Saturday, 6 June 2015

Thinking about Assignment 5

Somewhere on this course I got lost – trapped in an internal battle between course notes which seem heavily focussed on traditional social documentary (and the inevitable photos of people less fortunate than myself) and a personal desire to do something entirely different, associated with the things we share our lives with. Assignments 3 and 4 have helped me resolve that to some degree but now I find that while I was lost I forgot to take any photographs, that my ideas for the final assignment – a photo essay in 15 images - are only just coming together and time is running out.

So what do I have?

  • An enduring idea that the stuff which washes up on the local shore line tells us something about either local society or society more broadly. As MacGregor says in A History of the World in 100 Objects (p27)  “Things that are thrown away or lost tell us as much about the past as many of those carefully preserved for posterity.”
  • A newly developed interest in the way archaeology is used to tell stories about the past
  • An ongoing belief that (in my hands at least) a camera is a research tool. A consequence of this is that much of what I photograph is part of a work in progress, the final outcome of which is not always clear to me.
  • Some ideas about how to supplement images with words to tell stories. I we wish to create a measure of ambiguity then pictures, with their multiple possible interpretations seem ideal – but by the same token, when trying to present the current status of a piece of “research” I’m not really sure how useful ambiguity is.
  • 300 photos of rubbish !!
  • Some ideas about how to present a photo essay which I’ll interrogate below.

And the less helpful:

  • A mass of research material that I’ve not attempted to write up
  • A need to work out how, in my mind, I have got to this particular end-point and explain it.

So what of my rubbish?

What story do I want to tell? When I set off I thought that I might be able to tell a little social history of the area on the basis of the material washed up. However, repeated mornings spent walking on local beaches make me think this is probably both overly ambitious and tenuous at best. I do however think there is a broader story to tell about what the things we throw away might tell future generations about our society.

There are at least a couple of strands to this: I could combine them with words that relate to their source – which would tell a story about international and local commerce. I could present them as a Becher-esque typology – 9 beer cans, 9 tyres etc and combine them with words from a variety of archaeology texts, hinting at how they might be read in the future or, as with Taryn Simon’s Contraband, I could simply display them as individual images – perhaps collecting and re-photographing them on white (although I’m not convinced that bringing a dead sheep home will endear me to anyone).

How to present the story?

My first idea in this context was to print the objects on business cards, probably printed on the reverse with sand images, and suggest that the correct way to view them was to scatter them on the floor, then pick them up and examine them – much as a beachcomber might. I had put this to one side as being a bit too radical and suggested to my tutor that I might present the social history idea in book form. For whatever reason he seemed to feel that was a bit uninspiring (judging by his reaction) but felt the business card idea was worth considering, only with larger images – maybe postcards or small prints. He didn’t seem to feel that increasing the number of images to work more effectively in this format would be an issue. I do wonder if I could present examples from 15 categories – to stay closer to the original brief.

But what would those categories be? A quick brainstorm produces iron/steel slag; coal; beer cans; tyres; bricks; beauty products; electronics; fishing nets; lobster/crab pots; shoes; balls and/or sports equipment; bottles and glass; children’s toys; food; diy products; farming and gardening products; household goods; business/industrial objects; clothing; tourism related items, notices and maybe even rubber ducks!


MacGregor, N., 2010. A History of the World in 100 Objects. Kindle ed. London: Penguin.

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