Assignment 4: The Architecture of Democracy


On June 23rd 2016 voters in Britain were asked “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”, in the lead up to the referendum the public was repeatedly told by the press and politicians that this was the most important political decision we had made since voting to join the Common Market in 1975.

At 07:00, on what was a damp, grey day, polling stations opened across the country; the only common link between them being the pre-printed posters with the words “Polling Station” in a simple black font.

Just after seven I began to visit and photograph twenty-six stations in my local area (here). In the course of the day I visited churches, schools, a Territorial Army headquarters, village halls, community centres and a village hall that doubles as a cricket pavilion. In architectural terms none of these buildings are notable, substantial but bland Victorian structures, post war primary schools, a colonial-style wooden bungalow, contemporary and brutally ugly low rise blocks, a modernist concrete school, medieval and modern churches. For fifteen hours they acquired the status of political institutions, centres of power, part of the apparatus of democracy; a status conferred by a cheaply produced poster that was variously pinned to a door, propped on a chair or lodged behind the windscreen of the Returning Officer’s car. Paradoxically the decision made in these banal and innocent buildings would impact the greatest political institutions across the capital cities of Europe and would be reported on the front pages of newspapers across the world (here).

In the weeks that followed the vote to leave the Union we appeared no clearer on the implications of our decision than we had been before the vote when lost in a fog of opinion, mis-information, scare mongering, claim and counter-claim all filtered through the leave-orientated press and the vested interests of career politicians.

Exactly three weeks after polling day I set up a make-shift studio in Salisbury and asked twenty six people, mostly strangers, to express their thoughts on the result (here).

The buildings were selected at random, a set of twenty-six that I could visit in a day, and the twenty-six subjects of the opinion poll effectively selected themselves by wandering into my studio. I value the random nature of both series, the opportunity to edit the results was removed by strictly working to the number twenty-six in both cases. By relinquishing some of my editorial control I have distanced myself from the result; one element of subjectivity has been removed.

The series explores a major political decision made, not in Westminster, but in banal and mundane places by ordinary people. In effect it records a revolution; politicians on both sides expected Britain to vote to remain but their constituents imposed their will in a decision that impacts 750 million Europeans.

The Architecture of Democracy

Dockenfield 23rd June 2016 - Steve MIddlehurst

Dockenfield 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Farnham 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Farnham 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Guildford 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Guildford 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Holly Lodge 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Holly Lodge 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Thursley 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Thursley 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Rowledge 23rd June 2016 - Steve Middlehurst

Rowledge 23rd June 2016 – Steve Middlehurst

Notes on Contextualisation

The influences for this series have developed over a long period and as such, apart from the very obvious reference to Gillian Wearing’s Signs that Say What You Want Them to Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You to Say, (discussed here and here) the key references that were in my mind included Mark Power’s 26 Different Endings (discussed here) and John Goto’s Ukadia (discussed here).

Wearing’s Signs is an awkward reference, it is difficult to use this idea without creating a pale imitation of her significant 1992 project. As discussed previously (here) it is such a powerful idea that, rather than inspiring photographers to head for the streets equipped with a marker pen and white card, it appears to have closed off the approach. However, because it is a collaboration between subject and photographer it will always achieve an unique result. Wearing’s black policeman holding the sign “Help” is an enduring image of the nineties and to a much lesser degree the Asian man with his “I’m Confused” sign defines my series.

John Goto’s influence is probably less obvious. I set out to collect sets of building blocks and had visualised one or more montaged images using flags (here), polling stations (here), people (here) and background details (here) but when starting to plan the final images I realised that I wanted a far simpler end result. In practice Goto’s approach is technically challenging with each component of his complex images planned and photographed in staged shoots, an approach that was impractical for this project.

The number twenty-six is a reference to two photographers; Ed Ruscha for introducing both this empty number and the concept of seriality and neutrality in a photo series (discussed here); and Mark Power who adopted the same number in his 26 Different Endings. Power but is more relevant here for his banal subject matter which helped me set the aesthetic parameters for this project.

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6 Responses to Assignment 4: The Architecture of Democracy

  1. Fascinating project, Steve. I really like the way you have overlaid people and their thoughts on the polling stations. How did you organise the people shoot, please? Did you use fill lighting at all, or are they all natural light?

  2. Thank you Holly. I used the corner of a balcony / flat roof, asking each subject to stand in the same corner. After the first one or two portraits I added a single fill-in flash with a simple plastic diffuser on a stand to the subjects’ front left to separate them from the background. I had considered using soft boxes but decided that it would intimidate the subjects if the set began to look like a studio.

  3. Catherine says:

    Very well put together and the montaging gives a striking effect.

  4. emmapocock says:

    I’ve been thinking about this series a lot Steve, because I’m really not sure how I feel about it. I love both the polling station shots and the portraits, and you’ve put them together expertly, but I have a niggling feeling that the portraits outshine the polling stations in this format, reducing them to backdrops rather than making a point in their own right.

  5. Emma, thank you for taking time to think about my series. After reading your comment I returned to look again at the series and completely understand your point. I wonder whether part of the problem is the imbalanced lighting. The 23rd was such a dull day that it was challenging to achieve the contrast and colour that I wanted in the polling stations to set off the black and white polling station signs. On the other hand I could control the light for the portraits and, as you know, fill in flash lifts the subject and gives it a 3D feel. Perhaps in hindsight I’m making a mistake combining such different approaches in the same pictures. Part of the impact of John Goto’s work is the very even lighting between his human subjects and his constructed backdrops. I have taken your comment on board and will now wait to hear my tutor’s response before considering my next steps with this one.

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