What makes a document – Discontinuities

This next section of the coursework continues the discussion of context and meaning, stating how it is produced, distributed and consumed determines the information that it conveys. Having read all about the ‘transparent image’ and finally reviewing Alec Soth’s Gathered Leaves, especially Songbook, I have to agree. With Songbook Soth removed the images from their original context, took away any narrative and captions and replaced the text with song lyrics leaving the readers to their own imaginations.

John Berger coined the phrase ‘discontinuity’ and argued that this leads to ambiguity:

All photographs are ambiguous. All photographs have been taken out of a continuity, If the event is a public event, this continuity is history; if it is personal, the continuity, which has been broken, is a life story…Discontinuity always produces ambiguity. (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91)

I found a really good PDF of his essay on Appearances from Another Way of Telling  here. I also liked this bit:

In the relation between photographs and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence, but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words. (Berger& Mohr, 1995 p.91)

Alec Soth isn’t the only photographer who plays with photographs and captions. Whilst helping my son with his AS photography we researched the fantasy and surrealism of Duane Michals  “his handwritten text adds another dimension to the images’ meaning and gives voice to Michals’ singular musings, which are poetic, tragic, and humorous, often all at once.” A short interview with him can be found here. I found his work fascinating, albeit it not documentary.

So to help us understand the truth behind the theory we have another exercise.


Make a selection of up to five photographs from your personal or family collection. They can be as recent or as old as you wish. The only requirement is that they depict events that are relevant to you on a personal level and couldn’t belong to anyone else (i.e. no photographs of the Eiffel Tower).

Using OCA forums such as OCA/student and OCA Flickr group, ask the learning communities to provide short captions or explanations for your photographs.

Summarise your findings and make them public in the same forums that you used for your research. 

So these are the 5 images I have uploaded and as soon as I get responses I shall update my blog post.


Firstly thank you so much for the many, and prompt, responses which means I can complete this exercise.

Image one.


1.Music competition trophy
2.First prize Children’s Talent Show
3.Band competition trophy
4.Woollen rocker
5.Knitted heavy metal?
6.I made this as a prize for a competition.
7.Look what you can make with a dime bag of wool!
8.The aware for the hippest crochet chick goes to …
9.Very Metal. Quick question do Pantera really do knitted dolls? please tell
me they don’t lol.
10.Rag doll rock
11.Pantera fan of the year award
12.Dolls Rock!
13.Heavy wool

Most of you gathered it was something to do with music, heavy metal/rock, realised it was handcrafted crochet, some correctly guessed by me. Others knew exactly who it was supposed to be and the band he was in. For those of you who don’t…


Darrell Lance Abbott (August 20, 1966 – December 8, 2004), also known as Diamond Darrell and Dimebag Darrell, was an American guitarist and songwriter best known as a founding member of two bands, Pantera and Damageplan, alongside his brother, Vinnie Paul. He was considered to be one of the driving forces behind groove metal.
Abbott was shot and killed by a gunman while on stage during a performance with Damageplan on December 8, 2004, at the Alrosa Villa in Columbus, Ohio. He ranked No. 92 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 100 Greatest Guitarists and No. 1 in the UK magazine, Metal Hammer.

Personal story behind the image:

My son has a very good friend, Zeak, who is a huge fan of Pantera. (point to the commentator who said Pantera Fan of the Year lol) One day we saw online an amigurumi Dimebag Darrell…


…and Zeak’s response was “OMG if someone made that for me I’d cry.” Challenge accepted, I found a pattern for a dolls body and made up the rest as I went along. My son was still in 6th form so using scrap acrylic and his DT skills made the guitar and stand, complete with etched lightening bolts and band name. It was wrapped and saved for Zeak’s birthday and although he didn’t cry he was very, very pleased with it. To take the photo ‘Dimebag’ is stood on a cake decorating turntable which used to belong to my Mum’s best friend. When she died it was given to me, as I also dabble with cake decorating so this image documents a few good memories. This reveals that personal life stories cannot be gleaned from a single image, even those with some cultural knowledge couldn’t accurately guess the intention behind the making of the doll. My words have now given the back story. Does it influence your feelings towards it now?

Image Two

1.Renovation of the new home
2.Helping with the renovation
3.Every little bit helps
4.Home tuition
5.Home improvements
6.I’m going to be an artist when I grow up
7.Helping mom (or dad) paint
Just the lone word sprung to mind, reminds me so much of our house when the kids were little.
9.Child Labor
10.I want to help too!
11.Child labour laws relaxed/The work wear collection for Baby Gap 😉
12.I can help too
13.I know what I can do

Personal story behind the image:

This one was more obvious, yes it was my daughter (now 24) who always “wanted to help too.” I have pictures of her from a very young age laying bricks, tiling the fireplace, painting walls peeling off wallpaper etc etc etc. I never stopped her by telling her she was too young, or a girl or she’d get too messy and hopefully that’s why now there isn’t much she feels she cannot tackle. When at Uni she earned extra cash by helping her landlord decorate his other properties when handing over the keys to new tenants so this is one of the reasons I chose to include it; not only does it sum up her personality then it also resonates with how she is now. The responses all recognised that it was a child helping to decorate the home. They ranged from amusing captions, to factual captions and a comment about how it made one of the audience feel. To me this illustrated the value of shared experiences when we look at an image.Others may have also felt that warm inner glow, but not chosen to express it. However, it is nice to know when an image you have take resonates with another and they understand its meaning.

This also emphasises how a quick snap taken as the action caught my eye can change in value as a document and the depth of mean alter over time. It documents what she was like then, how I perceive her personality and skills now through things we did during her childhood, kids fashions at the time (though they don’t appear to have changed that much) what our house was like then – we now have proper balustrades- and when I was still married…Although a lot can be gleaned from this image it still does not pin point exactly where the house is, the style or the size so there is a limitation as to the amount of information we can infer without text or further explanation. As this is a fairly ‘recent’ family snap shot it may not appear that important now, but skip ahead a few generations and others may be puzzling over who it is in the photograph and where it was taken, just as I do when tracing my ancestry and looking at older images and in that context it could become a very important document.

Image three


1.Acorn versus oak
2.Final days of summer
3.Sign of the times
4.Will it kill me?
5.Nature walk
6.This is going to be an enormous tree one day
7.From small acorns….
8.The humble beginning…
9.Hit me on the head
10.From little things do great things grow
11.The acorn that fell far from the tree
12.From the likes of these
13.Nature’s treasure

In some ways this is also very obvious, but not the reason for me taking the image or where it was taken. Yes, it is an acorn and with oak trees behind…’hit me on the head’ is the closest response. Once again even though an ‘obvious’ shot and a good guess at why it was taken there isn’t enough transparency within the image for the audience to know the exact history behind why or where it was taken which is why I selected it.

Personal story behind the image:

Way back in September 1989 I was on honeymoon in South-West France. A camp site right opposite Lac de Lacanau, as my then spouse loved to windsurf. We spent 3 weeks in a small 2 man tent which leaked when it rained! Anyway I digress, as it was late season the rest of the campsite was empty bar a few bikers passing through, so a lot of people were by then hibernating their caravans in the park which was full of oak trees. During the night loads of acorns would fall from the trees and all we could hear was “rustle, rustle THUNK!” as they rebounded off the caravan roofs… the first night there we ‘wondered what on earth?’ only to discover it was pesky acorns that continued to thunk for the duration… so of course we had to have a snap of the bloody things…it makes me sad to think that unless I write that down (and why would it be interesting to anyone else really) this small, amusing anecdote will be lost forever.

Again I wonder does this explanation alter how you the audience view it?

Image Four


1.Restaurant scene
3.Making avant-garde music in a cafe
4.The analyst
5.Making cocktails in the 70s with an American nuclear scientist.
6.I’m not really sure about this but I’ll give it a try
8.Stir ’em, then drink ’em
9.Terror cell discover new explosive
10.I never understood the purpose of fondue!
11.Happy hour
12.Great times
13.Do you remember the day after?

I love this photograph, it brings back so many memories, and some of the others that go with it that I couldn’t put up…again a fairly obvious image of people in a restaurant, beyond that nothing else has been said apart from some very amusing captions, so thanks for making me giggle. No-one spotted what was actually happening or can image the aftermath of his actions.

Personal story behind the image:

Again a looooong time ago , when I was a proper grown-up I used to work for a certain large bank in the Money Market up in town. Every so often we would let off steam, pub it and grab a curry down Brick Lane, especially if it was a birthday or leaving do. Now this is where it is important that you write things down people, as even I can’t remember the exact location or occasion, although I am positive it was a leaving do and I think I know who was leaving….anyway he was given a tie as part of his leaving present and whilst he went to get rid of several of the pints imbibed earlier in the evening, Mike, on the right, decided it would be REALLY funny to stuff said tie into the glass of water on the table, poking it in with a knife…as you do…the explosive reaction when the owner returned was quite spectacular, I think my vocabulary got extended by several new words that night… just think we used to be in charge of all your hard earned cash mwahahahahaaaaa

So this is why this image was included in this set, as again, even if it had been spotted that there was tie mutilation going on, the story behind it was not easy to work out. Meaning can be lost even when it is from your own album if you don’t caption or annotate it. Looking through a set of old work images some of the faces are so familiar yet the names have vanished. I know this was a celebration of some kind but what? So even I am trying to interpret the full meaning… if I can’t how can I expect an audience to? My mother threw away a lot of photographs when my dad died, they were of people she didn’t know and places that meant nothing to her. Some of them were so faded and small, but some were of his time in Korea. I regret not knowing that she was throwing them out at the time.

Image Five


1.The backyard
2.My grandfather’s back yard
3.Summer is a long way away
4.Telescopic holiday
5.My garden.
6.The empty chairs, abandoned mug, etc make me feel like the inhabitants have gone as do the bare plants, etc. B&W and white vignette make me feel like I’m looking into a memory.
7.Times Past
8.Dreamy summer
9.A little bit of paradise
10.Summer house back yard
11.This was the place
12.Once upon a time
13.An early creative step

Once again on the surface an obvious image, yes it is a backyard, it was slightly unloved and I did mess about with different effects, and quite ‘naffly’ too I think.

Personal story behind the image:
Back in 2012 my daughter was a language student at Uni and had to do her year abroad, spending 6 mths in Hamburg followed by several months in Paris. In 2013 I took sometime to go visit and crashed in her student digs, which in all honesty were fairly squalid, no fault of the students, blame the landlord, although I’m sure you could blame the abandoned mug onto one of them! Tho’ possibly someone who had been there about 5 years ago! The week I stayed the weather was fairly dull and overcast for a lot of the time and the image I snapped, of a neglected, dingy, unkempt yard with stained walls, and a broken blind, that looked fairly dull and boring, so thought I would throw a lot of tweaks at it…try an evoke that air of a memory, the romance attached to Paris, hide the awful dull view it was…a step too far with the overdone vignette but hey-ho live n learn.

Despite being a tad overdone, the cliche of the vignette seems to have worked insofar as the audience has read into it that is is a memory, or belongs to a time gone by, suggesting a Grandfather’s backyard etc. It also hides how grungy it was in reality too. Without a caption or accompanying text the relevance, memory and realities of the image aren’t immediately apparent.


I enjoyed completing this exercise and putting into practice some of the theory that I am gradually stuffing into my brain, I think some of it is sticking! I believe, as do most, that all photographs are a form of document, as expounded in (Wells,2004, p.9). Some of the images posted here have slightly altered in importance, or had the memories tinged with sadness or pride due to the lapse in time between them being taken and being revisited. Having been divorced for over 12 years now I no longer look at my honeymoon album! I look at the photo of my little girl and see a proud independent woman who gained her MFL degree and is now a qualified teacher.

Is context important to a photograph? To fully understand everything about it I believe so, however, without looking outside of immediate Western culture, it has become apparent that we have enough shared histories between us to infer quite a bit of meaning from the images we see but not necessarily all. Therefore I also find myself in agreement with John Berger (Berger & Mohr, 1995, p91) that photographs have an air of ambiguity unless we provide a caption or text. Once I provide the back stories have opinions altered, do you now see why something was photographed or edited as it was, does it change your emotions when you view it? Can you relate to it more? If anyone feels like responding to these questions I can update my blog further :o)

I also agree to a certain extent that once detail has been provided by the author of the images, it provides an air of ‘certainty’ – thanks again John for your insights – I still like to think we have the ability to gain other information from an image, just as films, books, poems touch us all on a different level, apart from what is handed to us on a plate. There maybe other signs and symbols that we never even spotted within the frame that triggers memories in others. Did any of mine do that for you? Did you feel that my explanations “produced an effect of certainty, even dogmatic assertion”? Or did I make any of it up lololol. No, they are all true, in case you were wondering.

*update* as with some other posts I am revisiting after reading some more theory books and posting excerpts that I feel are relevant to the topic and possibly support my arguments/ideas. In Context and Narrative it states that photographs or ‘documented moments’ have ‘direct relevance to the present and encourages us to think of the past’ (Short, M. 2011 p.9) which is exactly how I felt when looking at the image of my daughter.

*update 2* on going through Another Way of Telling (Berger &Mohr 1989) Mohr did the exact same exercise with 5 of his images getting  many different responses from a wider audience such as a school girl, a banker, an actress, a clergyman and a phychiatrist.

Thanks again to those who responded, without you I couldn’t have done this exercise, it is very much appreciated. xx


Berger, J. and Mohr, J. (1989) Another way of telling. Cambridge: Penguin Books / Granta.

exhibit- E. (2016) Duane Michals – artists. Available at: http://www.dcmooregallery.com/artists/duane-michals (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

The last Sentimentalist: A Q. & A. With Duane Michals (no date) Available at: http://projects.newyorker.com/portfolio/michals-empty-ny/ (Accessed: 30 October 2016).
Short, M. Basics Creative Photography. Worthing, UK: AVA Publishing, 2011. Print.


6 thoughts on “What makes a document – Discontinuities

  1. 1. I made this as a prize for a competition.
    2. I’m going to be an artist when I grow up
    3. this is going to be an enormous tree one day
    4. I’m not really sure about this but I’ll give it a try
    5. My garden.


  2. Re Duane Michals – I enjoy his work as well and think it can easily be translated to documentary. It also fits into the discussion as to whether images create narrative or illustrate it.


    1. When I helped Nathan I really got into surrealism and so many artists/photographers are using surrealism or constructed images to campaign for the Antarctic etc it really is an interesting subject to pursue in relation to documentary.


  3. Hello Jan, here are my five captions

    Rag doll rock
    I want to help too!
    From little things do great things grow
    I never understood the purpose of fondue!
    A little but of paradise



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