Photographing the unseen. What kinds of subjects might be seen as un-photographable? How might you go about portraying them using photography? Implement your ideas, aiming for a tightly edited and visually consistent series of 7-10 images. Include an introduction of around 300 words.
When I received the date for my long awaited knee replacement surgery, I immediately realized I had my subject for Assignment 2 – pain. I would be my own research guinea pig, documenting my thoughts, feelings and daily happenings during this long recovery process. Initially I thought it would easy. I would take my camera with me to hospital and document my experience there.
Once home and eventually able to sit for a short while at my computer I communicated my ideas with my tutor. I happened to mention to her that at one stage I was experiencing really weird Salvador Dali type dreams. She encouraged me to go down the dream route for my assignment. Immediately I was stumped, but I started doing some research and found a few photographers who inspired me. While I have not done any dream interpretations, I have tried to apply a dreamlike-state to my images.
While doing some research I came across an article by a medical student, Stephanie Wang Zuo, about “the notion of the resistance of physical pain to language” and she referenced Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain which she had read as part of her course. What really intrigued me was the statement by Scarry (p. 80) that “physical pain is not just language-destroying, it also destroys the objects of consciousness”. If pain is that difficult to express in language, how much more so in pictures? I realized I had to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. What I did not expect were the feelings that this assignment would invoke in me. I feel very exposed, naked and uncomfortable as these images are very personal. Scarry (p. 87) definitely had a valid point when she said “pain and injury do throw you back on yourself”. The title of my project refers to the 30 staples that closed my surgical wound.
Emily Dickinson encapsulates perfectly what I am trying to convey in a poem:
Pain has an element of Blank (650)
Pain—has an Element of Blank—
It cannot recollect
When it begun—or if there were
A time when it was not—
It has no Future—but itself—
Its Infinite contain
Its Past—enlightened to perceive
New Periods—of Pain.
Below are my contact sheets for this assignment.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills (materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills)
My equipment used for this assignment were my 18-55 mm and 18-140 mm lenses together with my Nikons D3000, D7200 and Olympus TG630. My tripod and remote shutter release were also used extensively. I have tried to keep my series of images to a muted palate, the only splashes of colour being the items supplied by medical institutions. I experimented mainly with long exposure and multiple exposure. I found it quite difficult to be my own model during multiple exposure shots, less so with the long exposures. With the exception of Fig 10, all images were done in camera.
Quality of Outcome (content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas)
I felt as if I was working in the dark for the most part of this assignment. I had a few new features on my new Nikon D7200 that I used quite extensively and it involved a lot of trial and error to get the images I was after. I mainly used long exposure and multiple exposure features to create the set. I put some test images up for peer review on the OCA Facebook Level 1 group and received some constructive suggestions and positive feedback: “I suffer with chronic pain, I showed these images to my wife and she said that’s you in there too, can’t commend you enough for doing this as your assignment as its a really hard thing to visualise is pain” and “I found ‘Pain relief’ & ‘self-inflicted pain’ particularly poignant. For me the dreamlike quality works on a lot of levels – the potential side effects of medication, the psychological impact of constant pain, the search for relief. At least that’s what I would relate to my experience.” This was a huge relief for me as I had been afraid that my images would not speak to anyone.
Demonstration of Creativity (imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice)
I was advised to take more risks and this is by far the most riskiest project I have ever done. I experimented until I was close to tears. I found it quite nerve wracking to be in front of the camera in such a personal capacity. Some ideas that I had didn’t see the light of day as I just could not get them to work. I had very much wanted to present an image like those of Sarah Byrne, only in a darker manner. I really struggled with this technique and was not satisfied with the results I got. So I thought that I would shelve that technique and move on with the assignment. I think I have been inventive, while at the same time staying true to my story.
Context (reflection, research, critical thinking)
In preparation for my assignment I looked at the following photographers (my details remarks can be found on their pages):
- Oscar Gustave Rejlander – I really liked his ghostly tableaux and would like to try something along those lines when I have an opportunity to shoot more than one person.
- Grahame Weinbren – his composite images in his Nights video blending the old/new/fictional and real together.
- Duane Michals – his sequences series triggered my humble efforts
- Nassim Rouchiche – an Algerian photographer’s images that really resonated with me and helped to illustrate the invisibility that I was after.
- Pedro Meyer – Meyer came to my attention during the exercise we did on Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project. I particularly like the way he presented his work in such a personal manner, providing the narration in his own voice using still images in a video format extremely poignant.
Due to my knee surgery, I only managed to get to one exhibition where I hobbled around the gallery on crutches. My detailed notes are on the relevant exhibition page linked below.
I did some research into Postmodernism which I’m still trying to get to grips with. While doing research for part 2, I came across an interesting documentary about Giles Penfound on Storytelling with The Art of Photography, which deals with conflict photography. I also took a look at the video clip recommended by Russell Squires about the painter Vermeer and his use of the camera obscura in making his paintings – Vermeer’s Camera and Tim’s Vermeer. I found this to be incredibly interesting and would love to see the full documentary on this fantastical experiment.
I managed to read Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author. I find that I am becoming more accustom to Barthes’ manner of writing and he is becoming easier to understand. I also tackled Catherine Belsey’s A Very Short Introduction to Poststructuralism. I understood some of it, but a lot of it went over my head. I think it would be handy for those of us who don’t come from an art background to have a short historical overview of all the ‘-ism’ or various art movement periods with bullet points on each one’s main characteristics.
In retrospect, I have enjoyed this assignment, even though I still harbour ambivalent feelings towards it.
Dickinson, Emily. Poem 650 (Pain – Has an Element of Blank) [online] Available from: http://genius.com/Emily-dickinson-pain-has-an-element-of-blank-650-annotated [Accessed 26 September, 2015]
Geddes, Jennifer L. On Evil, Pain, and Beauty: A Conversation with Elaine Scarry. [online] The Hedgehog Review/Summer 00. Available from: http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/archives/Evil/2.2IScarry.pdf [Accessed 16 August, 2015]
Zuo, Stephanie Wang (2014). Poem About Pain. [online]. The Medical Student Press Blog. Available from http://www.themspress.org/blog/poem-about-pain/ [Accessed 16 August, 2015]
Smith, Elizabeth Irene. The Body in Pain: An Interview with Elaine Scarry. Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies 32.2, September 2006: 223-37, University of California, Santa Cruz