VAR SUPPLEMENTS: Patrick Sutherland on learning documentary photography and constructing photo essays from groups of photographs
Extending the Frame: some notes on learning documentary photography and constructing photo essays from groups of photographs
The editors of Visual Anthropology Review invited me to write this essay because they are keen to encourage the submission of photo essays for potential publication within the journal. It is designed as a companion piece to my essay in VAR (issue 32:2, 2016) and offers some advisory notes to support the submission of photo essays to the journal.
Photographs in photo essays are constructed from the continually changing world around us. They are made by photographers rather than just captured by cameras. Consequently they often reveal the concerns and personal perspectives of the photographer as well as recording what is framed by the technology. Through reflection on my own personal experiences of learning documentary photography and subsequently teaching the subject, I suggest how an understanding of different approaches to making photographic images can be linked directly to the editorial processes involved in presenting these images.
The Newport School of documentary photography
I studied documentary photography at Newport College of Art in Wales in the late 1970s. At that time, the core taught program consisted of a sequence of linked assignments entitled “Man at Work”, “Relationships” and “Establishing Shots”, delineating three kinds of image that could be combined to make a simple three picture story. These forms of photographic imagery had been identified by the course founder David Hurn as building blocks for a conventional magazine photo essay. Other important ingredients included portraits and close up details.
Fundamental to the Newport philosophy was the understanding that documentary photography was best learned by actually making pictures: by producing work, shot in real situations, and presenting it for feedback within a supportive, critical environment. For every shoot, students were expected to present edited and marked up contact sheets from a couple of rolls of film. These were presented at “crit sessions”, one to one tutorials with a member of the staff team. The assignments were undertaken one after the other: you would spend three weeks or more photographing “Man at Work”, returning for crits on a daily basis before moving on to the next assignment.
In these sessions, a tutor would examine the contact sheets, looking at the whole sheet and then the images, frame by frame, and respond to your individual edit, choice of the best frames and overall approach to photographing. They would discuss what they felt worked and what did not work, about the framing and your shooting methods. Tutors would remark on the position of the camera and how by moving the camera backwards or forwards, up or down, or from one side to the other photographers control the position and arrange the distribution of the different elements within the frame. They would consider the timing of the exposures, whether there were better potential moments to be captured. They would also comment on whether they felt you were moving around too much rather than staying with a situation and letting it develop in front of you or not moving enough and failing to explore and vary the pictures. Finally they would note whether they felt you were overshooting, taking too many pictures without thinking and needed to “tighten up” or undershooting, being over cautious, rigid and needed to “loosen up”. You would than be sent out to take more pictures, often returning to photograph the same person or situation again.
As students, you were encouraged to respond to and select situations that felt rich in visual potential and then allow things to emerge and develop in front of the camera: sometimes shooting several frames without significantly changing position, but always attempting to make each frame work. This was an important lesson because this approach acknowledges and embraces the element of chance and allows for the unexpected. This is a key ingredient of documentary and reportage photography.
The editing process was based on meticulous frame by frame comparison. Minor details of gesture or expression, the tilt of a head, the position of a hand, the direction in which the eyes were pointing, or the unexpected appearance of a figure in the background make one image more or less effective than the other: effective in terms of overall graphic structure or clarity of visual expression, in terms of conveying a particular mood or feeling or in making a specific point of importance to the ideas being communicated. These subtle visual details are the heart of reportage photography, of the kind we see in the work of Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Susan Meiselas, Eugene Richards and many other photographers working closely with people and operating within a humanistic tradition. Importantly, this process of detailed examination of contact sheets feeds directly back into a developing understanding of what to pay attention to whilst shooting. It also highlights the expressive potential of the medium.
Students worked with a handheld 35mm analogue camera with a single fixed focal length lens (either 35mm or 50mm). Flash, high-speed film or zoom lenses were not allowed. These restrictive, almost puritanical rules had a very specific effect and were paradoxically liberating. Working with a fixed lens rather than a zoom lens means that you have to physically move the camera in order to fill the frame with the subject matter you are photographing. As your experience grows, this process of understanding when a photograph is working becomes almost instinctive. You move around because the image you are attempting to produce demands it. Understanding where to place the camera and where to stand becomes a kind of embodied knowledge. Moving the camera or, rather, moving with the camera is fundamental to reportage photography.
Working with a standard or slightly wide-angle lens when photographing people means that you need to be close to them to fill the frame. Consequently you have to communicate directly and develop working relationships. These social skills become an essential part of the role. Photographers have to develop the ability to enter social situations and to remain in these situations whilst they are working. This obviously parallels the anthropological methodology of participant observation. Photographers have to be able to move around the situation they are documenting and yet remain distanced enough from it to be observing it and producing images rather than being drawn in.
For the assignment “Man at Work,” you were required to photograph an individual person working. The aim of the assignment was to produce a single effective photograph of someone doing something: a man digging a hole in the road or a woman neurosurgeon in an operating theatre for example. You were trying to create a frame that would show a recognizable person and also articulate the essence of the work being undertaken. Body posture and the position of the hands were key elements to pay attention to. The choice of worker, activity and location was left to the individual student. From the start you were encouraged to pursue your own interests, connections and ideas and through this to develop your own approach to the medium, but also to vary the kind of situations you were working in and gain a breadth of experience.
The subject of work is an excellent starting point for new photographers: people are often comfortable in the formal occupational roles they inhabit. If the work is busy or engrossing they soon lose awareness of the camera. Photographs of people doing things are important in photo essays. They introduce individual people and highlight the socio-economic roles they play, the positions they occupy or the activities they are associated with. However my memory of my first assignment at Newport is primarily of embarrassment. My inexperience felt contagious. I had chosen to photograph a cobbler working in a very cramped space. I was uncomfortable with the equipment I was using and concentrated so much on his hands that I managed to leave his head out of the frame for most of the photographs. It is profoundly peculiar behaviour to point a camera at another human being for an extended period of time and it takes time for this to become normalised.
What became clear later was that we were all learning a whole raft of important skills within which the technical, visual and photographic aspects were only a part. Learning social and interpersonal skills, gaining confidence in approaching people and getting access to social situations, gatherings and institutions. Learning how to negotiate our way into other people’s lives and most importantly how to stay there long enough to be able to photograph over an extended period of time. Photographing people now feels like an extraordinary privilege, having the opportunity to observe human activities at close quarters. For a photographer like myself and many of those whom I have taught and know, photography is like a passport into other worlds. This is one of the principal motivations for practitioners, the potential of being able to step outside your own day to day existence and experience other people’s worlds and perspectives.
The next assignment was entitled “Relationships”, essentially an assignment to photograph the visual manifestations of human relationships. Starting off with relationships between two people and looking out for those clues of gesture, posture and facial expression that articulate the nature of the relationship taking place. This was immediately more complex than photographing people working. Moments when the relationship between people is expressed visually are often fleeting and transitory. One of the important lessons here was the possibility of searching for something very specific and perhaps ephemeral, rather than just mechanically recording what was continuously visible to everyone. Relationship photographs are important in determining the overall mood and tone within a photo essay. They can reveal complex human experiences of intimacy or alienation for example. They can manifest the expression of human feelings and the emotional dimension of interactions as well as revealing relationships of hierarchy and power.
The final single picture assignment was to produce establishing shots. This kind of image is concerned with place and space. It also introduces the idea of pacing within groupings of photographs: of having photographs that are taken from different distances and show a different sense of scale. The choice of establishing shot depends substantially on the story that is being told, the fundamental ideas being communicated. It locates the other photographs in a particular place or environment. So this assignment introduced the idea of constructing a narrative through several photographs, of trying to communicate a story through visual means.
After this assignment the students were tasked with producing short picture stories: groupings of images on a specific theme, created from the three visual elements described above. Other kinds of images like portraits and close up details could be added to extend the story and vary the visual structure of the narrative. In this way, the experience of constructing smaller picture stories gradually develops into undertaking longer photo essays and documentary projects.
The Newport system was quite widely criticized. It was seen by some as being old fashioned, perhaps even reactionary, harking back to the dying traditions of magazine photojournalism within the publications Picture Post and Life magazine rather than aligning itself with contemporary trends and emerging practices within documentary photography. It was seen by many as being reductive, simplistic and tending towards the formulaic rather than encouraging individual creativity.
Of course the world cannot be broken down into such neat typologies. But the Newport system provides a template that can be applied to many situations as well as a set of rules that can be reacted against. Thinking of different ways of making pictures encourages a process of reflection and analysis and advances the development of workable visual strategies. In complex and rapidly changing social situations it is often difficult to decide what to photograph, what not to photograph and where to position the frame.
The system is also flexible enough to be employed for approaches other than photojournalism. In particular it offers clear potential for anthropologists interested in recording aspects of the social world for later analysis or equally for undertaking a photographic documentation in order to present research in a visual format. Such photo essays offer visual anthropologists a set of tools and an overall framework within which to operate and experiment. Working closely with people over an extended period of time, observing and recording the minutiae of human behavior brings the photo essay very close to the ethnographic methodologies of social scientists.
The photo essay is not the only approach to producing documentary photography in social situations. Indeed it is not that commonly employed by contemporary photographers. Other approaches include working serially, producing an extended series of photographs that are structurally and formally similar: a group of interiors, portraits or still life details for example.
Contemporary digital cameras are extraordinarily sophisticated technologies. They remove much of the craft, skill and knowledge once needed to produce high quality images. But as yet they cannot make essential decisions about framing or understand what is significant and worth photographing. And for some photographers, there is another issue. Digital technologies produce images with a similar overall tonal quality and feel. Many fine art documentary photographers are using larger format film cameras or other analogue technologies as a reaction to this tendency. In an increasingly competitive field, documentary photographers increasingly want to assert individual authorship over their images: a recognizable authorial style is important in the current marketplace. This clearly clashes with the idea of documentary as a relatively neutral and value-free process of recording. It also runs contrary to anthropological ideas of incorporating the perspectives of others into visual representations of the world.
The Craft of Editing
Editing single pictures from a shoot, whether by selecting individual frames from contact sheets or choosing between digital files displayed on a computer screen is a process of reduction, of weeding out the weaker images and choosing the more effective images. But when producing a short picture story, a longer photo essay or a documentary project, editing becomes a process of construction, of bringing together different kinds of images and different design elements to build a varied visual narrative. The specifics of this process depends partly on the nature and the scale of the intended output: whether it is for a magazine essay, a book, an exhibition for a gallery wall, a projection at a festival, or a portfolio on a website.
For many of these outputs, editing consists primarily of arranging a linear sequence of images: choosing an image to start and finish the sequence and then ordering the other images that fall in between. There are no formal rules or guidelines to adhere to. It is usually a process of experimentation, of trial and error. Personally I find it easier to work with actual printed images rather than working on a computer screen. I find it easier to be able to shuffle small prints around on a table or floor, experimenting with different sequences and allowing for the unexpected.
Although the sequence from start to finish is a fundamental element of most published photo essays, the format, whether in a magazine or a book, allows for the possibility of more complex connections between images: images facing each other across opposing pages, images above or below other images. It also allows for substantial variations in scale. Horizontal images on a single page, images running across the gutter but with a white border, and images bled off all four sides of a double page spread. Photo essays commonly employ visual variety as an editorial and design strategy and avoid repetition unless repetition is a key concept of the essay. Most importantly, a photo essay is substantially more than a portfolio of the photographer’s best images.
From my experience, the final form of an essay often emerges from a process neither entirely rational nor completely controlled. It is of course really important to understand the individual images you are selecting, to know why they are effective and what they contribute to a larger grouping. However, subtle and unpredicted visual and narrative connections appear between images randomly placed next to each other when editing. Shifts of meaning occur when the structure and sequence of a narrative is changed: a different ordering of the same group of images changes the overall visual statement. By altering the placement of an image in a sequence, you alter the interrelationship between the images. By changing the size of individual images in the wider grouping you are changing the emphasis placed upon these images within the overall narrative construction. Such interplay involves not just the rational grouping of images by subject matter and theme but the emotive connections made between images in terms of their mood and tone. It is always informative to pair images together and see what happens when they are viewed in context with each another. Unexpected formal connections emerge: visual elements echoing each other or the dynamics of gesture and graphic shape that lead from one image to another within a layout.
Once again, there are no formal rules to follow, but you can get a great sense of the possibilities of this kind of editing by looking at a wide variety of documentary photography books. As an exercise in the possibilities of presentational form, it is worth trying to analyse how and why the photographer has sequenced the images from beginning to end, where the images sit on the page and how the images vary in scale, if at all, within the overall narrative structure. Some books use only one size and shape of image throughout, for example Martin Parr’s Commonsense (1999) or Gilles Peress’ The Silence (1995) both of which use images bled to the edge of the page but to very different effect. Joel Sternfeld’s On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam (1996) or Mark Power’s The Shipping Forecast (1996) use one size of image on the same position on the page, each framed with a white margin. In contrast, some books employ substantial variation in the size of images, for example Sebastião Salgado’s Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age (1993) or Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse (1986) both of which function like extended magazine photo essays but reproduced in book format. Some books use very substantial captioning, for example Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc (1971) or Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007). Others have no captions at all, for example Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies (1975).
But producing the final edit for a photo essay is not merely a question of sequencing and presentation on the page. During the editing process, you have to come back repeatedly to the basic question of what the essay is about, what you as a photographer are trying to communicate and whether the final structure succeeds in this ambition.
Photojournalism, Documentary Photography and Visual Anthropology
I have been running a workshop on the MA in Visual Anthropology at Manchester University’s Granada Centre for nine years, and am currently a member of the Photography Committee at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. I am interested in the potential overlap between visual anthropology and the practices of documentary photography and photojournalism.
Each of these fields is fluid and increasingly difficult to define. I think of documentary photography as being a broad territory encompassing many approaches to still photography, but at its core is the process of recording and description. There is no inherent subject matter for documentary photography, nor are there obvious limits to its attempts to describe the world through visual images. Perhaps it can be understood as embracing the genre of photojournalism, which is a kind of applied documentary photography, informed historically by a journalistic and news agenda but now commonly operating independently of its traditional outlets. And perhaps the key aspect defining visual anthropology as a form of documentary practice utilizing still photography is the conceptual framework within which the practice is situated rather than what the specific individual images taken by a visual anthropologist actually look like. I suspect that the anthropological nature of still photographic practice is to be found less within the individual imagery and more within the interrelationships between groups of images and with their relationship to accompanying text.
In this context it is revealing to examine Danny Lyon’s recently reissued book Conversations with the Dead (1971) a project about Texas penal institutions in the late 1960s. On one level this is classic photo essay that could easily have been published in a magazine and in that context would have been viewed as a work of photojournalism. But Lyon presented the work in an extended book format, a clear decision to retain editorial control over the sequencing and presentation, and the use of captions and texts.
The book is constructed not as magazine layouts but as a simple linear sequence with images positioned on the right-hand page, one single picture after another, and minimal captions on the left. The photographs start with a filmic sequence of prisoners arriving and entering the penitentiary. This sequence functions not only to describe the journey from outside to inside, from freedom to imprisonment, but it also takes the viewer, through the experience of the photographer, deep inside the culture of the prison.
It is revealing to examine where Lyon positions himself. Much of the time he is on the ground in amongst the prisoners and photographing from within looking out or looking up. This deep immersion within the community he is documenting adds significantly to the sense of an inmate’s perspective, especially noticeable when he photographs the prison staff.
There is substantial repetition in the overall sequence. A magazine photo essay might tend to avoid the replication of similar kinds of pictures but in the context of a longer book such recurring usage amplifies the sense of regulation and institutionalized procedure. There are several images of shakedowns, of the strip searches of labourers re-entering prison from the fields. They detail the relentless day to day indignities suffered by felons. The repetition adds to the sense of the unremitting loss of individual dignity and invasion of personal space.
Conversations with the Dead includes the letters and paintings and even the execution order of an inmate called Billy McCune (McCune was eventually released). They open up another avenue of communication, giving the reader a bleak sense of the hopeless and remorseless brutality of the penal system of America at that time. They also add significantly to communicating the worldview of the prisoners being documented. This commitment to expressing the views and perspective of the inmates takes Lyons’ work further away from photojournalism or conventional documentary practice and much closer to a work of visual anthropology. The anthropological quality of the work is therefore located not within the specific single images but in their cumulative effect, in the photographer’s insider and immersed standpoint and perhaps equally in the author’s collaboration with McCune.
Jones Griffiths, Philip. 1971. Vietnam Inc. New York: Collier.
Koudelka, Josef. 1975. Gypsies. New York: Aperture.
Lyon, Danny. 1971. Conversations with the Dead. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Mitidieri, Dario. 1994. Children of Bombay. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.
Parr, Martin. 1999. Commonsense. Stockport: Dewi Lewis.
Peress, Gilles. 1995. The Silence. New York: Scalo.
Power, Mark. 1996. The Shipping Forecast. London: Zelda Cheatle Press.
Salgado, Sebastião. 1993. Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age. London: Phaidon.
Salgado, Sebastião. 1986. Sahel: L’Homme en Détresse. France: Prisma Presse.
Salgado, Sebastião. 1986. Other Americas. New York: Pantheon.
Simon, Taryn. 2007. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Göttingen: Steidl.
Sternfeld, Joel. 1996. On this Site: Landscape in Memoriam. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.