Reflections 3.2 How could we show personal uniqueness

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Myself, aged 12

Initially I was a little cynical as to the extent that we can ever consider ourselves to be truly unique and the exercise felt a little naïve and self-indulgent.

Influenced by a Frankfurt School mode of thinking I can often see the individual as herded and ultimately alienated from a society reduced to a homogenous image of reality mass produced and consumed by one and all.

However there are many different ways to consider this and any concept and having spent much of Identity and Place concentrating on people and portraiture I took the opportunity to experiment with other aesthetic approaches.

The results kind fell into two projects and I suppose that we mean by serendipity.

Secondary school, 1st years football team (1978)

Visiting the Thomas Ruff exhibition last week I had n’t particularly found much of immediate interest other than his large scale portraits but his sheer range of techniques found their way into my psyche as I found myself cropping the original image of this old school football team photograph ever closer until I reached the final images cutting out more and more information.

The result is interesting and I essentially like how all of the cultural clues are removed and I think that this has the effect of foregrounding my Chinese roots.


Images left to right: parent’s wedding reception photograph in Hong Kong, an old ornament and my late father’s keyring.

I also set up a basic session using natural light in photographing some personal objects.

I am already getting a sense that these new material objects seem to have a life of their own and can even tell a different story. Using these personal possessions, evocative symbols of my family life, was quite a deep experience and I found the process of transforming them into images quite surreal.

I plan to perhaps develop a series and print these onto foamex boards and create a set of new possessions with a real physical and material existence; With Walter Benjamin in mind, It will be interesting to see whether these new objects can develop their own aura.

I was initially surprised to find out just how difficult it was to photograph inanimate objects and also how enjoyable I found this project to be.



3.3: How the under-represented can be badly portrayed


Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother (1936)

Before going any further I think it is interesting to consider that myths, (negative) stereotyping, superficial and or incorrect representation exists around all social groups irrespective of whether then are regarded as marginal or majority.

But the more interesting point is really the manner in which some stories are told and also that some stories just don’t get told; and this is where the subject of power relationships once again enters the debate on representation.

In photography’s early history the role of the medium in legitimising colonialism by the major European countries is clearly seen through original photographic images depicting indigenous people, cultures and traditions as topics of study and classification, portrayed exotically, objectified to be collected, depicted as primitive and uncivilised and effectively prepared for subjugation in the name of salvation.

In Susan Sontag’s Melancholy Objects essay it is noted that middle class photographers positioned their camera lens in what Sontag described as ‘a sustained look downwards’ in documenting the lives of the working classes resulting in many photographic stories such as Street Life in London (1877-78) by John Thompson and How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis.

Although documenting the vulnerable and weak in society initially gained a social humanist framework, (ref Dorothea Lange did with her Migrant Mother photograph – above) in 1936 on behalf of the FSA), Sontag says, “Poverty is no more surreal than wealth; a body clad in filthy rags is not more surreal than a principessa dressed for a ball,” (Sontag, S. 1977.58) The fascination of the other, those who were at the bottom of the class structure represented a hidden world or at least hidden from the security of the middle class flaneur.

I certainly agree with Sontag that photographers need not compose their images around their intelligent irony whilst cynically or lazily perpetuating stereotypes but instead could and should show their fascination in a more respectful manner.

Martha Rosler in her essay In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) (1981) posed similar questions when she examined why the Bowery in New York still held a fascination for photographers when it was impossible to justify any further photography projects in the district in terms of either helping or exposing it’s occupants.

Can being an insider alleviate some of these issues?

Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay Inside/Out (1994) discusses how the absolute outsider can be interested and distracted by the myths and stereotypes surrounding a subject.

An insider can essentially offset these factors by creating a more informed, balanced and respectful representation.

The main reasons being that the insider has the knowledge that their insider status permits but also we would naturally expect an insider to have the interests and wellbeing of the subject(s) at heart.

So yes the insider can move beyond the superficial although the position of the insider in no way guarantees objectivity.

Interestingly The Americans by Switzerland born photographer Robert Frank, himself an effective outsider, is widely recognised a providing a truth of America if indeed it was a different truth to the one held by the power brokers in the USA itself.


Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze (2nd Edition). London: Bloomsbury.

La Grange, A (2013) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers (2nd edition) Oxon: Focal Press

Sontag, S (1977) On Photography (reissued 2008) London: Penguin Classics

Wells, L. (2009) Photography A Critical Introduction (4th edition).Abingdon: Routledge.


Reflections: some current thoughts and readings


Direction of travel

Reflecting on a very positive tutor feedback conversation for the A2 submission I found myself beginning to think more about what a personal voice might actually sound like amongst other things.

I am still busy exploring different subjects and photographer’s work but I feel that red lines are beginning to form and defining certain no go areas, certainly in terms of my ethical stance.

For example, I am now really avoiding any type of surreptitious approach, as I much prefer an open collaborative style as I believe that this is much more indicative of my personality and approach which is to be very open if not direct.

I have also found that the concepts motivating my research and assignments are beginning to follow a more identifiable if not personal pathway and certainly less random than the subjects chosen for my first OCA course Express Your Vision.

I am always interested in picking up new ideas and concepts that I can slowly knit together and form into a sort of foundation of values and principles that might develop into a consistent working approach.

Moving on

I recently read an interesting article Photography and The Present (2017) by prolific academic and author on photography, David Campany from which I became very interested in his explanation of contemporary photography.

Campany describes any engagement with a photograph that creates meaning as contemporary, irrespective of what year the image may have been originally made. You may be making the image, seeing the image in a photobook or viewing it at an exhibition.

Before I read this essay I had been trying to follow a more contemporary path in my visual strategy and I have absorbed the work of some interesting artists such as Ryan James Caruthers, (one of the inspirations for my A2), into my thinking but at the same time I followed a couple of ideas which started to lead away from a path that ultimately felt right for myself.

That said mostly experimentation and research time are never really wasted and always adds some sort of value to be realised at some point in time either immediately or in the future.

David Campany’s definition or rather positioning of contemporary is certainly much more fluid than I may have hitherto considered but on reflection it makes perfect sense and in many ways may well re-open doors that I previously have probably closed such as the use of found imagery or archives.

In his article he goes on to quote Charles Baudelaire famous belief that One must be of one’s time. Campany argues that this can be as much a response to the difficulty of defining in artistic terms a particular point in time without the benefit of hindsight and that perhaps we can only be of our time and place without really knowing it.

 Later reading Advice For Emerging Photographers in an interview with Nadav Kander for Lens Culture I also picked up a few interesting thoughts relevant to developing one’s own voice and interestingly he used this phrase synonymously with the search for your own vision of the world; something that I feel has become almost a constant if not exhausting and frustrating undertaking of mine in recent times.

He talks about staying true to oneself; that in this age of hyper-mass media there are just too many images, exhibitions, books, films, etc and that we should be very mindful, effectively self-curating our external environment.

The final point was something that I have already started to pay much more attention to and that is to focus on producing great visual work, images that are able to move you, memorable.

At this level 1 in my studies I would probably equate this more to interesting images but this would certainly be a good start!

“You need to look a lot. You need to shoot a lot. But all this cerebral stuff about what the work will be, all the stuff you can write before you go and shoot anything—all of that doesn’t matter if the work itself doesn’t move you.” (Kander, N. 2017)

All of my OCA tutors have offered this simple yet hugely important and fundamental advice but I feel that now the penny is beginning to drop.

A final thought that I have taken on board suggested by a fellow student and it came from a book Blind Spot by Teju Cole.

“Voice is not some unbounded originality: it is the gradual cohesion of what ones repeats. Style is formalized obsession. The move is from ‘that is that’ to ´that is me’.”

Stephanie Hubert OCA student articulates this as the gradual cohesion of what ones repeats…

I liked that!

I think that I am beginning to develop a more reflective approach that facilitates a deeper and slower thought process. This requires much patience, focus and self-discipline but it feels more substantial and therefore worthwhile certainly at this point in time.


Campany, D (2017) Photography and The Present for Unseen magazine [online] At:

Kander, N (2017) Advice for Emerging Photographers for Lens Culture [online] At:

Reflections on Mirrors and Windows


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Birmingham City Youth v Liverpool Youth

I am beginning to realise just how much of my self is actually operating as what is referred to in our OCA I &P course notes (p59) as an interior perspective; whether this be directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously, both in the images that I am producing and the subjects areas that I am interested in.

This is especially true as I continue to develop and become more experienced, and think more deeply in conceptual and contextual terms for my assignments and general direction.

Initially I think that I definitely saw the photograph as a window and a way of looking at the world and believed that I was completely independent and objective in my outlook.

I have found this point of view to be an utter fantasy as my awareness has become increasingly influenced by the concept of the socially constructed reality.

There are however inherent difficulties in applying a rigid binary system of mirrors and windows as in practice there is much cross over between the two concepts; but for the purposes of critical and self-analysis the model is a useful tool to the student of photography.

Exercise 3.1

In reviewing images from a personal archive I have been able to identify some interesting thoughts.

An old pre-OCA personal project focusing on my son’s football life was part of the inspiration for my recent A2 as it illustrates just how an identity can be constructed and cultivated.

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The Dome Birmingham City FC training ground (2013)

This image of the Birmingham City training centre and at the time I felt that I was looking through the window revealing the hidden world of professional football.

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On the training ground (2013)

A more complex image that actually functions as both mirror and window although the recognition of a subconscious mirror effect came only after several years of reflection, learning and development.

It was made around 18 months before I began studying with the OCA when I was still getting to grips with manual mode and being led by the photographic narrative and style of mainstream media.

I remember being able to get the training ground shot that revealed the reality of turning professional. I felt strangely detached from the image, or at least the subject, as I was peering through another window and I might even be experiencing the other.

I could no longer see the innocence of a sixteen-year-old privately educated schoolboy. Instead I saw a raw image of survival in a man’s world.

As time has passed and I become more aware of the role and influence of the photographer I now read the image in a wholly different manner, seeing much of myself in that image.

I entered a period of self-analysis where I considered my influence in George’s life bearing in mind that his private school friends mostly knew nothing of football; their fathers, older brothers and the School were focussed almost exclusively on Rugby as a game for boys, not football.

In effect had George’s dad not had a working class background or a love of Burnley Football Club he might never have even kicked a football in anger. Instead he was introduced to the game at an early age, as I had been by my dad.

And I saw all of this clearly in this image above. 

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The bedroom (2015)

This image was intended to act as both window and mirror with the collection of autographed and framed photographs of footballers providing the context of parental and home environmental influences. My bedroom wall at this age was full of similar images but inexpensively torn from magazines.

This more sophisticated image was taken as part of my submission for OCA PH1 Express Your Vision.

Study visit: Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

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Kathe Kollwitz Frau mit totem kind (Woman with a dead child) (1903)

The Exhibition

I find that there is something very accessible about drawing as an art form yet the sophistication of Kathe Kollwitz’s drawings and printmaking was really very plain to see and she is rightly recognised as one of Germany’s most celebrated artists.

I think that it is important to consider any artist in the context of their social, political and economic environment to fully understand their work and achievements; Kathe Kollwitz was a female artist born in 1867 and lived until 1945; for the majority of time with her husband in a very poor working class district of Berlin now named after her Kollwitzkiez (The Kollwitz district).

Kathe Kollwitz’s husband was a doctor and they also lived through WWI as well as the severe conditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries so she was well used to observing the struggles and the pain and suffering of everyday working people at very close quarters. She also tragically experienced the death of her own son Peter at the start of the War.

The subject matter of her work was of a deeply personal and human nature with loss and death, the inequalities of class and gender and the struggles of the poor in general acting as constant deep and emotional themes throughout and this was clearly communicated through a dark, deep textured primal aesthetic form.

Kathe kollwitz arbeitslosigkeit_750

Kathe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) 1909

I felt that there were consistent features with other high quality exhibitions that I have visited; huge amounts of personal emotion and human investment made by the artist, relentless levels of technical excellence or at least appropriateness and a telling intelligence in the themes that are originally articulated in aesthetic form.

These components I am beginning to recognise as critical irrespective of the artistic medium and each time I feel that I gain a little bit more of an appreciation of what it feels like to look at good art.

A final point that I also noticed was something that I had picked up from Susan Sontag’s On Photography about how a photograph through it’s link with reality is ultimately always about the subject whereas in other art forms such painting or drawing the artistic intent of the author is much more apparent and I think that I ultimately saw how this conclusion could be drawn as I walked around the exhibition.

 The Study Visit

Study visits are a great opportunity to spend time with other students and tutors who are involved in the other artistic mediums.

OCA sessions based in the West Midlands don’t seem to come around that often but after 3 years there is an outline of a group of students who have begun to develop a level of familiarity and this adds to the productivity of the day.

Actually seeing an artist’s work at an exhibition is an important exercise in itself as you can observe at first hand the actual physical artwork and that of course is emotionally a completely different experience to viewing an image on a computer screen or on a printed page.

It is also always interesting to see how exhibitions are actually put together and how curators and artists utilise the gallery – walls, lighting, space and all.

A really enjoyable day that injected both peer and tutor interaction that I found both motivating and inspiring. I even managed to learn a little about the lithograph process.


Sontag, S (1977) On Photography (reissued 2008) London: Penguin Classics















Susan Sontag On Photography (1977)


This seminal collection of essays have increasingly encouraged in myself, a broader and deeper level of thinking on the political, ethical and moral impact of the photographic medium within an advanced capitalist system and society.

Although the book only contains a single front cover photograph I have gained an understanding and awareness from several readings over the last three years that have helped to inform and motivate my own approach to photography.

In Susan Sontag’s own words, “it all started with one essay – about some of the problems, aesthetic and moral, posed by the omnipresence of photographic images: but the more I thought about what photographs are, the more complex and suggestive they became.”

The first essay In Plato’s Cave really acts as a curious introduction to the role and impact of photography within an advanced society from which I started to gain a greater sensitivity and responsibility in how, what and why we photograph.

America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly becomes largely an argument that references American culture that is relevant given the soft power that American popular culture exercises across the developed world.

Sontag uses her critique of Diane Arbus’s work to illuminate certain traits of how American and Western photography, and culture, views the other “Arbus’s photographs – with their acceptance of the appalling – suggest a naivety which is both coy and sinister, for it is based on distance, on privilege, on a feeling that what the viewer is asked to look at is really other. Bunuel when asked once why he made movies, said that is was ‘to show that this is not the best of all possible worlds’. Arbus took photographs to show something simpler – that there is another world. The other world is to be found, as usual, inside this one.” (Sontag, S.1977.34)

In the third essay Melancholy Objects Susan Sontag argues how photography became obsessed with class and ultimately viewed the world through it’s bourgeois biased lens in a downward looking direction.

Sontag believed that the surrealist enterprise in photography was never more than a fleeting fancy of the bourgeoisie, and that “poverty is no more surreal than wealth” and (poverty) was little more than a fascination of ‘a reality hidden from them’ and as a consequence (the poor) were a complete mystery to the middle-class flaneur. (Sontag, S. 1977.58/55)

The Heroism of Vision discusses how a photograph always becomes about the subject and that the notion of realism is never really separated from the image. This led to the elitist authority of the masters of photography and followed the principles of modernism and their “didactic cultivation of perception,” although the realism derived from photography was initially “supposed the unmask hypocrisy and combat ignorance.” Sontag, S. 1977/85-112)

The fifth essay entitled Photographic Evangels confirms photography’s status as an art form although there is a clear space existing between photography made to express and photography made to record information; yet most of the debate supporting photography’s core mission “attempt to paper over the difference”. (Sontag, S. 1977.118)

The Masters of Photographers developed the concept of photographic seeing implying that the artist could gently see and observe what other mortals could not whilst only a limited number of significant photographers ever actually admit to photography’s exploitative streak.

However photography acts as a medium for art much in the same way that language does. Photographs can be simple passport photos or medical X-ray images much in the same way that words can make up a simple shopping list. It is not an art form in it’s own right in the way that sculpture or poetry are.

The final concluding essay The Image World begins with the time-honoured definition of a modern society as one which holds a primary function as a producer and consumer of images “that have extraordinary powers to determine our demands upon reality and are themselves coveted substitutes for firsthand experience become indispensible to the health of the economy, the stability of the polity, and the pursuit of private happiness.” Sontag, S. 1977.153) Sontag then draws upon 19th century German philosopher Feurbach describing how the qualities and very essence of photographic imagery creates this authority.

Derived from the fact that these images are actual traces derived from what has taken place, from a reality we reconnect with the primeval powers of imagery through photographic images in a way that could never be achieved by a painting.

Photographs are a way of gaining knowledge that can be acquired entirely independent of actually being there and so this changes the nature of reality from one based in the experience to one that is fundamentally image led.

Photographs allow participation in our world but by looking they detach us, alienate us from the reality of others.

People are even often disappointed when they see the real thing as oppose the image; Emotions derived from viewing images are different to those created by something we experience firsthand.

Echoing the words of Walter Benjamin Sontag states, “A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectivize reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them. Cameras define reality in the two ways essential to the workings of an advanced industrial society: as a spectacle (for masses) and as an object of surveillance (for rulers).” (Sontag, S. 1977.178)

Ultimately it seems as though Sontag sees that no ultimate differentiation between the real world and the image world will survive, “Images are more real than anyone could have supposed” and that the structures and functions of photographic images must be included as well as understood for us to fully see the real world. (Sontag, S. 1977.180)

To summarise this book is not necessarily a simple task as the essays are crammed full of huge statements and viewpoints but I have tried to distil the content into workable perspectives that add an additional depth to my work.

Whilst the work may not as structured or scientific as say Barthes’ theory of semiotics I have felt a genuine connection with how Susan Sontag described and saw photography over 40 years ago.


Sontag, S (1977) On Photography (reissued 2008) London: Penguin Classics




A2 Reflections



A2 reflections 

I am now beginning to develop a context for this Identity and Place and at the same time reflecting on how this might influence the motivation and the direction of my work.

I feel that I am at the beginning of learning about portraiture and I have already found this subject to be both complex and highly interesting. I have enjoyed learning about the history of portraiture and reflecting upon the contemporary function although in many respects these are inextricably linked to the history and contemporary function of photography itself.

What particularly worked for myself in this assignment was being able to develop from an initial idea of portraiture situated within a context of identity and environment into a more complex concept that was more nuanced and universal.

In terms of the images I think that the series is very strong and I particularly like the baseball cap and red tee-shirt images as I feel that I have fallen upon something that I would like to explore more deeply in terms of my own individual style.


Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I was more in control during the photo shoots making sure that I experimented with the subject and taking the images that I needed in order to develop the range and depth required to make a good submission.

Part 2 of the course contains mainly practical exercises and projects and this concentrated practise really helped myself become more technically proficient and in turn my confidence has grown.

I still need to continue to develop my understanding of additional lighting so that my knowledge and working practices becomes more proficient and completely automatic but I am improving.

Quality of outcome

I developed the submission in a progressive manner through paying attention to my intuitive sense of what was working and not being too rigid in following my initial thoughts.

Ultimately I think that I have exercised sound judgement from the exploration of initial ideas to final draft to produce an engaging, ambiguous yet coherent and contextualised series of images that are accessible and allow the viewer to form their own interpretation.

Demonstration of creativity

A clear criteria that I set from the outset was that I would allow the work to develop it’s own momentum and that I would try to allow the images to grow without impediment in the belief that this approach of complete transparency would allow a personal voice to make itself heard.

This I feel enabled myself to be more imaginative and articulate in the use of the photographic and contextual skills, tools and experiences at my disposal.

Whilst clearly there is much more growth and continued development to be made I was pleased with what I felt what a step forward in this department.

I enjoyed how the assignment progressed from an original basic idea around a changing identity into an exploration of transition as a universal human condition and common to all people.

What I am interested in is this sense of universality and inclusiveness and of something greater than the individual; I like the thought of exploring contemporary social and human issues with all of their nuances.


I like to make work that carries meaning and is potentially worth showing to a wider audience so I enjoy contextual research and reflection and regard it as essential.

I shared the series with the OCA student forum for critique and the response was very positive for all students and tutors who chose to comment.

I am also working hard on my deeper reflection and allowing my visual work to develop organically from it’s own momentum and through my own informed imagination.

Going forward

I think that there is potential to delve deeper into the conceptual thinking and perhaps solidify what I really want to achieve but at the same time I feel that I have reached the point where I have successfully completed an A2 assignment to the best of my current abilities; I believe that now is the right time to submit the work and gain feedback from my tutor before I start to take the work backwards which can sometimes happen!