‘Your first assignment is to make five portraits of five different people from your local area who were previously unknown to you.’
– IaP Coursebook, p.35
This is the eleventh assignment I’ve done for the OCA and It has probably the least ambiguous brief yet. But unambiguous doesn’t necessarily mean, easy or simple…
‘You will almost certainly find it challenging to make photographs of people you don’t know; it’s often much easier to photograph somebody you’re already familiar with. This could be referred to as the ‘comfort zone’ – and for the purposes of this assignment you will be specifically required to leave it!’
– IaP Coursebook, p.35
It has never come naturally to me to approach someone I don’t know and ask them if I can take a picture of them and this is probably why I have far more pictures of peeling paint, or dappled shadow or architectural geometry or whatever silting up my hard-drive, than I do of people.
I have also been aware of this fact and so I have consciously been forcing myself to go through the process of asking people if I can take their picture (and, if they say yes, doing it) for a couple of years now. In OCA terms this has meant that the large number of pictures of people I have encountered during trips for work to Moscow in my diary for part three of C&N (‘Можно вас фотографироватъ?’ was the key phrase here, or even just ‘Можно?’ with an enquiring look over the top rim of my glasses as I hold up my camera) and the pictures for my ‘smokers’ typography were all taken after permission had been obtained.
None of this means that I don’t feel like I have run a mile after each successful request. The sheer effort required to project myself as a likeable, unthreatening person who is genuinely interested burns up an awful lot of emotional energy. When i returned to my desk after my lunch ‘break’ with another 5 or 6 smokers immortalised on my camera’s memory card, I definitely felt that I had done something more than wander around making photographs for a bit.
I have lived in the same small corner of Walthamstow for nearly eight years now and so I realised that it was unlikely that I could use this assignment to get to know home better; however, at work i was about to move to a completely new team of people and so far, Id knew none of them. Also, I was due to do a short course with a third party training organisation.
If work could be counted as my ‘local area’ (and I think it can) this sudden explosion of new people – of new faces even – could be used as the location for this assignment…
In the end, I did three shoots over a couple of months.
First, at work, where – alongside getting to know my new team during a series of one-to-one chats over coffee – I would also explain that one of things I was doing when I wasn’t at work was a degree in photography. Then, after we had got to know each other a bit more, I would take out my camera and take a few pictures.
(NB – The contact sheets here – figs.1-3 – show the individual frames and are sequence numbered in reverse order (ie 36/36 was the first and 1/36 was the last to be taken). Also, if a frame was taken in portrait mode, it is displayed as such, rather than in line, like a traditional film-strip derived contact sheet. I haven’t worked out how to change this in Lightroom yet. Although I’m sure I used to be able to…)
My experience of photographing people where I found them for the typology exercise meant that, this time, I wanted to have much more say about the background, mainly to reduce the amount of random, distracting information found in the finished image. With the exception of the fourth subject (Steve, in frames 23-27) all the portraits from this burst of activity were taken either in our workplace, in front of the plain-coloured inside walls or just outside, using the building’s flat, portland stone exterior. This worked well, particularly once I’d stated placing people by points where the colour changed, using the vertical stripes produced to divide the background into something with a bit of abstract interest.
As this shoot developed, I began to realise that I was not capturing the gradation of seniority that exists in any corporate structure. There are people pictured who are senior, junior or at the same level as me; some of the people are – despite working together – in different departments within that hierarchical structure.
Unlike my previous department, this structure was not – in any obvious way – related to our ages. It would have been good to have been able to reflect this in some way in the pictures, rather than needing to resort to descriptive captions. Possibly I could have used portrait formatted pictures for people directly related to my department and landscape for people who are parallel to us in the structure; seniority could be shot from slightly below, peers could have their eye-line straight on to the camera and juniors could be pictured from slightly above. Or maybe I’m over-thinking things here.
Anyway – if this first shoot had formed the basis of the finished assignment, I’d have probably used 1/36 – (Alfonso, the lead developer), 15/36 (Jonathan – my new manager), 32/36 (Rakesh – peer), 20/36 (Gill – peer), 22/36 (Jamie – developer) and 10/36 (Lydia – developer). I’d have had a mixture of men and women, coloured and grey backgrounds, inside and outdoors and landscape and portrait format shots. It also would give me a group of people I’d be able to revisit as this course progresses.
The day before my birthday, I started a two-day re-registration course that would allow me to describe myself on my CV and linkdin as an ‘MSP (Managing Successful Programmes) Practitioner.’ The course would be attended by up to eight strangers (+ the trainer) and was going to take place in one of those vaguely anonymous, hire-able spaces that have sprung up around Liverpool Street, in London. The decor of the building proved to be an absolute gift!
Here, as with all of these sorts of courses, we started off a round of self-introductions; I ended mine by mentioning this course, and saying that I hoped no one would mind if I took a picture of them during one of the breaks. There were eight of us on the course (including the tutor) and only one person did not like their picture being taken enough to say no. I started off with the trainer and then worked through the others one by one, finishing off with an empty backdrop – as with my second, places where smokers who’d said no had been typology – for the one who’d declined, while the others all posed happily, one by one.
‘Training’ like this is a huge industry (as a result of working as a project manager, I have two registrations at Practitioner level that need renewing every five years; the re-registration courses aren’t cheap) which has grown out of the ever-increasing need for people not only to be able to do things, but to prove it. Like MSP’s cousin, Prince 2 (both were codified by the government, in part as a response to the lack of structured governance around various disastrous public sector software development projects at the turn of the century) the qualification is based upon passing exams which test you on your ability to ‘speak the language of the methodology in question’ rather than to actually manage a project or a programme. They are industry gatekeeping devices, rather than tests of competence.
This fits neatly with the idea put forward in Catherine Belsey’s excellent book, Post-Structuralism – A Very Short Introduction, that we are not only created as socialised subjects through language, but also gain admission to sub-groupings within our society by passing specific linguistic tests, where we are able to show that we – literally – understand one another.
So, imagine my delight when I saw that the walls in the building where the training was to take place were branded with bland, semi-meaningless strings of words. I had the perfect backdrop for a series of portraits of people who were trying to reestablish their peer-status within the wider project management community in the UK!
The lighting in the training centre was workable with – general lighting from the windows and pools of light from downlighters in the ceilings. There were lots of white walls to bounce light around and soften things reducing the overall contrast of any images. Once positioned in relation to the writing on the walls, it was reasonably simple to angle my subjects’ faces to catch the light nicely and then just to let them be whichever self they assumed when confronted with a camera. I was pleased that no one assumed a flat, identity picture face.
Finally, the fact that we were all ‘on a course’ had two further advantages. We were all (except the trainer) in the same position with regard to the qualification somewhere between our old, expired registration and acquiring a new five-year lease of our approved status. And, because this was ‘a course’ rather than work, everyone was wearing (I think) their own clothes rather than their professional ‘uniform’. While we all conformed to the same candidate type, we all were probably allowing our individuality to come through at the same time. As a result, I think the pictures i got over the two days of the course maintain a nice balance, somewhere between the professional and the individual.
For a short while, I considered mixing these with some of the pictures of my new team from fig.1, but I realised that the similarity of background and context for all the people here gave a nice continuity to the set. I made some edits (neatening up the crop and playing with the contrast and the colour. I quickly had a shortlist made from one picture of each of the course members and then got it down by one by rejecting the picture that included a second colour stripe, a hangover from the first shoot (electronically indicated with photoshop generated yellow chinagraph on the contact sheet).
It would have been good to get a mixture of portrait and landscape aspects (as I had managed with the people from work and had intended when shooting), but portrait did not allow enough space for the words on the walls.
Of course, a week later I discovered that I had failed the re-registration exam. By one mark. So, a couple of months later, I turned up at another blandly corporate building for another stab at it. Again, I photographed the trainer (the same one) and my fellow course-members in the hope of widening my pool of candidate images. Again, one course-member declined to be photographed.
It would have been nice to have been able to add to my pool of candidate, course member portraits, but I quickly realised that I was not going to produce anything better than the pictures I had already taken. The backgrounds available did not give me the added level of signification provided by the first training centre and – although I got a better picture of Hugh, the trainer, I had already pretty much decided that I would only include people on the courses in the final selection of five images.
There was however one benefit to taking the pictures: I was able to see that I had got better at moving my subjects about in space to get the lighting right. You can see this in the three shot sequence 7 (face in shadow), 6 (better positioned in the pool of light from a light set into the ceiling) and 5 (tighter, with head slightly turned to catch a slight highlight in the eye). This is a useful improvement in both my ability to apply technique on the fly and of greater confidence in my ability to direct sitters, but would not add to the overall impact of the portraits I would submit for the assignment.
So, after having a good look at the pictures I’d taken during this third shoot and doing some neatening-up post-production of the pictures, I went back to shoot two and made my final selection of five people who I had not known at the point when I’d started making their portrait.
- Catherine Belsey, C (2002) – Post Structuralism – A Very Short Introduction Oxford, Oxford University Press.