Part 4 – Notes on ‘Beneath the Surface’ Article

Digesting the article written by Sharon Boothroyd called ‘Beneath the Surface’ on the OCA website gave me a really excellent grounding on how to build in photographic theory into critical reviews of photographs.  In particular I found it useful to make a note of some of the terminology used as well as the method of construction of her critique. She used the image Insomnia by Jeff Wall to demonstrate the skills needed. I’ve summarised my learning from it below:-

Decoding images involves reading the connotations they contain and advertising images etc. depend heavily on these connotations being communicated clearly.  You use photographic theory to deconstruct a picture and decipher some of the levels of understanding that can be applied to one single image.

There are 2 levels:-

  • The Formal Level (‘denotations’) i.e. the specific meaning commonly applied to a thing or word. It  strips things of their poetry and operates on facts and functionality.  E.g. the word ‘home’ denotes a building made of brick and stone.
  • The Informal Level (‘connotations’) i.e. information delivered to us via a series of signs and signifiers carefully selected and utilised by the photographer e.g. lighting techniques (harsh/soft) etc. E.g. the word ‘home’ connotes a place of warmth, familiarity and comfort.

Steps used to Analyse the Photograph

  1. Explain at a formal level i.e. describe the denotations
  2. Explain at an informal level i.e. describe the  connotations (signs and signifiers selected and utilised by the photographer)
  3. Include a personal reading of the image based on personal experience/memories
  4. Explain the work in the context of art, literature and film, and include the photographer’s references to other photographers in his/her images
  5. Explain the ‘context’ of the image e.g. the size it is printed, it’s position, it’s intended audience etc.


Boothroyd, S. (2014) Notes beneath the Surface. At:

Part 0 – Context and Narrative Definitions

The course notes included some definitions of context and narrative which I will probably keep returning to, so I’ve added this to my blog for reference purposes…

‘Context: noun (Oxford English Dictionary)
The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

The context of a photograph and its surroundings (i.e. what’s outside the frame as opposed to what’s inside the frame) are fundamental to how it comes to exist and how it is consumed. No photograph exists without a purpose, background or context. Context is not only the geographical placement of the photograph (Twitter, billboards, gallery), although that is very important. Context also means the ideological positioning of the photograph or series of photographs.

Narrative: noun (Oxford English Dictionary)

  • a spoken or written account of connected events; a story: a gripping narrative
  • the practice or art of telling stories
  • a representation of a particular situation or process in such a way as to reflect or conform to an overarching set of aims or values.

Individual photographs and series of photographs hold within them their own narratives (i.e. what’s within the frame). This course will refer to narratives both within single pictures and series of photographs. By ‘narrative’ we mean the visual flow, the coherence of the set of images, or the construction of the single image.

Within the frame of the photograph are the elements that make up the narrative. In a series, the photographer builds upon these elements to back up the general flow of the narrative but this isn’t necessarily linear; the photographer may manipulate the elements to cause disruptions in the story line, much as a writer might in a literary narrative. The overall narrative within a series of photographs should be consistent however.’ (Sharon Boothroyd, 2014)

Boothroyd, S (2014) Context and Narrative. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Part 1 – Exercise 1 – Objectivity

This exercise required you to look at examples of news photography, specifically covering emergencies or disasters and question the objectivity of the images. It suggested looking at Abu Ghraib and the London bombings but also any other similar news events.  I chose first to look again at the Abu Ghraib photographs which I remember well hearing about on the news and I remember my reaction to them then which hasn’t diminished over time. For the purpose of this exercise I have decided to focus on a single image, Picture 17 (Guardian Unlimited, 2004).

May 20: Specialist Sabrina Harman, 26, grins as she poses alongside the corpse of an Iraqi detainee in Abu Ghraib prison. The photograph was obtained by ABC News, which identified the dead man as Manadel al-Jamadi. The broadcaster has evidence that the man was brought to the prison by US navy seals in good health.
May 20: Specialist Sabrina Harman, 26, grins as she poses alongside the corpse of an Iraqi detainee in Abu Ghraib prison. The photograph was obtained by ABC News, which identified the dead man as Manadel al-Jamadi. The broadcaster has evidence that the man was brought to the prison by US navy seals in good health.

 It is telling that even with the act of removing this photograph from the rest of the series it stands alone as a powerful image which probably would have been newsworthy in its own right.

The revulsion you feel looking at this image of a young American woman grinning and posing for a photograph over the corpse of an Iraqi detainee inevitably leaves a viewer with a sense of utter dismay that any human being could sink to this level of sickening behaviour.

The girl is fresh-faced and in any other context e.g. a family photo with her ‘folks’ back home, she would have appeared as ‘wholesome’ young American, but in the juxtaposition of her thumbs up over the corpse staged specifically to capture a ‘memento’ of a death of one of the ‘enemy’, she has chosen to depict herself as a chillingly brutal character, devoid of any natural human compassion or decency.

Of course what we don’t see in the image, and what makes this type of photography not entirely objective is the understanding of the possible circumstances that led the girl to willingly participate in these staged photographs; we don’t see the woman’s work colleagues being blown up by improvised explosive devices; we don’t understand the stress she encounters being away from her family and working in a warzone on a long tour of duty; and we can’t appreciate the psychological pressure to ‘fit in’ and mirror behaviours displayed by work colleagues she has to ultimately rely on day-to-day for her safety.   The viewer can only surmise these ‘extenuating circumstances’ and has no real comprehension of the events surrounding the photograph. However, as viewers we might also still conclude that whatever the real life context, or horrific experiences endured, the knowledge of these would not lead a viewer to condone or forgive her behaviour.

I think this is partly due to the situation in which the images are taken. The soldier appears to be doing this for her own entertainment and it appears to be being carried out in a perfectly safe environment, i.e. there is no background showing any of the ‘war zone’ backdrop to contextualise the awfulness of the images.  Further, the images are posed and therefore pre-meditated. They are not the result of a reaction immediately after an embittered bloody battle where the heat of the moment has given rise to erratic behaviour. Finally, the image is one of a series, each of which defies belief and comprehension in the level of depravity reached. Effectively, it was not a one-off, rather an engrained pattern of terrible behaviour towards enemy soldiers.

As part of my research into these images I discovered that a series of portraits of the victims had been created by fashion photographer Chris Bartlett. His exhibition “Iraqi Detainees: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Ordeals” was his way of bringing some dignity back to the individuals. (Vargas-Cooper, 2014). In the article the photographer was quoted as saying “I wanted to use the camera to restore these peoples’ humanity through beautiful portraiture,”

“He does not remember how long he was in that cell, but he thinks it was a month. Then they took him to Abu Ghraib. ‘First they got me naked, and they tied my hands to the door. My detention lasted six months. I was always naked, always tied to the door, they brought the dogs to us.'”
“He does not remember how long he was in that cell, but he thinks it was a month. Then they took him to Abu Ghraib. ‘First they got me naked, and they tied my hands to the door. My detention lasted six months. I was always naked, always tied to the door, they brought the dogs to us.’”

I was particularly drawn to the image depicted in the article where the photographer has used a shallow depth of field to deliberately hone in and focus on the soldier’s eyes. The sitter seems to be challenging the viewer for a reaction to his treatment. His eyes appear defiant but simultaneously ridden with pain. Maybe he wanted the perpetrators to look at his image directly and for them to feel some remorse. Maybe he just wanted to challenge them to view him as a human being, rather than the degraded toy or prop he was used as in previous images. Maybe he was calling out to the authorities and questioning how they could let this happen? Whatever the sitter’s and photographer’s personal intentions, it is an extremely powerful and memorable image.


Guardian Unlimited Article Index (2004) The Images that Shamed America. At:,8543,-13004919007,00.html

Vargas-Cooper, N (2014) Photo Exhibit Restores Dignity to Victims of U.S. Torture. At:

October Exhibitions

few accumulated ideas for trips to exhibitions in October:-

  • Burden of Proof – The Construction of Visual Evidence
    The Photographer’s Gallery – 2nd Oct 2015 to 10 Jan 2016
    (Probably most useful to Context and Narrative course)
  • Simon Schama’s Face of Britain Exhibition
    To accompany the brilliant ‘Face of Britain BBC series looking at portraits on the theme of Power, Love, Fame, Self and People – National Portrait Gallery – until 4 Jan 2016


  • Magnificent Obsessions – the artist as collector
    The University of East Anglia Sainsbury Centre – to 31 Jan 2016
    To see Martin Parr’s weird and wonderful collections and the spooky glass eye collection!

Getting Started

Following a rather mad clamber to get my ‘The Art of Photography’ (TAOP) coursework (online and offline blog) compiled and ready to be shipped to assessors by the end of September, my intention was always to enjoy a relaxing couple of week’s time off from OCA work at the beginning of October.  A few days of thumb twiddling later however, it didn’t take long for me to start chomping at the bit to begin my next course again so delivery of ‘Context and Narrative’ made it through my letterbox in the second week of October.

I’ve now spoken to my tutor on the telephone (who sounds great!), read the ‘Introduction’ section of the course materials, set up this new on-line blog, and planned some provisional assignment submission dates. I’m determined that after the rather pressurised end to TAOP, this course will be all about good study planning, allowing plenty of time for reading and research, and gradually building up my blog so it appears completed as if by magic in 12 months’ time. I shall look forward to reviewing this early reflection (hopefully without snorting in a ‘yeah right, that was bound to happen !!!’ kind of way too much).

Provisional submission dates are:-

  1. Assignment One – 16 November 2015
  2. Assignment Two – 1 February 2016
  3. Assignment Three – 4 April 2016
  4. Assignment Four – 6 June 2016
  5. Assignment Five – 8 August 2016

Reading through the course introduction, I noticed there was a lot more emphasis on preparation and planning than in TAOP which I think is a real improvement. I took some time to read the OCA Study Guide ‘Introduction to Studying HE’ which was very comprehensive and covered almost every aspect designed to help students. The key messages I’ve taken from reading this are:-

  1. Time Management : ‘Make use of short periods when they become available, such as waiting at the doctors/dentist, commuting, tea breaks’; ‘Consider loading any useful audio files or e-books onto your portable digital devices (e.g. mobile phones) so you can access them when you have a spare moment’;
  2. Reduce Stress : ‘Look around you – Consider what you can do to change or control the situation’; ‘Set realistic goals – Can you reduce the number of events going on in your life?’; and ‘Work at stress reduction – Increase your efforts at time and project management’. Like every other OCA student working full-time, this is incredibly valuable advice;
  3. Reading guidance :- ‘Discover the best time of the day for reading. Experiment to see which time suits you best’; ‘Be realistic about how long you can concentrate for and tell yourself you’ll stop at a certain time’; and ‘Avoid surrounding yourself with too many books, magazine or articles and putting yourself under pressure’. (I really suffered from the latter in TAOP – for this course I want to attempt to be methodical and focus first and foremost on links from the course materials this year rather than cram everything I spot in any magazine into my blog, just for the purposes of including it.)
  4. Critical reading checklist :- When reading texts you should take into account details of the source in order to take a suitable level of influence from it, in particular the publisher, the author, the context (‘When was the text written and for what audience?’), the main argument, how well the argument has been constructed; and are the conclusions justified. (I have kept a separate copy of this list handy to refer to when looking at different sources).
I also looked at Bridgeman Education and Oxford Art Online libraries. The Bridgeman site was extremely frustrating in terms of speed and it didn’t seem to bring back many articles or photographs even when adding fairly popular photographer names into the search engine. Oxford Art on the other hand looks to be a resource I will use frequently, especially to look for summary biographies for photographers; it seemed very comprehensive (and much quicker!).
One of the best pieces of advice I have gleaned from this introductory material is the video review by a tutor of a photography student’s notebook learning log. The student was Rob Brisco and some images of his notebook are shown above. The tutor loved the ‘physicality’ of his notebook – the attached excepts, postcards, pull-outs, which gave him a real pleasure in reading and handling the log. He also highlighted that the blog contained a number of short reactions to images spotted or ideas thought up by the student, which indicated to him that this was a notebook that was carried everywhere and effectively contained all his thoughts through the course. I also was really impressed by the layout and as such plan to start my own in addition to this on-line blog.