Category Archives: 06 Telling a story

Exercise: The Dad Project vs Country Doctor

The Brief

For this exercise it is required that we research two photo essays, namely Country Doctor by W. Eugene Smith and The Dad Project by Briony Campbell and then make notes to answer the following questions:

  • How does Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?
  • What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

Both Country Doctor and The Dad Project are examples of linear storylines.

The Country Doctor photo essay was made by W. Eugene Smith in 1948 on assignment for Life magazine and recorded the daily life of a general practitioner in rural Colorado. Smith took four weeks to complete the project. This photo essay is always cited as the perfect, classic example of the modern photo essay and Smith is considered to have perfected the form. I was first introduced to this essay when I took a Documentary Photography class in 2012 and then again while reviewing Michael Freeman’s book The Photographer’s Story for Assignment 5 of the Art of Photography. An excellent read, by the way, especially to get to grips with narrative layouts.

A lot of planning preparation went into this project. Two things that were of paramount importance to Life magazine was that a scenic setting and an attractive person be used in the project. The story was a human interest story created to play on the emotions of the readers, but it was also a story with political undertones, about the modernisation of medicine, albeit in a very subtle manner. Life magazine’s bureau chief produced a shooting script as a guide, listing about 45 things he wanted covered. Smith was not compelled to follow the shooting script but apparently he did. The opening and closing images of the project were planned as well a few others too. The opening image shows the doctor setting out on foot across a meadow with his medical bag in hand to see a patient. The closer features the exhausted doctor dressed in surgical garb slouching against a cabinet with a cup of coffee and a cigarette in hand relaxing after late night surgery.

In contrast, Briony Campbell’s The Dad Project was made in 2009 and although having a medical theme, it is an intensely personal piece of work. Campbell recorded her father’s final months of battling cancer and her own experiences of dealing with his impending death. Clearly a very emotional subject, Campbell photographed in an ad-hoc manner; her ‘project took form as it occurred’. (Campbell, 2011 p. 1).

Throughout the year I’d been trying to draw a map for the project, but as my emotions became more fragile it became my map. The more involved I became with dad, the more involved I became with the camera. As The Dad Project got stronger, I got stronger.
(Campbell, 2011 p. 7)

 

This project was a way of dealing with Campbell’s grief. Her photography provided a distraction for her and allowed her to remain positive through this difficult time. She handled her photography with the utmost sensitivity and respect towards her father and family, having first discussed the project with her father, not wanting to upset him or any family members. Through the project she found that she had to turn the camera on herself – something that she was extremely uncomfortable in doing but knew it was necessary to show her feelings. She regards The Dad Project as having two distinct chapters: the first belonging to her father and herself, the second began once the work was exhibited and published and belonged to whoever saw it.

When we are weighed down by our memories we have to be careful not to access them at inappropriate moments, for fear of exposing our fragility. I consider myself fortunate that the memories of my wonderful dad’s death enrich me rather than depress me, and fortunate for feeling comfortable talking about it.
(Campbell, 2011 p. 13)

 

Over the course of time, Country Doctor has evolved into an historical photo essay, although it still has human interest. The Dad Project has a timeless quality about it. There are very few elements featured in the images that will date this photo essay and it will still have its appeal and poignant message fifty years hence.

I believe Campbell’s reference to ‘a story of an ending without an ending’ is her way of saying that her father will always live on in her memory.

Reference List

Campbell, B. (2011) The Dad Project [online]. Briony Campbell. Available from http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [accessed 5 August, 2015]

Bibliography

Freeman, Michael (2012). The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative. Lewes, England: The Ilex Press.

Briony Campbell [online] Available from: http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/ [Accessed 5 August, 2015]

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