brief – submission – blog – feedback – essay
Eltham Clergy, three phases of exclusion
1. Rev. Ian Gow, URC
2 Fr. Brett Ward, Holy Trinity
3. Rev. Steve Cook, St Barnabas
4. Rev. Ian Welch, St Andrew with St Alban
5. Revd. Liz Oglesby-Elong, St. Luke’s.
© the artists, their agents or their estates
The subject, local religious leaders, was chosen because they were readily identifiable, accessible, contactable, and each came with an established range of interior and exterior settings. I found details online for eighteen local Christian churches of various flavours (I learned during C&N, to my disappointment, that mosques, temples and synagogues do not encourage interior photography (Blackburn, 2020a)) and twelve of those supplied an email address and the name of a leader. I emailed those I had in three batches  : two replied with a refusal, five accepted and the remainder did not respond.
The project was initially planned when all churches were closed in the first London Covid lockdown. My first two subjects (fig. A1 Rev. Ian Gow, URC and fig. A2 Father Brett Ward, Anglican) opened their churches, wore their ‘clericals’ (Revd. Steve Cook’s phrase) and gave me a tour, pausing for photographs wherever I asked.
Then the churches were allowed to reopen for distanced services with no virus-spreading, breathy singing allowed. The next two subjects (Revd.s Steve Cook and Ian M Welch, both Anglican) suggested I attend a service and photograph that. This I duly did with the former (fig. A3), but before I could organise myself for the latter (I had visited the wrong church for our initial arrangement) the hardest lockdown of all was imposed and services went online.
For several weeks I did nothing, then events in Washington D.C. on 6th January crystallised a thought process that had already begun. All but the most frivolous newspapers led the next day with the ‘storming of Congress’ featuring still images taken from TV news footage (fig. B1) and, as David Campany noted in his essay Safety in numbness (2003), as far back as the 1970s, still images for news reporting were extracted from video sources. Given that many churches are broadcasting services to their congregations, I could revive the project from these feeds.
As regards copyright, authorship and ownership (dealt with at some length during C&N, Blackburn, 2020, pp.5-6), at a time when a photographer is suing a ‘celebrity tattoo artist’ for inking a picture likeness (Zhang, 2021), the issue can become febrile, nevertheless, I am comfortable with my approach of only sampling the videos of clergy I had already corresponded with and Rev. Welch responded positively when I explained my revised plan. There is precedent in work of Robert Heinecken, specifically his 1984 project CBS Docu-drama: A Case Study in Finding an Appropriate TV Newswoman (Hoy, 1987, p.128-9).
The first two subjects were photographed when churches were closed to the public; the intention for the phase two images, photographing from a pew during services, was to portray my subjects as they are seen by their attending parishioners. Phase three would provide the same under the new exclusion restrictions. There was considerable variation in the image quality and production values and each of my subjects took different approaches in their broadcasts, Rev. Ian Welch (fig. A4) a low-resolution zoom meeting from home including communion; Revd. Liz Oglesby-Elong (fig. A5, Anglican) in her church with one other participant following the event and her movements with a mobile ‘phone; Father John Diver (Roman Catholic, not shown, but see the Development page) a distant fixed camera in a seemingly quite full church.
1. The details of the emails are given on the Development page. They included examples of my photographs from Assignment 1 and, later, the initial photographs for this Assignment.
2. 7th January 2021 front pages of the Scottish editions of the i, the Metro, the Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Scotsman, The Courier, The Press and Journal, the Daily Express, the Daily Star. Images from BBC News (2021).
I will open with my now standard three key questions on an assignment:
was it a good brief? was it a good idea? did it work?
The brief built sensibly on Assignment 1, adding contextual variation and awareness.
I thought my subject was well chosen, irrespective of the impact of Covid, because it was likely to result in a reasonably-sized and varied sample of strangers with a themed link.
That plan was rather overtaken by events and the project became as much about access and methods as about the subjects, nevertheless, it produced an outcome.
To declare my relevant prejudices and preconceptions, having been brought up in a militant, evangelical Christian sect, I rejected its teachings as a teenager. Although I do not hold a religion, I often visit and photograph churches and respect the good that some local religious leaders perform in their communities.
Implementation of the brief
The brief specifies ‘five final images … as a themed body of work’. It requires ‘portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio)’ (Boothroyd & Roberts, 2019, p.71). I have produced images of six subjects with a linking theme, three include interior and exterior photographs. In literal terms, the project specification has been met.
The idea underlying the project is appropriate to the brief, inherently varied enough to provide potential for an interesting spread of images and, as it turned out, subject to changes of circumstances that forced repeated changes of approach. Nevertheless, because of its coherent concept, the outcome hangs together, so long as the viewer is made aware of the context.
This is a last-minute change and I am not sure where to insert it, but the full definition of Quality of Outcome in Assessment Criteria – Visual Arts (HE5) (OCA, 2012) is probably the closest. I think it is relevant to document this change rather than just make the substitution.
I photographed Rev. Steve Cook in December 2020 and for two months have intended to submit figure C1 for this assignment. It is, to my mind, the most effective portrait of him: the 1/7th sec. shutter speed allows enough subject movement in the hands to suggest that he is constantly on the move when he preaches, while still retaining detail on the face. The crop includes the occupied crucifix to indicate the branch of Anglicanism his church occupies and the ethnic diversity of his congregation is hinted at. Having finalised the submission text, and with St. Barnabas the only church I visited that was allowed a congregation, I went back to the contact sheets (Blackburn, 2021) to look for an image that gave clearer evidence of Covid’s effect. This resulted in the substitution of figure D1 (as fig. A3) in the submission because it shows, on close inspection, a distanced congregation wearing face masks. There is more subject movement and Rev. Cook is less distinct; there is more architectural detail and general church clutter that detract from the image. While figure C1 gives a clearer representation of Rev. Cook, D1 better represents the context of the series as a whole.
The project proved to be more interesting and complex than its original conception as circumstances forced two changes of approach.
Regarding the ‘development of a personal voice’, I have in the past struggled to decide what this means. I believe that I have come to terms with this now: if I embrace any subject and task the course directs me towards and approach it in a way that I find appropriate, then I will be using my ‘personal voice’, and I will leave it to others to define or describe it as necessary.
In PhotoWork (2019) Sasha Wolf asked forty photographers a series of identical questions, including one about their ‘natural voice’. Bryan Schutmaat replied,
I’m not sure any photographer really has a natural voice. Photographers train themselves to follow their tastes and visual interests, and so much influence is funnelled through every click of the shutter that it’s hard to say what comes naturally and what is learned or imitated. I also don’t think our photographic voices and styles are rigid and immutable.Bryan Schutmaat in Wolf’s PhotoWork, 2019, p.203
I stated at the outset of the course that I might try to complete it using only a 35mm (equivalent) lens. This worked well for the first Assignment but it became immediately evident on this project that such a self-imposed restriction would be a foolish conceit. The cramped and cluttered space within charity shops made the lens ideal but it just did not work for the complex interiors and exteriors of churches where a variety of configurations and compositions was necessary. For the last phase of the project the camera was in the hands (or not) of the person controlling the video.
Where there is variation in the technical quality of the images submitted, this is driven by the source material.
The project is fully documented on the development page, including the initial concept, the implementation of the three phases and the circumstances that brought about the project shifts. I believe that I demonstrated flexibility and resourcefulness in dealing with enforced change.
As five images of clergy, they differ widely in format, content and method, but as an examination of the available means of contact between clergy and clients (phase 1, churches closed; phase 2, distanced proximity; phase 3, ‘Anglican TV‘) they provide a glimpse of the impact of Covid on Christian worship that will be difficult to explain in years to come.
I considered, with the video-derived images (figs. A4 and A5), whether to show the full screen, thus making it clear that they were taken from online services (and to demonstrate that only Rev. Welch’s feed offered such poor resolution, see fig. E1), but decided to crop them all as consistent portraits.
Morally / ethically / politically
The churches have reacted strangely and variedly to the changing restrictions and have been subjected to considerable criticism, particularly the Anglican community (Sherwood, 2020; Mount, 2021). The portraits shown are not intended to comment on or to draw comment on their subjects, only to represent their appearance in working life.
BBC News (2021) Scotland’s papers: ‘Anarchy in the USA’ and over-80s vaccine delay [online]. bbc.co.uk. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-55570573 [Accessed 2 February 2020].
Blackburn, N. (2020) Brandt, a gradual realisation. London: BAPhot Press.
Blackburn, N. (2021) I&P: Assignment 2, Contact Sheets [online]. baphot.co.uk. Available from http://baphot.co.uk/pages_ip/ip_asg_2_2_contacts.php#dec06 [Accessed 23 February 2020].
Boothroyd, S. and Roberts, K. (2019) Identity and place . Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.
Campany, D. (2003) Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ [online]. davidcampany.com. Available from https://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 18 February 2020].
Hoy, A.H. (1987) Staged, altered, and appropriated photographs . NY: Cross River Press.
Mount, H (2021) Can the Church of England survive Covid? [online]. telegraph.co.uk. Available from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/can-church-england-survive-covid/ [Accessed 19 February 2020].
OCA (2012) Assessment Criteria – Visual Arts (HE5) [online]. oca-student.com. Available from https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/assessment-criteria/assessment-criteria-visual-arts-he5 [Accessed 23 February 2020].
Sheerwood, H. (2020) Synod member attacks Church of England’s ‘self-obsession’ in pandemic [online]. theguardian.com. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/21/synod-member-attacks-church-of-englands-self-obsession-in-pandemic [Accessed 19 February 2020].
Wolf, S. (2019) Photo Work: forty photographers on process and practice. New York: Aperture Foundation
Zhang, M. (2021) Photographer Sues Kat Von D Over Miles Davis Tattoo [online]. website. Available from https://petapixel.com/2021/02/15/photographer-sues-kat-von-d-over-miles-davis-tattoo/ [Accessed 18 February 2020].