Reflections on Tutor report, the Calendar, Barthes and advertising



In his introductory essay to the Phaidon 55 Joan Fontcuberta issue, Christian Caujolle cites the artist, who had spent some years in Marketing, describing advertisements as “…designed to provoke desire, then the ‘consumption reflex’ in those who look at them…”

The company calendar, that is the output for this assignment, has been synonymous with the development of consumerism since the industrial revolution and the advent of the machine age. The brief requests the photographer not to ‘focus’ on the product and my choice of a ‘support group’ within the auspices on the NHS certainly fitted the bill. The ‘product’, if that is how it might be described, is that of support through difficult periods to both patient and their partner/carers. There are no logo’s for either the Group or the umbrella organization that provides the service. So all in all I realized that I had pulled away from a lot of the assignment requirements as much as I thought I could, and, though I explained it to my tutor I had largely positive remarks in response to it.

I have been working this group for much of the time during this course and my tutor is concerned that this may be affecting my judgment as I seem to be prioritizing it over developing a broader photographic base. I fully accept that view and can sympathize with that perspective, and given only this courses assignments as a view I might well come up with that conclusion. So I will not use my work with the group for the final pieces on the course, despite having a less of a concern in that respect. One of the principal academic areas in this module was the notions of Barthes from Camera Lucida and also Semiotics from Saussure, and whilst I have done quite a bit of research in those areas in Level one and in the other Level two course Documentary, I haven’t detailed any thoughts in this course and my tutor thought it might be a good idea to remedy that by looking, and critiquing some of the images I used in this submission, to see how well I thought they carried the ‘message’ that I wanted to convey. I will come to that.

The ride on public transport is an opportunity for thought and reflection, and sometimes the odd encounter that helps to provoke more thought. Returning to the ‘Park & Ride’ car park on the lower deck of the bus I noticed some reading material on the floor under the seat in front of me. And whilst this isn’t something I think I would normally do I picked it up and started to consider what I found. The front-cover of the magazine was a search for two answers to two questions and it is to this image that I want to first consider, in relation to both the module I have been working on, the assignment brief and response from my tutor and then perhaps to where I have travelled to thus far.

Thinking about the semiotic values of the main image. Maybe half of the image area is taken up with a woman with her arms around a young child, the older woman is looking off to her right whilst the child on her left is looking toward the face of the woman – their eyes do not meet. Behind and to the right of these subjects is a scene of devastation, directly above the girl can be seen crumbling buildings, rubble covers the middle ground between the subjects and the edifice in the distance that still has smoke pouring from it. To their right is what appears to be the burn-out wreck of a car and even closer is, seemingly, bullet ridden metal sheets, perhaps another vehicle, perhaps a shelter, it is difficult to discern. The text is white and emblazoned in white on the dark clothing of the woman, capitalized and sequenced in two sentances: WHY SO MUCH SUFFERING? WHEN WILL IT END? The words ‘suffering’ and ‘end’ are ‘boldened’ as if to amplify their meaning.

What does all this denote? Well we have a woman, whose demeanour  is of a carer, probably a mother to the younger girl, the idiom of ‘Madonna and child’ would be difficult not to connote. The woman isn’t looking at the child; she is perhaps searching for an answer, a solution to their current predicament; again we might connect this to Lange’s ‘Migrant Mother’ similarly looking distantly to her left. The text is a call for help, the child’s demeanour and expression echoes and amplifies that plaintiff call. The connotation is one of a forlorn hope.

The crumbling and devastated landscape that is in the process of enveloping them is mirrored in their dirty faces, they have survived whatever has befallen the land – at least so far, we might denote that they have with force of character; the will and the luck to be where they are. Can I connote that they have been chosen to be so lucky so far?

Both the subjects aren’t dressed shabbily, their hair is still shiny and clean, they are clearly still healthy and nourished – a little wind blown perhaps – but their faces are full, they appear in most instances to be healthy. We might connote that they could have lost their way? Or perhaps been caught up in something, a natural disaster perhaps, a war zone?

Looking closely around the head of the woman there can be clearly seen a bright ring surrounding her, demarking her from the crumbling of the building to her left and merging with the brighter light of the sky to her right. I wonder whether this might be a fortuitous or purposeful development of the Madonna theme by the photographer either in the framing or perhaps in post processing.

I notice also that it’s a square image, I find that interesting in that not many photographers take a square format camera to either a battle scene or a disaster scene, they are too cumbersome. Digital imagery is important for a number of reasons, the capture quantity is huge when compared to film (of course it could be a digital square format, but they are normally associated with art based or studio based work and this is very definitely in the reportage idiom), the speed of operation is a very distinct advantage, the ‘connectivity’ to the mediums which use this type of image makes it much easier to connect with. So this is tending to suggest that this image has been cropped, most likely to focus the gaze on the woman and child situated in this disaster zone. The picture editor has probably cropped this image, troubling perhaps but not disturbingly so.

The tones of the image are muted, nothing distinguishes this as an exaltant image in any way. It places the narrative of these two surviving females in the context of extant disaster very clearly. Denoting that these two are in some peril, all about them is cataclysm of almost biblical proportions, there appears no rest-bite from our perspective from impending and enveloping jeopardy.

In Barthesian terms these are all ‘Studiums’ and semiotic responses to the image. Whether contrived (staged/posed) this image impels the viewer to consider the plight of the subjects. Connoting and denoting with visual triggers to what are in the main, sociological conditioned responses.

The ‘lead’ subject is a white woman – much as Lange’s ‘Mother’ was, posing the rhetorical question, would it be less of a ‘story’ if the character was a male, or a dark skinned male or perhaps a hijab wearing middle eastern lady? But then I go back to the image, where it is situated, what the assignment is. It is a photograph on the front cover of a magazine found on an Oxford city bus. It is also an enticement to covet the answer held between the covers.

So what about the ‘Punctum’, that response to an image that Barthes describes as “..that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” That personal response to an image that is probably not seen when first encountering the image, but because the image stirred a ‘Studium’ response meant that the eye dwelt and in doing so discerned a puzzle, posed a question, disturbed the continuity – or however it made itself manifest forcing the arrival of the ‘prick’. Barthes describes it as a personal response, to which of course my ‘Punctum’ is mine alone, no other has trod my path. There are though multiple ‘Punctums’ in this image for me, and most have been situated by the title of the publication, which associated with the text puts this in a very clearly defined place. I am though concerned a trifle with the lighting; above and to the main subject’s left is a large light source, high enough not to register in the eyes beneath a very furrowed brow, but catch her shoulder, open enough to catch the young girl’s nose and forehead and almost rim-lighting her beseeching profile. This divine light is despite the gloom everywhere else; a break in the clouds perhaps to shine a light on these two survivors I suspect this is a staged shot and probably a composite, there is no photographer attribution inside the magazine.

The “Watchtower” is an organ of the Jehova’s Witness and is not for sale, this image was almost all of the front cover – I redacted the banner title. My research into disaster photography has led me to undertake some interviews with charity organisations that specialize in ‘relief’, namely ‘Oxfam’ and ‘Pump-Aid’. Their view was that imagery needs to be sensitively nuanced to elicit attention, to engender compassion for the cause and, as Fontcuberta states provoke the ‘consumption reflex’; to not portray the people as ‘victims’ in a hopeless cause – why would you want to donate to a hopeless cause? How does that relate to a magazine whose sole purpose is the recruit new affiliates to its own cause? By providing answers, the texts within the magazine spell out very clearly that within their bible are the answers to all these problems, I won’t describe or quote from them but rather stay focused on the comprehension of the image. Charities, fund raisers, and religions are all in competition both with each other for funds and across the spectrum. The charities I spoke to are very aware of the competitive nature of their place in the consumer milieu. They appreciate that they need to attract donators who are prepared to give money, that their good-work is more important to the donators than any other good-work-doers. The images that are chosen by those charities are carefully selected under very clearly defined rules, which do not denote ‘victim’, do not denote ‘helpless’, but rather independence under difficult circumstances. The Oxfam person suggested that religious charities tend not to adhere to these sort of notions, that the ‘lost’ are often featured. This image and others that are used in connection with relief from strife and suffering are then advertisements, designed to induce desire (the desire to help), to satiate the viewer’s desire to ‘come to the aid’ of these victims, whether hopeful or however hopeless.

As Barthes deliberated, as much as his ‘Punctum’ is what bruises him, my ‘Punctumis all mine and mine alone; informed by who I am and what critical referencing I have or am bereft of; I denote and connote in a sphere of my own consciousness and a lifetime less interesting than most. But so are others similarly informed, the marketing person isn’t wholly interested in the connotations, the primary motivation is in adherence to the image for however long is needed to implant the seed of desire. The Company Calendar has used many forms to attract itself to it’s market, Pirelli offers this as it’s current ‘cause to desire’. Some might suggest that it is still in the ‘dark-ages’ in it’s approach, however it would not present such a product without the conviction that it will continue to ‘cause the desire’ and the ‘compulsion to consume’. These decisions are base decisions, much as the Jehova’s Witness considers it a straightforward choice to offer redemption and deliverance guided by the depiction of a Madonna in flight from a Sodom and Gomorra landscape to, perhaps an Edenic deliverance. It works because they use its visual narrative, if it didn’t work they wouldn’t. Pirelli still uses passive women in overtly sexual poses for exactly the same reason. Marketing and Sales works. The first rule of the advert is to obtain attention; the second rule is to obtain attention of the target audience. ‘Punctum’ may do the rest. The passive bare breasted, posterior exposing female implores the ‘Studium” response to any who consider themselves in the bracket that Pirelli want to talk to, the audience provides the vernacular response dwelling long enough to want to be associated and remember the ‘brand’ the next time they are in ‘Quick Fit’. Others, who seek ‘answers’, might feel inquisitive enough to satiate that yearning with a visit to a congregation and ‘support’ them there. From an image perspective I see no difference in the two intents, the liminal and subliminal content have the same narrative, their reliances on the Barthesian observations are coincidental as all images have the capacity to provide overt and covert, purposeful and un-purposed narratives, its just that advertisements are all determined constructs designed purposely to invoke reaction, form associations and deliver that desired instinct.

As a photographic artist the desire to invoke reaction is perhaps only concerned with developing the notion of a constructed ‘Studium’, the composure, the narrative structure, the contextual referencing which are left within the frame to develop the discourse between creator and spectator. Forming a basis for intercourse between those two parties have different bases from which to launch any conversation. Brent Stirton’s continual drive to ‘go one better’ in the presentation of images to win prizes is part of that capitalist drive that is no different in moral turpitude than that of Pirelli or the Watchtower, they all want us to part with cash, or perhaps cash is the driving force behind the click of the shutter release. To review one’s own work from a disinterested perspective, to attempt to derive the ‘Punctum’ from the frame is, I would venture to suggest, difficult for as an artist, the content of the frame is a construct. What is it that drives the need for this level of subtlety in this sort of image from Stirton? And the direct connection from all the base desires on display in this frame collide with mine, and that is of course cash. The detritus surrounding the supplier and receiver in Stirton’s image situates them in the fringes, the ‘Edgelands’, of Kiev and of a society coming to terms with both capitalism and political upheaval. Cash is the stimulus and the encumbrance of these two and also the ‘Punctum’ that binds them together.

From session one

From session one

But to attempt the task bidden by my tutor it is the nails that I didn’t notice in the girl tenderly nurturing the ‘nest’ that she is constructing that might provide the ‘Punctive’ element; I didn’t notice it when I asked her to pose in that way, the ‘Studium’ was an attempt to deliver that nurturing element, both as a means by which the spectator might connote that this child had a depth to her despite her difficulties. That it finds her in this group, but also reflecting that the group is a nurturing facility to its users; a mirror to her place in the group/society. Those few nails that have the sense of toil, of exertion, of struggle perhaps.

From session two

From session two

And equally in this image of a boy masking himself which offers both the ‘Studium’ as the means by which to engage the viewer, the careful handling of the clay, and then as the ‘Punctum’ by the masking of the boy to anonymise him in a society that has less and less regard for individuals who can’t, for whatever reason, contribute and conform to those norms that Pirelli would feel easier in.

This chap who is full of joy at the surface level, enjoying the pieces and interaction with others in the group, whilst the subliminal question might be to ask why, what has led him, this apparently healthy and alert person to be with this group? I might ask the question, its joyous facade for me is pregnant with association as I have a knowledge, not a complete knowledge but a vested comprehension of what underpins his activity and presence. The viewer will denote I am fairly hopeful of his rapture, but maybe not any sense of grace.

These generations huddled in consideration of a common subject, in a common place with a common cause, we denote those characteristics of the image, we might also denote the inclusiveness of the group based on gender, race and age – all subjects equally valued in the frame and respected as such. We might also connote the active participants are the two on the left of the image, both with writing implements, both expressing are in active control, whilst the elder two are more reflective and receptive in this instant of capture.

Fontcuberta’s posit regarding advertising is one that I have a great deal of sympathy for. The notion of action/reaction is a visual paradigm going back to the dawn of the industrial age, the means by which the image could be replicated as embedded into the capitalist construct. My images in this ‘calendar’ were never intended to solicit emotive responses similar in intent to those of the Watchtower/Pirelli or Stirton. In the images my intent was to inform, to add to the discussion about the value of existence for those in the group, not to have judgment made about whom was a clinical user or a volunteer or clinical professional.

And finally, I fully appreciate that the descriptive potency of these words has permitted a transformation of interpretive comprehension on all of the images from a disinterested spectator. I hope that I haven’t extinguished whatever value I had vested in these portraits, but I know I have changed them forever.


Gillanders and Stirton

David Gillanders and Brent Stirton

The course notes towards the end of each section provide a list of photographers who, I assume, are active in the field/genre of the area of study coming to a completion and in this case Documentary. I’ve decided to focus this post on ways in which a similar subject has been covered by both the aforementioned photographers. The object isn’t to say which photographer did a better job, more compelling, worth more, just to compare the different approaches in both aesthetics of production and what ‘I’ sense as the underlying contextual narrative. Both have looked at the effect of poverty, AIDS and the misuse of drugs in the Ukraine. Their approaches, both visually and physically, have been very different from each other, but both sets provide compelling imagery that brings awareness to these western eyes.

David Gillanders’ approach street children of ukraine is, seemingly, more personal to the subjects. He prefaces the work with this statement

In 2000 I was travelling through Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union developing a project on the transmission of HIV through intravenous drug use. I stumbled upon a group of young kids who were being chased from a McDonalds restaurant by a very aggressive restaurant manager. I intervened to prevent the manager beating the kids on the street. The kids had been removing leftovers from empty tables. This act led me into an underground world where young children live and die in the most squalid and horrible conditions I have ever experienced. Orphans, runaways, wee broken souls fending for themselves in a cruel and unforgiving world.”

The images are ‘clicked” on by the viewer to scroll them through and no other text is provided. The narrative needs to be developed by the viewer using the preface to situate the work and the image narrative to inform it. The first five images aren’t particularly alarming, pictures of boys who have a ‘place’ that is seemingly underground; reached by a manhole cover, dark and gritty images with compressed monochrome tones. It isn’t until the sixth shot that we notice something to concern the viewer. Three boys, one is exhaling and we can’t see what it is; the exhaling boy is in a state, apparently of grace. The next shot is of a boy outside, slightly older, maybe twelve or thirteen, but just a boy. We see him next shot in between – on the right of the photograph some hypodermic syringe paraphernalia and on the left hand side, some phials or bottles of medicinal products. This boy is bare chested and has a bandage or dressing on his arm above the elbow joint. We are now situated in a much darker place than we were when we started the series and the rest of the thirty six or so (a roll of 35mm film?) later gets darker and darker.

Gillanders has found a way to, seemingly, embed himself with these street urchins, who are, we learn later, slowly but defiantly killing themselves. These boys and girls, outside of a society that a generation ago would have had some form of safety net under the socialist regime in place, now find themselves with, apparently, no hope. Gillanders takes us to that intimate place; there are no watchers – we are watching their destruction, witnesses to their predicament, we are being challenged to consider our position

Brent Stirton starts his series Aids, Drugs and Uncertainty: Ukraine with, what one can only assume is a sufferer of AIDS. The series title situates all those inside this body of work as either a sufferer, at risk of suffering, or part of any support system around the condition of AIDS and Drugs. This series, as distinct from Gillanders, is seemingly  slightly detached – but not by much.

Stirton uses colour; beautiful colour, to render these quite awful, tragic, grotesque images transgressively. There are no words to accompany the images. All the depravations associated with the appalling conditions that these sufferers live in, their medical conditions, their sores, their depravity is at the other extreme of the beautiful rendering afforded to each image. The first shot situates the series, the viewer isn’t in for a pleasant ride, the head and shoulders portrait has the subject in a landscape pose, flat on what can be easily discerned as a hospital bed, one eye almost closed the other staring blankly; he could be dead, or at least, as my mother might have said ‘dead to the world’ – trancelike. The images from there on in generally get more explicit in nature, the depravity more grotesquely pictured and by image fifteen we have what we can only assume is a young woman, fellating a customer. That we see the customer from the rear and without any recognizable features and that we see the girl’s face in the act denotes that she doesn’t or cannot afford to care, her need for money overcomes any sense of shame she might have in being depicted as she is, in glorious colour.

These events, and peoples, are a million miles from where I am, their lives, their pitiful lives bare no relation to who or what I am, nor I suspect to the vast majority of the reader’s of these images wherever they appear. I have however an inner belief that this work is of value. I posted this on the student site

“This image by Brent Stirton was a category winner in the world press photo awards this year. The photo information as supplied by the awards is: “Maria, a drug-addicted sex worker, rests between clients in the room she rents in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. The country has the highest incidence of HIV/Aids in Europe and, according to a Unicef report, one in five sex workers is living with HIV. Maria says she remains HIV negative.”

I was concerned about the use of a single image being served up to win a prize – which it did. The general reaction was one that echoed my initial thoughts, but it missed the point of the work, which was the work as a whole. Individualy the single image lacked an abundance that the series carries so much better. In the series there aren’t that many ‘young objectified women’ ‘Maria…’ is one of a couple and the other image in the same pose is far more disturbing for other reasons. If it takes shock to shock the viewer into action then Stirton succeeds, if it doesn’t there is no help for Maria. That her name is Maria in a avowedly orthodox society is perhaps also an interesting choice to use her as opposed to any other image.

I wonder what the contributors to the blog post think now, whether the work as a whole has changed their minds as regards Stirton’s work.

Both Gillanders and Stirton seem to me to have a very clear objective, to bring awareness to some very very difficult issues. Their differing aesthetics and styles work equally well for me. I am hoping that they agree for me to host a few of the images into this post to make the reading easier