Introduction

So, this is it, the big one! This is the assignment that sees us having an exhibition at the end of the second year of this foundation degree in photography.

The assignment (in brief) requires us to create and submit 6-10 “exhibit ready to hang” images that will be exhibited in a location we decide upon (and are able to book…most are booked up).

Along with these exhibit-ready images, we must log our journey in some way. That’s what this blog post is here for; this is my assignment sketchbook.

Here I will chart my process of creating images I hope will be suitable to exhibit. I will post images, annotations, and evaluation of each portion of the process. I will then create a 1,500-word evaluation of the whole project, as per the assignment sheet.

Exhibition Ideas

By the time I got to writing this, I’ve already submitted 2 ideas to Dave and Clair. I’ve subsequently also had a third idea that I need to write-up a proposal for and run past Dave.

So, what are those ideas?

“Mortgage-free”

The first idea I’ve had for this assignment is a documentary piece. It consists of documenting my sister and brother-in-law.

They have recently sold their house in Cosby and moved onto a narrowboat at the North Kilworth marina. Their idea behind this is to help them become mortgage-free and able to retire by the time they get to their 50’s. I believe the idea behind it is that they’ve down-sized massively in living space and expense. They’re no longer paying huge amounts of interest on a mortgage and have bought the narrowboat outright.

This sounds like a great idea on the face of it, and I’m sure the brother-in-law is ok with it (I get the impression it was his idea), but I feel that my sister may struggle after a while. She’s putting a brave face on it for now but, I wonder how long it will last.

For this body of work, I’d like to capture the good and the bad of living on a narrowboat. Yes, it’s cosy and romantic but how long do those feelings last? I imagine they get to see some great sunsets whilst sitting atop their home with the wildlife all around them. I also imagine that when it rains, snows, blows a gale, and generally sucks weather-wise, it’s not much fun being cooped up together in a small space and having to do jobs such as emptying the toilet and lugging big bags of fuel for the wood-burner etc.

For this piece, I’d spend time on the boat with my sister and brother-in-law as they go through the chores and delights of living in such a way.

Although it would be nice to spend more time there and capture them doing the jobs naturally, I’m thinking that I might not have the time to do so. By this, I mean that the deadline for this assignment and other assignments are all coming thick and fast for the remaining months of the course and my brother-in-law works shifts, which means he won’t be as predictably available as I’d like to allow me to fit in the shoots with other assignments needing to be done. It might be a case of having a chat with them about who usually does what and scheduling shoots of the individually before doing shoots of them when they are together and available.

Shots I’d like to get for this are things like: them chilling in front of the long-burner, eating their dinner outside on top of the boat, feeding the ducks off the side of the boat, them enjoying a sunset, emptying the toilet, cooking in a cramped space, having to clean the boat etc. As I mentioned earlier, I’d like to capture the good and bad of living in such a way, in as natural a way as I can. My sister has compiled a list of jobs they have to do so I can plan some shoots from this.

“Getting Through the Day”

The next idea would be to document one or both of my parents. Both are around the age of 70 and rely on prescribed medication.

The idea behind this one would be to document them as they take the different medications with, perhaps, a clock in the image to show the fact that it’s a daily routine that goes on throughout each day (or is the clock too obvious and forced?).

It could be that all the images are very similar but with a different pill bottle or blood pressure/blood sugar reading piece of kit placed in front of them to show what they are doing in that shot as part of their routine. The reason for the shots being similar would be to convey the sense of monotony.

A diptych approach could be used for this piece to enable me to add a little more to it rather than just single images of a person taking a pill or getting a blood pressure reading. The first of each diptych would be an image of the pill bottle or piece of apparatus on the table in front of the subject who’s about to take/use it. The second image would be the person as they took/used it. I’m imagining the first image would be a shallow depth of field to make the pill bottle the focus of the shot and be taken at table level with the person blurred in the background. The second image could have more in focus and be taken from a higher angle of the person taking the pill.

An initial or final image in the sequence could be the person or persons (depending on whether I’d need to use one of both of my parents) sitting at the table with all their medication laid out in front of them. After a conversation with my dad about it, he told me that he currently takes 11 different pills (8 for his diabetes, 1 for cholesterol, and 2 for blood pressure) as well as taking his blood pressure and blood sugar checks. He didn’t know the exact numbers but, he said that my mum takes more than he does (prescribed routine pain-killers, blood pressure, and cholesterol).

He also went on to say that it feels like their social lives consist of nothing more than trips to the doctors and the hospital. A pretty depressing way to be feeling at that time of life.

Over the Christmas break, I spent some time around at my parents’ house and observed them in their own environment.

My mum is quite a large woman now and she struggles to get around. She uses two walking sticks whenever she tries to walk due to arthritis in her hip. I also observed her having to have a rest at the bottom of their stairs (they have a phone table with seat) after she’d descended and sitting whenever she goes into the kitchen to do anything. I mention these things as they might be possible images to include. I’d have to decide exactly what I was going with, though. Would it be the monotony route of the pill-taking or, a general observation of their lives at this point. If it was the latter, I could include the shots of them struggling with day-to-day life as well as following them on a trip(s) to the doctors/hospital.

A barrier I could see with this could be the fact that I might not be allowed to photograph in an environment such as a doctors or hospital.

My biggest concern with this idea is whether or not I’d be able to get the emotion across in my images. These wouldn’t be images created to stop people dead in their tracks with the use of bright colours or big elaborate sets, they’d be natural captures of the lives of a couple struggling with day to day life both physically and emotionally. The emotional side of it comes from the constant physical pain they are now in.

“Friend or Foe”

The text for the two ideas above comes from the proposals I submitted for this assignment. Since submitting those ideas, I’ve had another.

This idea came from a poll I saw that was commissioned by German news agency DPA and asked who people thought was the biggest threat to world peace right now. They had the option of five leaders considered to be globally important; Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Trump topped the poll with a massive 41%, whilst second placed leader, Kim Jong Un, came in with a considerably lower 17%. Even though this is, perhaps, only one nation’s opinion, it did make me stop and think “Oh yeah, true dat”.

Add to that influence the fact that, at this early stage of my journey into photography, I’m enjoying studio photography more than I actually thought I would, this idea might be something of interest to me. I say this as I’ve spent some time trying to get my head around lighting and feel that I’ve created some decent work in the last three assignments; A Sense of…, Artistic Make-up, and Collaborative Production. Even though the Collaborative Production was supposed to be a team assignment, I ended up doing pretty much all of the actual work to get the shots needed after myself and Layla had come up with the concept. In that production, the part I enjoyed the most was creating the studio shots with the lights and gels.

“Friend or Foe” would be an attempt to create several images of people in the studio under studio lights. Each of them would be of (or portraying) different ethnicity and nationality. They would be stood in front of a plain background (probably black), so as to not influence the viewer in any way, dressed in their stereotypical clothes, holding a gun.

The general idea behind this piece would be to challenge the viewer to make their own mind up about who they consider being a friend and who they consider being a foe. Different people of different backgrounds, ethnicity, and nationality would probably view the images differently.

I quite like the idea of exhibiting this piece in Leicester due to the very diverse culture of the city. Hopefully, people of various cultures would come to visit.

My ‘blurb’ would explain the concept behind the exhibition but the beauty of the idea is that I couldn’t influence their opinion of it as that has already been done by their upbringing, their society, where they live, where they work, what social media accounts they follow, what papers they read, what news programmes they watch etc.

What I’m getting at is that, to me, a person dressed in MTP camouflage (a lot of western hemisphere military forces wear it), wielding an M4 assault rifle is a ‘good guy’ but, to someone viewing the exhibition from a middle-eastern background, that person could be considered a ‘bad guy’ due to the seemingly constant incursions into their region of the planet.

I’m thinking I’d have a British military person, U.S. military person, Russian military person, stereotypical middle eastern attired person, an African person, Chinese military person, Korean military person, and maybe even a female in a burkha (or would that be pushing it too far considering she’d be holding a gun?).

This project would require quite a bit of research into different factions around the world who have military capabilities and their beliefs behind why they arm themselves. This would be needed for the ‘blurb’ and to ensure the costumes were as correct as could be.

I currently have a couple of airsoft guns that are realistic looking. One is an M4 and the other is an AK. I’d have to decide on whether to give each person the same gun or research their nations weapon usage the same as I would have to their camouflage usage. This might cost quite a bit but I play airsoft and could either keep the items or sell them on after the project.

I suspect the most difficult bit for me would be the finding of willing models to participate.

I also feel that the ‘blurb’ would have to be clear and concise about stereotypes, influences upon us through the media, upbringing, religion, and the societies will live.

As would be the case with the previous two documentary project ideas, this one wouldn’t be about creating big wow-factor images but would, instead, be about the concept and message through what many might regard as simple portraits.

It could also be said to be a contemporary piece with all the different world leaders flexing their military muscles right now.

1st Shoot + Update

A couple of weeks have now passed and I’ve finally been able to go out on a shoot for one of my ideas. The idea I’ve been thinking I’ll go with is the “Mortgage Free” one. I must say, though, that after the first shoot, I’m not so sure anymore.

The reason for my doubt is simply because the images I came away with were awful. This is down to me not knowing exactly what I wanted from the shoot and struggling with all the differing light inside the narrowboat. If this was a staged shoot the differing light from bright through the windows to dark in the shadows wouldn’t be an issue as I would have plenty of time to set up the shot. But, because this is me trying to capture people in a confined space as they quickly go about their jobs, I thought that shooting in Aperture Priority would be the best way (as I do when shooting sports). I think that, because this was my first time photographing in such an environment and trying to capture things that I hadn’t seen before, I got flustered and forgot to keep an eye on what the camera was doing with regards to exposure.

When I shoot American football, I know what is likely to happen and so can be prepared. This gives me the confidence and skill to keep an eye on my shutter speed and adjust on the fly via my ISO. But, because I wasn’t comfortable on the narrowboat shoot, I was too concerned with not missing a shot but came away with lots of blurred images due to the camera compensating for the light by reducing the shutter speed too much. I’ve now learnt that I’d rather have noise in a shot from the ISO being higher than not having the shot at all.

After initially looking at my reccy shoot images, I didn’t think there was a single one of the 270+ that had any kind of potential. After filing them away for a few days before going back for another look over them, I’m now thinking some may actually have that potential if put in amongst the images from the new train of thought for this assignment going forward.

Further Research

After this shoot, I decided to do away with this narrowboat idea and go down an architectural fine art route instead (not as random as it sounds as it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while) because of how bad I initially found my images and how boring I found them.

After an email chat with Dave, I decided to do a bit more research in the hope that I could find inspiration and motivation to carry on with this “Mortgage Free” idea. That inspiration came in the form of a photographer I discovered during the summer break called Matthew Lloyd.

Matthew Lloyd describes himself as an advertising, corporate and editorial photographer and I find his work to be brilliant. It’s his work he has in the Reportage section of his website, particularly “The Glorious Twelfth“, that I’d like to somehow recreate for this project of mine.

The images below are from Matthew Lloyd’s “The Glorious Twelfth” project:

I like the fact that he’s picked an activity that a certain group of (wealthy) people do and has gone out with them for the day and just documented their activities. This is exactly what I’m trying to do with “Mortgage Free”.

I like the way these images are taken and edited. I get the impression Lloyd likes the use of a fast lens to get that shallow depth of field I find to be in the vast majority of his work. He would also appear to like the vignetting his lens creates, or he likes to add it in post-production. I’m only assuming he uses digital but he somehow gets a feeling of colour film into his images and it’s this that I’d like to recreate as it’s a style I very much like. I seem to be moving away, finally, from the notion that all images have to be as sharp and colourful as they can possibly be and am starting to, again, finally come to think “sod it” I like this style. As I’ve said before, this is because I’m very new to photography and have probably taken on this course too early in my evolution as a photographer. It’s taken me into the second year before I’ve come to this realisation.

Another of his projects I like the style of and would like to try and recreate for my project is his work for the Coca Cola Company project. 

Although the images above are for a job he did for the Coca Cola Company and the grouse shoot images are classed as a reportage project, they are both in the same style and can be seen to be work by the same artist. This is what I am trying to achieve and I’ll try to use Lloyd’s work as an influence on the kind of images I’ll create for my “Mortgage Free” project.

Another Inspirational Artist

Another artist I find inspiring after being introduced to his work through this course is Chris Coekin. It’s the work done on the series he titled “Knock Three Times” that I particularly like, and it’s this style of documentary/portraiture I would like to have achieved in my “Mortgage-Free” piece.

Although I wasn’t happy with the results from my first shoot (reccy) for “Mortgage-Free”, I did learn from it. I learnt that I would get some better results if I took my time and instead of snapping away trying to capture my subjects as they fly around doing what they do, I’d watch and learn then, perhaps, ask them to recreate what they just did.

The idea would be to have a photobook created of the images with a copy (or two) of it on a table in front of a select few images from it and a printed introduction to what the viewer is seeing on the gallery wall. This is what Coekin did for his “Stop Look Listen” exhibition at The Gallery, De Montfort University, in 2019.

With “Knock Three Times”, Coekin was using his documentary photographic style to document the working classes and their relationship with working men’s clubs. The series of work, in my opinion, is a combination of documentary, portraiture, and even a bit of still-life. This is the route, I learnt from my first test shoot for “Mortgage-Free”, that I was naturally starting to go down. Most of my images were an attempt to document the goings-on of a normal Saturday morning when the chores needed to be done but, I also found myself wandering around (as much as you can on a narrowboat) looking for clues in the form of objects that might enlighten the viewer as to who these people who live on a narrowboat are. Whether it was a pair of slippers, a mug of tea, or a sign on the wall, I found myself naturally wanting to add these to the piece.

Some of my favourite images from Coekin’s “Knock Three Times” book which was first published in 2006 by Dewi Lewis Publishing are:

Now that I look back over Coekin’s work, I’m realising that “Knock Three Times” has been more influential for me than I realised. His work is all about documenting people as they go about their daily lives and is done in a way that shows a sense of community, friendship, fun, and seemingly being content with life.

 My Mortgage-Free Project

For my piece, the narrowboat my sister and brother-in-law live on is in a new marina in North Kilworth, Leicestershire. As well as people living the same way of life and being neighbours, they also have a community centre on-site where they hold Ladies Evenings, bingo nights, and quiz evenings. After coming to the conclusion that the idea of just documenting my sister and brother-in-law wasn’t going to be interesting enough for me to shoot or the viewer to view, and after having a tutorial session post-reccy shoot, I decided I would reach out to the other boat owners as well as the owner of the marina. My intention is to capture as many images as possible of as many different boats and boat owners. These would be portraits and documentary-style to try and show the kinds of different people who have chosen to live on a boat.

I also plan to attend a number of the social evenings at the community centre in order to capture the community feel of the place in those evenings. As I’ve said, I do really like the Coekin images from the working men’s club and would love to create a body of work along those lines. I’d even consider shooting on film if I had enough time. I think, due to the time constraints of the assignment deadline and the way things have been going, I’d shoot on digital first to make sure I had something. I’d then do a couple of edits of the images, one as ‘normal’ and one trying to make it look like it was done on film.

Another aspect of the marina is the maintenance area. Because it’s a new marina, the workshops are quite large, modern, and well presented. Another discussion I’d have with the marina owner is about me getting into these workshops to photograph the mechanics as they work on servicing and/or painting the boats during their annual checkups. I feel some nice environmental portraits could be got from here.

 As I’d be walking around the marina, I’d look to get images of objects that would add to the project. Things like signs, ornaments, and wildlife that could add to the story I’m telling about the living on a narrow boat way of life. These would also serve to add variety to the work so that it’s not just images of people.

On this course so far, I’ve been obsessed with trying to get things technically correct as I’ve been having to teach myself the technical aspects of a camera and how to use it seeing as I’ve not been using one for very long. I do honestly feel that this has held me back when it comes to thinking creatively as I obsess about the technical side of images. Now though, as I look at more work in this documentary style, I’m beginning to realise that, yes, getting images as technically perfect as possible can help, it’s more about the subject and what’s going on in an image that counts. I think Coekin manages that brilliantly in his work and is what I’d like to achieve in my piece.

Just as an aside, there’s one more artist I’d like to name-drop as being an influence on me and this “Mortgage-Free” project; Deidre O’Callaghan and her “Hide That Can” project. I researched her and this photobook project of hers during the summer break between years one and two of this course. I love the images in that book and I discuss it in this post here. Again, this is a project that, in my mind, is comprised of both portraits and documentary images.

Next Step

After losing three weeks of potential shooting time for this project due to my mum, unfortunately, having a stroke and me looking after my dad and visiting as much as possible, it’s now time to get a riggle on and try to get access to the marina social evenings and inhabitants.

I’d had a word with my sister, before my mum’s stroke, who said she’ll send a message out to the marina’s WhatsApp group to see who’d be interested in letting me photograph them and their homes. This didn’t happen before the stroke and I’m not sure it has been done still. My sister is studying for a degree via distance learning and has been on a residential for a week so that’s another week lost.

At my tutorial, it was suggested that I might try going to the marina and introducing myself without the assistance of my sister and, with the difficulty I’m having getting us all on the same page, this is the plan of action I intended to take; find out when the marina entrance gate is open, head there, walk around with my camera and introduce myself as a photography student who has a sister living on the marina before explaining what I was doing and asking if they’d be willing to help/be involved. I left it a week-or-so before doing this as I wanted to give my sister the chance to send out the WhatsApp message as we’d originally planned. This proved to be a mistake as she didn’t get round to doing so and now the COVID-19 pandemic is upon us!

COVID-19 has put a stop to my project as there’s no way I can go onto people’s small homes to photograph them, and the social evenings are now cancelled for the foreseeable future. Basically, this project is a no-go for quite a long time if the pandemic forecasts are correct.

One More Idea

I did have an idea for a documentary/portraiture project I might have been able to squeeze in just before the pandemic ‘lockdown’ kicked-in but, Boris put paid to that idea by one day.

On the Sunday of the weekend when this lockdown was coming into force, I’d arranged for me to take my camera to my local airsoft site to photograph the players there.

Airsoft is a hobby (or sport if you take it, and yourself, a bit too seriously) where you run around a wooded area or abandoned building shooting each other with 6mm BB’s. The best way to describe it is; it’s like paintball only better.

Now, these people love to get dressed up in their camouflage or cosplay outfits and love to see themselves like that. Because of this, it’s a niche I’ve decided to target as a means of income through my photography. I’m in the process of setting up a website through which I can sell my images and blog about the hobby (with affiliate links) and am in need of images for it. I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by attending the Sunday session at Skirmish Lutterworth but, as I said, Boris shut everything down the day before and the gameday was cancelled.

This has now left me in isolation with my family and doing what I can for my dad as he’s home alone with my mum still being in the hospital with no visitors allowed.

Where to go from here?

In a nutshell, I have no idea.

Considering we’re currently only allowed out for essential supplies and to make essential visits to the vulnerable (keeping in mind social distancing), any documentary and portraiture work is not going to happen for quite a while, well, not to get enough images for a decent exhibition, anyway.

The Final Stretch

After all the woes of ill parents, caring for parents and the threat of COVID-19, I’ve finally reached the end of this most difficult of assignments and have managed to create a photobook from the one photoshoot I managed to get done before lockdown. Due to the encouragement and guidance of the tutors, I’ve stuck to and completed the Mortgage-Free project. It’s not as I wanted it to be due to the restrictions we’ve been under (and still are at the time of writing this) but it will have to do for now. I intend to continue with the project at some stage in the future as I feel it has potential. I feel I can do much better with access to the community on a wider scale where I will be able to show the community of the marina in much more detail. From the boats to the people that live on them, to the community events and the people who work onsite, there’s much more detail to be shown through my images. Even a trip or two out on a boat with some of the residence could be documented and added.

The book features 27 images with accompanying text to give it more depth. Not every image has text with it but I think it works as it is. 

As can be seen from the slides above, the book is solely about one couple as they go about their weekly chores of cleaning and maintaining their home. This works and, after time away from my images, I now feel there are some nice shots in there. Add them all together and it makes for a decent book and phase 1 of this project. I also ended up using a handful of the images as part of my portfolio assignment seeing as they fit the theme of it with it being along the environmental portraiture lines.

Even though I won’t be able to hand it in due to COVID-19, I’ve created the book through the Bob Books software and order a print of it at a cost of just over £25. If nothing else, it will serve as a reminder to me that it’s a project I need to finish in the way I have it visualised in my head.

After having a wobble at the start of the lockdown period where I was ready to throw this whole idea in the bin, I’m now ok with how it’s worked out. The idea was to have the more evolved version that I have in my head done as a photobook which I would have had printed and placed on a table at the exhibition we were supposed to have held were it not for the pandemic. I would have then picked some of my favourite images from it and printed them out at A3 size or larger. These would then have gone on the wall behind the table in my exhibition space. There was also going to be a sheet of text introducing the work on the wall to the left of the A3 images. This would have explained the subjects and their way of living as well as why I wanted to do the piece. I do feel that the virus has robbed us of a great opportunity to display our work after we’d put things in place to host the exhibition but, safety and wellbeing comes first.