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CAN 1 Two sides of the story

These images tell two contrasting stories about the clifftops between Brighton Marina and the neighbouring village of Rottingdean two miles away.

I was influenced in the way I shot and processed these images by Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder, which demonstrated that a bleak subject can be presented in images with strong, saturated colours. This prevented me from processing the “tragic” photos in muted colours, which I was initially tempted to do but which I realised would have made them sentimental, which was exactly what I wanted to avoid. I was also influenced in the way I shot some of the clifftop views by the work of the New Photographers, especially Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Robert Petschow and Germain Krull, whose “preferred vantage point… was on high [which] allowed them to make pictures which resembled blueprints, plans or maps” (Jeffrey, 1981). Specifically, when I looked down at the view of the boatyard area of Brighton Marina I was put in mind of the structuralist approach of these photographers, and this prompted me to frame the images from this section of the walk in a way that showed how the structure of the marina makes a clear separation between natural and manmade environments. This separation is not directly relevant to the stories I was telling, but does obliquely hint at the possibility of alienation contained within the second story.

I wanted the images to have a consistent cinematic aspect with a moderately wide angle, but not one so wide that it distorted, so I used a 35mm prime lens. I took 172 photographs (contact sheets available here), and as I shot each one I already knew which of the two stories it related to – with the exception of one image, which could have fitted either story.

After shortlisting 36 images in the “scenic” group and 23 in the “tragic” group for post-production, I took them into Lightroom where I adjusted colour temperatures, vibrance and saturation to make these more consistent and to compensate for the fact that when I was halfway to Rottingdean a sea fret introduced a dense fog into what had previously been a bright sunny afternoon. I then whittled the two shortlists down to seven images apiece, and deleted one more from each story that I felt interrupted the flow and weren’t essential to the narrative once I saw them on the page.

Reflection before tutor feedback

I mulled over a number of ideas for this assignment before making my final choice. These included presenting my breakfast granola as a healthy choice vs an unhealthy choice, an idea I rejected after storyboarding because it felt too much like making an advert. I got as far as doing two complete shoots (with some entertaining reactions from passersby) about whether or not plastic bags should be used to dispose of dogshit, but I found that my photos didn’t tell the stories adequately by themselves and texts were vital to the arguments. I knew from Seawright’s Sectarian Murder that allowing text to reveal a narrative that’s not present in an image can be a powerful device, but the dogshit narratives didn’t have that kind of impact and I felt my pictures needed to play a substantive role in them. I also came to the conclusion that these were not so much stories as propaganda – attempts to persuade the viewer to take points of view about a subject.

I was initially in two minds about the clifftop deaths story because I didn’t want to turn it into something sentimental or mawkish, but eventually decided that the short, two-stories format offered an opportunity to present it in a matter-of-fact way. For this reason too I wanted to avoid soft focus, so set the aperture to f/22 and used aperture priority to make sure I got the fastest shutter speed possible for each shot without having to adjust it manually each time. Although the light was extremely bright when I started the shoot, I set the ISO to 200 to provide faster shutter speeds than would have been available with ISO 100, hoping that this would help avoid movement blur in shots where people, birds and boats were present. Overall I feel that the results fulfill the brief and express what I set out to capture.

Original edit before tutor feedback

Story 1: The cliff path above Brighton Marina offers a scenic and uplifting walk to the village of Rottingdean two miles away.

Story 2: The clifftop between Brighton Marina and Rottingdean is a deadly precipice where many lives have ended.

Reflection after tutor feedback

After initial pre-tutorial feedback from my tutor I cut both stories down from six images apiece to four. My tutor had pointed out that the final three images really told story 2 by themselves, and I realised that I had actually overstated both cases and that they would be improved by a little more subtlety, allowing the viewer more room for interpretation. So I replaced the first three images of story 2 with a single image I’d taken two months earlier, and removed two images from story 1 that added nothing to the narrative. I could immediately see that both stories were now stronger individually and at the same time there was a clearer visual distinction between them, an impression confirmed by my tutor at our subsequent tutorial hangout.

New edit after tutor feedback

Story 1: The cliff path above Brighton Marina offers a scenic and uplifting walk to the village of Rottingdean two miles away.

Story 2: The clifftop between Brighton Marina and Rottingdean is a deadly precipice where many lives have ended.

Rework for assessment

My understanding of the purpose of this assignment grew as I proceeded through the course, and I wrote a post about this on my learning log.) With the benefit of this new perspective I decided to merge the two stories into a single narrative thread (see top of page) which makes the transition from story 1 to story 2 with the most polysemous image of the set, a precarious view through the crumbling cliff to a danger sign below. I dropped one image from each storyline that now felt redundant and reintroduced one that I’d dropped in the previous edit (a view back to the marina) as this now introduces a sense of remoteness that prefigures the narrative’s transition. I also re-processed the images to retain the progressively deteriorating weather and light conditions, feeling that this was more suited to the new edit and brought a darker mood into the images without sentimentalising them. Finally, I removed the titling, feeling that this new edit spoke for itself and didn’t need contextualising.

References and resources

Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Seawright, P. (1988) Sectarian Murder. Available at http://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian [accessed 30.04.18]
Tate Gallery (2018). Constructivism. Available at http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/constructivism [accessed 03.06.18]
Wikipedia (2018). Constructivism (art). Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(art) [accessed 03.06.18]

CAN 1 self-assessment

I was anxious to avoid sentimentality in the presentation of an emotive subject which included potentially emotionally charged motifs (eg teddy, fairy and other tributes) and kept this in mind at all times, drawing on my understanding of the emotional nuances of focus and colour to make decisions about how to shoot and process the images for this assignment.

I took overall texture and colour into account in making my edits, aiming to a create visually coherent presentation. When framing shots I kept in mind the storylines I wished to convey, taking advantage of opportunities to suggest separation and alientation, eg boundaries or distance between the natural and the man-made.

My intial edit was overstated, and the two sets were much improved by my tutor’s suggestion to remove some of the images explicitly referencing suicide. Returning to the assignment later in the module I merged the two stories into a single narrative thread, and feel that this gives further subtlety to the two-sided narrative and matches much more closely the actual experience of taking this walk, in which both sides of the story are always present simultaneously.

My self-assessment ratings for this assignment are as follows:

New perspective on CAN 1 Two sides of the story

When I was working on the first C&N assignment, Two sides of the story, I made several abortive attempts at different story pairs. One of these was about whether or not plastic “poop bags” should be used to dispose of dogshit, and I discarded it because I was frustrated to find that my photos didn’t offer the opposing storylines adequately by themselves and texts were vital to present the two arguments. This morning I realised I now understand something I didn’t understand then – that an important point of the assignment was that images can have different meanings/interpretations in different contexts. I now see that I could actually have used an identical set of images for both viewpoints, as demonstrated below, using text to guide the viewer towards a different set of conclusions in each case.

Story 1. Why dog owners should bag up their dogshit

1: If they don’t, it lies in wait to ruin the day of unsuspecting passers-by who tread in it.
2: As the dogshit spreads, more and more of the pavement is covered with a potentially toxoplasmosis-causing biohazard which people then tread into their homes.
3: Bagging it up prevents this danger.
4: It can then be safely disposed of.

Story 2. Why dog owners shouldn’t bag up their dogshit

1: Dogshit is biodegradable; plastic bags are not.
2: If left unbagged, it soon dries out and becomes inert.
3: Bagging it up prevents the natural process of biodegradation taking place.
4: Bagged-up dogshit goes to landfill, where even so-called biodegradable bags may not actually break down.

I am also not concerned now (as I would have been at the time I undertook the assignment) that the third image doesn’t quite fit comfortably with either storyline, the split in the poop bag somewhat undermining both statements. Now I like the slight feeling of unease and doubt that the discrepancy introduces. However, this particular story pair still feels more like propaganda than storytelling so I would still reject it today.