East End Project Texts – anchor, relay or both?

Posted on January 12, 2014


I have been thinking a lot about how my texts will work with the photographs for the East End project.

I have always thought that the text component would comprise of a title, which would locate the photograph in today’s East End, and a caption which would provide an additional, parallel, stream of information.

I want there to be a disjuncture between photograph and caption which might open up alternative meanings in the mind of the viewer.  However, if the text is too obscure then there is a danger that the viewer will simply get lost and won’t get the question I am attempting to raise through the photo/text combination.

For example, I have made a photograph of Adler Street in Whitechapel. It is relevant to my work as it is the location of the racially motivated murder of a young Bengali Altab Ali in 1978. The question I want the viewer to think about is whether we are doing enough to combat racially motivated violence in our society. I have an associated text which quotes a recent study by the Institute of Race Relations on the incidence of racial violence and Government’s response to the issue.

I could simply associate the image with the IIR text and allow the viewer to think about why this particular location is of relevance. The photo/text combination would look like this:

Adler Street, Whitechapel January 2014 2

©Keith Greenough 2014

This certainly creates the disjuncture I am seeking. But will the viewer get it?

I am aware of two other photographers who have explored the idea of the photograph as a memorial for tragic events such as the one I am referring to above. Joel Sternfeld’s “On This Site” photographs places where terrible events have taken place, events which have remained in Sternfeld’s thoughts. For each photograph Sternfeld provides a brief summary of what took place there. The disjuncture between photograph and text remains. A sunny scene in the countryside is transformed in the location of a mass murder for example. David Gillander in his series “Uncivilised”, which presents photographs of the locations of Glasgow knife crimes, adopts the same approach. Gillander’s photographs are much darker and moodier, and are in black and white.

If all my photographs were of locations associated with race murders then I could provide context through my artist’s statement, but they are concerned with a variety of issues and so an all encompassing statement is not possible.

An alternative approach is to include both an anchoring text and additional information. As in the following example:

©Keith Greenough 2014

©Keith Greenough 2014

This makes it clear that this is a photograph of a murder site but also raises the broader question of what are we doing about this issue. My fear is that the honest truth is that our society is largely xenophobic – people fear losing their jobs, their homes, their social benefits and their personal security. So do we turn a blind eye to racial violence?

I have still to resolve how I will present the texts. At the moment I am leaning towards the second of the two alternatives. I would be interested in the views of others.