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IAP A2: background, research and process

Background

Of the three sisters in my family, middle sister Jane has always been the queen of glamour, so it was no great surprise when she decided in 2007 to have breast implants. I was more surprised to learn at the beginning of 2019 that she was going to have them removed, because until then I didn’t know that one of her implants had ruptured during a routine mammogram. Neither had I heard of breast implant illness (BII), nor did I know that Jane’s and other Allergan-brand implants had by then been heavily implicated in 457 global cases of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL) and nine patient deaths – figures that soared in the following months to reach 573 cases and 33 deaths by July 2019, when the FDA requested Allergan to recall a number of its breast implant products after establishing that 481 of the cases and 12 of the 13 deaths with identifiable implant brands involved Allergan products.

Neither was I aware how complex and painful it is to have breast implants removed, or how long the recovery period is, both physically and psychologically. I knew nothing of the capsules of fibrous scar tissue that form around the implants or the way that these can adhere to the ribcage, making their removal along with the implants sometimes difficult or even impossible. All these things I learned only after Jane’s explant, when she asked me to accompany her while she had additional minor reconstructive surgery, in the immediate aftermath of which she would be unable to carry anything and might need some degree of personal care. I willingly agreed, and in June 2019 we travelled together to Birmingham for what turned out to be the first of two reconstructive procedures, with the second taking place last week.

Research

After Jane asked me to accompany her for her reconstructive surgery I joined a Facebook BII group she recommended, which opened my eyes for the first time to all the abovementioned implant-related issues. In terms of photographers, I had the work of several artists in mind as I approached this assignment, most notably Philip Toledo’s Days with My Father, Matt Finn’s Mother, Elina Brotherus’s Annonciation and other projects, and Nigel Shafran’s Dad’s Office along with his other portrayals of the domestic environment. The main thing I took from all these photographers was that I aimed to make images capturing something of the impression and feeling of being alongside Jane as she went through her surgical procedure rather than attempting to document any of the specific clinical details.

Process

On our first trip to the clinic in Birmingham last June I took a few pictures with no particular intention in mind. This time I took far more photos with the aim of using them for this assignment. In the event I did incorporate one image from the June 2019 pics into the January 2020 set – this is the first image in the set, showing Jane de-stressing on the floor before we set off from her home near Bristol to catch the train.

Revisiting Jo Spence’s work just before I set off to meet up with Jane this time had prompted me to make a mental note to include images with the sense of an action taking place rather than just static poses. Together with my experiments with continuous shooting during the exercises for A2 which demonstrated the value of having several similar shots to choose from, this led me to decide that I would shoot all the images for the project using continuous shooting. Since there would likely be movement in the images, I also again decided to use shutter speed priority mode in order to minimise movement blur.

IAP A2: reflection before tutor feedback

I had no opportunity to review the images I shot for this project before I returned home, so was disappointed to find that my decision to use continuous shooting and a fast shutter speed had caused many of the images to lack the sharpness of focus I would have liked them to have. This was especially the case for the pictures of Jane herself, and in some cases the problem was exacerbated by the presence of visible noise, which was a consequence of shooting in some poorly lit locations with only available light and attempting to compensate for this by setting the ISO at a level that in retrospect I can see was higher than advisable. Since there is no possibility of reshooting I will have to go with what I have, but I’ve learned a valuable lesson for the future, being that it really is a better idea to optimise the settings for each image individually rather than going for the scattergun approach I took here.

I’m a little unsure whether the series is too literal in its narrative content, perhaps more like an illustrated story than it should be, and I will be interested to hear what my tutor has to say about this.

On the plus side there are things I was only half aware of at the time I shot the images that have turned out better than I expected. The fortuitous scattering of petals in the first image which emphasise the impending vulnerability also suggested by her prone posture. The way the clinic and its clinical waste shed can be seen to represent the two faces of the cosmetic surgery industry – the glossy brochure on the one hand and reality on the other. And the way that Jane and the painting behind her in the final image evoke Munch’s The Scream, yet the preceding image of evening light on the curtain anchors it into calmness and reflects the fact that this traumatic process is drawing to a close. And I feel the colour palette of warm dark earth tones and greens that runs through the images works to pull them together as a set.

I have a few ideas mulling around for presenting the images for assessment. I’ve tried out various print settings and have found a combination that seems to work well, at least for the test images I’ve printed so far. One idea I’m considering is trying to find a way to incorporate some of the materials I came across while researching the project – FDA press releases, breast implant brochures etc – into my presentation. Perhaps a book might be a good solution. I don’t feel I need to make a decision about this immediately, though. Past experience has taught me that I will very likely change all my presentations when the time comes to finalise my work for assessment anyway.

IAP A2: tutor-recommended research

In his feedback my tutor pointed me to a video of Larry Sultan discussing his project Pictures from Home (1983–92), in which Sultan spoke about an issue that I have also encountered in this project with my sister – the feeling that I am in some way betraying a trust as I present her experience in my own images and words, which I know are not the ones she would use herself. This issue is compounded for me by the fact that I have been attempting to offer a candid and non-glamourised account of a subject that has its very origin in Jane’s ongoing long-term project of creating the most glamorous possible version of herself.

In fact, her attitude towards breast implants has changed in the past couple of years, but the glamour dilemma touches other aspects of her personal history and preferences, too. She has for decades worked as an artist’s model, so presenting herself in a glamorous way is second nature to her. She has a highly developed understanding of how to arrange her body and facial expressions to best advantage, and it is as difficult for her not to do this as it would be for me to do it. Although we specifically discussed the fact that I would be looking to make more candid images than the ones that she is used to modelling for, and she fully understood the reasons underlying this, I know for sure (and can sympathise with the fact that) she prefers to be seen at “her best” – and in this sense the images I have made for the series do not “do her justice” and feel – as Larry Sultan expressed it – like something of a betrayal.

My tutor also referred me to Chris Verene’s work, which I hadn’t encountered before but which impressed me hugely for its directness and sense of presence. This is exactly the kind of relationship with my subjects I would like to be able to achieve. Verene’s subjects appear completely natural, even when they are presenting themselves directly to the camera, and we can sense – and vicariously experience – the intimacy between them and Verene. The photographs often have wonky horizontals and chaotic environments that make them look at first glance like snapshots, but their rich, depth-promoting light and almost tangible textures mean we are immediately transported into the scenes and they feel like real life. The candid and unforced sense of these images is exactly what I would have liked to capture in my photos of Jane, and this is part of the reason I mostly shot without asking her to pose – which she often did anyway when she became aware that I was shooting. This approach was not very successful for the reasons I have outlined in other reflection on this series, and I sense that Verene takes a different approach, perhaps biding his time patiently until all sense of the camera’s presence has disappeared, rather than following people around snatching at shots on the move as I did.

Verene’s work put me in mind of Alessandra Sanguinetti’s photos documenting a five-year period in the life of two young cousins, and also Sally Mann’s images of her own children.

The third artist my tutor referred me to was Tina Barney, whose work I have seen before and who is also very successful at creating images that give the viewer a sense that we are seeing real life in progress, that we are part of the scene and experiencing it directly through our own eyes.

References and resources

Galerie (2017) Tina Barney’s Strikingly Intimate Photographs of American Life. Available at https://www.galeriemagazine.com/tina-barneys-strikingly-intimate-photographs-american-life/ [accessed 20.02.20]
Mann, S. (nd) Sally Mann. Available at https://www.sallymann.com/new-gallery-1 [accessed 20.02.20]
Sanguinetti, A. (2000) The Adventures of Giulle and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams. Available at https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/alessandra-sanguinetti-the-adventures-of-guille-and-belinda-and-the-enigmatic-meaning-of-their-dreams/ [accessed 20.02.20]
SFMOMO (nd) Larry Sultan discovers his family through photography. Available at https://www.sfmoma.org/watch/larry-sultan-discovers-his-family-through-photography [accessed 20.02.20]
Verene, C. (nd) Family. Available at http://chrisverene.com/work/family/ [accessed 20.02.20]

IAP A2: reflection after tutor feedback

My tutor suggested that I go back to the original images to create a new edit that gets closer to investigating the emotions and feelings around my sister and her post-breast explant surgery story rather than documenting the literal journey to the clinic. I found this a really helpful suggestion, because I had sensed that I’d focused too closely on documenting the journey itself, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint what the alternative element was.

I now realise also that I had been trying to edit the series to fit the brief as closely as possible instead of building the narrative supplied by the images on its own terms. So I literally went back to all 800 or so original images and created a new edit from scratch. This is the edit that now appears in the A2 assignment post. I am much happier with this one – I feel that it hangs together better both visually and as a narrative series, and also offers more insight into Jane’s experience.

Nine of the 12 images from the first edit made it through to the second edit, but these three didn’t make the cut this time:

And three new images joined the edit. I didn’t consciously aim to keep the same number of images – it might have been that the new edit contained only five or six images in total, but once I’d gone through the process of creating a new shortlist (numbering around 30) and whittling them down to remove those that were superfluous or didn’t fit so well with the overall look and feel, 12 images remained. These are the newcomers:

The first new image is a direct switch of Jane on the train to Birmingham in January 2020 for a similar image from the earlier surgery trip in June 2019. This particular switch was suggested by my tutor, and I now recognise that the June 2019 image is a much better choice. My tutor also astutely recognised that “working on personal projects can be difficult, particularly looking in on family” and that “maybe you are having an issue with portraying your sister […] where she is off-guard, vulnerable, emotional.” This was an extremely helpful insight, as was the Larry Sultan video he referred me to, which I have reviewed in a previous post. I had indeed rejected the older image precisely because I knew that Jane wouldn’t like it, even though she has at no stage asked me not to include “unflattering” portraits of her. But this image hints at an important part of her experience in this story – her fears about the outcome of the surgery and the competence of the surgeon, which meant that she barely slept the night before we travelled to Birmingham and woke up with a migraine. It also illustrates, as my tutor put it, her vulnerability – she is asleep and oblivious as the world rushes by.

The other changes both relate to my now feeling less concerned with the requirements of the brief and more interested in the internal narrative of the series. In creating my original edit I was thinking of the images of Jane as being those that would fulfil the assignment brief (five portraits using studio and location) and the others as being a kind of extra that didn’t really count as part of the brief. Both of the remaining now-dropped images were portraits of Jane that were essentially there to make up the numbers. And now that my tutor has encouraged me to think of the non-portrait images as being an equally important part of the series I have added two more of these, and feel that they both add something to the viewer’s understanding of Jane’s experience. I hadn’t registered previously that the news or weather reporter on the clinic’s TV screen is wearing an expression of horror and has her hands cupped close to her breasts in an out-of-control environment, and noticing this was part of the reason I included it this time. The fourth new image finds Jane’s surgery-related paraphernalia – the painkillers, antibiotics and dressings – making an incongruous companion to her stylish ankle boots.

These changes have also reduced the overall problems with noise and insufficiently sharp focus, as these issues occurred mostly with the portrait images. In fact my tutor had highlighted another two images of Jane as possible candidates for a new edit, but both of these had unfeasibly large amounts of noise, which of course wasn’t visible on the contact sheets.

After creating the new edit I also gathered together some of the most relevant research materials I had found while investigating the background issue of breast implants and breast implant-related disease. I have still not made a decision about whether to include these, or perhaps selected brief passages from them, in my final presentation for assessment, but having whittled them down to about a dozen documents and made tiffs of them, I now have them to hand in case I do want to include them when the time comes.

The full original edit I presented to my tutor for his feedback can be viewed below.

A2 original edit before tutor feedback

IAP A2: developing a presentation for assessment

For the past few days I have been working on the idea of presenting the project for assessment in book form, and have created three alternative drafts. One version has minimal accompanying text, the second has a strand of text running through the book, and the third has the accompanying text at the end of the book. If I do decide to go for the book format I would get the final version printed by Blurb, but I will wait until they have one of their regular 40% discount offers and use the interim period to get some distance from the drafts so that I can come back to them with a more objective viewpoint.

A pdf of the version with minimal accompanying text can be viewed here. A pdf of the version with a strand of text running through the book can be viewed here. A pdf of the version with the text at the end of the book can be viewed here.

Update 26 February

Dipping into the three versions repeatedly has made it clear to me that the version with the strand of text running through the book doesn’t work. While my original intention with this version was to allow the two narrative threads provided by text and images respectively to run parallel to each other, I have found that it’s impossible to read the text without feeling that the facing-page image is an illustration of or response to that text, which is not the case, and the reading of the images is distorted as a result. So my choice is now between the version with minimal text and the one with the text placed at the end of the book, where it can provide a contextual background to the images. I am currently undecided which option to go for. One strand of thought is that the text is surplus to requirements and the version with minimal text says that all needs to be said. And the other is that the text places the story told in the images into a broader context. I will request my peers’ views about which version works best in the Critiques forum.

Update 28 February

The unanimous view from the forum was that the version with minimal text was preferred. One commenter gave a very clear explanation of his impression of the differences between the two versions and what they were aiming to achieve, which helped enormously to clarify my thinking. And another commenter suggested condensing the minimal text still further and placing it all at the front of the book, and also varying the flow of images through the book. I have taken up both these very helpful suggestions and feel the outcome is a considerable improvement. The new (and possibly final) draft can be viewed here. The forum comments can be read here.

IAP A2: summary for assessment

Background

Of the three sisters in my family, middle sister Jane has always been the queen of glamour, so it was no great surprise when she decided in 2007 to have breast implants. I was more surprised to learn at the beginning of 2019 that she was going to have them removed, because until then I was unaware that one of her implants had ruptured during a routine mammogram. Neither had I heard of breast implant illness (BII), nor did I know that Jane’s and other Allergan-brand implants had by then been heavily implicated in 457 global cases of breast implant-associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma (BIA-ALCL) and nine patient deaths – figures that soared in the following months to reach 573 cases and 33 deaths by July 2019, when the FDA requested Allergan to recall a number of its breast implant products after establishing that 481 of the cases and 12 of the 13 deaths with identifiable implant brands involved Allergan products.

Neither was I aware how complex and painful it is to have breast implants removed, or how long the recovery period is, both physically and psychologically. All these things I learned only after Jane’s explant, when she asked me to accompany her while she had additional minor reconstructive surgery, in the immediate aftermath of which she would be unable to carry anything and might need some degree of personal care. In June 2019 we travelled together to Birmingham for what turned out to be the first of two reconstructive procedures, with the second taking place in January 2020.

Research

After Jane asked me to accompany her for her reconstructive surgery I joined a Facebook BII group she recommended, which opened my eyes for the first time to all the abovementioned implant-related issues. In terms of photographers, I had the work of several artists in mind as I approached this assignment, most notably Philip Toledo’s Days with My Father, Matt Finn’s Mother, Elina Brotherus’s Annonciation and other projects, and Nigel Shafran’s Dad’s Office along with his other portrayals of the domestic environment. The main thing I took from all these photographers was that I aimed to make images capturing something of the impression and feeling of being alongside Jane as she went through her surgical procedure rather than attempting to document any of the specific clinical details.

Process

On our first trip to the clinic in Birmingham in June 2019 I took a few pictures with no particular intention in mind. The second time I took far more photos with the aim of using them for this assignment. Revisiting Jo Spence’s work in January 2020 just before I set off to meet up with Jane prompted me to make a mental note to include images with the sense of an action taking place rather than just static poses. Together with my experiments with continuous shooting during the exercises for A2 which demonstrated the value of having several similar shots to choose from, this led me to decide that I would shoot all the images for the project using continuous shooting. Since there would likely be movement in the images, I also again decided to use shutter speed priority mode in order to minimise movement blur.

I had no opportunity to review the images I shot for this project before I returned home, so was disappointed to find that despite the fast shutter speeds my decision to use continuous shooting had caused many of the images to lack the sharpness of focus I would have liked them to have. This was especially the case for the pictures of Jane herself, and in some cases the problem was exacerbated by the presence of visible noise, which was a consequence of shooting in some poorly lit locations with only available light and attempting to compensate for this by setting the ISO at a level that in retrospect I can see was higher than advisable. There was no possibility of reshooting, but I learned a valuable lesson for the future, being that it really is a better idea to optimise the settings for each image individually rather than going for the scattergun approach I took here.

On the plus side there were things I was only half aware of at the time I shot the images that turned out better than I expected. The fortuitous scattering of petals in the first image which emphasise the impending vulnerability also suggested by her prone posture. The way the clinic and its clinical waste shed can be seen to represent the two faces of the cosmetic surgery industry – the glossy brochure on the one hand and the mundane reality on the other. And the way that Jane and the painting behind her in the final image evoke Munch’s The Scream, yet the preceding image of evening light on the curtain anchors it into calmness and reflects the fact that this traumatic process is drawing to a close. And I feel the colour palette of warm dark earth tones and greens that runs through the images works to pull them together as a set.

In his feedback my tutor pointed me to a video of Larry Sultan discussing his project Pictures from Home (1983–92), in which Sultan spoke about an issue that I have also encountered in this project with my sister – the feeling that I am in some way betraying a trust as I present her experience in my own images and words, which I know are not the ones she would use herself. This issue is compounded for me by the fact that I have been attempting to offer a candid and non-glamorised account of a subject that has its very origin in Jane’s ongoing long-term project of creating the most glamorous possible version of herself.

In fact, her attitude towards breast implants has changed in the past couple of years, but the glamour dilemma touches other aspects of her personal history and preferences, too. She has for decades worked as an artist’s model, so presenting herself in a glamorous way is second nature to her. She has a highly developed understanding of how to arrange her body and facial expressions to best advantage, and it is as difficult for her not to do this as it would be for me to do it. Although we specifically discussed the fact that I would be looking to make more candid images than the ones that she is used to modelling for, and she fully understood the reasons underlying this, I know for sure (and can sympathise with the fact that) she prefers to be seen at “her best” – and in this sense the images I have made for the series do not “do her justice” and feel – as Larry Sultan expressed it – like something of a betrayal.

My tutor suggested that I go back to the original images to create a new edit that came closer to investigating the emotions and feelings around my sister and her post-breast explant surgery story rather than documenting the literal journey to the clinic. I found this a really helpful suggestion, because I had sensed that I’d focused too closely on documenting the journey itself, but hadn’t been able to pinpoint what the alternative element was. I also now realised that I had been trying to edit the series to fit the brief as closely as possible instead of building the narrative supplied by the images on its own terms.

I now created a new edit from scratch. Nine of the 12 images from the first edit made it through to the second edit, and three new images joined the edit. The first new image is a direct switch of Jane on the train to Birmingham in January 2020 for a similar image from the earlier surgery trip in June 2019.  I had initially rejected the older image because I felt Jane wouldn’t like it, but it hints at an important part of her experience in this story – her fears about the outcome of the surgery and the competence of the surgeon, which meant that she barely slept the night before we travelled to Birmingham and woke up with a migraine. It also illustrates, as my tutor put it, her vulnerability – she is asleep and oblivious as the world rushes by.

The other changes both relate to my now feeling less concerned with the requirements of the brief and more interested in the internal narrative of the series. The reporter on the clinic’s TV screen wears an expression of horror and has her hands cupped close to her breasts in an out-of-control environment. The final new image finds Jane’s surgery-related paraphernalia – the painkillers, antibiotics and dressings – making an incongruous companion to her stylish ankle boots. These changes also reduced the overall problems with noise and insufficiently sharp focus, as these issues occurred mostly with the portrait images.

Presentation

The first option I explored for presenting the images at assessment was to just send them as prints. I tried out various print settings and found a combination that seemed to work well. Another idea I considered was to incorporate some of the materials I came across while researching the project – FDA press releases, breast implant brochures etc – into my presentation, and for this a book seemed to be an appropriate solution. I created three alternative book drafts – one with minimal accompanying text, which can be viewed here; a second with a strand of text from my research resources running through the book, which can be viewed here; and a third with the text at the end of the book, which can be viewed here.

I soon realised that the version with the strand of text running through the book made it impossible to read the text without feeling that the facing-page image was an illustration of or response to that text, which was not the case and therefore distorted the reading of the images. I was now unsure whether the version with minimal text said that all needed to be said, or whether the text placed the narrative of the images into a broader context, and decided to request my peers’ views via the Critiques forum. The unanimous view from the forum was that the version with minimal text was preferred. One commenter suggested condensing the minimal text still further and placing it all at the front of the book, and also varying the flow of images through the book, and I took both these suggestions on board. The forum comments can be read here.

After making further minor adjustments I had the book printed by Blurb, with the intention of submitting it for assessment. Covid-19 has, however, ruled this out, so instead I have made a short video that shows the physical book and am submitting this alongside the final print pdf and the individual images in a gallery format.