Assignment 2 : People and Activity

Assignment 2 : People and Activity

Review of progress since Assignment 1

It feels as if quite a lot has happened but I’ve progressed very slowly.  I completed Assignment 1 back in June but then got stuck.  Looking back now, it was partly because I had this block about photographing people (particularly for ‘portraits’) and I think that also I was still hanging on psychologically to AOP.

Things began to come together in July thank goodness – see my blog post about it here.  Three events happened – I got my results from AOP, which were excellent and I was named ‘blog of the week’ in WeAreOCA after I wrote about my reactions to the ‘Out of Control” Exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery.  My tutor also clarified his feedback comments on assignment 1 in a comprehensive email that was so helpful and supportive.  Additionally I decided to do some more work on fairytales as a follow-up to my AOP work and set up a thread on the OCA student site asking for volunteers to read a fairy tale and complete a brief questionnaire.  I’ve had several responses and will analyse results at the end of September

What happened from there was that I became more deeply interested in photography as art and started to read quite avidly. This was good, but it meant that actually taking photographs took a bit of a back seat.  I had completed all the exercises and also gathered images for Assignment 2 but then there was preparation for the OCA Student Residential Weekend in Leeds at the beginning of September.  We were asked to take a set of prints connected with a current project, either personal or OCA, for the Portfolio Review group.  I’ve had a personal project on the back burner for a year because there seemed too many potential themes emerging for me to get focussed, so I decided that it would be good to use work I’d done for the portfolio review.  The weekend was both enjoyable and stimulating and I have already written a brief post earlier on aspects which struck me (fuller notes are in my paper log).

With a clearer head I’ve been able to focus on getting Assignment 2 together.  In the previous post I laid out the first possibility but have decided to go for some later work in the hope that this will show some development in technique and also confidence.  A major difference is that, this time, I interacted much more with my subjects. The assignment brief doesn’t ask for that but I knew that this would help my confidence level.

A reminder of the Assignment brief

I have to do this over again because I do keep losing the essence of it.

Produce a set of approximately 10 final, selected images (the same person or small group at different kinds of activity, or different people at the same single activity or event. Concentrate on two aspects : telling moments and ‘explaining; the activity (which means choosing viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible).

Garden Safari

For the past ten years the village has held an annual Garden Safari over a weekend in June.  Local residents open their gardens to the public – all shapes and sizes and plantings.  Cream teas are offered by some and plants are often for sale.  Entry is gained through the £5 purchase of a leaflet which informs you of names and addresses of the gardens concerned; type of garden and on which day they will be open.  The money raised goes towards the Village Hall refurbishment fund.

Last year I visited several for the first time and was particularly fascinated by the local allotments and a local garden maintained by a retired landscape gardener and his wife (I’ve changed any names mentioned).  I decided to visit again this year to see how everything had fared in the poor weather we had experienced so far. I also wanted to see if I could improve upon the images I took when I visited Wirksworth in terms of framing and composition. I will be sending my tutor contact sheets (5×5) containing all the images I took, together with the ones processed so that he can see my choices and any processing decisions I made, including cropping etc.

The photographs were taken on two separate days at two allotments and one garden. One allotment had only just opened and is the first new one for more than 25 years, the other one has been in existence since 1917 . It was another weekend of sun and clouds that created difficulties with working out exposures, particularly when clouds were moving fairly quickly. I generally seem to be attracted towards greenery which, of course, affects white balance. I made my initial selection from 137 photographs taken over the weekend.

On looking at the full contact sheet I realise how my attention was veering between wanting to capture the essence of the gardens and allotments and the people working them. I also noticed that, unlike at Wirksworth, I wasn’t taking many head and shoulder type close-ups. Understandable I suppose when gardening usually involves the whole body.  Unless you’re planting out pots of course.

I chose 27 as an initial selection:


Four of them (6126, 6127, 6141, 6142) were of the allotments but not people, although there are traces of people there.  I’d originally included them because they showed context. 6138 was the strawberries held by the lady in 6139 – they showed one of the outcomes but nothing of the activity itself..  6139 had been taken at my camera’s widest focal length (15mm) and I decided it was too distorted.  6140 was at too far a distance I decided, especially as it was a back view. I chose 6161 against 6160 as one can see more of the activity involved.  I thought the one of the couple with the rhubarb (6189) was good for context but it looked too sun-dappled.  There were three of Mr and Mrs Vincent and I decided that 6229 was the best framing/angle.

This left me with 14:


I then excluded four more.  I’d thought the posture  in 6151 was quite quirky. It appealed to my sense of humour but it isn’t really obvious what the activity is. Similarly with 6161, the gentleman (a new allotment grower) was using an azada on the very overgrown plot he’d just rented. I’ve never heard of an azada but he said it was very easy to use and easier on one’s back. I initially thought of including 6158 but, when I printed it out the sky bled into the white of the paper. I darkened it but decided that there was also too much shadow in his face. I was really torn between 6241 and 6242 – the young man roofing the new shed.  I reluctantly decided to exclude 6241 because in 6242 he was actually engaged in the task as opposed to looking at me but changed my mind later (see below). In 6239 the gardener is concentrating on planting so the emphasis is on the action as opposed to his person. I decided that 6240 was the better image because you can see more of his face and there’s also more energy about it.

Final selection

The order I have chosen is not the order in which I took the photographs.  One thing I noticed about the new allotment is that the gardeners seemed to be younger so I’m presenting the photographs as a time metaphor in a sense – younger people on new allotments getting to grips with creating the space and planting; more experienced gardeners reaping the fruits of their labours and a very experienced gardener, wise in years, contemplating his efforts.

1) [6244]

The allotments had been open for 6 weeks and there was a lot of preparatory work being done, including building tool sheds.  There were a lot of new sheds which I’d thought would be included in the rent,  but I was told they had to be paid for. I could have zoomed in closer but I wanted to include more of the context to gain that sense of newness.  Also, zooming in would have meant a longer focal length which would have excluded part of the group.

2) [6241]

I’d asked if it would be okay to photograph him so he posed.  It’s f/8 @ 42mm. I think I should have used f/5 or so which would have given a faster speed andmade it sharper. He’s less sharp than the shed and I should also have use spot focus) . I’d kept my camera on multi-focus. Having written that I could, of course, have focused on him, half-pressed the shutter button and then re-focused. I was too aware of stopping him for carrying on with his task. This was a substitute for another image I’d originally chosen. I think it works better.

3) [6242]

I waited a moment until he was ‘unaware’. I cropped this just to show the roof and to get a diagonal.


4) [6240]

We had a talk afterwards about the allotment. He has a garden at home but wants to grow vegetables on the allotment. The soil looks quite clayey and he told me that the weeds soon take over. Slightly cropped to draw more attention to the hoeing.

Nos 2, 3, and 4 are all photographs of the people you can see in No. 1. From there I moved further around the allotment.

5) [6254]

More small group effort. I wasn’t going to include this at first as there is slight blowing-out on the top of the man’s shirt on the right so that some of the pattern is lost.  It’s showing partnership though which I think is important in building something new.

6) [6255]

Hard work laying out a bed.  Should I have taken a closer shot just to show the effort? I keep wanting to show the context but am I overdoing that?

The next images in the series were taken at the older allotment.

7) [6135]

They were just about to leave so we had some banter backwards and forwards and then the cat moved in just at the right time. I took this for the geometry.

8) [6125]

This gentleman told me he’d had an allotment for  7 years, four of them here. He was also opening his home garden on the following day. We had a conversation about deep bed systems which keep away the pests.

9) [6156

This is Jennifer who has an allotment with her husband Paul.  They had to wait 6 years to get it and have been here for a year. They were just waiting on their first beetroot crop. I took this photograph just as she was standing up from some weeding. It works for me because it shows her in an environment she’s enjoying and her face and stance appeal to me. It was taken at f/11 which wasn’t necessary, but I’d not changed it after photographing a row of sheds. A wider aperture would have provided a faster speed but it does look quite sharp to me. Thinking about this now, maybe it’s better to have the camera on TV setting rather than manual and let the aperture take care of itself.

The final image is of Mr and Mrs Vincent.

10) [6229)

This photograph is of a moment of contemplation and quiet concern on Mr Vincent’s part because the poor weather meant that there were less flowers to show. The Vincents have been in the Garden Safari Scheme from the start , but are thinking of stopping now because of the work involved at their age.  Their garden is quirky with pixies, fairies, gnomes and all kinds of small statues. This year they’ve also installed some hens so I went to say hello to them.



I’m not sure that the quality of the images is better compared with the earlier ones from Wirksworth but I can feel more confidence there in that I was interacting more when appropriate. There’s something about allotments that I love – all the greenery around and the evidence of so much work and dedication to the soil and growing things.

I think these photographs speak for themselves but I’m aware of how much I keep wanting to add some narrative – not necessarily because it’s required but because I want to tell some of the story of what I see. The other more technical aspect I need to consider is my inclination to show the context and not being able to decide how much is enough.


12th September 2012


Exploring a possibility for Assignment 2

Exploring a possibility for Assignment 2 : People and activity

Initial selection

Brief: To plan and execute a set of images of people. Depicting the same person in different forms of activity or different people at the same single activity or event. in some form of meaningful activity and produce a set of 10, final, selected images. I had to concentrate on two aspects : telling moments and on ‘explaining’’ the activity through choice of viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible.  It might seem repetitive to write this from the Handbook but I had to keep reminding myself of this as I went through the selection process.


I went to a weekend workshop in Wirksworth in April, not too long after I started the Course – see my write-up here.  I went armed with all the exercise/projects and Assignment briefs up to the end of Part 2 , and some of the photographs I took there have appeared in various blog posts since.

The Workshop was “Documentary Photography and Environmental Portraiture” and was held on a weekend when there were good opportunities to get the kind of photographs needed for Assignment 2.  We had a session beforehand to brief us on creating a picture story. Questions to ask were “Why am I doing this?, “What interests me?” and “How will it be used”. There was advice on key elements to take into account – the establishing shot; different perspectives on people’s faces such as, long/wide/close-up and to avoid visual boredom – all of which, of course were also covered in the P&P exercises so it was a good fit.

After walking round in the early morning I chose two later events.  The old railway station was a working one, part of the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway , with volunteers there at weekends.  There was also an Eco Fair going on.

I have chosen the railway as the best possibility and from the 47 images taken there I chose 18.

I’ve used one of the images as the introduction to set the context here but this would not be submitted for the assignment itself if I decided to go ahead with this set.  I then had to exclude 7 images.

Images excluded from the initial selection

It’s explanatory and could fit well on a website or in a booklet about the railway but there’s no activity going on – it just tells you where the photographs have been taken.

There is too much pale sky (I cropped out a fair bit) and too little contrast with the volunteer’s head so that he almost disappears into it.  There isn’t any context to explain what is happening – either in terms of place or in activity.  Also, in terms of colouring/series cohesion, it doesn’t seem to fit.

I find this image appealing just because of his interesting face but  the symbol looks as though it’s growing from his head. I decided there were others which were better.

A longer viewpoint and I had moved to separate the symbol from his head.  The context is there but he is smaller in the frame.  I could have cropped it of course

There is too much pale sky here, even if I had cropped right in.

I hadn’t noticed that it isn’t level. I could rotate, but the cropping would crop too much of the volunteer on the left so I would lose the sense of working in partnership.

This is showing an activity and you can see the nut he’s holding ready to clean but only just.

The ten selected

I might have got this wrong but I don’t remember it stating anywhere in the brief that you have to show people’s faces. I hope I’m right!

1) Getting ready for action

f/5.6 70mm @ 12.2m. Longer focal length at a distance. Shows scale of man against the carriage.

2) Listening to someone else speaking

f/5 44mm at 2.2m distance. This was a pause in activity which gave me more time to catch expressions. However, it’s not so much a ‘telling moment’ as a ‘listening moment’ so I’m not sure this meets the brief.

3) Cleaning

f/5.6 85 mm at 2.5 m distance. I framed this in more of a close-up to concentrate on the volunteers hands and include the can of paraffin.

4) Surveying what’s needed to clean up some piping

f/5 42mm @ 0.9m.

5) Explaining

f/5 44mm @ 2.2m

6) deciding what needs to be done

f/5.6 27mm @ 1.4m

7) All working together

f/8 24mm @ 3.5m. I cropped this slightly.  There’s still quite a bit of sky but at least it has some definition, although looking at it now on screen I can still see it’s too pale on the top left. If I crop out more of the sky from the top I’ll lose that sense of scale I think. The man just about to climb up is one of the other photographers who wanted to get a better view.

8) Surveying the scene

f/8 70mm @ 5.5m. I cropped this slightly to make a tighter frame. Not exactly looking at me but certainly checking something out in my direction.

9) working separately but together

f/8 21mm @ 2.3m. Wider angle to get the three of them in and retain more of the context.

10) Checking the nuts to test how much they may have stuck

f/5 50mm @ 1.9m. I wanted to capture his air of concentration.

I’ve looked at these photographs so often and for so long that I hope I’ve managed to more or less stick to the brief which was : telling moments and ‘explaining’’ the activity through choice of viewpoint, framing and timing to make the actions as intelligible as possible.  Nos 2 and 8 aren’t exactly explaining the activity and so I think I’ve been swayed there by my own preferences.

Overall, it was a really pleasant experience to spend time with these volunteers – retired from paid employment as such but using their skills to keep these engines going.  They all had such characterful faces which were easy to photograph. I couldn’t exactly talk to them about all the technical aspects but they were very happy to have us there taking photographs and, of course, just about forgot we were there because they were so absorbed in their work.

The intention had been to get on one of the trains as the service was running to the Eco Fair but we missed the next one so ended up walking.  It’s very hilly in Wirksworth – enough said!

Having done later work on another series I’ve decided not to submit the Wirksworth set for Assignment 2 because I’m hoping that I’ll have improved since April.  Even so, it’s been good practice in the selection process

14th September 2012

OCA Student Residential Weekend in Leeds : September 2012

OCA Student Residential Weekend, Leeds : 1st/2nd September 2012

This was a wonderful initiative by Penny,  ably assisted by Eileen  who worked on the Agenda and liaised with the guest speakers etc. It was a while in the planning (February to September) which it had to be because of all the variables involved. Many thanks again to them both for putting it all together.  If they wished they could both have a brilliant future as Conference Organisers. Maybe at some point they might even give us a glimpse of what occurred behind the scenes. Their mix of inspirational, motivational practical, didactical, experiential, was transformed by the alchemy of that special aura which occurs when people are truly engaged together in a creative endeavour.  You might think this is a trifle fulsome but it really was special.

From the beginning I was heartened by the easy way in which we all quickly became a group. There really wasn’t any of those forming, norming and storming phases that often occur. For me this was because, even though I hadn’t already met everyone, I still felt as though I knew a lot about them through exchanging comments and messages via Flickr, the OCA site and blogs.  It helped me to understand why some couples who meet via the internet can seem to fall so quickly in love and, before you know it, they’ve moved in together. Despite all I’ve just written I still went through that feeling of awkwardness which occurs for me when I have to introduce myself in a group which wasn’t helped by the air-conditioning having made my voice hoarse. I really did think that I’d grown out of all that. It certainly wasn’t the fact that Mark was there with the video equipment because I was hardly aware of it. Now, back to what did I gain? I have fuller personal notes for my paper log and this will be a distillation.

Transition between levels

Like some of the others in the group, I was disappointed that this session didn’t really develop.  What I did pick up from it was that Level 1 is about exploring the medium and developing distance learning habits. At Level 2 you are beginning to engage with the world of art, visual creativity and the critical debates. Skills needed for Level 3 include time management and analytical/critical skills. From my own observation ,discussing, reading blogs and OCA forum/Flickr comments, all these skills are present in some students even at Level 1, which isn’t surprising given that many of them already have degrees of various kinds. Those more used to being in scientific/analytic left-brain mode, can find it harder to get into right-brain mode though – which is something that wasn’t touched upon in the session.

Assessment: It was confirmed that it’s normal for the (summative) feedback document to contain breakdown of marks in the different criteria with only a few lines of feedback. This is for institutional reasons and quite normal – some Universities just give the marks and that’s it anyway. This point is important and the group fed back that many students are dissatisfied with the brief comments because they expected more. I think that the assessment information provided beforehand should really emphasise this point.

Going back to ‘transitions between levels’. It was that inner developmental process that I was interested in.  I’ve experienced it in a small way and I began to observe/learn how it operates in others as the weekend went on.

Genesis and evolution of a major project

Jesse Alexander, OCA tutor,  took us through his MA work on the ‘Threshold Zone’ . His concept was to explore man’s relationships to underground spaces through the medium of photography, particularly through the use of long exposure. He explained all the research he had carried out in myths, legends and Jungian theories of ‘underground’. Jesse also referred to the work of Rosalind Williams who is a Professor of  the History of Science and Technology and uses imaginative literature as a source of insight into the emergence of our technological culture. I have accessed a PDF of an interview she gave where she explains this in more detail and ordered her essay “Notes on the Underground” (2008) from Amazon.

Jesse described how, through experiencing for himself the structure of caves – entrance zone, inner zone and dark zone – he came to realise that it is the inner/threshold zone, just before perpetual darkness,  that he feared, was fascinated by, and gradually approached and entered as his project evolved. To me, the process appeared to parallel both the hero’s journey into the Underworld and that creative leap of imagination which can occur if a person can allow themselves to access their creative subconscious, whilst being able to retain a link with, and step back into, rational mode when necessary.

Portfolio Review Group with Peter Haveland, OCA tutor

It was here that I was able to observe how these inner processes manifest themselves in other students as they travel through the levels. I could sense this but it’s harder to describe.  It isn’t just that the photographs are more technically perfect and presented but it’s in the way that they talk about their process, that seeking for personal expression, using image as metaphor for a thought or feeling. Whereas I’m at the stage where I know the thoughts and feelings I want to express but can’t yet find the right way to go about it.  I keep telling myself that it’s because I need better equipment, or to learn some new technique or other, but I know that isn’t so. I can express myself in writing fairly easily but I’m still at the crawling stage with regard to visual expression.

I took some personal work which had been creeping along for a year but I’d become stuck due to too many competing possibilities for themes. This was allied with my anxieties that by revealing my true feelings towards the subjects (places not people) I could alienate those who loved these places or were proud of what they had achieved there. I was very impressed overall by the way in which Peter commented on everyone’s images – ‘criticizing’ them in the ideal sense of pointing towards emerging themes; advising how apparent weaknesses could be dealt with, spotlighting images which didn’t quite fit etc. In my own case he drew my attention to how some of the images were very much linked with the colour blue and, of course, went straight for the set which was problematic for me. His view (and that of the group) was that these had the greatest charge for me; they were my photographs and I should go with my own feelings about the subjects. I know that this is very much about my own ethical mores and I have more thinking to do around this issue.

There were other questions concerning ethics which came up for me in the sessions with the two guest speakers.

Questions of Ethics

The two guest speakers were Mishka Henner   and Peter Rudge of Duckrabbit. They are two inspiring and motivating people who are very enthusiastic and committed to their approach to their very different styles of work.

Duckrabbit work in two areas – as a digital production company and also in training in digital storytelling. The company was created in late 2008 by Benjamin Chesterton and David White. Peter Rudge is a former diplomat and also a trustee of Hostage UK (he didn’t tell us that but I looked him up).   Peter created such enthusiasm that most of us now want to do their training.  So far as working with NGOs and corporate clients is concerned, Teresa asked an interesting question which was whether they would turn down work for ethical reasons.  Peter’s response was that yes they would if necessary. Strangely enough I can’t find a Mission Statement on their website, but I follow their blog and know that they do raise many humanitarian issues.

For some reason Mishka Henner’s official website comes up with a message that it may contain malware and a suggestion that one visits a Goggle Safe Browsing diagnostic page. How odd, I wonder how much this has to do with his work using Google Street views!  Anyway, I decided not to take risks and accessed his work instead through the webpage of the company he runs in partnership with Liz Lock, Lock and Henner

Mishka was firstly a sociologist, then involved in documentary projects after he became interested in photography and, latterly, a conceptual artist who is interested in the image itself rather than being a photographer, a pity in a way because he is an excellent photographer. His conceptual work still often shows a sociological sense in the way he uses it to comment on social attitudes and mores. He describes himself as being interested in appropriation and erasure – which means he takes a variety of already created images and turns them into something else. Now, to be honest, I’m not normally keen on that type of work which seems to ride on the back of the hard work of other artists. However, having listened to Mishka,  seen his commitment and enthusiasm and viewed his creative output I’m converted. He must spend hours at the computer though!

His conceptual work is so diverse that I recommend anyone reading this just to have a look at the website for themselves. I was particularly fascinated by his ‘Collected Portraits’ where he takes the works of various photographers and layers them together at low opacity, to show how, on the whole, artists choose the same types of face to photograph over and over again. I’ve contacted him today to ask if I can download one of the images for this post and will add it if he agrees.

He is very clever and engaging and I certainly felt myself drawn into his way of looking at images. However, it’s time for me now to take a step back and be more analytical. ‘Collected Portraits’ (and much of his other work) provides an example of his approach to ethics through the questions he raises. He has created a new image by appropriating many other images. To whom does this image belong – the original artist or himself?  Similarly, he has created an interesting body of work (and book) ‘Less Americains’ where he takes the work of Robert Frank and erases parts of it to produce what is virtually abstract art. Same question.

Mishka is quite open about the rancour and threats which have been expressed towards his work. An example is ‘No Man’s Land’ where he sourced Google Street Views from website forums of men who were exchanging information about the locations of street workers. He raises the issue concerning what you do with information you gain. Is it exploitation, is he colluding with the men on those forums, now that he’s seen it shouldn’t he be doing something about the plight of these women?  Of course, having raised all these ethical questions he still continues with the work. I wish I could think of a character from Shakespeare who illustrates this.

Another query raised for me was whether there is any difference qualitatively between someone who actually goes amongst these women and takes photographs but no ameliorative action, and someone who just appropriates images and takes no other action. I just can’t work out how I stand on this except to compare this kind of work (in both respects) with that of Dana Popa a Roumainian photographer who exposed sex trafficking through her photography in her series ‘Not Natasha’.  which raised funds for NGOs to help these women.  Sharon Boothroyd also interviewed her this month.  Having raised the question for myself I now know the answer. I couldn’t do that type of work without offering support to the people involved.


There was so much to learn and absorb during the weekend. I’ve only covered some immediate responses here and I’m sure that I will keep returning to other aspects as more thoughts come to the fore. Thanks once again to Penny, Eileen, our two presiding tutors, Peter and Jesse and the two guest speakers Peter Rudge and Mishka Henner.

13th September 2012


Postscript 26.3.2012:  WeAreOCA have just posted  a short video from the weekend, where Peter Rudge of Duckrabbit is talking about ‘storytelling’. Here