“Fancy Pictures” and the Ethics of Documentary Photography

By kgallag8

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In Methodology Matters: Doing Research in the Behavioral and Social Sciences, Joseph McGrath regards ‘doing research’ as “…the systematic use of some set of theoretical and empirical tools to try to increase our understanding of some set of phenomena or events.”  Mark Neville’s conversations with David Campany in his new book, Fancy Pictures, are an exemplary case of McGrath’s definition.  The book chronicles Neville’s ‘documentarian’ photography projects from 2004 to 2016 in which he immerses himself in an environment, be it a small working-class town of Scotland in The Port of Glasgow; the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in The Helmand Work; or the Lloyds of London and the London Metal Exchange in Here is London.  For our purposes, I will focus my time on The Port of Glasgow project from 2004.

“I physically go into communities and, over time, I negotiate some kind of performance from the people I’m with.” –Mark Neville

In applying my knowledge from Methodology Matters and The Ethics of Fieldwork (a publication of PERCS) to this photography book, I found Mark Neville to be a mastermind of the game in his The Port of Glasgow project.  He and David Campany discuss the issue of photography commodifying people and ways in which to “interrupt or subvert that commoditization of people and their bodies.3

As a photographer working primarily on grants and residencies—at the time—, Mark Neville applied and was awarded a grant of £106,000 ($132,076) for a public art project in the west coast of Scotland.  Neville had preconceptions of what his project was to become: “[an] expensive coffee-table book of social documentary photography” and it appeared to him that a book like this “[would not be] aimed at the kinds of people who were in the pictures… there was a real contradiction, a hierarchy, exploitation.”  So Neville decided instead to make his final publications available only to those living in the community, and to have an open relationship with the people being photographed in regards to: how they wanted to be portrayed, what they were okay with publicly showing, and what events Mark was allowed to attend (i.e.: parties, church services).

This method of research would most likely be described by Joseph McGrath as a ‘field study’—meaning that “the researcher sets out to make direct observations of ‘natural’, ongoing systems, while disturbing those systems as little as possible.1”—although, the fact that Neville invites his subjects to comment on the way they are portrayed may skew some lines in the exact definition.  I would consider this type of work to be extremely ethical, based on The Ethics of Fieldwork and my own biases of ethical behavior.  In production of this book, Neville was highly open with his subjects, gaining the trust of the community for the two years it took to complete the project.  He answered the question “Are there ways we can gain the information we need without hiding our purposes? 2” with a ‘yes, of course!’ as he laid everything out on the table before and during production, field work, and research.

In going about his project this way, Mark thought he would “avoid stereotypes and assumptions [as well as] alienating [his] participants. 2” , but that was not the case with all of the Glasgow residents.  Although many were proud and excited about the high production value and the solidity of the book—some even going to lengths of emailing Mark about their enthusiasm—others were not as happy.  The residents of ‘Robert Street’ saw the book as too representative of the Catholic pubs and clubs in the town and that there were not enough depictions of the Protestant culture; these people collectively decided to burn their copies of the books in the streets.

“I literally got a call from the fire station telling me a pile of my books was on fire.3” –Mark Neville

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A January 2004 article from The Greenock Telegraph interviews Nursery teacher, Claire Scott on her feelings of the publication and the negative repercussions she believes it may have on how the town sees itself but also how the rest of the world will see them.  Scott believes the publication to have negative stereotypes of what “people expect [Glasgow] to be like… ‘A dirty wee Port’” and regards Neville as “an outsider looking in with a prejudiced view before he started.”

“We have to live here after his lens is gone.” –Claire Scott

So the question arises: ‘Can researchers conduct adequate analysis that serves the initial question(s) of their study, in a way that makes the subject feel comfortable during, and content with the results after?’

The Ethics of Fieldwork brings up similar questions: How do we record (or do we record) the discoveries within a community that the community itself does not know or recognize in a systematic way?; How can we show out participants as whole people while still focusing on key elements of their lives?; How do we establish rapport within the community we are studying?; Is it possible to be seen by your subjects as anything more than an outsider?

Indeed there are ways of getting around these preconceptions: learning local norms of conduct, making the subjects feel that they are in control of the situations—or that ‘you need them more than they need you’, learning local concerns in regards to the project, and above all: being truthful to your subjects.  Neville’s primary mistake may have been sheer hubris—that he did not realize he was alienating his subjects by indirectly defining them as exotic or exemplified of their environment, while forgetting to check if there were any embarrassing revelations from the people being portrayed.  He may have taken the necessary steps to try to conduct an ethical research project, but he must’ve overlooked something, somewhere.

It could also be true that it is inevitable you are always going to offend someone—that no matter how hard an individual tries to report clear, concise, unbiased information, there will always be at least one person that will disagree with the content and message of the work.  McGrath regards the research process as “…at heart, a social enterprise resting on consensus. 1” But can we all ever really be in general agreement?  The answer is quite confidently, ‘no’, as we can see—on a societal level—in cultural reviews of books and movies, trends of fashion, what our taxes should go towards, climate change, etc.  No matter how convincing, accurate, or honest the reporting and information may be, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time. 4

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1 Mcgrath, Joseph E. “METHODOLOGY MATTERS: DOING RESEARCH IN THE BEHAVIORAL and SOCIAL SCIENCES.” Readings in Human–Computer Interaction(1994): 152-69. Web.

2 “The Ethics of Fieldwork.” Elon University 34.5 (1993): 2. Http://www.Elon.edu. PERCS: The Program for Ethnographic Research & Community Studies, Web. 18 Feb. 2017.

3 Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. Print.

4 Lydgate, John. “A Quote by John Lydgate.” Goodreads. Good Reads, 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

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Neville, Mark.  View from the Ropeworks Building. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 24. Print.

Neville, Mark.  Betty at Port Glasgow Town Hall Xmas Party. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 13. Print.

The Greenock Telegraph. January 12 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 13. Print.

“The first email response to Port Glasgow from a Portonian. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 13. Print.

Neville, Mark.  Boys at Devol. 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 1. Print.

Neville, Mark.  Ancient Order of the Hibernian Social Club (Donna). 2004. Neville, Mark, and David Campany. Mark Neville: Fancy Pictures. Göttingen: Steidl, 2016. 25. Print.

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Kelsey Gallagher, Information Professionals LIS651 Thursdays 3-6, Spring 2017

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