Week 1: Seven days in seven images

I don’t usually make many incidental photographs, and my photography doesn’t in any direct sense document my life. These seven images show me at a time of transition, and as always, in transit. From the activity I suppose I have (re)learnt the value (and challenge) of making images of the the people around me (that matter) and events (that shape us), which I probably haven’t done for decades. Doing it in monochrome helps make the bridge.


Saturday morning post delivers my letter from the university president and provost thanking me for 31(!) years service and conferring my honorary title (no gold watch, but the title is for life), followed by a day packing and moving books into storage. Sunday down to Canterbury to look after my 92 year old mum (impossible, for me, to photograph) for a couple of days. Home on Monday night and my son Michael, who has recently moved back to London, calls round to collect a guitar (and eat). Tuesday at the university to meet with publisher, collect Russian visa for forthcoming trip and call in at library. This is where I sit in the photography section. Early Wednesday at Stratford International, back to see mum. Thursday squash match, point of stability. Early hours of Friday, Diane checking details online for our trip back to Guyana (this afternoon) for a family event.

Week 1: Looking back

My project took a major change in direction towards the end of the previous module. I started to take photographs around Hackney Wick, focusing on the relationship between so called re-generation of the area and the lives and prospects of local people.

Other photographic work in the area has represented the lives of local people, but hasn’t actively engaged in attempts to ensure that residents have influence on and get the full benefit from the changes taking place. My project involves three inter-related forms of image-making: (i) images made by local residents which act as the basis of understanding peoples lives and aspirations and the impact of the changes taking place; (ii) collaborative image making with community and activist groups that can be used in advocacy by local people; (iii) my own artistic response to the changes taking place in east London, as a photographer, educator and resident (of over 40 years).

Most of the time between the modules has been spent making contact with resident and activist groups developing relationships and opportunities for image making (and other forms of exploration and expression, for instance sound recording and short film-making). These include joining the London Prosperity Board (active around the Olympic Park area) and developing photographic work with members (for instance, citizen scientists working from the community owned Bromley-by-Bow Medical Centre), working with JustSpace (a network of resident and activist groups concerned with urban planning and social justice) and members (for instance the Carpenters Road Estate Residents Group) and supporting student photographers documenting the work of volunteers with community groups and charities. As well as advancing my own work, I’ll be running workshops (on a masters in urban planning, for instance, as well as for community groups) and working collaboratively with others. I’ve also been asked to do similar work on projects in Australia, and to write about visual and arts based methods in social research.

As well as managing a complex project, the major photographic challenge for me is to become confident in making images of people. I did get to spend some time with other, much more experienced, photographers, doing very different work from my own (photo-journalist Hugh Kinsella-Cunningham and social documentary photographer David Wright) and I spent a week at the OpenCity Documentary Film Festival (directed by film-maker and anthropologist, Michael Stewart). I’ve written about this in my CRJ.

In terms of images, I have made one final set of images at the Roding Valley Park. Visited a lot of exhibitions, particularly those that are multi-modal and experiential. Become concerned about the privatisation of land in east London (a present day Fay Godwin in the making). And said farewell to my principal workplace for the past 30 years and packed up my office on the 7th floor (yesterday).

I’m excited, but more than a little daunted, about working on the project over the coming 18 months, and have tried to tie in the development of this work with the focus of each of the modules.

Exploring contexts

In addition to meeting with photographers and film-makers over the past two weeks, I’ve been making links with people and organisations to identify contexts for the development of my work, and ultimately to determine the form and focus of my final project. This is just a quick summary in advance of more detailed posts as each strand develops.

Through chairing a discussion at the UCL Engineering Exchange symposium on Community Research Partnerships, I made contact with Just Space, a network of community activist groups concerned with planning and social justice. I met with the organiser and we took a trip around the Barking Riverside development and the Gascoigne Estate in Barking and Dagenham. I hope to build on this to contribute to the urban planning and development masters module running this term, and to work in the field on image making with students carrying out projects with community groups on planning issues (this work might also involve interviewing and sound recording, and possible exhibition of work in the community). I also agreed to help with the training of student photographers for UCL Students’ Union volunteering section, and to go out with them on their initial visits to document the work on student volunteers in the community. At the London Prosperity Board meeting I made contact with the research and community engagement organiser at the Bromley-by-Bow Medical Centre with a view to working with their citizen scientists on collection of data and photography, and maybe to document the work they are doing in the community. I also made contact with the coordinator of community groups in Newham and with the Business in the Community initiative. A serendipitous meeting with a friend and former colleague, now Professor of Future Heritage at UCL, generated another set of possibilities, particularly around the integration of arts-based research approaches with science and social science approaches, and the development of more speculative approaches to research (a post on this later, too). And it generated a challenge: to photograph that which doesn’t yet (but might come to) exist. An interesting side project.

Apprentice 2.0

I was fortunate to be able to arrange to meet and talk to two photographers whose work is very different from my own, giving me the opportunity to learn from their experience and think through how I might extend and enhance my practice. In particular, my work to date has mostly focused on places and structures, in which human activity is evident, but without any people in the photographs. My proposed final major project is going to require portraits and other images featuring people, so I want to learn as much as I can from other photographers. The conversations with Hugh and David have also been helpful in understanding the ‘business’ (or, rather, ‘businesses’) of photography, and to give me insight in both the production, distribution and use of photographic images.

Hugh Kinsella Cunningham is a photo-journalist, whose recent work is predominantly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). His photographs of female boxers in the DRC were recently featured in the Guardian.

Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, 2017, Safi Nadege Lukambo, 21, Fight Like a Girl

His current work explores political resistance and the catholic church in DRC. These are colour photographs taken in natural light (early morning, never in the middle of the day, avoiding the complications of lighting rigs). As a photo-journalist, there is an emphasis on presentation of a strong narrative through his images. These stories have to be sold to editors, and the viewer has to be drawn into the images. They also have to be true to Hugh’s strong commitment to the people he is photographing and concern for the conditions in which they live. Whilst the settings he is exploring are familiar to me (having worked on education projects in east and southern Africa), the commercial context of photo-journalism is new to me. His advice on producing and presenting images in this highly competitive world was very valuable and challenging. Images have to be sufficiently strong, with a compelling story, to command the attention of viewers, most of whom don’t care particularly about the issues being addressed. Taking time to understand the context and build trust and familiarity is important. Turning up, being around, being seen and engaging. Taking control of the situation is vital, asking people to try different poses, looking at the camera, looking away from the camera, at different angles, in different settings – working the scene. Take 100 shots per session, don’t be embarrassed to shoot, or to organise the setting. In presenting the work he emphasised the need for quality and consistency in look and feel (do a course in photo retouching, if using film use a lab for processing, scanning and printing). Don’t undersell the work (present in a competitive gallery setting). He gave a number of people to follow up, including work by Nicola Muirhead on Trellick Tower in Notting Hill.

Nicola Muirhead, 2017, In Brutal Presence, Trellick Tower, Sue 33 years resident, 18th Floor.

Hugh’s advice: “Just be respectful and confident and it will fall into place”. I’m certainly up for giving it a go, and think I now have some interesting contexts to explore (see following post about this). To learn to make engaging portraits like these is going to be a real stretch. We’ll stay in contact, and Hugh has offered to look at an edit when I have something worthwhile to show, which will be really valuable. I’m not ever going to be a photo-journalist, but engaging with the hard edge to this work will certainly sharpen and help define my own work.

David Wright is a social documentary photographer who trained at the London College of Printing in the 1970s, but whose career took him away from the visual arts and into education. He continued to make photographs and has recently revisited some of his earlier work (for instance, studies of coal mining in South Wales, and photographs taken around Brick Lane in London). His photographs of life in rural west coast Ireland span 30 years.

He is now working almost full-time on his photography, and has initiated a wide-ranging project on ‘Modern Tribes of Britain‘. He works entirely on film and in monochrome, processing and printing all his own work. David describes his approach as anthropological, seeking to get to know and become part of the communities he is photographing. He often meets people and attends events without taking photographs, and builds trust amongst the community members. There is a loose inferred narrative structure in the sequencing of prints, requiring work on the part of the viewer.

David and I intend to meet each month to share and discuss our work. Whilst our images are very different in style, there is much in common in terms of method (for instance, in engaging participants and aspiring to more collaborative image making) and in the contexts that we are exploring. I have a lot to learn from his work, particularly in relation to the development of a distinctive visual style and the craft of image and print making. We have also been able to share contacts and give each other leads in the development of our respective projects, and might develop some collaborative work. One possible area is to work with student photographers who are documenting the work of student volunteers with community groups across London. His work on urban agriculturalists (one of his modern tribes) also cross-over with my work on the impact of urban regeneration on communities.

Hara Kazuo Masterclass

Hara Kazuo Masterclass, Open City Documentary Festival, 6th September 2018

Hara describes his work as ‘action documentary’, bringing together the aspirations of the documentary to illuminate with the shock potential of the action film. He also attempts to throw light on wider Japanese society by focusing on people and activities on the margins. In ‘The Emperor’s Invisible Army Marches On’ (1987) the shock comes from the eruption of violence, and the quandary of the film-maker in having to respond to the unexpected, as well as the emergence of the details of the behaviour of Japanese troops in South East Asia at the end of the Second World War.

The films raise, in different ways, ethical questions about the relationship between with film-maker and the subjects of the films, which generalise to other forms of artistic practice. For me as a photographer, it is important to work through ethical issues that might emerge from my work, in much the same way that I would in the design and conduct of social research. In Hara’s work, the risk is integral to the project. There is an ethical tension at the heart of each film from the outset (for instance, his relationship with his ex-wife, the subject of the film Extreme Private Eros: Love Song 1974), but how this might be manifest in events, and how participants in the film, including the film-maker, might react, is uncertain. The conversation with Hara provided insight into the process of making the films, and the pragmatic manner in which the direction taken by the films emerges. The films are consequently episodic in form, rather than having a strong central narrative.


The Ethno-Fictions of Laura Huertas Millán + Q&A, Open City Documentary Festival, London, 7th September 2018.

Following the showing of three of her short films, Colombian artist and film-maker Laura Huertas Millán took part in an interview and answered questions from the audience. There is much to be said about this work, but here I’ll concentrate on aspects that led me to reflect on the direction of my own work. The films combine fiction and documentary, exploring settings, relations and lived experience. The fictional aspects include scripted and improvised dialogue (for instance, conversation between the film-maker and her mother). To a degree, this bears a resemblance to Jeff Wall’s re-staging of witnessed events.

Jeff Wall, 1982, Mimic

For my own work, this suggests the possibility of co-creation of images with participants, and maybe the re-making of photographs taken by, or events re-counted by, residents, using image making as a means of exploring their experiences and aspirations, and communicating these to different audiences.

Close focus on the body, and the stitching together of fragments is used to give a sense of a particular life-world. The creation of a narrative is secondary (and very much in the hands of the viewer). The films avoid the exoticism and colonial tropes that can inflect explorations with an ethnographic intent. Serendipity was also discussed with respect to the opening of one of the films, shot on 16mm film, in which the film had accidentally been run twice through the camera, superimposing two contrasting settings. This brought to mind Harry Callaghan’s double exposure photographs, and the potential of the accidental in image making as a spur to creativity. This would seem to hold some potential in collaborative image making, particularly where some participants have specialist knowledge and experience, which can be subverted through collective consideration of accidental artifacts.


This late addition to the Roding Valley Park (RVP) portfolio has a very different quality of light from the other images.

This prompted me to look at other photographs from the same session, and then to try to produce other pieces that could become part of a series. Taking a long walk through the park on a bright autumn day led to the discovery that this light is particular to a section of woods above the pathway of alongside the river, facing west (which has been cleared up since the initial photographs). Walking through the undergrowth, looking for objects and light made making photographs feel like a forensic activity.

With the change in direction of plans for my final project, and shorter, duller days, and inspired by the London Nights exhibition at the Museum of London, these are likely to be the last daytime photographs from RVP.

Sound and Story

Using Sound to Help Tell Your Story, Open City Documentary Festival, London, 6th September 2018.

I was interested in this workshop because I have combined images with sound in some of my work and want to explore this further in my subsequent projects. The presenters worked through the process of putting together a soundtrack for a documentary film. The discussion of the process and effect of creating a soundscape, over which to lay dialogue, made me think carefully about the kinds of recording I have made (mostly binaural recordings to give a sense of the sonic landscape of particular places). Whist the recordings are relatively high quality, they fall short of conveying a full appreciation of the complexity of the soundscape. That is going to require a fair degree of enhancement and processing. It left me wondering why, given the ways in which we manipulate visual images, I had expected to present the recordings as they were. There is as much as a need for the sound recording to direct and hold attention and to present potential for meaning-making as there is for the images presented. This workshop has given me insight into how to achieve this, and guidance in the use of one particular tool (ProTools). I need to think more clearly about how the sound relates to the images and what I need to do with the sound to enhance this relationship. How sound relates to images is very different in, for instance, a gallery setting (where it can be ambient, localised, or personalised through headphones) and in an online audio-visual presentation. The combination of sound with print in a portable format (like a book) is a particular challenge. The point, gleaned from this workshop, is that how I design and ‘sculpt’ the soundscape will change according to the mode of presentation and form of relationship between sound and image desired, even if the sound is being used incidentally in setting context.

The Ethics of Seeing

The Ethics of Seeing, Open City Documentary Festival, London, 6th September 2018

This presentation and discussion (led by director Steven Eastwood and producer Elhum Shakerifar) focused on the making of a film about dying (Island), involving studies of four people in palliative care in a hospice on the Isle of Wight (review). It highlighted the challenge of gaining access, developing relationships and building trust in addressing a very difficult (taboo) subject. It helped me to understand the ways in which a photographer can work to overcome initial suspicions, and engage participants (not subjects) in the production of images. In settings such as this, it is easy to objectify people. Here the challenge is to give voice to participants and provide insight into their lives, whilst maintaining authorship and artistic responsibility. There is an interesting comparison to be made between this film (its production and final form) and photographic projects such as Michal Iwanowski’s work with elderly people with dementia in a care home (I Can’t Seem to Find My Moon Landing Photos) and Kaylynn Deveney’s (2013) use of diary form in the exploration of a couple living in a care home (and her subsequent project, The Day-to-Day Life of Albert Hastings, with an elderly neighbour, in which he, the person photographed, writes the text). The presentation highlighted a number of constraints of film as a medium, especially when dealing with difficult subjects. There are clearly restrictions on what can be broadcast (and interesting differences, for instance in relation to dying and death, between what can be depicted in fiction and non-fiction film form). Film’s temporal linearity and spacial constraint of the viewer place restrictions on engagement with the work. Photographic work in, for instance, a gallery setting (which might also include film, and other media) allows the viewer to dwell on particular work, move freely between components and re-sequence and relate elements, and construct alternative narratives or set of relations. Interestingly, the makers of Island have also created an installation piece for galleries alongside the production of the film, and discussed the extent to which this more effectively achieve what they had set out to do in the film, encouraging people to take time to contemplate and relate to images and accounts presented.

Deveney, K. (2013). The photographic diary as a reflexive methodology for documentary practice. In R. Miller, J. Carson, & T. Wilkie (Eds.), The Refexive Photographer (pp. 203–212). Edinburgh: museumsetc. Retrieved from https://www.museumsetc.com/collections/photography/products/

The (Photographer’s) Apprentice

I chose to contact Michael Stewart, anthropologist and documentary film maker. Michael combines film-making with research and teaching, and has recently worked collaboratively with young people in Newham on a project about the development of a university campus on the Olympic Park. My proposed final major project focuses on the area around the Olympic Park, and involves working collaboratively with the local community. I hoped to learn from Michael about both the area and the process of working collaboratively with the community. My request coincided with the OpenCity Documentary Film Festival (which Michael founded and directs), making meeting up difficult.

As an alternative, I decided to take part in the Festival (The Art of Non-Fiction) and to arrange to meet with other photographers before the new module starts. The following CRJ posts will present what I have learnt from the Festival sessions in which I have participated.

I have also arranged to meet other photographers and with researchers, local community activists and others in the areas I am planning to explore, and will add further posts about those meetings. And I plan to catch up with Michael at some point soon (we did pass on the stairs going to and from events).