Assignment 2: photographer’s block


In this assignment we are offered the choice between two alternatives: “photographing the unseen” or “using props”. I chose the first as I believed it offered more opportunities to stretch myself. Following is the brief for “photographing the unseen”.

Start by doing some reflecting in your learning log. What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? How might you go about portraying them using photography? List a few examples of things you’re experiencing now or have recently been thinking about. This doesn’t have to be too in-depth or revealing, but it can be if you want. Equally, it might be something as apparently trivial as how you’re going to fit everything into your busy day. At first you may come up with literal examples, but the more you think about them the more those ideas will develop into specific and more original ones.

Make a list of at least seven ideas. Try and keep to things you have a personal interest in or curiosity about. Keep a notebook with you at all times and make notes when ideas strike you as interesting. (This is good practice for all stages of the degree and beyond. Ideas books are something to be revisited time and again for ideas and hints for the photographer you’re becoming.)

Now implement one of your ideas. Aim for a tightly edited and visually consistent series of 7–10 images.


What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? Following is a list that I developed over some time.

The Unseen – Examples

Stuart Hall in his essay Encoding/Decoding (quoted in Wells 2015), discusses how images are first “encoded” by producers and then “decoded” by viewers. Wells go onto say that “the transfer of meaning in this process only works if there are compatible systems of signs and symbols which the encoder and decoder use within their cultural life. Our background – i.e. our gender, class, ethnic origin, sexuality, religion, etc. – all affect our interpretation of signs and symbols.”

Hall (2014) when discussing symbols, also points out that in certain cases the meaning is related to the nature of the object. He cites examples such as a set of scales could mean justice, a rose could mean beauty. He also points out that “there are some symbols where the relationship between the symbol and its meaning is less obvious”. He provides examples such as a sword implying truth and a lily purity. These symbols have a culturally specific meaning.

Given this research as background, it was important for me to select symbols which have the widest possible application. This point of course connects back to the external context of the images: if they are displayed in my learning blog, then potentially anyone in the world can see them. I have to ask myself how will they perceive these symbols? Certainly not in all cases the same way that I do.


My starting point for research was the obvious one: to see who had done work on the topic of photographing the unseen.  This research yielded a number of names:

  • Lydia McCarthy – On her website, McCarthy provides the following background: “Through darkness and light, the camera reveals worlds unseen. It has the capacity to transverse sacred realms and illuminate the wavering, insubstantial nature of reality. Never inactive, never a witness: it invokes.”
  • Edward Thompson – via infrared photography, Thompson reveals a quite different view of the world than what we normally see with a strong sense of unreality and even unease.
  • Peter Dazeley – the description on the BBC site states that “Peter Dazeley’s book Unseen London shows the insides of popular tourist attractions such as Big Ben, as well as once glorious buildings like the Battersea Power Station.”
  • David Maisel – Maisel’s series History’s Shadow was developed during his residency at the Getty Research institute where he was drawn to the museum’s x-ray archive. Every object in the institute’s collection is x-rayed on acquisition, so the archive forms a “system of record normally hidden from public view”.

All these photographers have a different “take” on the concept of the unseen. From the fairly literal approach of Dazeley (things which we don’t have access to) to the more scientific approach of Maisel and Thompson (things which we can’t perceive because of the limitations of human vision). Finally we are left with the work of McCarthy which deals with another type of “unseen” – that of the internal view of thoughts, feelings, emotions or as McCarthy puts it “travel into the deepest recesses of my consciousness and discover what lies within”.

In addition, I looked into the photographers mentioned in Part 2 who make use of text with their images:

I had the good fortune to see Knorr’s Gentlemen at Paris Photo 2016 (see blog post here). I saw first-hand how the beautifully presented print and text worked together.

Concept Development & Process

While developing the list of potential unseen topics, a number seemed interesting, and I spent some time thinking about them. I had lots of ideas, but none of them enthused me. Perhaps I threw my net too widely, but I ended up completely stuck. This lasted for months. At some point, it occurred to me that I had “photographer’s block”. I don’t know if that’s a common phrase, but I suspect everyone who reads this article would be familiar with it.  I started to play with this idea, but over time it become more clear that it worked quite well as an example of the unseen – specifically, the feelings associated with photographer’s block.

Following is the mindmap that I built up over some weeks.

Concept Development

My starting point was to think about the feelings I was experiencing – the feelings of being frustrated and going in circles. That was easy because they were fresh and vivid. Once I had a list of feelings of reasonable length, I then started to think about how I would represent those feelings. What symbols would reflect how I felt doing this assignment? Lastly, I thought about technique. I came up with three ideas which I believe relate to this idea of being stuck:

  • Black and white: it’s not so much the choice of B&W which is important, rather, it is not choosing colour. Colour has a certain energy and presence – a feeling of life – which I felt was not appropriate for the subject. I choose B&W therefore, as the opposite, in order to convey a drabness, or monotony of feeling. I could have taken a half-way point: desaturated colour, but this was not appealing because I felt the message would be confused. One additional technical point was to make the final images relatively dark by underexposing and adjusting as needed in post-production. I felt this better reflected my mood.
  • Square format: suggests stability, but can also suggest rigidity and being enclosed in a tight box – being stuck, in short.
  • Vignette: suggests (at extreme) tunnel vision, focusing only on one thing (the centre) to the exclusion of all else. Again, an allusion to being enclosed in a small space. The vignette shouldn’t be extreme – it should only just be “there” as a suggestion but no more.

This is the first time that I’ve actively thought in advance about how the techniques employed would support the narrative. It is a learning point for me that taking this order (leaving technique to last) ensures that technique supports the goals rather than the other way around.

Selects & Selection Process

Following are my selects for this assignment.

My selection process consisted of removing duplicated themes and to narrow down to one example of each. I looked therefore for variety, but also looked for images consistent with the feelings of being blocked, therefore barriers or symbols of indecisiveness feature strongly. There was very little post-production work as the square format and B&W production was done in-camera.

The final image (028) triggered some further thoughts for me about the process I went through personally. There’s an obvious barrier on a road. But looking further, we can see that there’s a sign on the road surface indicating that it’s a cycle path implying that certain people can pass through, but not everyone. In addition, it’s easy enough to walk around the barrier suggesting that the barrier is internal and with a little imagination, it’s a simple matter to bypass. Finally, the path is an a large, open area suggesting that choosing a narrow road while ignoring everything around is somehow limiting.

Contact Sheets

Following are my contact sheets for this assignment with an indication of my selects.

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

The techniques employed were straightforward. The hard part was coming up with the initial idea and exploring the idea through the feelings evoked. The visual awareness I had to employ was about being observant in my local area. Once I started looking for things which reflected my feelings, I became surprised at how many examples I could find just within a few km of my home. Composition was intentionally fairly “dead pan” with subject front and centre. Making it more complex and even perhaps verging on beautiful would have completely missed the point.

2. Quality of outcome

I believe that the outcome reflects the brief very well – of illustrating the unseen – the unseen in this case being about the feelings associated with photographer’s block. I have chosen a consistent and coherent presentation, selecting symbols which I felt most strongly supported the feelings of being blocked and constrained.

3. Demonstration of creativity

I believe that I managed to turn adversity to my advantage in this assignment. After spending far too much time looking for enthusiasm, I chanced upon an idea which I could develop to answer the brief. In doing this, I actually surprised myself because I had felt that I had lost whatever inspiration and creativity that I had. At the completion of this assignment, I feel more positive and that I am starting to develop my personal approach.

4. Context

This assignment was all about reflection and using some research, principally of the photographers mentioned in the course text plus those I found on my own and with context provided by Short (2011), Wells (2015) and lastly by Hall (2014).


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

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: (Accessed 23 Sep 2015)



Exercise: three case studies

This exercise asks us to look at three bodies of work:

  • Peter Mansell – work done for his OCA course
  • Dewald Botha – Ring Road
  • Jodie Taylor – Memories of Childhood


All three of these projects are examples of personally driven work but they become universal when we can relate to the feelings they present by visiting our own personal histories.

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you’ve created?


The strongest resonance for me comes from the work by Botha. Born in Australia and living in Switzerland near Geneva, I can understand some of the feelings of separateness and alienation that Botha must feel. I have only visited Hong Kong, never mainland China, but I can imagine that the gap between South Africa and where Botha was living at the time must have been huge. For me, it is less obvious, but that makes it all the more frustrating at times. Superficially, people here are similar to what I am used to, but every so often there is a cultural reference such as a French movie or a TV show which I completely miss. Even after living here for 11 years, I still struggle at times with fast-moving and slang-ridden French. In conclusion, while I believe that the cultural gap is less extreme than for Botha, the feelings of not “fitting in” are definitely there at times.

Authorial Control

I believe that this so-called “loss of control” is a central strength of all art and is actually exciting, rather than threatening. As artists, we are trying to elicit a response to our work. Even revulsion can be an interesting response: look at much of the media’s response to some of Damien Hurst’s work, for example. The viewer projecting their own emotions and experience is a way for them of understanding and taking ownership of the work that they are viewing. I see that provoking such a response is encouraging – I am always curious to know how others see my work.

Guinea: Waiting for Justice

An open-air exhibition titled Guinea: Waiting for Justice is currently taking place in Geneva in the park next to the Paquis ferry stop. The exhibition of photos by Tommy Trenchard shows people who were caught up in various atrocities committed by the government of Guinea with a special focus on the massacre on 28 September 2009 at Conakry Stadium which led to the death of at least 157 people.

Tommy Trenchard: Mamadou Saliou Diallo.
Photographed at the exit to the stadium where he was almost crushed to death during the massacre of 28 September 2009.

The photos are colour, large (approx 2m on the long edge) and typically show the subject centre frame and located in a context which is meaningful to them. This might be the stadium itself where the violence happened or in one case, the subject is standing on a bridge where her father was hanged as the alleged instigator of a coup.

Each photo is presented in a structured way: the title (usually the subject’s name) appears to the left under the photo. Central is a short description of the location and a short caption. To the right is a longer text, usually a few sentences which give the story in the subject’s own words – usually a story of torture, rape, being shot and how this has affected them.

Tommy Trenchard: Aissata Barry
Photographed in the stands at the national stadium where she was raped by soldiers on 28 September 2009.

From the point of view of Context & Narrative, this exhibition could be said to be classic documentary in style. There is no attempt to glamourise the situation – the point is to tell the stories of individuals rather then allowing us to hide behind anonymous numbers. The expressions are deadpan. The stories are told principally via the text which functions largely as anchor-text. The fact that the stories are told in the subject’s own words lends credibility. The text supports the image because it provides a subjective view of what the person went through, rather than the more objective view (facts and numbers) that we might expect from the mainstream press.

Tommy Trenchard: Hadja Rabi Diallo
Photographed on the bridge from which her husband was hanged on the orders of President Sékou Touré in 1971.

Following is an example of the supporting text associated with the photo of Hadja Rabi Diallo above:

“‘My husband was Ousmane Baldé, the finance minister. Sékou Touré accused him of wanting to take power. One day soldiers came to our house and said he had been arrested. Then one of our children heard at school that he had been hung from the bridge. When we heard it we cried. They kicked us out of our home and stole whatever they found.” (from the FIDH site)

All the photos are very dark – most of them taken at night or late twilight. The effect is foreboding and supports the narrative of suffering. The principle feeling I took away is that the suffering is not over because justice has not been done and there is little or nothing stopping these atrocities from recurring. The dark therefore represents lingering threat.

The external context of the photos is in extreme opposition to the internal context. The exhibition is placed right next to Lac Léman with an astounding view of the Jet d’Eau and (on a good day) Mont Blanc. A perfect representation of how the photos are displayed has a big effect on the interpretation. The effect is not to mislead, but to tone down what might otherwise be a heavy tale of suffering. The (probably unintended) message is: “don’t worry, it’ll be alright”.


The use of the long text to tell the story of the subjects is powerful. Without the text, we would be left with a much shorter caption, which while it captures the situation, doesn’t explain what happened from the subject’s point of view and in their words. This is a powerful approach for certain situations and demonstrates clearly how text can work very well with an image, not to distract, but to reinforce.

Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art

This short piece is a summary of the PetaPixel article by John Mireles which was kindly shared by Clive White in an OCA forum (see here).

Summary of Article

The article presents a condensed historical summary to provide background to the situation. Beginning with the early days when photography was trying to establish itself as an art form, photographers attempted to replicate paintings because art was dominated by paintings. This produced the style known as pictorialism and is known as a soft, dreamy style. However, pictorialism wasn’t appreciated by all photographers. For example, Edward Western wrote a damning article in Camera Craft stating that “photography following this line can only be a poor imitation of already bad art” (Weston 1930).

The Rise of Modernism

With photographers “muscling into painter’s turf”, some commenters believed that the end of painting was near. The rise of modernism helped to resolve this conflict.  In the case of photography, the modernist idea was that photography should do what it does best – to capture the world in two dimensions. Weston (1930) argued that “the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness: stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher, or more alive if desired”. Modernist photography is exemplified by sharp focus, large depth of field and technically correct exposure. Classic examples include the work of members of the f/64 group: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others.

In the world of painting, modernism took an entirely different direction:

“If the function of painting was no longer the realistic reproduction of the visual world — that was photography’s job now — then it became free to pursue other, nonrealistic representations of time, space and form.” (Mireles 2017)

Mireles gives a couple of examples of modernist painting: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. So while both camps embraced modernism, the results were entirely different, leading to the situation where modernist photographers find it hard to understand their painter counterparts.

Post-Modernism and Beyond

Things get more complicated that this simple divergence, however. Mireles states that “while Modernism still rules in the world of professional and enthusiast photography, it has largely been abandoned by artists working with photography as a medium”.

Enter the post-modern world where suddenly what is in the frame may play a only a minor role.  Bull (2009) defines post-modernism (as the term is applied to photography) as “an approach to the medium that paid little or no attention to aesthetic content and focused instead on the cultural context of photographs”.

This situation causes even more conflict with modernist photographers. As Mireles says, “this idea that one must read additional documentation to understand an artwork contradicts those Modernist values held dear to photographers — especially the precept that an image should be complete in and of itself”. In art circles, no longer can an image be expected, or relied on, to contain a complete narrative. Increasingly, viewers are expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy, semiotics and popular culture as a starting point. They also have to absorb artist’s statements and other written material before actually getting to the photographs themselves. And perhaps there are soundscapes and overlaid video etc. etc. Rantoul (2016) points out that “for most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on”.


The article by Mireles concludes with the thought that modernist photography is stuck in a dead end. Great images will continue to be produced, but they will never be accepted by the contemporary art world. He argues that contemporary art will continue to change and develop, while photographers (at least those with modernist leanings) will be left behind. The challenge, then, is to decide on which side of this fence we wish to be on.


Coming from what I now understand to be a strongly modernist, tending to minimalist, background myself, I found this article to help me gain perspective on the gap between modernist-derived photography and contemporary art. I have to confess that I am one of the many (very many, actually) who just don’t “get” much of contemporary art. When I am required to read a small book, or understand a photographer’s personal life in order to start to appreciate their work, I think somehow we’re missing the point. As Rantoul states “this resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely”.

I feel there must be a middle ground. For example, Kaylynn Deveney’s work The Day-to-Day Life of Alfred Hastings, (see here) quoted in the course notes provides a good example. The text (mostly anchor-text, from my reading) works to support the images, but not overwhelm them.  Indeed, the photos can be appreciated without the text entirely, in my view. The photos themselves are well composed, well lit and mostly straight in style – in short, modernist. However, the addition of text and the strong narrative suggest at least a nod to the post-modern.

For my own work, I think I need to keep an open mind. I also need to understand that, while the photography might be poor from a modernist viewpoint, perhaps the whole package works from a contemporary art viewpoint. And therein lies the challenge – to appreciate both worlds.


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

Mireles, John (2017) Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art. At: [Accessed 06 March 2017]

Rantoul, Neal (2016) Opinion: A Disturbing Trend in Photography. At: [Accessed 11 March 2017]

Weston, Edward (1930) ‘Photography – Not Pictorial’, Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7, pp.313–20. Available at: [Accessed 07 Mar 2017]

Assignment 1: reflection

My tutor’s feedback for assignment 1 can be found here.


This assignment was an unusually tough one – I hope the rest of C&N won’t be the same. It took me a long time to come up with an idea that I could live with and I thought that I’d understood the brief of the assignment, but from the feedback of my tutor, plainly I’d missed the point.

The lessons I learned is that I need to carefully read the brief and stick to it more rigidly than I’d become used to in EYV where my tutor encouraged me to use the assignment as a starting point, and not be afraid to take risks and explore new areas. I have to hold back the creativity a bit, I think, which might make that part of the assessment more challenging to meet. I can accept though, that it’s possible to be creative while still meeting the brief. A bit disappointing, but on to Part 2 – let’s see what that brings.

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]