My current practice is very much one based on selection, with the decision of which parts of the UAE to choose to represent the ideas that I wish to convey. In the last unit, I was looking for areas of the country that showed either one or a combination of traditional Emirati life and modern Emirati society. In this unit I will be looking at ideas of how different borders can be represented through aspects of the fabric of the UAE. My intent is to illuminate both visually and textually, how different ideas of society manifest themselves. I mention text here, because the context in which my work would be best suited to consume in is that of a book with text. As mentioned in the last unit, I have been very influenced by the book City of Glass by Douglas Coupland and my idea is to aim for something similar, albeit with chapters longer than a single page plus image. The work could also potentially be suited to a gallery exhibition and, as the intention is to base it entirely on the UAE, I will certainly approach the galleries that specialise in photography in Dubai and possibly the other six emirates as well.
Contextually, my work has been visually influenced enormously by those photographers producing what might loosely be termed Americana. Most of all, I love the work of Stephen Shore and Ed Ruscha – the wide open spaces and everyday details lend themselves very much to the vistas of the UAE.
In each case, the meaning is not as immediately apparent as, say, an Ansel Adams landscape, inviting closer scrutiny and relying, to some degree, on the audience to become complicit in creating meaning. This is what I am hoping to do with pictures such as the shot of the change of streetlights, that signifies the border between Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
My work thus far might be considered a ‘peculiar practice’ in that selection is the paramount skill in what I am trying to convey – the borders are there, either in concrete or notional form, and it is my job to select which details might signify them. Of course, selection could easily be considered a part of other artistic practices, but regarding my own ideas, it is the choice of what is extant that is the challenge – the limitations of photography as a representational (again, I am speaking purely personally here) art form create the meaning. For me, just as a sonnet would not be a sonnet if it did not follow the rules, anything beyond what might be considered basic darkroom technique in post-processing would render what I am trying to do meaningless. It is the adherence to the rules that creates the meaning. As mentioned in the contextual research section last week, it is not so much how the subject matter looks, but rather what it signifies.
This has quite an effect on how the context in which I present my work might affect how it is received. Outside of a fine art context, there may be little meaning in the photographs themselves. My intention is to combine the photographs with as yet undecided text, though the text would not necessarily directly explain the photographs. Even without text, the title or idea of borders and/or liminalities may suffice to aid understanding, though many of the shots I have taken or envisage taking may also require knowledge specific to the United Arab Emirates (see the streetlight shot from last week). Thus were the photographs to be exhibited, they may require less textual signifying were this to happen in the UAE than they might elsewhere.
This could even be seen as being in keeping with the fact that the theme of the project is the borders of the UAE…
I am not a big fan of constructed photographs in most cases. However, I have been very much enjoying the work of Jeff Wall (all three of the photographs I have chosen are available on the link below):
I think the thing that appeals to me about Wall’s work is its esoteric nature – that many of his shots by and large appear to be straightforward street photography and it is only through gaining more information (that link between a weak signifier and a strong signified again!) that we discover that, as well as whatever message we initially thought the photograph might hold, there is a further meta-message about the artificial nature of art in general and photography in particular.
I think that, to a somewhat lesser degree, this link between signifier and signified requiring further amplification is what I am aiming at in my work. However, in this particular project, I hope to combine some shots where the signifier is stronger (i.e. photographs of clearly observable, usually geographical rather than political borders) with others where the signifier is much weaker, hoping that the juxtaposition will allow the former to partially explain the latter.
Photographic ambiguity: this is central to much of what I am trying to achieve – as I have stated elsewhere, Barthes idea of press photos having a weak signifier and strong signified as opposed to advertising photographs which have a strong signifier and strong signified is central to the way I am approaching the representation of borders in my project – which borders are obvious and which require extra knowledge to understand.
I also found the material on gendered photography useful, though at this stage more in my day job as a teacher of IBDP language and literature of which decoding the visual language of adverts is a central part.
The intent of my own to work is to get the audience to reflect on the nature of borders and, hopefully, on the massive amounts of consent that the world requires to run in the way that it does. My primary strategies for this are the careful selection of items or scenes that reflect either borders themselves or the potentially ambiguous nature of the liminal space thereabouts: are there any visual clues or cues to signify that this is either a border or a liminal space. It is hard for me to tell at this stage whether or not this is successful: I am deliberately using ambiguity so I am unsure as to whether or not an accompanying (parasitic?) text would be necessary to understand, or whether knowledge of the title of the project would suffice to engage the audience’s curiosity as to what exactly makes this a photograph of a border or a liminal space.
I also intend to use the sequence in which I present the photographs as a strategy to help understanding – the more obvious, strong signifiers of borders at the start getting progressively weaker as the sequence progresses.
Most of my photography falls into the realm of travel photography. Thus, my own gaze is voyeuristic and political (I am taking photographs, more often than not, of what I consider ‘other’ – and as a white, middle-class, western male, that is from a position near the very top of the privilege scale). I have, in the past, taken quite a few travel portraits, though I am increasingly uncomfortable with the political aspects of this – why do I feel the need to photograph these people? Is it just because their lives are different from mine? Why do I rarely photograph people from my own background? Increasingly I am moving towards making pictorial representations of a culture or a place purely through observed details. Though I don’t know if this is any better from apolitical standpoint. I find this very much in line with what this week’s second presentation was saying about the depiction of differently abled people in advertising – by the mere fact of taking the photograph in the first place, we are highlighting the differences between ourselves and the subjects, and thus turning them into ‘the other’.
Currently, as mentioned in this week’s first presentation, I try and avoid having people in my photographs – at least for this particular project. When people are present, they are definitely subordinate to the landscape or environment.
I rarely take any what might be considered personal photographs. I really only use my cameras as a way of exploring – either familiarising myself with somewhere new or defamiliarising myself with my usual environs. I find that since the rise of social media a) I don’t need photographic representations of friends and family as there are many readily available and b) my photographs have an immediate intended audience in both Instagram and Photocrowd. My practice is almost entirely digital – I do have several film cameras but that seems to be more because I like the idea than the practice – I very, very rarely use them. The only time in recent years I have used analogue photography was to create an album for my sister of all the places that were important to us growing up. I chose to do this using an instant camera as I felt that the fact that each photograph was therefore unique might add to the special, personal nature of the gift – as Benjamin points out that value can be thought of in terms of originality (and scarcity).
As much of my photography is travel photography, there is always the temptation to produce the same tourist shots as everyone else, and I have, in the past done so.
And I am still far from immune to the lure of the karaoke photograph, as I call them. Though now it is a diversion from photographing a new place, rather than the main purpose. I don’t think it is possible to be entirely original; in the same way that nearly all stories or chord-changes or even melodies have been used before. However, it is possible to see the unoriginal through an original eye – as in writing, looking for the ‘telling detail’.
And also, it turns out, that my attempt at an original take on the Mona Lisa is also a copy of Guia Besana’s shot used in the presentation. Though this raises the point that I took this photograph in 2015, a year before Besana…
It has long fascinated me as to why people take photographs of paintings, particularly as much better reproductions are available for a handful of change from postcard stands. Presumable, the same thing that impels people to record concerts on their phones – proof that they were there?
The idea of owning reproductions of famous images or of images of famous scenes has given me an idea, linked with the ideas raised by psychogeography in previous units, for a mini-project – of pictures taken of the location of famous monuments corresponding points on a map of my local area – one for next unit perhaps (though more like a mini-project as I can’t imagine that anything more than a few of these photographs would sustain the viewers’ interest). This could also be extended to producing mugs and mousemats etc.
The use of the famous image of Che Guevara reminded me of last summer’s trip to Cuba, where this image is just about everywhere, having gone beyond iconic status to almost becoming part of the wallpaper – so ubiquitous that they are barely actually seen any more – are there any other photographs so common that they no longer have any impact?
The article Decoding National Geographic really spoke to me, echoing much of what I was trying to articulate last week about my own practice of travel photography, particularly of taking travel portraits. I think there is a difficult line to walk here – whilst NatGeo’s travel portraiture is rarely less than spectacular, and in my own case, I have several images with which I am pleased, how far is it acceptable to hold people up for scrutiny largely based on the fact that they look different from us and our implied audience?
Given that I am attempting to follow the precepts of deadpan photography, I try not to have too explicit a message in my photography; specifically in my photography for this particular project. If there is a message, then it is an implicit, suggested one that borders are often artificial, and any link made to how this might be seen in terms of either the environment (the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic for example) or human suffering (the borders, be they physical (the Mediterranean), notional (national borders) or, increasingly, notional made physical (barbed wire fences along national borders) that refugees have to cross in search of safety, are left for the audience to infer themselves.
Whilst I do agree that the beauty of Salgado’s images may detract from the seriousness of their message, I also think that this beauty works as a strategy to make us stop and look – the dissonance between the signifier of the physical beauty of the image and the horror of the subject matter encourages engagement, whereas, as has been pointed out in the presentations this week, images of horror and deprivation have become so common that we might otherwise pass them by.
Critical contextualisation of practice: I think that the work this module has really helped my understand what I am trying to do with my project, and with my practice in general. Prior to this unit, I had a handful of photographers whose work I admired and a vague idea of the aesthetic I have been chasing. through developing an understanding of the history of the American photograph (particularly the work of Ed Ruscha and Stephen Shore) and my consequent reading about the deadpan style/school of photography, I have been able to theoretically as well as practically link the aesthetic I was chasing to the subject matter I want to explore. I have moved much more away from more traditional travel photography. The reading about Barthes’ ideas of the link between signifier and signified in photography has also given me a good idea of how my work should be sequenced and which of the photographs I have taken best espouse what it is that I am trying to achieve.
Professional location of practice: I feel that this area still requires some development – beyond the vague idea of a book with different different chapters combining text and photographs looking at different aspects of life in the UAE, I am not sure where else my practice might be viably located. This is something I intend to explore further, particularly when I am back in the UK over the summer and have much greater access to a wider range of books.
Critical analysis: I think this is an aspect of my understanding of photography that has also developed over the course of this unit, though also one which is developing still. Through analysing what I like in other people’s photographs I have been better able to define what I would like to develop in my own. Many of the photographs from earlier in the unit, that I thought would be definite inclusions in the final project, I have now chosen to leave out.
Written and oral communication skills: I think this is an area, given the fact that I have been teaching English for two decades, in which I am traditionally strong. However, developing the subject-specific (and often therefore esoteric) language has been a challenge. Despite the fact that my undergraduate degree was a combination of philosophy and English, I have struggled (as always!) with the more abstract, philosophical content of this unit and am constantly worried that I might be using terminology slightly incorrectly (or even just not quite precisely enough). I think this will develop with continued exposure to the writers and thinkers we have been looking at, and to the writers and thinkers suggested thereof.