Constructs and Seeing

mickyatesCambodia, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, Ethics, Ideas, Photography, Plans & Notes, PositionsPractice, PPWeek4, PPWeek5, Quotes 1 Comment

In talking with Steph Cosgrove about my documentary work at the recent Falmouth ‘Face 2 Face’, she was good enough to share some videos about the image as a construct. I am not going to repeat the whole thing here, but a couple of quotes stood out as I was thinking how this refers to my documentary work.

First, from MOMA Curator  John Szarkowski (1976)

‘Photography is a system of visual editing … it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography the number of possibilities is not finite but infinite’ 

And second, from New York Times critic Andy Grundberg (1989)

‘Photography is the most stylistically transparent of the visual arts, able to represent things in convincing persepective and seamless detail. Never mind that advertising has taught us that photographic images can be marvelous tricksters: what we see in a photograph is often mistaken for the real thing.’ 

At every step – from choice of location, to framing, to timing, to processing and so on, the photographer is making choices – editing, if you will. And because photography can span the banal to the fantastic, the snapshot to etc created artwork, those choices are endless. Yet, despite our familiarity with the medium, as both photographer and viewer, we can still be tricked into thinking the photograph is something that it is not, or meaning something that it shouldn’t.

In the Week 5 reading, there is an interview with Jeff Mitchell, whose documentary image of Refugees crossing into Slovenia from Croatia was misappropriated and re-contextualised by UKIP in the UK’s EU Referendum campaign in 2016.

Alison Price’s analysis of what happened is totally accurate. I would however like to offer a ‘twist’ around context.

Mitchell’s image was part of a relatively straightforward documentary / news image of the journey made by refugees. Interestingly, other images in the series are clearer on the exact context. This one shows the local police, and couldn’t really be used ‘as is’ as a story about UK borders.

Jeff Mitchell Portfolio

The narrative in the image under discussion thus comes solely from the people in the image, interestingly, mostly men, rather than the geographic location or action context. It’s actually quite hard to see where that image was taken. outside of a series, Mitchell’s image needs explanation to be fully understood – and so it was the perfect photograph to accompany a written story of a different nature.

To quote Liz Wells:

‘The  very ubiquity of the medium has meant that photographs have always circulated in contexts for which they were not made. It is also important to remember that there is no single, intrinsic, aboriginal meaning locked up within them.

Rather, there are many ways in which photographs can be read and understood, but in ‘reading’ photographs we rely on many contextual clues which lie outside the photography itself’.

Liz Wells Photography: A Critical Introduction (Pg 70, 5th Ed, 2015)

UKIP re-purposed the image suggesting that these were people flooding the UK borders – hence bolstering their anti-immigration case. Nothing in the image totally contradicted that point, unfortunately. One had to read about it to ‘get it’.

UKIP re-purposed it, suggesting that these were people flooding the UK borders – hence bolstering their anti-immigration case. Nothing in the image totally contradicted that point, unfortunately. One had to read about it to ‘get it’.

UKIP added their own context with a dramatic headline, and unveiling it publicly with Nigel Farage, the leading face of the UKIP party. Interestingly, Farage defended the image saying that it would not have had the negative reception it did, had it not been for the very recent murder of MP Jo Cox.

Mitchell himself said:

“I was busy on another job when I heard they’d used it, and carried on with my work as normal. My job – telling the story of the migrants – had been done. It’s just unfortunate how it’s been picked up. It’s difficult for any agency – Getty, Reuters, AP – that circulates photographers’ images. They’re out there. And it’s not just UKIP. Newspapers also use shots in the wrong context. It depends on the political slant of any organisation.

You have to remain impartial. I’m there to record what happens. I know it sounds simplistic, but you shoot what’s in front of you. Some of the migrant crisis made for beautiful pictures; it was in the summer, with morning light coming down the train tracks’.

jeff mitchells best shot – the column of marching refugees used in ukips brexit campaign

I am not condoning UKIP’s actions – merely pointing out that the image used was, in a way, incomplete and ripe for re-purposing. And Jeff Mitchell’s deal with Getty (as his agent) made that very likely.


Week 5 reading discusses the moral and ethical questions need to be addressed in your own ways of working and how you can develop an ethical practice. An important text is from Martita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, on Modernity: Spectatorship, Power & Knowledge.

Again, some quotes that stuck in my mind:

‘Whereas in everyday parlance the terms viewer and spectator are synonymous, in visual theory, the terms spectator (the individual who looks) and spectatorship (the practice of looking) have added meanings that derive specifically from film theory. Not only is the spectator’s gaze constituted through a relationship between the subject who looks and other people, institutions, places, and objects in the world. but also the objects we contemplate may be described as the source of the look in the gaze’. (pg 101)

The gaze. whether institutional or individual. thus helps to establish relationships of power. The act of looking is commonly regarded as awarding more power to the person who is looking than to the person who is the object of the look’. (pg 111)

Jacques Derrida has argued that all binary oppositions are encoded with values and concepts of power. superiority. and worth.  In addition. as Derrida and other poststructuralist scholars have argued, these categories of difference are themselves overlapping and not mutually exclusive. The category of the norm is always set up in opposition to that which is deemed abnormal or aberrant in some way, hence other. Thus binary oppositions designate the first category as unmarked (the”norm”) and the second as marked the other’. (pg 111)

Jacques Lacan emphasizes that the gaze is a property of the object and not the subject who looks. The gaze is a process in which the object functions to make the subject look, making the subject appear to himself or herself as lacking’. (pg 122)

And the chapter finishes with:

‘Images are central to the experience of modernity and provide a complex field in which power relations are exercised and  ooks are exchanged. In this chapter, we have examined how the media of photography and film are implicated in particular ways in the systems of power and knowledge of the modern state and how, as both spectators and subjects of images, we engage in and are subject to complex practices of looking and being looked at’. (pg 136)

Returning to Steph Cosgrove, she made the point that every photograph is a construct of some kind.

So, how do we each ‘construct’ our images? How do we balance ‘fact and fiction’? And how does context influence our reaction to a photograph? I would also ask whether we are seeing from a perspective that we have thought through? Are we even capable of seeing the scene through the eyes of others? And are we taking the photograph with a sense of its inevitable ethical questions?

These are all things I need to explore as I ‘construct’ the Cambodia project, its narrative, and the images within it.


GRUNDBERG, Andy. 1989. Photography View: Blaming a medium for its message. New York Times, Arts and Leisure section, August 6, 1989, P1. Available at: (Accessed 23/02/2018)

BEAUMOUNT THOMAS, Ben Beaumont 2016. Jeff Mitchell’s best photograph: ‘These people have been betrayed by UKIP’Available at: (Accessed 23/02/2018)


SZARKOWSKI, John. 1976. William Eggleston’s Guide. New York: Museum of Modern Art.

STURKEN, Martita & CARTWRIGHT, Lisa. 2009. Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

WELLS, Liz. 2015.. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 5th. Edition.  London: Routledge.

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