Assignment 5

People and Place, on assignment.

Some thoughts.

The choice of what to photograph and how to present it is entirely mine as long as it depicts people and/or the places they inhabit. I had several ideas prior to reaching this  final section of the course of what I might choose to do but have been procrastinating for weeks now. I have been reading/looking through Magnum Stories, Edited by Chris Boot, Phaidon Press Ltd, London 2004.  The major difference I feel between an assignment and more personal work is the time limit and obviously the choice of subject matter. An assignment has a definite time limit whereas a more personal project could take months, even years, to complete . Magnum  photo agency enables its photographers the freedom to follow personal projects.  Herein lies my conundrum,  to complete an assignment to order requires discipline , I work fulltime and have family commitments, but perhaps this structured approach and limited timescale will help me use my time more constructively.

However one of the great advantages of being able to create a fictitious client for the final assignment is that it gives me greater freedom to choose something that I feel enthusiastic about. I have come to realise I am not an objective photographer, I need to feel connected to my subject, this is an element that I feel  links many of the Magnum photographers.  The coursework has led me  from taking a comprehensive portrait of a single person to considering how people interact with their surroundings. I still find approaching complete strangers an ordeal, but take comfort in the fact that even a photographer like Bruce Gilden, who shoots close up with a 28mm lens, feels uncomfortable “believe it or not ,I’m basically shy and it ‘s not my style to make advances and talk to people if I don’t feel comfortable” pg 186 Magnum Stories.

Documentary photography is purportedly the reporting of the truth, the camera never lies, but it does. In a digital age it is easier than ever to manipulate the truth. However this is not a new phenomena ( Stalin had political rivals removed from photographs to try and deny their existence ). Photographs have always been manipulated. Magnum founder Robert Capa’s  iconic image “Loyalist militiaman at the moment of death” 1936, taken during the Spanish civil war is now reputed to have been faked, but does this make it unrepresentative of the essential truth?  As I was mulling these thoughts over I checked my email box, the weekly e-bulletin from the OCA Blog contains some interesting thoughts on the subject.    This assignment calls for a narrative showing how people interact and live within their surroundings.  During my prior course The Art Of Photography  I felt that any documentary photography should tell the truth, however I have come to realise its not that simple, even cropping an image can alter its fundamental meaning. A narrative is by definition an account of an event , therefore does it matter if I stage some of my images if they are depictions of an actual event ?

Furthermore another  OCA Blog discussion  queries that perhaps photographs are manipulated, not digitally,  but by what, and how , the photographer chooses to shoot , what is framed. This is pertinent to what I am going to  try and achieve with my assignment, I have a definite idea of what I want my images to look like and how they might be interpreted. Does this count as manipulation, am I in fact altering the truth ? This is a difficult question, I believe most photographers,  by the very fact they are controlling what is seen, can influence how the final image is going to be interpreted. Additionally the real truth behind any photograph will always be open to interpretation, the understanding of it will  be influenced by cultural and social mores.

Client briefing.

With these concepts in mind I want to try and explore the ambiguity of what an image may or may not depict and start to consider how images are manipulated, by the photographer, in order to complete an assignment satisfactorily. My notional customer is a magazine that intends to publish an article about local  teenage life and needs images to accompany this. The community youth club is under threat of closure , the area has multiple social issues with a high unemployment rate, the youngsters really have little to be enthusiastic about. Images of youth vandalism and violence are presented as “the truth” helping perpetuate the myth that as a social group they are increasingly out of control. As a  peer group they are increasingly visualized as lazy, threatening and alien, they populate a society frequently bursting with angst, anger, even loneliness.   Neither adult or child they inhabit a  world  that is commonly misunderstood by adults. The magazine has requested that my images touch upon these elements. Who or what I choose to frame, what to leave out, what to include, will all be restricted by the requirements of my hypothetical client. Specific instructions such as these may well influence any working photographer to create a manipulated reality .Without text revealing the context of how these  images were taken the truth is unknown, and each photograph will be interpreted by what the viewer wants, or has been conditioned, to see .

I admire the work of photographers Sally Mann and Nan Goldin who  document the lives of their intimate family and friends, for my assignment I have used both  family members and strangers . Using one family member (T) in particular has been quite difficult. He has had a tough childhood and as he is changing from adolescent to young man his anger , frustration, and lack of control over his circumstances  sometimes becomes perceptible. I found it fascinating to just observe him and attempt to try and capture these emotions into an image. Although not objective photography I have tried to take a detached look at how he relates to the world around him in order to try and  represent this photographically. Creating  objective pictures for my client whilst  being emotionally involved with some of my subjects was not always easy, however they are used to me being around them with a camera. But I have created  biased portrayals of  how they may be perceived as  individuals by those viewing my photographs in order to fulfil the constraints of a planned hypothetical assignment .

Colour or black & white?

I  processed both colour and black and white images from my Raw files, initially having intended to present my final assignment in monotone. However I have been greatly influenced by the work of Lise Sarfati especially by her series of images of teenagers for the book “The New Life/ La Vie Nouvelle” Twin Palms Publisher US 2005.The images have rich tones that I really like, the portraits  of each subject intense. She seems to have has carefully chosen each setting for its hues, which are never oversaturated, but still manage to be sumptuous.  I do value the opinion of my family and friends and asked them to look at both sets of images , interestingly age seemed to divide their opinion. Those old enough to have been brought up in the era of black and white film and television preferred the colour versions whilst those young enough to only have known colour liked the black and white images judging them to be more artistic! However colour photography is not a modern phenomena and since the early 1900’s “colour pictures were a possibility”  Ian Jeffrey, Photography A Concise History“, Thames &Hudson, London 1981. I personally found some of my chosen images only really had an impact in colour, especially No Go Zone and Game induced trance.

Threads of course

I realise two of my final assignment images (Lippy and Nineteen) exclude any background information but I really wanted to be able to include some portraiture .Whilst looking through Magnum Stories I found examples of assignments that managed to incorporate both wide and tightly framed images. I feel the OCA courses are intended as guides, not  mandatory instructions, to help you learn and develop your own ideas. Hence my aim is to pull together the threads of each previous section of the course and try to apply what I, personally, have learnt over the past fifteen months and attempt to incorporate aspects of these into my final assignment.

The client brief I gave myself allowed me to be reasonably flexible. People not only occupy places, they inhabit the mind. Furthermore although the images are to be viewed as a set I also wanted each to be  considered individually. Therefore not to be seen as a story as such , with a beginning, middle and end , but as a photographic essay with a common theme. Constantine Manos comments “I believe in a set of pictures each picture has a life of its own, and cumulatively the pictures add to each other to become an extended statement about a subject or an idea.” pg 299 Magnum Stories, Edited by Chris Boot, Phaidon Press Ltd, London 2004. 

However, choosing my final selection of images was more difficult, although my brief allowed flexibility in how I framed it created a restriction on what to select to fulfil the criteria.

Work in progress

First shoot. Outdoors at night.

Equipment .50mm F1.4 prime lens. 10–24mm lens for use with a cropped sensor camera hence very wide angle of view.Canon speedlite, beauty dish , and diffuser.Tripod.

First photo -shoot of the assignment, I felt very nervous on my way to meet the youngsters outside their youth club! My husband usually comes with me but he was ill and therefore unable to help me. I was hoping to be allowed inside but due to restrictions—-I do not work with children and am therefore not police CRB checked— I was  not allowed inside. The small bunch of teenagers who came outside were noisy but friendly enough, but it was difficult to really obtain many decent images. The only available light came from the surrounding street lamps , was quite dark , and putting my camera on my tripod to shoot slowly was impossible because they never kept still. My aim for tonight was to get some reasonable candid shots , not blurred out of focus images. As I needed to use flash I also used the beauty dish but found using the wide lens impossible as the edges were visible in the frame. The 50mm lens is a much faster lens and hope when I review my images on my computer some of the shots taken without flash are useable. The beauty dish fell off when I changed from the wide angle to the prime lens, I can see why photographers have assistants! A better idea would have been to take both my camera bodies with me and mount a lens on each and not have to bother with the changeover. The wide angle lens combined with the flash and beauty dish created a problem , something I  failed to consider. The lens is especially for a cropped sensor camera and therefore wider than I am used to: the frame also included the circular shape of the dish!

Cropped the photo to exclude the badly lit boy on the right hand side to create a tightly framed portrait.

A very grainy badly lit image above!!!

2nd shoot.Indoors at night.

Equipment. 10-24mm lens.Tripod.Cable release.

Taking inspiration from this series of images  Where Children Sleep by James Mollison,  I took bracketed shots of T’s bedroom, a room he shares with his 8 year old sister. Its not an ideal situation ,  T is extremely untidy, his sister  loses a daily  battle in an attempt to keep her side of the room neat. Although T was not at home and his sister was playing in the room his presence was tangible. I  used a slow exposure to create a dream-like scene and even though I was not happy with the images taken, they gave me an idea to try another day. (See Your worst nightmare)

3rd shoot. Daytime.

Equipment .50mm F1.4 prime lens.10–24mm lens for use with a cropped sensor camera hence very wide angle of view.Canon speedlite, beauty dish , and diffuser.Tripod. Cable release.

Taken at T’s home. A major problem was keeping him from being totally obstructive-he gets fed up quickly and was more interested in playing on his X-box than being photographed. However I tried to use this to my advantage, taking shots as and when I was able, hoping to capture a true representation of my subject. His current (soon to be ex) girlfriend was also there and made a more willing subject, I took a couple of reasonable portrait shots of her but these do not really fill the brief I have given myself. I needed my flash indoors even though I used my fast 50mm prime lens, the available light in the house was rather dim .I additionally took some outdoor shots using this lens. My tripod was set up at the top of the stairs ready and waiting to capture an image I had planned  but needed to wait for an opportunity to take it, for this I used the wide angle lens.

The image below does not have the direct eye contact of the one above but I prefer it as I feel it captures the tension T deals with on a daily basis.

I used a slow shutter speed to create a dream-like image , a teenager on the rampage—your worst nightmare!

4th Shoot. Early evening just as was starting to get dusk outdoors.

Equipment . 50mm prime lens. Canon speedlite.

I had problems with the available light, I used ISO 800 and 1600 but reviewing the images on my computer screen they were very grainy images. I have never really had a problem using a higher ISO before so I need to have a look at my camera as I am sure there is a noise reduction setting somewhere! I did manage to obtain a few decent images showing the mood I am trying to convey but for a couple of these resorted to using Flash with a much lower ISO of 100.

Lots of digital noise on this,I was using ISO 1600.

ISO 400

The image below is not what it seems.I have written about how I took this in the notes about my final chosen selection.

I feel the colour version of the image below has far more impact than the black and white version.

I used Tungsten WB to create a blue hue that contrasts with the pool of  light in the underpass.

5th shoot.Daytime , sunny.

Equipment.10——24mm lens.50mm lens.

Went to look at the youth club and surrounding area on a Sunday afternoon.  The club was closed and there were no people around the area surrounding the club house. If the youth club does close, which seems highly likely  due to cutbacks, this area will be quite desolate. My wide angle lens continues to be a challenge, it was a sunny day today (for a change) , my shadow was visible in some of the frames as I stood with my back to the sun taking the images.

6th shoot.Indoors at night.

Equipment.17—-24mm lens.Tripod.Cable release.

Taken in a bedroom as J played on his play station. The room itself is not much bigger than a large cupboard and it was difficult to get myself, tripod and camera in a suitable position to take any shots. I did not want to use flash and relied on the available light from the monitor in the bedroom, the landing light was off but I did put the bathroom light on that was to my left behind me. I needed to use very slow exposure times and did not ask my subject to keep still.

Final selection.


50mm    F7     1/80      ISO 200       Fill in flash    Daylight WB.

As I followed T into his garden he became oblivious of my presence’s. T can be  volatile and this single shot out of all of the ones I took that particular day caught the tension I was aiming to capture. He can be the most frustrating, awkward, argumentative, individual to deal with but I love him regardless. Without the need to complete an assignment, and prior to this course, I very much doubt if I would have even considered trying to obtain an image like this, it is too personal. Patrick Zachmann discusses the dilemma he found whilst photographing  his own family “I think its the most difficult thing to photograph your own people–I don’t just mean the happy occasions, but showing the sad and painful things ——–I’ve always felt that it’s easy and sometimes unfair to photograph other peoples pain. You may feel sad for them but your are not involved. But when you photograph your own family’s pain, or things that are directly personally painful to you, its different” pg 491  Magnum Stories, Edited by Chris Boot, Phaidon Press Ltd, London 2004.

Since I took this photograph T  lost his best friend in a hit and run traffic accident . I found myself unable to  continue to take any more pictures of him as his behaviour and home life become even more unpredictable.

Your worst nightmare.

13mm      F9     1sec       ISO 400      Daylight WB

Your worst nightmare is a hormonal teenager heading up the stairs. Teenagers can be awkward, elusive, secretive, argumentative , but their presence is tangible even if they are not physically around the home. The teen years are full of angst and raging hormones , too old to be considered a child, not quite an adult, conflict is inevitable, “go to your room —get out of my sight” are frequent parental commands to a young man who may be physically bigger and stronger than them. This is my visual representation of a common scene, the nightmare vision on the stairs heading towards you.

I had been thinking how to represent this photographically and knew I would  need to set it up. Surrealism interests me, however “Photography and Surrealism might at first sight appear to be direct opposites”   but “the very fact that photography adheres slavishly to reality is in fact a guarantee of its independence  and its strangeness, and the mechanical , automatic manner in which it operates makes it an ideal Surrealist tool”  Christian Bouqueret ,Introduction, Surrealist Photography, Thames & Hudson, London 2008.

I wanted to create a photograph that depicts something that is not immediately clear but is a visual clue to a state of mind. I set my tripod up at the top of the staircase in T’s house and called him from the living room to come and see me upstairs, he was unaware of what I was actually going to do. As he entered the hallway and came up the stairs I took my shots with a slow shutter speed as he approached me.

Community youth centre

14mm     F10     1/160    ISO 100

The sky is blue but I feel this is depressing image. I have placed the building slightly higher in the frame leaving a greater area of empty greyness . Grey, the name of a colour, but also meaning dull and  lifeless. Although  not  visually appealing this building does serve as a busy meeting place for local teenagers. If it closes, which is more than likely, the building, like the cage, will become superfluous. The only place left for local youths to gather will be the derelict area left behind. This image is a suggestion of what may be.

The Stare

24mm      F5.6      1/200        ISO 250      Shade WB      Speedlite & beauty dish

Outside the youth club entrance: no oldies admitted!

What I find compelling about this image is the direct stare  towards the camera of the boy on the right, its almost confrontational. Other images I took of this  boy show him in a more benign light, but this is the one I have chosen for my assignment. What I framed and which frame to choose from my session that night  creates a prejudiced portrayal because “to supply to a client, whether single images or story sequences , —— requires  your conscious  control” pg 378 photographer Eli Reed Magnum Stories, Edited by Chris Boot, Phaidon Press Ltd, London 2004. I, as the photographer, had the ultimate control over how this particular youth might be perceived.

Welcoming Committee

14mm    F5.6    1/200   ISO 250   Custom WB @ 5750    Speedlite & beauty dish

I had great difficulties with my wide angle lens  but rather like how the light coming from an unseen doorway falls onto one of the boys. All four subjects have direct eye contact with the camera , three almost seem to smile but the highlighted boy simply states. As I approached with my camera one lifted his finger, they were friendly enough and actually non-threatening, but this gesture depicts a different story.

 The Cage

22mm          F10            1/160        ISO 100       Daylight WB.

The Cage: keeps its inhabitants segregated from local residents. However as can be seen it backs onto residential housing.The only access to the basketball court, known locally as The Cage, is through the community building, that may be  closing shortly  due to regional  cuts. If  these go ahead the area will become quite derelict.  Evidence of  its intended use, and by whom , is visible through the wire fencing. I decided to shoot this image through the fence as a symbol of the barrier between noisy, rowdy,  teenagers and the local community.


17mm   F5.6     1/200   ISO 250  Custom WB @ 5810   Speedlite & beauty dish

The title is a bit tongue in cheek signifying not only his piercing but attitude.

Not a flattering focal length to use for this portrait image but I was not aiming to compliment my subject. The shorter focal length draws the eye into the frame, the subject almost seems to be coming out towards the viewer. I cropped the original image to exclude another boy from the frame to make a tighter composition.  I needed to be extremely close to him,  something I  would certainly never have  considered  before commencing People and Place, when photographing a complete stranger.

 The Threat

50mm     F7      1/50       ISO 100      Shade WB      Flash

This is perhaps the most ambiguous image of the series, the title is a also a comment on the uncertainty of the truth behind the image.

Richard Kalvar has some interesting thoughts ” I’m looking for individual photographs. I am looking for stories in each of my photographs, but not just in terms of what is in front of me. They are also about what’s in me. They’re based on what things look like and the passion you feel looking at something. But I don’t want to show what’s going on ; in each photograph I want to give you the impression that something’s going on that isn’t necessarily going on.——I’m not interested in the truth of the people I photograph , whatever that may be. I’m more  interested in the nature of truth, and the relationship between appearances and reality. “pg 250 Magnum Stories, Edited by Chris Boot, Phaidon Press Ltd, London 2004.

There was no real threat , D , my subject , is simply bored whilst his companion flicks a lighter as they wait to be picked up to go home.


50mm      F8    1/200     ISO 200   Custom WB @ 6762   Speedlite with diffuser

K’s  red hair is quite startling. Hairstyles and colour are often used by teenagers to rebel against the norm, it makes them different and creates a visible proclamation of their individuality. Not a look many, if any, adults can carry off  with such panache.

Why do older people feel threatened by youth as they lose theirs? This is not a threatening image in any sense but will older women look at this young girl as she approaches womanhood with envy ?   Envy is complicated, as an attractive female she is a threat, a reminder of what they once had and have ostensibly  lost. At face value this is simply a  portrait of a young girl in her final teenage year, but the emotions it may create are on a much deeper level.

Game Induced Trance

22mm       F10     30sec       ISO IOO    Fluorescent  WB

Prior to taking this image  I was struck by the concentration used by youngsters playing computer games and social networking via Face book, frequently alone in their room, separated from the rest of the family. This generation of teenagers belong to a new era of technological innovation that has changed how they form relationships ,  creating social change. I wanted an image reflecting these ideas depicting the physical isolation this change can be argued to have created and what I feel is a new phenomena present in many young lives now.

Taken in a bedroom as J played on his play station. The room itself is not much bigger than a large cupboard and it was difficult to get myself, tripod and camera into a suitable position to take any shots. I did not want to use flash and relied on the available light from the monitor in the bedroom using Fluorescent WB. I needed to use a slow exposure time and did not ask my subject to keep still. I am undecided as to whether I should have asked him to stay still but on reflection feel that the slight obscurity of his face reflects his trance- like gaze .Although I was physically very close to him as I took about six images he was so engrossed in his virtual world as he interacted with an unseen opponent during an on-line game I was able to take an un-posed image.

The predominant complementary orange and blue tones do not have the “correct” colour balance but I think they work well together. The photography of Lise Sarfati, who comments “the way I shoot is with available fluorescent light, and I use the same camera , and film, and paper, so there is a particular look to the pictures” pg 410  “Magnum Stories, Edited by Chris Boot, Phaidon Press Ltd, London 2004, persuaded me to present this assignment in colour(however I have only used Fluorescent WB for this particular image).This image would not have the same impact in monotone, the dominant orange hues created by the glow from the computer screen are intended to reinforce the power the game has over the occupant of the room.

No Go Zone

50mm       F2.8        1/80        ISO 400        Tungsten WB

From dusk to dawn the underpass becomes a no go zone. Originally built during the seventies the local underpasses were intended to create a traffic free and safer place to live, but have become the haunt of local teenagers.

I only had one chance to take this shot as I walked passed the underpass early one evening. I took my shot then carried on walking not too sure if I had managed to obtain a reasonable image. One of the youths came up from the underpass to investigate what I was doing but did not speak, I made a hasty retreat! By using Tungsten WB the  image largely comprises of blue tones whilst the small pool of light in the underpass draws the eye in towards the centre of the frame and its occupants, creating depth, movement, and I feel a sinister atmosphere. As this was such an opportunist shot I am especially pleased with how it turned out, my own personal decisive moment!


2 Responses to “Assignment 5”

  1. Hi Judy
    I’m at this same point and I’m finding it quite daunting to choose my own subject. I’ve got to get a move on though as I would like to submit the whole module for the May assessment. Good luck
    Jennifer Hollands

    • Hi Jennifer
      Thanks for message. I am hoping to go for July assement but am also dreading this final assignment. I keep putting off starting it & still have lots of Blog updating to do. I am still unsure how I am going to approach it, I still find photographing strangers stressful ! Good luck , let me know how you get on .
      Best wisheS Judy.

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