to gravitate towards the idea of 'identity' and what it means for me in the context of living here, what it means for others. I walk my dog (a lot!) and am a keen runner, so I have got to know the fields and countryside intimately -it's a beautiful place, something which this exercise has amplified and made me more aware of.
My series of photographs is like a conversation about identity, a sense of place and the imprint people leave on the land.
I hope you enjoy them.
Look at the things around you, the immediate world around you. If you are alive, it will mean something to you, and if you care enough about photography, and if you know how to use it, you will want to photograph that meaningness.
-- Paul Strand
This was a very interesting challenge and brief, and as a project, it's not finished by a long shot. I plan to continue and develop it as I feel I haven't fully articulated what I want to say.
What I learned
As I began to dig into it, and as I read and got familiar with different approaches, I felt like someone with new tools albeit clumsily wielding them. There were flashes of excitement when I felt it began to work with lots of trial and error.
The progression from my first thoughts to my final submission was a good learning experience and the key things I took away from it include:
- Try approaches that push you-they are there to be mastered
- Be aware of your prejudices-they can limit you (example my initial reaction to Gawain Bernard)
- Engage with fellow students-there are lots of people willing to share and help-take what you need-leave the rest
- Read and explore to help inspire-what I read (discovered) changed how I finally approached the project
- Write as you go along-I didn't do enough of that
- Sometimes, good enough is good enough. I procrastinated too long over some photos.
Regarding my final selection, I tried to get a couple of themes running through the series-identity, sense of place, and people's imprint on the area. Thinking about it, this was maybe too ambitious. Identity alone might have been enough or one of the other themes- I think. I found it hard to nail all 3 themes in the series. There are a couple of photos I wasn't sure about (9 & 10) but left them in any way. Number 9 is about a sense of place while number 10 is a comment on how people leave their mark on the place albeit via their dog!
To develop it further I would engage with people more and let their versions of identity tell the story-it was not practical with the lockdown to pursue that for this exercise.
In regards to how this series might be presented, I would envisage it to be online and editorial-by that I mean photos with a narrative and the common thread being versions of identity. The photos would be front and center. I would use mixed media-mostly photographs but also make use of video with some subjects speaking to camera. I would use one long scrolling page with a mixture of layouts to facilitate a flow that pulls the eye through the narrative-some photos would be full bleed, others half with copy.