We should always remember that a picture is also made up of the person who looks at it. This is very, very important.”Robert Doisneau
To take a photograph is to begin a conversation. We decide what we want to say (the subject matter) and how we want to say it (the composition).
But any conversation involves at least two people. When we take a photograph we are usually trying to say something to someone. It could be to our friends saying, “Hey, didn’t we have a great time on that holiday?”; or it could be to a larger audience saying something more profound such as “The Hand of Man”.
It could be just to evoke a response in the viewer. A photograph is essentially ambiguous – it can mean different things to different viewers – and once a photograph has been shared it takes on a life of its own. The conversation becomes disjointed with perhaps only snatches of words heard. It may be that the response is not what the photographer intended. Very often the audience may come up with their own ideas of what has been said. However they respond it is important to remember, as Doisneau said, that the person viewing your photograph is an important part of the picture.
One way to experience this is to hold an exhibition of your works and view the audience in action.
Making an exhibition of myself
I have been lucky enough to have photographs appear in a few exhibitions including a couple of solo shows. It is particularly interesting to observe how the audience respond. I may have my own views on the photographs and the reasons for displaying them but the viewers could have their own agenda. This is what I found when I decided to exhibit some of my photographs in the town I grew up in, Weymouth, on the south coast of England.
The subject of the exhibition was an old railway that runs along the harbourside from the station to the ferry port. In its day, it would take passengers and freight through the streets of the town. As a child, I can remember trains trundling past the houses, so high up the passengers could almost see into the upstairs windows! Sadly, no trains have run on the line for more than twenty years but the railway tracks remained, running down the middle of the road; a trap for the unwary but mostly ignored. At the time of writing (October 2020, much of it is finally being lifted). I took my photographs in 2017 and was lucky to capture it before it disappeared.
I hired the gallery space in the local library (only a short distance from the old railway) for a week. Along with the photographs and a few leaflets I left a visitors’ book for comments. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything like this so I was intrigued to see how people responded.
The gallery itself was in a public space so the audience could be any visitors to the library, and not necessarily there to view the photographs themselves. I publicised the event and so some of the visitors did come in purely to see the exhibition but most of them simply wandered over to look at them, as they went about their other activities in the library.
First night nerves
I visited the library most days of the exhibition. Occasionally I would be on hand to talk to the visitors but mostly I would observe from a distance, watching nervously, as people approached the photographs. Sometimes they would walk past them in a matter of seconds, maybe pausing to read the blurb I had written on the subject; sometimes they would pause for a few moments to take in all the pictures, decide it wasn’t for them and then walk on. Others did linger a little longer, moving from photograph to photograph and stopping at each of them. I would discretely time how long they spent at each photograph. The more engaged would move backwards and forwards, returning to previously visited photographs once or twice. Then they would walk over to the visitors’ book.
After an appropriate period, I would wander over to take a look. To be honest most of the comments were complimentary about my work. What I did find was that a lot of people used the opportunity to vent their feelings about the old railway itself. Essentially there were two camps; those who wanted it ripped out because it represents a hazard, and those who wanted to see it stay as a symbol of the town’s history. Both groups could be vociferous. Extensive use of SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS was made.
A life of their own
Following the exhibition some of my friends expressed dismay at comments they thought were irrelevant. I was more sanguine. I had my own reason for taking the photographs but once I had chosen to exhibit them that was irrelevant and the images took on a life of their own. The photographs were on display to provoke a response. My audience had every right to interpret them and to respond to them on their own terms. This also included them using the opportunity to share with me their own experiences of the railway as it was in its heyday.
As well as a photographer I am also a trainer working in the corporate sector. One of the things I learned very early in that job was about receiving feedback as it helped me understand how people had interpreted what I had taught them. As a trainer, my role is to listen and, if necessary present the information in a different way to aid learning. As a photographer publicly displaying my works I was doing something similar, providing a space for the audience to respond in their own way.
The exhibition was entitled “Fading Lines” which gives an idea of how I interpreted the images. I have included a few visitor comments to indicate how some of the audience responded. One or two did recognise what I was trying to do but others used the opportunity to protest in favour or against the railway, or to reminisce.
The sadness of Weymouth shows in these photosVisitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017
Keep the rail lines as a nod to Weymouth’s history. Would be great to have a modern tram line to use rather than cars! Keep old Weymouth history alive. Thanks!Visitor to Fading Lines exhibition, Weymouth, 2017
Track lines [are] dangerous … we are not using them [and] they [are] putting lives at riskVisitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017
Such nostalgia conjured up in a few rail tracks reminding me of a brighter more carefree days.Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017
I used to work in [a nearby] restaurant in the ‘70s. Folk would book tables so as to be there when the train passed on its way to the ferry.Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017
An earlier version of this blog appears at http://taylored-training.co.uk/confessions-of-an-exhibitionist/