The second of the two competitions we’re tasked with entering this year is the AOP Student Awards. This has been open since October 2019 but we still have plenty of time as our assignment deadline is April 27th 2020, a day before the competition deadline. This should work as the entries to the competition are done digitally.

Since the start of this course, I’ve had a desire to do a piece documenting the apparent addiction to smartphones that people have these days. When this assignment was given to us I thought this was my opportunity. After thinking about it for a day or two, though, I decided that the series of 3-4 images allowed wouldn’t be enough to get across what I wanted to with this project. Because of this, I’ve decided to swap things around a bit.

I now plan to do the smartphone thing for the Negotiated Studies Practical exhibition and the narrowboat project I’ve titled “Mortgage Free” for this. My reasoning is that my sister and brother-in-law don’t yet take their narrowboat out and, instead, just live on it moored up. With this being the case, I just don’t see that project having the legs to run to an exhibition of 10 images but, it could work quite nicely as a little series of up to four images for the AOP Student Awards in the “People” category. The series would be about a couple who’ve found a way of alternate living.

Coronavirus Stops Play

Well, because I’d put this assignment onto the backburner somewhat, I didn’t get time to shoot the images I intended to. With Coronavirus affecting most of the civilised world and forcing us to live our lives differently for some months (at the time of writing this, I have no idea how long that is for), I’ve had to think about other possibilities for this.

After pondering for a while I’ve decided to stick with the portraiture route for now. Because we have to submit two images or two series of images, I’m going with the following.

“2020 Shopping”

This idea will be one that I feel is contemporary seeing as 2020 is, basically, being shut down and will be remembered for COVID-19.

I intend to go to the shops with my wife and capture her stood in the queue to get in the shop and then again on her way out once the shopping has been done. I will then create a diptych of the two images.

The queueing image will have more meaning than it just being a queue of people as they will be stood 2+ metres apart. This will be a clue to future generations as to when the image was taken. I hope to have people in the queue with trolleys so that the viewer can tell where the queue is taking place. If they don’t have trolleys, I’ll have to either hope that they have shopping bags with them (now that we’re all supposed to be eco-friendly, they should have some) or I’ll have to position myself to get the shop and its logo in the background.

“I Like to Shoot Stuff”

This is still a portraiture idea but it will be done at home, either in my back garden or inside using speedlights. This idea will be a couple of self-portraits that I could do as a diptych or double exposure, either in-camera or Photoshop.

The idea comes from the fact that I like to take photographs (although I feel this ‘like’ is waning right now) so I’ll take a shot of my sitting somewhere whilst holding my backup camera. This should show that I like to “shoot” images.

At the weekends I like to get a bit geeky and indulge in my hobby of airsoft. This is where I run around woods or old abandoned buildings shooting people with mm plastic BB’s. Basically, it’s a very advanced version of playing army when I was a kid. I’ll get kitted out in some of the gear I wear whilst being a geek and sit in the same location as I did for the previous camera shot. If it’s going to be a diptych, I’ll just put them next to each other but, if it’s going to be a multiple exposure, I’ll do the work in Photoshop. I see myself more as a photographer than graphics person so will probably go with the diptych idea as this will match the fact that the “2020 Shopping” idea will also be a diptych.

Slight Twist

When I got to thinking about this assignment a little more seriously, I decided that I still liked the idea of the “2020 Shopping” but not along with the “I Like to Shoot Stuff”. Instead, what I intend to do is, still photograph my subject at the supermarket but, instead of doing two shots, I’ll try to combine the queueing and the subject carrying the bags whilst wearing a facemask and rubber gloves into one image. To do this, I’ll have my subject walking down the car park with the supermarket in the background. With the shot composed like this, I should be able to get the supermarket sign and the other people queueing in the background. I’m thinking to call this “Shopping for the Family 2020”.

The next shot came to me on the news that my mum has finally made it home after being in hospital following a stroke she had some 2 months previous. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we’ve not been able to visit the hospital and so she’s been on her own for 3-4 weeks without being able to see the family. Yes, we’ve been able to talk on the phone but, that’s just not the same.

Because of this, I’ve been thinking about how we could go round to their house for a visit but still maintain the social distancing rules we’re all now under. I’ve been helping my dad get the dining room area of their house ready for when mum came home. The dining table and sideboard needed moving to make space for her bed as she’s not as mobile as she once was now that the stroke has affected her right-hand side, meaning she can’t make it up and down stairs at the moment.

What I’m thinking of doing is going for a visit with my wife and daughters but we all take our camping chairs and sit outside in the garden by the french door that leads into the dining room where her bed is. I’d like to get a shot of this, making sure to get mum and my wife and kids in the shot along with the camping chairs and a flask of tea we’ll take round with us so as to not risk contaminating any of their stuff.

This idea came to me as I’ve been thinking about how we can visit without breaking the rules but it is also thanks to a Larry Sultan image that I feel it may work as a piece of work for this assignment and, maybe, the AOP competition.

Larry Sultan, Conversation Through Kitchen Window, 1986

The image above is by Larry Sultan and is titled “Conversation Through Kitchen Window” from 1986 when he was working on the project he called “Pictures From Home”.

I initially looked at Sultan’s work during the research phase of the ‘Exhibition’ assignment and this is one of the many images that stuck in my mind. If it wasn’t for the Coronavirus meaning we have to do the social distancing thing, there may even be a project of photographing my parents now that their lives have changed so dramatically due to my mum’s stroke.

The image I’m proposing to do (use visiting my mum and sitting outside the french door) will be titled something like “Visiting the Family 2020”. I think this works quite well with the “Shopping for the Family 2020” title of the other piece I propose to do.

Visiting Grandma 2020

I finally got round to shooting my first image a week before assignment deadline (not ideal) and decided to do the “Visiting Grandma 2020” idea first now that she’s finally made it out of hospital after her stroke.

Her home situation now is that she can’t make it up and down the stairs due to a combination of the effects of the stroke on her righthand-side and arthritis she suffers with in her right hip. Because of this, she’s been supplied with a bed, walking frame, and commode, that are all set up in what was the dining room. 

The stroke she suffered and the fact that we’re all currently all in “lockdown” made me think that I’d like to capture both situations in one image. Because of the social distancing rules, I decided to capture it in an image that, hopefully, shows us protecting the vulnerable whilst fulfilling her wishes of wanting to see us after being on lockdown in a hospital ward for three weeks with no visitors.

I’m quite happy with how the image turned out as it’s what I had envisioned beforehand. Some would say it’s a boring shot but, personally, I think it says a lot about the situation we’re in right now with COVID-19 and the lockdown rules. I feel this is a contemporary image that could be aged in the future as being from 2020. One of these images (probably the middle one) will be submitted for the assignment and, maybe, the AOP competition. It depends on how the next image, “Visiting the Shops 2020” turns out.

If I were to criticise this image (which I always do with any and all of what I create), it would be the fact that I didn’t get the aperture correct for it. I shot some at f4 and others at f7.1. I’d assumed the f7.1 would work but it hasn’t. I say this as, when I was thinking about the shot, I was thinking that grandma would be in focus and it wouldn’t matter if the visiting family were slightly out of focus. When I looked at the images on the sharp, small screen, they looked ok. Now that I’ve looked at them on a larger screen, though, the soft, out of focus look is annoying me. The problem I have is that I don’t want to go back around and try the shot again as it put my mum through more discomfort than I’m happy with for her to get from the living room chair to her bed due to the struggles she’s having from the stroke and arthritis. Because of this, it’s going to be a lesson learnt for me about apertures and my workflow with regards to getting multiple shots of the same scene.

Final Submissions

Right, as is very often the way with me and these competition assignments, what I end up submitting is very different from what I started off intending to. I am now going to submit a couple of images relating to the current pandemic we are living through. This has happened as I started off thinking I’d take images of myself in my airsoft kit brandishing my realistic firearms. This has now evolved into a couple of single images.

The AOP competition guidelines state that we can either submit individual images or a series of 3-4 images. I was going to add two more images to the ones I’m submitting and make a series out of them. After reviewing them, though, I only like a couple of them.

As I’m sure many many submissions will be this year, I’m submitting a couple of images that are of some personal observations I’ve made during this COVID-19 crisis.

Image 1

"Visiting Grandma, 2020" by Paul Sutcliffe (2020)

The “Visiting Grandma, 2020” image is explained above and is one of the two I’ll submit. I think it’s quite appropriate and gives a message about the social distancing rules we had to abide by at the time in history, especially when it came to keeping the more vulnerable safe. This image, to me, is about the mental state too. I say this as my mum had been in the hospital for so long under lockdown and couldn’t have visitors at a time when she most needed them. This is why we went round even though we perhaps shouldn’t of. I feel the expression on her face shows that she’s still not really got over the ordeal of the stroke and still feels disconnected. Maybe this facial expression and image as a whole says more to me than it does to anyone else seeing as I knew her from before. The walking frame, commode, and bed downstairs are all massive changes to her life that she’s still not comfortable with.

Image 2

"Visiting the Shops, 2020" by Paul Sutcliffe (2020)

"Visiting the Shops, 2020" by Paul Sutcliffe (2020)

For “Visiting the Shops, 2020” I have two versions that I’m struggling to choose between. I think the first one is generally a nicer looking image but, the second one could be said to have more story to it?

Although the first image has the people queueing in the background and clearly showing the 2+ metre gap, I think the second image shows this much more clearly. Also, the white rubber-gloved hand can be seen in the second image, as can the high-vis wearing supermarket employee showing that it’s an enforced queue people are having to use.

Although there is no large ‘Sainsbury’s’ sign (the one on the front of the building) in the second shot after I cropped it, there are still more than enough clues to show where this is taking place with other signs and trolleys.

I think the posture of the people in the queue in the second image tells the viewer better that it’s a static one.

I think I’ll be submitting the second version.

Contact Sheet

Perhaps a bit disjointed but I thought I’d add in the contact sheets for the images I took for this assignment.

Click any of the images above for a larger version.

I was going to do a series of 5 images in total but then read the AOP rules again and saw that a maximum of 4 was aloud. Not that this really mattered as I looked at two of the images and didn’t really like them or think they fitted with the other two I’d done.

I went with the Grandma and Shopping images as I feel they are of the same type of image but the sitting around the table (titled “Isolation Workstation”) and the toilet roll/pasta (which was going to be titled “Apparent Lockdown Essentials”) images didn’t work as part of the set. I was also going to do an image of an over-the-shoulder shot of a Microsoft Teams meeting and call it something like “Team Meetings, 2020”, but I thought that would be more along the lines of the sitting around table shot that I didn’t really like.

Evaluation

Just to clear up any confusion from my constant changing of ideas, the images below are the two I ended up submitting to the AOP competition and am submitting as my two for this assignment.

Although they aren’t the lowkey lit studio images I was originally planning on of me or someone else wearing military clothing and wielding a realistic-looking airsoft gun, I think these two images are contemporary enough to work. They aren’t any kind of ‘wow factor’, bright and colourful, setup images that stop you in your tracks due to how amazing they look but, they have, in my opinion, enough clues within them for future generations to be able to date them as being from the time of the great Coronavirus pandemic of 2020.

I’m not sure what category they go in, whether it’s street photography or, perhaps, photojournalism, or documentary but, they are what they are.

I think the reason I liked these two shots and didn’t like the others I took is that I had these shots envisioned in my mind right from the start. I’d like to try the other images again to see if I could do them better (the Isolation Workstation and Team Meetings 2020) as well as get out more to document other aspects of this historic time. My 7-year-old daughter has been out playing with her friend on the street but they’ve been staying on opposite sides of the road. I think this could be an image with a title to match the rest of the series. Also, we’re lucky enough to live out in the countryside and get to walk along public footpaths through farmland. I intend to get an image of my family whilst out on a walk in the wide-open countryside and title it “Isolation is What You Make it”.

I think that if the pandemic hadn’t kicked in and messed everything up, I would have been submitting a set of images that were more polished from a studio shoot (which would have been better for my portfolio) but, as things are, that wasn’t possible due to lockdown so this is what I’ve got and, to be honest, I quite like what I’ve got from a more documentary point of view.