Informing Contexts – Week 1

Photography at the Crossroads

A fascinating start to the new module. Pulling apart photography and putting it back together makes for some interesting realisations and new viewpoints.

I have probably been quite shallow these past years in relation to delving deeper into the meaning of photographs. My mind and resource has been on trying to create a business and run workshops to teach and (hopefully) inspire others so the critical elements of my practice have most definitely been overlooked.

I have struggled a little this first week getting back into the academic stride – my plain English easy read mentality has kicked back a little and although I know I fully understand what is being said and asked of me, it has taken much more effort to get to grips with the content and the subsequent enquiry.

But challenging ourselves in life is what can drive us, and this first week has driven me to think long and hard about where I am now in my practice, what I actually want to communicate to the world and how I aim to do this.

The notion that photography as a shapeshifter most definitely reflects my view of my work. From the context it can be aligned to, to the characteristics it signifies and from the ways in which it can be consumed, my practice is open to all. Where my work specifically sits in the bigger picture of photography I find difficult to define as one day it may suit a political bent, another a historic slant, and then maybe a scientific mode, while another a reflection on nature. Kevin Robins, in regard The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, states: “Photographs have provided a way of relating to the world–not only cognitively, but also emotionally, aesthetically, morally, politically”- this is true for me from an inward and outward stance.

I feel my work is very much in its embryonic/early days stage – it’s wriggling about quite a bit and taking in copious amounts of info and inspiration. I create my images in direct response to the items I find around me and usually in photogram form. The content may not be known until I start making the image but it will be influenced by choices relating to materials, photographic processes, and personal feelings. I do know that through it I want to communicate the idea of being open to new ways of thinking and doing, even if that means a melding of new and old or looking back to look forward. As my project for the MA centres on the human impact on the planet, the goal is to create work that will spark conversations. But it is not about saying that to use a certain process is wrong, more about encouraging dialogue in how as photographers we can also limit our impact on the environment when practising our passion.

My work can sit across a variety of contexts from historical to digital; from science to nature; from art to marketing and probably many more dependent on what I create and how I choose to show it. Is this an inherent nature of photography from both the distant and recent past, and the here and now? The following example would indicate yes.

Therese Frare‘s image of David Kirby has been used this week to highlight how a photograph can be used in a variety of ways, and be given very different meanings and contexts. The photograph of HIV/Aids activist Kirby was originally part of a photojournalistic project but clothing company Benetton, often known for their challenging use of imagery, used it in an awareness raising advertising campaign. Many may see this as distasteful, aiming to sell clothes off the back off an intimate image and social issue, but Benetton had the families consent and even if the photograph was manipulated to suit a more advertising style it resulted in debate and constructive conversations so surely this outweighs the sensibilities of certain viewpoints? Other examples include Benetton’s use of a newborn photograph that aimed to draw attention to babies being born HIV positive. It became one of its most censored, with some people claiming it advocates abortion. This latter concept of its meaning seems ridiculous to me and therefore I would suggest that this is where individual interpretation and as Robins infers, their cognitive, emotional, moral and political views, shape the meaning of a photograph, and by doing so create photographies that can shape shift.

There are 40 examples of social advertising in this article on Bored Panda – – I believe that photography, including my own work, can and should be used responsibly within this context and can be understood on a number of levels. Although the ethics of Benetton have been drawn into question, I would rather a world where images provoke a reaction than a world that is devoid of difference.

It is images used in public advertising that perhaps help play a part in keeping photography’s head above the ubiquitous parapet today. Maybe it is when an image is interpreted out of context or used in a way that may not provide an obvious context for the viewer that the image can be seen to fall down. Or is that more to do with the person who sees it reading it in a way that moulds to their viewpoint regardless of whether they bother to understand the actual context?

My inspiration has always come from alternative photographic channels on the whole. I have been intrigued by the discussion on the ICP’s What is a Photograph? exhibition, curated by Carol Squiers and held in 2014. I was surprised to hear such negative criticism of the show, with words such as “irrelevant”, “elitist”and “cartoonishly bad”. These comments all seemed to hold a view that working in alternative, camera-less or historic processes were perhaps a blinkered and backward step. For me that is very far from the truth , and the exhibition itself states: …an unexpected revolution in the medium with the rise of digital technology, which has resulted in imaginative reexaminations of the art of analog photography, the new world of digital images, and the hybrid creations of both systems as they come together.

To ask the work on display in this exhibition to answer the title question was probably a big ask. And maybe adding “to  you” at the end would have resulted in less critical snipes. For me the practices included show a desire to use image-making in the multitude of ways that are open to us. Much like beauty, what is a photograph is in the eye of the beholder.

How my own work will be consumed is thought-provoking. I’m not yet entirely sure. The obvious routes are through exhibition, galleries, books, web, reviews, environmental marketing, advertising etc. There’s the potential to consider creating work that can become household items, with one idea focusing on my work being created using biodegradable foodware – it can be literally consumed.

What I do know is that I am glad of the renewed interest in analogue, alternative and historic techniques – just how we can make this revival sit comfortably with its environmental impact is the more pressing question for me.