Documentary, performance and fictions -Tom Hunter – Think Global, Act Local

This final section of part three opens with a quote from Graham Clarke explaining what constitutes a document: ‘ used precisely as evidence of what has occurred, so that its historical significance is employed further to invest its status as a truthful and objective account (or representation of what has happened’ (Clarke, p145)

After completing tons of research and exercises it has become apparent that there are two schools of thought: the traditionalist view that documentary should be objective and truthful, that the event being documented should not be choreographed or prompted, and secondly those who believe that if the events happened and the facts are unchanged, that if the photograph represents ‘a truth’ and contains relevant signifiers, then it should still be considered as part of the documentary genre. Mohamed Bourouissa would be a prime example of stage managed imagery and he was mentioned in the very beginning of the course, with representations that are so realistic it is not always, if ever, possible to work out that they are, in fact, mere performance.

A thread on the OCA forum contained some valid points and hopefully I shall catch up with it all at some point!

The other example given is Tom Hunter, who readily admits to employing a degree of fiction within his work, but argues that the fictional elements do not impact upon the truthfulness of the narrative. The amount of background research he does is amazing, he embeds himself within the community, spends time with his subjects to ensure he knows exactly what aspects about their lives he wants to represent and reveal to the world. A lot of his work is based around social injustice.

To explore all his work you can visit his online gallery.

 Awww Tom Hunter…what a very nice man…although the word nice is a bit naff! Seriously though he is super; down to earth and so generous with his time. I was really fortunate to attend an OCA study day ‘audience’ with Tom in Hackney. A room full of students and an amazing photographer made for a superb relaxed and informative day. Having to research and understand certain photographers and their work certainly brings home the value of attending such study days.

The link to my original review of the day is here and a link to another student, Armano’s, review is here and I’m sure he won’t mind me borrowing his lovely shot of Tom for this post.


This video, filmed about a year later, covers a lot of what he told us back then, and reveals much of his character, background and intent. It also helps to link in with his thought processes of duality of place, tying in brilliantly with previous areas of the course. It is long, but so worth watching. Again he needed the swear box lololol.

It was interesting to note that he cites Jeff Wall as one of his inspirations for progressing his practice, from what he deemed unsatisfactory, straight photography to his more staged photographs, to bring in the beauty and accessibility of the medium. It also allowed for him to bring in some of his socialist ideals. Other influences were his tutor Peter Kennard and pop culture of the Sex Pistols’ lyrics.

He also admits it is useful to step back from your normal practise to get a better overview, taking on the odd commercial commission and returning to Dorset to photograph standing stones.

I love his vulnerability when discussing how others view his work, it resonates through us all; the time, effort and emotions that we invest in our images, to have others dismiss them out of hand. How exhibiting work is like standing naked in front of a crowd arms wide saying ‘here I am.’ He admits to not being technically competent, he will use available light or equipment, meaning he will in theory be using the wrong lights, with the wrong film in completely the wrong circumstances, but this is what he feels makes his images different. He also still prefers to use film over digital, revelling in the enforced slowness and physicality of the process.

I loved meeting him in person and watching this reminded me all over again why he is one of my photographic heroes – ‘from working class oik wiv a chainsaw to a middle class professor who can sneer wiv the best of em! I’ve even got a suit on…which is quite interesting!’

Another gem was his attitude towards eventually qualifying from college in the 1980’s, to paraphrase, everyone knew they would leave school/college and there would be no jobs, everyone would be on the dole, woohooo freedom to do your own thing and make your own practice, no-one cared. A different stance to the angst filled images of Paul Graham, chronicling the same era, and even the final images Tom eventually produced. Although easy to say in hindsight with an illustrious career now behind you.

Back to the script….


Read the article Think Global, Act Local by Diane Smyth (BJP Aug 2010, p.55)…sadly another broken link but the article is available on Tom’s website.

Research his work.

Finally, listen to Tom Hunter talking about one of his most iconic images, Woman Reading a Possession Order, on Radio 3.

Summarise your thoughts in your learning log or blog.

His body of work, Persons Unknown, with complex yet simple documentary images, referencing not only Vermeer’s style of painting/light, but also his political ideals, lend the photographs a certain gravitas. He also took from his study into Vermeer the close scrutiny and small minute details of everyday life and ‘common people.’ The title derives from the eviction letter sent to all the squatters addressed to “persons unknown”. His award-winning image was taken because he, ‘ just wanted to take a picture showing the dignity of squatter life – a piece of propaganda to save my neighbourhood.’  A confirmed romantic he wants to find the beauty in everything.

The article, Think Global, Act Local,  addresses some of the same points made within the above interview, and radio essay, so I won’t repeat them. However, it does outline the group exhibition curated by Paul Wombell for Photo España in Madrid, ‘drawing attention to what he said was a small but growing band of photographers who were responding to the world at a local, neighbourhood level… a counterpoint to the global overview from the likes of Andreas Gursky, Sebastião Salgado, and Thomas Struth.’

It’s nice to be in your own backyard, rather than being the great white explorer. Anthropologists going off to deepest darkest Africa to see other cultures don’t realise what’s going on on their own doorstep.

As already mentioned Hunter is quite happy to use staged photographs/fictions even, to narrate true and realistic events. For example Living in Hell is described as ‘a nightmarish series of staged scenes,’ but it recreates real-life stories, taking inspiration from the sensationalised and sometimes paranoid newspaper headlines.

Newspaper stories are historical narratives of our time.I’d go to friends’ places and they’d say, ‘I can’t read the Hackney Gazette any more, it’s just too scary – I think I’m going to be raped or murdered’. When you hear about someone being shot on a cold winter’s night, you imagine a horrible scene. And maybe you relate it to TV or cinema or books or Greek mythology – it’s not just a story in isolation; you relate it to the culture around you.


Tom is fascinated by his local area, commenting how could you ever get bored when there is such a large population out there with so many stories to tell? Some of those stories will be universal so he ‘aims to act locally then get the message out to as many people as possible’ wanting to ‘talk to everyone so that the same mistakes aren’t repeated.’ He employs reflexivity and authorship to give a sense of place to his local environment and to tell those important dignified and subtle narratives. Personally, I don’t think it matters one iota that some of his work has been staged-managed.


Andrew Pulver [Accessed 06/04/2017]

BBC Under the Influence [Accessed 06/04/2017]

Diane Smyth [Accessed 06/04/2017]

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