Briony Campbell – The Dad Project

A man lies on a bed, apparently asleep, in a light-coloured room with open curtains. He wears indoor clothes (rather than pyjamas) and is above the bedclothes, so  we understand that this is a daytime nap. His face is gaunt and his mouth suggests a background of pain. He lies with his head near the left of the frame. At the right of the frame, and partially out of it, a young woman sits at a table eating a meal. She has a worried expression and her eyes are fixed on the camera. Details of the furniture, and the vase of flowers on the bedside cabinet, suggest an institutional (hospital or hospice, rather than a home situation.

These are psychologist and family therapist David Campbell and his daughter, the photographer Briony Campbell. The image is from their collaborative series ‘The Dad Project’, detailing the last six months of David’s life and the period immediately after his death from cancer. Images and captions may found at Campbell (n.d). Briony’s account of making the series and its later exhibitions and other manifestations are available as a PDF (Campbell 2011) and as a video with contributions from David (Campbell 2010). The video includes stills from the series that are not on the website.

It is difficult to be dispassionate in reviewing this project (the deaths of my own parents are recent enough to empathise) so I am not going to try. This is a photo-story about love, sorrow, departure and family. David and Briony are each using it to understand the other and to come to terms with the coming separation by death.

There is a variety of images. As expected, we see David and other family members, some happy times and some pain; there is even a photograph with the paramedic on what we take to be his final ambulance journey to the hospital. Briony turns the camera on herself; we see tears, and we have the image described above in which she finishes his hospital meal. There is also a set of detail pictures, unremarkable in themselves but powerful when taken in context; the empty milk bottle, the drinking glass and straw and the hospital menu with ‘Welcome back to Keats Ward, David’ written on it.

The photography is light-coloured and light in tone, but tells the human story.

The project has been seen in various forms; exhibitions, magazine articles, the video noted above, and as the inspiration for many third-party websites.

The phrase ‘an ending without an ending’ is a reference to David’s death but also to the continuing influence of ‘TheDad Project’ as an inspiration and comfort to viewers, and as a way of keeping David Campbell alive in memory at least.

References

Blackwell, J. (n.d.). The Dad Project. [online] Joblackwell.co.uk. Available at: http://joblackwell.co.uk/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Campbell, B. (n.d.). The Dad Project. [online] Brionycampbell.com. Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Campbell, B. (2010). Saying goodbye with my camera. [online] Vimeo. Available at: https://vimeo.com/12600297 [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

Campbell, B. (2011). The Dad Project. 1st ed. [ebook] Available at: http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [Accessed 10 Apr. 2017].

‘Two Sides …’ Submission and Reflection

I have now submitted Assignment 1 (under the title ‘Two Seats, Two Views’) and look forward to my tutor’s feedback. My assignment notes are here.

The images are in two sets, intended to be read as pairs. In each case, the driver’s-eye and passenger’s-eye view are as near simultaneous as I could manage. For this posting, they are seen side-by-side. When I submit the assignment for assessment, they will be mounted back-to-back. This means that the corresponding viewpoints are inextricably linked but it will not be possible to see them both at the same time, which is true of the car journey as well. The images are presented in the order encountered on the journey, but there is no set order for viewing them.

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Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. I used appropriate camera techniques and all images are correctly exposed and well composed. I have an issue with the automatic focus of the driver-view camera; despite setting up for manual focus (and a hyperfocal distance) it defaulted to automatic and was inconsistent between focusing on the road and the interior of the car.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil the brief, showing two viewpoints of the same narrative. My wife (the driver) saw the passenger-view images and spontaneously commented that she had not seen any of the things depicted during the drive.

I believe that my communication of my concepts, ideas and inspiration has been reasonably effective.

Creativity

As ever, my bête noir. I am aware that coursemates have produced more imaginative, or more socially-aware, work. Somewhere between ‘satisfactory’ and ‘competent’.

Context

I am reasonably happy with my level of self-reflection and research. I considered alternative responses to the brief before settling on my chosen project. I found some appropriate and relevant work for inspiration and applied critical thinking to determine which parts to take and which to leave – rather than slavishly following.

‘Two Sides …’ – first edit

After deleting the worst of the unsharp images and those interrupted by foreground, I was left with 152 passenger-view images. My long-list selection cut that down to 60, as seen in these contact sheets.

I have short-listed down to 14 images, which I have laser-proofed and will now spend a few days living with, shuffling, staring at and generally agonising over to select 6 or 7 for assignment submission. I am looking for images that show the environment that we are passing through, but detail that the driver has no chance to take in.

Two of my favourite images (the Headcorn tea room and the man selling Mother’s Day flowers) are unsharp, so will be early casualties of the cull. For the rest, I am looking for a balance between detail and wide views, town and country.

When I showed this set to my wife (who was the driver) she said that, other than the man selling flowers, she had not seen any of the things in the images. This is a nice confirmation that the basic concept of the exercise is sound.

The drivers-viewpoint images will be easier to select, given that framing and basic composition are identical through that set. I will look for the images taken closest to the same time as the selected passenger-view.

‘Two sides …’ – a dry run

Having generated some ideas, it is now time to do some ‘proof of concept’ work. I like the idea of the alternative views of driver and passenger on a car journey. The following images were made with an iPhone on a recent trip.

Driver’s viewpoint images are reasonably easy, even from the passenger seat.

It was a dull, wet day so the headlights and the rain streaks added nicely to the drama of the situation. I get the impression that the driver is having to concentrate on the road, with no time for sightseeing. Zooming in slightly (the shot with the lorry at right of frame) loses the dashboard details that give away the fact that this is not strictly the driver’s view; it also gives a better impression of concentration on the road immediately ahead.

The passenger viewpoint was less successful (OK, not successful at all)

I had not appreciated how much roadside hedges obscure the view. It is clear that the main aspect of planning this assignment (if I go for this option) will be the selection of a route. I am looking for nearby ‘scenery’ with minimum obstruction. It may be a that a countryside route is not ideal, so my next experiment will be on a drive through an historic market town.

‘Two sides …’ – another idea

Another variation on telling a ‘story’ with two sides, although this one takes liberties with the definition of story. I came upon a classic car (Ford Thunderbird) and shot a set of details to be arranged as a panel for a club competition.

It occurs to me that this is a story about the surface glamour of this type of car, all glossy paint and polished chromework (and rather a lot of it). The alternative ‘story’ would be to look at all the dirty oily bits under the bonnet and below the car, that actually make it ‘work’.

The practicality would be finding a classic car owner who is sufficiently proud of his car to keep the exterior polished, but not up to concours d’elegance standard with the engine bay similarly polished.

Context and objectivity

This post is inspired by pp24-25 of the course notes (OCA 2017) and a first reading of Richard Salkeld’s ‘Reading Photographs’ (2014, 90-93). Objectivity can be compromised, with the risk of bias being introduced, at several stages in the process of getting a photograph or other information to its viewer, even (it would appear) if the information presented is a discussion on objectivity.

Of course, I have to guard against losing objectivity myself while writing this post, but that way leads to infinite regress so I will have to trust myself and hope that my readers will trust me.

The discussion focuses on the American Farm Security Administration documentary project of the 1930s and 40s and, as with the Time ‘100 Photographs’ book (reviewed here), it uses Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ as an icon. This image is also used by Liz Wells (2000, 35-45) as a case study.

The starting point for an image is the briefing, whether self-directed (such as Lewis Hine’s child labour photographs – also briefly noted) or given by a client or boss. In the case of the FSA images, there are differing accounts of how prescriptive Roy Stryker’s briefings were. According to the Library of Congress website (a US public sector organisation, therefore unlikely to criticise another such) ‘A basic shooting script or outline was often prepared. Photographers were encouraged to record anything that might shed additional light on the topic that they were photographing’  The Wikipedia article on Stryker (which will favour the views of whoever made the last edit) expresses it, ‘The photographers involved attested to the fact that Stryker was expert at getting good work out of them. He made sure that the photographers were well briefed on their assigned areas before being sent out’. The OCA notes quote Lange’s criticism of the detailed briefing, ‘To know ahead of time what you are looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting’.  There is scope for control and loss of objectivity at this stage, but no reason why a photographer might not produce images off-piste as a personal project.

At the point of capturing the image, I believe the camera itself is completely objective; it will record faithfully what it is pointed at. However, the photographer will be be subjective in choosing viewpoint, focal length, focus etc. which will influence the image taken and the likely reading of it. ‘Migrant Mother’ itself is semi-posed and is the tightest-framed of five images that Lange made of the scene (the others are reproduced in Wells (2000, 38)). The Thomas Hoepker image used by Salkeld (2014, 90-93) as a case study was taken for subjective reasons; Hoepker saw the scene as Brooklyn residents apparently unconcerned by events in Manhattan on 11 September 2001, stopped his car, took the photograph and drove away without speaking to any of the subjects.

The next threat to objectivity comes in editing or selecting images for publication, from a contact sheet or memory card. There will be multiple, very similar, images from which one is selected. There will be only a limited number selected from dozens, if not hundreds, captured. The process is seen and well-described in the Magnum contact sheets book (Lubben 2014). The selection may simply be based on the art director’s view of what will look good on the page, or it may reflect editorial policy. The story of the FSA images necessarily includes Stryker’s heavy-handed policy of editing by ‘killing’ negatives with a hole-punch. Ironically, these ‘black sun’ images have subsequently been the subject of exhibitions and web pages; examples here and here.

See also my EYV blog posting ‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Finally, the context in which an image is seen can influence the viewer’s reading of it. A 5’x3′ print, framed on a gallery wall will be viewed more reverently and taken more seriously than the same image as a 5″x3″ enprint in a Boots envelope. In printed media, an image in a ‘serious’ newspaper will be read differently from the same image in a coffee-table art book and, of course, the surrounding text will have profound impact – especially if it is a headline or a caption. ‘Migrant Mother’ has made the jump from a documentary image to an art icon, partly assisted (in my opinion) by the change of title from the factual ‘Destitute pea pickers in California, a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936’ to the snappier modern name, reinforcing the Madonna-and-child associations.

The Hoepker image was originally published five years after 9/11 in a context suggesting that the subjects were relaxed and uncaring or unknowing about the event taking place in the background. The view was forcefully challenged by one of the group – asserting that he and his girlfriend were discussing the WTC attack with strangers, all of whom were stunned and overwhelmed, something that Hoepker would have known had he spoken to them. This is a fitting close to this post, with an example of a situation where subjectivity gets us closer to the truth than detached objectivity.

References

Library of Congress (s.d) Farm security administration/office of war information black-and-white negatives – background and scope – prints & photographs online catalog. [online at:] http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/background.html (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

OCA (2017) Photography 1: Context and Narrative (updated 2017, document control number PH4CAN240117) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

Salkeld, R. (2014) Reading photographs: An introduction to the theory and meaning of images. London: Bloomsbury.

Wells, L. (ed.) (2000) Photography: A critical introduction. 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Wikipedia (2017) Roy Stryker. [online at:] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Stryker (Accessed: 24 February 2017)

Exercise • Citizen Journalism

A Google-trawl, search term ‘citizen journalism’ brings up multiple examples and multiple definitions of the phenomenon. I would broadly classify them under two headings – ‘citizen news-gathering’ and ‘citizen news-broadcasting’. There is a also a pedantic quibble about whether a stateless person could properly be described as a citizen-anything.

Citizen news-gathering is the concept illustrated by the CNN billboard above. People caught up in a news story, and equipped with a camera, mobile telephone or smartphone, can contact the ‘established media’ and report breaking news before the network media have time to mobilise. The early example quoted in several sources is Abraham Zapruder, whose 26.5 seconds of 8mm cine film of President Kennedy’s assassination have been the source of news stories, books, films and conspiracy theories since November 1963. Slightly later, we have John Filo’s images of the Kent State shooting (although, as Filo is described as a student and part-time news photographer, this might not strictly be citizen journalism) and coming right up to date, every terrorist attack sees our newspapers full of smartphone images by victims and passers-by.

Citizen news-broadcasting seeks to break away from the ‘established media’. Jay Rosen (2008) described it thus:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

News, gathered by ‘citizens’ or established media sources is distributed by an anarchic network of websites, blogs and social media. Images and film, such as the death of an innocent bystander shot during an anti-government protest in Iran, can ‘go viral’ and be around the world in hours. More relevant to the question asked in the course notes is Tami Silicio’s image of flag-draped coffins being returned from Iraq, in defiance of a  a government ban on such images which some considered to be part of a policy of sanitising the conflict.

A UK example is the death in April 2009 of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught in a police riot-control ‘kettle’ in London, who died after being attacked by a balaclava-wearing policemen with his badge number covered to avoid identification. (Lewis 2009). Video shot by an American hedge-fund manager also caught in the ‘kettle’ gave the lie to the police account of the incident, resulted in the identification and prosecution of the policeman and led to changes in the policing of protests.

We are asked to comment on the objectivity of our examples.

In my opinion, the Zapruder film and the Tomlinson video were objective at the point of capture; in both cases, an unexpected event occurred in front of an unprepared observer who happened to have a camera running. The relevant question is one of  objectivity in distribution. Zapruder gave copies of his film to the Secret Service for investigation/evidence purposes and sold the rights to Life for $150,000 (1963 currency) (Wikipedia, 2017). The Tomlinson film was provided (price, if any, unknown) to the Guardian publishers, rather than to the investigating authorities, five days after the event because the photographer had read of a conflict between the police story and that of protestors and others caught in the ‘kettle’. Would the film have come forward if the controversy were not already being reported?

The Iranian bystander and the Kent State images arose because each photographer had seen an event, then filmed the aftermath. I suspect an element of subjectivity in each case; would a government supporter in either case have filmed and distributed their images? We must consider that the photographers were shooting images that supported their own world-views and, again, there is the question of objectivity in the method of distribution. Filo sold images to an already-sympathetic press. The Iranian photographer used social media (YouTube) because the local media could not be relied upon.

The Silicio image of the coffins is objective – the scene existed in front of the camera – but shot for subjective reasons. ‘Tami Silicio was moved by the increasingly human freight she was loading and felt compelled to share what she was seeing’ (Dyer, 2015)

Objectivity in news images is uncertain. If an event is unfolding in front of the photographer’s eyes, he has no opportunity to ‘pose’ the subjects, but he may be able to influence the look and apparent context of the images by a choice of lens, technique or viewpoint. If shooting aftermath images, then there is more opportunity for posing or ‘gardening’ (Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima or Fenton’s cannonballs, for instance).

In post-production, at editing and selection stages, there is a risk to objectivity by selecting one image over another from the contact sheet or memory card. The selection of an image might simply be a function of page design but it may represent the editors world-view.

References

Dyer, G. (ed.) (2015) 100 photographs: The most influential images of all time. United States: TIME.

Lewis, P. (2009) Citizen journalism counters police propaganda. [online at] https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/04/ian-tomlinson-death-g20 (Accessed: 16 February 2017)

Rosen, J. (2008) PressThink: A most useful definition of citizen journalism. [online at] http://archive.pressthink.org/2008/07/14/a_most_useful_d.html (Accessed: 16 February 2017).

Wikipedia (2017)  Abraham Zapruder. [online at] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Zapruder (Accessed: 16 February 2017)