Category Archives: Coursework

Research Point: image and text

Examples of relay in contemporary photographic practice include Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself and Sophy Rickett’s Objects in the Field (see interview in the Appendix to this course guide) where clashes of understanding or interpretation work together to create a perhaps incomplete but nonetheless enriching dialogue between artist and viewer.

Look these pieces up online. Investigate the rationale behind the pieces and see if you can find any critical responses to them. Write down your own responses in your learning log.

  • How do these two pieces of work reflect postmodern approaches to narrative?
  • Another way to incorporate text into an image-based project is to include interviews or audio.

The New York Times has a simple but effective project online called One in 8 Million about the inhabitants of New York. It includes images of people from different walks of life and professions with audio clips overlaid to give a voice to the subject. It is a clever way of celebrating the richness and diversity of a city with such cultural and social diversity.

Sophie Calle: Take Care of Yourself

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle

The rationale behind the work (see here) is that Calle received a breakup email. She didn’t know how to respond – it was if the email wasn’t for her. The email finished with the words “prenez soin de vous”.

In the Museo Marco interview (see here),  she says that she did not understand very well what her boyfriend was trying to say, so she had a friend read it and try to interpret it. That gave Calle the idea to give it to other women, and specifically those who had jobs dedicated in a certain way to interpretation. In the end, she asked 107 women to interpret the email from their own point of view.

The postmodern approach is demonstrated by Calle’s use of a variety of media to communicate the responses of the women asked to interpret the letter including video, audio and text overlaid on photos, a classical example of relay.

Sophy Rickett: Objects in the Field

Sophy Rickett: Observation 111, 1991/2013

Sophy Rickett: Observation 111, 1991/2013

According to the Photographer’s Gallery blog (see here), Sophy Rickett is a visual artist based in London, working with photography, video and sound installation.

While working as an Associate Artist at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, Rickett began her project initially inspired by old analogue negatives of the night sky. The negatives were from a specific kind of telescope which produced black-and-white negatives of space. Rickett also wrote a text to accompany the images which is reproduced in the blog.

The text is a series of vignettes – experiences that were obviously meaningful to Sophy, including discussions with the inventor of the telescope which produced the negatives.

According to the Photoparley interview (see here ), the project consisted of several series of photographs, a monitor based video and a text, in this way being very much a postmodern approach to narrative. In reading the interview, it becomes clear that the text connects the work with experiences and emotions in Rickett’s past and reflects her interest in optics and photography.

The photo titles serve only as anchor-text. They are factual and don’t seek to guide our understanding in any way. A serial number would have done just as well.

 Barthes (1967) describes relay as occurring when “text … and image stand in a complementary relationship … and the unity of the message is realised at a higher level”. The difference between anchor and relay is therefore quite subtle and perhaps open to interpretation. Bull (2009) gives an example of a photo by Martin Parr in which he maintains that only one word of the title serves as relay-text due to its connotation of the exact opposite of the denotation of the photo, while the rest of the title serves as anchor text.

In the case of the supporting text written by Rickett, it’s clear that it isn’t anchor-text. It doesn’t directly relate to the images at all and therefore should be seen as complementary in the sense that Barthes meant. The meaning, in effect, consists of the relay of messages between the photos and the text, not entirely in one or the other.

The New York Times: One in 8 Million

New York Times: Jim Romano: The Tabloid Photographer

New York Times: Jim Romano: The Tabloid Photographer

According to the One in 8 Million website:

“New York is a city of characters. The Green Thumb, whose community garden in a Brooklyn housing project shows children that eggs don’t come from eggplant. The Dictaphone Doctor, last of a dying breed. The Jury Clerk, who says ‘Good morning’ 200 times a day, and means it. The Teenage Mother. The Tabloid Photographer. The Iraq Veteran. The Walking Miracle. Throughout 2009, The Times introduced 54 such individuals in sound and images, ordinary people telling extraordinary stories — of passions and problems, relationships and routines, vocations and obsessions. ”

By complete chance, I happened on the story of a photographer – Jim Romano – a tabloid photographer who, since 1946 has chased news on Staten Island for The Daily News, The New York Post, and other papers.  Via a series of black & white images, he explained how he got into photography while recovering from tuberculosis.


Barthes, R. (1967) Rhetoric of the Image. At: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Bull, Stephen (2009) Photography. [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 27 Feb 2017)


Exercise: Image and Text

Cut out some pictures from a newspaper and write your own captions.

  • How do the words you put next to the image contextualise/re-contextualise it?
  • How many meanings can you give to the same picture?
    Try the same exercise for both anchoring and relaying. Blog about it.


In Rhetoric of the Image, Barthes notes that “anchorage is the most frequent function of the linguistic message and is commonly found in press photographs and advertisements”. He goes on to say that relay is less common and good examples are cartoons and comic strips where the text (perhaps a part of a dialogue) and the image are read together. He goes on to say “while rare in the fixed image, this relay-text becomes very important in film, where dialogue functions not simply as elucidation but really does advance the action by setting out, in the sequence of messages, meanings that are not to be found in the image itself”.

Tribune de Genève: KEYSTONE

Tribune de Genève: KEYSTONE

The first example comes from the Tribune de Genève with an original caption of: “It’s the carnival period for the catholic cantons (here, that of Monthey, in Valais). Festivities will finish by the biggest carnival in Switzerland, at Basel”. In this instance, the anchor-text is particularly useful, because the photo is quite bizarre without any context at all.

Alternative captions could be:

  • The Walking Dead / Friends of Jazz Club arrives in Town
  • Zombies Invade Peaceful Village after having Attacked Brass Band
Tribune de Genève: EPA

Tribune de Genève: EPA

The second example, also from the Tribune de Genève is captioned (loosely) “The spectators were excited on arriving at Saint-Moritz, opposite the television screens”. The caption on its own doesn’t actually tell us much, other than something is happening at Saint-Moritz. In fact, St-Moritz is hosting the Ski World Championships 6th-19th of February 2017, so it’s quite a big deal.

Alternative captions:

  • Display of Swiss Nationalism in Advance of Vote to Join EU
  • Swiss Football Fans give Support to Home Team


The final example comes from Le Temps and has the caption “Mike Pence and Angela Merkel, two leaders of the western world meet at NATO”.

Alternative captions:

  • Mike Pence and Angela Merkel practice Square Dancing at Summit
  • Two Countries, Two Different Directions
Scott Adams

Scott Adams

The Dilbert series of cartoons by Scott Adams provide a great example of relay-text. Little happens in the actual drawing part, and frequently frames look identical with the only changes being in the text. We more-or-less take in both at the same time.

Another superb example of relay is William Kentridges’s More Sweetly Play the Dance (seen at Rencontres d’Arles 2016 and written about in my EYV blog – see here). The work is video projected on a series of panels, so that the characters move around the viewer. The video is supported by a soundtrack of music and speech which could be seen as relay.


Barthes, R. (1967) Rhetoric of the Image. At: [Accessed 19 February 2017]


Exercise: Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project

How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

There are a number of similarities between the two works:

  • Both works clearly fall into the documentary category: they show the situations just as they are. They don’t glorify the subject, rather they just tell the story.
  • The photos show a range of emotions: some happy times as well as serious times.
  • Neither work provides much context – they both focus mainly on the subject e.g. in Smith’s series, there is only a single image showing the town of Kremmling and the surrounding mountains.
  • They both use captions to help explain what we see.

There are also a number of important differences between the two works:

  • Smith’s use of black and white vs. Campbell’s use of colour give the works a different feel with Smith’s being more classically journalistic while Cambell’s are obviously more realistic, but also more intimate.
  • While both use captions, some of Campbell’s are quite long illustrating her thoughts and feelings, while Smith’s are factual and don’t speak at all of his own feelings.
  • Campbell’s images are more personal rather than documentary – you can tell that her Dad was aware of her presence, while Smith’s work appears to be more of the detached journalistic style.
  • Campbell’s images can be seen as a linear narrative because we clearly see the degeneration that her Dad went through. The timeline is therefore important and re-arranging the images might produce a confused message. On the other hand, Smith’s images don’t have a time element overall, although there are some sub-narratives such as that of the amputation of Thomas Mitchell or of the little girl who was kicked by a horse. However, even those sub-stories could be swapped without any loss of meaning. For the most part, the images are standalone – each one telling a short story, but within the overall narrative, the exact order is not important to comprehend what is happening.
  • Finally, we can’t escape that Campbell’s work is very personal – the death of her Dad, with whom we can imagine she had a very loving relationship. Smith’s work, while plainly deeply involved, can never have the same connection.

What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

I think she means that while her Dad’s physical life has ended, in a sense he lives on within her through the memories she has and the values that he instilled in her such as “waste not, want not” which appears at the beginning of the essay. I think she sums this up perfectly right at the end of the essay:

“I consider myself fortunate that the memories of my wonderful dad’s death enrich me rather than depress me, and fortunate for feeling comfortable talking about it. It means I can do it as often as it may be relevant, thus keeping his memory ever present. I am so grateful to my dad and for giving me a way to keep moving forward with him, and to photography for making it possible.” (Campbell, 2011)


Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project At: [Accessed 19 February 2017)

Cosgrove, B. (2012) W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. At: [Accessed 19 February 2017]


Exercise: the manipulated image


Instead of using double exposures or printing from double negatives we now have the technology available to us to make these changes in post-production, allowing for quite astonishing results.

Use digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be.

To make a composite image you need to consider your idea and make the required amount of images to join together.

Upload the images and decide which image you’ll use as your main image and background. Use the magic wand to select sections of image from the others you wish to move into your background image. Copy via layer and drag into the background. Do this repeatedly until you have all the pieces of your puzzle in place. In order to make it more convincing, use the erase tool on each layer to keep the edges soft and to create a better illusion. Be aware of perspective and light and shadows for the most effective results.


In thinking about my response to this exercise, I did some research, starting with the suggested Peter Kennard Photo Op series. I also took inspiration from the C&N blog of a fellow student – Andrew Fitzgibbon (see here) – who had a nice response to the exercise showing something that didn’t exist, but which could exist. I liked this idea of stretching documentary photography just a little bit to show something plausible, yet non-existing.

Following on from Wendy McMurdo’s Young Musicians series, I also look at her more recent Algorithmic Children work where the manipulation becomes much more obvious and we move into the realm of fantasy.

Wendy McMurdo - Algorithmic Gym Hall (iv), 2015

Wendy McMurdo – Algorithmic Gym Hall (iv), 2015

Christopher Relander

Christopher Relander from Jarred & Displaced

Doing some Google searches eventually landed me at Christoffer Relander’s site and his Jarred & Displaced series. I really liked the idea of somehow taking nature and preserving it in a jar. Relander explains it like this: “I play with the idea of being an ambitious collector; conserving my environments into a large personal collection. Most landscapes are from where I grew up, on the countryside in the south of Finland, where my roots still lie. Separation anxiety to my childhood is simply what absorbed me into this project.”

From this inspiration came my idea of playing on the concept of the classic Swiss “chocolate box” landscape. Why not put such a landscape in the box? It’s a gentle take on the phrase “it does what it says on the tin”.



As luck would have it, I managed to find a Swiss chocolate box with a picture of the Matterhorn (known as Mont Cervin in the French speaking part), which I paired with a photo I took quite a few years ago. I spent far, far too long wrestling with layer effects and managed to get a kind of a glow. I think it more-or-less puts across the idea. The chocolates went to a good cause.


Exercise: Defining the Real in the Digital Age


Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this on the student website.

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.


Note: after not having much success finding the article on the student site, I used instead the section titled “Defining the Real in the Digital Age” in Wells (2015).

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

As Wells points out, “we have always known that photographs are malleable, contrived and slippery, but have, simultaneously, been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more ‘real’ than other kinds of images”.  If any doubt remains about just how long people have been tampering with images, the website Photo Tampering Throughout History is mandatory viewing. And yet, many people who well aware of such alterations still cling to a belief in some kind of connection between photography and objective truth. It is this kind of self-deception which is particularly interesting.

Joel Grimes - Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Joel Grimes – Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Roland Barthe’s conception of the nature of a photograph that it is trace of an event in the world was already on shaky ground considering the quite amazing manipulations carried out with film, but with digital technology, the illusion is completely shattered.

How does his concept hold when thinking about composited images (e.g. Joel Grimes)?. What about images constructed entirely using software? We could try and finesse the situation by saying that they are digital images –  they’re not photographs because they fail the basic definition of “painting with light”. That sounds a little desperate and old fashioned.

It’s possible to say that truth is an independent concept which is not dependent on photography in general and that any connections we had in our minds between the two was simply naive. We don’t demand that a painting or sculpture be “true” in any sense, so why should we demand it of photography?

Having said that, if we look at specific sub-genres of photography, we could say that truth is a very important, even essential, aspect independent of the exact medium: analogue or digital. Professional photography such as medical imaging (x-rays, for example) or crime scene photographs have a very specific purpose: to reveal detail and to be objective in order to allow decisions to be made. As Wells says, “It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography. Any radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph.”

Perhaps the time is long overdue to drop any pretensions of objectivity and just think of photography as a medium for the creation of art, like any other medium. Susan Sontag (quoted in La Grange, 2005) noted that “photography, like other art forms, increasingly defines realism as not what is ‘really’ there, but what the artist ‘really’ sees. The answer is simply in our definitions: photography (excluding the sub-genres discussed earlier) never was about truth – it’s about art and there are no requirements on art to be truthful at all.


La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)

Exercise: Sarah Pickering – Public Order


Look at some more images from this series on the artist’s website.

  • How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
  • Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading? Make some notes in your learning log.

On purpose, I looked at the full set of Pickering’s images in the series on her website before reading the course notes. I had a strong sense of unease, wondering what was the story behind these images. The boarded-up windows plus some burned-out buildings made me think of Northern Ireland, although I did notice that the boarding-up of the windows and doors seemed to be a little too neat. At some point, it became clear that some of the buildings were just facades, which made me wonder if I was looking at a film production site – clearly this is not a real town.

Pickering’s work could be called documentary photography only in the sense that it captures a certain place in an unbiased way – we could imagine standing at the same locations and seeing for ourselves what Pickering captured. On the other hand, it is misleading because things are not what they seem. The key thing which is lacking is the context.

Douglas Hurn puts it very well in On Being a Photographer (2001):

“The fact remains that if I were called, or called myself, a documentary photographer it would imply, to most people in this day and age, that I was taking pictures of some objective truth — which I am not.”

Hurn makes the point later that the link between his observations of reality and “truth” are tenuous at best and that “the only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like — under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation”.

What Hurn is saying is that there is always an element of subjectivity and interpretation and that our ideas (more in the past than in the present) that photography provides a truly objective view is not correct and never was. But it is precisely this interpretative sweet spot that Paul Seawright looks for in his series Sectarian Murder and we can imagine that it’s the same area that Sarah Pickering was looking for in Public Order.

Liz Wells (2015) makes the point about how ideas of documentary photography have evolved. She uses a quote from William Stott to illustrate what documentary meant in 1930s America: “The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content”. She goes on to say that “there was an assumption that the world was productive of facts and that those facts could be communicated to others in a transparent way, free of the complex codes through which narratives are structured.” Quite clearly, as Hurn also points out, these ideas are dated and the boundary between documentary photography and other styles is not so clear as we might have thought back in the 1930s.


Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2001) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (3rd edition). Washington: LensWork

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed on 23.09.15)

Research Point: Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder


Look online at Paul Seawright’s work, Sectarian Murder.

  • How does this work challenge the boundaries between documentary and art? Listen to Paul Seawright talk about his work at: [accessed 24/02/14]
  • What is the core of his argument? Do you agree with him?
  • If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning?


Paul Seawright - Thursday 14th December 1972

Paul Seawright – Thursday 14th December 1972

In the video, Seawright explains the challenge of maintaining a balance between being too explicit and hence journalistic, and being too ambiguous and hence meaningless. For him, the holy grail (as is puts it), is “to make work that visually engages people, that draws them in and then that … gives its meaning up slowly”. He goes on to say that “once you know its context, you know where the photographs are made then each work is very resonant with all kinds of ideas”.

I think the key point is knowing the context. Without context, the works could be seen as somewhat quirky landscape photos. The context is what draws the viewer in and gives a rich layer of meaning to each image. For me personally, this was very much the case. The captions gave the  critical context for me to reflect on what happened, what it must have looked like, and also the senseless brutality to which we give the name “The Troubles”.

The core of Seawright’s argument is that to successfully create work in this in-between space between documentary and art, it is essential to make space for the viewer’s own interpretation, otherwise, as he says in the video, we are “back to an editorial picture in a magazine that has to function in a different way”.

If we define a piece of documentary photography as art, does this change its meaning? I think this is a complex question. Badger (2014, p72) notes that “such is the tricky nature of photographic representation that even the most ‘factual’ of documentary photographs can have their meanings altered drastically by context, by the text of a caption, or by juxtaposing them with other photographs”. If this is our starting point, then we can say that documentary photography IS art – there is no separation. If the meaning is largely in the mind of the viewer, as Seawright states, then the question becomes meaningless – whatever label we wish to apply (“documentary” or “art”), there is not necessarily a change in meaning, because the viewer will make their own interpretation in any case and the meaning for them is not necessarily the meaning the photographer had in mind.

At the risk of moving a little too far from the well-established academic world, Joel Grimes in his series Creative Expression in Photography, defined art as “the manifestation of self-expression”. While I’m sure that Grimes is not seen as the last word on the definition of art, his definition has the helpful aspect that it reinforces why context is so important. Context gives us a hint of what the artist was trying to express i.e. an insight into his/her self-expression. In Seawright’s case, the context is helpfully given by the short introductory text and even more so, by the caption on each image. In the end we see that the boundaries between “documentary” and “art” photography are very fluid and not very relevant to the viewer in any case.


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