Create at least two sets of photographs telling different versions of the same story. The aim of the assignment is to help you explore the convincing nature of documentary, even though what the viewer thinks they see may not in fact be true. Try to make both sets equally convincing so that it’s impossible to tell which version of the images is ‘true’.
It might be interesting to consider the project as evidence for a court case. What conflicting stories can you make your images convincingly tell? Would it stand up in court?
Choose a theme and aim for 5–7 images for each set, depending on your idea. Discuss this with your tutor.
I began to carefully consider my subject matter for this assignment as I was watching a documentary about a serial killer in America (1) who had confessed to multiple crimes (many of which, it turned out, he didn’t commit). There were various witnesses making their point of view known from both sides of the camp. It turned out that this man, who they believed had definitely killed some people (his abusive mother being one) was used as a scapegoat for hundreds of cold cases all around the country because of his willingness to confess.
It interested me how this man, who was clearly mentally ill, was being portrayed. Some people were convinced he was a cold hearted killer, others (while not disputing the fact that he most certainly committed murder) was manipulated by the state, preyed upon and used. The narrator told the story of his childhood and the terrible abuses he had received and upon seeing a photograph of this man as a six year old, smiling, little boy and strangely, I been to feel a small sort of sympathy for the sad creature this man had become. I immediately felt rather guilty for having this reaction. It didn’t feel right to direct sorrow towards someone like this, how would I feel had I been on the receieving end of one of these crimes? If it were a member of my family? I would certainly feel no sorrow then, so perhaps it’s wrong for me now? Am I, in some way, tarnishing the victims and lessening the seriousness of the accused crimes if I look at this from another perspective? These were hard questions for me to answer.
I began to think about how it is so incredibly easy to create any message or story you want, through documentary. In it’s most simplistic form, all you would have to do is concentrate on some things and completely ignore the opposing side. For example, we would feel such empathy to hear about the terrible atrocities this man as a six year old boy received, the things he had witnessed, the beatings that had occurred (of which has lead to permanent brain damage) and the neglect he suffered, if had we heard about these at the time. However, what it had ultimately lead to (murder), most would happily hang him for.
Should we feel sorry for this man, on at least, some level, for the way he was exploited and ultimately put on death row for a particular murder he didn’t commit? Can you blame him for killing his mother after the terrible things that she did to him? Is it right to look at the whole picture? I think it really depends on which side you choose to look at and how closely these acts affect you.
I began to consider the fact, that the stories of people (any people that is) are never, ever, just black and white. If we never meet these people and are not directly correlated to any of the aspects of such stories, then you are very much at the will of the documentarian and the information that they drip feed you. This, of course, is directed by their particular motivation and what outcome they are aiming for.
Ultimately, this inspired me to want to explore the mind of a criminal through photographic means and give the viewer both sides of the story. The one in the news, that will (rightly) concentrate on the crimes, but also the story behind the person, how they grew up and whether they have any redeemable qualities. I wanted to explore what had lead them down the path to the things they did and make room for the viewer to decide if there should be any retribution for such terrible acts against others.
However, that would mean mostly concentrating on the text and the detailed story of such individuals and coupled with time constraints, I felt that this wasn’t the time for this particular project if I were to use an actual real-life person.
But how about if I make one up? So as to not incrimiate anyone, I decided to remain ambiguous, using myself in some of the photographs. This will all be based in fiction.
As I thought about my idea, it began to take a different path. What about the opposing sides of the story of the perpetrator and the victim? They share the story but from two, completely different angles.
Then I thought about how I could blur the lines with this between documentary and art just as Paul Seawright had attempted. Of course, my project is fictional, but that doesn’t automatically make it art as such. So, I decided to make use of angles, lighting, ambiguity and other techniques to create images in which the message appeared more slowly, as Paul Seawright had explained. I wanted my images contain drama, to be cinematic, to stir emotion and allow consideration and lingering thoughts from the viewer.
I wanted to create a believable story around these images, feed the viewer some facts through text, but I also wanted to steer away from simply accompanying each image with a line of text underneath. But I felt this had been done before and it would somehow take the focus away from my images, I wanted the message to come from within the photograph but I couldn’t think of a way around adding the text.
So I decided to firstly, take my images, from the two opposing sides as if two newspapers, or the defence and prosecution were telling the stories. Then I would lay the photographs out, with my chosen accompanying text typed out and take a photograph of that as if you were viewing evidence of an event. This, I felt, would add the desired blur between documentary and artistic. I felt it would also create a sense of acceptance of the voyeurism since it would create another barrier or layer as you looked at it. It would be as if you were viewing someone who was viewing the photographs. It also solved my issue with adding the text underneath, since the accompanying text would also be a part of the image itself, thereby not distracting the viewer from the actual photographs.
My message with this, is that the “truth” will ultimately lie within the viewer. That can be the only truth there is, since this is all fiction anyway. But I want to stress, with this made up story, that it can be very easy to be manipulated in one direction or another, based on the motivations of the person behind the photographs and ultimately, even though you have your own free will, you are at their mercy.
Once I had my idea in motion, I decided to find other photographers who might have worked in a similar fashion.
The real-life crime scene photographers and their photography would be a good place to start to help me understand the documentary side to this assignment. I went back in time to discover some of the more famous crime scene photographers of the past. I knew before viewing, that the photographs I was about to view would be shocking, dramatic and very real to life. I also knew that I didn’t want to be so direct in my approach, since my idea was to create more fantasy and ambiguity with my work this time.
On viewing many of the old pictures, I noted, that even though these were real-life images of true events, they still appeared to me, somewhat unreal. I am not sure whether this is because I am viewing a photograph of it and not standing there, viewing it in person, or if it was because my brain can’t comprehend the tragedy since I don’t know the people in the photographs, so therefore I am already not emotionally involved.
Since I had decided to play the parts of the various characters, I also looked at Cindy Sherman’s work. Whilst her subject matter is of a slightly different topic and holds a different message, she plays the roles herself in front of the camera and in a particular shot, titled Dead Head, she does, in fact, explore death too.
The work of Sally Mann (6) has always inspired me, so I took a look at her work in “What Remains” in which she actually photographed dead bodies. I think, the intimacy of the photographs, the close up images, gave me a more disturbed feeling when viewing, then that of the previous photographs from crime scenes.
I went on to explore some work of photographs who used text in their photography, I found there are many photographers and artists who use text to add context to their work. I came across Duane Michals (7) who often used hand written text to accompany his photographs in which he describes emotions and philosophy.
Following on from this research I began to conceptualise my work in a notebook. Whilst my sketching and drawing is generally poor, I find it helps when I write things down by hand. I had an idea in my head of how my images may look and whilst this was still a work in progress and I knew that it was very much, subject to change as I worked through this assignment. I had my first ideas:
I also began to accumulate a few props for my photos. Fake blood and a police sign amongst other things.
I thought about where I was going to shoot. Naturally, my home would be the most convenient for many shots and there were surrounding areas which could work for other photographs too. I decided to keep it all local and easily accessed. **Updated** This changed on my holiday to Rome, I was inspired whilst there to shoot some of the photos around the City. Although, ones including the props stayed local, at home.
I considered lighting, Outside was going to be naturally lit but I also wanted a rainy day. Inside I would use a studio light or two if needed. And I may need a tripod and a remote control for the shutter.
As I begin to shoot, I will add further information as to how the assignment grows and possibly changes here. Along with the results.
As my idea grew and changed, I had a look into various news articles and how they had reported on deaths and murders. The wording was particularly important, since this set the tone and helped guide a viewer/reader in one direction or the other. The images, I found, gave the emotiveness to the words, it helped to really drive the message home to the person viewing the story.
You can find my final results here
- The Confession Killer, 2019. Documentary, Netflix. https://www.netflix.com/gb/title/80213588
- Paul Seawright, http://vimeo.com/76940827
- Kaute, M. Murder in the City: New York, 1910-1920 Macmillan USA, 2017.
- Jordan, S. Meet Cindy Sherman: Artist, Photographer, Chameleon. Roaring Book Press 2017
- Mann, S. What Remains Bulfinch Press 2003
- Michals, D. Empty New York Enitharmon Editions, 2018.