Category Archives: Project 3 : Documentary , identity and place

Research point : Senses of place

Compare and contrast the strategies adopted in conveying a sense of local identity. Do you think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place you’re documenting ? Can you find any evidence that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’ ?

Jens Olof Lasthein b Sweden

Waiting for the future –pictures from Abkhazia

Born in Sweden and brought up in Denmark Jens Olof Lasthein is a freelance photographer who also works on self-directed personal projects. Curiosity about a breakaway state that did not officially exist led him to document the Eastern Europeans who inhabited an environment very different to his own.

The images were taken using a wide angle panoramic camera and 35mm film allowing him to include “more actions happening at the same time” . He does occasionally stage scenes but he says “mostly it doesn’t work ” , preferring instead not to direct but record spontaneously , getting to know his subjects through talking , sharing a meal or drink . However he acknowledges his being there will inevitably influence the outcome . Due to the panoramic view the saturated images are neither traditional portrait or landscape but a hybrid of both and have incongruous elements in the frame that at first glance seem strange and are difficult to read. He explains “the world is not easy to understand so the pictures should not be too easy either “.

The bleakness of life here is suggested by the backdrop of shingle beaches , derelict buildings and stray dogs . Yet life goes on , the inhabitants socialise , sunbathe and swim , make the most of their environment despite the harsh reality of their environment as they await their future , whatever that may bring .

David Goldblatt b1930 South Africa

South African Goldblatt considers his photography to be ” a conversation between me and myself and the subject ” . His early monochrome work was taken during the time of racial segregation and I find it interesting that he states his work was not particularly about apartheid . However by choosing instead to record the often routine details of every day life ” his views of shanty towns , billboards , shacks , and public monuments subtly alluded to the conditions of racial inequality” ( Warner Marien Mary , 2010 ,p.g 327 ) . He is not concerned with technical attributes but in what an image suggests, its real meaning. His images are intended to question who we are , our integrity , how did we reach this situation and “Goldblatt is enough of a documentarist to register the place without bias , seeing it as both ‘nondescript and elusive‘ ” (Jeffrey , 1997, pg.181) .


Despite using colour for his commercial commissions his personal projects were recorded almost exclusively in black and white, “you need to work to look at a black and white photograph. It doesn’t immediately come to you . Colour is much more sensuous , sweet and welcoming ” . However by the 1990’s the advance of new technology encouraged Goldblatt to also photograph his private assignments in colour . Apartheid ended in 1994 but social and economic inequalities continued . In 1998 shocked with he saw was happening to Johannesburg he felt “no sense of belonging” , he considered post-apartheid South Africa had become a “wasteland” . With political change and the end of apartheid his documentary work no longer needed to record racial inequality but the social disparity and decay he saw present in South African communities.

He initially began to photograph in black and white but , following a trip to Australia , he switched to continue the nine year project in colour , the images have muted almost dusty tones. Travelling around the countryside he documented the vast open spaces of his native South Africa , the landscape , cities , construction sites , derelict buildings , at the intersections where where past and future met. The landscapes form a critical element of the work reflecting on the plight of the dispossessed , questioning once again , as he did in his earlier work , the morality of past and present policies and the reformation of his homeland.

Mikhael Subotzky b1981 South Africa

Beaufort West

On a primary level , I still very much see my work as being about myself , and my place. It is photographs of my personal experience of my surroundings. But as I learn more about the power of images , or perhaps the power of all texts ( including photographs) , and the power of narrative , association and imagination , I get more and more excited about making work
Mikhael Subotzky 2009 .

Beaufort West is a detailed study of life in post-apartheid South African society containing beautifully considered and composed images with a mix of rich and subtle colour tones . Yet the narrative of life in a small rural town and of the inmates detained in Beaufort West prison is quite depressing . The Afterword from the book by Jonny Steinberg HERE is particularly interesting to read, but what really strikes me is how he discusses his own personal experience of the geographical space photographed by Subotzky.

Marco van Duyvendiijk b1974 Netherlands

I really like his images of everyday life in Mongolia that include some beautiful portraits of the heterogeneous population. The region is home to both traditional and modern cultures , a geographical space that contains a curious mix of monasteries and mines , contortionists , monks and punks .

Philip Cheung

Cheung’s images of everyday life in the West Bank are a world away from the usual images of war ravaged places. I particularly like this one HERE , an optimistic image that allow the inhabitants of a region , usually associated with strive and despair , to be seen in a positive and empathetic manner.

A lifetime can be spend in one geographical location but how it is experienced and understood will be influenced by , amongst other factors , political and socio-economic circumstances . Hence I do believe the same geographical space can be different places at the same time but I find it quite difficult to answer whether it is easier to document a place you actually come from .

An article in the latest issue of Black+ White Photography magazine considers Byker the documentary series by Finnish photographer Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen. She lived in Byker, a working class area of Newcastle -upon-Tyne , for six years and “puts her acceptance by the locals down to the fact that she was a foreigner explaining that:’Being a foreigner gave me one advantage-I could be nosey , and be forgiven. Many doors were opened for me that would have remained closed to another photographer, and invitations extended to the kind of hospitality and intimacy that would normally be reserved for family only” (p.g 52 B+W) .

However I feel all of the photographers I have researched above have successfully managed to convey a sense of local identity. Despite their differing approaches they share an ability to engage with their chosen subject on a local level , whether they originate from the place or not. By choosing to document in colour I feel the images are both contemporary and pertinent .

Bibliography /References

Jeffrey Ian , (1997 ) .The Photo Book , Phaidon Press , London , UK

Mavlian S , (2015 ) A Modern Eye Black + White Photography (Issue 179) pg. 50-53

Warner Marien Mary . (2010 ) Photography:A Cultual History Third edition, Laurence King , London, UK


Philip Cheung
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Marco van Duyvendiijk
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David Goldblatt
Jens Olof Lasthein 
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Mikhael Subotzky 
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Research point:Reflexivity and authorship

“Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world , when the work can be regarded , first and foremost , as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist

(Alan Sekula , in Liebling , 1978 , p.236)

Alex Webb

Istanbul : City of a Hundred Names

Istanbul is quite unique , a place where East meets West . I visited Istanbul a few years ago and fell in love with the vibrancy of the city , the bustling crowds , sights , sounds and smells so different from home.

The immediate thing I noticed when looking at the images were the colours , the beauty and opulence ,” some use a restrained palette , others a more restrained one ” ( Steele-Perkins , p.g 544 , Magnum Magnum) . The unusual compositions are busy using both juxtaposition and surreal elements to convey a mood , shadowy figures walk across the frame , others are bathed in golden light.

Although Webb’s images initially reminded me of my visit his personal perspective captures the city in a very different and distinct way to what I remember of it . His observations of Istanbul have been criticised , comments left on the Magnum podcast suggest his subjectivity make this a biased view , how could he understand a place without having spent years there? I agree that it is impossible to know somewhere without inhabiting the place but that is what makes these so aesthetically pleasing : we see Istanbul through Webb’s eyes , are shown something rather special.

Webb describes his photography as ” an exploration -visually , physically , emotionally and psychologically” ( Webb , p.g 474 , Magnum Stories ) these images reflect that , and I think this is what makes them fit Sekula’s criteria of what he calls documentary art. The narrative does not reveal the fundamental nature of a city but reflects instead Webb’s individual experience of a fascinating multi-facteted society.

References / Bibliography

Steele-Perkins Chris (2009 In: Lardinois Brigitte , (ed) . Magnum Magnum . London Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Webb Alex . (2004) Webb In : Boot C, ed . Magnum Stories. London:Phaidon Press Ltd pp.474-475
Accessed 11/7/15

Exercise : Simon Roberts

We English

Read the article on We English in Eight magazine (issue 25 , summer 2009)
Core resources : Foto8#25-WeEnglish.pdf

Download Stephen Daniels’ introductory essay to We English and the relevant contact sheets from

Write a short reflective commentary.

I initially re-read and have copied the notes I made when I went to see an exhibition of We English about four years ago:
On looking at this collection I was amazed at the intricate detail visible in his large scale work which is printed at 50 x 40. It is great to be able to get really close up to work like this as there is so much detail within the frame that is not immediately noticeable, tiny dots turn out to be human inhabitants of the landscape scaled images . He uses a 5 x 4 Ebony plate camera, “a brand new traditional old design“. Once the film is in the camera he is unable to see and compose through the lens, he comments that any human subjects therefore cannot be too sure if he is actually shooting them as his eye is not looking at them through the viewfinder. Additionally he uses a cable release frequently held behind his back. The camera forces him to work slowly, he has to ” look and study” carefully to compose , this slowness he feels helps “crafting a photograph” .These are not quick, candid, images, they are thoughtful and studied images of the British landscape that just happen to also include people. My favourite was of Saunton Sands, Devon, 23/5/2008. The frame is filled with soft beige neutral tones and gentle curves, with tiny, just visible, black dots of surfers.

We English examines the relationship between leisure and landscape , how people interact with the land in their free time. Roberts work does not depict the destruction of the land by day-trippers and holiday-makers , these are almost idyllic scenes with a consistent subtle colour palette. Robert’s made the decision that people should occupy less than a third of each frame. This decision meant some “harsh editing” ( Foto8. p.g 30) was necessary in order to stick rigidly to his personal brief.

Having spent time researching he received funding from various sources including the National Media Museum “achieved by a shrewd understanding of Bradford’s priorities. ‘They have a rich archive in their collection of Tony Ray-Jones and Bill Brandt , so of them its interesting as part of giving the grant , they also get some prints from the final project. So they get an updated, more contemporary work on England for their collection” ( Foto8. p.g 30) Funding was important to Roberts as the work was not simply intended to become a book , his intent was to exhibit the work too.

The work was well publicised as he travelled around the country with his family in a motor-home. Promoting the project launch via the BBC News online on St George’s day , regarded as England’s national day, was not only clever marketing but ensured reaching a diversified audience. The project website enabled interaction between the photographer and his audience. A weekly bulletin , in the form of a digital photograph , was published by the Times asking for suggestions to be made of events and locations that were pertinent to the project. This not only ensured continued interest but actively included the public in his project , creating a personal connection to the people depicted.

Important factors that ensure a successful documentary project , as used by Roberts , are commitment , research , publicity and skilful editing .

Bibliography / References

Core resources : Foto8#25-WeEnglish.pdf
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