Competing documentary perspectives and audience/market realities:
evolution of the project concept
My aims in this project were to create a charity photobook book with some text to fundraise for women’s associations in Kyrgyzstan, and also as a participatory reflection and sharing of different ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ perspectives on Baizakh that might be of interest to audiences in both Kyrgyzstan and UK. I started the project in February 2020 as an on-line process using existing photo series from Kyrgyzstan because Covid-19 pandemic made starting a new UK documentary impossible. Assignment 4.3 (submitted December 2020) initially envisaged revisiting a draft Blurb book project from my OCA Landscape Photography course (never sent for assessment) with contextual information from my consultancy and further audience input from Kyrgyzstan and UK.
I aimed to produce a publication with distinctive colour photographs of life in Baizakh (unlike the general run of glossy tourist photos) with more unusual/provocative text incorporating songs, poetry and commentary on the lives of women and men in Kyrgyztsan from the participatory workshop I was facilitating. I planned to combine these, building on the work on Text and Image from Assignment 3 using contrasts and juxtapositions to provoke questions about the meaning of what the images ‘saw’ as an outsider in Baizakh, filling in gaps and questioning the meaning of ‘outsider snapshots’ though local testimonies, songs and poetry. I envisaged on-line correspondence with my colleague Asel Kuttubaeva in Kyrgyzstan who could ask and get feedback from people from rural areas, including Baizakh, when she visited for work. Through continuing on-line feedback from audiences in Bishkek and UK I aimed to continue to explore which aspects of the images and documentary are interesting for different audiences, partly to consider potential markets but particularly for my own understanding of documentary process.
I though such a book could be of interest to people in development agencies, internationally and in Kyrgyzstan itself (translated to Kyrgyz/Russian) and a socially interested tourist audience. Designed with and accessible also for a lower income/cost Kyrgyzstan/Russian-speaking audiences (with translation) international development agencies, and socially interested tourist market. Particularly given the increasing importance of tourism to the Kyrgyzstan economy and continuation and expansion of the work of international development agencies.
But based on initial feedback from people in Bishkek and UK in response to Assignments 4.1 and 4.2, indicating that people were more interested in the creative images rather than documentary images, I started to push 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.
These aims however proved to be much too ambitious for the timeframe and also in the context of unfolding events. Contact with the workshop participants was impossible and the book concept itself required feedback from them, I also needed their permission to use some of the testimonies – ethically if not legally. Throughout 2020 and into 2021 the Covid-19 pandemic swept through rural communities in Kyrgyzstan in waves. And many of the people I knew got sick – Asel was very sick with long Covid – and not only once. In October 2020 through to elections in January 2021 the political situation was very precarious. Asel’s view was that in any case people in rural Kyrgyzstan are not interested in buying books, even when they have money, and so not really a potential market. All of my on-line consultancy work with Kyrgyzstan was postponed or cancelled due to these events.
A work still in progress
So this project is still very much in progress. Although I got useful feedback on the colour photographs from people in Bishkek, I decided to focus on other projects and revisit this one as part of a bigger retrospective body of work on ‘Journeys as Beginnings’, linked with other photo series I have of Kyrgyzstan towards the end of 2022 when local contacts should be possible again. I also need to consider whether or not a photobook for the Kyrgyzstan market is the best format. A better plan would probably be to focus on a more quality photobook with interesting text for an international/Bishkek audience. Then some sort of free interactive display that can be viewed on smartphones and tablets for people on the ground, with potential Google Translate integration and/or Kyrgyz audio from the video footage.
review of Blurb colour photobook
This project originated in a draft Blurb photobook of a selection of coloured photographs of Baizakh produced for my OCA Landscape Photography personal development course (not previously assessed).
The earlier Blurb Photobook brought together a technical selection of photos based on what I thought were immediately attractive or provocative images from my outsider perspective – beauty of the mountains and light at dawn and sunset, distinctive textures and colours of gates, dramatic weather, some people, animals and plastic pollution. It was put together very quickly as part of my initial learning process in Lightroom, using Lightroom layout templates exported to Blurb. This enabled very rapid experimentation and a reasonably consistent look. Although my experience of digital processing in Lightroom was also very rudimentary at that time.
My first step was therefore to go through each spread in detail in the light of what I had subsequently learned about Book Design, and also digital processing of more problematic photos from the camera. Combined with ideas from my background reading on Kyrgyzstan and reports on women and men’s visions and realities from the workshops I had been facilitating. The Kyrgyzstan post on my consultancy blog has some of the songs and views from the workshop, but I have a lot more video footage with more confidential testimonies that I could incorporate.
First redraft: Cuckoos at Dawn
The colour photographs of Baizakh – as with the monochrome images – were all spontaneous images taken in snatched times of day fitted around my consultancy work. There was no possibility because of transport to add on any time specifically for photography and a more purposive documentary with informal interviews, planned portraits etc. They therefore represent what I saw:
- at very specific times of day: early morning, lunchtime break and late afternoon.
- in specific locations between where I lived with a few participants on the outskirts of the village, not nearer the centre of the village (unlike Asel and many other participants) or more built up parts.
- at a specific time of year: late Spring when all was green and warm in sunshine, apart from storms. Not 16 degree below zero winter or heat of summer.
I revisited the whole series of original images:
- I re-selected and re-edited the colour photographs, focusing on content and meaning rather than technical quality, using my skills developed in Assignment 2.2 Shutterscapes to bring more technically problematic images to an appropriate technical level.
- I used InDesign to give a better layout with my own text from memories, brief notes and reports on peoples’ views expressed in the workshops and on-line information/Kyrgyz texts building on approaches to image and text in book design from Part 3 Image and Text.
- I added pages of ‘audience-generated’ ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ text at the end written in reaction to my version by ‘outsider’ colleagues from the capital Bishkek, ‘outsider’ workshop participants from elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan and people from Baizakh village itself. I also start to look at what potential markets in Kyrgyzstan might be interested in in terms of images and text.
My idea for text was:
- to incorporate on the image pages Kyrgyz sayings, poems and stories from the workshop participants, as attractive integrated overlays using Photoshop. I need to consult on fonts and what people can read easily.
- to include spreads/sections with text at the back for feedback on the book from :
- people in Baizakh – which images do they like and/or think represents their life, what is left out and/or misrepresented, anything else they would like to say.
- other workshop participants who were in Baizakh with me at the time – what did they think was different about Baizakh from their own place? which images do they like and/or think represents Baizakh as they saw it, what is left out and/or misrepresented, anything else they would like to say.
- people in Bishkek – both people like Asel and others who know Baizakh, and artists/photographers/international development staff.
- people from my international development network including Africa and elsewhere in Asia
- people from UK/socially interested tourists who do not know Kyrgyzstan
I started to think about what potential markets in Kyrgyzstan might be interested in in terms of images and text. A key question if I want to take this in a commercial direction will be:
- cost – which audiences might be able/interested in paying how much for how many pages and what format/quality. Currently for Blurb, standard paper. About GBP15 cost price gives 64 pages with some allowance for postage. But I could look at possibilities of cheaper bulk printing?
- from feedback so far it is possible that a commercial audience in Kyrgyzstan might be more interested in a book with the more creative photography.
- should this be a charity publication to get funding for Women’s Associations and/or from development agencies with more text from workshop participants?
- or should I just make it available as an e-pub for free on-line accessibility? if so I need to think about file size, format/s and platform/s
- A further issue would be translation and what this means for text layout.
I sent this new draft to my main reviewer and colleague in Kyrgyzstan – Asel Kuttubaeva – for initial feedback. This included many questions and suggestions for text. I shared this using Adobe Connect (for initial feedback in English) and Facebook (to enable multilingual feedback discussion with more people in Kyrgyzstan through Google Translate). But in the end everything was sent by email as Word documents in English or Russian that I could translate with Word Translate.