Notes for Assessor

This learning log / blog is my main submission for assessment supported by a presentation box containing:

  • The prints for each of assignments 1 through 3 and 5
  • The essay for assignment 4
  • Tutor’s feedback for each assignment
  • My written response to each assigment

This blog is organised so each assignment can be selected from the menu to the right. In each case, under the assignment number you will find :

  • The final reworked assignment
  • My response to the tutor’s comments and any further reflections arising
  • The tutor’s feedback (including links to follow up research)
  • My self assessment
  • The assignment as submitted
  • The specific research leading up to the assignment which usually provides an explanation of my thought and practical processes and relevant context in terms of other practitioners

There is a record of other, less specific, research throughout the blog and that is filed under the “Research and Reflection” category

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Assignment 5 Supplication – Rework

Assignment 5 - Supplication

Assignment 5 – Supplication

Notes on Rework

This rework of assignment 5 has been modified to remove the bones and skulls which had been included in the foreground of the original. I agree that they were a clichéd sign so whilst the composition is less balanced it is less cluttered and perhaps a little less sinister.

Historical Context

In 1529 a Protestant lawyer by the name of Simon Fish wrote and distributed a pamphlet, asking Henry VIII  to dissolve the monasteries and to appropriate their lands and wealth for the good of the nation. At the heart of his complex theological arguments he highlights that the poor had been reduced to begging whilst the monasteries housed over-weight, idle, holy, thieves who had become rich on taxes and by charging to pray for the rapid passage of souls through purgatory. (i)

I see a direct parallel between Fish’s arguments and contemporary discussions regarding immigration. The foundation for the wealth of Europe was laid in the 17th Century as successive European nations began to conquer and colonise the Americas and Asia Pacific, and later, India, the Middle East and Africa with the sole objective of systematically exploiting the resources of the less militarily sophisticated civilisations we found there. Today, Britain’s population makes it the 22nd largest country on Earth but we boast the 5th largest economy; this wealth has dark roots in the exploitation of the human and natural resources of the largest Empire the world has ever seen. We and the other European nations and more recently the USA created the economic imbalance that draws the poor and economically suppressed to our borders.

Britain, France and Italy have long seen North Africa and the Middle East as being within their sphere of influence, an attitude that has led to varying degrees of instability since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In recent times we have supported America in ill thought through military interventions that have destabilised whatever fragile balance might previously have existed.

Modern Europe is the medieval monastery, enriched and fattened by exploitation, extracting a tithe beyond the imagination of the most capricious Abbot; and still, like the Abbot, we believe it is our divine duty to prescribe our sociopolitical and economic models on others.  The harvest of our arrogance is the largest mass migration of humans since WWII but many Europeans argue the solution is to put new locks on the gates and to build a higher wall around the monastery. Fish didn’t live to see the medieval monasteries brought down; what will our children and grandchildren see in their lifetime?

Further thoughts on the social and historical context of this assignment can be found here and here.

Documentary Tableau

The extent to which it is justifiable to photograph the victims of social and political injustice is one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography (ii). To avoid Susie Linfield’s “fraught enterprise” [(2) (here)] and as a photographer taking pictures nearly exclusively for my own amusement, it is important for me to identify indirect approaches to documenting social injustice. I began this course using Late Photography to discuss the invisibility of the homeless (here) and there is a sense of having closed the circle by finishing the course using Staged Photography to explore migration and its impact on human dignity and identity.

Narrative

Supplication is a staged, tableau containing a narrative that flows from back to front and left to right. It tells the story of two women entering the ruins of a monastic building, a location that symbolises the idea of sanctuary (iii) and of wealth, where they are forced to beg for entry from a figure of authority before reaching a place of safety.

The narrative is represented in three separately constructed scenes using the same two models and one additional model to play the part of the authority figure. The scenes were subsequently merged into single photograph during post processing (here). The shoot plan (here) and the lighting and set plans (here) are described in previous essays.

Scene 1 Trepidation

Fig. 12 Scene 1 - Trepidation

Scene 1 – Trepidation

In the first scene two women enter a place of potential safety. Their pose is directed to suggest trepidation, uncertainty and apprehension. Their costumes, which cover all but their face and hands, were sourced from charity shops and the models are British women who are not associated with any particular organised religion.

This scene begins a process of exploring the women’s identity, a theme that continues throughout the tableau. I have intentionally used costumes that are not Eastern in origin, they have almost certainly never been worn by Muslim or Hindu women; the costumes ask whether the simple act of covering their arms, legs and hair directs the audience to read these characters as aliens. As the audience is aware that this tableau is staged this immediately begins to question how easily we can project an altered reality.

The audience recognises them as outsiders, foreigners, characters with a sense of otherness. This symbolises the disparity between attitudes towards immigrates who look like “us” such as Irish, Australian or South African immigrants and those who look “foreign” and therefore carry some undefined but feared threat to our national identity or security. I have chosen young women models to emphasise the imbalance between this assumed threat and any real threat that they could offer.

Their pose suggests that the women have entered through the window, an act of breaking and entering which speaks to the criminalisation of the migrant. The migrant, who by nature is no more or less law abiding than any other person, is forced to break the law to cross borders and potentially, on reaching their goal, becomes an “illegal immigrant”; by escaping from persecution, starvation or war they have changed their identity from citizen to criminal, from insider to outlaw.

A holy place is metaphysically different from the surrounding mundane world. To enter its precinct is to cross from a secular landscape to a spiritual and godly space. This offers a metaphor for the immigrant crossing an invisible national border to escape danger and find salvation or sanctuary.

Scene 2 Supplication

Fig. 13 Scene 2 - Supplication

Scene 2 – Supplication

In the second scene the women are crouched to the left of a pillar facing, on the other side of the pillar, a black robed figure who is monk-like in appearance to provide a clear link to the setting and to symbolise authority.

The word “supplication” is important to the meaning of this scene. It not only links the photograph to Simon Fish’s pamphlet but is a word we associate with the religious act of prayer. It also holds the meaning of “a humble plea; an earnest request or entreaty, especially one made deferentially to a person in a position of power or authority.” (4). This definition denotes the humbling of an individual when making a request, a loss of dignity and the requirement to become subservient to the person in authority.

Supplication speaks to the idea that an immigrant’s identity and self worth are fundamentally and negatively modified by the very act of requesting asylum. Having the power to offer or refuse sanctuary gives the established authority power over the supplicant, who hitherto was not within their sphere of influence.

The pillar that divides this scene references the use of pillars in medieval religious art to separate the mundane from the divine (iv); in this scene it divides the danger of where they have come from and the safety of their destination.

The audience cannot see the face of the monk-like figure which symbolises the faceless nature of the authority who decides the migrant’s fate. The supplicants are recognisable as people, with gestures and expressions that denote their humanity, whilst the authority figure is an ambiguous entity with no visible expression making a gesture that could be interpreted as “wait”, “stop” or a blessing or even “stay calm”.

The supplicants continue to be in their all-covering costumes with the addition of shawls to emphasise that they remain outside and in-the-cold.

Scene 3 Sanctuary

Fig. 14 Scene 3 - Sanctuary

Scene 3 – Sanctuary

In the final scene the two women have reached a place of safety, they rest in a pastoral setting. Their pose is directed to be relaxed and cheerful.

Their pose and costume introduce ambiguity to this scene. On the one hand both women have exposed their legs and arms but they continue to cover their hair which might suggest they are Muslims or Hindus yet the women on the right is pointing the sole of her foot at the camera, an act considered to be rude in most Eastern religions and profane if done towards a priest. (v)

This scene is intentionally open to interpretation; are the women now Westernised; is the retention of their head scarfs the last vestige of their previous identity or was this their identity from the outset? The ambiguous nature of their identity might suggest that they are in transition and that their journey is far from over. The intention is for the audience to be unclear regarding the origin, nationality and religion of these characters. The idea throughout the story is that they were only ever two young women and their costume is merely a distraction and not a definition of their identity.

Other Symbolism

Much of the rest of the symbolism in the overall image is derived from the building and its history. Waverley Abbey, the first Cistercian house in Britain, was founded by thirteen French immigrants in 1128 which speaks to the ideas expressed in my earlier essay “before we were us we were them“. We are all descended from immigrants, the only difference between us is when our ancestors arrived.

The Cistercians were known as hard working and frugal devotees of a demanding order so they may have been sympathetic to the plight of a displaced person. The tableau intends to imply that sanctuary has been requested and given, an act of charity and mercy but it questions the relationship between the supplicant and the authority figure.

Despite their frugal nature the wealth and lifestyle of a Cistercian was still far removed from the status of a contemporary peasant (vi) so the Abbey is a metaphor not just for a safe haven or a sanctuary, but as a place of abundance. The immigrant is moving from danger to safety and from shortage to the promise of plenty. There is an inference that there is no financial reason for refusing entry.

Influences and Artistic Context

This project has been influenced and inspired by staged photography, figurative art, graffiti, romantic painting, photojournalism, news media, political posters and medieval art, please refer to the the essay Assignment 5 Influences and Inspiration for details.

Acknowledgements

This project needed the help and collaboration of a small team of generous individuals.

Laura and Harriet Smithers are two actresses just starting out on, what is sure to be, a successful career in the arts. They willingly played the part of the two migrants which required a long and cold afternoon in the damp, dark interior of the Abbey with a cold wind whistling through the ruins. Their enthusiasm and the ideas they contributed are greatly appreciated.

Rebecca Middlehurst, my daughter, and the Head of Art at Sarum Academy in Salisbury, was hugely supportive. After helping to carry all the equipment to the Abbey she uncomplainingly moved light stands back and forth, kept everyone’s spirits up and made helpful and positive suggestions.

Sophie Stevens, who is currently studying for her GCSE Photography acted as the on-set photographer taking photographs of the set-up and the action and played the part of the monk. The monk’s costume, left over from a fancy dress party, was extremely uncomfortable and offered absolutely zero visibility to the wearer so Sophie was in complete darkness whilst being physically moved around the set.

Notes on Text

(1) A Supplication for the Beggars (1) was written by Simon Fish in 1529 strongly criticising monks as “greedy serfs” and “sturdy idly holy thieves”. This pamphlet has an ironic twist which fits well with the theme. Fish argued that the monasteries, who as well as their own industry and agriculture took a tithe of 10% of all families’ income, should be dissolved and their wealth and lands handed over to Henry VIII. Fish also argued that there was no such place as purgatory. This argument may appear philosophical to the modern mind but if the world at large came to doubt purgatory’s existence the economic consequences for the church were enormous as all their establishments from the local monastery to the Vatican offered a service to pray for the soul’s rapid progression through purgatory. The number of prayers and the period over which they would be offered was based on the value of an individual’s contribution to the church. The irony is that Fish was charged with heresy for proposing a strategy that Henry and his righthand man Cromwell implemented only seven years later. Waverley Abbey was suppressed in 1536 and its wealth and land handed to Sir William Fitzwilliam the treasurer of the King’s household who probably wsn’t one of the poor that Fish was concerned about.

(ii) I see this as one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography and have previously discussed the issues and the views of Rosler and others (here and here). I have also discussed how various practioners have found ways to continue to address documentary subjects without committing what Abigail Solomon-Godeau (5) called the “double act of subjugation” by exploiting people who are already suppressed by society (here).

(iii) According to Karl Shoemaker (3) the church jealously guarded  their right to protect a criminal within the walls of a consecrated church for over a thousand years. He argues that this practice had its roots in Roman law where an aristocrat could intercede on behalf of his followers, an idea that merged with the Christian teachings of clemency and the pardon of repentant sinners. The practice remained part of English common law until its abolition in the 16th century. 

(iv) In medieval religious art a pillar was often used to show the division between heaven and earth or the divine and the mundane as shown in these two different interpretations of the annunciation by Robert Campin and Giusto de Menabuoi. (10)

Giusto de Menabuoi Annunciation 1376-78 and Robert Campin, Annunciation (1418-1419)

Giusto de Menabuoi Annunciation 1376-78 and Robert Campin, Annunciation (1418-1419)

(v) “In predominantly Hindu and Muslim countries, it is considered extremely rude to point the soles of the feet toward another person. The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body, the part of the body closest to heaven, whereas the feet are considered to be the most profane part of the body, both the lowest and the closest to the devil or hell. Therefore, pointing the feet at other people and particularly at priests, holy men or religious statues is considered taboo.” (5)

(vi) Janina Ramirez in her recent TV documentary Saints and Sinners which charts the rise and fall of the British monasteries presents recently discovered evidence that whilst the life expectancy of an “ordinary” medieval male peasant was between 25 and 30 years the skeletons of monks indicate that many, if not most, lived into their 50s, 60s and beyond. The same scientists also discovered  that diabetes and syphilis was not uncommon in monastic populations. (9)

Sources

Books

(1) Fish, Simon (1529) A Supplicacyon for the Beggars. Edited by Edward Arbor. Gutenberg eBook, Kindle Edition.

(2) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(3) Farthing, Stephen (2006) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintessence.

Internet

(3) Roach, Levi (2011) Review of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages by Karl Shoemaker. (Accessed at History Today 9.10.15) – http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2011/08/sanctuary-and-crime-middle-ages

(4) The Oxford Dictionary (accessed at OED 9.10.15) – www.oed.com

(5) The Soles of the Feet in Religious Beliefs (accessed at Opposing Views 18.10.15) – http://people.opposingviews.com/soles-feet-religious-beliefs-9331.html

(6) Ramirez, Janina (2015) Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monastries (accessed at the BBC 8.10.15) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052zxhm

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Assignment 5 – Rework as Triptych

the-supplication-for-the-beggars-final-1.0-rework-triptych

At the suggestion of my tutor I have reworked assignment 5 as a triptych. Given the references to medieval religion and religious art already incorporated in the image it is a logical progression to adopt a presentation style that is synonymous with the same era. However, whilst the end result shows some potential it fails in the detail. To have achieved a workable triptych it would have been necessary to have photographed the set with that objective in mind and to have positioned the subjects in a way that allowed for a subsequent division into three panels.

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Assignment 5 – Tutor Feedback and Response

Overall Comments

Your final assignment for Context & Narrative has been received well; you set yourself a challenging piece, both thematically and technically, in which you followed through with dedication and conviction. The tableau is great and offers some interesting signs; there are a couple of areas that could be investigated further. The supporting research is your most successful element, with a good balance of visual and theoretical sources investigated, well done.

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

Your tableau is a very competent piece that is indicative of a well-planned and executed project; this has come about through focused observational skills and a good visual awareness.

The merger of the separate images is not that noticeable, only the authority figure stands out slightly and looks displaced. You have noted about the placement of the figure against the dark tree line; indeed, this element does distract from the overall composition. The choice of the 14mm lens is OK, however as you have commented upon, it has distorted the figures to the right of the frame.

The scene is quite favourable and has yielded a very good compositional setting for your piece. As guided by your research into mediaeval religious art the placement of the pillar in the centre has made for an interesting central focal point, highlighted more so, through the flash lighting. However, I did find one of your reconnaissance shots taken of the interior of the west range ‘nk1_1911b’ to have more compositional potential, something about its symmetry.

Given the nature of the project the selection of the compositional setting was an important decision. There were a number of alternatives that would have been better compositions for a one off shot the abbey ruins but my final selection was based partly on the desire for a central pillar as mentioned above and partly on being able to fit the three scenes into the set.

Quality of Outcome

You have realised your ideas to a very competent level and have evidenced a sustained and coherent workflow. The work has been presented well and the quality is good; but have your thought how best to physically present this piece?

Looking at the religious themes in this piece, I would consider doing something, which could be considered rash, that is to cut it up into three separate images. As an investigation into presentation I would like you to turn this into ‘triptych’, I can see that as a panel of three it may make for a more enticing narrative. Try it; cut your image into three, portrait ratio pictures and lay them out side-by-side. If it does not work, then at least it is something extra for your growing learning log.

This is an interesting observation and I particularly like the idea of creating another link to medieval religious art. I will test out this idea before finalising assignment 5.

Demonstration of Creativity

This is no arguing your imaginative and very creative ability with this assignment, coupled with a strong experimental approach with the technical elements. Some of your semiotical considerations have not been that successful; I seldom use this word, but I find the bones to be a bit of a cliché in terms of their reading. Compositionally they work, as the bottom left of the frame is unbalanced without anything there.

This is a fair comment and in hindsight one that I agree with. I had printed off a significant number of “posters” referring to immigration (see here) and had intended to try using these on the floor in the large empty space to the front left of the image. The bones were destined for the fireplace that was deeper into the set. Unfortunately on the day there was a strong wind that blew all afternoon and the posters wouldn’t stay in place.  If the triptych experiment is successful I will remove the bones in Photoshop and see whether the empty space becomes a compositional  issue.

Through the clothing there is a subtle timeless feel, but with the shoes and your underlying message about contemporary discussions on immigration, the piece is to be read as a current representational narrative. When I read the image, it is the cloaked figure that comes across as being too ominous and dark. Although you intended for the figure to be ‘monk-like’ and provide a link to the past, I typically see a ‘death’ like presence occupying the scene. Perhaps this needed a contemporary dressed figure to serve as the authority in granting the supplication.

Again, very interesting comments. Perhaps a death-like presence is a little further than I wanted to go but it is intended that the black figure is an ambiguous and ominous presence to communicate the idea that migration is dangerous and that the individual’s future is in the hands of a faceless and potentially threatening bureaucrat.

Context

Your research has been an excellent element to inspect, you have made some in depth investigations into pertinent practitioners that evidence a very good range of research sources. You have evidenced an intellectual understanding of the source material and have made some topical lines of enquiry.

Using Fish’s pamphlet as a thematic comparison and also its title is interesting, but I would consider changing it. You have expressed very well the importance of the word ‘supplication’ but not so much ‘beggars’, perhaps just title it ‘The Supplication’ or ‘Supplicated’, the latter could hint towards the act being successful, where the right hand part of the scene evidences this.

Worth considering. I like the simplicity of “The Supplication”

Learning Logs or blogs

Your learning log continues to grow into a strong and well-informed resource, which is documenting your progress very well. The post ‘Jeff Wall and the Cinematographic’ was a good entry. Look into the notion of hyperreality and the facsimile of the real. Have a read of Jean Baudrillard, in particular his text on the Simulacra and Simulation.

A slight digression, but his work came to mind thinking about staged or the appearance of staged photography. Have you seen the work of Ogle Winston Link? If not, then check out his well-lit scenes, I feel that Crewdson may have been inspired by some of his images, see: http://www.danzigergallery.com/artists/owinston-link

Referring back to the notion of turning your tableau into a triptych, even if you do not, still investigate this alluring presentational format. For a great artist that uses this technique in creating some wonderful tableau styles pieces, see: https://www.artsy.net/artist/david-hilliard

Also look at these beautiful portraits: http://petapixel.com/2011/12/05/triptychs-of-strangers-details-of-subjects- captured-in-three-frames/

Conclusion

This final assignment has been very good to assess, it has a very topical theme to continue and develop for a later project, perhaps with less symbolism and in a documentary style. Finding the balance between the coded and noncoded iconic messages within your work is a challenge but an interesting one. Of course, the translation of the message is dependant on the reader and their symbolic vocabulary but sometimes the obvious signs and signifiers can become too blatant and they begin to loose their power.

Overall, well done, I have enjoyed seeing your progression throughout this unit.

To conclude this final formative feedback, it is OCA’s policy to assign you to another tutor for your next unit. So I wish you well with your continuous studies.

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Assignment 5 Self Assessment

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

This project called for competency in three technical areas.

Design & Composition – To design and compose a staged photograph on paper in advance of a shoot was a new experience and I was pleased to be able to carry the design and composition through to the final piece without significant deviation. I am satisfied with the composition but there are some obvious flaws. For example, the bones in the foreground are potentially too obvious and as a result the space to the front left is not used effectively. The positioning and lighting of the authority figure in relation to the dark tree line could have been improved upon during the shoot.

Photography & Lighting – I chose to use a 14mm lens which inevitably led to some distortion at the edges of the frame. This is particularly obvious in the final scene. I frequently use this lens and have learnt to embrace the distortion which often adds to the composition but in this instance I would have liked less. I did test other lenses but the narrative and the setting called for the wide vista.

After consultation with my tutor I pulled forward the shoot time to start at 14:00 rather than working in twilight. This was the right decision in practical terms as the models were already very cold even finishing at 16:00 and the shoot night have become very rushed if we had been working as light faded. However, I did not think this through in terms of the impact of daylight on the lighting and had to abandon the use of diffusers; I also failed to balance the light correctly in the final scene when the models were backlit. It would be easy to argue that using flashguns was always going to be a compromise but that would be a weak excuse; I should have carried out a test shoot without models on another afternoon to ensure I had the lights properly balanced.

Post Processing – The concept of this shoot was to merge three images into a final photograph. The lighting issues noted above made this a little harder than I had anticipated as I needed to use a separate image for the ceiling instead of it being part of scene 2 or 3. I have reasonable photoshop skills and whilst I think the merge is imperfect in one or two isolated spots I am confident that this image would print at least A3+ scale without the “joins” being apparent.

Separate from the technical elements and in terms of visual awareness and observational skills,  I am happy with my choice of location which worked as a theatrical set and offered a wide range of symbolism that could be built into the project.

Quality of Outcome

Normally on these assignments I start with one concept and end with another but in this instance I had a clear concept from the outset and this helped me focus and direct my conceptualisation. Having researched Crewdson , Wall and Tabrizan in particular I wanted to use gesture and pose to carry the narrative and I am satisfied that this worked reasonably effectively. I believe that, even if the story is simple, it has been communicated effectively and for this type of work there was the additional challenge of communicating my ideas to the models in a way that allowed them to a adopt the poses and gestures the narrative needed. By using storyboards based on the shoot plan described here I believe this communication was effective.

Perhaps in terms of discernment the narrative might have needed to be more subtle but it struck me that much of work of the recognised cinematographic photographers is not especially subtle because the popular narrative form of cinema they have appropriated is often equally unsubtle.

I believe that my thought processes have been coherently presented but, as ever with my research approach, it runs the risk of being somewhat overwhelming, perhaps higher in quantity than quality. As I move forward this is a weakness that might need to be addressed.

Demonstration of Creativity

As mentioned above the narrative could have been more subtle so it could be argued that this piece is neither very imaginative nor inventive. However, I believe that I developed an initial idea, selected a  location, designed a narrative and directed a “cast” in an imaginative way.

For me , the whole idea of using staged photography was experimental and every aspect was new territory including the conceptualisation, set-up, outdoor lighting, acting as a director and combining multiple shots into a final photograph. The first time I felt confident the idea was going to work was two hours into post processing when I produced a first “quick” edit that merged three separately edited images.

Context

I believe that the final photograph has a strong historical, contemporary and artistic context. There are always more practitioners that could be researched and each selected practitioner can always be researched to a greater depth but I am satisfied that I looked at a reasonable cross section of tableaux and staged photography artists and distilled something from each that could be carried forward into this project.

Studying the writings of Jeff Wall in particular leaves a student feeling rather inadequate as the contextualisation of his work is highly complex but I believe that I understood each of the artists I studied well enough to make reasoned and thoughtful critical appraisals.

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Assignment 5 – A Supplication for the Beggars

Historical Context

In 1529 a Protestant lawyer by the name of Simon Fish wrote and distributed a pamphlet, asking Henry VIII  to dissolve the monasteries and to appropriate their lands and wealth for the good of the nation. At the heart of his complex theological arguments he highlights that the poor had been reduced to begging whilst the monasteries housed over-weight, idle, holy, thieves who had become rich on taxes and by charging to pray for the rapid passage of souls through purgatory. (i)

I see a direct parallel between Fish’s arguments and contemporary discussions regarding immigration. The foundation for the wealth of Europe was laid in the 17th Century as successive European nations began to conquer and colonise the Americas and Asia Pacific, and later, India, the Middle East and Africa with the sole objective of systematically exploiting the resources of the less militarily sophisticated civilisations we found there. Today, Britain’s population makes it the 22nd largest country on Earth but we boast the 5th largest economy; this wealth has dark roots in the exploitation of the human and natural resources of the largest Empire the world has ever seen. We and the other European nations and more recently the USA created the economic imbalance that draws the poor and economically suppressed to our borders.

Britain, France and Italy have long seen North Africa and the Middle East as being within their sphere of influence, an attitude that has led to varying degrees of instability since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In recent times we have supported America in ill thought through military interventions that have destabilised whatever fragile balance might previously have existed.

Modern Europe is the medieval monastery, enriched and fattened by exploitation, extracting a tithe beyond the imagination of the most capricious Abbot; and still, like the Abbot, we believe it is our divine duty to prescribe our sociopolitical and economic models on others.  The harvest of our arrogance is the largest mass migration of humans since WWII but many Europeans argue the solution is to put new locks on the gates and to build a higher wall around the monastery. Fish didn’t live to see the medieval monasteries brought down; what will our children and grandchildren see in their lifetime?

Further thoughts on the social and historical context of this assignment can be found here and here.

Assignment 5 - A Supplication for the Beggars

Assignment 5 – A Supplication for the Beggars

Documentary Tableau

The extent to which it is justifiable to photograph the victims of social and political injustice is one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography (ii). To avoid Susie Linfield’s “fraught enterprise” [(2) (here)] and as a photographer taking pictures nearly exclusively for my own amusement, it is important for me to identify indirect approaches to documenting social injustice. I began this course using Late Photography to discuss the invisibility of the homeless (here) and there is a sense of having closed the circle by finishing the course using Staged Photography to explore migration and its impact on human dignity and identity.

Narrative

A Supplication for the Beggars is a staged, tableau containing a narrative that flows from back to front and left to right. It tells the story of two women entering the ruins of a monastic building, a location that symbolises the idea of sanctuary (iii) and of wealth, where they are forced to beg for entry from a figure of authority before reaching a place of safety.

The narrative is represented in three separately constructed scenes using the same two models and one additional model to play the part of the authority figure. The scenes were subsequently merged into single photograph during post processing (here). The shoot plan (here) and the lighting and set plans (here) are described in previous essays.

Scene 1 Trepidation

Fig. 12 Scene 1 - Trepidation

Scene 1 – Trepidation

In the first scene two women enter a place of potential safety. Their pose is directed to suggest trepidation, uncertainty and apprehension. Their costumes, which cover all but their face and hands, were sourced from charity shops and the models are British women who are not associated with any particular organised religion.

This scene begins a process of exploring the women’s identity, a theme that continues throughout the tableau. I have intentionally used costumes that are not Eastern in origin, they have almost certainly never been worn by Muslim or Hindu women; the costumes ask whether the simple act of covering their arms, legs and hair directs the audience to read these characters as aliens. As the audience is aware that this tableau is staged this immediately begins to question how easily we can project an altered reality.

The audience recognises them as outsiders, foreigners, characters with a sense of otherness. This symbolises the disparity between attitudes towards immigrates who look like “us” such as Irish, Australian or South African immigrants and those who look “foreign” and therefore carry some undefined but feared threat to our national identity or security. I have chosen young women models to emphasise the imbalance between this assumed threat and any real threat that they could offer.

Their pose suggests that the women have entered through the window, an act of breaking and entering which speaks to the criminalisation of the migrant. The migrant, who by nature is no more or less law abiding than any other person, is forced to break the law to cross borders and potentially, on reaching their goal, becomes an “illegal immigrant”; by escaping from persecution, starvation or war they have changed their identity from citizen to criminal, from insider to outlaw.

A holy place is metaphysically different from the surrounding mundane world. To enter its precinct is to cross from a secular landscape to a spiritual and godly space. This offers a metaphor for the immigrant crossing an invisible national border to escape danger and find salvation or sanctuary.

Scene 2 Supplication

Fig. 13 Scene 2 - Supplication

Scene 2 – Supplication

In the second scene the women are crouched to the left of a pillar facing, on the other side of the pillar, a black robed figure who is monk-like in appearance to provide a clear link to the setting and to symbolise authority.

The word “supplication” is important to the meaning of this scene. It not only links the photograph to Simon Fish’s pamphlet but is a word we associate with the religious act of prayer. It also holds the meaning of “a humble plea; an earnest request or entreaty, especially one made deferentially to a person in a position of power or authority.” (4). This definition denotes the humbling of an individual when making a request, a loss of dignity and the requirement to become subservient to the person in authority.

Supplication speaks to the idea that an immigrant’s identity and self worth are fundamentally and negatively modified by the very act of requesting asylum. Having the power to offer or refuse sanctuary gives the established authority power over the supplicant, who hitherto was not within their sphere of influence.

The pillar that divides this scene references the use of pillars in medieval religious art to separate the mundane from the divine (iv); in this scene it divides the danger of where they have come from and the safety of their destination.

The audience cannot see the face of the monk-like figure which symbolises the faceless nature of the authority who decides the migrant’s fate. The supplicants are recognisable as people, with gestures and expressions that denote their humanity, whilst the authority figure is an ambiguous entity with no visible expression making a gesture that could be interpreted as “wait”, “stop” or a blessing or even “stay calm”.

The supplicants continue to be in their all-covering costumes with the addition of shawls to emphasise that they remain outside and in-the-cold.

Scene 3 Sanctuary

Fig. 14 Scene 3 - Sanctuary

Scene 3 – Sanctuary

In the final scene the two women have reached a place of safety, they rest in a pastoral setting. Their pose is directed to be relaxed and cheerful.

Their pose and costume introduce ambiguity to this scene. On the one hand both women have exposed their legs and arms but they continue to cover their hair which might suggest they are Muslims or Hindus yet the women on the right is pointing the sole of her foot at the camera, an act considered to be rude in most Eastern religions and profane if done towards a priest. (v)

This scene is intentionally open to interpretation; are the women now Westernised; is the retention of their head scarfs the last vestige of their previous identity or was this their identity from the outset? The ambiguous nature of their identity might suggest that they are in transition and that their journey is far from over. The intention is for the audience to be unclear regarding the origin, nationality and religion of these characters. The idea throughout the story is that they were only ever two young women and their costume is merely a distraction and not a definition of their identity.

Other Symbolism

Much of the rest of the symbolism in the overall image is derived from the building and its history. Waverley Abbey, the first Cistercian house in Britain, was founded by thirteen French immigrants in 1128 which speaks to the ideas expressed in my earlier essay “before we were us we were them“. We are all descended from immigrants, the only difference between us is when our ancestors arrived.

The Cistercians were known as hard working and frugal devotees of a demanding order so they may have been sympathetic to the plight of a displaced person. The tableau intends to imply that sanctuary has been requested and given, an act of charity and mercy but it questions the relationship between the supplicant and the authority figure.

Despite their frugal nature the wealth and lifestyle of a Cistercian was still far removed from the status of a contemporary peasant (vi) so the Abbey is a metaphor not just for a safe haven or a sanctuary, but as a place of abundance. The immigrant is moving from danger to safety and from shortage to the promise of plenty. There is an inference that there is no financial reason for refusing entry.

The bones and skulls to the front left of the image remind the audience that many migrants die en-route to a safer place.

Influences and Artistic Context

This project has been influenced and inspired by staged photography, figurative art, graffiti, romantic painting, photojournalism, news media, political posters and medieval art, please refer to the the essay Assignment 5 Influences and Inspiration for details.

Acknowledgements

This project needed the help and collaboration of a small team of generous individuals.

Laura and Harriet Smithers are two actresses just starting out on, what is sure to be, a successful career in the arts. They willingly played the part of the two migrants which required a long and cold afternoon in the damp, dark interior of the Abbey with a cold wind whistling through the ruins. Their enthusiasm and the ideas they contributed are greatly appreciated.

Rebecca Middlehurst, my daughter, and the Head of Art at Sarum Academy in Salisbury, was hugely supportive. After helping to carry all the equipment to the Abbey she uncomplainingly moved light stands back and forth, kept everyone’s spirits up and made helpful and positive suggestions.

Sophie Stevens, who is currently studying for her GCSE Photography acted as the on-set photographer taking photographs of the set-up and the action and played the part of the monk. The monk’s costume, left over from a fancy dress party, was extremely uncomfortable and offered absolutely zero visibility to the wearer so Sophie was in complete darkness whilst being physically moved around the set.

Notes on Text

(1) A Supplication for the Beggars (1) was written by Simon Fish in 1529 strongly criticising monks as “greedy serfs” and “sturdy idly holy thieves”. This pamphlet has an ironic twist which fits well with the theme. Fish argued that the monasteries, who as well as their own industry and agriculture took a tithe of 10% of all families’ income, should be dissolved and their wealth and lands handed over to Henry VIII. Fish also argued that there was no such place as purgatory. This argument may appear philosophical to the modern mind but if the world at large came to doubt purgatory’s existence the economic consequences for the church were enormous as all their establishments from the local monastery to the Vatican offered a service to pray for the soul’s rapid progression through purgatory. The number of prayers and the period over which they would be offered was based on the value of an individual’s contribution to the church. The irony is that Fish was charged with heresy for proposing a strategy that Henry and his righthand man Cromwell implemented only seven years later. Waverley Abbey was suppressed in 1536 and its wealth and land handed to Sir William Fitzwilliam the treasurer of the King’s household who probably wsn’t one of the poor that Fish was concerned about.

(ii) I see this as one of the most important ethical debates in contemporary photography and have previously discussed the issues and the views of Rosler and others (here and here). I have also discussed how various practioners have found ways to continue to address documentary subjects without committing what Abigail Solomon-Godeau (5) called the “double act of subjugation” by exploiting people who are already suppressed by society (here).

(iii) According to Karl Shoemaker (3) the church jealously guarded  their right to protect a criminal within the walls of a consecrated church for over a thousand years. He argues that this practice had its roots in Roman law where an aristocrat could intercede on behalf of his followers, an idea that merged with the Christian teachings of clemency and the pardon of repentant sinners. The practice remained part of English common law until its abolition in the 16th century. 

(iv) In medieval religious art a pillar was often used to show the division between heaven and earth or the divine and the mundane as shown in these two different interpretations of the annunciation by Robert Campin and Giusto de Menabuoi. (10)

Giusto de Menabuoi Annunciation 1376-78 and Robert Campin, Annunciation (1418-1419)

Giusto de Menabuoi Annunciation 1376-78 and Robert Campin, Annunciation (1418-1419)

(v) “In predominantly Hindu and Muslim countries, it is considered extremely rude to point the soles of the feet toward another person. The head is considered to be the most sacred part of the body, the part of the body closest to heaven, whereas the feet are considered to be the most profane part of the body, both the lowest and the closest to the devil or hell. Therefore, pointing the feet at other people and particularly at priests, holy men or religious statues is considered taboo.” (5)

(vi) Janina Ramirez in her recent TV documentary Saints and Sinners which charts the rise and fall of the British monasteries presents recently discovered evidence that whilst the life expectancy of an “ordinary” medieval male peasant was between 25 and 30 years the skeletons of monks indicate that many, if not most, lived into their 50s, 60s and beyond. The same scientists also discovered  that diabetes and syphilis was not uncommon in monastic populations. (9)

Sources

Books

(1) Fish, Simon (1529) A Supplicacyon for the Beggars. Edited by Edward Arbor. Gutenberg eBook, Kindle Edition.

(2) Linfield, Susie (2010) The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(3) Farthing, Stephen (2006) 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintessence.

Internet

(3) Roach, Levi (2011) Review of Sanctuary and Crime in the Middle Ages by Karl Shoemaker. (Accessed at History Today 9.10.15) – http://www.historytoday.com/blog/2011/08/sanctuary-and-crime-middle-ages

(4) The Oxford Dictionary (accessed at OED 9.10.15) – www.oed.com

(5) The Soles of the Feet in Religious Beliefs (accessed at Opposing Views 18.10.15) – http://people.opposingviews.com/soles-feet-religious-beliefs-9331.html

(6) Ramirez, Janina (2015) Saints and Sinners: Britain’s Millennium of Monastries (accessed at the BBC 8.10.15) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b052zxhm

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Assignment 5 – Post Processing

The original intent had been to take three photographs that could be merged into a single image in post processing but by the end of the shoot it was obvious that at least four and perhaps five separate photographs would be needed to achieve a satisfactory final product.

The main reason for this change in tactics was the decision to bring the start time of the shoot forward to 14:00; I had originally intended to start shooting at 15:30 and to be working as the light faded to allow the flashguns to have a greater effect and to achieve an aesthetic, best described as, halfway between Crewdson’s Twilight (1) photographs and the nighttime sets in Tom Hunter’s Living in Hell and Other Stories (2). However, after sharing the shoot plan with my tutor and taking his comments into account, I recognised that this was a high risk strategy for, what had to be, a once off shoot. At a practical rather than artistic level I am glad to have made this decision as by the time the shoot finished at 16:00 it was already becoming too cold for the models to sit on the ancient stonework in the middle of a windy field.

Fig. 01 Waverley Shoot

Fig. 01 Waverley Shoot

 

As a result of working in afternoon light the flashlights had less effect and needed to be used at two thirds or full power most of the time and for the stage 3 shot, where the models were backlit by natural light, I  needed two flashguns on the models and one on the ceiling to achieve the desired result. This resulted in more evenly lit images than I had originally intended.

As a second consequence of the afternoon light the soft boxes I had planned to use as diffusers further over reduced the effect of the flashguns so most of the shots were taken with bare flashguns giving a hard light that had also not been the original intent.

Background

Having reviewed the raw photographs no single photograph offered itself as the whole background. This was not wholly surprising as the detail lights used for each stage were set up to achieve the desired lighting of the models.

Fig. 21 The Shot Lighting similar to stage 3 but without detail light or left hand up light

Fig. 02 Raw image selected for background – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 200

The main issue in fig. 02 was the over exposure of the lower part of the ceiling. The stone in this area is much whiter than the rest of the ceiling and this was amplified by the flashlight being used to light the pillar. The burn tool tended to make the highlights too grey so I painted this area with a light wash of the stone colour from higher in the ceiling.

One of my main disappointments with the overall end result is the white sky to the right of the image. I tried several different strategies to either darken the sky or to add some clouds but it was important to maintain a realistic relationship between the sky, trees and grass and none of my adjustments improved the image. The sky was therefore unadjusted in the final image.

Fig. 03 Background after adjusting over-white stonework

Fig. 03 Background after adjusting over-white stonework

Scene 1 – Trepidation

Fig. 04 Raw image selected for trepidation shot - 1/60 @ f/11, ISO 200

Fig. 04 Raw image selected for trepidation – 1/60 @ f/11, ISO 200

The main decision for this shot was whether to include the light on the stonework in the window to left but I wanted at least one example of unexplained light in the final image and this was that opportunity. This was the most simply lit shot with just a single handheld flashlight in the window to the left throwing strong contrasting and dramatic shadows.

Fig. 05 Cutout of the trepidation scene

Fig. 05 Cutout of the trepidation scene

Scene 2 Supplication

Raw image selected for supplication - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 200

Fig. 06 Raw image selected for supplication – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 200

The main issue with this image was the scale of the black figure, a combination of the available costume and the young female model led to this “authority figure” being too small. After a peer review of the first draft of the final image I also decided to address the lack of contrast between the black figure’s head and the background foliage. These two factors demanded that this image was spilt and processed as two pictures; the two models to the left and the floor as one layer and the black figure as a separate layer.

In regards to the floor I removed the furthest to the right skull to create a better balance of the props.

Fig. 07 Cut out of figures to the left and floor

Fig. 07 Cut out of figures to the left and floor

To address my issues with the black figure I cut it out from the background, increased its size and then painted it with a light grey wash with the brush tool set to retain the underlying texture.

Fig. 08 Cut out and resized black figure

Fig. 08 Cut out and resized black figure

Fig. 09 The Grey Monk

Fig. 09 The Grey Monk prior to the final cut out tidy-up

Scene 3 Sanctuary

Fig. 09 Raw image selected for sanctuary

Fig. 10 Raw image selected for sanctuary

The whole shoot was undertaken with a 14mm lens and the inevitable lens distortion is most evident with this shot. As mentioned later I removed some of the lens distortion in final processing but the right hand model in particular remains distorted in the final image.

The back light on the subjects made this the hardest scene to light and in hindsight it was a mistake to attempt to get detail into the ceiling and light the models in the same shot. I suspect I would have had a better raw image if I had concentrated solely on lighting the models whom by this point were at risk of hyperthermia so I was rushing to close down the shoot.

Fig. 11 Cut out of sanctuary

Fig. 11 Cut out of sanctuary

Final Processing

  • Applied lens distortion correction filter
  • Each layer was “assembled” and cut out edges refined
  • Applied dodge and burn to balance detail points of light and shade
  • Removed the distracting fence in the field behind the models
  • Cropped to 16:9 to enhance the narrative element
  • Balanced the contrast using Color Efex Pro, Pro Contrast
  • Applied a hint of skylight filter to warm the stone colour
  • Applied unsharp mask
  • Post processing time approximately ten hours

The Completed Scenes

Fig. 12 Scene 1 - Trepidation

Fig. 12 Scene 1 – Trepidation

Fig. 13 Scene 2 - Supplication

Fig. 13 Scene 2 – Supplication

Fig. 14 Scene 3 - Sanctuary

Fig. 14 Scene 3 – Sanctuary

Sources

Books

(1) Crewdson, Gregory (2002) Twilight. New York: Abrams

(2) Chandler, David and Henneman, Inge (2009) Theatres of the Real. Published to coincide with the exhibition Theatres of the Real devised and curated by Joanna Lowry and David Green and first exhibited at the FotoMusuem Provincie Antwerpen. Co-published by London: Photoworks, Antwerpen: FotoMusuem.

 

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