Where I live is where I am from: where I grew up, where my family lives and where my children go to school. Yet, I feel ambivalent about my local area – North East of England has much to offer, Newcastle and Durham are only half an hour away and are thriving metropolitan centres. On my doorstep however, there is less to feel positive about – there is little in terms of investment, many empty, run-down buildings and a great deal of poverty. Stanley and the surrounding villages have never recovered from the decline of industry, predominately mining. Combined with this is the problem of businesses and retailers moving out of town to larger centres – a common problem leading to the decline of the traditional high street. I am part of the problem rarely using local facilities, to be fair however there is little to attract me.
I found the word ‘community’ in the assignment brief troubling as it has connotations that are at odds with my feelings, the more I thought about these, however, the more I began to think my negative view was more prejudicial than factual. With this in mind, I began to think of ways I could complete this project in an objective way and use this process to explore the validity of my view. I wondered if attaining any sort of photographic truth was possible at all.
In search of an objective approach:
Photography is a medium that is defined by what is excluded from the frame, the conventional way of doing this being to hold the camera to your eye and press the shutter, making choices as this is done. The first decision I made was to remove this option by programming my camera to take pictures at a set interval, carry the camera around my neck and walk around, a variation of a shooting from the hip strategy. I imagined myself as a flâneur, strolling around the streets in a deliberately distracted and purposeless fashion. By not having any direct control of framing and camera settings the resulting photographs would rely entirely on chance with the likelihood that many would be unusable – I could only hope that chance would lead to some interesting results.
I only ever thought about presenting this project in black and white, while this was in part due to the influence of classic street photographers it was mainly an instinctual choice – somehow it seemed important for the images to be monochrome, although we do not see the world this way there are still strong connotations of realism and authenticity attached to the black and white photograph as well as a suggestion about photography’s history itself. Naturally, any sort of processing is an intervention which immediately negates any attempts toward the objectivity I was striving for, I considered whether this would apply if I was shooting on black and white film but came to the conclusion that as most digital cameras shoot colour by default this was not a valid comparison. With every choice I was finding that any attempt at gaining true objectivity was fraught with difficulty and that this was potentially an impossible goal.
The issue of selection:
It could be argued that the process of editing and selection is the real essence of photography, above even taking the actual images. Clearly, the moment I began to make choices all of the efforts I had put into capturing random moments of objectivity would be reversed. With this in mind, I tried two simultaneous approaches: the first was my tried and tested workflow – an initial first select followed by closer examination and refinement individually before making prints and taking time to view these side by side before paring down to the final choices. The second was to explore different ways I could continue the strategy of randomness – choices could be made on a numerical basis for example. I was also keen to open my work up to peer review so decided to ask for fellow students to indicate which images they preferred as a potential way of making the selection. I arrived at this thought after some initial comments made me look at pictures I was ready to discount.
A subjective view:
A number of respondents to my request for feedback agreed on similar points – my approach to achieve randomness was inherently flawed, some questioned if this was even something that was worth pursuing as the idea of objectivity has already been discounted as a fallacy. Despite my call for collaboration, I must confess to being motivated mainly by the need to put my work out for feedback – pushing myself out of my comfort zone. A couple of pieces of advice from fellow students resonated with me at this point – they suggested that what I should focus on was finding the story I wanted to tell from the images and pursuing this. This advice brought how to proceed into clarity and I instantly decided to reject the experiments with selection through feedback and other strategies and embrace a completely subjective view. Ironically, these experiments and thoughts about objectivity focussed my attention on this – rather than trying to rail against my prejudices it seemed clear that I needed to embrace them.
I believe that photographs work best when unified as a set. When I have done this myself I have often left images out of the selection that initially seems to be the strongest, and this process was no different. The unifying theme of the set came to me as I looked at my rough selection prints, many of the images featured a lone, anonymous character isolated in the landscape. Successful portrait photographers often discuss how they spend time building a rapport with their subjects, a process that shows a connection to the viewer through the images. The way I took my pictures, however, was totally at odds with this – rather than interacting, I was deliberately distancing myself from the people in my photographs – the whole process being a metaphor for my unease with my feelings about community. For me, the lone figures represented alienation in both the political and psychological sense – not only were these people alone but they were separated from both me and the viewer as they go about their anonymous activities. I also realised that I was part of this alienation as well, I had arrived at a shooting strategy that removed me from the situation I was photographing which perhaps says more about me than what I have photographed.
The problem with any project is that as the originator it is difficult to maintain impartiality and critical distance. I can say what I see in the images, whether this is legitimate or not is open to debate. My fear is that starting with a conceptual approach I have focused more on this than the quality of images themselves, I have no idea of these are the ‘best’ images to have chosen, however, I can say they are definitely the choice of this moment in time. I suspect that if I was to return to these in the future I would potentially choose a completely different 10 pictures. Somehow though this is all irrelevant – the success here are that I managed to find a particular strategy that allowed me to arrive at the raw pictures and from them explore the themes I have come to express. One of my main aims from this course was to experiment and I feel I have achieved that as well as pushing myself out of my comfort zone to show my work to others.