The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits.
This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio).
You need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think of how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.
One of the possibilities I thought about for assignment 2 was to take images of people within their own house, using artificial lighting. My final choice of subject involves this. The room has become the studio. This contrasts with my earlier images for this section which were almost all taken outside with natural light.
I looked at several photographers portrait work for this including Martin Parr, Christophe Agou, Paul Graham, and Walker Evans and also researched work done taking images of people with disabilities such as Louis Quail in ‘Big Brother’, Siân Davey with her work on her Down Syndrome daughter in ‘Alice’, Polly Bradon’s work with the learning disabled and people with ASD in ‘Out of the Shadows ‘ and ‘Great Interactions’ and Lesley McIntyre’s photoessay on the life of her daughter ‘The Time of Her Life’. I also looked at Diane Arbus’s somewhat controversial work where she took images in a home for learning disabled people (Diane Arbus). There is a harrowing film series done by David Hevey on disability which uses the contrasting images of then and now, to tell a part of the story about disability: see David Hevey – The Disabled Century for more information.
Taking pictures of people who are aware of you is discussed further in Project 2 – The aware and Project 2 – The Aware – 2. Most of the work that I found about people with disabilities either involved people with a learning disability, severe mental health problems, or severe physical difficulties.
This series is about a couple who both have autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). This is a condition (I refuse to call it a disability) that I have worked with for many years and, if I have learned anything, I have learned that the people with ASD and their families are not defined by the label. Each person’s story is different, each family’s story is unique, just as for any other person and any other family. To tell the story properly takes time, a lifetime, both yours and theirs. This is just a snapshot.
For this series I took images of a couple with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) and their young child. Janey and Rich were kind enough to invite me into their home and give me permission to use the images. Unlike most of the work on people with disabilities looked at above neither of them has a learning disability. Janey is an author, rarely seen without a pencil and a notebook, and Rich works with computers. Their motto is ‘Anything you can do we can do too’ – although, as Janey went on to explain, that does not include working at a busy supermarket till ( but who would really want to do that from choice).
I met Janey and Rich in their home. It was the first time I had met Rich, so he was naturally somewhat guarded with me, although eventually relaxed. We spent some time talking and then I simply started taking pictures of their interactions with each other, me and their baby. One of the difficulties people with ASD have is with eye contact, especially with strangers and this is evident in all the images.
I used a combination of natural light, the artificial light in their flat and a flash unit.
I visualised these images from the start in black and white, partly because it echoed much of the earlier work I had seen and partly because it gives a softer light and timeless feel to the images.
This was a fascinating piece of work to do. It fits within a much longer work I am planning about the lives of people with ASD and that of their families. I am planning to mainly concentrate on work with adults with ASD as little has been done photographically with this group.
The difficulties were:
Working inside with limited light
Allowing enough time for the family to relax without being there so long that I risked overwhelming them
The positive aspects:
Building a relationship
Exploring a new (to me) type of way of working
Be confident that you can do things
Relax and the subjects will also relax
Take enough images to allow for problems with the light
With sincere thanks to Janey and Rich.
Arbus, D. et al. (1978) Diane Arbus. London: Gordon Fraser Gallery.
Braden, P. (2016) Great interactions : life with learning disabilities and autism. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.
Bradon, P. and Williams, S. (2018) Out of the Shadows. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing.
The exercise is to consider how marginalised or under-represented groups could be badly or unhelpful portrayed and how being an insider could help combat this.
People who are marginalised include people with mental health difficulties, people with learning difficulties, people of races that are not the prevalent one in the area/country/context that the information is read in, drug users, the poor, the whole LGBTQ+ population, the Jews in Nazi Germany, the Palestinians in Israel and the Mexicans in the USA – and this list could continue. It is well recognised that information about these groups could help decrease marginalisation and there have been many attempts in popular culture to say that these groups should be included. There is a song by Dory Previn (Previn, 1971) which contains the words:
Give me your poor
Your tired your pimps
You carhops your cowboys
Your midgets your chimps
Give me your freaks
Your whores your harlots
Your flunkies your junkies
Give me your starlets
Give me your poor
Your sick and your beat
And your sad and your busted
Give me your has-beens
Give me your twisted
Your loners your losers
Give me your black-listed
And, of course, there is the sonnet by Emma Lazarus – “The New Colossus” (Lazarus, 1883) that is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty which contains the words:
‘With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.’
Much of the time these groups of people are negatively shown simply by the poor choice of words that are used about them and therefore leading to assumptions being made by the majority of people that have no insight into the reality of the people involved or the life they live. A topic I know a reasonable amount about is autism. A quick internet search netted me an article about the myths of ASD such as autistic people can’t make friends, autistic people can’t show empathy, only boys are autistic and autistic children are naughty. Luckily this was an article saying that all these are wrong – but equally I have heard all of them expounded to me at length as incontrovertible truths usually along with the statement ‘but everybody knows that’.
Reasons for unhelpful portrayal include (in no particular order):
Oversimplification of the issues
Lack of understanding and research by the writer, speaker or photographer
Real bigotry, racism, homophobia and similar problems
Overuse of stereotypes in TV, film and novels – such as the psychotic person who kills someone or lies in storylines – this is particularly common in crime novels, which are widely read. This also occurs in sitcoms “She’s painted as ‘the other’ or ‘mad, bad and dangerous’” – although to a large extent this is being minimised by the involvement of organisations such as Mind (see https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/improving-representations-of-mental-health-on-tv/ – for more information on the work they do).
Over-glamourising of mental health problems such as a a focus on suicide or anorexia
Compassion fatigue – and overuse of violence -as described by Susan Sontag in ‘On Photography’ (Sontag, 1978) although she later changed her mind about how much this is true.
Showing negative aspects makes for more exciting (and often simpler) reading about a topic and is not always (or often) balanced by the positive (bad news sells)
Much information is written (photographed) by an outsider, a ‘normal’ ‘average’ person (often a white male) and is read by people of the same group.
People often write information to ‘raise awareness’ for a cause and therefore may well use the extremes (worst and best).
Deliberate misinformation -possibly the scariest reason of all
Sound bites, snippets of information reduced down to what fits in a Twitter message
The risk of multiple negative images in the media is well recognised. It is even included in a popular song by The Black Eyed Peas – ‘Where is the Love?’ (Black Eyed Peas, 2003)
What’s wrong with the world, mama
People livin’ like they ain’t got no mamas
I think the whole world addicted to the drama
Only attracted to things that’ll bring you trauma
Wrong information always shown by the media
Negative images is the main criteria
Infecting the young minds faster than bacteria
Kids wanna act like what they see in the cinema
Yo’, whatever happened to the values of humanity
Whatever happened to the fairness and equality
Instead of spreading love we’re spreading animosity
Lack of understanding, leading us away from unity
But the problem is wider than just the proliferation of negative images. Incorrect positive images can be equally harmful. A suggestion that all people of colour are be as suave, intelligent and successful as Barak Obama might lead to the lack of any additional resources needed to support the group that fall at the opposite end of the educational spectrum in the USA! There needs to be understanding that all groups that consist of more than one person are going to to have a range of problems, along with a range of positive aspects.
The most likely way to be able to spread accurate information is to know as much as possible about the situation and then to be able to describe it accurately and without bias. There are two ways of gaining that information. One is to research the situation as an outsider, being careful to take cognisance of all the viewpoints. An example of this would be if I decided to research the issues facing Jewish people in Fife. I am not a Jew and am therefore looking at it from the outside. I can never become a Jew. However, I could spend considerable time meeting with people, listening to their individual stories and trying to portray them accurately. The other way is to be an insider. In the above example, a Jewish person, even if they came from somewhere outside Fife, or even outside the United Kingdom would start from a place well ahead of me. They would understand the basic culture, know the religious rules and have a much greater chance of getting an accurate story.
However, there are ways of becoming an insider in a group. They involve time and patience and a willingness to listen and do careful research. Being an insider should combat most of the concerns listed above such as lack of understanding, overuse of stereotypes and over-glamorisation of the issues. Someone who is a member of the group, and therefore invested in their needs is less likely to give deliberate misinformation and more likely to show and accurate and balanced picture.
True Insiders (an invented term) are those that are living with the issues on a daily basis. They know and understand the situation from the ground up. These people can tell the story accurately and with emotion. They do, however, risk a bias of being over involved. The story is theirs. There is no neutrality. They story is told in depth and with heart-breaking detail.
Nan Goldin in the Ballad of Sexual Dependency tells about a group of people who are marginalised, a combination of drug users, people with AIDS and people who are involved with domestic violence. Goldin says, “Real memory, which these pictures trigger, is an invocation of the color, smell, sound, and physical presence, the density and flavor of life.” (Goldin, 1986). She is completely an insider.
Graham McIndoe in his exhibition Coming Clean and the associated book Chancers: Addiction, Prison, Recovery, Love talks about his drug addiction and its consequences to him and his family (Stellin and MacIndoe, 2016).
Sian Davey in Looking for Alice shows graphic (and endearing) images of what it is like to be the mother of a person with Down Syndrome, (Davey,2015) while Louis Quail in Big Brother describes the haunting life of someone with schizophrenia, the ups and downs, the disasters and the laughs (Quail, 2018).
Jim Mortram in Small Town Inertia shows people in his local community that struggle on a daily basis with debt, poor living situations and problems with mental health. He takes pictures of the people that are local to him while struggling himself as a Carer to his mother. The people are not quite as closely linked to him as the families of Davey and Quail – but he lives so closely within the community that he shows a real awareness of the difficulties involved (Mortram, 2017).
Timothy Archibald in Echolalia (Archibald and Levin, 2010) took a series of pictures of his autistic son to act as a a way of increasing his understanding and their joint communication. He says ‘Parents sent me snapshots of their kids that could have easily fit into the pages of my project: the notes, the body language, the in-door nudity, the hyper focus on an everyday object…parents around the world were snapping photographs of their autistic kid’s obsessions and behaviors. This was part of the process of trying to figure their kids out. It occurred to me then that I really had done nothing new with this project. I simply was doing what any parent would do, but I had an eye for good light and possibly a better camera’ (Smithson, 2013).
Involved observers are those who make a real personal investment of learning as much about the community as possible. They know the detail. They understand the issues. But they have a degree of neutrality. They are telling about others. They make an excellent case as there can be no assumption that they are biased. As they are more trusted by the community the story and images they obtain are more based in a real understanding, more truthful and more explanatory to others.
Polly Braden, who, as far as I am aware, has no personal connection with autism or learning disabilities (I am happy to be corrected if I am wrong) has produced two books on this difficult topic Great Interactions (Braden, 2016) where things are mainly going well and the people are supported appropriately and Out of the Shadows (Williams and Braden, 2018) where much is not right. In spite of not being personally involved she has become emotionally involved and tells the stories from an inside viewpoint.
Sara Davidmann in Crossing the Line (Davidmann, 2003) tells the story of a cross-dressing community in London. She says ‘As I continued to work in the studio my role shifted. As these sessions were usually one to one more was required of me. I soon understood I had as much to give as take from the sessions’ (my italics). This sentence sums up much of what I’d important in becoming an involved observer and is crucial to telling the story with integrity.
Information about marginalised people is often poorly portrayed because of lack of real understanding and personal/social bias leading to over-simplification, repeating of inaccuracies that are widely accepted and attempting to glamourise the situation to make for a good ‘sound bite’. An insider (or a involved observer) can combat this by giving accurate and nuanced information, that tells a story in a way that people will understand, therefore benefiting the community. Their involvement allows them access to information that a stranger would either not obtain or that they might misinterpret. An involved photographer is more likely to be able to put the people at ease and therefore obtain more meaningful photographs.
Archibald, T. and Levin, A. (2010). Echolilia: sometimes I wonder. San Francisco: Echo Press.
With the exception of candid street photography all images of people involve some degree of awareness on the part of the subject. However, the degree of involvement does vary. It can be divided into 3 main types:
The subject is having their portrait taken on one occasion either as:
A deliberate choice on the part of the subject such as a formal portrait
A choice on the part of the photographer such as a requested photograph of a stranger in the street. Examples of these are the June Street series by Daniel Meadows and the work done by Tom Wood see:Project 1 – The unaware – 2 where he became the PhotieMan.
An ongoing portrait series of a person or a group of people either taken over several days or even years where the subject, although known to the photographer, is not emotionally involved. An example is the series in the face of silence (Agou, 2011) by Christophe Agou.
An ongoing series of portraits of someone who is well known to the photographer such as family or a close friend. Examples here are Mother (Graham, 2019) by Paul Graham and Big Brother (Quail, 2018) by Louis Quail and the photographs of his wife Eleanor by Harry Callahan.
Another example of type 3 is Looking for Alice by Siân Davey in which she tells the story of the life of her daughter, Alice, who was born with Down’s Syndrome and the impact this has on the family’s life. In the foreword she says ‘the process of photographing this work has helped me shine a light on why I struggled to love Alice, which was essentially fear and uncertainty …. she is now in the middle of everything that we do as a family and is loved unconditionally’ (Davey, 2015). Davey went on to produce a book of images about her older daughter, Martha, at her request (Davey, 2019). She talks at length about her life and motivation for taking these images in a podcast A Small Voice – Siân Davey.
These categories can become blurred, especially the latter two, when a series continues over several years. This is very noticeable in the work for every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness (Germain and Snelling, 2014) by Julian Germain, where he started off with an unknown subject Mr Snelling, who he got to know very well over several years, with the images becoming more intimate over time. Another example of the blurring between a subject and a friend occurs in Nina Berman’s book An Autobiography of Miss Wish (Berman and Stevens, 2017) in which she initially meets a stranger, a drug addict and a prostitute on the street and over many years develops a friendship that includes housing her for a time and being her sponsor. The final book is a collaboration between Berman and Miss Wish (Kimberly Stevens) and includes both photographs, copies of her medical documentation and drawings done by Stevens.
The skills needed for all portraits of aware subjects include (in no particular order):
The ability to make a connection and read the person and therefore show their feelings
Real engagement to build trust – possibly very rapidly in a one-off shoot
The need to keep separate your emotion and the subjects (they may be the same – or very different) – and the photo will depend on how you interpret them
The ability to think about the whole image, not just the person. Both the content and the framing are important.
The need to choose between either being an observer (neutral) or a participant (a director) – both can work well but probably not in the same image
Consider lighting – inside or outside, natural or flash, soft or hard – what will show what you need?
Get permission which may be explicit (in writing) or implicit (the person sees you pointing the camera at them and agrees by not turning away)
A useful reference book which discusses these points is on the Portrait and the Moment by Mary Ellen Mark (Mark, 2015).
Agou, C. (2011). In the face of silence. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.
Berman, N. and Stevens, K. (2017). An Autobiography of Miss Wish. Heidelberg: Kehrer.
Davey, S. (2015). Looking for Alice. Great Britain: Trolley Ltd.
Davey, S. (2019). Martha. Hertfordshire: Trolleybooks.
Louis Quail is described as a documentary photographer, but that tends to imply a photographer who looks at something from the outside with an analytical voice. Some of his earlier projects such as Desk Job in which he explores office life across the continents, showing the similarities of how the workers in a large office exist and how there is a common culture of the office worker versus the big bosses can be described in this fashion.
However, his latest project Big Brother is deeply personal. It tells the story of his brother’s struggle with schizophrenia and the ongoing difficulties this causes. It shows the difficult side of having a severe mental illness, and how negotiating the pitfalls of state, welfare and hospital treatment is fraught with anxiety both for the person and his relatives – but it also tells an ongoing love story about Justin and his long time girlfriend Jackie. The book is both fascinating and terrifying. I was constantly torn between laughing and weeping while reading and seeing Justins story. The book contains photographs taken over 7 years interspersed with text telling the story and drawings and pieces of writing by Justin. It includes a small booklet of paintings and poems by Justin which make it clear that however damaged Justin is by his schizophrenia he is also a very creative person. One of these poems begins:
Boxed in clever on a psychiatric ward
It’s no wonder I am bored.
The fatigue sets in
The eternal light won’t go off
Before its off. (Quail and Quail, 2018).
Quail says on his website ‘This book did not set out to be a political polemic; rather, my intention was to fight stigma and share Justin’s story so we can understand, empathize and celebrate Justin’s individuality. However, inevitably by studying the problems affecting my brother, the work speaks of and draws attention to the crisis in mental health care, raising important questions about how we look after our most vulnerable citizens’ (Quail, 2019).
The book is worth a long look – for the story, the images and the increased understanding of a person’s difficult world. For this story the long-term engagement was essential to avoid a superficial glance and to give the meaning to the story. It would have been simple to just show the ‘bad bits’ but Quail succeeds in showing both these and the joy that even a difficult life can encompass.