Documentary, performance and fictions – Charley Murrell and Hannah Starkey

Continuing to look at documentary, performance and fictions, the next three photographers mentioned are: Charley Murrell, Hannah Starkey and Joan Fontcuberta. Charley Murrell is mentioned in Maria Short’s Context and Narrative, Hannah Starkey – the name rang a bell, and Joan Fontcuberta is completely new…more learning :o)

Research Point

Investigate Murrell’s Constructed Childhoods and Starkey’s Untitled series. How do these photographers employ imaginative and/or performative elements to construct their narratives? In what sense is the end result ‘real’? What aspects of their work might you consider adopting in your own practice?

Charley Murrell

This body of work began as a project whilst she was at university and continued to develop once she had left. It explores the impact of images that surround children’s everyday lives for example the myriad of images found in magazines, on TV, on the Internet, adverts, other promotional materials and even products themselves. All these images bombarding children every day must have an effect on how they view themselves.

They construct ‘ideals’: what car they should own, what leisure activities they should indulge in, what they should look like and the ideal life style. These can cause anxieties as to how the children perceive they should be living and what they should aspire to in the future.

In order to explore the range of images portrayed in the media and the children’s constructed ideals, Murrell used different media surfaces to represent these ‘ideal selves’ in relation to their reality.

To complete the work Murrell used composite images of the same child shown simultaneously in an everyday situation, and also as a model or idealised figure.

To answer the question to what extent is it real? There are so many things about these images that are real: the children, the situations, the products, the circumstances in which the children are subjected to constant media images telling them what to wear, what to eat and how to behave. It is all quite scary! Although the photographs are obviously constructed tableaux they do document, all too well, the pressure children face in today’s society to conform, and therefore have a place under the umbrella of documentary.

Hannah Starkey

The Saatchi Gallery summed it up better than I could…

Using actors within carefully considered settings, Hannah Starkey’s photographs reconstruct scenes from everyday life…women engaged in regular routines such as loitering in the street, sitting in cafes, or passively shopping. Starkey captures these generic ‘in between’ moments of daily life with a sense of relational detachment. Her still images operate as discomforting ‘pauses’; where the banality of existence is freeze-framed in crisis point, creating reflective instances of inner contemplation, isolation, and conflicting emotion.

…[they] evoke suggestive narratives through their appropriation of cultural templates: issues of class, race, gender, and identity are implied through the physical appearance of her models or places…with a pervasive voyeuristic intrusion, framing moments of intimacy for unapologetic consumption. Starkey often uses composition to heighten this sense of personal and emotional disconnection, with arrangements of lone figures separated from a group, or segregated with metaphoric physical divides such as tables or mirrors.

…titling her work as Untitled, followed by a generalised date of creation, her photographs parallel the interconnected vagueness of memory, recalling suggestions of events and emotions without fixed location or context…a platform where fiction and reality are blurred, illustrating the gap between personal fragility and social construction, and merging the experiences of strangers with our own.

Starkey certainly manages to capture an atmosphere of pensive loneliness and her messages are definitely more subtle than those of Murrell. However, due to these subtleties and more day-dream like qualities they come across, for me at least, as more artistic than documentary. With Murrell’s work you know what the messages aimed at the youngsters are, but with Starkey you can only imagine what the subjects thoughts might be.

Joan Fontcuberta

The body of work we are asked to explore next is Joan Fontcuberta’s Sputnik – the Odyssey of the Soyuz II, which has ‘challenged the aura of authenticity that has traditionally surrounded the B&W document’ as he brings ‘fiction, manipulation and delusion into the documentary genre.’

Joan Fontcuberta is a conceptual photographer who definitely enters into the realm of performance and fiction. ‘Over the past few decades, Fontcuberta has produced an extensive body of work that confuses fact with fiction and subjects with their photographic representation.’ Having never heard of the book and before researching it , it vaguely reminded me of the work of Christina de Middel,  The Afronauts.

It was fascinating to discover the reasons why he creates such elaborate hoaxes.

The idea is to challenge disciplines that claim authority to represent the real – botany, topology, any scientific discourse, the media, even religion. I chose photography because it was a metaphor of power. When I started in the early 70s, photography was a charismatic medium providing evidence.

I lived for 20 years under the Francoist regime, so like all my generation I suffered from the lack of transparency and the doctoring of documents to reconstruct history.

Photography is one of the tools that helps us construct reality. It is not an innocent medium.

Sputnik reveals a narrative of how, in 1968, during a routine space walk, a Russian cosmonaut, Ivan Istochnikov and his dog went missing in space, leaving behind his damaged ship and a message in a vodka bottle… Apparently so realistic, the project fooled many into believing it was true, including a Spanish journalist, Iker Jiménez, who asked on his TV show, ‘was Istochnikov deleted from history? Had he annoyed the Soviet government?’

I like to consider my work a vaccine where you inoculate the world with a very weak virus so it will protect you against the big virus. My mission is just to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored, that people need to be critically sceptical of images that format our behaviour and our way of thinking

Fontcuberta successfully achieves his aim, due to the realism of his constructs and the superb quality of his manipulated images. He would not accomplish this without a gullible target audience. Sadly the general public are all to willing to believe that which is set before them, especially if it comes from a public figure of the establishment, or when presented as a documentary fact in the traditional form.

Although I wouldn’t class this as documentary I think it is brilliant work and does serve its purpose: to inform that seeing is not always believing!


Cotton , C. (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Thames & Hudson , London

Charley Murrell Constructed Childhoods!__personal-projects/–constructed-childhoods [Accessed 12/04/2017]

Charley Murrell 2012. %5BAccessed 12/04/2017]

Charlie Tatum 2014  %5BAccessed 12/04/2017]

Colin Pantall 2014  [Accessed 12/04/2017]

Hannah Starkey Untitled [Accessed 12/04/2017]

Saatchi Gallery, Hannah Starkey, Online at [Accessed 12/04/2017]

Stuart Jeffries 2014  Guardian Newspaper, Joan Fontcuberta: false negatives, %5BAccessed 12/04/2017]


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