Assignment Two: Social Themes
Produce a story with a social theme. Your project should combine portraits,
objects and spaces to describe your subject matter. You should produce
between 8 – 12 images to demonstrate an ethical practice.
In deciding on a subject I need to work out ‘what is a social theme’ ? It must have evidence of people if not the people themselves. Sometimes the inanimate evidence is more informative than the actual people pictures. I used the term ‘informative’ and that’s an important part of any socially themed work. The idea is to communicate by representation.
- The photographer might decide in advance exactly the kind of content to gather
- The photographer might be instructed by an editor, like Roy Stryker’s direction to the FSA photographers.
- That which is communicated could be shaped, approximately, by the photographer both in the taking and the processing as a result of their background and prejudices, either intentionally or otherwise.
I need to feel confident that I have the moral authority to photograph my chosen theme. This will affect the possible choices. There are two levels of ‘authority’ for me in this case – personal interest and scholarly purpose with the latter adding a little weight to the former. With this I would not contemplate photographing Syrian refugees in Za’atari, Jordan even if it were practical.
The plight of The Yemen would likewise be a bad match. The level of desperation and suffering seems to be related to the moral authority requirement. This lines up with Mollitor’s idea of an embedded ‘debt’ in the photograph. How could I ethically discharge the debt burden of a portfolio of a refugee camp? If it sat on my private shelves it would be simply an indulgence, possibly a morbid one. Such pictures employed in the furtherance of an undergraduate degree would seem equally imbalanced. The counterweight is purpose.
In choosing a social theme I am therefore, as a result of my self-imposed ethical considerations, restricted to fairly local depictions of mild-to-moderate suffering. Having written that I now feel like I’ve painted myself into a very uncomfortable corner.
Which I will try to escape from by considering an alternative: does a social theme always have to be about deprivation of one kind or another? What about the ‘good news’ stories, the endeavours which elevate the human condition? If I choose that kind of theme my approach is pretty clear – it’s a ‘celebration’.
I thought about doing a series on the VE Day ‘celebrations’ here in Wild West Dorset, hampered as they were by movement and contact restrictions. It would have been a really easy project, wandering round on an ‘exercise’ walk and encountering residents dressed in ‘forties gear and scoffing scones, but somehow that made me more uncomfortable than choosing some moderate suffering. Apart from anything else I was uneasy with the idea of ‘celebrating’ by those who weren’t born at the time, or were mere babes-in-arms.
Having pondered these considerations at length I eventually settled on a theme which unfolds right in front of me, every day: reactions to the pandemic
I have put together a series of pictures in which I attempt to represent a couple of local aspects, fear of the other and adapting to change.
The southwest of the country has seen a very low rate of infection compared to many conurbations and some of the comments on local Facebook groups are from people who want to keep it that way. Others have applied themselves to making their talents available to those who would benefit. For the former group, the concept of the ‘other’ is alive and dangerous. The ‘others’ are, for the most part
- from London
- show complete disregard for the health of ‘locals’
- dropping litter everywhere they go
- ignorant of country ways
- moving in ‘hordes’, ‘waves’ or other overwhelming numbers
There is some justification for this view. West Dorset does have a remarkably low incidence of infection although the reasons for this are unclear as yet. The CEO of the County Council has urged everyone from ‘outside’ the county to stay ….. well, outside. Council car parks and public toilets remain closed in a solid attempt at deterrence.
In a parallel but altogether more praiseworthy effort, some locals have applied themselves to supporting care workers and NHS staff. There are aspects of both these approaches in the pictures.
In making these pictures I did have to negotiate some ethical considerations. Firstly I had to be aware of my own viewpoint without allowing it to interfere in the process. Some influence is inevitable I suppose, because I selected the content from my own sphere of experience. I avoided any temptation to inflect the pictures with my own prejudices by manipulation.
I was aware that ethical considerations are subjective, ethical and fluid. I was informed in part by a very helpful free resource at The Thompson Foundation, specifically their ‘Photographer’s Ethical Toolkit’ which I almost managed to complete before it froze, I guess due to the pandemic. One interesting point is that an ethical approach need not preclude a partisan stance. I could have developed this assignment in a way which represented my own personal views, yet still maintained an ethical stance.
Say, for example, I was very firmly in favour of allowing, even encouraging, anyone who chose to visit the county legally to do so. I could quite easily have photographed people who held opposing or tangential views, having explained my own but working in the pursuit of understanding and mutual respect. I could still afford my subjects due autonomy and fair representation.
Lastly I should state that I do recognise that ethical considerations are involved in every picture, even if it’s just because the picture was made, due to an observer effect; there was a camera, a photographer, a subject, a setting, a time and place…. all combining in a tangle of affect. Photographic ethics are an attempt to organise this tangle.
Following tutor feedback I revised the presentation to include a slightly more detailed first slide.
I also added three ‘postcard style’ (ie a bit too saturated) pictures to hint at the visitor point of view.
I changed the screenshots from a Facebook group where a great deal of vitriol had emerged – the poster names had been obscured but the avatars were still visible, even though they were very small. I replaced these texts with straightforward extracts from the comments.
The additional photographs, plus two text slides, meant the order could be changed into something more flowing. This resulted in over twenty pictures but it seems better for it.