Thus I to Life, and ceased, and spake no more,
But turning, straightway, sought a certain door…
From ‘The Suicide’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay
The brief asks for “a photo-story of 10 images that as a set, tells a story and conveys a narrative.” This must be at local level, in colour and not a ‘day in the life of …’ There must be visual variety – different lenses, viewpoints and compositions – but there must be visual and conceptual consistency across the images.
I chose to tell the story of the issues surrounding mental health and suicide victims in Kent, in particular those who took their lives within my local area. I wanted to highlight that mental health problems cross the barrier of age and gender, and despite the statistics gathered, these figures are not always representative of the true number of people who commit suicide. Another intention was to show some of the places, associated with death, being used today in the everyday business of living not just to ‘perpetuate the memory of dead persons, or of dead moments of their lives’ as stated by Christian Metz, (1985, p. 81-90). As Bernice Abbot is quoted as saying, ‘Living photography is positive in its approach, it sings a song of life – not death.”
Unlike the previous assignment I wanted to use a more straight forward photographical approach, showing not only reality, but also ‘things that were felt rather than necessarily seen.’ Wells (1997 cited Robins 1984, p.213). (as per my last assignment)
I used photographer Joel Sternfeld and his body of work On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam as a starting point as well as looking at slightly more contemporary but lesser known photographers such as Sarah Sudhoff and Donna Wan.
The sequencing of my final images link the individual stories together and culminate in the idea of hope and available help for those who struggle.
With This in Mind -A photo essay
Suicide is the leading killer of men under 45 in Kent. Startlingly, in 2014 there were 163 suicides in the county, of which nearly 80% were men.
Worryingly, these numbers have been growing in recent years. Pressures of everyday life can be reasons for men, women and teens to feel stressed, and maybe contemplate taking their own lives. The figures released by the county council, also show that the county has a higher rate of suicide in both men and women than the rest of the UK.
Unfortunately the challenge is men, far more than women, often don’t want to talk about the struggles in their own lives, even with those closest to them. This can lead to an increase in the pressure, feelings of being unable to cope and eventually, thinking there is no way out.
The statistics also reveal that the majority of those who took their lives were not known to the mental health services.
This photo essay hopes to highlight this hidden problem. That everyday people, leading everyday lives, in everyday situations struggle. Mental health should not be a taboo subject. Those left behind should not feel ashamed to talk about the loss of a loved one and should be able to celebrate the life that they led.
As per the brief the final book is made available in a pdf format which can be found here
Or you can view screenshots of the pages as a two page spread as a slideshow by clicking on one of the thumbnails below.
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills:
- Materials: As per the brief I used a variety of lenses, 24-70mm a 50mm and 100mm macro lens and a mix of styles. Experimented with a studio setup, snoots and rim lighting and some staged still life shots.
- Techniques: I took more traditional street/documentary images as well as some staged, taking my initial inspiration from Joel Sternfeld. I different photographic techniques, studio lighting etc as mentioned above, appropriate use of depth of field, slow shutter speed for motion blur etc and differing vantage points. Images were taken either handheld or using a tripod.
- Observational skills: I carefully selected my subjects/location dependent on the narrative of the person I had researched. I was looking for a mix of busy/tranquil scenes, negative space that was still full of interest and aided the narrative, I watched the light and people entering the frame to provide interest from foreground to background.
- Visual awareness: As well as all the above I also looked out for other signs and symbols. My visual awareness is further demonstrated by the variety of photo essay shot styles: individual portrait, wide group shots, country and urban landscape, busy/tranquil scenes and juxtaposition.
- Design and compositional skills: Compositionally I looked for frames within frames and different vantage points, although in the editing process most of my final choices were taken from low crouching position. I looked for leading lines to take your eye around the frame. My final images were captured to contain plenty of visual interest revealing depth and movement in some and a slow tranquil atmosphere in others. The overall design of the book itself is simple with a natural flow to the narrative. The cover images have been chosen as they have suitable negative space to add text, the text itself is plain and easy to read. The front image juxtaposes the title, adding interest and intrigue for the audience, whilst the back image has the rainbow symbol of hope, a positive end to the ‘story’.
Quality of outcome:
- Content: There is only one image that I am not entirely sure of and that is the studio portrait, as it isn’t really in keeping with the style of the other images, yet I felt it worked as an introduction as it was fairly dark and moody and related to the predominance of male victims of suicide.
- Application of knowledge: As with the previous assignments I applied knowledge gained from previous courses, current exercises as well as independent research. Looking at the work of others, who have covered similar topics, and how they captured images helped me to choose the style that I wanted to use: Joel Sternfeld’s images came across as very sombre and Donna Wan’s too romantic. The disparity between the different approaches really underlined the individual subjectivity, reflexivity and authorial control of each photographer and how they used their photographic style to create a mood and put across their interpretation of a narrative. Making sure I knew the background stories to the people I was representing in an image was vitally important. The photography talks I attended make me think more of the appropriateness of captions and how much information to include.
- Presentation in a coherent manner: I strongly believe I’ve presented the final body of work in a coherent manner – the order of the images flow to introduce different people and their differing circumstances. The visual story informs the audience of different characters, locations, developments and both resolution/non resolution. Feedback on Assignment 1 recommended only one choice of presentational technique so I have applied that to keeping all my images the same size and landscape orientation.
- Conceptualisation of thoughts and Communication of ideas: I posted my images within several forums and on social media and although I have had quite a bit of traffic to my blog as yet I have not received any peer feedback. It is hard to be objective with your own images, but I hope that my empathy to this subject comes across and that my visual ‘style’ is becoming apparent through these images.Context and Narrative is proving to be a very useful book in providing answers or making you consider implied meaning, and even if capturing the ‘obvious,’ the inclusion of subtle signs and symbols as well. The David Campbell lecture also highlighted various aspects to consider such as a narrative being an account of connected events, which my images are. His quote from Allen Feldman: “the event is not what happens. The event is that which can be narrated” made me realise that I could choose a subject that was ‘in the past’ and did not have to be a live event. Taking into account that ‘things can speak louder than faces’ I only have one real portrait shot.
Demonstration of creativity:
- Imagination: Unlike assignment 2 where I could embrace the the surreal I had to use my imagination in a different manner, pre-visualising the scenes I wanted to take based on my research and a prior knowledge of location.
- Experimentation and invention: I experimented with staged documentary and a studio set up. I could also be creative with depth of field and motion blur. Thinking about how to represent each of my subjects also allowed for me to consider the effects of lighting, time of day, busyness of the scene, juxtaposition and be creative with elements/signs and symbols within the frame.
- Development of personal voice: Although I am enjoying this course I am not sure that straight documentary is my ‘thing’ as I do like to capture the quirky and lean towards surrealism. However, looking at some of the images within the photo essay I think I can see a certain style in the way I capture busy social landscapes.
- Reflection: One of the important lessons or ideas conveyed within this part of the course is the understanding of reflexivity and authorship – that a photographer could, through their own unique style or attitude to a subject, impose a narrative on real events, happening at the time or historically. Hopefully my final set of images convey a sense of place as they are now, of choices people can make, of mood and atmosphere without being political, romantic, or depressive. That my own ‘voice’ or style is starting to become apparent.Peer feedback echoed concerns with regards top the portrait image. I am open to constructive criticism and if tutor recommendation is to amend I shall do so. Peer feedback also commented on my original choice of title It’s Mental…a play on words in as much as the fact people struggle is ridiculous as well as the issue being a mental health one. It was felt that it was not in keeping with the respectful and empathetic tone of the images. On reflection I agreed and changed it to ‘With this in Mind.’
- Research: I carried out extensive research into photographers who created bodies of work around the idea of violence/suicide. I have continued to read many of the recommended reference materials, and have attended several galleries and photography talks, most recent the Magnum talk, with regards to the single image/telling stories as well as completing in-depth research when completing the set exercises.
- Critical thinking: semiotics played a part in my decision-making as I continued to look for signs and symbols within each shot. Once more I examined sections of Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative Liz Wells Photography: A critical introduction as well as listening to the recommended lecture by Professor David Campbell. As ever keeping track of thought processes and initial ideas in my learning log has proved invaluable.
Abbot, B. ‘Dynamic Daily Quotation’ Think exist,com online at http://thinkexist.com/quotation/does_not_the_very_word-creative-mean_to_build-to/200158.html %5BAccessed 02 Sept 2017]
Metz, C. October, Vol. 34. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 81-90 online at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/visualarts/Metz-Photography-and-Fetish-October-1985.pdf [Accessed 02 Sept 2017]
Short, M. (2011) Basics creative photography 02: Context and narrative. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.
Wells, L. (ed.) (1997) Photography: A critical introduction. London: Routledge.