3: Audience: Light and Life in T’ien Shan

This body of work is based on ‘outsider’ photographs taken in Baizakh village at the foothills of the T’ien Shan Mountains (Mountains of Heaven) in Naryn Province, Kyrgyzstan in May 2016. They were taken in spare time over a 6 day period fitted around consultancy work to facilitate a participatory workshop with women and a few men from different rural areas of Kyrgyzstan on empowerment and gender. Although they do not constitute an in-depth ‘photo-documentary’, I saw more than most tourists would see and my contextual information on peoples’ perspectives from the workshop is more in-depth than most outsiders would have.

In 2016 I had quickly developed a selection of the most technically proficient photographs as two Blurb photobooks – monochrome and colour without text – exported directly from Lightroom Book module. This was part of personal development work for the OCA Landscape photography course (never submitted for assessment). But I had always intended to revisit and re-edit them later once I had improved my digital software and book design skills, adding text from people in Kyrgyzstan, and particularly from Baizakh.

In this body of work I treat the photographs as the beginning of my reflections as part of a dialogue with potential audiences in Kyrgyzstan, UK and elsewhere on what they represent as documentary on Kyrgyzstan, and also creative philosophies of life.

I revisit the original photographs and re-select them on the basis of content rather than just technical quality, re-processing them in the light of my work on digital photography software in Project 2.2 Shutterscapes. I am particularly interested in:

  • ‘Documentary creativity’ and how photography as a medium that starts with ‘reality’ rather than imagination affects my creative process, using the creative prompts from Project 1.3. Discussing with different audiences how different treatments might be interpreted in different ways. Including potential role of Photoshop in my workflow, to creatively enhance what can be relatively easily and quickly achieved in Lightroom and/or DxOFX and/or automate creative effects for speed and consistency for large series images for Book Design or Moving Image work.
  • Approaches to photobook design in terms of visual communication of images, their sequencing and layout and use of text for different audiences from the same set of photographs. Inspired particularly by the work of Martin Parr, Daido Moriyama and monochrome photography from Lithuania and other ex-Soviet countries.
  • Ways of integrating text from audiences in Kyrgyzstan, participants at the workshops I facilitated and on-line sources. I experiment with different Photobook layouts and design, with and without text, using InDesign and Photoshop, building on skills developed in Book Design 1 and Assignment 3 TeeTotal Street. Inspired particularly by the work of Dave Carson and Dan Eldon.
  • Different ways of engaging with different audiences – differences in what they contribute and differences in their reactions on feedback. In the context of COVID-19 pandemic I focus on exploring and developing a range of on-line social networks reaching different potential audiences for my work. But over the summer of 2020 I am able to also engage face-to-face with audiences in UK.
4.1 Communicating Kyrgyzstan:
photographic creativity

Exploring the potential of creative photography to communicate feeling and mood, rather than simply recording light through a lens. To free up my thinking around what documentary could be and improve the other more documentary images.

4.2 Light in the Shadows
of T’ien Shan

A monochrome photobook based on the photography series from Baizakh village. Experiments with:

  • different monochrome styles and their associations – including delicate tonal tinting.
  • photographic abstraction
  • photobook design and layout, comparing how these might differ between monochrome and colour.
4.3 Cuckoos at dawn:
outsider in a Kyrgyz village

This book was originally planned as a charity book to fundraise for women’s associations in Kyrgyzstan. With text contributions and quotes from people in Kyrgyzstan, aimed at people in development agencies, and also a more socially-interested tourist market.

But based on initial feedback from people in Bishkek and UK, indicating that people were more interested in the creative images rather than documentary images, I pushed this work more in the direction of ‘perceptions and imaginings of a creative outsider’. With more of my own thoughts and musings in dialogue with people in Kyrgyzstan. In the context of COVID-19 and difficulties of travel back to Naryn, even by people within Kyrgyzstan, this was in any case a more realistic project.

Some conclusions and further questions

Audience engagement

I was aiming in this work to explore ways of working with different audiences, in:

  • Kyrgyzstan: Bishkek capital city and other centres of Kyrgyz culture with people working in development agencies, photographers, artists and people in their families.
  • Kyrgyzstan: people in rural areas involved in my consultancy work. These people generally do not have an income to buy books, but I was interested in their feedback and also making images available on-line.
  • UK: visual commications and photographic networks including OCA forums and Cambridge Camera Club.
  • International: other people who subscribe to my ZemniImages Facebook page. These include people involved in development agencies in different parts of the world as well as socially-interested tourists.

I was particularly encouraged by unexpectedly enthusiastic responses from people in Kyrgyzstan who saw many things in the resulting photographs that I myself had not seen. And felt that it made them look differently at the everyday things around them.

I look at how my creative process, particularly documentary work, can be significantly improved through working with other people to help me to develop alternative narrative threads and visual approaches, building on some of my professional qualitative research skills. My body of work will includes ways of engaging different audiences to improve my work in terms of:

  • refining the ‘messages’ by getting a range of local views and information on social and environmental issues through conversations and interviews and engagement with relevant local social networking sites.
  • feedback on the effectiveness of the ‘communication aesthetics’ from local, national and also international overseas audiences to improve my technical and visual communication skills through ZemniImages Facebook page crosspasted to other social networks.
  • finding different marketing, promotion and advocacy outlets for the different dimensions of the body of work.

I am particularly interested in how my creative process can also be of use and benefit to the people giving feedback, not only in terms of what I am trying to say but also putting audiences in contact with each other to discuss issues and create their own work.

Making the World a Better Place

The project continues my interest in different subjective and objective ‘outsider’ approaches to documentary, focusing on environmental challenges, social challenges of marginalisation and rural poverty. In terms of documentary I am interested in:

  • Photographer and subject: the photographer as voyeur ‘shooting’ images of issues and themes that are not necessarily the same as the subjects of the photo.
  • Is the image showing how things are, or how the photographer want things to be? or how the audience wants to see them? Selective editing and erasure (eg cars and rubbish bins)
  • Different focus and viewpoint – is the photographer directing the image or leaving interpretation open?
  • Present, past and future – places change over time – even over a few seconds – short term, long term, historical perspective and layers – the past is always present but maybe the message is for the future.
  • Exploration and deepening understanding of tensions and contradiction of reality over time

But – further my response to First Things Next – I am aiming for different types of outputs that fulfil different purposes for different audiences linked to a broad ethical commitment. I am aiming to provoke questioning from the viewer rather than imposing one single message. Highlighting potential contradictions and tensions between ideals and realities, rather than overuse of shock and horror. To inspire exploration to discover more about the world around us. Rather than ‘compassion fatigue’ that makes us want to retreat from reality. And where possible finding beauty in the everyday things, as well as the natural and human-made environment around us.

What was really interesting from the audience feedback was that many people were more interested in the creative images:

  • ‘photographic grunge’ – UK audience
  • dramatic colour and dynamic abstraction (Kyrgyzstan Bishkek and UK)
  • images that made them slow down and notice things around them (Kyrgyzstan Bishkek).