Assignment One: A Portrait Rework

Take one person as a subject and create between five and seven different portraits.  They should differ in type and style and each be from a separate photographic session.

When finished makes notes on:

  • Critically assess your finished work.  Consider each portrait individually.
  • Identify what has worked well and what has worked less successfully and analyse the reasons for this.
  • Consider where you need to strengthen your own skills and understanding and explain how you hope to achieve this.

Although the brief says to take one subject and make several images in different locations using different styles, I chose to ignore the ‘one subject’ directive and make several portraits in different locations using different subjects and styles.  I don’t see the point in having multiple portraits of the same subject because there wouldn’t really be any narrative to that, whereas using different subjects and tying them to a theme gives the required portraits and styles with narrative and more interest.  The theme is of my neighbours in the supported living accommodation flats we live in.  Almost everyone who lives here has some form of medical support need, and those of us who are fit and able try to help them lead as normal a life as possible.  The images are captioned with a short synopsis of the person they portray and the images try to include an impression of their individual living arrangements.


My tutor suggested that I look at several photographers:

  • Richard Billingham
  • Boris Mikhailov
  • Larry Sultan
  • Nan Golding

and in the process 

What I want you to consider when you are researching these photographers is the issue of exploitation and vulnerability and where you feel you stand on it in your own community and as a photographer.  This is very important ethically and for you to be aware of the work you are making and to be proud of the work you end up with and to be able to defend it should you need to. 

You also need to ask yourself what you want the viewer to feel or take away as a result of seeing this work.  You could show you photographs to as many people as you can and get their opinion.  From my point of view when I look at these portraits I feel a real sense of compassion.  Now you may not want me to ‘feel sorry for these people’ and if so you might want to reconsider your approach to make them appear stronger.  However as a photography project I think it works very well by showing their vulnerability.  You have to be sure it sits well with you and that you can be open about your intentions with them and be happy that they are ok with these images.  Have you shown them to them?  What do they think?

There’s two extremely important issues here; exploitation and ethics.

Making the images to me isn’t exploitative in itself as I always show the subject the result and make a copy for them.  It could become exploitative as I advance, particularly using what I consider hard-hitting captions with them and turning this work into something that may go further than just my BA.

I definitely believe that I live amongst and am part of and under-class that is a ‘category’ that falls between the cracks when it comes to public awareness.  If you’re poor and can’t get work, have a large family and receive benefits or you’re a single parent, then your ‘category’ is always being discussed and highlighted.   If you’re older, have medical issues, mobility issues and income issues, then in general you’re overlooked by government and society at large because you’re no longer strong enough to be vocal on your own behalf and therefore not seen as a priority.

I want to take this issue and make something very public out of it without exploiting the subjects.  This is where ethics get involved.

If I was to show the subjects the captions I’ve written I feel that they may be hurt having personal details presented to the world at large, that’s why I didn’t post this assignment to Facebook as I do everything else.  At the same time the captions have to be hard-hitting to make the viewer aware of the situations, and whilst they’re currently only for my BA I don’t see that being a problem for the subjects, but if I get it to a wider audience I’ll need to ensure that it’s done ethically.

You ask if I was looking to make the viewer ‘feel sorry for these people’, YES and YES again if that’s what it takes to improve the lot of everyone trapped in this ‘category’.

Comparing my efforts to those of the artists mentioned by my tutor I found this to be difficult because although Richard Billingham’s work ‘Rays a Laugh’ is definitely pointed at a vulnerable group of people, their relationship to Richard is family, and so therefore he can definitely take more liberties with them than say I could as a stranger, and exploitation by him isn’t unexpected.  Similarly, although Nan Golding used her friends and acquaintances in the alternative lifestyle grouping as her subjects, originally her work may not have been seen as exploitative as it was originally shown in their meeting places to the group who allowed her to make images of them.  Latterly this wasn’t as much of problem as many of those depicted had already died from over indulgence in their way of living.

I wasn’t able to see a close relationship of Mikhailov to Golding and Billingham, although his images are depicting and exploiting the bodily shapes, or misshapes, of his subjects or their desperate situation, and my personal appreciation and understanding of his work is that it’s not something I like particularly and as such comparisons are always going to be clouded.

Larry Sultan I think became very famous for his ‘Pictures of Home’, depicting the strained relationship between his mother and father and their lifestyle.  I know that he went on to document a study of pornographic film making in ‘The Valley’, but what I can’t discover if this was a real set of situations or whether they were contrived by him especially for the book.  Again, here’s a man who’s exploiting a group of people who have been sucked into the seemier side of life and normally can’t escape until such time as their putative employers have no longer any use for them.

The real question that comes to me from all this research is that I cannot find any evidence that the artists listed were making their works to specifically highlight the exploitation and/or misery they were recording, it would appear to me that of all of them Nan Golding was the least culpable as she suffered herself within her world, whereas the others didn’t.  Although Billingham had suffered from the alcohol problems of his father and his mothers apparent indifference, by the time he was making this work he’d left home and so it could be argued that he was making this work as a way of getting through his problem with his family situation.

So is my work any different?  Of course I’m bound to yes, but I do believe I can point out why.  The most obvious reason is, I’m living in my subjects world and suffering from the indifference that is the lot of older people who’re reliant on the state and local authorities for much of their living.  The second thing is, I want my images to make a difference to our situation.  I don’t see how they can immediately but I would like to think that my subject matter and my images are strong enough to continue in this vein and eventually find an outlet to the wider world for others to be made aware of our plight.  So am I exploiting my neighbours?  Only inasmuch as their images are helping me at this very moment toward by BA, but if eventually they make it into widespread publication at a later date, then no I’m not.  Having said that, I’ve already had one of the images published in Big Issue of the North.  ‘Jono’ appeared in their magazine on 21st March 2013, so a good beginning.


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