sean hall

Disconnected: A Photo Essay Refections

Disconnected: A Photo Essay explores the relationship between hands, shoes, and our personal identities.

 

 

Reflection 1: On the Choice of Camera and Photographs

There were a number of possibilities for the camera that I could use in this project.  Should I use a disposable camera in order to reflect the idea that we treat our hands as disposable objects, ready to be used and then discarded until future use?  Should I manipulate the images with filters and cropping to draw attention to specific moments?

After careful consideration, I chose a digital camera, a Sony Cybershot DSC-W530.  There’s nothing inherently special about this camera: the features are for the ease of amateur photographers, not intending for the user to be overwhelmed by possibilities.  This camera best suited my needs in a couple ways.

First, a digital camera captured the texture and detail of the hands and shoes.  The lines, wrinkles and age spots wouldn’t appear on a disposable camera the same way they would on a digital camera.  The shadows in the mesh or fabric of shoes were brightened and intensified by using the digital camera.

More detail, the kind a more advanced camera captures, would have greatly enhanced the focus I was trying to portray.  However, in weighing my options, I chose instead to capture natural images of people who were comfortable with being photographed.  Even with a simple camera, when I first began taking pictures, I got a series of questions signaling their discomfort, especially those I didn’t know.  What did I want them to do with their hands?  What was the purpose?  How many people were going to see?  These first photos felt staged and awkward because the subjects were so uncomfortable.  They didn’t show the natural dichotomy between hands and shoes that I was looking for.

Using a digital camera also allowed me to “sneak” some pictures.  Digital cameras don’t draw attention to themselves the same way professional cameras do: nearly everyone owns a digital camera in this technological age, even if it’s the one built into their phones.  If I had a digital camera out, looking at the screen, others did not spare a second glance.  To counteract some of the nervousness of the subjects, I could take the photos of their hands first and inform them after, showing them the pictures and asking their permission to use them in the essay.

In this technique I captured a series of photos from various subjects.  I carried a camera with me everywhere I went, always on the lookout for interesting activities.  I photographed many people in order to have a wide variety of tasks to show in the essay.  The more I photographed, the more I became aware of the best light, the best angle.  For example, in one photograph, the subject wanted to light a cigarette.  If I looked at his hands from behind, where he was shielding the lighter, his hand was dark and difficult to see.  From the front, the flame became a central focus, illuminating both the lines on his hands and the scene around him.

After taking the images, I edited all of the photos in Picasa.  This relatively simple editor allowed me to adjust the images of hands by adding a soft focus, blurring the background so that the viewer paid attention to the detail of the hands in action.  I cropped each photo meticulously until each was aesthetically pleasing to the eye.  In some photos, I also adjusted the saturation and the shadows in order to draw out more details that the camera couldn’t capture on its own.  The photo of a woman holding up a stethoscope, for example, became more appealing through adding more shadows: all of the unique shadows in her hands were also heightened.

I chose the images in this photo essay not only for their aesthetic qualities, the ones that simply were the most intriguing after I edited them, but also for the way that the hands and the shoes spoke to each other.  How did the hands of a girl in slicing cheese in a deli slicer, equipped with hot pink nail polish, relate to her purple shoes?  How did hands flipping through a magazine relate to black leather boots, only half-laced?

These images told a story in themselves, of an identity trying to assert itself no matter what task the hands were meant to do.  The photos in the essay were chosen for their particular dynamic between hands and shoes, when the relationship was clear or when it called the relationship into question.  Juxtaposing the images with each other, and then with the words that the person used to describe themselves, brought the relationship between all three elements to the forefront.  Together, they crafted the identity of these twelve individuals.

 

Reflection 2: Composition and Rhetorical Theories of a Single Image

This photograph of a butcher cutting meat has been one of my favorites from the beginning, but it was not until I considered the theories of photography that I discovered why.

It is first aesthetically pleasing because it follows several key theories of photographic composition.  The Digital Photography School advocates the use of various textures for a more appealing quality.  Here, the contrast of the smooth, reflective knife blade contrasts with the rough lines of the hands, calling the lack of clarity in the hands themselves into question.  Knives, with one purpose, are clear.  Hands, with many, are worn down.

We are drawn to the knife because of its difference to the rThe Butcher's Handsest of the photograph.  The knife, in turn, becomes a leading line.  As Photography Mad outlines, leading lines guide the viewer toward the subject and through the photograph.  Here, the curve of the knife blade directs the reader from one hand to the other, drawing importance to both actions.  The viewer sees how the subject holds the blade, with purpose and skill.  The way he holds the meat on the other end of the blade also speaks to his professionalism, drawing attention to the way the hands seem to act all on their own.

And where is the person behind those hands?  By cropping the subject out of the image, I emphasize how the importance of hands has been lost.  Photography Mad explains that the need for cropping arises when “the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings.”  If the photo included a whole person cutting the meat, the viewer would focus on elements that more truly told the story, like his body language or his facial expression.  Not one glance toward the hands, but the whole picture of a person and his story.  In cropping, I narrowed the vision of the reader away from this man’s life.

In addition, the knife symbolizes power.  As Sean Hall, in This Means This, This Means That, explains, through a symbol, the “meaning that is created is related to the nature of the object” (32).  Those who wield knives have control over those that do not.  The butcher has control over that piece of meat, over the way it is sliced and the way someone else will receive it.  The focus of this image seems to reflect this amount of power.  If we follow the knife, we are brought to the hands that guide it.

Yet there is nothing inherently powerful about this image.  Errol Morris, in his book Believing is Seeing, argues that photographs do not make any arguments for themselves.  The arguments come from the ways that the viewer interprets the images: “Images are plastic, malleable, and lend themselves to any and every argument” (217).  They become a testament to the way that the viewer wants to see them.  We want to believe that the hands wield this power.

What is the truth behind this photograph?  Is the butcher empowered by his occupation?  Or is he stuck in a dead-end job, where his hands complete tasks mechanically and with no gratification?

I influenced this perception for the viewer by only showing the hands in a moment of power.  Morris believes that “the minute you select one photograph from a group of photographs, you are doing something very, very similar to manipulating reality” (164).  Here I only showed the deft movements and precise methods, but not the attitude or the emotion.  I created a powerful man by only showing this moment of power.

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When Friends are Marginalized Together

Movie posters reflect the specific genres of the movie that you are about to watch.  Maybe you’re in the mood for a sappy love story, or maybe an insane tale about friends getting to know each other better.  How can we tell the difference between friend movies and relationship movies?

Sean Hall’s concept of Center and Margin gives us an easy way to analyze movie posters and see which relationship the movie is going to be about.  According to Hall, the center of an image is the central focus, where the viewer’s eyes are drawn first, and that the rest of the image is centered around.  The center is the idealized object in the picture.  But something idealized also means that something is not idealized.  These objects are marginalized, less in focus and less significant than the central object.  Every object that is centered creates something that is marginalized.

On movie posters, it is mostly easy to see that the main character is the center focus of the film.  On the Star Trek movie posters, Captain Kirk, played by Chris Pine, is the center and idealized in a couple of ways.  He is in front of his companions Dr. Spock and Uhura, literally closer to the viewer.  He is at the very top of the poster, symbolizing idealization.  He’s also pictured more than once: there’s a tiny second him Kirk the bottom of the poster in the middle of an action sequence.  Kirk is the main character.  Spock and Uhura, important and recognizable enough to make it onto the poster, are secondary characters, revolving around Kirk’s storyline.

Star Trek Movie Poster

Source: Impawards.com

Action movies, horror movies, love stories.  These movies all clearly show who is the most important and who is marginalized.  They show who the movie is going to follow around and who the viewer is supposed to identify with.

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Movies about friends, where the whole point of the movie is building on friendship, are another story.

Movies that are based solely on friendships tend to not have a clear distinction between the center and the margin.  Not that there isn’t a center to the movie poster, but the distinction between which character we should be paying attention to isn’t clear.

If you look at the Hangover Part 2 movie poster, for example, your eyes aren’t necessarily drawn to any of the characters in particular.  All of the characters have this idea of “centrality” about them.  Alan is at the top of the page, where Kirk was idealized before.  Stu, on the left, is almost the most central, and is certainly closer to the viewer because he is higher up off the ground, in the bathtub.  Phil is making direct eye contact with the viewer, the only one that openly faces the front of the poster.  Even if Alan is face up, his eyes are closed, and Stu’s body position is slightly turned away.

Source: impawards.com

Source: impawards.com

Remember that the key ideas for a central image are its location on the page and its orientation to other objects.  The point of view of the poster is from the top-looking down.  The characters are literally subjected to begin with, aligned with your lowered standards because the viewer is in the position of authority.  Plus they’re laying on the floor.  But they are all together in this position.  All three of them are marginalized from the point of view of the viewer, but none of them is a central figure on the poster itself.

The viewer can then conclude that the movie is going to be about the friendship of the three men, each of them equally as important as the next, rather than following the story from the point of view of one man.  Their friendship is the central image – in this case, the center of the triangle that their sprawled bodies create.

Other friendship movies have the same characteristics: a lack of a center and margin, or where all of the characters are central images, or all of them are marginalized images.

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Of course, there are always exceptions that result from clever advertising.  But this is one way that the viewer can see what the central focus of the movie is going to be.

Mash-Up Reflection (Part Two)

Putting meaning into a video mash-up isn’t only easy, it’s inevitable. Two pictures, videos, words, or even sounds can’t be placed next to each other without altering each other’s meaning—or creating an entirely new meaning for matter. Effectively controlling the meaning—in a mash-up for instance—is the harder part. When making my mash-up, I wanted to really hit it home that scientific debate has no place in politics. And I implored some semiotic methods to do so:

At 2:05, Michelle Bachmann is standing before congress giving a speech. Following her at 2:07, Gary Busey appears giving his speech at the Comedy Central Roast of Larry the Cable Guy. Understanding Sean Hall’s definition of intratextuality in This Means This, This Means That as “the internal relationship between different parts of the same work,” the viewer can see these relationships: both are standing behind podiums, making similar hand gestures to an audience.

Through the intratextual relationship between the two clips, the viewer can interpret that I am making some sort of comparison between these two. However, the comparison can take on heavier meaning if the viewer can recognize Gary Busey as a symbol of ‘crazy.’ Such an understanding of Busey would require the reader to not only know about his erratic behavior, but also of the popular understanding of him as crazy that would sustain his symbol-status as such.

Assuming the viewer is attuned to Busey’s symbolic qualities, the viewer can finally interpret the metaphor. A metaphor, as Hall defines it, is “an implied comparison between two similar or dissimilar things that share a certain quality.” If Bachmann=Busey, and Busey=Crazy, then Bachmann=crazy. Ultimately, this emerging metaphor acts to do one of two things effectively: introduce Bachmann is crazy to a viewer that might not know much about her (or thought otherwise), or reaffirm any of the viewer’s existing thoughts that she is crazy and show it in a new way.

I applied a good level of intertextuality to this mash-up. According to Hall, intertextuality is “how works of various kinds (e.g. books, paintings, sculptures, designs, advertisements, etc.) make reference—often in clever ways—to other works”. I did some reference of my own when I used a clip from Breaking Bad wherein Huell, a crooked lawyer’s henchman, falls onto a pile of money. Assuming a good amount of viewers have seen this show, they can know that the pile of money that Huell is falling onto is dirty money—obtained through selling methamphetamine and murder. Using the meaning that Breaking Bad’s producers have already created around this widely-known scene, I inserted it into my mash-up to add an important layer of meaning: dirty money fueling the religious and political attacks of science.

Now, that dirty money scene will influence what meaning is made in the gutter—or the space between two separate items (video clips in this case)—preceding and proceeding it. For instance, when juxtaposed to the scene of billionaire Charles Koch (:40), the gutter contains the following implications: the money that pumps into dark money groups like Americans for Prosperity is dirty itself. By themselves, these two clips probably wouldn’t suggest that much for my purposes—probably only facts and ideas that people already knew. Now, however, my viewer is able to see political funders like Charles Koch in a way that challenges their ethics not just politically, but morally. Ultimately, Koch’s lack of morality that I implied will carry into the greater point, politics and science, and suggest something new: dark money groups are funding anti-science politicians. Now, the issue isn’t just who is crazy or uninformed, but also corrupt.

I use the word “viewer” a lot in this reflection, so I should probably do some analysis of whom I’m speaking of and how they are interpreting my work. Obviously, this mash-up is very political, and in terms of American politics, is critically aimed at the Republican Party (Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin are all Republicans). Knowing this, I have to understand that different viewers may have different conceptions about what I’m saying. A conception, as defined by Hall, is a “thought” about something that can be very different from another’s due to “different information coded into the concepts that they use.” A person who regularly follows politics might have a different understanding of the clip I used of Mitt Romney, and know that was when he mocked President Obama for wanting to “heal the planet.” A person who doesn’t watch politics, however, might not know how loaded that clip was. I tried to set my mash-up so that people across different levels of contemporary political knowledge can follow my point. I did this by making sure I used clips of recognizable, high-profile politicians who are not only widely recognizable, but also whose agendas are clear. I believe doing this made my mash-up’s message accessible to a larger audience.