Assigment 4: Image & Text Write up
Create a series of work (aim for 7–10 images) which in some way reflects upon the ideas surrounding identity and place that you’ve looked at so far in this course. Use the written word to play a part in its creation.
You may be inspired by a poem, song or a novel or decide to write your own fictive piece. You may draw upon other people’s words via eavesdropping or another source or use extracts from journals. You might find interesting textual accounts in archives in libraries that could inform this assignment. Allow your creativity to be spurred on by spending time with these words and reflecting on them.
Be wary of illustrating your text with pictures and vice versa. Allow for the viewers’ interpretation to be opened up rather than shut down by the pairings. You may decide not to include the actual words in the final production; that’s fine, as long as they have in some way informed the research and development of the concepts and have pushed the imagery further as a result.
Write a short reflective commentary (around 500 words) describing how your chosen ‘ words ’ have informed your series of images and make this available to your tutor alongside your images.
There is something cathartic about going to the local dump. At least once a year, I make the ‘pilgrimage’ to purge the garage and house of stuff we never should have bought in the first place. If it hasn’t been used in the past 6 months and doesn’t have a memory attached- it goes-there are exceptions, but that’s my rule of thumb.
A few weeks back, I was at the dump, dropping my latest sack of unwanted detritus into the indifferent embrace of the mega-skip, when a woman came up behind me and disposed of a small cardboard box spilling its contents on impact. A photo album fell out and opened, offering a glimpse into a life and its memories. I only saw her back, and without thinking, I grabbed the album and dropped it into a plastic sack-you’re not meant to take things from the dump, but I couldn’t help myself.
Why had she thrown the album away? It seemed so specific, not a wholesale clearout but just an album and some letters and papers. I’ve always considered photographs and family albums as important historical documents. They give us a glimpse into the past and occasionally explain the present but mostly pose questions as they tantalisingly immerse us into ‘other time’. We are presented with a frozen moment but have no idea what came before or after and so we build a narrative around it.
When my parents died, I was left with a small (very) bag of photographs that revealed them in different places and situations. I hardly recognised the people in the images and their lives; I’d look at them for ages, looking for clues, and create a life around them. Growing up, ours was not a happy house, and these images situated my parents in moments I never got to experience. It surprised me they were once happy, had friends, and did things like go for a drive in the hills. What happened that made all this go away?
A lasting impact of this has been a mistrust of family albums and photographs. The ritual of the family snap and its curation tends to leave an impenetrable veneer and is more about what’s left out than in. I tend to treat albums with suspicion, a degree of cynicism and, if I am honest, jealousy. Truth be told, I’d love to have family albums to flick through and have heard the stories that went with them. Even if they were fiction. Martha Langford touches upon this in ‘Suspended Conversations’ when she says ‘”Albums come alive in the telling. They are vehicles of storytelling, true , and they are based on external reality, yes , which makes them very good vehicles indeed, carrying both tellers and listeners along. Their contents and structure are designed by the compiler to be performed and they are performative, in the linguistic sense of “in the saying is the doing,…”.
I was doing this assignment while on vacation in France, and there were 7 of us sharing a house. Over dinner one night, I mentioned the assignment and how I had fished the album from the dump. The reaction to this was a mix of incredulity and piqued interest. Some wanted to see the images, others asked about the lady, and some wondered why she had gotten rid of the album. Was it a dead relative? An ex-lover? A failed relationship? Or simply something she found after moving into a house? Someone else offered, ‘we delete images every day from our phones, so what’s such a big deal getting rid of an album?’. Fair enough.
But an album is an artefact, often lovingly curated and censored. This got me thinking, so I pulled volunteers into creating the narrative, or more precisely, a context. I invited people to write a few lines on and around the album, leaving it open-ended and allowing them to *curate the images.
It was interesting listening to people discuss the images. Lots of questions and comments- ‘Is this an album of an only child?’ ‘who’s she -his wife?’ ‘maybe it’s some bloke’s album and he’s all grown up now..’ like watching detectives trying to piece the puzzle together. The images themselves and people’s world views offered many different narratives-all valid more or less.
*I scanned the images and took photos of their original positions in the album.
During this course, I came across the photographer Paul Seawright from Northern Ireland and his work ‘Sectarian Murder (1988)’ where he photographed the locations of sectarian murders (as they are today) around Belfast and used excerpts from press reports (from the time) to contextualise each image. I found this very powerful and more so as I’m southern Irish and lived in relative safety far from the troubles, but I remembered some of the murders. It taught me the power of words and images and the ‘gap in between’ the viewer has to fill.
For this assignment, I went in a few different directions before settling on a quote or a few lines from different people to contextualise the series. Before I started this course, I would ‘spray and pray’ when taking photographs, looking for that killer image based on others I had seen or had thousands of likes on social media. I fretted about things like sharpness, the rule of thirds, decisive moments, and the type of camera I had. As I’ve progressed, I have slowed down considerably, taking inspiration from the creative routes I’ve discovered, prompting me to explore and try things, leaving myself open to experimentation and developing (and understanding) my creative process.
This assignment had a serendipitous aspect, but it’s the journey from first reading the assignment to having a piece of work at the end that excites and intrigues me.
At first, I tried to write captions for each image but found I was being repetitive and descriptive. Ultimately, I settled on having a few lines, as open-ended as possible, to drive layers of interpretation, ambiguity, and dialogue between the viewer and the images- a prompt, albeit to drive them in a direction.
The images themselves are of a snap-shot aesthetic which are in themselves a genre of photographic practice, perhaps under-valued, and specifically the ritual and practice of keeping photo albums.
In presenting the images, I would give each set its own space. I would have the caption / title/quote printed very large and arrange the images in a horizontal sequence. I would experiment with asking viewers to leave their views about the images to grow the narrative and create an interactive space.
What I learned
The text accompanying an image is as important and requires much consideration as the image itself. My take-aways:
- Text can enhance or evoke specific emotions and can create a more powerful and memorable image or series of images
- The relationship between text and image can create layers of interpretation and ambiguity, encouraging the viewer to engage.
- Images are malleable. Although a camera faithfully records what’s in front of it, the viewer brings their world view, and if the text is added, it can either anchor the meaning (remove ambiguity) or increase ambiguity.
- Not every image needs a caption.
- Text can trigger meanings in the gap between an image and the viewer
- I cant control 100% what a viewer brings-their world view, subjective leanings
- Family photo albums should be read as a whole rather than as individual images
- Family albums are two parts of a whole- the albums and images coupled with the narrative-they are complete when someone tells the story
- Family albums are a key part of identity
- The ‘snapshot’ is under-appreciated and has as much merit as the intellectualised imagery that hang in galleries-its the true democratic form of photography.
- The snapshot has its own language and presentation forms (albums, social media reels etc)
- The family album is a key historical record artefact curated, censored or not.
- Family albums as holders of memories are a dying artform
- I have so many more creative avenues to explore and experiment with
Quality of outcome – I feel I have put together a coherent series. I have experimented by using people to participate in the creative process. I think I could have really uplifted the final result if I had asked the participants to talk through the images and recorded their narrative as if it was their family they were talking about. It is definitely something I would consider in the future. I think the different albums and quotes to contextualise or prompt the viewer works quite well. I became a viewer in this instance and found myself looking at the images much longer than I would normally do with family snap-shots. The quotes above really sent me in different directions of meaning and understanding.
Demonstration of creativity – From fishing the album from the dump to enlisting people to shape the narrative, it demonstrates creativity and experimentation. As this course has progressed, I have become much more open-minded and aware of the creative process. I don’t mind if things don’t always land 100%- in each project, I learn and take something valuable for the next. It has also encouraged me to be open and alert.
Context – I researched the family album through the writings of Martha Langford, the images of Trish Morrissey and Annette Kuhn’s work on memory. Regarding identity, family photo albums serve as visual narratives that help construct and represent family identities and relationships, albeit carefully staged (mostly) and often performed for the camera, highlighting the interplay between intimacy and performance. These albums have a physicality and a ritualistic nature i.e. taking out the album and telling stories this passing along family history, which is dying but like music albums, and analogue photography may make a comeback and worth studying both their state today and the modern equivalent -social networks and digital archives. As a result of my research, I viewed the family photo album as something worth studying further.
Finally, I’m becoming interested in the ‘democratisation’ of imagery in all its forms. As a discipline, photography can be elitist and too academic. This tends to exclude rather than include. The family snap is often ignored and not treated as ‘real’ photography. Still, its practice and social, and personal significance go way beyond many academic musings of selected images that get singled out or hung on a gallery wall. It appears to me that these images are often secondary to a good argument- too many seem to get over-analysed.
Morrissey, Trish, 2004, Seven Years (2001-2004) https://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-sy/statement.html
Seawright Paul, 2008, Sectarian Murder, https://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian
Kuhn, Annette, 2002, Family Secrets, Acts of Memory and Imagination,London, Verso
Langford,Martha, 2002,Suspended Conversations,The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums,McGill-Queen’s Press