A Colour vision – Surrealism and colour documentary

In documentary surrealism plays a slightly different role than within surreal art. It contains many of the same elements, but rather than just being an expression of dreams, or the artists imagination, it is there as a juxtaposition; the humour can shock the audience  -if drastically out of place- or gently reinforce the seriousness of a topic.

Several photographers are mentioned with the coursework: Cristobal Hara, Peter Dench, Guy Tillim and Carl de Keyser. Being interested in surrealism I have researched a few previously such as Annegret Soltau, Erik Johansson, Jerry Uelsmann, Brooke Shaden, Joel Robison and Tommy Ingberg, but for this module I decided to look further and examine the work of more contemporary documentary photographers rather than photography ‘artists’.

Firstly I had a quick peak at Cristobal Hara as he  is mentioned in the course notes for the project Vanitas (1998).

Cristóbal Hara (Madrid, 1946) is one of the most interesting Spanish photographers. Taking the popular celebrations as a backdrop, he creates a singular language that far from documenting those celebrations, he uses to talk about himself and about Spain. He turns reality into fiction, creating a personal language based on a theoretically incorrect image but conveying a strong and direct emotion without leaning on established styles or rules.


Hara chooses to overlap images, opts for quirky angles, photographs subjects not usually covered , for example funerals,  and juxtaposes elements within the frame. His use of colour mainly appears to be integral to the scenes he is portraying.  In a video, ‘An imaginary country’, he reveals that he is aware of the disconcerting effect of his images. It allows his audience to consider the message that he is trying to convey as well as the audience being able to attach their own meaning.

He is another photographer who employs the use of the photo-book and was asked about this in an interview : How important are books as support for your work?

The book is the goal, the place where the images are used and where they have to respond to their origins and to be up to par with them. Exhibits, especially the big ones, really interrupt my work. However, I have to say that, I have sometimes enjoyed exhibits when they were small and offer the appropriate conditions. Ideally, exhibits and books should complement each other, even though I am more interested in books.

The second photographer I took a close look at was Guy Tillim, once more mentioned within the course notes. Born in 1962 in Johannesburg he is considered to be an important figure in the contemporary South-African photographic scene, using photography as a tool to ‘fight against the racial gap created by the Apartheid in his country.’ Significantly, he is a photographer capturing the changes within his own country and representing the unfolding scenes from a personal/natives point of view rather than those of an outsider.

For years, Tillim photographed documentary projects of visual and historical strength to create testimonies to the social conflict and inequalities prevailing in South Africa. In those pictures, blunt and dark colours appear suddenly from a damp grey background, in an imitative harmony with the harshness of its subjects.

Tillim’s surrealism is more subtle and, as Tim Hetherington wrote, has a more ‘lyrical voice,’ playing with form and texture as well as double exposures and then in some ways the more obvious, yet subtle image, of the young boy urinating on the fallen statue, allowing the viewer the opportunity to consider the history of the circumstances he is capturing.

Peter Dench is a photographer with over 20 years experience in the advertising, editorial, corporate, portraiture and video fields of image making and is best known for his work documenting England. He is quoted as saying:

I’m always looking for humour in my pictures. Charlie Chaplin is a big influence and I often try to address serious subjects in a humorous way when appropriate. My aim is to make people laugh, make people think. Looking through the books of Elliott Erwitt and Martin Parr is the reason I got into photography. If you can travel the world making people laugh and making them think, then to me that’s a fine way to live..

I can see the influence of Martin Parr in some of the images that I have seen: the voyeurism of poor behaviour, odd ‘English’ antics, a rich vibrant colour palette and the occasional use of flash. Like Parr he appears to focus on depicting the less glamorous side and the more sad and seedy aspect of English life. Juxtaposition again rears its head contrasting social class and etiquette. Other surreal elements are: his off kilter horizons, use of different elements within the frame in unusual contexts and his ability to capture people at their most vulnerable or repulsive.

I am not sure if he actively uses colour within his photography to achieve surrealism, for example Joel Meyerowitz and Hara, or if he merely shoots in colour as that is the current fashion?

However, with the images explored, I did not get the feeling of cruel, intentional mockery as with the occasional Parr. Despite appearing critical in some instances, Dench’s close observations show stark reality, allowing the audience to judge the subjects harshly or otherwise.


I was lucky enough to attend an exhibition recently, Dench’s Great Britons of Photography, which brought together the work of some of the greatest living British photographers including: Jocelyn Bain Hogg, Marcus Bleasdale, Harry Borden, John Bulmer, Chris Floyd, Brian Griffin, Laura Pannack, Tom Stoddart, Homer Sykes, Anastasia Taylor-Lind and Peter Dench, hopefully I shall write a review in the not too distant future! A brief synopsis of the photographers on display:

Anastasia Taylor-Lind
Anastasia Taylor-Lind is an English/Swedish artist with a Nieman Fellowship from Harvard University. She has a background in photojournalism and has worked for leading publications all over the world on issues relating to women, population and war. Her first book MAIDAN – Portraits from the Black Square, which documents the 2014 Ukrainian uprising in Kiev, was published by GOST in the same year. Taylor-Lind holds degrees in Documentary Photography from the University of Wales Newport and the London College of Communication. She is engaged with education, regularly lecturing at universities and teaching workshops internationally.


Marcus Bleasdale
Marcus Bleasdale has spent over 15 years documenting some of the world’s most brutal wars and focused on campaigning against human rights abuses. He has been documenting these issues for Human Rights Watch and is a contributing photographer for National Geographic Magazine.

Using his background in business and economics, Bleasdale researches the sources of financing driving the conflicts, which usually leads to the mines, and the armed networks linked to them. Bleasdale has covered wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Somalia, Chad and Darfur, Kashmir and Georgia.

He has published three books to date: One Hundred Years of Darkness (2002), documenting life along the Congo River, The Rape of a Nation (2009), documenting the exploitation of natural resources in Eastern Congo and The Unravelling (2015), documenting the brutal conflict in the Central African Republic.


Jocelyn Bain Hogg
Jocelyn Bain Hogg began his career as a unit photographer on movie sets after studying Documentary Photography at Newport Art College. He shot publicity for the BBC, photographed fashion and now works on documentary projects, commercial and editorial assignments.

He is the author of five photographic books to date, including The Firm (2003), an astonishingly intimate view of London’s organised crime world, Idols + Believers (2006), an intensive journey into the nature of fame and today’s celebrity culture and The Family (2011), which looks again at Britain’s organised crime world in a new decade.


Brian Griffin
Brian Griffin is one of Britain’s most influential and creative photographers. Griffin’s influences are diverse, from Renaissance masters to Symbolism, Surrealism and Film Noir.

Griffin has worked with a variety of music industry clients including Depeche Mode, REM, Elvis Costello, Iggy Pop, Ringo Starr, Peter Gabriel and Queen’s Brian May. He has produced album covers, TV commercials, music videos and award-winning films.

In 1987, Griffin was awarded the Freedom of the City of Arles, France, and in 1989, The Guardian newspaper proclaimed him to be ‘Photographer of the Decade’.


Harry Borden
Harry Borden is one of the UK’s finest portrait photographers and his work has been widely published. He won prizes at the World Press Photo Awards (1997 and 1999) and was a judge in the contest in 2010 and 2011. In June 2005 he was awarded a solo exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London. The gallery has more than 100 examples of Borden’s work in their permanent collection. His personal projects include a series on Single Parent Dads and Holocaust Survivors, which was shortlisted for the European Publishers Award for Photography and will be released in 2017 by Octopus. In 2014 he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Photographic Society.


Chris Floyd
Chris Floyd’s work has appeared in some of the world’s most highly respected publications including The New Yorker, Harpers Bazaar, GQ, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, The Sunday Times Magazine and Wallpaper*. He has shot advertising campaigns for British Airways, Apple, Sony and Philips and has been selected several times for the National Portrait Gallery’s annual portrait prize.

In 2011, Chris published a project entitled One Hundred And Forty Characters. Over a period of a year he made contact with 140 people that he followed on Twitter and photographed each of them in his London studio. The project received worldwide recognition and acclaim, with features about it on the BBC, Newsweek, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, Elle, Esquire and many other publications and websites.


John Bulmer
John Bulmer was a pioneer of colour photography working for the Sunday Times Magazine from the very first issue until the 1970’s. Many of Bulmer’s most important assignments were abroad, but he is also acknowledged as an adroit recorder of provincial Britain.

His work has been singled out for awards by the Design and Art Directors Club and he has had pictures exhibited at the Gallery of Modern Art in New York, the Photographers’ Gallery in London, and the National Museum of Photography in Bradford

Bulmer has directed many films on travel and untouched tribes in the most inaccessible parts of the world broadcast on the BBC, Nat Geo and Discovery Channels.

Books include The North (2012) and Wind of Change (2014).


Laura Pannack
Laura Pannack’s work has been extensively exhibited and published both in the UK and internationally, including at The National Portrait Gallery, The Houses of Parliament, Somerset House, and the Royal Festival Hall in London.

In 2010 Pannack received first prize in the Portrait Singles category of the World Press Photo Awards. She has also won and been shortlisted for several other awards including The Sony World Photography Awards, The Magenta Foundation and Lucies IPA. She was awarded the Vic Odden by The Royal Photographic Society Award for a notable achievement in the art of photography by a British photographer aged 35 or under. In 2015 she judged the World Photo Press Awards Portraits Category.

Pannack often lectures, critiques and teaches at universities, festivals and workshops worldwide.


Homer Sykes
Homer Sykes is a professional magazine and portrait photographer with many years experience. He has travelled widely on photographic assignments across the world covering conflicts in Israel, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland, as well as general news in the UK.

His books include, Once a Year: Some Traditional British Customs (1977), re-published in 2016 with over 50 ‘new’ images, Shanghai Odyssey (2002), and On the Road Again (2002).

Sykes work is owned by many private collectors and national collections.


Tom Stoddart
Tom Stoddart began his photographic career on a local newspaper in his native North-East of England before moving to London to work for publications such as the Sunday Times and Time Magazine.

During a long and varied career, he has witnessed such international events as the war in Lebanon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the election of President Nelson Mandela, the bloody siege of Sarajevo and the wars against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

His acclaimed in-depth work on the HIV/AIDS pandemic blighting sub-Saharan Africa won the POY World Understanding Award in 2003. In the same year his pictures of British Royal Marines in combat, during hostilities in Iraq, was awarded the Larry Burrows Award for Exceptional War Photography. A year later his book iWITNESS was honoured as the best photography book published in the USA.

In the summer of 2012, Perspectives, an outdoor retrospective exhibition in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross, was viewed by 225,000 visitors at London’s South Bank.


The final photographer from the course notes was Carl de Keyser, a Magnum photographer, who was born in Belgium (Kortrijk) on 27/12/1958.

The above sample of images reveal that de Keyser uses contrasting elements, framing and odd moments/brilliant timing to create surreal narratives. With many they would not work if the colour element was removed. For example the reds and oranges of the wedding group pull the image together as you focus on the woman’s hands appearing to hold the husband-to-be firmly in his chair. Like  Diane Arbus he focused on social groups outside of the mainstream in his earlier work, creating the opportunity to capture surreal images.

The body of work mentioned in the course work is Zona. 2003 concerning former Siberian gulags. On reading about the project on his website the surrealism of the images become more apparent. de Keyser’s  work is a prime example where the images don’t always represent the idea when they stand alone, there needs to be some background knowledge and I therefore make no apologies for the huge bit of text below….

Imagine my surprise when I discovered in 2000 that most of the former gulags where still in function, only now as ordinary prisons…

… this whole project started in 2000 when there was a Magnum show in Krasnoyarsk. It was part of a Soros Foundation project to organize exhibitions in the former Soviet republic… in 1989, when I took the Trans-Siberian railway all the way east…we weren’t even allowed out of the train… A lot of these camps are along the Trans-Siberian railway; they were what I saw from the train…

it was strange, ten years later, to be able to go to Krasnoyarsk, which was a forbidden city until 1994 because of its nuclear sites… Since I didn’t know the region, I told them to find me a subject and we’d go out and shoot every day. On one of these days a local press photographer said: “We’ll go to a local prison camp, a former gulag”….I had an idea of black and white, dark pictures, torture. But the camp itself is sort of a Disneyland. You come into a gate decorated with metal soldiers made by the prisoners, there are huge murals, famous Russian paintings about glorious moments from the Middle Ages or even earlier; at the entrance also there’s a huge steam train on top of the gate, there’s a wooden windmill, Don Quixote, there is a pyramid, Egyptian style… Everything was in colour, all the walls and interiors, mostly light blue, light green.

I went over for three months. I actually had enough to make a book from that trip, but I decided to go back in the wintertime because in the summer months it was good weather, good light, and I thought this will not look very believable… wintertime is how everybody sees Siberia – in summer, it’s very warm, 30-35 degrees. I had the best summer of my life.

The second system I found is some kind of village camp… In these camps, individual prisoners still live in barracks. There’s not much of a wall around it, because they are very far from the nearest city. Prisoners who can persuade their families to join them can live in separate houses. They are real villages because there are other people living there, people who have started small businesses. There’s a school, there are children. The camp itself is quite open.
Actually I quite liked that idea because I don’t like mise en scène myself, but when people do it for me I never say no. My colleague had the typical Russian habit of many press photographers to set up situations. So either he set up something with the prisoner, or the colonel or bodyguards set up something… in a way it was a double mise en scène.

… I only once saw a tennis court. I asked who it was for. The prisoners, they said, and immediately looked for two prisoners to play the game. Then they had to find rackets for them, which took another half an hour. They seemed happy with that; I asked them where the balls were, but even after another hour’s search, they couldn’t find any. So we had this ridiculous scene with me photographing these two prisoners pretending to play tennis without any tennis balls. It was like a crazy mime scene.

… a lot of the prisoners marry in the camps. In the three months when I was there, there were 30-40 weddings. Prisoners who stay a long time often get married, also because they then get more visiting hours than they normally do.

In a women’s camp in winter, some women were cleaning the snow in the square and some others were inside playing cards. I asked “Why are certain women working outside while the others can stay in?”. And the chief answered very simply: “Well, the ones who are sweeping snow outside are the ones who killed their husbands”.

Without the background information and inclusion of text you would not appreciate the surrealism of the circumstances or fully understand the need for colour within the images you are viewing.


For my own research not only have I looked at the work of the photographers mentioned above but also that of Max Pinkers, born in 1988, Brussels but raised in Asia, and based in Brussels, Belgium. He has produced various photo books such as Lotus (2011), The Fourth Wall, (2012) and Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty (2014). He is currently a doctoral researcher in the Arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) in Ghent.In 2015 he founded the independent publishing house Lyre Press and became a nominee of Magnum Photos. I recently had the pleasure of hearing him speak about his work at the Barbican Centre. The bodies of work that caught my eye were Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, 2014 and Lotus 2011.

To complete the work Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, Max Pinckers travelled to India for four months, accompanied by his partner Victoria Gonzalez-Figueras, where he documented, and tried to ‘bring to life various specific aspects of love and marriage.’ Many of his images are themed around Bollywood movies, capturing couples on their honeymoon at the foot of the Himalayas, men on white horses, ‘carts on which newlyweds strut around’ and photographed young lovers on the run from disapproving families due to caste or religious differences.

Pinckers searches for images that are devoid of recognizable elements. It is not the folklore that interests him, nor the differences between our cultures, but this universal search for the perfect image, for our understanding of beauty and kitsch, for our constricted forms of style, and for the emotions that all these images evoke nonetheless. Young couples that dream of a Bollywood elopement or a tradition that is degenerating into cookie- cutter romances… The way life and death disguise and reveal themselves in our relationship with images.

In another collaboration, Lotus, Max Pinckers and Quinten De Bruyn document the world of transsexuals in Thailand.

The gender crisis that the so-called ladyboys face is transformed into a visual metaphor about the identity crisis that contemporary documentary photography currently encounters, when it dares to reflect upon itself critically, and confront its paradoxes. The documentary photographer that captures reality as ‘a fly on the wall’ can’t deny his or her directive and manipulative role any longer. The anonymity, the seeming absence, is merely a pose. The tableaux that the photographer captures are not lies, but enfold themselves within the studio that he or she creates from reality.

The subject matter in itself can be seen to be pretty surreal and the staged tableaux add to the strange atmosphere created, as Pinkers uses the surreal elements to convey the reality faced by a large percentage of Thailand’s LGBT population.


Carl de Keyzer photography (no date) Available at: http://www.carldekeyzer.com/ (Accessed: 6 March 2017).

ediciones anómalas (2014) Interview with Cristóbal Hara | Ediciones Anómalas. Available at: http://www.edicionesanomalas.com/en/2014/11/23/interview-with-cristobal-hara/ (Accessed: 6 March 2017).
Hara, C. (2017) Un Pais Imaginario. Available at: https://vimeo.com/68768321 (Accessed: 02 March 2017).

SevillaFotoTV (2010) Encuentro con Cristóbal Hara. Available at: https://youtu.be/5E86ugR-RLg (Accessed: 02 March 2017).


 Peter Dench (no date) Available at: http://www.peterdench.com/ (Accessed: 6 March 2017).

Peter Dench: The British abroad (2015) Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11476952/peter-dench-alcohol-holiday-booze-photography-documentary-reportage-partying-ayia-napa-majorca.html?frame=3234821 (Accessed: 6 March 2017).

Vanitas (2014) Cristóbal Hara. Available at: http://www.dalpine.com/en/e/cristobal-hara (Accessed: 6 March 2017).

VU, A. (2017) Guy Tillim. Available at: https://www.agencevu.com/photographers/photographer.php?id=137 (Accessed: 6 March 2017).


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