Photographing the Unseen – Exercise (three OCA alumni)

All references are to the OCA course notes, Context and Narrative, pp 62-68, unless otherwise noted.

Peter Mansell

Pete Mansell is paraplegic from a spinal cord injury sustained at the age of 20. His projects discussed in the course notes deal with the unseen effects of his injury.

The ‘seen’ effects would be comparatively easy to document, with photographs (selfies or taken by others) of Mansell in his wheelchair or coping with daily life. However, the unseen effects are known only to Mansell himself and given shape by his photography. We are given three examples:

Drug Packaging, seen alone, is a simple macro pattern shot of part of a package of drug capsules, with one apparently popped out. A pleasing image with a strong diagonal composition but one likely to be passed by. However, seen as part of Paralysis, a series showing the medication, equipment, scars and infections that are a part of his life at Maslow’s base ‘physiological needs’ level (Mansell is confused with Herzberg’s hygiene factors) gives the viewer some insight into the sheer ‘guttiness’ of living with his kind of injury.

Examining shows us a corner of a room, apparently in a medical institution, with the end of a hospital bed. On the bed is a transfer blanket with carrying handles; it is a reminder that patients, including Mansell, are unable to get onto the bed by themselves but have to be manhandled onto it. This is part of the series, Check Up, which shows us details of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Mansell is very positive about this place and claims an emotional connection; the staff already know the issues so there is no ned to explain. Again, the individual image is only a part of a much greater sum. Each of the nine images in the set has a one-word, ‘…ing’ title; ‘Inspiring’ shows us a portrait on the wall of a wheelchair athlete.

My Space is a stand-alone (if that is not a tasteless word in the circumstances) image, rather than part of a series. It shows the detail of a room, presumably the lounge at home, with part of a door opening, a standard lamp, coffee table/cabinet and one edge of a sofa or armchair. Their is a chair-width length of blank wall and the coffee table is pulled away from the wall, creating a space into which a wheelchair could fit. This is not a wasted space – it is there to accommodate Pete Mansell’s wheelchair, not there at the moment, because Mansell is sitting in it to take the photograph. We are reminded of the adjustments to daily life that are required to accommodate disability; we assume that other rooms have similar dedicated spaces.

Dewald Botha

Dewald Botha is, with Mansell, a member of [6], a group of OCA alumni who started collaborating as undergraduates. Ring Road is a set that, at one level, is of a subject very much ‘seen’. It shows the concrete structures of a raised roadway around the city of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province, China. However, Botha tells us (in a brief website caption) that he is using the road as a metaphor for boundaries and limitations. Boundaries are usually visible, limitations often are not. One distinction is that a boundary is a physical constraint, whereas a limitation is a mental one.

I have more difficulty extracting meaning from this set than from Mansell’s work. For instance, if he is ‘searching for pockets of calm and quiet’, why do several of the images show the road surface itself, near junctions (one with oncoming traffic stopped at a signal on the top-left third-point of the image). Other images show greenery (apparently tended) around and below the road structures, indicating that these are spaces that somebody cares for. I can also get the sense of ‘boundary’ or ‘limitation’, from the view that any ring-road (even the M25) necessarily separates inside from outside of itself and imposes a restriction on growth of the urban centre. I suppose, in the context of the present exercise, I am having trouble seeing the unseen.

Jodie Taylor

Jodie Taylor’s series Memories of Childhood was also referenced in Expressing Your Vision, Assignment 1 (Square Mile). Unfortunately, her learning blog no longer exists and a Google search reveals that there are several Jodie Taylors with a web presence as photographers (plus an Arsenal footballer), so it has not been possible to find the full set and I must rely on the description and three images presented in the weareoca blog posting.

The premise can be simply stated. Photography represents the past as soon as the shutter is clicked (Barthes, Berger, Sontag and others have made similar points) and we become nostalgic about it. Taylor’s series is about that nostalgia, provoked by moving back into a house that she grew up into. The surviving images are of rather scruffy, intimate areas (two paths/alleys and a row of domestic galleries). These are the sort of places that evoke memories of school summer holidays and teenagers simply ‘hanging out’. I have memories of attempting to ride a friend’s motorcycle outside just such a set of garages and, doubtless, other viewers will recall a first cigarette or a first kiss (I’m keeping it clean here). Reading the weareoca posting, I see that it has evoked similar memories in Sharon, the reviewer.

Taylor tells us that this is to be a ‘fine art-based project’ but presented it as a set of machine-prints from 35mm in a cheap plastic album with ‘warts and all’ scratches an blemishes. I am unable to reconcile ‘fine art’ (or at least my vision of it) with the scruffy approach, but I have to admit that it will work on a conceptual level as further context to evoke nostalgia – which was the point of the exercise. This comes back to the question of the ‘snapshot aesthetic’ that my tutor has referred to, and which will have to be the subject of a future posting. However, I wonder about the artificiality or contrivance of the approach. If a set old old prints were found in a shoebox in the attic it would invoke genuine nostalgia; is that a different thing from deliberately trying to manufacture it?

Coursework questions

Which of these projects resonates most with you, and why?

It is easy to pick out the ‘third place’. I had difficulty engaging with Botha’s Ring Road, for reasons noted above.

Jodie Taylor’s and Pete Mansell’s work resonated in different ways and for different reasons. Taylor evoked direct memories; Mansell gives me a vision of an alternative past and present. We have probably all had traffic accident near-misses; is this how life would be if something had been only a few inches or a few seconds different? If deciding between them, I would go for Mansell because I have been able to find more of his work online and, therefore, to engage better.

How do you feel about the loss of authorial control that comes when the viewer projects their own experiences and emotions onto the images you have created?

Some years before starting the degree course, I read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs and was annoyed at his statement that the photographer’s interpretation of an image was no more nor less valid than the viewer’s [reference to be added when I find it on re-reading]. I assume that this is what the questioner means by loss of authorial control. While studying over the past 16 months, I have come to revise that opinion. The viewer is an integral part of the subject/photographer/image/viewer sequence and will extract his/her own meaning from the image. However, the viewer can only react to what is in front of him/her; it is the photographer who places it there.

My nearest experience of this loss of authorial control must be competition nights at my camera club when the judge comments on my entered images. Sometimes, the judge will interpret the image very differently from me and I might seethe ‘he’s missed the bloody point’. In many cases, mature reflection shows me an alternative or deeper meaning that I did not fully appreciate at the time of taking. I don’t have to like it, but it is often instructive.