East End work…..doubts creeping in….

Posted on May 2, 2014

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I have had a good hard look at my East End work to date and I have to say that I am beginning to have some significant reservations. First the good news:

  • I am very happy with the aesthetic approach of shooting in low light creating high contrast, mostly dark images. The effect is quite dramatic. This coupled with the absence of people achieves what I was looking for, which was to create psychologically charged images that would encourage the viewer to project their own narratives into the scene represented. Looking at the images, the absence of people and the shadows in my low key images seem to me to work as relevant metaphors for the transient, fleeting nature of life.
  • The East End has proved a rich source of imagery as expected, and I have found ways around the logistical challenges of shooting in low light conditions with no people. I have honed my technique if not perfected it.

The bad news is that I am very concerned about the linkage of the images with the texts. These concerns are fourfold:

  • Firstly the texts I have unearthed seem to me to be too much of a cliche representation of the issues of immigration in the East End. This is perhaps inevitable given the time I have had to research the question. Battle of Cable Street, Altab Ali, Fu Manchu, Jewish Tailors, Fascists and so on are all embedded in East End myth and folklore….I seem to be replicating this and this is not what I set out to do! This issue came to a head in my mind when I thought through how I would feel about displaying my work in the East End….my conclusion was that I would not be happy to do so as the work is insufficiently original. Enough said.
  • Second, I would struggle to explain how I decided upon the particular texts. The process has not been totally random, but has been conditioned by what I have been able to unearth through reading a few books and looking at lots of websites.
  • Third, the texts are generally concerned with the struggles of immigrants against various forms of oppression and discrimination. This is perhaps inevitable as these are the issues which are reported on and remembered. The work has developed a serious political positioning as being anti-racist. Whist this is certainly a stance I would support I don’t feel I am offering anything new and it was not what I originally set out to do. My original thought was to try to represent the transient influence of immigration on the area.
  • Finally, I have been struggling with how to present the text and images in such a way that the text does not dominate and so far I don’t think I have succeeded. The text is simply too knowing and seems to me to direct the way in which the viewer is to consider the work.

So what to do about this? Quite a quandary really but not a serious problem as I am still at a pretty early stage of my work. I have three more assignments to submit before I get to the end. I am going to take time out and think through the issues. In particular I am going to give serious consideration to two ways in which I could redirect the work:

  1. Rather than link the images to texts selected somewhat at random, I could link to a single text. Charles Booth’s notebooks for his Survey of life and labour in London ( 1886-1903)  is the particular source I am interested in. This would create a rationale for the work which is much easier to explain and to some extent de-politicise the work. Three of my current texts come from this source. The downside is that I am unsure about the copyright position (I have initiated an enquiry into this) and it will require a very significant amount of work to identify the texts with no certainty that the results will be to my satisfaction. The other thing which bothers me is that any disjuncture between image and text would not be very surprising since Booth’s work was undertaken over 100 years ago….ADDENDUM I have now heard back about the copyright and it is not a problem…I have layed out how this work would look in the next post here.
  2. The second option is to broaden the scope of the work to explore the transient nature of the urban landscape in the East End in general. This would allow me to draw in new issues such as redevelopment, gentrification, and the post industrial economy. My idea here is that I would continue with the same aesthetic style, but would look to create images which in themselves point to the changes in the urban scene WITHOUT the need for TEXT. I somehow feel that this will allow me to pursue a more personal and original response to the place and my subject of transience. It will allow the images to speak for themselves.

I am going to take time to consider this change of direction. In fact all is not lost as quite a few of my current images would work well with the alternative options. I have included a slideshow below of the images which I might use in option 2 above to illustrate the approach….

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