5: Make your own photo-essay

Assignment 5: Personal project
Build your own photo essay kit

This work is a response to two books which formed part of my study of objects in documentary work (Assignment 4). The first is “A History of the World in 100 Objects” and in particular the following frank and open observations from that work.:
“A history through objects, however, can never itself be fully balanced because it depends entirely on what happens to survive.”
“Of course it could only ever be ‘a’ history of the world,...”

The second is Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction – which notes:
However, in recent years, as archaeologists have indulged in intense self-examination thanks to the interest in theory and thanks to being attacked from all sides, they have come to realize that, through their choice of artefacts, themes, and approaches, they are constantly projecting messages that reflect their own prejudices and beliefs, or those of their society, religion, politics, or of a general world view – all under the influence of the archaeologists’ own backgrounds, upbringing, and education, their social status, their interests, teachers, and friends, their political and religious beliefs, and their alliances and enmities: all these things colour their version of the past, while the actual evidence often takes a back seat.

As a set these observations appear to apply as much to documentary photography, as they do to their original context - archaeology and/or curation. A photo essay can only ever be “a” story because it depends on the choices of the photographer – the minute portion of images that were captured and survived from the continuum of events which were presented to him/her.

The work

The work will presented as a “kit”, similar perhaps to an educational aid, in a box. It will consist of:

  • 50 images labelled in 15 categories (acknowledging the assignment criteria for an essay in 15 images); Album of images
  • a set of “research” cards/texts - category specific supporting texts from a range of research sources;
  • a set of “cultural baggage” cards to simulate potential prejudices in the photographer; and,
  • a brief reference history of the area in which the objects were photographed.

The work can be “viewed” in two ways:

  • 15 images can be selected from the set at random – in much the same way as an archaeologist might discover evidence, or a photographer might be exposed to events when they are not fully familiar with the subject they are “documenting”. These can then be combined with some of the supporting text to form an image of the local community which can be compared with the reference source to assess the truth of the resultant essay.
  • Alternately, the viewer can draw a “cultural baggage” card and then attempt to assemble a 15 image essay from the images and texts which supports their pre-conceived needs.

Supporting statement
The photo-essay is a tried and tested method of conveying a story in images, often supported by text. It continues in this role despite the well-established conclusions of critical theory that the camera can, and indeed does, lie. In form it parallels the work of archaeologists and museum curators, working with oftentimes limited source material to produce more or less subjective output.

This work attempts to foreground some of the issues that affect the veracity of the photo essay by inviting the reader to curate their own. In the process they are invited to consider the range of differing stories that can be told by a single set of images depending on cultural prejudices, the use of supporting texts, and curatorial choices. An element of chance is introduced to represent the idea that a photographer may not always be able to properly sample the full range of images available in any given context.

Cultural Baggage cards
These will be presented printed on small cards similar to the Chance cards in a Monopoly set.

Photojournalist from right leaning newspaper - illustrating decline of Northern industrial towns Photojournalist from left leaning newspaper - illustrating decline of Northern industrial towns Photojournalist from a local paper - illustrating challenges facing local community
Local freelance looking to provide material to support book on mining in Cumbria Local museum creator illustrating history of area Beachcomber documenting a day out
Photography student –
Photography student - degree level Environmentalist
Social anthropologist seeking to understand the habits of the local community Archaeologist seeking to establish the nature of a community from the rubbish it left behind Local environmental health officer trying to illustrate a report

This collection of text provides a selection of quotes from various research sources to help contextualise and analyse the images. These will be provided as printed cards.

1: Industrial waste (iron/steel slag and coal waste)
Risehow colliery used to deposit waste on the beach up until the mid 1970’s, which fuelled the south-north drift of material along the coast.
In addition to the Risehow colliery waste the supply of material was enhanced locally by the
deposits from Maryport (1868-1892) and Solway (1870-1927) Iron Works

2: Beer cans
Beer was the staple drink in Mesopotamia and was issued as rations to workers.
Macgregor, Neil (2011-10-06). A History of the World in 100 Objects (p. 93). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Mere death was not going to keep these northern Europeans from the good life, so the graves have lots of drinking vessels – bowls and cauldrons, drinking horns and flagons.
Macgregor, Neil (2011-10-06). A History of the World in 100 Objects (p. 179). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Many believe the root of Cumbria’s alcohol issues lie in society with only changing attitudes able to reverse the tide of serious illness caused by drink.
Paul Brown said: “We need a change of culture. “It’s been going like this for some time. We have a massive drink problem compared to Europe in this country, but some of those countries are catching up.”

3: Tyres
You can tell a lot about a state from its transport system,
Macgregor, Neil (2011-10-06). A History of the World in 100 Objects (p. 167). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Tyres are among the largest and most problematic sources of waste, due to the large volume produced, their durability, and the fact they contain a number of components that are ecologically problematic.
There is a reliance on travel by car within the wider study area, although the train and public buses are also used to access the AONB from Carlisle and Maryport.
The Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: landscape and seascape character assessment. Prepared by Land Use Consultants, Nov 2010

4: Bricks
The sheer quantity of Moche pots that survive tells us that Moche society must have operated on a considerable scale. Making pots like this must have been an industry with elaborate structures of training, mass-production and distribution. 
Macgregor, Neil (2011-10-06). A History of the World in 100 Objects (p. 309). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

5: Beauty products
“...relics from Egypt tell us that their royalty and high class enjoyed several cosmetic products...”
“At the end of 19th century general population started using first industrial made deodorants and Colgate’s toothpastes in tubes.”
“England almost accepted a law in 18th century that enabled men to divorce their wives if they caught them wearing makeup. A century later, Queen Victoria publicly declared public use of cosmetic improper and vulgar.”

6: Fishing equipment
A modest fishing industry has existed along the north Cumberland coast ever since the union of the English and Scottish crowns made it a safe enterprise.
The Solway Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: landscape and seascape character assessment. Prepared by Land Use Consultants, Nov 2010

7: Shoes and clothing
Looking at clothes is a key part of any serious look at history. But, as we all know to our cost, clothes don’t last – they wear out, they fall apart and what survives gets eaten by the moths.
Macgregor, Neil (2011-10-06). A History of the World in 100 Objects (p. 153). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

8: Sports equipment
To have consistent results in the game of golf, it is necessary to have a consistent pre-shot routine. Golfers practice superstitious rituals in the hopes of bringing success, or conversely, to keep away the fear of bad luck.
Playing a round of golf has been proven to release powerful natural, mood enhancing drugs from our brains called endorphins.
A ball is a round, usually spherical but sometimes ovoid, object with various uses.

9: Glass fragments
"Sea glass" is physically and chemically weathered glass found on beaches along bodies of salt water.
Hobbyists often fill decorative jars with their collections and take great pleasure in tracing a shard's provenance while artisans craft pieces of jewelry, stained glass and other decorative pieces from sea glass.
Many collectors try to justify their activities by claiming that, without them, all these beautiful objets d’art would not be preserved, and that museums do not have the resources to look after their collections properly.
Bahn, Paul (2012-08-30). Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 110). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

10: Toys
Part of the problem in finding toys in the archaeological record lies in the levels of proof
demanded to demonstrate that any artefact was a toy rather than fulfilling some other
(adult) function,..
A range of artefacts, however, are now being recognised as children's toys, and these are producing a more rounded picture of childhood in medieval and early-modern Britain. These artefacts are mainly miniatures, representing both human figures and household and military objects.

11: Food
Archaeobotanical and archaeozoological analyses can reveal the paleoenvironment, and especially the environment that people living at individual households were often in contact with.
Can archaeology’s “ritualistic and symbolic artefacts” be interpreted semiotically? Andrea Vianello (Intute, University of Oxford)
Subsistence – the quest for food – is the most fundamental necessity of human life, and archaeology has developed many ways to investigate the clues to what people ate. The vast majority of these clues take the form of animal and plant remains that may be found in a human occupation site, and which are studied by zooarchaeologists and archaeobotanists respectively.
Bahn, Paul (2012-08-30). Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 31). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

12: Farming and business related objects
Concerns from members of a Cumbrian livestock group about trace element deficiencies have led to a sheep trial testing the impact of supplements

13: Household goods and gardening products
The notion that those in charge have the best seats is so powerful that judges still have 'benches' and professors hold 'chairs'.

14: Texts
But in writing, they found an even more powerful weapon of social control.
Macgregor, Neil (2011-10-06). A History of the World in 100 Objects (p. 94). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

15: Miscellaneous
No supporting text is provided for the misc items. In this context there is always the potential for the inclusion of images whose meaning is unclear to the viewer.

Short description of Maryport and the surrounding community
(It is acknowledged that even this is “curated” and may be no more or less accurate than any picture essay assembled to support it.)

Maryport is a small town in the district of Allerdale, on the NW coast of Cumbria. The town is home to two modest industrial estates, which house small, light industries including engineering. It has one medium sized supermarket, a small town centre with a variety of local shops, a number of primary schools and a secondary school.

It is somewhat less affluent than the national average, with a smaller proportion of higher, managerial and professional employment. A significant proportion of the population have no or few formal qualifications.

The local authority is expending some effort in regenerating the town. As a result the harbour area is quite attractive and there is a new tourism venue, the Wave Centre, was opened in 2009. The area around the town especially to the north relies heavily on tourism, and there is extensive sheep and dairy cattle rearing in the hinterland. Also to the north of the town is a well-established golf club.
The port still houses a small fishing industry.

Historical context
In Victorian times the town was an industrial centre. It had an iron foundry , a reasonably successful port and shipyards. Coal mines operated all around the town. During the early 20th century the town and its port lost out to competition from its larger neighbour, Workington, its steel works closed and much of the commercial coal and iron ore shipping moved to Workington and its major iron and steel plants.


  1. Complicated but intriguing. A game I'd like to play!

    1. Thanks - The complication is what's bothering me from a presentational viewpoint as well. I'm going to have to make the installation I think.