People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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Assignment 4: image selection

After a few days of thinking vaguely about, but not doing any actual work on, the assignment, I come back to it tonight with the intention of chopping down my longlist (92 images).

I thought it prudent to re-read the brief to make sure I understood its salient points. I know by now that the briefs on assignments can be interpreted creatively, but I also know that deliberately veering off a properly understood brief is quite different to simply misinterpreting it in the first place!

The re-reading did lead to a spark of clarity on how to approach the brief.

Aim to produce sufficient images on a specific location to fill, say, six pages. This would mean about six final images as chosen, but at least twice this number of good, publishable images from which to make the final selection.

I’ve taken a look at examples of this kind of location-centric photo article, mostly in National Geographic Traveller magazine [1], which seemed to fit the hypothetical publication for the assignment quite well. What became apparent is that a good photo feature (clear, informative, attractive) does indeed use some of the advice I’ve previously seen and applied on similar exercises and assignments – namely a narrative flow incorporating a variety of shot types, angles, subjects and so on. So the shooting list that I’d already been working to so far is a good starting point.

Matching this advice and Nat Geo example to the brief led me to a refinement of the shooting list. What I decided to focus on in the shot selection is the point that I am being advised to produce twice as many shots as will actually be used. I’m interpreting this as: I don’t get final say on image selection and layout.

This gave me parameters to work within (I like parameters; I find them paradoxically freeing):

  • I should identify a shooting list of no more than six types of shot
  • I should provide two photographs under each of the shot type headings (three if there are very strong contenders) – but one should be my stated preference and others should be alternative options
  • I will provide both the ‘preferred’ set of six and all alternative options as part of the assignment submission
  • Any combination of images under the headings should work together – images that only work well in specific juxtapositions are a risk to the overall narrative if they don’t get chosen together

Whilst I understand that I didn’t *need* to interpret the brief in this specific way, I genuinely find it useful at this stage to have a structure for my image selection decisions (if the structured approach generates a set of images that just doesn’t feel right, I’ll change it; but the structure is my starting point).

So, pulling all of this together: my image selection will generate a shortlist of at least 12 images under the following (guideline) headings:

  • Establishing shot
    • Wide, generic, showing overall context
  • Medium shot
    • People interacting with place
  • Detail shot
    • Small but identifiable feature
  • Portrait shot
    • Single person
  • Interaction shot
    • Two or more people
  • Closing shot
    • Imagery of leaving / closing / end of day?

The images need to use a combination of the techniques/concepts:

  • Outsider’s eye
  • Symbols and running motifs
  • Focusing on the small differences

And the messages to be conveyed are based around the following keywords:

  • “Cramped”
  • “Historic”
  • “Characterful”

With ALL of this in mind, I am now going in to make some in/out decisions…

  1. National Geographic Traveller UK, October 2014: Absolute Publishing

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Assignment 4: prep – finding the character of the place

As noted in my ‘first thoughts‘ prep post, I decided on using Vieux Nice (the old town) as the subject of Assignment 4: A sense of place.

A photo I took a few years ago kept springing to mind, of a resident of a first floor apartment painting his window frame. It’s become my muse for the assignment, for reasons that weren’t immediately obvious but revealed themselves over my research and reflection. I’ll touch upon these reasons below.

Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice


Having spent some time looking at the work of others and thinking about how best to communicate the distinctive character of a place, I came to the conclusion that there are a few techniques that can help me to do this:

  • Outsider’s eye
  • Symbols and running motifs
  • Focusing on the small differences

In thinking about Vieux Nice under these headings I came up with a long list of brainstormed notes

Outsider’s eye

Like the Swiss national Robert Frank in America, like the returning ex-pat Tony Ray-Jones in 1960s England, like southerner Martin Parr in a north-west seaside resort – I am an outsider in Vieux Nice. We bought a flat there in 2002 and have visited 6-7 times a year ever since, for holidays ranging from three days to three weeks. But we’re still very much regular visitors rather than residents. I can see the place for its distinctive character, more than I imagine a lifetime resident would be able to. The people you see in Vieux Nice broadly fall into three categories:

  1. Tourists
  2. Workers: locals who work in tourist-focused businesses (cafes, bars, restaurants, gift shops etc)
  3. Residents: the people who just happen to live there and coexist with 1 and 2

So in a way I am an odd combination of 1 and 3; I can see the place for its flaws as well as its charms. We know our neighbours and pop round for drinks. We take the bins out. We moan about how many flights of stairs we have to walk up in our lift-free apartment building. We ‘live’ there for short periods and then we lock up and come back to England.

Thinking about this made me realise that I want to focus on the life of a Vieux Nice resident. So no overly touristy shots. I want the viewer to see life in the neighbourhood through the eyes of a local, just going about their business (like painting their windows).

 Symbols and motifs

There’s quite lot of visual iconography I associate with the old town:

  • Colours: the warm mediterranean colour palette: reds, oranges, yellows, greens
  • Tall buildings and narrow streets
  • Shutters
  • Balconies
  • Wall-mounted street lamps
  • Canopies
  • Tiny local restaurants with one table and a chalkboard outside
  • Fountains
  • Churches
  • Artists and artisans

Small differences

The nature of the architecture – old, tall, buildings on very narrow streets – leads to some quirky aspects of old town life that I might be able to pick up on:

  • People hang their washing out of their front windows
  • You get some very elaborate balcony gardens in lieu of real gardens
  • Everyone has to carry their rubbish to local waste stations as there’s no household bin collection
  • Very few cars, lots of motorbikes and scooters, some tiny old Piaggio three-wheeler vans

In addition, the neighbourhood has some distinctive sights purely due to its heritage:

  • Nice has an old traditional local language, Nissart, and the street signs in the old town are in both French and Nissart
  • The traditional local snack is a chickpea pancake called ‘socca’ and a regular sight is a very French looking chap on a tricycle towing a trailer with a huge covered socca pan from kitchen to market stall

Key messages

In assimilating all of the above and working out how best to get over the character of the neighbourhood I needed to distill down the essence of the place into a few key messages that I wish to get across to the viewer. I can then use these keywords to judge whether the images selected are successful in communicating the messages.

The three adjectives that I kept coming back to were:

  • Cramped – the density of the population and the closeness of neighbours
  • Characterful – in both senses of the word: the place itself has a distinct personality, and it is also full of specific individual characters who you see around the place, that add to its general ambience/feel
  • Historic – the place is steeped in history that is very well-protected; there is definitely a sense of very local pride about the neighbourhood and the residents do well defending the personality of the place

If I can get these three sentiments over in the final set of images I will be happy.

Shooting list

I revisited some of the preparation I did for Art of Photography assignment 5, which was a photo essay in a similar structural vein to the brief here. The basic structure of a successful photo essay suggests that some combination of particular types of shot should be included:

  • Hook / lead shot
    • To be confirmed – I’ll select once I have a shortlist
  • Establishing shot
    • Side street
  • Medium shot
    • Wine shop / baker’s or similar
  • Detail shot
    • Aerials / balconies / shutters
  • Portrait shot
    • Cafe patron
  • Action shot
    • Socca tricycle man
  • Gesture / interaction shot
    • Antiques market customers
  • Closing shot
    • Shutter / lamp

This time around I also tried to apply the technique suggested in Hurn & Jay’s ‘On Being A Photographer’ [1] of creating a checklist of pre-visualised shots and methodically returning to the subject scene until each one has been ticked off. This is in contrast to what I call the Erwitt/Friedlander approach of shooting whatever looks good and curating it into a cohesive collection after the event… an approach that I have taken before with mixed success, I have to say! In the end [I write this retrospectively after all photography has taken place] it was a hybrid of both approaches; for maybe two-thirds of the shots I knew what ‘type’ of picture I was aiming for, but there was still an element of shooting whatever caught my eye and not worrying in situ how it would fit into the narrative. So the shooting was semi-structured.

Final considerations

Outside of all of the above I need to keep in mind a few other factors:

  • A good blend of people and place, given the title of this section of the course (‘People Interacting With Place’)
  • Examples of the techniques practiced in the exercises – single figure small, making figures anonymous, balance etc
  • Variety in subject matter, scale, angle and so on
  • All the general good practice that should be second nature by now! Paying attention to framing, leading lines, geometry, the direction and quality of the light, colour combinations, technical quality (sharpness etc)

  1. Hurn, D; Jay, B. (1996) On being a photographer. USA: Lenswork


Assignment 4: prep – revisiting previous studies

I’ve done a lot of thinking, reading and researching on how one might be able to evoke a ‘sense of place’ as a photographer. I realised early on that a lot of the exhibitions, books and photographers that I’d enjoyed and blogged about last year as part of the Art of Photography course were very much about places, and to varying degrees of success they managed to communicate a strong sense of the place being examined. I’ve revisited these and can summarise what I’ve learned in this research.

Robert Frank: The Americans [1]

Parade, Hoboken NJ © Robert Frank 1955

Parade, Hoboken NJ © Robert Frank 1955

Perhaps the most famous place-centric photo collection of the 20th century, The Americans takes the unenviable task of trying to depict one of the biggest and most populated places on earth. Whilst it’s difficult to encapsulate what defines such a vast and varied country – east and west coasts are very different, the midwest is something else again, specific cities have very distinctive identities – Frank did it very successfully, by identifying what is common to the multitude of cities and towns he visited.

His use of recurring motifs is key to communicating the mood: specific icons of Americana – the stars and stripes, diners, jukeboxes, big automobiles – repeat throughout the book like a chorus, bringing a backbone of unity to what could otherwise have been a disparate collection of images. He shows both the breadth of the country and what unites its people beneath the surface.

He is holding a mirror up to an entire nation, seeing it as only an outsider can (he was Swiss). He captured a mood, and it wasn’t wholly positive. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.

Martin Parr: The Last Resort [2]

New Brighton, © Martin Parr 1985

New Brighton, © Martin Parr 1985

Much of what has been said and written about The Last Resort centres on the style, the use of strong colours and daytime flash, quite unusual at a time when ‘documentary photography’ was predominantly black and white. However, what I was particularly looking for when revisiting the book was how Parr gets over the ambience of New Brighton as a place.

The colour aesthetic is a big part of it – it’s a garish place and saturated colours help to get that across. But I think the way he really gets across the feel of the place is through his selection of subjects and shots – he may deny this was his intent, but it feels like he chose to emphasise (stopping short of exaggeration, I think) details that showed the place in a certain way – downmarket, scruffy yet an improvement to the regular lives of visitors (it’s almost as if he’s saying “imagine what their lives are like the rest of the year if THIS is considered a holiday!”).

An unkind interpretation would be that this is a kind of ‘class tourism’, or even treating the subjects as some kind of anthropological study. However, coming from the class and generation that had holidays like this in places like this, I’d hope that he recognised the warmth and happiness with which families did genuinely enjoy holidays like this in places like New Brighton.

Like Frank, he has an outsider’s eye that simplifies and symbolises. It’s unfortunate that the lingering motif for me was overflowing litter – but he chose this final selection of images for a reason: this is how he saw New Brighton. He makes the place come alive on the page by focusing on images that matched his vision.

Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr: Only In England exhibition

Blackpool © Tony Ray-Jones 1968

Blackpool © Tony Ray-Jones 1968

This show at the Media Space in London was in three parts: a selection of images from Ray-Jones from his collection on English seaside resorts in the 1960s, posthumously published as ‘A Day Off’; a revival of Parr’s early b/w work on the Methodist community in Hebden Bridge, clearly influenced by Ray-Jones; and a Parr-curated new selection of rarely-seen images from the Ray-Jones archive.

The Ray-Jones shots in the first and third sections are fantastic examples of evoking a place and in particular a time. The seaside holidays enjoyed in the 1960s seemed to be a world away from the garish 1980s of The Last Resort – he employed more humour than Parr, gave over more of a sense of mild eccentricity – what one online reviewer called “the gentle madness that overtakes people when they feel they can relax and be their true selves”. Once again, a key aspect of Ray-Jones’ way of seeing the place and the people is that of the (in his case, semi-) outsider; though English himself, he’d spent many years in New York before coming back to see the old place with a NYC street photographer’s eye.

Parr’s series on the Methodist communities in West Yorkshire in the 1970s (published as The Non-Confirmists) takes on a more targeted subject and focuses more on little peculiarities that make these people stand out slightly from the norms of mainstream society. It’s this focus on the small differences that helps to evoke the nature of the community. Once again (there’s a pattern here) Parr was an incomer to the community and so could see it in a way that long-term resident might not have been able to.

Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words exhibition

Irn Bru Display, Corby © Mark Neville, 2010

Irn Bru Display, Corby © Mark Neville 2010

An interesting project: photography as activism. Whilst the real story Neville was telling was about the legacy of deformity from contaminated land, the backdrop is of Corby as a community. The two aspects of the collection didn’t sit together that well for me, I found it a little jarring (maybe that’s the intention). With its strong Scottish heritage and culture, Corby is sufficiently interesting in its own right to have been the subject of a photo essay, and the activism narrative that overlaid it moved it into a different direction.

Like Parr in his Hebden Bridge series, Neville is good at picking out the slightly incongruous details that mark out the place as distinctive: the child in front of a huge supermarket display of Irn Bru for example.

Mass Observation exhibition

The fundamental point of the Mass Observation initiative was to record life in Britain – a broad remit indeed. Photography wasn’t considered a key aspect of the ongoing experiment though, merely a form of visual note-taking to validate the written reporting. What emerges in the photography (much of it by Humphrey Spender) is more of an evocation of time than place; it’s a time-capsule of post-war Britain that illustrates the maxim that ‘the past is a foreign country’. It’s recognisable as Britain, but not the one we live in now.

Certain aspects such as the images of workers in Bolton do carry some sense of the community and the place but in the end its the overall historical interest that lingers rather than a sense of place. It’s kind of strange to make the comparison, but thinking about this alongside The Americans it becomes apparent how important it is to have a coherent message in the photographs; otherwise they are just a bunch of historical artefacts. This speaks to the importance of intent in the photographer’s mind when shooting and selecting.


So, what have I learned by looking back over these bodies of work? There are some useful techniques that successful photo essays have adopted to help generate a ‘sense of place’ in a collection of images:

  • An outsider’s eye: it’s useful to be able to see a place objectively, maybe in a subtly (or radically) different way to the way its residents see it
  • Symbols and motifs: can help to evoke the mood of a place and reinforce the message without overtly depicting that which you’re trying to communicate
  • Focus on the small differences: the kind of images that make you look twice, or look for longer, are the ones that show something recognisable as normal life but with some kind of twist that gives an impression of the place being depicted

  1. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  2. Parr, M. 2012. The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis

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Assignment 4: first thoughts

I admit that I’ve actually taken the pictures for the assignment! I did however do lots of thinking, reading, researching, note-writing and shot-planning before I took them. I am now very belatedly typing up all this preparation before getting on with the challenges of editing, processing and sequencing.

Choice of place

Before I took any pictures at all, I had a shortlist of places that I could have used. The brief asks for the following:

Decide on a place that you know well, or are prepared to take the time to know well, and have sufficient access to in order to complete a strong selection of a dozen images. It could be a town, a village, the borough of a city, or any area that you can define well enough. Aim to show the character of the place and of the people who live there with as much visual variety as possible. ‘Variety’ should include a variety of subject matter and of scale.

Pulling out the key criteria here, and adding a few of my own, I realised that I needed to find a place that had most or all of the following features:

  • Accessible: for long enough to take photos, on different days, at different times, busy and quiet
  • Distinctive: has a character of its own that can be depicted or implied photographically
  • Attractive: visually interesting in its own right (individual photos need to be engaging, as well as the cohesive set)
  • Variety: provides the diversity of subject matter and scale – buildings, spaces, architectural features, close-up/detail, people aware/unaware
  • Populated: has points of interest that involve people engaging with the place

There were three very different places that sprang to mind: where I live, where I work and where I holiday.

1. Pickering



I live in Pickering, a smallish market town in North Yorkshire. We’ve lived here for six years and although we have settled here very well (we love it), to a certain degree we can still see it through the eyes of an outsider – in a good way. It’s a place with a low level of tourism all year round, with attractions such as the steam railway station, the castle and a number of annual festivities such as the Sixties Festival and the Wartime Weekend.

  • It’s definitely accessible at least three days per week including weekends
  • It’s reasonably distinctive, but in a way that might be very difficult to pin down visually; it’s more to do with the people themselves and their traditional values, and I’m not sure how to best depict that
  • It has some very attractive features such as the aforementioned steam railway station and castle
  • The visual variety is pretty good
  • I’m not wholly certain that there are a lot of situations where you would see people interacting with the place?

2. Richmond Riverside

Richmond Riverside

Richmond Riverside

At the moment I’m working Monday to Thursday in Richmond-upon-Thames, in an office right on the river’s edge. There is a stretch of river path centred around an area branded as ‘Richmond Riverside’ that is potentially a good subject.

  • It’s accessible for the next couple of months at least, albeit in the mornings, lunchtimes and evenings only, which limits the lighting conditions a bit
  • Taking the Riverside locale rather then the whole town, I do consider it to have its own distinctive character
  • Visually very interesting and attractive, with boats, bridges, parkland etc
  • A reasonable amount of variety but inherently constrained to the corridor of the river so maybe a little limiting
  • Lots of people-interaction possibilities – walkers, cyclists, rowers, boatbuilders, cafe patrons and so on

3. Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

Vieux Nice

For the last 12 years my wife and I have had a flat in the old town in Nice, France (known locally as Vieux Nice). We go there 6-7 times a year for up to a fortnight at a time and have got to know the place very well. Although in one sense we’re really just very frequent visitors, in a way we can experience the place as a resident does.

  • It’s accessible for about a week at a time, given our holiday schedule for this year – but once there, no limitations on timings
  • It’s very distinctive in both its architecture and its ambience; it does feel quite different to the rest of the city
  • In purely visual terms it’s by far the most interesting of the three
  • There’s enough variety in the subject matter – people, architecture, colours, shops, cafes, public squares etc
  • The people interactions are there, although there may be a little repetition in the nature of the depictions


Having gone through the thought process and judging the three against the criteria, I came down firmly on the idea of using Vieux Nice!

The next prep blog post will be about how I decided what aspects of Vieux Nice to focus on, and how I planned out (most of) the types of shot I sought.

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Exercise: Selective processing and prominence


Select one image that you have already taken for an earlier project, an image in which the issue is the visual prominence of a figure in a setting. For this exercise you will use the digital processing methods that you have available on your computer to make two new versions of this image.

In one, make the figure less prominent, so that it recedes into the setting. In the second, do the opposite, by making it stand out more.


I chose an unused shot from earlier in this section that seemed to fit the bill in terms of balance of figure and place in the original.

1. Place more prominent

This is closer to the original in terms of the balance of light and shade in the scene as shot. For this the tweaks required were centred on the figure, using Lightroom’s adjustment brush feature. The whole figure was lowered in brightness and sharpness, and I adjusted the highlight and shadows to ‘flatten’ out the contrast as much as possible; also the red shirt was desaturated. I slightly increased the brightness of the end of the wall behind the figure such that more of the detail of the whole left wall is visible. Lastly, I adjusted the highlights in the sky and the canopy to try to better balance the light in the whole scene.

Place prominent

Place prominent


2. Figure more prominent

For this version I lightened the ground such that the figure stands out against the background more. I also specifically increased exposure setting on the face and arms, and tweaked the saturation of the shirt up slightly.

Figure more prominent

Figure more prominent

What I’ve learned

I must confess that I think both of these look slightly unnatural to me, so maybe I’ve been a bit heavy-handed. Or maybe it’s because I’ve placed the extreme variants together and the differences are more obvious? So what I’ve learned is to test such adjustments on other viewers to see whether I’ve gone too far!

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Exercise: Balancing figure and space


Draw on your photography so far in this course and on the techniques you have learned, to vary the balance in any one picture situation. Aim to produce two images, using the same general viewpoint and composition, varying the balance of attention between the person (or people) and the setting they are in.


At the risk of being unimaginative, what immediately sprang to mind here was to find a space that a figure could walk into, in the general direction of the camera, and take shots at different distances as they fill more of the frame.

I used two shots that immediately followed the ‘side streets‘ shot from the exercise ‘single figure made small’ as they fit the criteria.

1. Person not emphasised

At its simplest interpretation, this is a scene of a side street in an old mediterranean town, that happens to have a man walking down it. The old-fashioned three-wheeler van is more of a focal point than the person. The man is sufficiently far away as to be relatively anonymous, and this allows the viewer a certain feeling of immersion, potentially imagining themselves in the location.

Balance 1

Balance 1

[Admittedly, this potential for self-identification could be even more prevalent when the figure is even further away, as in the original use of the precursor image. I considered using this first image as part of this exercise, but concluded that in that version the figure was so small that the image essentially shifted balance too far and became a picture of ‘a green van on a side street’ and the figure would be too small to be considered a significant part of the visual balance.]

2. Person emphasised more

In this version the figure takes up more of the frame and is more identifiable as an individual. The coincidence of green across the shirt, the van and the door balance out the prominence – but the person is much more of a focal point now. This alters the weight of the image, as it is now less likely that the viewer could self-identify and more likely that they might think about this specific individual and what he is doing in the context of the scene. It makes the viewing more of an external experience.

Balance 2

Balance 2

It may not seem like a massive difference but I do think the distance walked by the subject fundamentally changes the nature of the image:

  • The first image is of a street (with a green van, and a big green door), that also has a man walking down it
  • The second image is of a specific individual, who is walking down a street that has a green van and a door

What I’ve learned

This was one of those exercises that gives me another technique of directing the intended message or narrative of an image. The subtle difference between emphasis on the location (with figure as secondary character) and emphasis on the person (with location as backdrop) can be an important clue as to the intent of the image. If one of these variants were presented as part of a set, any surrounding images could help to provide the necessary context of whether this is a study of the person, the place or both.

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Exercise: Making figures anonymous


Take some photographs that include a person or people in a particular place, but deliberately make them unrecognisable and, as a result, less prominent. Consider the techniques listed above [small and many, facing away, in silhouette, partly obscured, motion blur], but also feel free to use any other method you can think of.

Make between two and four photographs which use different techniques to achieve this. To reiterate, a successful image will be one that is primarily about the place, but in which one or more figures play a subsidiary role to show scale and give life — to show that it is in use.


I tried a few different techniques and these are the ones I felt worked best.

1. Shadow

In this you get the sense of the place, a narrow side street in the old town in Nice, with just a hint of a figure turning the corner into the shade. The leading line of the shaft of light, and to a lesser extent the blue arrow, help you to find the figure.



2. Angle

Shooting downwards from a high vantage point helps to anonymise the figure whilst still taking in enough of the surroundings to give a clue as to the type of place. This is probably the weakest in terms of showing the space – the balance is more in favour of the figure than the other three.



3. Scale

I almost used this for the ‘single figure small’ exercise but felt that it also suited this concept. The rhythm of the shutters is established, then broken with the white-haired figure in one of the windows. It’s the scale that makes the figure anonymous here.



4. Silhouette

Subtly different to the shadow one… in this instance there is strong, low light behind the camera and the figure is walking into the darkness, with edge lighting through the hair allowing the viewer to make out the figure, and providing a focal point. I think with this one the viewer can get an idea of the space, albeit a vague one. The inherent darkness of the backdrop makes this a more atmospheric and less literal depiction of the space.



5. Selective framing

By electing not to include the head in the frame, it becomes easier to focus on the context (the antiques stall) rather than the person.

Antique shopping

Antique shopping

What I’ve learned

I found this quite a puzzling challenge initially… it took me a few goes before I got into the idea, and many of my early attempts were equally applicable to ‘single figure small’ (as per 3 above) as I evidently fell back on size/scale as my default technique. Once I’d loosened up a bit, photographically speaking, I found other ways of expressing the same idea. It stretched my brain a little bit, but that’s undoubtedly a very good thing. I’m not completely sure I got the right balance between figure and environment in all of them, but I’ll work on that for the next exercise.

What’s fascinating looking back on these images, and the works of others with a similar visual intent, is that making the subject anonymous it makes it so much more likely that the viewer can imagine themselves in the space. By not identifying with a specific individual, it allows the viewing to be more of an ‘internalised’ experience. The more recognisable the subject, potentially the more ‘externalised’ the viewing experience becomes. This is something I hadn’t thought about at all before now.