Narrative – Project 1: Telling a story – Exercise

Exercise

  • How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?
  • What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

Make some notes in your learning log.

For this exercise, I’ve studied 2 photographic projects that utilise linear storylines within photo essays. Both tell a story, chronologically, from an insiders point of view.

In order to compare Bryony Campbell’s work to that of William Eugene Smith, I studied Smith’s work first¹, making notes about any particular aspects that I felt made this body of work successful as a narrative, or unique as a work of art/documentary. On subsequently looking at Campbell’s work², not only was I able to study it in the same manner, but I was able to identify key differences in methodology and approach.

How does Bryony Campbell’s The Dad Project compare with Country Doctor?

Without wanting to state the obvious, the first comparisons to be made are that of B&W and Colour. Smith’s use of B&W film was the accepted norm given the era of the project and the fledgling infancy of colour film, but Campbell will have made a conscious decision to shoot in colour. In the words of Paul Reas “colour is quieter”, and I find it very befitting for such a sensitive subject, helping to bring a sense of solemnity, emotion and feeling to the story.

In Country Doctor, the images are very close, almost intimate with the subject, Dr. Ceriani. The Doctor features in almost every image, and the narrative is very much about him, his daily toil, his hard work and unwavering commitment to the community and his patients There is only 1 image of his wife and child, but used in such a way as to emphasise how busy he is in his role as a GP. There is no denying that The Dad Project is also deeply intimate, but this intimacy is achieved in a different way. Rather than close up images of the subject,  we have a more connotative relationship, achieved through a sense of pain and empathy. This is in part due to the subject itself, which is not as the title suggests, the dying father, but the suffering and bereavement of the family unit, in particular the photographer.

Where Smith’s narrative is denoted in each image and through the set, Campbell’s is often connoted, causing the viewer to linger on each image longer in order to fully understand the narrative which can then be interpreted in line with the viewers own frame of reference. This is enhanced by the inclusion of text/captions acting in Relay with the image/set, where as Smith’s captions Anchor the meaning firmly.

In Smiths work, he provides us with an insiders perspective but throughout, he is still an outsider. We do not see him feature in the set. The opposite is true of Campbell. Here we have an insiders perspective from an insider.  The result is a stronger feeling of objectivity from Campbell, and subjectivity on the part of Smith. Interestingly, looking through the images of Smiths that never made it into the project, they are mostly hospital based, which do not fit with the Country Doctor image being portrayed. I feel that Smith is trying to craft a story, where as Campbell is documenting a story as it unfolds.

In The Dad Project, I find that the narrative has a more real feel thanks to the inclusion of less than perfect images. The images that have out of focus areas, sun flare or blown highlights, connote the photographers capturing of a fleeting moment, and distraction by the emotions of the moment. There is an almost poetic feel to the narrative, and Campbell has not only captured a scene, but has captured the unseen in terms of emotion, grief, despair, anxiety and fear. In comparison to Smith, whose work is very photojournalistic, documentary in style and very “matter of fact”, Campbell’s is more “documentary as art”. I think that this is very much down to context. Smith’s work was always destined for LIFE magazine, to inform the masses. Campbell’s was initially just for her/her studies. It’s context has changed over time, with the creation of a photobook which has seen numerous iterations, a short video for The Guardian and gallery installations. With changing context, the narrative will also change.

Looking at both narratives, I find myself comparing them to 2 stories of any other type, whether that be literary or film. Both stories contain the elements of a narrative i.e. a beginning, middle and end, yet both are very different genre’s. Country Doctor is a western, with a lone hero, a love interest and lots of action, whilst The Dad Project is an emotionally charged melodrama. It also quite evident to see that Country Doctor was a pre-planned, researched and developed project. The shots taken, although not necessarily staged, will have been planned, and the narrative/objective pre-though out. Smith even spent time with Dr. Ceriani, shooting him with no film, just to get him used to the presence of a camera. Campbell however will have had no such luxury with this project. The project itself was reactionary, as were many of the images. The project developed along with her fathers illness, and she had a number of ethical, moral, emotional and family issues to overcome. The project was only able to take shape and become coherent once her father had passed away.

What do you think she means by ‘an ending without an ending’?

The question above is in relation to a quote by Campbell in the course material:

“Being a good daughter to my dying dad was tricky. I struggled to find the balance between dedication to his needs and distraction from my grief. At first the idea of introducing a camera into this equation seemed unwise, but eventually I think it became the solution.

This is the story of an ending without an ending. And I hope it always will be. This is my attempt to say goodbye to my Dad with the help of my camera.”

A PDF written by Campbell which accompanies The Dad Project³ and a video on her website created by The Guardian newspaper both help to provide a good insight into the creative process behind the work. I can only surmise from my own study of her work what she means by this, and I believe there are a number of possible interpretations, some more likely than others.

With the ever changing context of the work, the meaning will always be in flux. The ending is therefore ever changing. This is also true of the individual nature of the viewer who brings their own meaning and understanding of death and grief to the work.

It is possible, that due to the very nature of grief, that Campbell is still working out the meaning of the work/what it means to her. As it is a very personal project, the end of the story is how she feels about it, and what it brings to her. It could be that the story goes on. The end of her fathers life is not the end of hers. After all, this is not just a story of her fathers death, but of her grief and her coming to terms with it. The project is also a means of helping Campbell come to terms with the loss of her father, and is something she re-visits constantly. The sense of loss will never truly go away.

In the accompanying text, Campbell writes that the project was an inspiring journey which she made with her dad – every day since he died. This highlights that her dad, and his inspiration live on in the project.

Although there are a number of possible meanings to Campbell’s quote, I think that she is actually referring to the ever evolving nature of the project. Different edits have been made during subsequent manifestations of the project which have been defined by Campbell’s feelings at the time. For example, in one later version, she decided to include images of her deceased father, which had been omitted from previous versions. The project is capable of evolving along with Campbell’s emotional relationship to the events. Most importantly, for Campbell, the project helps to keep the memories ever present.

References:

¹http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [accessed 15/04/15]

²http://www.brionycampbell.com/projects/the-dad-project/#BrionyCampbell_0229-1000×665.jpg [accessed 15/04/15]

³http://www.brionycampbell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The_Dad_Project_Briony_Campbell.pdf [accessed 15/04/15]

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