Assignment 1: Two sides of the story


Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story. The aim of the assignment is to help you explore the convincing nature of documentary, even though what the viewer thinks they see may not in fact be true. Try to make both sets equally convincing so that it’s impossible to tell which version of the images is ‘true’.

It might be interesting to consider the project as evidence for a court case. What conflicting stories can you make your images convincingly tell? Would it stand up in court?

Choose a theme and aim for 5–7 images for each set, depending on your idea. Discuss this with your tutor.

Concept Development & Research

After coming up with and abandoning a couple of ideas, I decided to more-or-less take the suggestion in the assignment text and use self-portraits to show multiple sides of a story. This approach allowed me to explore questions of identity and how we use symbols to tell a story about ourselves.

My research started with Cindy Sherman, who is well-known for taking a strongly narrative approach and using herself as a model. Her chameleon-like ability to take on different personas   leaves the viewer in doubt about whether we see anything of the true Cindy Sherman or is it all make-believe. Badger (2014:165) points out that while photos such as the example below appear to be self-portraits, in fact they are not – it is simply that Sherman was her own model and role playing was the point of the work.

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #14. 1978

Cindy Sherman: Untitled Film Still #14. 1978

In searching for other photographers who are known for self-portraits (or at least, for using themselves as models), the names of Vivian Maier (admittedly, only a small part of her work was self-portraiture), Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and of course, Francesca Woodman came up (see my EYV blog item on Woodman here) and of course, the famous series done by/of Martin Parr.


Irving Penn, "Pompier" (Fireman), Paris, 1950 © by Les Editions Condé Nast S.A.

Irving Penn, “Pompier” (Fireman), Paris, 1950 © by Les Editions Condé Nast S.A.

The approach was kept very simple in order minimise distractions.  The simple, clean approach of Irving Penn with his Small Trades series was very much in my mind at the time.

I setup a black background and placed a small stool about 2 meters from the background to avoid too much detail of the background showing in the final images. I used natural light reflected down a light well. The camera was placed on a tripod, focused on a tripod temporarily placed over the stool and controlled by a remote unit. Very little post-processing was required: an adjustment to the white balance as the originals were a little too warm and a slight crop to 5:4 format to reduce the distracting expanse of black background given by the 3:2 format sensor.

The assignment was effectively about setting up multiple narratives where each is equally convincing, but which may or may not be true. For the narrative to be consistent and clear,  I used two approaches: props and text. While the props themselves may have been sufficient, I felt that the use of titles helps to drive the message home.

Selects & Selection Process

The selection process consisted of discarding the obvious duds and selecting the images which showed the symbols (skis etc.) most clearly. Clarity of message was my primary goal in this case, so the selection process was relatively quick.

Contact Sheets

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

Self-portraits are a pain, no doubt about it! Focusing, depth of field, movement – everything works against getting a straightforward, sharp image. After experimenting with flash and not liking the harsh results, I opted for natural light. Having a programmable shutter release meant that I could set a delay before taking a series of shots with slight differences in poses. Even so, as the contact sheets show, there were a lot of failures.

2. Quality of outcome

Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

I used this assignment as an experiment in showing different sides of a subject. At first glance, the photos might show my work, hobbies and interests. But how do you know what is true and what isn’t? Just because I wear motorcycle helmet, does that mean that is the “true” me? How can you tell? Ultimately you can choose to believe or not as you wish, which is the nature of documentary.

3. Demonstration of creativity

Imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice

From a creative point of view, I really struggled with this assignment, taking far longer than I planned. My original idea of looking at two sides of Geneva: the attractive and the ugly was initially interesting, but I couldn’t get engaged with it. It wasn’t until the idea of self-portraits came to my head, which I then realised linked back to the suggestions given in the brief that things started to click. Creatively, I think the work is “ok”, but no more than that. I think I could go further, but perhaps would end up too much down the path of Cindy Sherman.

4. Context

Reflection, research, critical thinking

Of the people I researched, all except Vivian Maier show different sides of themselves whether real or imagined. We could say that this approach is somehow the opposite of conventional documentary, but in a way, it also tells us about the photographers – at least about their interest in and ability to take on other personas.

As background to this assignment, I looked into the sections on narrative and semiotics in Short (2011) and also in Hall (2014). I understood from these two sources that the props were indexical signifiers – that is, they are “physically or causally linked to the signified” (Short 2011:123). The titles could be seen as symbols since they represent the concept that I was trying to communicate. In this case, I recognise that there is no subtlety about my approach, however given that the outcome is meant to documentary in some sense, then the approach is justified.


Badger, Gerry (2014) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited

Hall, Sean (2014), This Means This, This Means That: A User’s Guide to Semiotics. (2nd ed) London: Laurence King Publishing

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA


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