I’ve had some extremely useful and thought-provoking feedback from some other students on the first draft (take a bow John, Mike, Hazel and Stan) that has led me to a realisation and a refinement of the techniques I’m using to disrupt my photos.
Before the pictures, some words…
Mitigating negotiated readings
Not all of the photography theory I’ve read in the last few years has stuck with me but there’s a particular communication theory that I come back to again and again, as it really helps me with regard to notions of authorship and embedding messages in visual media. Stuart Hall’s Encoding/Decoding Model (1980) puts a framework around the production and consumption of communication that includes a categorisation of different types of interpretation (and misinterpretation).
Greatly summarised, the key point I want to highlight here is what Hall calls a ‘negotiated reading’ which can occur when the image-consumer accepts (correctly decodes) some of the visual information in the way that the producer intended (encoded), but rejects other aspects (incorrectly decodes), often due to misalignment with generally-held cultural norms and structures. The image-producer (encoder) must therefore be conscious of the expectations, assumptions and common meaning-structures of the consuming audience if misunderstandings are to be avoided.
A couple of examples from my recent experiments to illustrate this:
- In my earlier batch of physical disruptions of a personal archive shot, the combination of subject matter (a posed couple portrait) and visceral disruption (cutting, tearing, shredding etc) led some viewers to think that the message was about a relationship breakup (instead of fading memory)
- In my first full draft of this assignment the 6×4″ presentation method led some viewers to believe these were all family snapshots (when in fact the majority of them are friends rather than family)
Not all negotiated readings are of the same significance: misreading a meditation of memory as a relationship breakup message is more problematic than misidentifying friends as family members.
A particular audience can have its own expectations: art enthusiasts and photography students might have expectations that obscuring a face carries a specific meaning, such as identity, dehumanisation or anonymity – as can be seen by some of the other examples I found. A more general audience might not have such preconceptions.
I think I’ve managed to steer the reading towards personal memory through the device of the hands holding 6×4″ snapshots.
The lightbulb moment came yesterday when a fellow student brought up the notion of ‘deliberateness’ in relation to my draft images.
Some of my executions in the first draft involved a physical manipulation of prints (making holes, adding stickers, instant prints etc) that imply an attempt to deliberately forget something or someone. The fact that something had been explicitly done to the prints by human intervention leads the viewer to the assumption that the images might be about blocking something out rather than simply being unable to recall it.
So: a case of Hall’s negotiated reading.
This is where I realised that the image set needs to adhere to some form of internal logic. The premise is intended to be the experience of looking at old photos but being unable to see people’s features (mimicking the effect of forgetting). If within this artificial construct there are images that suggest an intentional attempt at forgetting, that muddies the waters quite a lot.
Clarifying the intention
I took a step back and looked at some of the different ways in which unintentional forgetting can manifest itself (note this is off the top of my head and not part of any scientific body of knowledge!):
- Information not being stored at all in the first place
- Information being misinterpreted in the moment and incorrect (garbled, incoherent, partial) information being stored
- Information gradually fading from memory, never to be retrieved
- Information being temporarily unavailable for retrieval (the complete blank)
- Information being vague (garbled, incoherent, partial) at the point of retrieval
If an image disruption technique doesn’t fit one of these ‘ways of forgetting’ then I decided to discard it as potentially confusing my message.
(As an aside, the only execution I’m slightly sad to see go is the use of instax film prints overlaying the main image – I like the look but it just jars a little with the refined concept. I may come back to it, or something like it, later…).
Simplifying the executions
I’ve shortened the list of disruption techniques around the following ‘metaphors for forgetting’:
- Faking some kind of in-camera glitch
- To imply information never being stored
- Light leaks
- Lens flare
- Blurry focus
- Faking some kind of printing/development glitch
- To imply a temporary mental blank
- Overexposed / underexposed bars across the image
- Faking some kind of digital file corruption
- To imply either incorrectly stored or incorrectly retrieved information
- Pixel-based glitches
- Overexposed full image
- To imply fading memory
I’m happier that this set hangs together better and that the cumulative effect of the more harmonised types of ‘fake-accidental’ intervention better communicates my intention.
I’m going to hang this new set on my wall for the weekend, see if I still think this is a goer after a few days living with it. Then I’ll write up the Assignment 1 submission post and send the prints off to my tutor next week.
Hall, S. (1980) ‘Encoding, Decoding’ https://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/SH-Encoding-Decoding.pdf (accessed 03/12/2016)