This is a lengthy post – if you want to go straight to the assignment rationale click here
The brief for this assignment appears straightforward at first, but after reading it carefully it becomes clear that it is asking quite a lot, not just of students but of photography itself. The bones of the brief are:
- The photographs must be of the same STORY. Not necessarily the same subject, location or time.
- There must be two different versions, one which is honest and unbiased, the other is deliberately misleading or untrue, but both must appear to be true.
- The brief asks us to create at least two sets, 5-7 images per set – not to photograph two sets, so presumably the images could be from archives.
The latter requirement must rule out anything staged or contrived because that would not be real life. To be candid requires that the work is fundamentally un-posed. But the unbiased version must be sufficiently true to contrast the opposing version which is untrue or misleading. In previous assignments I have taken a few liberties with the brief by wrangling it to suit my own purposes but this one appears deliberately tight and I’ve thought about it long and hard, researching the idea of truth/untruth in modern photography. If I thought I could get away with more brief-bending I was soundly corrected when, looking through other student’s C and N blogs I found this, addressed to student Allan O’Neill by his tutor Mike Kinsey in April 2016:
From your Blog :“Create two sets of photographs telling different versions of a story”
From the Brief:“Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story.”
I think you will see the small but crucial difference now.
The brief goes on to give more clues and ask for comparison through ;
“What conflicting stories can you make your images convincingly tell?”
So it wanted you to produce two sides of a story the same set of facts. On that basis you are so very lucky !
Why , because at one time or another anyone studying photography will make this basic error but you did it on an assignment that doesn’t carry a penalty as it is not used deciding your course grade only to determine progress made. I suspect you will not make this error again. Always read the briefs several times carefully. Talk them over with family/friends see if they think you have the gist or they see it different, often it’s very informative.
I didn’t find the same tutor comments on other blogs where the student had misread the brief but Kinsey is quite firm on the matter. I agree that this is what the brief calls for and since the whole section is about using photography which is misleading I think the brief needs tackling squarely.
The core requirement of the brief is to use the camera with its capacity for selection, perspective, angle and lens ‘distortion’ along with the characteristics of the shutter in selecting a slice-of-time to produce two contrary versions of the same story.
A Google search for bias – for that is probably the most common instance of this – in news photography produces surprising results. A significant number of the top ranking returns are pro-Israeli sites decrying the world’s media in their anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian bias. Of the remainder, most deal with narrative bias in written articles and newspaper reports. An image search on the same terms returns results which are almost entirely cartoon, comic or graphics based – no photographs. Of course I had hoped to find some inspiration in the form of “true/biased” examples but few were forthcoming.
Examples of photo manipulation abound but this is not what the brief is calling for.
My stance is that every image is biased, simply because it cannot show the entire scene from every perspective, every angle, all at the same time. As soon as we look through the viewfinder we are imposing an image bias because one of the cameras primary functions is to exclude information.
In researching this project I have attempted to find examples of contrasting treatments of the same story, which convey a different impression. Here are some of the ways that the use of the camera can mislead:
Fig 1: Time Magazine (June 1994)
“In response to the barrage of criticism about Time magazine’s cover portrait of O. J. Simpson in the current issue, James R. Gaines, managing editor, posted an electronic message on a computer bulletin board on Wednesday stating that ‘no racial implication was intended, by Time or by the artist.’ The cover portrait of a blurry, darkened and unshaven Mr. Simpson is actually a doctored version of a photograph made by the Los Angeles Police Department. Mr. Gaines’s message said that the police photo had been given to an artist who was asked to interpret it. The credit line, printed at the bottom of page 3 of the magazine, said, ‘Photo-Illustration for Time by Matt Mahurin.’ ( NYTimes.com 1994).
Mahurin’s ‘interpretation’ of the photograph and Gaines’ approval thereof caused an outcry. Many considered the image to have been deliberately darkened to skew the impression it would give to readers. Certainly the burnt edges make the cover more sinister and Simpson’s skin tone was much darker than printed in other newspapers and magazines. I’ve included this blatant example even though it is not strictly a camera-based manipulation.
Angle of View
As soon as we lift the camera to the eye we are making a decision about what to include and what to leave out. If certain aspects of the setting don’t suit our purpose we can conveniently eliminate them.
This is the version Conservative Central Office would favour, showing the Prime Minister in a heroic stance surrounded by enthusiastic admirers – standing up both literally and metaphorically, arms appealing for well-deserved support.
In this version, where the photographer may have stepped back a little, the rather low-rent feel of the setting is revealed. The PM stands on an un-statesmanlike item of staging and the voluntary attendees appear pretty thin on the ground.
The images of President Obama below were actually crops rather than camera position or lens choices but the effect is the same:
For the Economist cover the woman was removed completely, which alters the implied message of the photograph – the President appears to be deep in thought when he may easily have been simply listening carefully to his colleague. His skin appears to have been lightened as well but in this case it is probably justifiable on a technical level considering the difficulty of retaining detail in dark skin on a bright background.
By altering the region of sharp focus the photographer has emphasised the tedium experienced by two young placard bearers (fig 6); the more conventional presidential photograph moves the area of interest back where the White House would prefer it.
Lenses and Lighting
Estate agents have a reputation for producing photographs of properties which, although they have to be legally ‘true’ nevertheless present an exaggeratedly favourable view.
The agency which produced these images (above) has worked very hard with viewpoint, lens choice and lighting to present the room in the best possible way in the second image. The lighting is colour matched, balanced with the exterior and reveals all the room detail. The wide angle choice shows little distortion but emphasises the depth of the room. Both images are completely true but the choices made by the photographer at camera level have produced two very different impressions.
Every image is potentially untruthful or misleading. Truth may be found more in the attribution – the author – than in the image itself. The logical extension of this is that the only image you can really trust is one you have made yourself.
After all the foregoing research I didn’t feel I was any nearer to deciding on a ‘story’. Every option which came to mind failed on one of the criteria, so I sought the advice of the tutors who offer (very valuable and much needed) advice on the OCA forums. I asked:
I could do with a steer on C&N Part One Assignment One please. I want to make sure I fulfil the brief correctly or alternatively, to be assured that brief fulfilment doesn’t matter so much. My reading of the requirement is that two sets of images are to be created, each of which is plausibly truthful, one of which is misleading or deceptive. I’ll set aside the matter of whether any image is true. They must be ‘candid’ (which I take to mean unposed) and ‘taken from real life’ (so not staged or imagined). Given the theme of the projects in this part, it would seem that the assignment should be an exercise in using the camera’s particular characteristics to mislead. Those camera attributes might include selective focus, exclusive/inclusive framing, slice of time, view angle, lens ‘distortion’ etc
Just as a student in a bricks’n’mortar uni I like to see what my peers are up to so I’ve checked out a few C&N blogs. Almost without exception they approach the brief as a ‘two sides of the same story’ theme. For example, big wealthy houses rubbing up against deprived dwellings. huge edge-of-town hypermarkets/empty town centre shops. The problem with that – as far as brief is concerned – is that both of the sets are true; we are not misled by any of the photographs since they are all both plausible and without bias or deception.
I found only one instance of a student being called out on this by their tutor – he called the ‘two sides/same story’ approach a mistake and urged the student to read the brief more carefully on future assignments, to discuss it with family and friends and make sure it has been properly understood. That’s my question – wrangle the brief to suit, or follow its fundamental purpose? I hope the answer is the former option as I have, so far, been unable to settle on a suitable story. Perhaps I too have misunderstood the purpose? Or given that this assignment is just to show your new tutor where you’re at, would it be OK to turn in something which I personally feel is ‘where I’m at’ and what pleases me/frustrates me about it.
Peter Dehaviland responded:
“turn in something which I personally feel is ‘where I’m at’ and what pleases me/frustrates me about it.” that’s the way to go on this brief…your tutor learns about you and you learn about your tutor.
Forum post August 2017
Clive White added:
Seconding Peter. What this brief is really about is encouraging the student to understand the polysemous nature of the visual image; for those who hadn’t already caught on to this and still conceive the photograph as a truth telling document.
Your mission, rather like the decisive moment assignment in EYP is to show the assessors that you understand this concept but couched in terms which are meaningful and progressive for you, in order to get the best response, while not forgetting to make visually engaging images,
I don’t think the ‘candid’ idea debars setting something up. It’s a tall order to just happen across circumstances which fit the bill. I would ignore that, being properly creative can negate a multitude of of regulatory stretches.
In assessment successful creative work gets recognised and rewarded and not penalised on the basis of formal definitions.
Peter Dehaviland went further:
My reading of the brief suggests that the candid and real life or whatever labels are to a degree ironic an that the rest of the brief suggests that at least to some extent you are to set up or at least enable the incidents or situations that you are going to photograph.[my emphasis]
These responses set my mind at rest about the idea I chose to develop – there was no need to take the brief as inviolable, I could ‘interpret’ it creatively, aiming for ‘engaging images’ which demonstrate my understanding of this section’s theme.
- The story I have chosen gathers some of the ideas which are current in this part of the course.
- It is an attempt to produce work which conveys a sense of loss and ending.
- I am using some of the devices researched in previous exercises such as the ‘viewer from behind’ and selective focus – actually selective focus plane using lens tilt.
- I introduce a visual motif which occurs regularly within the series. The work references the film “Don’t Look Now” in reflecting on the truth/untruth aspect of the brief, hopefully without mangling either unduly.
- I have disobeyed the directive to produce two sets, but only in the presentation; there are in fact two sets of images but they are mixed up, which makes it even more difficult for the viewer to assign veracity to any particular image.
The contacts for this assignment are available at this Flickr link: https://www.flickr.com/gp/153947906@N08/vef4k9
The final images are here:
The ideas behind these images concern perception of truth and whether we can believe our own eyes. Someone in these images may or may not be missing, temporarily or permanantly. The contents are deliberately ambiguous, calling into question whether what we see in a photograph can represent what the subject themselves is seeing… or imagining.
Forum post 2017: C&N Assignment One – Brief Wrangling? – Subject area forums / Photography, Film & Digital Media – OCA Discuss. https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/c-n-assignment-one-brief-wrangling/5349/3 (accessed August 11, 2017).
New York Times 1994. http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/25/us/time-responds-to-criticism-over-simpson-cover.html (accessed August 1, 2017).
List of Illustrations
Fig 1: Matt Mahurin (1994) Time Magazine; From <http://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/25/us/time-responds-to-criticism-over-simpson-cover.html> (Accessed 27 July 2017)
Fig 2 & fig 3: May visits North East in bid to woo working class Labour voters. http://news.sky.com/story/theresa-may-to-visit-northeast-in-bid-to-woo-working-class-labour-voters-10873264 (accessed July 11, 2017).
Fig 4 & fig 5: Larry Downing 2010; The Economist — ALTERED IMAGES. http://www.alteredimagesbdc.org/the-economist/ (accessed August 1, 2017).
Fig 8 & Fig 9: Uncredited; What You Need to Know About Becoming a Realtor – Freshome.com. http://freshome.com/2013/11/25/need-know-becoming-realtor/ (accessed August 1, 2017).