Assignment 4 calls for the use of images with text and given the overall subject of the course is identity and place it was a straight forward decision to base my project on the events of June 23rd, a date when Britain made the most significant decision regarding its identity in a generation. The idea evolved as I began to capture sets of photos to use as building blocks for the assignment.
My first thought was to work with posters and flags, the latter being especially relevant as symbols of identity. The use of our national flags is intriguing, their nature as signs radically changes depending on their context. On one hand the union flag is a brand, a signifier that connotes tradition and quality; in a landmark year for the Queen it becomes a symbol of royalty and celebration and, yet at the other extreme it is a symbol of extreme nationalism, a battle flag for neo-nazis and racists. Less easily read is the growing trend for either the union flag or Saint George’s cross to be flown in the front gardens of private houses, a possible expression of nationalism, a statement of support for the national football team, an extension of the UKIP posters that sometimes appear nearby, or an expression of loyalty to the monarchy.
When setting out to photograph flags I had two particular images in mind, both by Paul Seawright who I had looked at in the context of late photography (here). One shows a semi-urban scene somewhere in Northern Ireland, I cannot find a copy of this photograph now, but as I recall it there is a tree line in the distance and the union flag is just showing above the trees. I think that it formed part of Seawright’s Sectarian Murders series and as such was presumably the site of one such murder. Seawright’s work is generally understated, he often offers us banal landscapes with few notable features but by associating that landscape with an historical and often violent event he asks us to project our own image onto the scene. In that particular photograph the flag plays an important role, it has particular layers of meaning in Northern Ireland, yet it occupies a small faction of the frame. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn as a photographer, we are frightened that the subject of the photograph will be missed by the viewer so to address this concern we ensure that it dominates the frame; this has the same effect as closing down the image with an over-directive caption, we offer the viewer no room to reach their own conclusions.
The second Seawright image that had lodged in my mind is also from the Sectarian Murders series. In Thursday 14th December the red “stop” sign has been highlighted, probably by using a flash gun, creating a sharp focal point for the image and drawing attention to the shadowy motorbike which is an important component of the narrative. A combination of its colour and the lighting has made the “stop” sign a primary feature of the photograph. There is also a similarity here to the work of Joel Sternfeld who identifies and isolates splashes of colour as an important compositional component of his work (see here).
My intent based on these ideas was to find instances where the flag was a minor element in the frame but by either taking advantage of natural back-lighting or through post processing to give it greater importance within the composition that its size suggested. The idea worked best in the view of Aldershot above and the farm below.
However, the farm best expresses the idea I had in mind; the question of how we form an impression of unseen peoples’ identity based on their choice to display such a powerful, but ultimately ambiguous signifier. It is obviously a rural location, a small farm that seems an incongruous setting for a formal flag pole and the union flag but by not giving the flag prominence in the picture its importance is left to the viewer to decide. The long lead in to the buildings encourages the viewer to explore the paddocks and outbuildings and to question how the flag alters their impression of the hidden inhabitants. This works especially well with the union flag because of the many ways in which it is used as discussed above; if we were to decide the occupants were fervent monarchists at one extreme or members of the National Front at the other it might suggest more about our prejudices than provide information regarding the occupants.
A few other photographs from those shoots are shown below. However, as the project developed the flag photographs became less relevant and weren’t used in the final assignment.