Uncertain States / 11

uncertain-states-newspaper-11Issue 11 Contributors

Essay Issue 11: by Del Loewenthal
Photography, Research and Phototherapy
Ania Dabrowska
Del Loewenthal
Putting the (m)other first
Graham Asker
Past Imperfect
Agata Cardosa
Photography as research
Spencer Rowell
Externalise Me, Internalise You
Carol Hudson
The Power of Possessions
Ben Campkin
Photographing the Olympic Park
David George
Dissolution – The Disappearing Marshes of Hackney
Zoe O’reilly
Gerard Jeferson-Lewis
What’s in a Face. The Instability of Blankness in
Contemporary Photographic Portraiture

Photography, Research and Phototherapy

Essay Issue 11: by Del Loewenthal

My forthcoming book, ‘Phototherapy and Therapeutic Photography in a Digital Age’ (Routledge) is largely about developments in the therapeutic use of photographs. Photography and therapeutic photography having initially established themselves in Europe and subsequently developed more in North America have now seen a European resurgence. These recent, mainly European developments can be seen to have been coupled with the explosion of digital photography which has enabled the digital image to be accessible to the majority. The particular focus of this article is on research as this is the subject of this special issue of Uncertain States.

In one of the chapters I attempt to show how I use photographs within more traditional counselling and psychotherapy illustrating this with four young people I was asked to work with in a school.(This is phototherapy whereas my photographs show later in this issue ‘Putting the (m)other first’ is an example of therapeutic photography – both are ways of exploring Uncertain States.) This collaborative case study method is explored further here. I am particularly interested to consider whether digital photography can provide a new form of research.


In order to obtain legitimacy what may now be required is that phototherapy and therapeutic phototherapy is subjected to Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) although the use of RCT’s is increasingly questionable for exploring the effectiveness of psychological therapies in general (Guy, Loewenthal, Stamp and Stephenson, 2012). RCT’s are however still regarded as the main legitimising instruments in our current dominant culture.

An interesting important development is in the field of visual research (for example Banks, 2001) although currently it is still primarily seen as an adjunct to existing more traditional research methods rather than being there in its own right. There could also be considered a need for qualitative research on the therapeutic use of photographs in a similar way to that now being conducted in counselling and psychotherapy using such methods as grounded theory, phenomenological research, discourse analysis, heuristic research, case study methods etc. (see for example Loewenthal, 2007; Loewenthal & Winter, 2006).

What is research?
Research can be considered as a cultural practice (fashioning and fashioned). Currently, it can be understood variously as an original investigation undertaken in order to gain knowledge and understanding (RAE, 2008) or an attempt to find out information in a systemic manner (Princeton, Wordnet Web, 2006).

Psychotherapeutic research has, as of late, been involved examining processes and outcomes with an increasing interest from government and the profession in so called ‘evidence based practice’. There exists an abundance of qualitative and quantitative approaches to psychotherapeutic research though all have their limitations as well as strengths as it could be argued that the practice itself is the research (Lees and Freshwater, 2008).

Qualitative and quantitative research
Quantitative research is generally associated with ‘positivism’ and is concerned with counting and measuring, particularly providing estimates of averages and differences between groups whereas qualitative research has its basis in social sciences and is more concerned with understanding why people act in the way they do: their knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, etc.

An objective of positivistic research is to discover natural and general laws enabling prediction and control. This type of research generally assumes that reality is objectively given and its properties can be measured independently of the researcher. Conversely, interpretative research methods are designed to help researchers understand people and the social/cultural contexts within which they live by describing and interpreting meaningful interactions.

Phototherapy however provides a new opportunity for considering the growing field of visual research.

What is visual research?
Visual research uses both ‘researcher created data’ and ‘respondent created data’ (which can be seen as having similarities with phototherapy and therapeutic photography respectively). Photo elicitation is an important visual method appearing similar to the projective techniques of phototherapy. However Prosser (2006) considers visual research a rather dispersed and ill-defined domain.

Strands of Visual Research
For Banks (2001), there are two main strands to visual research in the social sciences:

The creation of images by the social researcher to document or subsequently analyse aspects of social life and social interaction

The collection and study of images produced or consumed

Using Visual Methods
Banks (2001) suggests visual research methodologies should only be used as part of a more general package of research methodologies and the need for them should be indicated by the research itself – but need this be so? Couldn’t the case now be made for visual research to have a primary standing in its own right? Perhaps psychotherapeutic researchers should try and identify the research questions that lie behind the specific investigation, visual research methodologies are often used in an exploratory way (to discover what the researcher has not initially considered).

Also doesn’t the meaning of images change over time as they are viewed by different audiences. Similarly, the meaning intended by the phototherapeutic researcher when creating the image may not be the meaning that is read by the viewer. (Photographs are also used differently by phototherapeutic researchers who adopt either a positivistic or interpretative approach).

Questions for the researcher carrying out research into phototherapy or therapeutic photography.

There are many questions here but perhaps one of the most important raises the questions of the ethics of research (see Levinas, 1991) and indeed photography: is the researcher putting the researcher or researched first? Again, is the photographer (whether or not they are considered the researcher) putting the photographer or photograph first? (see ‘Putting the (m)other first’ in this issue).

An example
I would now like to present one example of a comparison of quantitative, qualitative and visual research where photographs have been used as part of counselling and psychotherapy.

The purpose of this ‘collective case study’ was to explore and in turn, evaluate, ‘Talking Pictures Therapy’, which is the name the author has given to the use of photographs within psychotherapy and counselling, here as a form of counselling in a UK school setting with 4 children. The therapeutic work, which forms the data of this study, was carried out in a UK school. The children (Key Stage 3 to Key Stage 4), were informed that ‘Talking Pictures Therapy’ normally involved up to six sessions of one-to-one therapy with the purpose of enabling them to express and explore, in the therapy and potentially through photographs, aspects of their lives they would like to talk about.

The four children attended a school on the south coast of England in an area of relative deprivation and ranged between 12-14 years in age. The local community and in turn, the school was made up of a large proportion of white, working class children with some children from Eastern Europe and South East Asia. The school is a secondary with attached sixth-form. This school, through the Special Needs Co-ordinators (SENCO), prioritized four children for the ‘Talking Pictures Therapy’. These children (their names are changed here), with permission of their parents/guardians agreed to have the therapy and for it to be used for this research.

Qualitative and quantitative methods, alongside using the children’s choice of photographs in terms of visual research, were used. With regard to qualitative research, a case study method was utilised as the research approach based on Greenwood and Loewenthal (2005, 2007), where Husserlian bracketing is combined with hermeneutics, strongly influenced by Bleicher’s (1980) work on the phenomenology of Heidegger and Gadamer. This was further developed from Yin’s (1984) case study method as a means of generalization. A collective case study sample, including four children was chosen on Yin’s (2003) recommendation that conclusions are often considered stronger in multiple case analyses in comparison to single case study analysis.

us_11_essay02The case study method sought to reveal multiple meanings by a process of searching and then researching the therapist’s account of the therapy. This research followed the four stages of a phenomenological-hermeneutic case study method (Greenwood & Loewenthal, 2005), where both the number of stages depends on the amount of ‘researching’ for meanings that takes place and where there is no limit to this part of the process.

Also, in order to come alongside currently accepted methods of measurement a quantitative assessment set was used: PHQ-9 (for depression), GAD-7 (for anxiety) and the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) Phobia Scale (IAPT minimum data set) and the popular overall measure CORE-10. However asking such questions as ‘How frequently have you considered killing yourself’ was considered both violent and therapeutically unhelpful. I was however interested to consider the ‘progress’ of the therapy through client’s choice of photographs and the individual meanings projected onto them.

Each of the 4 individual cases was described outlining the use of photographs as process and outcome alongside the pre and post therapy assessment set; PHQ-9, GAD-7 and CORE-10 data which were recorded at the beginning and end of each client’s six sessions of ‘Talking Pictures Therapy’.

us_11_essay03Figure 2: GAD-7, PHQ-9 and CORE-10 Pre and Post Scores

This quantitative data needs to be considered with the vitally important descriptive case studies for which only brief descriptions are now provided as space here does not allow further exploration of either.

Charlotte said she chose photo 1 because it had ‘a twist’ in it. It reminded her of a film where it was never clear if the person who most people thought was a criminal had actually committed the crime – this was the ‘twist’ in it. She subsequently spoke of her father who had been killed 3 years ago, who everyone else thought was a criminal. Her mother never wanted to know her and Charlotte lived with her father’s mother. Towards the end of our time together Charlotte told me how both she and her gran had to sleep in chairs in the front room, her aunt having the bedroom. In the penultimate session, she chose the picture of the trees (photo 2) and in her last session she both showed me how much weight she had lost since seeing me and a photo on her mobile she had taken of some trees.

Before meeting Winston I was told he was regarded by his teachers as being almost mute. For the first few sessions he could only talk very occasionally in whispers. Initially, he chose a photograph of a fairground wheel (Photo 3) reminding him of a day out with his family. However, by the fifth session he chose a photo of playing cards (photo 4) reminding him of his mother playing cards and not speaking in the country they had come from. I asked him ‘Do all women in that country not speak?’ He looked at me as if I was really stupid. This led to in our last session rather than playing games, which we had previously done, him saying he wanted to speak, and he did!

Linda chose pictures of flowers, tropical fish (Photo 5) and what she describes as ‘a swirl of colours’ (photo 6). At the end of her therapy, and despite changes voluntarily provided by the SENCO, Linda did not appear to have been very moved by the phototherapy sessions and chose the same photos. She had tried to involve me in taking part in seeing how far one could pull girls’ breasts on a computer game as well as another game she devised where I had to leave the room which I explained I couldn’t as the teachers bags were there. She had had to miss one of our sessions because she had been out shoplifting with her younger brother though to others’ surprise, she apologised for missing the session when the police brought her back.

Amanda had problems being able to enter the room. Eventually she arrived by diving across the room landing on four chairs initially attempting to destroy objects in our room. The first photograph she chose was a joker (photo 4) saying ‘I like to make people laugh, but it gets me into trouble’. She subsequently told me how her parents had split up and her father had subsequently died. Later she chose a photo which she described as ‘a clearing’ (photo 7) and she moved the card aside to put her head on her folded arms on the desk. I said ‘you are making a clearing for yourself’. After this and at the end of each session Amanda then asked ‘you will be here next week?’ She was enabled to do this even when the school banned her for a time from attending and I later learned she had found a boyfriend.

Using photographs as a potential evaluation of therapeutic change, may be a beneficial and complementary if not alternative approach to evaluation approaches such as GAD-7, PHQ-9 and CORE-10. Such approaches that allow something to emerge which is not pre-defined by, for example, a medicalised model of diagnosis and treatment, I describe as post-existential (Loewenthal, 2011). This change in language through digital photography, changes culturally what, and how, we experience; not only in terms of being able to look back on such websites as Facebook, as to what photos we and others posted of ourselves, but the very nature of our experiences. Perhaps this change in our way of perceiving and thinking will be even greater than when photography, at the start of the 20th Century, changed the perception and thinking of so many people.

Overall we would expect that digital photographs will be used more extensively, not only in terms of for example digital storytelling which is becoming available to most school children, but also in a wide range of professional practices and cultural activities including developments in social media (I am currently using such photographs in both working with inmates in prisons and in management development). This will lead to new theories that will both be increasingly researched and will lead in themselves to new research methodologies using digital photography.

However, perhaps we first need to consider more what our various notions of research have anything to do with thoughtfulness, truth or justice.

/ 11 Article by Del Loewenthal 2012

Del Loewenthal is professor of Psychotherapy and Counselling and Director of the Research Centre for Therapeutic Education at the University of Roehampton where he also convenes doctoral programmes. He is an analytic psychotherapist, chartered psychologist and photographer. Del is founding editor of the European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling (Routledge). His publications include Post-Existentialism and the Psychological Therapies: Towards a Therapy without Foundations (Karnac, 2011), and co-edited with Richard House: ‘Critically Engaging CBT’ (Open University Press, 2010), ‘Childhood, Wellbeing and a Therapeutic Ethos’ Karnac, Books, 2009) and ‘Against and For CBT’ (PCCS Books, 2008). He is also the author of ‘Case Studies in Relational Research’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), ‘What is Psychotherapeutic Research?’ co-edited with David Winter (Karnac, 2006) and ‘Postmodernism for Psychotherapists’ co-edited with Robert Snell (Routledge, 2003). Del has a small private practice in Brighton and Wimbledon.


Banks, M. (2001). Visual Methods in Social Research.
London: Sage Publications.

Bleicher, J. (1980) Contemporary hermeneutics:
hermeneutics as method, philosophy, and critique.
London: Routledge

Guy A, Loewenthal, D., Thomas, R. and Stephenson, S.
(2012). Scrutinising NICE: The impact of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence Guidelines on the provision of counselling and psychotherapy in primary care in the UK, Psychodynamic Practice, 18(1)

Greenwood, D. & Loewenthal, D. (2005). ‘Case Study as a means of researching social work and improving practitioner education’. Journal of Social Work Practice,
19 (2) 181-193

Greenwood, D. & Loewenthal, D. (2007). A Case of Case Study Method: The Possibility of Psychotherapy with a Person Diagnosed with Dementia in D. Loewenthal Case Studies in Relational Research Basingstoke:
Palgrave Macmillan (pp.88-113)

Lees, J. and Freshwater, D. (2008). Practitioner-Based Research: Power, Discourse, and Transformation,
London: Karnac Books.

Levinas, E. (1991) Totality and Infinity, Netherlands:
Kluwer Academic Publisher

Loewenthal, D. (2007). Case Studies in Relational
Research Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Loewenthal, D. & Winter, D. (2006) (eds). What is Psychotherapeutic Research?
London: Karnac Books

Loewenthal, D. (2011). Post-Existentialism and the Psychological Therapies.
London: Karnac.

Princeton, Wordnet Web. (2006). Retrieved April 2011, fromhttp://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=wordyou-want.

(University of Oxford, Frascati definition).

Prosser, J. (2006). ‘The Darker Side of Visual Research’.
In: Hamilton, P. (2006) (Ed.) Visual Research Methods.
Sage, London.

RAE, (2008). Research Assessment Exercise.
Retrieved April 2011, from http://www.rae.ac.uk.

Stamp, R., Stephenson, S. & Loewenthal, D. (2009).
Report on the Evidence Base for Creative Therapies:
A systematic review London: UKCP

Yin, R.K., (2003). Case Study Research: Design and
Methods, 3rd edition. . London : Sage Publications.

The photographs used for this research and shown
in this article are ‘Spectrocards’ © (Courtesy of Ulla Halkola)

“I like to make people laugh, but it gets me into trouble”

01_ania_dabrowskaAnia Dabrowska

As you select your key memories, ask yourself why each is so vivid. Perhaps the remembered experience was novel, something that broke the normal script. (…) It may have been connected with an event of great historical significance or engender great emotion. It may have been, and continue to be symbolic, capturing a point in time when you were truly yourself.
J. Kotre, White Gloves, published by Norton 1996, p.106

One of the threads running through and holding my practice together is the wonder of our – and by that I mean ‘human’ – ability (or lack of it) to find, what I would call a ‘centre’. You may exchange it with any of the following sentiments: balance / peace / happiness / true self. I find myself considering through my work the astounding variety of powers, internal or external, that aid or hinder this ongoing quest in our journey through time. One of the most obvious, yet still most complex of those is memory and its impact on our sense of identity. There is a mutual dependency between the two, and then comes the tangled web of connections between what we perceive as private, personal, unique, conscious and collective, public, subconscious memory.

The works printed here come from two different series, but only as different as your left arm is from the right one or the past is from the future. I used the same set of archival photographs as a starting point for both and then manipulated them in different ways as I tried to find answers to two distinct questions: How do we forget? How do we remember? The generous contributors of the source material had at least these things in common: they have all lived for a long time (84 – 101 years old) and they all signed up to be brain donors, wanting their brains to be used for scientific research into finding cures for dementia. I dug into the topic, read, talked to my distinguished collaborator on the project, listened to recordings of conversations about their favourite and most significant life memories to determine my choice of original images and to inform the aesthetic interventions I made on them.

Working with photography and with other people’s family archives equips one with perfect set of tools for exploration of these territories, since we all agree that these are the very mediums and objects through which we preserve, make, and mix the myths, fictions and facts about ourselves. There is a sense of responsibility, privilege and power when one approaches and then distorts an artifact representing a precious moment in a stranger’s life. Then one might recognize something familiar. This odd and uncanny element, that sometimes is no more significant that a shape of a person’s neck, which ignores rationality, time or space, transforms the strange artifact into something highly personal. Humility enters the stage.

It Really Was Beautiful (2011) and Errors of Omission (2011) series come from Mind Over Matter project (2008-2011), a collaboration with Dr Bronwyn Parry, Professor in Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, about memory, forgetting, and the role that brain donation can play in finding cures for dementia, funded by Wellcome Trust People Award.


02_del_loewenthalDel Loewenthal

Putting the (m)other first

Putting the (m)other first These photographs are part of a larger set, taken when the photographer’s mother died, of the house he was brought up in. Besides using this therapeutic photography as a way of starting to work through his experiences of loss, the photographer also had in mind the ethics of such photography. In particular, he was interested in when he might be putting his mother first and when he might be putting himself first, as well as when he might be putting neither or both first. There were further complexities as to the ethics for the viewer including family and friends. This notion of ethics as ‘putting the other first’ comes from the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who considered every face to say ‘don’t do violence to me’ and ‘don’t let me die alone’ – which, at least in the latter case, the photographer failed to do for his mother.



03_graham_askerGraham Asker

Here, on the page, the movie comes to an abrupt halt. There is time to consider the moment. The actor is already on stage. He has stepped into the light. Attention is captured and anticipation is active; but inevitably they both begin to wane, as the projectionist cannot return.

Within this work, the research is primarily concerned with the perception of scale and the aesthetic and emotional outcomes resulting from our misjudgment of it. What of this street? Does it exist beyond our tactile space or within it?

Our perception of scale and perception of distance are normally interlocked, the combination, of course, providing our visual perspective. With the absence of everyday cues to size and distance, small nuances in the perception of: surface; clarity; focus and hue can hijack that element of our consciousness upon which we rely to place us within the world. Hence there is uncertainty; possibly a desire for attachment to, or maybe a desire for detachment from, this ambiguous space.

Claude Lévi Strauss asks (1): “What is the virtue of reduction either of scale or in the number of properties? It seems to result from a sort of reversal in the process of understanding. To understand a real object in its totality we always tend to work from its parts. The resistance it offers us is overcome by dividing it. Reduction in scale reverses this situation. Being smaller, the object as a whole seems less formidable. By being quantitatively diminished, it seems to us qualitatively simplified. More exactly, this quantitative transposition extends and diversifies our power over a homologue of the thing, and by means of it the latter can be grasped, assessed and apprehended at a glance”.

When we are young we feel free to experiment with perception. Like most young boys, I was given a model train set. I would lay my head on the track and look at the engine. It became larger and I became smaller. For a moment, I owned that space – it was my world.

The space, which is the subject of this work, is delineated by a street, a particular kind of street. An intimate street established in the early twentieth century and housing workshops, small retail business, storerooms and offices. It is however a quiet, empty, anonymous street but one whose character can change with the transition from day to night. The street is explored by a lone figure. As it’s shadow traverses the street it wraps around pillars and projects into the back of an empty shop and is eventually swallowed by an open door. It represents perhaps an existential engagement between man and his perceived personal space.

The cinematic process used to create and present the time-based version of this work involves a succession of four lens systems. With regard to the action, I, in fact, play the shadow figure. The camera captures me as I perform in front of a “green screen” – the well-tended grass in a local park. The resulting animated shadow figure is projected onto the street and the resulting performance is filmed by a camera tracking the figure as it walks down the street. Finally the film is projected and the viewer is free to choose his/her own scale for the street.


(1) The Savage Mind, Claude Lévi Strauss, 1962 (English Translation 1966, University of Chicago Press).

04_agata_cordosaAgata Cardosa

Photography as research

I am a passionate maker of the photographic image. Using traditional practice, a black and white roll of film and my Bronica SQA have been my permanent companions for the last seven years. Together they allow me to express myself through the medium of lens based art. My subject matter is primarily the body, the damaged body, the unusual, the unacceptable, the strange and the alluring; in conjunction with my dreams, and nightmares, my work is of distressed darkness.

There are three specific stages to my practice, where there is an opportunity to express myself; where the unconscious internal self can develop freely my ideas.

The concept, which is usually constructed weeks before, the processing of the latent image and the final print production.

It is the post-production of the initial concept that I prefer working on the most, the development and printing, the wet processes. It is during these stages, you could say, that I create illusions with the film and with playing with the emulsion I am constantly researching the way in which the image behaves during this phase of development. I will distress my imagery, burn the film, melt the emulsion, freeze it, scratch it and use many other means. They become part of me, they are final pieces in themselves, but I continue to work on this distress – to research and develop these techniques.

This creates one-off unique artifacts; often unable to re-create what you have made, this is what makes this formula so interesting and also very dear to my heart. I move away from perfection, of the perfect technical image, the beautiful perfect, spotless photograph, away from the acceptable.

Since leaving The Cass in 2007, my practice has been a source of sanity, of self-expression in times of need, helped me through tough times. In keeping with many of the contributors of this edition of Uncertain States, I have used photography as a therapeutic tool. Photography remains a form of expression for me that keep alive an internal truth, my ideals expressed outwardly.


05_spencer_rowellSpencer Rowell

Externalise Me, Internalise You.

‘The interplay of introjective and projective mechanisms weaves a pattern of relatedness’s to the world of objects and provides the fabric out of which the individual fashions his own self image’… ‘Out of this interplay also develops his capacity to relate to and identify with the objects in his environment.”
Sandler, J. 1988

As much as psychoanalysis is concerned with the interaction between the outer world and its relationship with an inner world (how we take in and make sense of external events and how we put our inner thoughts and understandings back out into this outer world), my research documents a process by which, through the production of self-portraits and their assessment by psychotherapists, photographs may form a representation of an inner world of the artist and its relationship to external objects. Through practice, moving from a position of being psychically hidden, to a place of being observed; and through the production of these photographs and their exhibition, a way of gaining awareness of inner states. The process may be viewed as an artist’s emergence from this place of psychic retreat to a position of awareness and through this use of the camera combined with the mediation of the viewer, to be seen as a form of therapeutic process.

05_spencer_rowell_01Each individual image offers a snapshot into these inner worlds and when these lost object representations are viewed as a whole, in sequence, over time, the narrative of an internal world may become more real to the artist and the viewer. The external world now becomes portrayed as a narrative of internal objects, vividly brought into reality through interpretation and exhibition. It is in the bringing together of these part objects, that a more complete image can emerge; to be seen in one light so-to-speak. Is this therapeutic work simply a form of self-imposed fragmentation followed by reparation, or is it, through the inevitable temporary loss of inner self, a form of diffusion and re-identity, or do I display my images, because of my incapacity to differentiate subject (the photograph) and object (internally me), from reality (externally me as the print) and phantasy of the image, (what it is/I am about?).

Self-portrait photography can of course simply be the act of making more concrete that experience of an internal world, a way of putting undigested bit-parts of experience and other inner experiences into an object, the print. In its creation, it has the power to display that interchange of self and non-self; in picking up bits that are in existence and re-forming them into something original, this form of photographic communication can be used as a way of getting these experiences understood and along with the interpretations by third parties, to have them returned in a more manageable and different form, that of language.

Through what process then do I as the artist, discard unwanted parts of myself in the form of photographs and value taking in, in the form of language, interpretations. As with therapy, does this project give me the opportunity to discard affect into an ‘other’, externalise it perhaps temporarily and once outside of self, give me the capacity to think and reflect.

And what of the interpreter in this mêlée? Do I transmit my thoughts into their minds; do they contain those thoughts and return them to me? What part of them do I incorporate into the process? As I ponder these reflections of theirs and I offer more images – that in turn have potential of more discoveries and awareness to my inner world – does an alternative picture emerge, a narrative of sorts, of myself of course, but also a narrative of the interpreter, a combined narrative.

In psychoanalytical terms, Projection and Introjection are seen as representing opposite sides of this same coin; an unconscious form of communication and the basis of art appreciation and interpretation. In this context I will suggest that Projection and Introjection, used in this mature way, is more than simply an opportunity to appreciate and gain another level of understanding between the artist and the photograph but the photograph and the assessor/viewer, an opportunity to understand something of the inner and outer worlds of both artist and viewer; It is a place where ideas can merge and interrelate.

This process has its roots in early infant – mother relations; the infant cannot say how he feels, he simply makes his mother experience the same feeling. This communication is seen as them connecting in a deep and unconscious way, the mother will react, this will facilitate the infant’s psychic growth; the same happens in the therapeutic setting between analyst and analysand. Projection takes aspects of one’s internal world and puts them onto external subjects; an unconscious process of excretion and expulsion. I am also interested in how this relates to the reverse enactment; where the internal world of the viewer is incorporated into the image being viewed, It is this ‘output’ from the viewers’ internal world (the viewers’ own projections) presented as the written report, which can be seen as ‘input’ into the final assessment. Projection and Introjection is an intercommunicative process of shared understanding, it becomes a creative interplay of shared experience. This process as it occurs in child development can be dissected into three phases (Ogden, 1982), where the child as projector, ridding himself of unwanted bits, deposits into (not just onto) the receiver and recovers a modified version of these projections; without this third phase, the process is not of therapeutic help to the projector. This concept also parallels that which is undertaken by this project, where the photographer deposits into an image un-resolved, un-differentiated parts of his pre-verbal past, these messages are presented via a print for assessment and finally the artist recovers a modified version in the form of language. From this third phase the photographer seeks more awareness which is subsequently incorporated into art practice.

To look at Projection in theoretical terms, we see it along with Introjection as an organising structure; a process by which there is a constant interplay across shared boundaries. A bringing together of un-differentiated differences, it is the way the artist sees his world and how the viewer, in phantasy perceives that same world – that together they have the capacity to bring this shared experience together. Through this process we describe the world in subjective terms, by playing, inherently organising and continually unconsciously reflecting on the individuals internal world. Without Projection and Introjection there would be no comparison, no feedback, even in phantasy. Creativity is the inhabiting of these cross-borders, it is the art of playing within a shared experience. Any creative development comes from the constant interplay of Projective and Introjective structures; in this shared environment, communication of internal objects and their relationship with the outside world is experienced. The viewers’ interpretation of mywork is a process of formulating these internal boundaries. When confronted by an image, an unconscious personal representation is called for, a boundary is set; ‘this is I’ and ‘that is he’. A disidentification process, where the ego says, ‘I distinguish between self and object, I will create a boundary’. (Sandler, J. 1988). By instigating the notion of play the viewers’ boundaries become merged and temporally suspended with the image. Here the viewer brings life experience to the engagement and there is a sense of the artist analysing the viewer. This process is what Sandler calls ‘sorting out’, where ‘aspects of the object–representation are incorporated into the selfrepresentation and vice-versa.’ (1988) p26. This process is the basis for empathy in the consulting room.

05_spencer_rowell_02But in context of the analysts’ interpretation of these photographic images, it is the reaching beneath the surface into what is the subterranean world of the artist in combination with the viewer, that is this shared experience. The ‘sorting out’ from which we want to gain knowledge, the shared world of artist and viewer, it is this externalisation of the work and expectations of a response that is described as creative interaction.

The viewers experiences coupled with the ideas of the artist (often misunderstood, confused expressions) are locked, in phantasy, in an unconscious conversation, enabling union and a level of understanding, this is a re-enactment of a pre-verbal, or early infant experience. The artwork also acts as a temporary container, where this lack of initial understanding is held, my need to return to the artwork for further understanding, or to relate to it as being part of a sequence and through the reverie of the engagement with the assessments, gain access to a direct descendant of inner worlds, a state that I am attempting to disentangle. One role of the analyst is to simply hold on to the therapeutic content while the patient process it, a temporary container, enabling the client to maintain an ability to think. The viewer therefore creates and crosses these boundaries set up by the artist and through internalisation and externalisation responds to the work. Projection and Introjection must be seen as a developmental tool offering a differentiating perspective on image engagement; it is this concept that is behind creative engagement.

05_spencer_rowell_03The viewing of the work is a difficult process for the analysts, it involves them getting caught up in the affectual nature of my object relations. Many of the images will not ‘pierce’, to use Barthes term, they will dissolve, counter, overlap and often create ambivalence of the viewers’ experience of communication, although through this play and interaction, I am asking them to see something; a representation of my internal world and in it, how their’s intertwines with it. Through their interpretations and over time, as in therapy, a combined narrative is formed, awareness emerges. It is essential to acknowledge the importance of the observers’ projections in the formulation of conclusions for this project as a collaborative shared experience. Art development and appreciation requires projection.



Ogden, T. 1982 Projective Identification and Psycho-Therapeutic Technique

Sandler, J. 1988 Projection, Identification, Projective Identification


06_carol_hudsonCarol Hudson

The Power of Possessions

My personal practice has always centred on issues of mortality and the enigma of consciousness, but the investment of emotional content increased substantially after the death of my husband in 2009 and I began to focus on personal loss. I found it impossible to dispose of the things that had belonged to my husband and began taking photographs as a way of understanding my feelings. My research project developed out of this. Taking the concept of ‘possession’ as a starting point, the aim is to investigate the power inherent in physical objects that become ‘owned’ and the inherent melancholy and mystery in possessions that are no longer possessed.

Making the images was, do doubt cathartic for me, and reflecting on the images, I can see that they explore feelings that I did not, at the time, acknowledge. I knew that they were about loss but the mysterious quality of the objects was not obvious to me at the time of making the work. Nor did I acknowledge, until much later, the fetishistic nature of the images. I confess that this has unnerved me a little but it has also made me realise the strength of photography as a research tool for the investigation of emotion.

I have continued to use still life photography as an interrogative tool to explore the complex topics associated with grief and mourning. My research investigates not just the potential for photography to be used as an instrumental and expressive tool in the interpretation of personal loss but also to explore the possibility that photography can be elegiac and have resonances beyond the well-documented art based therapies. Highly conceptual and emotional aspects of life such as death, memory, love, desire, power or loss are often difficult to access through traditional research methods.

I have discovered that the ongoing process of reflection and re-examination required for artistic practice utilises many of the same skills as qualitative research. Both require the ability to think conceptually and to employ narrative strategies, observational and analytic skills to communicate and generate meaning through creative, flexible and effective practice. However, using artistic representation as a research method steers close to the boundaries of quantitative and qualitative research methodological paradigms so I follow this path with some trepidation. Although I have a holistic and reflective conception of my photographic practice and my research practice as being two parts of the same process, it is not at all clear to me that my artistic practice will be acknowledged as legitimate research unless it is couched within the textual and structural methodologies of traditional academic research. Questions relating to knowledge construction, validity and evaluation will need to be addressed.

Exciting innovations in information technology may have an innovative part to play here in enabling the preservation and dissemination of new kinds of ‘document’. Uncertain States is, in itself, an example of this trend and the novel means of distribution of its newspaper ensure a fresh new audience with each issue. But it is the Internet that offers most potential for researchers wanting to access not just texts but images, sound files or films and promote dialogue. It can only be a matter of time before multi-method research is commonplace and I hope that my practice can play a small part.


Ben Campkin

Photographing the Olympic Park

Within processes of event-driven urban change, and surrounding Olympic mega-events in particular, the proliferation of images and imagemaking practices is intense. Logos, architectural drawings, plans, maps, adverts, promotional films, data visualisations and computer-generated photosimulations are just a few of the visual forms that are produced and circulate. Documenting, describing, shaping and otherwise affecting the site, these images have very real effects on how it is understood. Alongside official imagery, visual practitioners such as photographers, film-makers and fine artists are attracted to regeneration sites to record what might be lost, document and question what is taking place, and imagine likely or alternative futures.

With this proliferation of images in mind, Hilary Powell and I invited six photographers of the London 2012 Olympic Park to reflect on their practice and photographs in a salon held in the View Tube – a temporary building made of industrial containers overlooking the Olympic Park, designed as a platform from which to see and photograph the site under construction. Orienting themselves towards the Games and the area in distinct ways, these photographers create work that variously records, maps, surveys, chronicles, narrates, provokes, critiques and contextualises. They have all found a creative niche within the Olympic Development Authority’s (ODA’s) notorious control over the taking of photographs of and on the site.(1)

In the salon, we set out to question the potential of the photographic medium in relation to the transformation of the area. How does photography change the way we understand or imagine the past, present or future of this locale? How do photographs influence the form or reception of other kinds of image circulating within the Olympic restructuring process? Which qualities of the site lend themselves to photographic representation, and which lie beyond its limits?

First to respond was Alessandra Chilá, who talked about her series “Olympian Visions”.(2) Mainly taken before the enclosure of the area for construction works, the series consists of 40 images, some with texts, others just with captions giving the location and date. Chilá sets out to question the spatial and social dimensions of “regeneration”, establishing a parallel between the dislocation of the landscape and the displacement of people. Working dialectically with the images, the texts add an openly critical reading of the transformation, incorporating narratives that offset striking documentary images. The texts draw the viewer towards a specific interpretation, throwing into question the language of “regeneration” used by the ODA – such as the notion of “being green”, or the “demolish, dig, design” slogan – and its problematic embodiment of a tabula rasa approach to urban development. These texts claim a meaning for the images partly in order to prevent their misuse – in the photographer’s view – as visual commodities within the processes of regeneration under scrutiny. With a belief in the power of photographs not only to record, but to prompt new urban imaginaries, Chilá also makes postcard versions for wider distribution beyond the usual gallery context of her work. In response to the “dreamlike utopian world” she sees being construed through official images, the photographer sees her own work as a way to articulate a critical narrative of the transformation. For example, one memorable image of a warehouse blaze in Hackney Wick is intended to suggest the violence Chilá associates with the mode of change enacted upon the area.

If Chilá is interested in creating meaning between photographs and texts, highlighting what photographic theorist George Baker refers to as photography’s “notorious epistemological slipperiness”,(3) in “Re-shoots”, photographer and local resident Chris Dorley-Brown (4) presents before and after photographs of the same site – a presentation genre common in local government historical photography. The “before” shots are taken from archival images as well as a series Dorley-Brown produced for the London Borough of Hackney in the 1980s and 1990s. Their more recent counterparts show the site retaken from the same viewpoint in the 2000s. The project initially focused on Hackney’s tower blocks. The borough did not have its own archive of these buildings, and Dorley-Brown began photographing them when they were being spectacularly demolished at an unprecedented rate.

Regarding his method he explains: “I had no aesthetic choices to make – it was done for me, and I really like that systematic response. The rules were there – I knew exactly how to frame it, it was a given, and I had to shoot whatever was there.” However, the conditions in which the photographs were taken – time, weather, light – had to be determined, and all influence the meaning generated between the two photographs. Dissatisfied with the way the more up-to-date photograph in “before and after” comparisons is typically executed – with a lack of attention to detail – the intention here was to present the frames on more “democratic” terms, challenging an automatically more generous, sentimental or nostalgic reading of the older image.

In some cases the earlier photograph is archival, as in the case of a 1948 view of sewers being replaced on Wallace Road, Hackney Wick. Dorley Brown photographed a present-day scene showing the street undergoing another cycle of maintenance, suggesting continuity between the street’s formal qualities and its management over the two periods. In order to enhance the parallels the Albanian workers were asked to adopt similar poses to those of their mid-20th century counterparts in the tradition of street scene stagings purporting to be fly-on-the-wall depictions of everyday life.

The original enticement of this area for Dorley-Brown was its ambiguity – geographically confusing, topographically diverse and rich in urban mythology, it lacked obvious landmarks and so presented a particular challenge to photography. Rather like developers, photographers are attracted to informal or “disorderly” urban spaces so they can impose their own order on them; although for them the qualities of ambiguity may be something to celebrate rather than eradicate. The importance of photography as Dorley- Brown sees it is its ability to provide a meaningful historical narrative absent from a process that has lacked “civic decency” in its treatment of local residents. He sees this as the latest phase in a cyclical history of the area’s dramatic reconfiguration in response to shifts in the technologies underpinning society – a period that echoes the large-scale transformations associated with the industrial revolution. Projecting forward to an imagined third photograph of each site, he quips (or hopes) that “in 20 years it will be some kind of wilderness again”.

David George is another photographer who has worked extensively in this part of London, attempting to document not its formal or architectural features, but rather “the way the place made me feel”.(5) Both George and Dorley-Brown observe that, prior to the Olympic development, this was a landscape which invited contemplation and self-reflexivity through its quietness and informality relative to other more regulated and populous parts of the city. George therefore sets out to use photography to document the urban landscape, but tries to capture what he deems its inherent sense of “melancholy” rather than its appearance. In fact, it is disappearance that interests him in “Dissolution”, a series of thirteen oneiric foggy scenes of the marshes, taken over a three-month period. Shot at the start of the day in the half hour before the mist burned away, each unique platinum print possesses a paradox of the ephemeral with the durable and exclusive. As the title suggests, within each photograph everything seems to be disappearing, including figures who move through the frame as if escaping the photographer, ghosts that haunt these places that no longer exist. In explaining the photographs George is directly critical of the Olympic development:

It’s almost like it’s been surgically removed, a lot of the area, and things dropped in. There’s a corporate ideal of what a place should look like, rather than how it grows organically. Everything looks like a graft to me – it looks like it’s just been stuck on, a lot of the stuff. I’m all for change, but I’m not for change just for the sake of it. I don’t think… because something’s new, it’s better. It’s just newer.

The developers’ narrative of the pre-Olympic area is of a place without purpose, he argues, but this ignores its history as a site of industrial and technological innovation, an important “hinterland”, providing resources for the city as a whole. The shift of meaning of this term, from something valued to something pejorative, indicating backwardness, suggests to him a more general devaluation of such spaces.

George’s photographic response to the area is pictorial and overtly concerned with the emotional qualities of the urban landscape, perhaps reflecting a wider crisis in contemporary photography where “outmoded technologically and displaced aesthetically” it retreats into a more painterly mode.6 In contrast, and in a similar vein to Dorley-Brown, Peter Marshall continues to value the camera as an instrument of systematic urban survey, as evidenced in the series he has published in book form as Before the Olympics.(7) Marshall has been photographing the Lea Valleyand Lea Navigation system at regular intervals since 1982, being prompted to do so after hearing that commercial navigation was about to cease. In his work the impulse towards serialisation, and the repetition of particular views, is therefore driven by the anxiety of loss, or potential loss, as the character and underpinning socioeconomic structures of the city change.

In his documentation of the built environment, Marshall cites the influence of canonical architectural surveys, such as Nikolaus Pevsner’s series Buildings of England. However, for him, what such surveys leave out is more important than the individual buildings they feature, and one of the powers of photography is to give equal importance to landmarks, “background” architecture and infrastructure. His photos, some of which have themselves become part of official surveys such as the National Building Record, strive towards a pragmatism that “”is not about making pictures”.

However, Marshall does understand photography as a discursive medium. These photographs set out to attribute value to industrial heritage – a manoeuvre that while less controversial now than in the 1980s has a new resonance in light of the tabula rasa approach of the Olympic development. Importantly, as well as documenting changing urban form, Marshall has also highlighted key protests against the Olympic bid, including the unsuccessful struggle of citizens to save Manor Gardens Allotments.

Also relating his work to the history of survey photography, but this time of the aerial variety, in “E20 12 Under Construction” Giles Price took to the air in a helicopter to photograph the site from which he had been prevented access on the ground. This approach enabled him to explore an interest in the massive scale of the redevelopment area, returning seasonally to record the process of its reconstruction. This method takes advantage of an oversight in the ODA’s culture of surveillance and image control: though it has prevented access at ground level, there is no legislation that stops photographers taking to the air.(8) The only restriction, therefore, was determined by the laws which state that helicopters have to stay above 750 feet. Aerial photography also satisfies Price’s fascination with cartographic images: “I’m really interested in Google Earth, and how that’s played into our visual language in the last decade or so. Within that, there are the limitations of detail, scale, and also the human interaction of what you can actually do with their very tech-driven applications.” In response, Price’s work tries to convey both the spectacle of such a mammoth urban reconfiguration, and detailed changes in the textures of the site over the construction period. The images are shot on the most advanced largeformat digital cameras. In the same way that he uses the restrictions of legislation to determine the perspective, Price also negotiates with the limits of technology in producing his photographs.

There are, of course, many genres of photography not considered here, including the ODA’s own official photography of the site. Artist Alberto Duman raises the important question: where is the full archive of the ODA’s (publicly funded) photographs? Nor did we consider any work by professional architectural photographers, or photographs by “amateur” photographers or tourists. As Price comments:

When the Games open, it’s going to be the first Olympiad where you’ve had twitter, social media… The volume of images that are going to be made in that concentrated time is going to be off the ceiling… You can’t police images now any more. It’s a fluid environment for everyone to disseminate a moment – not [the] death of the photojournalist, but citizen journalism.

Yet the draconian rules around the photography of the site are in direct opposition to the fact of photography’s “democratisation”, and the proliferation of technologies for furtive camera work. Using the threat of terrorism as a reason to prevent photographers working also seems disingenuous (“if I was a terrorist, would I be stuck here with a great big camera on a tripod right in the middle of the road?,” asks one of the photographers).

There are of course aspects of the site that photography cannot capture, or would not be very good at capturing. What all of the modes of photography considered here suggest, however, is that even after what theorists have described as a “crisis of meaning” in photography, it is still a medium into which we retreat, or which we mobilise with powerful effect, as a way of understanding, documenting and responding to urban change. In this vein urban historian Rebecca Ross’s observation provided a fitting conclusion to the salon:

I’m accustomed to thinking of photography as a more fluid medium than, say, buildings or the built environment – it moves faster, typically, and it’s a less enduring medium, or a quicker medium than a building or a neighbourhood, or a city. So I thought this was really interesting because [the work of these photographers] is a reversal of that… It made me think of photography in a new way: photography as a stabilising element, as a way to deal with change. Usually concrete is stable, and photography is moving, but today this flipped around.

Ben Campkin is director UCL Urban Laboratory and Senior lecturer, Bartlett School of Architecture

twitter @BenCampkin @UCLurbanlab

(1). Chris Cheesman, “London Olympics Photo Storm”, Amateur Photographer, 13 June 2007,http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/news/london_olympics_site_in_photo_storm_ news_124174.html
(accessed 5 November 2011).

(2). Alessandra Chilá, http://www.alessandrachila.com/
(accessed 26 March 2012).

(3). George Baker, “Photography’s Expanded Field”,
October 114 (2005): 120–40.

(4). Chris Dorley-Brown, http://modrex.com/
(accessed 26 March 2012).

(5). David George, http://www.davidgeorge.eu/
(accessed 26 March 2012).

(6). Baker, “Photography’s Expanded Field”: 122.

(7). Peter Marshal, Before the Olympics: The Lea Valley, 1981–2010 (London: [self-published], 2010). See also
Peter Marshall, “The Lea Valley”, http://river-lea.co.uk/ (accessed 26 March 2012).

(8). During the Games themselves, however, there will be a five-mile no-fly zone in place for the purposes of
restricting film rights, and in response to the perceived threat of terrorism.


08_david_georgeDavid George

Dissolution – The Disappearing Marshes of Hackney

“Memory is, therefore, neither Perception nor Conception, but a state or affection of one of these, conditioned by lapse of time.”

I have long been interested in how photography informs memory, history, and reminiscence and this series of images attempts to explore the relationship between these factors. Why do some images depict what seem to be new, other worlds, that do not exist anywhere except within the photographic image, forming new, imagined, and internal spaces? Worlds of myth and melancholy.

Memory is fragile and infinitely corruptible and these pictures, by the nature of their subjectivity, allow these spaces to be reinvented and reremembered. This is dependent not only of the re-imaginings of the photographer, but also on the status of the viewer and their relationship with the depicted places. Photography is the perfect tool not only to exploit memories fragility and unpick its fine tapestries but also to implant new, false memories into the public domain.

The photographic image also possesses the power to validate and reinforce personal memories and even to arbitrate in shared memory. It has an ability to appropriate history when personal memory is lost due to issues of time and remembrance. Although more suspect in its depiction of events as it’s point of view is more singular, the photograph has a high credibility as evidence of historical fact, allowing everything shown as a photographic image to be thought of, if not actual, then at very least highly plausible. Even when images have been manipulated or taken out of context, the default setting of the photograph to the viewer is one of objectivity. This consistently leads to conflict between memory and photography with the latter more likely to gain the upper hand, causing the fault lines of memory to be bent in order to accommodate photographic “facts”. Because memory tends to be either personal (subjective) or shared (remembrance by consensus), when compared to the photographic images apparent certainty and objectiveness, it gives memory a sheen of vagueness and, by association, unreliability.

Ultimately, these photographs depict not a real world in any sense, but a place between the real world and a supposed world of photographic imaginations. These images are not a document of Hackney Marshes but rather a document of my affection for this remarkable place.


09_zoe_oreilly_1Zoe O’Reilly

I am interested in the ‘spaces between’ and the potential of creative approaches to explore these: the space between two or more places, between citizenship and non-citizenship, between loss and hope, knowing and not knowing, between hospitality and hostility. I am interested in finding alternative ways to explore, express and describe the ‘spaces between’ experienced through migration and displacement, through and with the voices of migrants themselves. This work, which is part of my doctoral thesis, aims to explore the subjective experiences of asylum seekers living in the ‘direct provision’ system in Ireland through an ethnographic participatory photography project. The project also aims to explore the potential of this type of work for challenging existing stereotypes around refugees and asylum seekers, and to work towards creating alternative representations.

‘Visual knowledge (as well as other forms of sensory knowledge) provides one of our primary means of comprehending the experience of other people. Unlike the knowledge communicated by words, what we show in images has no transparency or volition – it is a different knowledge, stubborn and opaque, but with a capacity for the finest detail’
(MacDougall 2006:5-6).

There are around 6,000 people currently living in accommodation centres all over Ireland – in hotels, hostels, army barracks and holiday villages – waiting for their claims for asylum to be processed. Many of these people have escaped torture and persecution in order to survive or to attempt to create better lives for themselves and their families. ‘Direct provision’ is the main system in Ireland which accommodates asylum seekers awaiting claims for refugee status. Established in 2000 as an emergency measure to deal with the increasing numbers of people seeking asylum at this time, the system was originally designed to accommodate people for up to six months while their claims were being processed. Eleven years later, it is still the main system in place, with almost half of its residents waiting in limbo for over three years, and many for longer: 6, 7, 8 years for some. Asylum seekers in Ireland are prohibited from accessing employment and third level education while awaiting claims. They are fed and housed through the direct provision system, and provided with an allowance of 19.10 per week per adult and 9.60 per child, an amount which has not changed since the system was set up in 2000.

The project began in March 2010 in a direct provision centre in a town about an hour outside Dublin. A group consisting of ten people from different corners of the world, a volunteer assistant and myself, the researcher, met every Monday morning for three hours over a period of about four months. Each participant was provided with a digital camera for the duration of the project. While the structure of the project was predefined to a certain extent, mainly where practical discussions around photography were concerned, the approach was designed to be as dialogical and collaborative as possible, allowing for the process and its outcomes to emerge from the encounter between researcher and participants, and between the participants themselves. and collaborative as possible, allowing for the process and its outcomes to emerge from the encounter between researcher and participants, and between the participants themselves.

Throughout the four months, a double trajectory was traced; gradual development of visual awareness through exploring the works of other photographers and photojournalists, as well as technical knowledge and practice of photography, was combined with discussions around identity, belonging and the experience of coming to Ireland as an asylum seeker and navigating the asylum system. The sessions became an exchange of ideas and experiences through exploration and critique of the photographs which began to emerge, as well as the storytelling and debate which led from these.

Together we created a body of work consisting of images and text. Later in the project we began to edit this work, selecting images and texts which might represent some of the work we had been doing to a broader audience. The images, voices and ideas which emerged are as varied as the participants themselves. In framing the collection of work which might create an exhibition, we highlight certain issues facing those living in the asylum system, but rather than focus exclusively on the category of asylum seeker, we appeal to what is shared, human.

As well as the process of creation through dialogical engagement between participants, and between researcher and participants, the project aims to create dialogical engagement with audiences viewing the work, allowing for conversations to emerge, potentially producing ‘new and unanticipated forms of collaborative knowledge’ (Kester 2000). Following a dialogical aesthetics, we remain aware that the work could ‘mean’ differently in different locations and times, and of how interpretation of the work is influenced by social context (Rose 2007). We continue to explore together how this will play out in how, where and when we show the work. While it is important that the voices of those participating are heard through the work, especially at a time when the voices of those living in the asylum process are for the most part repressed and hidden, the vulnerability of their situation must also be taken into account in how and where we show the work, and with what level of anonymity.

These photographs are part of a selection chosen by the participants for an exhibition entitled ‘New Bridges’. The images and words are an acknowledgement of the attempt to bridge the cracks, both within the self and between the self and others, between people and places, between communities, between understandings, between loss and hope. It is through bridging the cracks that we can begin to move forward and create a better life, finding new places and ways of being, while acknowledging our roots and past experiences. Lodged in the work is an inherent awareness of both instability and hope in changing circumstances.


10_gerard_jeffersonGerard Jeferson-Lewis

What’s in a Face. The Instability of Blankness in Contemporary Photographic Portraiture.

What’s in a Face. The Instability of Blankness in Contemporary Photographic Portraiture. This practice-led research explores a prominent and distinct strand of contemporary photographic portraiture. Anonymous people are photographed casually gazing blank-faced and frontally into a camera lens and placed centrally in the photograph, without any noticeable staging by the photographer. These images are constructed using a formal typological approach to photography in a uniform series and presented as tableau prints specifically designed for a gallery wall, usually with a vague series title.

These portraits are composed using a largeformat camera which given its rarity of use appears to invite a more focused gaze from the sitter. Young people are featured in this work which fixes on the what is described by Julian Stallabrass (2007) as the ‘instability of identity’ and “fleeting expressions on a face in a world where we are all as images alien and contingent upon whatever stereotyped role as individuals we are framed in.”(1)

Blankness is a semiotic term used to describe a blank surface where the absence of something could also be interpreted as a presence. In this research blankness is regarded as an unstable projection, which is further divided into three distinct categories or ‘shells’. I use the term ‘shell’ as it is a surface that evokes its former host who once resided within.

This imagery appears related to ethnographic photography and the long discounted sciences of physiognomy and phrenology where repressive institutions such as the police and hospitals for the insane, believed in the ability of the camera to render something of the character of the person depicted on the surface of a portrait photograph. This work also borrows from the documentary aesthetic and from fashion photography where individuality is replaced by a vague narrative designed to appeal to a mass audience. The most prominent examples of this style of photography can be found in the work of German photographer Thomas Ruff and Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, who were in turn influenced by diverse photographers such as August Sander, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus.(2)

Thomas Ruff attempted to be objective with his portraits but though his framing, choice of model and the avoidance of direct reference to his models identities his portraits can be perceived as a form of unintentional subjectivity. Ruff’s portraits are described here as “dermatological shells” as his larger than life size bust framed images overwhelm viewers with the facial surfaces of the individuals depicted. Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra on the other hand focuses on teenagers whose bodies are in a state of flux or in-between childhood and adulthood. Hripsimé Visser (2004) describes Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits as psychologically resembling crabs who have outgrown their shells and then hide under a rock for protection in a vulnerable state until they form a new shell.3 I describe Dijkstra’s work as falling in a category I term ‘shell-less shells.’ These are subliminal un-posed moments in the faces of her sitters that convey some essence for Dijkstra of the person she has photographed. However like Ruff her portraits are slippery in nature and open to re-interpretation.

The faces of my models appear to return the gaze of the sitter in a slightly seductive manner, with dilated pupils and slightly open mouths and hands which make reference to the off-frame space around these portraits, perhaps implying some kind of physical threat to the voyeur who lingers over their seductive surfaces. The silence or what Martha Rosler (2004) refers to as the “muteness of the photograph” perhaps contributes to the tension in the overall reading of this work.(4)

My ‘Untitled’ (Butcher Boys) series attempts to further highlight the constructed nature of much photographic portraiture. The use of the triptych is an attempt to destabilise the photographic surface of a portrait and this together with the white clothing (which my sitters put on in my studio), together with subliminal changes on the surface of the face attempts the shadowy nature of photographic portraiture where attempts to go beyond the frozen surface seem pointless.


(1). Stallabrass, Julian (2007). “Whats in a Face. Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography.”
October 122, Fall 2007. Published by MIT Press, USA.

(2). Dijkstra cites Arbus as an influence in her work. Arbus casually documented people on the margins of New York society for their aesthetic value as “freaks” who wore their strangeness on the sleeves.

(3). Hripsimé Visser (2004) Rineke Dijkstra Portraits.
Published by Art Data, London, UK.

(4). Rosler, Martha (2004) “Decoys and Disruptions. Selected Writings, 1975-2001.
Published by October Books and MIT Press, Chicago, USA. P.208