Project 1: A Vernacular Story?

Given where I have been and where I am now I have been thinking about creating a sort of base line project on vernacular photography that might be a good place to begin my MA exploration. This approach would see me create images in a realist mode where the photo itself should be purely a window to the world and its aesthetic invisible to the consciousness. But when I began to think about this and explore the approach in depth the problem arose of how to convey artistic meaning.

Fry’s (1909[1]) concept keeps ringing in my ears as does the feedback from my last work “…focus more on my personal viewpoint…”see here: (link). Indeed consider the following as an example if I were to pursue creating a series regarding my accident and onset of paralysis. The images could look something like this:

1) Shot of my Parent’s house where I was living before my paralysis
2) The Three Tuns pub where I met my friends
3) The drive to and around West Wickham
4) The crash site as Cork Screw Hill
5) The hospital
6) Transfer to The National spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital
7) Photos of various rehabilitation subjects
8) The return home

This narrative looks more like and old history lesson focussed on dates, places and times rather than offering the viewer something more experiential where connections are made between us by their seeing and understanding something of my experience.

Moreover others have covered the subject using straight documentary approaches, but these do not light my creative fire. For example, David Graham’s book No Diving does a brilliant job (Graham, 2008[2]). The author explains that the book came about through his son breaking his neck and becoming a tetraplegic in 2003, and that the world of paralysis and disability was one not known to him and that one of the ways he coped was to take photographs.

“I found that being behind a lens was a great way to hide my tears and avoid conversations and thoughts about my son.”(David Graham 2008[3])

Graham did not photograph his son’s rehabilitation, he wanted to but his son did not. So after his son’s rehabilitation and discharge he went back to document what life is like when you acquire a spinal cord injury. Graham’s approach is mostly straight with clear sharp photos and no obvious photographic styling eg in use of colour or narrow depths of fields, and they are all sharp. The images lead the narrative with most pages having a large uncaptioned photo and the facing page providing a quote to orientate the reader to the meaning of the photo.

No Diving-1060894-Edit

Graham’s choice to shoot in colour adds to the realism and his images collectively work to build a combined narrative of what happens when you damage your spinal cord. Each page, and sometimes a double page spread, offer the viewer insights into common aspects of dealing with the aftermath of SCI: the site of the injury, immediate medical care, and rehabilitation and making adaptations in the newly acquired body. See the book here: (link). As the book progresses the images become less medicalised and more social in their nature. Only one image offers any sense of a chance of recovery and so it offers a realistic insight into my world when first injured.

His clever use of the single repeated motifs of wheelchair footplates and feet shown of many pages are then placed in a composite image that reinforces the fact that such an injury can happen to anyone at anytime while offering a visual rhythm to the series. Moreover he has not used forensic photos detailing the level of damage, or lighting and other photographic techniques to enhance the drama of what he shows. Nor do symbols populate this book. Rather like some of the best documentary photographers, the photographic styling and point of view, are not obvious or intrusive. The images’ subject matter tell the story and the photos act is windows, not objects.

Only in one place does the photographer make an almost Freudian type of slip: the image he uses for the inside cover of the book is a magnified photo of an embryonic stem cell. Such cells are the subject of research into regenerating spinal cord cells and are the main hope of a cure to spinal cord injury.  Maybe Graham had to include it to offer himself some form of hope for his son’s future because even being the best you can be when paralysed is pretty terrible.

I’d recommend this book to anyone. But the use of the realist visual is Graham’s language, not mine. Reminding myself of this book and thinking about the feedback to my photography degree helped me recognise that I don’t want to produce a realistic series. Rather I want to share with people how I see the world and feel about aspects of it. This means that my imagery needs to have a stronger personality.


[1] R Fry, An Essay in Aesthetics in Vision and Design 1909 Published by Chatto and Windus, edn 1928

[2] David Graham, No Diving, published by Hotshoe Books Ltd. 2008

[3] Op. Cit.


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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