03. Disengagement

Introduction

Whereas, last week, a theme emerged naturally from the pool of photos from which I intended to post to Flickr, this week I made a conscious choice of theme, then selected images, which I felt, would illustrate various aspects of it. Disengagement was never going to be a topic that would bring pleasure to the eye or joy to the heart. So why did I choose it? I will try to explain that later. But first of all, let’s recap the photos because I really intended them to be seen as a series, not individually as posted on Flickr.

Monday:

Room for one more?

Room for one more?

To ease into the theme, I chose a relatively light-hearted portrayal of an individual who has been separated from the group

Tuesday:

"One" is the loneliest number

"One" is the loneliest number

I find it ironic that cities, where the largest numbers of people congregate, can, for some of them, be the loneliest of places.

Wednesday:

Disengagement

Say "No" to Strangers

Sometimes, it seems as though city people program themselves to be oblivious to strangers. Is this a defence mechanism? If so, what is the perceived threat?

Thursday:

BYO World

BYO World

Increasingly, people choose to escape the hostile anonymity of the city by “tuning in” to an alternative reality that they carry around with them in their iPODs.

Friday:

Exiled on Main Street

Exiled on Main Street

But in some tragic cases, the individual feels that there is no alternative but to “tune out” completely; to become separated, isolated and alienated from society’s mainstream.

Questions of Style

It occurs to me that photographs comprise one or both of two fundamental elements: the pictorial and the narrative. The pictorial element deals with the visual qualities of the photograph: composition, lighting, colours or tones, depth of field, format (cropping and dimensions), perspective, point of view, etc. The photographer can choose to shoot the subject straight, faithfully recreating the image as it was actually seen; or interpret the subject to create an impression which goes beyond the reality, using techniques such as varying the contrast or saturation, blurring the image, reduction to greyscale, tinting (e.g. sepia), varying the “grain”, etc. –  all designed to create a mood which appeals directly to deeper sensibilities.

The narrative element tells the story of the picture, implicitly or explicitly. Implicitly: where, in the absence of detail, we are left to invent the story for ourselves; explicitly, where the details of the story are presented clearly in the image itself. Sometimes, a single picture tells the whole story. On other occasions, the photographer will create a photographic essay comprising multiple images that combine to tell a broader story.

Whilst most pictures exhibit both pictorial and narrative elements, generally one predominates. There is no reason, however, why a predominantly narrative picture should not also have strong pictorial qualities. The question is one of balance. If the narrative is more important, the impact of the image will be lessened if the pictorial qualities are so strong that they distract the viewer.

Why choose “disengagement” as a theme?

Sunsets, flowers, pretty girls and kittens: they are all of the world but they are not all that is the world. As photographers, I believe that we have a collective obligation to confront the world in ALL its moods and manifestations.

My series this week was an experiment on two levels. Firstly, none of the images were pictorially strong. I feel that they were reasonably well composed and rendered clearly but there was no manipulation to create mood other than the reduction to greyscale. They each simply recorded a scene from real life. I made a conscious decision not to use creative devices because I wanted to convey the sense that the images were “real” in order to guage how viewers would react to a series that was predominately narrative, without pictorial distraction.

On the second level, I wanted to see how viewers would react to a series that was somewhat sober and confronting.  As I said on the first posting, there would be no colour, no eye-candy and no humour. I expected a muted response and in many cases, that was the response I received. On the other hand, I was surprised to find the occasional enthusiastic response, so THAT was encouraging.

Clearly, Flickr is not the ideal forum for the photographic essay. With so many uploads each day, any photograph that is neither eye-catching, nor eye-pleasing will not be noticed by as many people; and pics that tell a complete story will be more successful than those that rely on others in a series to make sense, especially if the author posts them on separate days, as I did (my bad!). So, my conclusion from this experiment is: (a) the pictorial element is significantly more potent on Flickr than the narrative element; and (b) predominantly narrative pics, ideally,  should be self-contained as far as their story is concerned.  I am writing this before the Friday shot is posted (because I want to link this article to it on Flickr) but I don’t expect the last shot in the series to skew the results received so far.

If you want to read what people said about the individual images, click here and browse through the series.

I would like to leave this subject, then, with an alternative capture (not uploaded to Flickr) of the shot posted on Friday.

Where do you go when nobody cares?

Where do you go when nobody cares?

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge a number of narrative photographers whose work I admire greatly and follow closely. First of all, mariekejoan and anni gbg, whose style is wonderfully realistic and sincere. In my theme this week, I tried to learn from them. Only they will know whether I succeeded or not. Secondly, fabuchan, who employs a creative approach in his unique pictorial style. He is the embodiment of the idea that a “picture is worth a thousand words” where he skillfully provides the framework and lets the viewer supply his or her own narrative.

Finally, I would like to sincerely thank everyone who participated in this experiment with me.  Your comments are always informative and guide me wisely on my journey to become a better photographer. Hopefully, I will have something lighter to offer you next week.

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3 comments on “03. Disengagement

  1. Absolutely fantastic and very inspiring …

    Great stuff, Keith. I love what you have done here and I think you have just given me the direction that I have been looking for.

    Until now I have been going out and randomly seeking for opportunities which would translate into photographic images that would work well. But having just read what you have written, and combined with your wonderful shots, you have shown me how to create a piece of work in its own right. For me, this is taking photography to the next level …

    You had a subject matter in mind, and you based your shots around this; the result being something far more interesting than simply taking a single impressive shot.

    As you have probably noticed from my Flickr photostream I have taken a fair amount of shots of the homeless, so I think I will put together my first narrative piece based around these images. I believe they are all powerful in their own right but combining them in a narrative manner would produce something far more informative.

    Also, I have been actively developing my portfolio with the intention of putting a personal website together. However, simply having a wide selection of shots had left me thinking “where do I start? how should I structure this website of mine?” … but once again, the concept which you have just introduced me to has given me the guidance that I have needed and I now feel that I can effectively make a start on my website.

    To finish off, as always, I would like to complement you on your fantastic shots. And thank you … thank you, once again, for your inspiration.

    Tommy

    • Hi Tommy, thanks so much for your comments. For a long time (well, it seemed like a long time to me) I felt that I was putting stuff onto my site and it was disappearing into the ether. My “marketing strategy” was to use Flickr to get my stuff noticed, then invite people to come to my website to see more. Besides photography, I really like writing and I want to be able to combine them but attracting people to writing is more difficult than attracting them to images – hence the strategy.

      Sometimes photographs speak for themselves; and sometimes they need to be placed in context (with a caption or a brief description); and sometimes the story requires more than one image. As you have realised, Flickr is not the ideal medium for the photo essay, so your own website is definitely the way to go.

      I’m glad that I have been able to resolve this dilemma for you; and I look forward to seeing your first essay.

      Best regards,
      Keith

  2. Hi Keith,

    I found myself here via your ‘Exile Street’ photo, interested to know what you had to say.

    And I agree with your viewpoint entirely – Flickr does not lend itself to the ‘series’ photographer’ at all. The individual shots get lost amongst the more shouty, more immediate images. Subtlety is not Flickr’s strong point. It will be interesting to see how your blog progresses; I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it and I hope it take off for you

    Plus I found your thoughts and insights really inspiring. I’m a very inexperienced amateur photographer and I’m experimenting by taking pictures of everything and anything, and browsing others’ Flickr photostreams, hoping to find what actually inspires me. And as much as I enjoy taking abstracts and building shots, it feels a little…flat. The way you’ve captured the human element is more captivating.

    Anyway, I’m rambling. What I really want to say is – keep it up! If you continue to do what pleases you, you’ll get the recognition you deserve. Meanwhile, I shall continue to try and find my inspiration.

    Jo (‘Massive thing’ on Flickr)

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