The current exhibition of photographs from the Mass Observation Archive at The Photographers Gallery in London is about to come to an end after 2 months. For someone who has equal interests in the visual and the social, the exhibition ticked all my boxes and I found it fascinating, so much so that I managed to squeeze in two visits during its run.
What struck me was the way the curators seamlessly blended the photographs of the anonymous observers and glimpses of the social captured by more well known photographers such as John Hinde.
In fact I was so struck by the exhibition that I ended up researching into how to become one of the observers myself. With luck, they were (and still are) recruiting for Males aged 16-44 so I filled in the forms and this week had an email confirming that they are happy to add me to their list of correspondents. I am particularly excited by this because I think the value of the data that the achieve captures is immeasurable for really understanding how changes in society actually impact upon peoples lives.
My final image from the series I captured at IVSA 2013 comes not from the photo walk, but from a moment of clarity during a coffee break. Sitting on the lawn, I gazed towards the giant mirrored windows of the academic buildings and starting back at me was an image of myself, surrounded by people. Sometimes we focus in so closely on the nuts and bolts of academia that we miss the wider picture. The fact that it is the people that exist in the social that are inherently interesting and not the tools we use to capture them. Appropriate then that this image was the product of a mere iPhone and not the more complex set up that normally typists my best images.
Several of the presentations in the morning panels I attended at the IVSA conference focused on the issues surrounding visibility of the researcher to the participants in their research or photographs and the ethics surrounding that. There were also discussions of the partiality of representation of subjects by the way the lens frames them. This image seemed to draw together both of these concerns through the partial representation (and anonymity) of the subjects of the photo and their relation to the shadows of myself and two other photographers.
The juxtaposition of these two images is intentional. At first glance they both appear to be of the same thing, some young lads performing a routine and wowing the crowd with their physical agility but if we look deeper into the images, they are about something else, the crowd within the frame. This shifting from the performers being the subject of the photo to the object of the gaze of the crowd is something at I found particularly interesting. The onlookers who saw my camera would have assumed that the flips and turns were what I was focusing on when really it was their reactions that were capturing my imagination and the way they were interacting with the performance.
As the walk continued along the South bank, we decided to move from the more familiar path onto the beach that is unveiled with the tide. Sitting on the glistening peddles was a badge adorned with the words ‘it’s my birthday’. When I looked up from the trinket that had captured my eye, I noticed a figure on the end of the jetty that was staring into space deep in thought. This made me think of the fleeting moments of celebration and occasions that such objects symbolise and the impact they have upon our thoughts and feelings regarding the passing of time and the ageing process.
This is the first in a series of posts sharing some of the images I took during the photo walk with Paul Halliday, organised as part of the IVSA 2013 conference, I happened upon a young man dressed all in black sporting tussled locks of blond hair who was tagging walls with graffiti. The poignance of the words ‘As easy as being born’ did not pass me by, having taken a journey from south London streets around New Cross into the south bank where many bars and restaurants are beyond the means of many of the residents of the capital yet their patrons take them for granted. For me, this image typified the groaning urban inequalities of London.
It seems an ideal time to pull together my thoughts on Visual Sociology and how it differs from documentary photography and photojournalism. Next week is the 2013 IVSA conference at Goldsmiths and I am excited to be attending one of the days. Happily, this also coincides with the publication of my first pieces of ‘visual sociology’. The visual has always interested me and my background in design, photography and graphics has built up a keen interest in where the boundaries of my sociological interests and artistic interests meet.
A question posed by one of the editors about my initial submission for the Call for papers when I first submitted my image ‘Occupy and resist’ got me considering then an image becomes Sociology and when it is not. Harper (2012) and Becker (2007) both have some interesting commentary on this and essentially agree on several points. There is a close relation between photojournalism, documentary photography and visual sociology but there are some features that can help identify the boundaries. Like any cultural object, Becker proposes that the context is key to to understanding the intended meaning of an image and I would like to propose a framework which, helps make the boundaries more distinct.
Photojournalism – Capturing an image. Freezing a moment in time that can be easily read by a viewer. Often accompanied by little in terms of written explanation.
Documentary Photography – Recording a subject, a world or a culture through systematic exploration. Usually accompanied by descriptive texts describing what was seen or experienced by the photographer.
Visual Sociology – Understanding and explaining the image. Visual Sociology takes the written explanation beyond the descriptive and into the analytical.
Inevitably, there are always exceptions to a rule and things are never this clear-cut but hopefully this summary can provide a framework within which to begin to explore the ideas further. It is not to say that an image must sit within one or the other ad infinitum. Becker examines Harper’s images of tramps within his chapter and goes into greater depth about how the images could be considered in all there categories but how essentially, the framework I have outlined in terms of their presentation and context determines which way they would be classified.
Becker, H.S. (2007) Telling About Society, Chicago, The University of Chicago Press
Harper, D. (2012) Visual Sociology, Abingdon, Routledge
- Visual Sociology (jonrainford.wordpress.com)