The task for this assignment was to construct a stand-alone image or make a series of photographs elaborating on the same theme. The work needs to have been controlled and directed for a specific purpose and the aim is to use props, costumes, models, location, lighting etc. to contribute to the overall meaning of the image. Consideration of symbolic meanings of objects is required, but avoidance of being too literal is crucial.
An illustrated evaluation of the process is required including snapshots of the work and thoughts and ideas during the creative process e.g. how the direction went, how the location was discovered and how well it worked, props etc. An explanation of how the process affected the final outcome is also required.
I fell upon the story of Michael Nadan after delving behind an attention-grabbing headline from the Sun ‘ARE ZOO KIDDING!’ This was a tale of a former abattoir worker who killed his cousin’s girlfriend, was suspected of murdering another cousin, and who then became a fugitive evading capture for seven years by hiding out in the 300 hectares of Dubbo’s Western Plains Zoo in western New South Wales, Australia. Nadan reportedly decapitated a Galapagos tortoise and devoured its insides for food. Ignoring this single rather grotesque-sounding incident, his story of survival was quite remarkable before he was eventually captured within the grounds of the zoo in December 2005.
My idea was to create a photograph of Nadan in one of his zoo hideouts and include evidence of some of the methods he used to obtain food, as well as some eccentricities of his appearance when he was captured. I wanted to leave a trail of clues within the image I created so that the viewer could attempt to piece together the story. I wanted the bizarreness of the story also to give a surreal edge to the final photograph.
I used multiple sources for my research including 3 different on-line news stories which each contained photographs relating to the story. I used the articles as well as the photographs as reference points for some of the props and staging I wanted to use.
Having recently visited Gregory Crewdson’s exhibition ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, I drew upon some of his core ideas regarding his production of a photograph: lighting was clearly key, and so my chosen location had to enable me to reflect the harsh reality of this man’s life as a fugitive and generate an atmosphere of desperation and solitude. Also Crewdson’s meticulous attention to detail was a lesson in itself: the props had to be genuine and believable for the complete image to work. I also learnt that relatively small-sized props (in terms of the proportion of the frame that they fill), can add disproportionately louder messages as part of telling a story.
In my summary I have been critical of the final outcome for the photographs I created, largely because I was disappointed about one particular prop which I did not really appreciate the impact of at the time. This was a can of Stella Artois (Belgium is a long way from Australia!). Had this been a film set, it would have screamed ‘school boy error’ for its inappropriateness. However, I was limited with the time I could spend at the chosen location but I didn’t want to change the setting because I felt it added so much to the overall photograph:-
The location I found was on private property and we were effectively trespassing and there was a security company employed to carry out drive round surveillance at regular intervals. We were lucky on our first visit not to meet anyone (I took all my OCA assignment details and student card with me just in case) but I was concerned about doing a repeat visit for the shoot just for the sake of removing one item which didn’t quite fit. We also took a lot of gear with us and had to park close to the building and in a zone where we would have been fined; this cemented my decision to not try and repeat the shoot for the assignment.
I was however, overall very pleased with the results and I achieved what I set out to in terms of preparation and the shoot itself and this is reflected in my summary assessment of the work.
Location, props, subject and direction
Nadan lived for a while in an attic which he used in one of the zoo warden’s properties, accessed via a pantry, but the fugitive used multiple locations in order to avoid leaving a trail of clues of his existence. The Daily Mail Australia reported this to be the hut in which he was living when he was eventually captured:-
I knew of an old dilapidated NHS building in Norwich which I thought may be useful for the shoot. I had been and photographed inside of the building a few years ago but when I returned recently the external doors had been boarded up. However there was access through a completely open window frame which you could just about squeeze through. I took my partner (who would play the main character, Nadan) to view the location and I took these images in preparation and these first photographs were taken looking through the window opening. Despite having a skylight in the roof, the room was extremely dark, requiring at least an ISO of 2000 and an aperture of f2.8 just to achieve a shutter speed of 1/50 second.
Despite the challenge with the lighting, I thought the building was going to be excellent in helping create that desperate scene of a fugitive hiding out in an unused room. The ominous word ‘Run’ graffitied on the back wall was entirely in keeping with the story but was perhaps slightly too literal and so I was not entirely clear whether I would include this in the final image or not.
The yellow door had a domestic home feel about it and would echo the story of Nadan using zoo keeper’s residences as hide-outs. Equally, the existence of the old NHS treatment table meant that a viewer could infer somewhere where medical treatment was given – to human or animal in a veterinary sense.
The peeling green-hued tiles of the old NHS building also seemed to link to the original image of the kitchen bar in Nadan’s which were either tiles or green-painted bricks:-
I was not concerned about the level of graffiti. It was unspecific and/or unreadable (apart from the word ‘Run’); it could equally have appeared in a UK or Australian setting, and over the 300 hectares of the established zoo; it is likely there were outbuildings and disused areas which may have been in a similar state of disrepair.
Clearly there was a level of ready-made chaos with the amount of rubbish strewn across the floor and I wanted to capitalise on this for the photograph(s).
When Nadan was captured, the images show him with a heavy beard but clearly this was after 7 years of being on the run. The choice I had to make was whether I re-created the final stages of his life as a fugitive or I moved away from the literal aspect a little (maybe he was clean shaven when he initially went on the run). The latter would allow me to focus more on other more essential props needed to tell the survival story. (Besides, using a false beard on my partner was not an option – I’m sure this would have simply looked like comedy facial hair rather than the real thing!)
However, there was one element I wanted to recreate; Nadan had what looked like plastic coverings on his legs when he was arrested. I wondered whether this might have been to shield him from Australian insects over the years. This was something I was keen to reproduce in the final image(s).
I kitted my partner out in black for the shoot together with a black beanie hat to hide his hair. It seemed simpler to downplay the physical aspects of the subject which would again allow focus on the other props I had planned to include in the image.
I wanted the key props in the image to be the food items which Nadan had sourced in order to keep himself alive. Many of these were easily achievable but required some preparation. I extracted the following details from the 3 newspaper articles:-
……..He also stole bananas from elephants, slept in the roof space of a zoo managers’ hut and cooked himself meals on coin-fed barbecues………… food raids to the elephant house continued for several more days, but with a boosted police presence in the zoo, he slipped away from the area.
……coin-fed barbecues on the grounds were found still hot at 5am. Whoever was doing the stealing, cooking and camping seemed to be familiar with staff rosters too.
….. Most alarmingly, Roger believed the intruder had been in his house, which was also on zoo grounds. Milk disappeared from a jug. Bread and Vegemite went missing…..
…..Ten days into the hunt staff found bacon and sausage cooking on a barbecue hotplate about 5am, along with a toasting bread bun…..
I set about sourcing the following to include as props:-
- a large quantity of bananas – from Asda (cheapest!). This was ingenious on behalf of Nadan – full of protein and in vast supply as being used to feed elephants, these must have kept him going for months possibly and he would only have had to steal a relatively small number which may not have been noticeable to the keepers. For the photograph I decided to put empty skins on the floor as well as include a huge pile of uneaten bananas;
- a throwaway BBQ – I went to a camping shop to get these (now in September) out of season and spent some time in my garden lighting it and cooking some sausages on it until they looked particularly incinerated. I used both the BBQ and the sausages in the image(s).
- a jar of Vegemite and an almost empty bread bag – after much internet scouring I found the only supermarket to stock this was Morrisons. The jar had a distinctive yellow label and the brand is also viewed as somewhat of an Australian institution, therefore I’m pleased I was able to include this to provide a clear visual clue as to the actual location.
- Hessian sacks (for bedding) were impossible to source and so I improvised and used some textured dust sheets that we were using to renovate our house, as well as a very ancient red curtain to echo the orange coloured ‘60s’ style carpet/rug found in Nadan’s hut hideout.
- Carrier bags to be used to wrap around my partner’s (Nadan’s ankles) to keep the insects at bay.
I did not really need to spend too much time arranging the props in the room prior to taking the photographs. According to the images from the newspaper articles, there was no ‘order’ to Nadan’s living arrangements and food was piled on the floor in random piles. This was obviously easy to replicate.
The big skylight in the disused NHS treatment room let in a certain amount of available sunlight.
The day I was due to take the images, was forecast to be sunny in the morning with clouds and rain later in the afternoon. I therefore deliberately planned to do the shoot in the latter half of the day so that I could ensure that the photographs emphasised the dismal and gloomy living conditions for my ‘fugitive’ as well as allowing a much more evenly lit image, albeit quite sombre and eerie.
The existence of the sky light also replicated the fact that Nadan spent some of his time living in an attic/roof space, however I didn’t want to include the roof in the final image as I wanted to achieve a sense of claustrophobia and being enclosed within four walls, like being in a prison.
I also considered that some rain entering the room through the skylight roof would be quite atmospheric however in reality not much water entered through the roof even though it was really coming down hard during one part of the shoot. This would not have added to the story at all also, I just considered it might have made for a more impressive final photograph.
Additionally I played with the idea of using artificial lighting from a hand-held torch. The reason for this was two-fold:- firstly to give a harsh look to the image to replicate the type of crime scene images which have been photographed using a standard camera flash, and secondly to emphasise the subterfuge, and underground nature of Nadan’s existence, living his waking hours by torchlight scavenging for food.
My attempt at using this light was partially successful as shown in the image below. I placed the torch to the right of the frame which enabled the shadow of my fugitive to show quite menacingly, on the wall to the left of him. Unfortunately some flare was introduced into the shot and somehow the addition of the torch made me think that the image now looked a lot more ‘staged’, which is exactly the effect I didn’t want.
I played around with the height at which I held the camera and also swapped between using my 24-70 lens and a wider angled lens. I also requested that my fugitive move into different poses. I was clear that I wanted there to be no eye contact with the camera. I wasn’t looking for my ‘Nadan’ to have a direct connection to the viewers in this photograph; rather this was a window on his world which the viewer would be peering into.
Further, I wanted to aim for the ‘empty vessel’ look of the subjects in Crewdson’s ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ images where he directed them to provide no expression, no indication of what thoughts were coursing through their minds etc.
Some of my various shots taken are shown below:-
Final choice of single photograph or series of images
For the choice of image for the assignment, I decided that the scope of the images I had taken did not easily lend themselves to a series. They were essentially depicting the same details, so adding one or more images to it would not have broadened the story or given the viewer any additional information. Also I felt that a single image chosen contained enough detail to work as a standalone photograph.
The image I chose from all the photographs I took, I think worked because:-
- I included ‘Run’ from the graffiti within the composition as the strong central core clue to the story;
- the colour yellow works as a pattern within the image – from the pile of bananas to the jar of Vegemite, to the door;
- my fugitive is looking skyward to possible freedom and he is clasping his hands in front of him in a pleading type gesture, maybe questioning his fate from his own personal God;
- my Belgian ‘Stella’ empty can of lager is less noticeable;
- my chosen props are visible in the image and they are fairly clear what they are, without dominating the composition of the entire photograph; and
- the lighting is quite even (although having to have slight modifications in post processing to tone down the highlights to bring out the detail in the bedding and bright bananas, and equally the shadows are marginally lifted so that there is some detail in my fugitive’s face and clothing).
The final image is shown below:-
Summary and Self-Assessment
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I think have demonstrated good visual skills in creating the final photograph, with the subject and paraphernalia to one side of the room, the other side dominated by the old decaying treatment table. I like my use of available light within the image and I think this adds to the authenticity, and it was the correct choice not to include any artificial lighting into the frame.
The image required quite a steep ISO rating at 2000 to enable it to be taken hand-held at 200th of a second. To add extra light into the camera I kept the aperture wide at f2.8. I don’t think the details suffered as a result. I also sharpened the image post-production as this added to the ‘grittiness’ of the overall effect, rather than intentionally correcting any blurred elements in the frame. With the subdued lighting I also had to correct the luminescence slightly to remove the noise which showed up far more on the darker elements within the photograph. I like the texture on the walls and flooring from the peeling paint and detritus. Overall I am pleased with the result technically and rate it 3/5 to 4/5.
Quality of Outcome
My intention was that the viewer would be perplexed at the image. Why would a man be holed up in such a dirty room with a load of bananas, a jar of vegemite, and a throwaway BBQ for company? I think I managed to pull off a ‘constructed reality’ by using my subject, location and props to mimic a rather bizarre real-life story. There are a number of clues within the image which allow the viewer to pull together a story for him/herself; equally there are also a sufficient number of odd props in the photograph which render it quite surreal (especially the bananas!). Again I’m pleased with how I have managed to incorporate reality and some surrealism within one photograph and would score myself between 3/5 and 4/5.
Demonstration of Creativity
I think what I did was take a peculiar true life story and replay it relatively literally, but I wanted the photograph to have a real-life reference point. I was encouraging the viewer to have heard about Nadan and identify him in the image but more so, for those who hadn’t heard about the fugitive in real life, I wanted them to create their own story. Whilst the location was one that was available to me, I needed to gather props and dress my subject in the appropriate ‘fugitive’ attire. I also pushed myself out of a comfort zone to use locations which were difficult and required some planning with regards to weather conditions. 3/5.
I think I understood the challenge within the assignment and applied my skills well to it. To me, forming an idea for this assignment was the most crucial element and I really understood the concept that research is crucial before attempting to create a ‘manufactured reality’ in print. The more complex and ambiguous some of the clues, the more enjoyment a viewer might feasibly yield from attempting to ‘read’ your image. Similarly I would score myself between 3/5 and 4/5 for context.
ARE ZOO KIDDING? How Australia’s most wanted fugitive survived for months hiding in a ZOO stealing bananas from elephants, decapitating tortoises and raiding rubbish bins.
https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4080059/malcolm-naden-australias-most-wanted-man-hid-zoo-survival/ By Corey Charlton 23rd July 2017, 4:10 pm Updated: 23rd July 2017, 5:56 pm
EXCLUSIVE: Stealing bananas from elephants, raiding rubbish bins and even gutting a giant tortoise to eat: How Australia’s most wanted murderer survived for months in a ZOO while evading police
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4709218/Malcolm-Naden-ate-tortoise-hiding-Dubbo-zoo.html By Stephen Gibbs for Daily Mail Australia
Published: 08:56, 23 July 2017 | Updated: 13:21, 23 July 2017