Critical review

1 rifles is a light role infantry battalion. Soldiers within this battalion work on the front line and mainly operate on foot. The majority of these men have been at war in Afghanistan and have experienced things that none of us could ever imagine: poor living conditions, life threatening situations and tense nerve-racking waits for 7 months at a time.

The focus to this series of photographs was based on their experiences of conflict. I chose to capture this through portraits. After researching into Suzanne Optons Soldier series I felt portraits were the most relevant way to capture this existence. Knowing that these images were taken of real US soldiers at camp allows me as a viewer to get an idea of what these people are feeling. I am able to create a connection between myself and the subject just through the quietness and composition of the photograph. Working in portraits will enhance the way in which the viewer chooses to look at my photographs. My aim is to capture images with a big impact, I want the viewers to feel uncomfortable when looking at the portraits, therefore transferring the emotions the soldiers regularly feel to the people looking at them creating an awareness and understanding of these incredibly brave human beings.

In terms of aesthetics I have achieved my aim in almost every way possible. During the first 4 weeks of this project the 1 rifles battalion were training in Kenya which allowed to me to plan every aspect of this shoot exactly, so when it came to the day to take photographs I was clear and happy with what my images would look like and how to capture them.

The aesthetics of the images are quite simple yet they still have a sense of typographics influenced from my research in to Steven Pykes work. This technique enhances every detail of the face which aims to intrigue viewers to study the portrait further.  Detail is essential in my series as a result you are able to see the signs of conflict. The rest of the aesthetics are simple with the white background and central composition. This is to avoid distractions to provide the viewer a clear focus on the subject.

The use of the white background generates a crisp, clean outline to the subject. This brings the model away from the background, creating more depth within the image therefore allowing a stronger connection between viewer and subject. This was influenced by Daniel Lilleys Cadet series.  These photographs have a strong sense of emotion and atmosphere with such simple aesthetics. The contrast between the subject and background catches the attention of viewers which can then bring them to study the images further, which I feel is important to have in my series as my aim is to make people more aware of these soldiers.

I have a tendency to use film for many of my projects but when it came to testing out both formats I realised for this particular brief I needed to shoot in digital. I shot on a Nikon D800 as these cameras capture clear, high quality images. Using this camera also gave me the option to print the photographs large without stretching the image and losing vital aesthetic quality.

I decided not to use film as I felt the grain was not giving my portraits much justice. Really grainy, gritty images would reflect the atmosphere of being at war although when compared with the smooth, clear aesthetics of digital I believed that it wasn’t relevant to enhance the atmosphere further. The final digital images have slight connotations of metal, which denotes the physical requirements of a solider. This was unintentional; the use of digital has created a cold filter, whereas when I shot in film a slightly warmer feel was added to the photograph which I compared in my blog. The coldness of the portraits led me to make an easy decision on which paper I would print them on, glossy would add just a tiny bit of warmth and pearl did the opposite.

Throughout this whole project I was determined to create large portraits. During the book project in my previous year I learnt that it is essential for me to go an extra step forward with each series I create to make something I am proud and confident with. Before making images, I knew that I wanted to make a big impact on the viewers.

I based my project on what I feel is a serious subject which means it is important that i get the correct message across rather than having viewers assume they are just meaningless portraits on a wall. When I examined the Imperial War Museum portraits photographed by Richard Ash, they inspired me to focus on the presentation of my images. The photographs were hung at an average persons eye level, printed at an 1:1 scale and presented on a narrow balcony. I’m unsure if this was all intentional but it made me feel uncomfortable and got my mind thinking for the rest of the day about these soldiers. The impact that it made on me was exactly what I wanted to make on viewers of my photographs so when it came to presenting them I chose to hang them in the University corridor where it is narrow therefore viewers are encouraged to consider the psychological and physical effects of war through the immense size and detail.

The 3 soldiers appeared quite uneasy when they came into the studio. I decided to put on some music to attempt to relax them as I understood how nervous it can be standing in front of a camera in a studio environment. When I asked them to put their uniform on their mannerisms changed noticeably. They seemed much more confident when stood in front the camera, they all naturally stood up-right and their facial expressions changed as if they were on patrol which is exactly what I wanted.

I believe a viewer cannot read emotions from a portrait, as explained by William A. Ewing ‘…faces are in fact fields of data that are interpreted and processed by the brain according to individual needs and experiences…’ but to get the most out of these images myself and my assistant Meena articulated my aim and influences of the project to the soldiers during the shoot. This then played on their minds and led these thoughts to be running through their heads whilst the photographs were being taken creating truthful portraits.

This was the first shoot I have done with models I’m unfamiliar with. I had done a lot of planning so knew exactly what I wanted, which made me much less nervous. I’m unsure why I was quite so nervous, but being so led me to take a lot of photographs to get it right. After a while I began to feel comfortable directing the soldiers to where I wanted them to stand.

I think meeting the subjects beforehand for an informal chat would have eased the tension from the shoot but I chose to keep my distance from them throughout the project. If I was quite persistent and constantly communicating with them I had a feeling they may start becoming uncomfortable and maybe tempted to back out of the final shoot. For future projects which include unfamiliar subjects I will push myself to become a participant observer.

I still needed to get their point of view into the project somehow to contextualize the series. I managed to get a quick interview with one of the soldiers Jamie Norman after the shoot. I was quite uncomfortable doing this but I knew it would reflect in my series. To prepare myself I spoke to Matthew Partington the chairman of the Ethics Committee at the University of the West of England. The meeting helped me understand how they may feel uncomfortable. He gave me tips on how to approach the soldiers and told me to respect their wishes if they don’t want to answer any questions. This gave me the confidence to approach Jamie. Though it was quite quick and informal the interview went well and I got the answers I wanted, which are referenced in my blog. The photographic series is contextualized by these responses which encourages viewers along with the installation to begin to understand the psychological effects of conflict.

Personally I feel there are many strengths within this project which is down to the amount of planning I had done whilst the soldiers were training in Kenya. The thorough research into photographers and writings had taught me different ways to read photographs and made me aware of the viewers interpretations and how I could try and direct them into a space where they can reflect upon my images similar to how I want them to. Testing the lighting, shoots, film and cameras allowed me to compare and contrast each technique to find the perfect studio layout and camera that matched with the aim of the photographs.

Working with all the different camera and studio equipment also increased my knowledge and has made me comfortable using it on future projects. All together the use of camera, composition, tones, lighting and presentation helped to create a successful series. For future projects I have learnt to take every single aspect of the shoot and plan it all so I am able to have to a clear mind and focus on one thing at a time. There are a couple of things that would increase the impact of these photographs. Firstly I would have liked to capture more than just 3 soldiers as when in exhibition it would have created a more lifelike patrol scene which I believe would have transferred a stronger message to the viewers due to how uncomfortable it could make them feel. The physical signs of conflict would also be broader due to the larger range of soldiers.

My research involved quite a lot of portrait decoding along with writings about how viewers interpret images. The knowledge I have gained allows me to now keep in mind during shoots what techniques I am using and why to create the message I need to. Another thing that would have increased the impact of this series is if I had researched further into the discourse of war and conflict photography. Doing so would have contextualised the images further along with the solider point of view.

The 1 rifles series is a project that I am very proud of.  After putting the images onto my website I have already received a few emails complimenting my work including the IWM photographer I was influenced by, Richard Ash. It has raised my confidence within my personal practice immensely and I feel I am now able to approach and be confident to photograph people i’m not familiar with either in a studio or location environment.

 

Graham Clarke (1997). The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.

 

William A. Ewing (2004). About Face: Photography and the Death of the Portrait. London: Hayward Gallery.

 

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