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