Photographing the unseen
Initial thoughts and ideas
I have given a lot of thought to my tutor feedback from assignment one to; “Think about your interests and passions. As a rule, your work will be more interesting the more it reflects your real interests.” Part two of the course “Narrative” has really made me think about moving my photography forward, in particular about being less literal in my images. I am keen to develop and experiment with my approach to portray symbolic and imaginative interpretation in my photography to give the reader a sense of something rather than a clear record of it. I have enjoyed all the reading and referencing of photographers leading up to this Assignment, in particular the work of Duane Michals, more here Research of photographers (Context and Narrative). I am interested in the relationship between image and the creative use of text – how they interact with each other to develop strong visual impact.
This assignment brief is fairly open-ended to encourage the student to use their imagination. It asks what kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable and how one might go about portraying them using photography, with the objective of developing one of those ideas into a visually consistent series of 7-10 images.
For me photographing the unseen implies giving the reader just enough information to create their own narrative. Paul Seawright (1) points to the fact that it is a fine balance; too direct equals too explicit. Too ambiguous equals too obscure. I gave some thought as to what things are unseen and not photographable and came up with a list, some topics being very similar to that of other students.
- Memory – Mum’s history passed down to me through her memories and story telling.
- Dad – passed away, but still with me. Take a photograph of a photograph in original location. Use of props as symbols of our time together?
- Atmosphere – as in the mood in a room, building or place. Can I capture the moment and visually represent something that I feel?
- Beyond human vision – over the horizon, outer space, underground, under the microscope.
- Thoughts – thinking out loud. I could photograph the scene of a thought maybe…but this could be too ambiguous.
- Aroma – I adore books, so the whiff of the paper from old books, that musty old bookshop smell.
- Emotions – but there are so many, too broad a subject. I could photograph facial expression, but how would I be certain to capture what they are feeling?
Many of these ideas I found too broad to tackle in the suggested number of images. More importantly I want to work on a subject that is more personally driven, evocative. The idea of My Dad would be a powerful story (for me), but perhaps too poignant …. maybe a future project.
I have settled on my Mother’s history. This is a huge topic and one I have been researching for many years. I have selected a small, but significant, segment of her life for this assignment. So first a little background…..
Mum is 88 years old, she has dementia and lives in a very caring nursing home, she is comfortable and happy in her own world. She does though still has vivid memories of dreadful incidents from her early childhood. Mum is Czechoslovakian who along with her mother and four siblings escaped the Nazi invasion in 1938. Her father was arrested and taken to concentration camp for “Protected Custody”. Following two dangerous failed attempts to escape and several months later, a long train journey, they finally arrived in England in July 1939. Mum, then aged eleven, the eldest of five, still recalls the trepidation of arriving in a new country. But there were happier times – freedom to play again, new friends, kindness and support. The family thrived on hope, hope that one day, when the war was over they would return to their homeland and see their father again. Sadly that was not to be. He was murdered in Auschwitz.
I have chosen a location that has a strong connection to my Mum, Patterdale in Cumbria. Of the many hostels they were moved to Patterdale Hall was the place she felt the most settled and free. My aim is to visit Patterdale and walk through the area, in particular the grounds where Mum spent so much of her time.
I want to connect to Mum’s past by exploring visually and more importantly sense emotionally. In terms of executing the assignment, apart from requesting permission to access the grounds of the main hall, there is no agenda, it will be what it will be. My images will reflect spontaneity based on heartfelt intuition and memories, unseen but not un-photographable.
Research and influences
Before continuing I read Marianne Hirsch (2). She is mostly concerned with the memories of the holocaust in relation to family history. Hirsch has recognised that as one of the generation whose parents were holocaust survivors she has no direct memories of the event, but that the inherited stories – traumatic and vivid, have been passed on verbally and visually through recollection and photographs. To differentiate between direct memory and received memory Hirsh uses the term Postmemory. She explains; “Postmemory’s connection to the past is not actually mediated by recall but by imagination, investment, projection and creation.” She adds; Postmemory is distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep personal connection. As second generation I have first hand experience of this and feel deeply connected to Mum’s past.
“The Power of Now”
This was another influence, while chatting to a friend about my project idea, she recommended a book she had just read, “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle (3). Although I have only dipped in and out of the book so far, I did identify relevant links to my assignment subject. Tolle points to the fact that “Nothing exists outside the Now”. What he is inferring is that nothing ever happened in the past, or in the future, only in the Now. It is taking me a while to get my head around it all (and I look forward to reading the whole book), but in essence what Tolle is saying is, when we think of the past we reactivate a memory trace, but we do this in the present, in the ‘Now’. This got me thinking about what I am doing for this assignment – transcending time, connecting my ‘Now’ by walking through my Mum’s ‘Now’ of 1940!
I read Camera Lucida (Reflections on Photography). in Barthes’ theory of punctum he states “…..punctum is also: sting, speck, cut, little hole….”. “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” (4) I can relate to this in my images, this one in particular. (Larger image further down the page).
I love this poem by Giorgio Caproni, I feel it captures a powerful sense of nostalgia, familiarity and remembrance:- “The Last Homecoming”.
I have returned there
where I had never been.
Nothing has changed from how it was not.
On the table (on the chequered
tablecloth) half full
I found again the glass
never filled. All
has remained just as
I had never left it.
My intent is to produce a narrative of transcending through time, connecting with my Mum’s past by being there in her ‘Now’. What is unseen are any thought processes – mine now and Mum’s then, as I walk over the same ground, observe the same scenes and feel the emotion. This is about demonstrating through photographs, a sense of place during a period of great disruption. It is about Postmemories, entering into Mum’s world through the eyes of a twelve year old.
My Mum’s history is a huge topic so I have selected a small, but significant, segment of her life based in Patterdale, Cumbria. This was the place she felt the most settled and free. This is about being my Mum.
By communicating through metaphors I hope to trigger the emotions and curiosity of the reader. There is nothing in the images to reveal anything about the complicated history of the subject. I want the images to speak for themselves, individually and as a cohesive series, allowing the reader to bring something to the story, to ask questions, seek to relate and understand.
The image below was a “happy accident”. In experimenting to convey a feeling of time and entering into my Mum’s memories, her ‘now’, I decided to explore multiple exposure (in camera) and discovered the transparent imagery this can produce. By adding layers to the photograph this happy accident seemed to be a metaphor for fading memories and the moving of time.
Below: I asked a friend to assist as I shot pictures with her in them as multiple exposure images, these achieved the ghostly effect of transporting through time.
Next my friend took similar shots with me in them. But a number of these needed retaking from a tripod (as in the image below), camera movement has created the distraction of many rooftops, the building has aged but not moved!
Below: This picture is a metaphor for adult/child – my Mum as a twelve-year-old and me as an adult, looking into her life. Linear perspective makes the figure in the distance appear smaller. The watcher is looking at someone who is child-like.
Below: I was walking a path my Mum would have taken many times and it exuded a strong sense of familiarity. This feeling is not portrayed in the photo, it is too solid, there is no relationship to time or history and the image is literal.
I then looked at colour versus black and white. Colour spoke of the present and was distracting, it brought a different emotion, too current. Black and white brings in the detail, it suits the sense of time, nostalgia and history.
Most poignant for me is the image below, it connects with Barthes theory of ‘punctum’ . This image is punctuated by a hole, a prick, a highlighted area, but for me it is about that sudden gush of recall, recounting the fear of danger, hiding. I am now my Mum, an alien in a new country, peering through at the figures with apprehension, not knowing whether I have been observed. Am I safe? Are they friend or foe? The feeling is visceral, overwhelming and I move away quickly.
I would like to include the clock showing time and no time, but these two images are too bold compared with the rest of my images. I am also thinking that it is too literal? I may return to Patterdale and retake this one…. to be discussed with my tutor.
Below in no particular order are the final images I am to select from, the ones I consider illustrate the theme metaphorically, but more importantly for me, viscerally. This body of work is my interpretation of what I experienced and felt. I am presenting the images in black and white to portray the sense the time. I have considered different effects, putting to use my learning from Part one “The manipulated image”. By gently manipulating my images to “finish” the intent I want to convey is just enough to trigger curiosity but not make them appear fabricated.
Here I am using linear perspective and multiple exposure to suggest movement through time, for example the changing scale of the tress and the distant child-like figure. We are drawn to highlights in images, here the reader’s eye is drawn into the frame, to follow the adult figure in pursuit of what lies ahead. I am following in my Mum’s footsteps.
This image was composed to capture the barbed wire and fence as the sun shines on the partly camouflaged building. I wanted to imply mixed emotions and conflict. Because I know Mum’s family history, this image evokes ‘Postmemories’ of concentration camps and seeking shelter and warmth.
Again using perspective, this photo is a metaphor for adult/child – for my Mum when she was twelve and me looking into her life. A double meaning, the adult is looking at someone child-like, reminiscing and/or engaged in a game of hide and seek. I selected this angle to include the tree to frame the picture.
Using a tripod, self timer and remote shutter release, my intent here is to portray the ball and chain and the horizontal bars of the gate as a barrier to freedom but beyond is light, hope. I also use shadow and light to enhance the black and white image.
This scene stopped me in my tracks as I wandered through the gardens. It reminded me of one of Mum’s recollections “running through ‘rhodi’ bushes and finding secret places to hide”. I wanted to capture the vagueness of the path, yet it exists along with the presence of absence of people.
Taken at a low wide angle through the shrubbery, I had the view of two people, not close enough to make out any detail, action or expression. It conveys warmth and comfort, This is about seeking familiarity.
By panning with my camera I was able to achieve what I see as a spinning effect. For me it speaks of childhood, my parents spinning me around in the park, but also the progression and compounding of time. I shot in colour then de-saturated the image to represent the overlapping of the time period. The blur is a metaphor for uncertainty, a curtain between me and a true understanding of what is was like for Mum. I want to include this photo as my disruptive image – Page 17 of the Narrative course module states that; You don’t have to conform to standard narrative approaches, but if you’re to push the boundaries it’s important to understand why you’re doing so…..
There was no agenda, it is what it is. I experimented with the layout and have chosen not to present the series sequentially as in a linear narrative, but in a random, loose fashion. My disruptive ‘spinning’ image placed centrally and larger than the rest, drawing the reader in and around the images. I captured the ‘spinning’ shot in colour then de-saturated it to represent the overlapping of time. The blur being a metaphor for lack of clarity, a curtain between me and a true understanding of what it was like for my Mum. The lack of order reflects spontaneity based on intuition and mixed emotions – unseen but not un-photographable.
The series will not be presented sequentially as a linear narrative, but in a loose fashion to allow the reader space to view the narrative. Looking in from outside, then returning again to read each image individually at random, then as a cohesive set, ask questions, seek to relate and understand.
Next, I wondered about the inclusion of text. Several exercises in Part Two discussed captions and the inclusion of text with photographs, the relationship between text and image. Should I add text to my images and guide the reader into a reaction, or do I want to blur the message and leave the narrative vague? My series could be left open for interpretation in a postmodernist style, or I could build in captions to steer the interpretation in an attempt to retain authorial control. I printed the photos and displayed them on an easel so I could view them cohesively.
This was when I recognised that the individual images needed no additional supporting material. I want the images to speak for themselves and the reader to ask questions. By way of introduction I have included a piece of complementary narrative, not sure at this stage whether I would display it with the series (represented by the blank card on the display board)?
I also want to include a photograph of Mum and her family on arrival at Patterdale in 1940 and wonder whether to include it somewhere in my display………. I made a decision to add it to the text.
I find myself occupying the same space that she occupied, connecting to her thoughts and feelings. I feel the presence of absence, brittle fragments of laughter, singing and tears. The space is the same, it cannot change. I feel the emotions of her ‘now’ in 1939 – dread, familiarity, longing, warmth and finally love. In essence, our individual memories are woven together by stories told, traditional family albums, documents, memoirs, souvenirs and trinkets. This story is framed with photographs of my postmemories.
Escape was the only option. Her beloved Father could not be with them. Surviving on berries and mushrooms and if they were ‘lucky’, maybe bread and milk too. The family trudged by day and slept in barns by night. It was a big adventure for the little ones, hide and seek in the woods, hiding from the enemy. Eventually a long train journey brought them to a foreign land.
She still has vivid memories recalling the trepidation of fleeing to a new country, the seesaw of emotions – uncertainty, laughter, apprehension, joy, sadness. But here there were happier times – freedom to play again, a safe haven, new friends, kindness and support. She thrived on hope, that one day they would return to their homeland. Sadly that was not to be.
A final check to see if I have met the criteria for a cohesive narrative.
- What elements back up your central theme? A postmodern approach, ambiguous and presented metaphorically.
- What disrupts it? My ‘spinning’ photo, because it is part colour, part black and white and portrays movement.
- Are there good reasons for this disruption? Yes. It portrays temporality, the crossover of time periods and encourages the reader to pause and question the series as a whole.
- Do the images have a visual consistency that holds them together as a recognisable set? Black and white with one exception. Theme is clear based on a single location/setting – no rogue images out of context.
My final selected images for the assignment can be viewed under A2 Submission to tutor”.
1. Seawright, P. Available from: http://vimeo.com./76940827 [accessed 18th July 2016]
2. Hirsch, M. (2012). Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. England.
3. Tolle, E. (2016). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Yellow Kite. London.
4. Barthes, R. (1993). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Vintage Classics. Penguin, Random House. London.