Young footballers

Copyright Martin Shields

Copyright Martin Shields

The project asks to look at the photograph above and comment on what the image connotes and denotes, and then seek further comments from other students.

My first thought was how much the use of monochrome robs us of information. These two boys are wearing football strips, they are carrying footballs and football is for so many millions of other young boys around the world, important to them, and colour would have denoted, to great degree whom these young boys might have supported. I also wondered though about why this photograph would have used, there must be millions of other photographs of young lads with footballs, playing football, on grass, on beaches, jumpers for goalposts etc. One of the key identifiers for football fans are their tribal markings, that of their favourite football team’s shirt as being the one of choice; why would they wear another team’s shirt when they could wear the one of their team? If this was in colour, I thought, and those hoops on the left were green and that solid shirt was blue, that would add so much to the narrative power of the photograph. It could signify Glasgow. Those emblematic signs of those shirts would have said so much more than monochrome could ever deliver…..

Anyhow, back to the task:

Denotation: The boys are in a run-down area, no grass for their play. The buildings are ‘run-down’. The image around them is grey, whilst they are bright (and quite clean for young boys playing football!) further suggesting a ‘run-down’ area. They are ‘mates’, their arms are around each other. They are in different football kits – normally a divisive instrument – these boys are happy in each others company.

Connotation: I sense they are going home, the use of the ‘lead-lines’ seem to be taking them back somewhere – they are presented walking away from us, as if returning to a place. The line of the buildings, the road and the direction of travel of the boys all lead to a space/area/point towards the upper left hand side of the photograph.They are walking together to that place – I am assuming is home – and that I now connote is a shared place, that they both belong to a community which, though it may be divided, is the same place they belong and will become, through adulthood, responsible for. That they are wearing different kits suggests a lot of things: fraternity can overcome division, they don’t appear brothers as one has dark hair the other light (not in itself an absolute marker, but suggestive nonetheless) and therefore strengthening the narrative that opposing sides can come together without enmity based on tribalism. I think that as they are clean suggests also that they have played together and not been ‘dirty’? That they can be friends despite their affiliations to opposing teams.The ‘greyness’ though in their future – that place to which they are walking to doesn’t necessarily bode well for them, they face difficulties and not such a rosy future.

And what if the picture editor made this decision?

Copyright Martin Shields

Copyright Martin Shields

An irrelevance perhaps.

I have now looked at the article unedited in the Core Resources and discover that it was a piece about Glasgow,

Copyright Martin Shields

Copyright Martin Shields

Though this reproduction is small, it is immediately obvious that it is to do with Glasgow, about redevelopment and about ‘a view’ of the future.

Having the text associated with the image (though, of course, it is the image that accompanies the text, serving to illustrate the text, maybe even to help develop the underlying narrative being espoused by the author) alters our perceptions that have been developed without the aid of the directional text.

We can now connote, armed as we are with our own life experiences, further signifiers that develop our reading of the image. The essence of the piece might therefore be about the future, about how these children, united through a love of football need to have a place to find at the end of their road, their journey, this journey that we can see them on as they walk together. Thus unity is a strong theme, the enmity of the Glaswegian football teams is legendary, built on the sectarian divide of Catholicism and Protestantism ; this picture might suggest a vision of the future where that divide has been been healed, there are few totems to that harmonious end that have stood any test of time. Now, I perceive that the image is posed, not a cynical view as the statement might suggest; but the likelihood of two urchins together from the slums of Glasgow that hail from opposing sides of that city is low, that they walk in such a run-down area with clean bright football kits starts to stretch the arc of belief still further, that they have their arms around each other in a pose of solidarity beggars belief just too far for me. However my belief, or any other reader’s belief is what this image is possibly about. If the image challenges that received wisdom and plants a seed of hope, then maybe we could begin to believe that another chance, through the redevelopment of the run-down tenement slums are just what is needed. We perhaps could receive the idea through the significance of the image that there is a future for these two boys, innocently walking towards a better future, for if they walk towards their collective past their prospects are as bleak as the sky they are currently beneath.

Other views from students who have been kind enough to respond to the request for their readings of the image:


“two boys going to or coming from a football match walking through a run-down area. (I’d say going to the football because of the cleanliness of their clothes.)”

“Two boys, arms around each other, carrying a football each and walking somewhere.”

“two lads going to football.  I think this is before the match as they are clean and well pressed – unless this is modern image that has been ‘aged’ in which case they might have been on an all-weather pitch.  An area of urban dereliction.”

“Boys walking through a partially completed demolition site on a dry day, each has a football tucked under an arm, each has the other arm around the shoulders of his friend.”

The readings focus on the prime subject of the two boys, the cleanliness of the kit is clearly observed and to a lesser extent the run-down area.


“Current friendship, northern township dereliction of 1960’s, rugby (from shirt on LH boy, hoops not stripes), freedom of travel, age of innocence, destruction of heritage, working class area, long summer days.”

“opposing teams – might be Rangers and Celtic and maybe Northern Ireland – got that feel to it – boys can still be friends – innocence of youth transcends divisions. This could be the Catholic/Protestant divide?  Can still have friendship and camaraderie across divisions in the eyes of the young – but does this stop as they get older.  Contrast between the clean kit and the derelict surroundings.  Do they belong there or just passing?”

“The image has a late 50’s look to it, but names on football shirts only became compulsory around the late 80’s and found their way onto replica kit.  Also footballs made with pentagonal and hexagonal panels were not available until 1970ish – so is this a composite?  Maybe the dereliction is more recent?  Maybe it’s not dereliction.”

“they support different teams yet care about each other. A rundown council estate – looks abandoned somehow, waiting to be demolished. Thought bombed-out but not sure as it looks 50s/60s. Something about the different tops makes me think of Northern Ireland, factions, warring religions – yet here are two boys wearing different ‘uniforms’ and arm in arm. Hope lies with the young; they are our future; they can re-build etc. There’s something that unsettles me but would take longer to work it out.”

“friendship, innocence of youth, sentimental, people can be friends even if their football teams are old enemies.  Even in poverty and decay there is human spirit, kindness. Perhaps the adversity of the surroundings strengthens the need for human empathy. There is certainly a strong contrast between their clean clothes and the squalid environment. Perhaps they’re from wealthy families just passing through this area en route to their destination.  Maybe they’re brothers.  Maybe one or both are girls?”


I wonder though if the connotations are changed by the knowledge of what the image has been used for? Perhaps the respondents might want to address that?

Thanks to Brian, Catherine, Dave and Eddy for taking part in this.


Self portraits, this is a self portrait. Warning introspection alert!

A cog slowly turns, the ratchet toothed wheel passes and the pawl drops in; another penny spills onto the floor.

I’m having a few conversations and it’s these conversations that occasionally seem to open a door, but just as easily present a corridor full of doors offering more questions and dilemmas.

Mita, at Brookes, Oxford was very clear about her motivations for her work- see here. She wanted to discuss the role of women in India, about the gender related issues, about identity and her pieces at the exhibition spoke about her reaction to those issues. Having the conversation with her, not only whilst she spoke about her work, but also as we walked around the degree show, meant that we could investigate subjects and talk about them. Her work made a lot of sense to me, it was her personal reaction to something that was important to her. It was a portrait of her self.

Another artist that I spoke, albeit too briefly to, at the same show, Alex Hackett, whose work had many resonances to Francesca Woodman’s work, seemed also to be a very personal view of her reaction to the world and the way she found herself in it. About how she fits into that world and in a very literal way.

The WeAreOCA post on portraits – the conversations of why certain people like certain portraits – suggests a projection of the viewer onto the plane of the image. Almost as if the photograph becomes a mirror, that the viewer turns the image to face them and elicit from the viewer an expression of the viewer’s make-up.

Looking at, as part of the course Ray Billingham’s  “Ray’s a laugh” is a self portrait, the same with Larry Sultan’s work “Pictures from home” where he says “…but at the same time I wished to subvert my images with my parents’ insights into my own point of view.” That others – who are all ‘Others’ to the documents  – comment on the perceived view are I think, projecting their own ‘self’ into the narrative. They ‘see’ with their own memories into the picture presented. The image is a reflection of the viewer’s past and maybe that is what Sharon says on the post about varying aspects of truth and about how we face up to them – maybe we see them, those truths, in portraits?

In Eddy’s picture here I commented on how I, as the viewer, was made to look; “I’m particularly impressed with both the confrontational element and our proximity to the subjects; they force us to face up to these people, their issues and our responses to them.” I can see that she has needs, she needs a ‘walker’ she is using the ‘walker’ as a shield with all the associated connotations and despite her obvious need, I am asking myself what am I doing to assist this lady whose needs are so artfully expressed. It is my reaction to the image that I see, not necessarily that my conscience is pricked – though that as well, it’s that I reflect on myself as a person through Eddy’s portrait. And I wonder if that is what all pictures do. Larry Sultan’s image “Dad Watching TV, Mum Posing” is an image that the course recommends me to look at – it was also recommended to me through People and Place (I wonder that says about reactions to my work?!?). Clearly Sultan asks the viewer questions within the frame of the image, about the interrelationships within the confines of the composition (composition is an interesting term – it suggests very strongly of a construct for the purpose of delivering some narrative; a novel, a musical score, a painting and of course a photograph). But Gareth’s reading suggest that he has a narrative too that is surfaced through looking “This image by Larry Sultan is one of my favourites because it speaks to me about the relationship with his mother, but also his mother’s relationship with his father and his relationship with his father. That’s a lot of relationships in one image; it rewards my curiosity.” Looking and reading, it might suggest a dystopian set of relationships, or rather a set of tolerant relationships of quiet respect. Only Gareth knows, as much as Sultan knew his intent at the time of the shutter click, what that composition might mean.


A little while ago I was asked why I had such a reaction to some of my work, and this is starting to concern me more and more. This self portrait was done as part of the exercises in Roger Angier’s “Train your gaze”. I’m still struggling to generate any comprehensible, coherent reaction to it. I knew the process would be difficult, I wrote about the experience here. I know it isn’t idealized and I don’t have any real words to describe my reaction to it, even now a year or so after the event – though the image and process still haunt me somewhat. The question that was asked of me was to do with some landscape images that I felt were ‘nice’ to look at, easy on the eye but for me had little or no value as images. This whole question is coming around again, because, as if to prove a point , I enlarged the images (as if to make them more pretty) framed them and put them alongside some other work in the exhibition that I’m currently having. One of those images sold twice within the first hour. That it should sell once confounded me, that it should sell twice is something I’m wondering about.


So, to answer the question about how I read this image is still difficult because I am still aware that it took no time to create. I didn’t plan the shot, my purpose was to create a set of documents, similar in vein to those that are recorded in the Middle Barton History Group archive. I ‘saw’ that the image would work very quickly; I placed the line of grass into a corner and the tree line about two thirds up and clicked.  Yes, there was a slight question in my mind about exposure – it is a snow scene, but the general gloom militated against that concern – at worst it would a be about a stop under exposed, and at that level there would be all the detail would be held in the RAW file. The actual image was almost monochrome in any case, so the post processing was relatively simple and then a ‘nice warm tone’ to finish it off. Done.

So what does it say to me? How do I read it? My tutor suggested the word ‘melancholy’, which is a state that I do find myself in, so should I be looking at that state of mind in the picture? Or does it express itself as a state of melancholia? I knew it would be a graphic image, somewhat stark, devoid of a lot of extraneous detail, abstracting the ‘land’ from the ‘scape’, leaving a residue of constructional elements to view, and all subdued by the fog. Yes, I can see melancholy, but I also see beauty, as in Peter Hoeg’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” which also has a strong sense of sadness and depression about it. Perhaps it’s about ‘otherness’? Perhaps it is that it is close by, ten minutes walk from home to an arable field usually full of one crop or another and now, in this image, transported to another place, an indeterminate place by the covering of snow and light fog? Maybe that’s it. I can’t be sure. I know it is a nice picture, the same as the others in the set and they do draw people to them and I cringe with fear as they start to ask questions about the image. A painter, who works solely with abstract images of the landscape came and viewed them and considered them for some time. He said he liked the softness, and the absence of form, in one or two of them, spoke to him more than those that had more detail (like the one above), he was talking about this image in particular. He didn’t buy it.

But so far I have been asked to explain myself in regard to the pictures, which may mean that no-one senses any depth to them, that they are just aesthetically pleasing images, as I thought, and that they don’t have any subterranean meaning that can be excavated from my sub-concious? More wheel turning required to explain myself. But the reading of images, especially portraits have made me aware of the level of the ‘self’ that the viewer, and certainly this viewer, reads into an image, or rather extracts from an image. Surely the reader can extract nothing else, other than appreciate the intent expressed visually and texturally which ‘over-scores’ that reading of the self. And it appears very strongly to me now that all pictures are self portraits, reflections of the self, conscious or sub-conscious depictions of the self, informed by life’s mysteries and confusions

More on assignment two

I plan to move the ‘Echoes Group’ project over to G&M which means that the work on identity will go there and I have already done some more work in that area which I need to write up soon. I have been thinking about the Gross’ and thinking about how to develop the work done so far into a piece of work that will continue through this whole course. I don’t know what the work will be and at this range it seems daunting, but I want to give it a go.

Last night I met with the Ann and Carl and asked firstly whether they would be up for having me around them for the next six months or so – I felt sure they would be accommodating, as they are very kind by nature – and, after they agreed we started to talk. A little after eleven pm I left them with my head spinning somewhat….perhaps the wine helped!

I had the notion that I needed to understand what it is they support in Thailand, the various projects, the geographical locations, the difficulties they face and to ‘converse’ in the hope that something – a narrative of some sort – would start to emerge.

Well the first thing I learned was that there are four sites, I had thought there were three.

Nong Khai, up the far north east of the country and in the valley of the Mekong River. Orphanage and immigration school. HIV and other issues.

Mae Sot, or rather Ma La where the refugee camp is. I found this link here that gives an overview and a lot of photographs, the sort that I’m being encouraged not to repeat I think. It is situated on the Thai/Burmese (Myanmar) border and is one of around nine refugee camps in the area. The full gamut of issues compounded with problems associated with a large number of mine related injuries.

Rayong and Pattaya are both in the central tourist area and have concomitant issues, large numbers of orphans many of whom have health issues.

So, four sites that I have agreed with Ann and Carl that I would interview them on specifically – so that I can compartmentalise the sites and get to grips with some of the issues surrounding them.

I started to talk about how I wanted to look at links – objects, communications, ‘things’ that go between the two sets of peoples – I started to realise that I wanted to find direct personal connections that link individual. Ann showed me some hand written letters, in Thai’ but with an English translation, that they had received. There was also some knitting that had been done by two knitting circles that are donated to the them. There are also medicines that are collected and shipped over. However most of what goes East is money, donations that are provided to the local sites for them to use to bring relief to the suffered. Coming West are communications and they seemed willing to send stuff East for me for them to be sent back with ‘marks’ on them. These ‘marks’ would probably be writing and, as suggested by my tutor, I may need to be directive about what is written.

I’m concerned that I have uncovered (for me that is) a mountain underneath what might have been a mole hill in Carl’s allotment, that as I start to dig that what I unearth might be too large for me to cope with. I am also becoming aware of the awe in which I hold for these two and the work they involved in. They have invited me to a reception on June 11th in London where some Thai’s are being celebrated for their work, it will be a place where I can get other perspectives, meet other personages that are involved in the same work and, I suspect, enable me to get a broader picture of what Ann and Carl are involved in.

Into the deep I jump.

Exercise – Survival Programmes and Bill Brandt. A post with no pictures.

Looking at the contrasting styles that have documented Britain in the last century. I am aware that by stating ‘the last century’ it has a denotative power, it suggests dated, a time that once was, but is no more – that times have moved on….

In “Survival Programmes” the work of photographers Chris Steele-Perkins, Nicholas Battye and Paul Trevor in the 1970’s. There are stories of deprivation and racism, the dis-possessed and the simply possessed in gritty black and white, but on first looking there isn’t a great deal of subtlety, they practically scream about the conditions that the photographs are clearly highlighting. The pictures highlight the race riots in inner cities. This taken from the article highlights the casual nature of the racism


Mrs Sephton (Mr and Mrs Sephton and her husband have been married for thirty eight years and are now pensioners living in a new tower block in Lozells. Mrs Sephton works as a volunteer in the local Community Transport charity shop):
I get on with them all right, you know, all of them. It’s just the odd ones, lately … since all this mugging and all this snatching of bags. But it’s mainly Jamaicans that are doing that. It’s very rare you find the Indian people into trouble. Once or twice I think they’ve caught a couple of white people but it’s very rare.

Mr Sephton: I think that’s arisen because they’ve become unemployed and they must think it’s an easy way of getting some money. Immigrants come in this country …

Mrs Sephton: They get everything, don’t they really? Everything they can have.

Mr Sephton: Go to the Social Security and get their supplementary benefit, can’t they?

Mrs Sephton: Well, this is it, you see. They haven’t even to be here twelve months, they haven’t to be here twelve hours, and they’ll give ’em some money to carry on with. I mean we couldn’t get it in another country, could we? This is a really silly country. It is really a silly country for giving out money …


Mind, I think whatever happens here, this is the best country in the world. England, definitely, I really do. I think it’s the finest country in the world. I haven’t been anywhere else, but the way things are, they let everybody come in and welcome people in, don’t they? I mean, we can’t go to other countries and be accepted the same, can we? They are all accepted here, aren’t they, more or less?”.

And I wonder about the current debate over immigration, how the economy has driven the political discourse to the right again and focussing on the ‘Other’ as the source of the problems the country is facing.


Mrs Stenson (a resident of St Hilda’s estate, she is in her twenties and lives with her husband, who works on the buses, and their young son): I mean, I’m not a snob or anything but I like to think I’m a bit better than some of the folks around here. And I really don’t want to bring him up round here. You see, we applied for a transfer last summer. We were told, “Oh no, you’ve got to wait till you’ve lived in a council property two years.” Well, that two years was up on the 1st of January.

The first thing that got me when we lived round here was the little three-and-four-year-old kids cursing and swearing. “You effin’ this, you effin’ that.” I said, “Hey, watch it!” He says, “Eff off missis, who d’you think you are?” I thought, “Blimey, we’re here! We’re in among it all, aren’t we?”


Exit: So what do you do most of the time?

Mrs Stenson: Nothing. I get up in the morning. Do the housework. Go to town. Come back. Get his lunch. Sit and watch television all day and night … That’s it, my week. Every day’s the same. Do the washing, do the ironing, clean the windows, it’s just all housework. We never go out. Never. The only time I go out is when we’re on holiday, when we go down home. My husband sometimes calls in for a drink on his way home, but he won’t go for a drink on this estate, he calls at a pub in town. As for bringing anybody home, he wouldn’t.

Exit: And your husband’s working seven days a week?

Mrs Stenson: Yeah. You see he pays maintenance to his two children from his first marriage as well. So … he works seven days a week. I say on average he works about thirteen to fourteen hours a day, apart from when he should be having a day off. And if he’s working that day, which he always does, he only works eight hours. “

The dispossessed with seemingly no future, a generation that will go without work. And what is different now. Daytime television and video games supplement to the apparent choice for daytime boredom relief? This article is a contemporary view of Middlesborough’s unemployment concerns. Significant concerns over the future, but there are changes, now the news is wrapped into a marketing opportunity – the grim realism is offset by news of some celebrities impending birth or mammary gland enhancement – tune into Capital Radio and win an iPad.

And what of Brandt – the image that we asked to consider is his now quite famous “Parlourmaid and Underparlourmaid ready to serve dinner”. Brandt’s view is to leave the connotation to the viewer; subtle, understated. We see two females in full Parlourmaid uniform from an age when Service meant employment for a huge portion of the working classes in the UK. Those same working classes who were dispossessed of servitude in the intervening years between the two wars and then re-employed in the boom of the late fifties and sixties. In cities like Birmingham and Middlesborough. Brandt leaves to us to interpret the thoughts of the two women as they stand  in attendance to their Master’s wishes.

The exercise asks why the medium of black and white photography has become a trusted and respected medium in documentary; both of these works are in monochrome, both in panchromatic monochrome, a full tonal width film. Recording in the fullest detail all it saw, recording for posterity a time that once was, that generations of social activists have tried to improve the lot of those that have never had.

That respect comes partly of course because there was no other means by which photographs could be made; through the early decades of the twentieth century, through the emergence of documentary as a distinct genre in photography, monochrome was all there was. That tradition continues through the sixties and even in to the seventies, when the emergence of colour film started to challenge the primacy of black and white. Monochrome carried on being a medium because of it’s immediacy, for a long time after the development of the C41 process black and white was still easier and more reliable in processing. Larry Burrows and others in Vietnam in the sixties for example started to challenge that and introduced a new veracity, which altered the perception of the public’s perception of what was being documented. I’m now not sure that monochrome photography has the place that it once had in the minds of the viewer. I wonder about how the viewers, who are in the main quite savvy about how photographs are ‘edited’ and know that black and white is an ‘edited’ version of colour. A public that can probably make the jump to assume they are being presented with an object that wasn’t actually there because it doesn’t contain all the information presented to the lens at the time he photograph was taken. I’m not sure about that any more. Aesthetically it sometimes has added drama, or can focus attention by ‘de-cluttering’ the image of extraneous colour, but it’s claim for the high ground in veracity is becoming more and more tenuous.

What I am more sure of is the effect that Exit and Brandt’s work have had with the fullness and benefit of hindsight. I wonder about those voices in Birmingham when I listen to the quips from UKIP, oras I learn that the domestic service “industry” is in a growth period with all the mega rich people coming to the UK and requiring servants. That with the progression of time I don’t see a similar progression of conditions for either the haves or the have-nots.

Brookes University Oxford, degree show (BA)

Not having been to a degree show before I wasn’t sure what to expect, least of all perhaps, a discourse on beauty. Maybe I was expecting radical ideas, politically opinionated work, the passion of the young, which to a large extent I did find; but it was the beauty that I found in abundance that marked this first visit. I plan to go to the show at Ruskin College in mid June as well as UCA with the TV group in a couple of weeks. Eddy (Lerpy) accompanied me for much of the show, he had though, to leave early.

The show was held on two sites, astride the Headington road and there were a few students about to talk and accompany the visitors around, which I have to say added to the experience immensely -especially when they were talking about their own work. I should have taken a camera, it would have been much easier to talk about some of the work which ranged from photography to performance pieces, from video installations to large scale paintings. The exhibition catalogue had an introduction to all 39 artists appearing in the show and an example of their work and it was professionally manufactured, a floor plan was given to the visitor, not needed as I/we were accompanied on the tour.

Of the themes that were being explored by the students, feminism, gender (and gender politics), politics in general, memory were amongst the common themes. I suppose what I noticed most – over and above the shear aesthetic beauty of a lot of the work was that most of the artists were clear about how their personal experiences drove their motivation, equipped them with their vocabulary that found expression in various forms. There didn’t seem to be a stretch into a genre or sphere beyond their realms of experience. It has to be said that these students – at least the ones that I spoke to weren’t in their first flush of youth (though all of course younger than me).

Interviews with many of the students exhibiting can be found here

On the feminist front Char Le had clear influences of Cindy Sherman, both in her representations of transgressive domestic bliss and also her use of masks, though Le used a fluid mask, almost it seemed to me to be an antithesis of the ‘Photoshopped’ world of youth and beauty we see today. I was interested to see Francesca Woodman as an influence in Alex Hackett’s work, seeing the artist participate into a well known local landscape, some of her work can be found here – Alex Hackett. I had a brief opportunity to ask her about this influence and also about the materiality of the accompanying text where she used a typeface and not her own hand, wanting, as she stated, to not impose herself, her signature on the words and leave them anonymous.

The work of Mita Vaghela, one of the student escorts made beautiful objects using disposable plastic, very beautiful organic objects with a strong contextual basis. The grips that hold shirts into place when packaged, similarly the collar rings that hold the shirt in place were both used, to create jewellery in the first place, and the collar units were linked to present a sari. Mita discussed beauty as part of her dissertation which she has kindly shared with me. Apparently there is a resurgence in objects that exhibit beauty as a fundamental component of it’s aesthetic and provided some other references. I will read with enthusiasm.

I didn’t expect to stay as long as I did. I didn’t expect to gain as much as I did. I didn’t expect to be able to connect to these artists as much as I did. My only lasting concern was one of Mita’s throwaway comments when she realised that I was a ‘distance learner’, “of course you don’t have workshops do you?” No Mita, we don’t, and we don’t have many conversations either, especially the sort we had when I came to visit your show, about exchanging ideas, about motivations, about…well Art.

An Armenian archive – 4 (image warning)



This have taken a turn with the latest batch of photographs from the archive. However this is one of the first pictures that caught my eye; I was reminded of the hippopotamus photograph that the TV group analysed, there seemed to be echoes. Here we have a human on display, rather than an enigmatically smiling mammal, clearly though on a stage, perhaps a wrestling ring and the people are also staged around the central figure; the men to the front, the women at a discrete distance. We have almost entered the ring with the warrior but, unlike the hippo, the subject seems to be ‘eyeing’ us, perhaps inviting us to a contest. Or is the dark shape at the bottom of the image his fellow contestant waiting to join the fray? We feel that something is about to happen, there is a level of expectation coming from the crowd.

There has been a little text on some of the photographs, some in English and some in, I suppose, Persian.



I suppose we make suppositions. That the ‘me’ above the central figure at the back, an ‘Other” to the foreground figures makes the suggestion of the cameraman entering the frame. This supposition is quite important, especially in relation to the images that follow. If, by this act of association, the cameraman positions himself shoulder to shoulder with these militiamen then this is a very bold statement. It maybe that I have got this wrong, but I sense, because I know what is to come that the image is a political statement as much as it is a vernacular shot, in what has previously been holiday snaps, formal portraits (with a hint of the presence of military – uniformed officers and so on) and country folk. The use of the word ‘me’ suggests that he is identifying himself with not only the men themselves but perhaps the ‘side they were on’. Persia at this time – more suggestions of the actual dates appear in later photographs – was in turmoil. The Shah had been manoeuvred by various nation states – particularly British, Russian (not always on the same side) and to a lesser extent the USA into disbanding the rule of the absolute monarchy in favour of a constitution; the Shah who agreed and signed this then promptly died and his son decided to rebel against it and reinstate the monarchy.

There will be blood. This saying is often associated with the finding and exploitation of oil, and in 1908 the British explorer/oil worker George Reynolds discovered a huge oil field in Iran – so the British, Russian and American interests were being served by self interest as opposed to, say, the interests of the Persians. Was it ever thus.

This next photograph stopped me short, because of the text, the use of the words ‘in disguise’.

in disguise

in disguise

Why did this person need to use a disguise? I looked and wondered if it was the photographer, but I don’t think so. But a piece of text is important to the left of the image comes the name Khan. A common enough name in the region you would think; the name Khan comes up again and again in the photographs and not only Khan but Rahim Khan.

Some more text:

Rahim Khan

Rahim Khan

His is Rahim Khan, dated 1909 – though which month is not registered (the actual month, if not day, is quite important in Persian history as there was a civil war underway). Three men are indexed. 1 – A Russian military officer. 2- Rahim Khan, 3 another Persian officer. That Rahim Khan is holding hands with the Russian officer is a very strong signal to any witness to both the event of the joining of hands and, especially, any viewers of the document. It allies the two military forces to one purpose.

Then the most disturbing pictures then started to appear:

Truly disturbing pictures by today’s standards. The identity of the men isn’t hidden, it is almost as if these pictures are to be used as a testament of the end of life of specific people rather than as numbers integrated into a death toll. One is reminded that the news media these days are prevented, as much as possible, from displaying the dead – in whatever form of disguise, body bags or anonymous coffins because the politicians know that their electorate will rebel against what they see. These are the victims of war, parading in front of the still hanging bodies are soldiers, military men. The vanquished foregrounded by their vanquishers. In two of the shots someone is holding the bodies, perhaps in a determined effort to hold them still against a wind that might blur the effect and suggest to the viewer that it isn’t a body but something rigged to be a body. In two of the photographs there are Persian lettering (again text is important) assigned to the bodies – what does it say? Why did the owner of these photographs feel the need to annotate, to exemplify these images, these dead people?

And then this:

I’m not sure what I would have made of this image without the context of the other photographs. It might have been a butcher, though perhaps a sloppy one! It looks like blood, it looks like blood coming from his head, it looks like the sword he carries with warrior like pride is the one that has caused the bloodshed, my connotation. But what of the other character to his right (our left). Does that look like a man who is proud? It does to me. The man with the sword has, what I presume to be blood all over him, one of his shoes is seemingly covered with it. Not that far away is Abu Ghraib, another country and almost exactly a century later, another war for the need to control raw materials in a corporate owned consumer led materialistic world. The Burmah Oil Company (now BP) in 1908 struck oil. There was blood.

Arbus, pain or something else

diane_arbus_young_brooklyn_familyThis image came up as a discussion topic on the WeAreOCA blog site and I wanted to try and analyse my reaction to it. I seemed somewhat out of kilter with other readings of the image, and whilst I don’t necessarily think that is wrong, I still felt that I should try and work out why, what I see in the image, is as it is.

My contention in the blog piece was that Sharon – who had posted the piece – had somewhat directed us to read certain aspects into the image. Titled “The Pain of looking” the blog piece seemed to me to ensure that as the viewer read/viewed and tried to comprehend both the artist’s intent and their own reaction to it, that there was always going to be a discourse regarding the notion of pain within the frame. I want to see if I have taken that too literally, to try and elicit any other reading by studying the image and my reaction after re-reading it.

That the image contains four individuals doesn’t for me detract that this is a portrait. It is combinatorial portrait of four people but also a number of other individual and collective portraits and I want to look at those to see how that affects the imposition of narrative, to see if my perspective is altered. I am sure it will be, but where to?

Looking firstly at individual portraits and placing them apart from each other:

man woman baby boy

The man, almost as the ‘Mona Lisa’ has an enigmatic expression, he could be about to frown or perhaps, more likely in my view, maybe smile. He doesn’t seem unhappy, possibly resigned to having his picture taken, but as Barthes says, all (knowing) photographs of oneself ensures that the photographed is in a state of pose. Similarly the woman might be about to smile, if I keep looking at her she starts to want to smile to me. The baby is, well a baby. And the boy gives us a reason to question the image as a whole. Are we looking at a ‘normal’ boy ‘gooning’ for the camera, a boy with physical or mental issues? Difficult to say. The boy though has another obvious physical characteristic in the image:

boys 2

He appears to be holding himself in a very typical young child-like pose when wanting to go to the toilet, maybe his expression is accentuating that need which is being put on hold because his parents (we assume his parents) have acceded to having their photograph taken.

Looking at the relationships again and seeing how they work within the frame:

woman and baby

The way the baby is being carried. Not in a cradled position, not facing her mother (there’s that assumption again); but facing away from the family toward the photographer, an act of complicity by the mother (?) and not a notion of concern seemingly from anyone else present. So, the adults seem happy to have the baby pose for the camera, and they are ‘knowing’ that the boy is also camera looking (despite the expression and perhaps the need for a toilet!). So, to the boy, and maybe this is the subject that catalyses the concerns over pain? Again there are a few things to consider:

holding hands

The adult male (father?) holds the boy’s hand. It doesn’t seem to be a squeeze suggesting that the father(?) isn’t overly concerned about the boy running off or amok. No other restraint, as the adults  (and baby) pose calmly for the camera. Holding hands is a normal parental/guardian function. It bonds the relationship between child and adult whilst maintaining some existential control over the inadvertent wanderings of the child. As a father I enjoyed holding my son’s hands, and still enjoy their physical contact with me now, we embrace, it is something that I treasure, so I can’t see anything particularly troubling in this hold.

I am very keen to see where the painful connection might come from. I had a look at the image again and then wondered about editing it:

straightened diane_arbus_young_brooklyn_family

I have ‘straightend’ it (top) and purposefully left the ‘marks’ of that process. This did bring something to mind about the composition, and it is about the adults. It seemed to mark the fact that male is posed with the light behind him and the woman with the dark behind her, there is the definition of a wall edge between them, certainly at head height and maybe this graphic junction causes the image to have a pain about it? But still I can’t find a pain. At most I can perhaps distill a faint melancholic feel about the expressions of the two adults. It is a questioning expression on the boy; but they appear to be American ‘middle class’, comfortable, but not rich, and if it is about the boy then how does the ‘Pain’ that others have found in the image become excited by the boy? What am I missing? What is it this picture that I can’t see? That the human condition is painful seems to me to be an all to easy epithet based on an absence of any epistemological evidence on view. These people aren’t distant from each-other, the woman looks somewhat vacantly over the right shoulder of Arbus, but she doesn’t appear impatient, possibly resigned, is it that vacancy that suggest pain – with a post second world war society that that is reducing it’s care for the family in order to chase the materialist/capitalist dream(?)?

Perhaps it is the resignation that people recognise as painful? Is it that she is shouldering the burden, holding the baby, her coat, perhaps the boy’s coat, her handbag and a camera case? If it is a camera case, then is it Arbus’? And if so, that would add to their acquiescence in the process of having their picture taken, surely- so we can assume that they aren’t in pain, because why would would they want to exacerbate that pain. No, surely any pain reflected in the image must surely come from the viewer?

My reading still lacks the pain of others . I do see the forecast of a corporate pain, but that is a reflective premonition, not specifically of this family unit, but of the family unit that was to be forever upturned by corporate America. How, by the fashioning of the American dream from the post-war boom (that stemmed from America’s ability to profit from the carnage of the European and Asian killing fields), that turned a utopian vision of materialism into a post Randian dystopia in pursuit of the dollar (now of course the RMB), but that isn’t surely what others have seen. Or is it?

Help needed……