A photo a day – unwitting testimony

We all know that one of the great things about photography is that it can offer new or different ways of looking at familiar things. In this photo, of me at my desk, I’ve tried to do just that. I know I go on a bit about the New Realists but that’s because they had some good ideas. But rather than talk about that I wanted to talk about seepage or unwitting testimony.  I first heard the phrase in the late 1980s when undertaking an Open University introduction to the arts course. Professor Arthur Marwick used it when talking about historical sources of information.

Marwick argued that such sources, for example paintings, and public records offer us two types of information (testimony). The first is witting: that is intentional sources. For example, a criminal record of a thief being charged and dealt with by the courts tells us about the charge and what took place, just as a painting of a London street provides us with information about the time and place.

But in addition to that – witting – information the criminal record might give us clues about the technology used at the time, inks, paper types, language use and its formality in use and any scribbles or informal procedures notes not necessarily needing to be recorded but done so nonetheless; the painting of the London street will give us clues about the materials used and what and why this part of the street might be deemed important enough to paint – and the fact the the artists was indeed free to paint the vista. Accordingly these artefacts provide both intentional – witting – and unintended – unwitting – information.

My photo untitled-1090794-Edit.jpg does just that. I had planned to shoot my desk from above just as an exercise in points really, with the mouse, phone and keyboard acting as points against the larger computer screen. But when I shot this at 20mm focal length I found I had unwittingly included a little slice of me in the image.

This inclusion created a wholly different photographic message both in terms of subject matter and form. The presence of me meant that my wheelchair tyres are shown in frame and so this image offers not just a  commentary on the desk but now about me – it shows me as a disabled person. The form is transformed by the very strong line/edge of the desk resonating with the computer screen and framing the items so that the image is in three parts: bottom – me; desk – items; and top – pc screen.

I then reshot the photo and experimented with different lighting forms. and slightly different hand positions like this below. But selected one where the hand adds to the symmetry and almost formal style of the vista.  In the end I came down to shooting the image with window lighting and no flash at ISO 60, 18mm, f/16 @ 3.2 seconds.


I did experiment with processing the image to monochrome to remove the colour amplifies a sense of shapes – but decided against it as it reduced the juxtaposition of the realist colour and unusual point of view which gives the image a balance.

I’m very pleased with the outcome as it has given me an idea for a series of images rather like this – where disability isn’t the main subject of the photo but is included in some way.


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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