FMP — Human Being; or, How To Be Remembered

We’ll all be forgotten when the world ends. 

It’s finally here! The finally final major final project of the final year of my degree. I wish I could say I was ready for it, but I don’t know who would be, to be honest.

As much pressure as I could put on myself, though, I realise that this final piece isn’t necessarily my magnum opus, the needlepoint by which I sew my legacy into the fabric of time (haha). It’s just the next step on my always-continuing journey to my eventual demise (unless my plan for immortality works). All I can hope for is something better and more competent than anything I would have produced at the beginning of the course. At least that means I’ve learned something.

It’s also an opportunity to express a more realised version of my personality and voice as a designer, just in time to venture out into the real world.

With that in mind, I knew that I wanted to do something both incorporating photography somehow, and communicating a positive, wholesome message. As I mentioned in my Curiosity blog post, I’ve increasingly held the belief that we should not only accept out imperfections and individual quirks, but embrace them.

My initial idea of producing a photo essay of portraits exhibiting typically unwanted expressions (i.e. blinking, yawning, eating, etc.) went down rather well with Ian in the first tutorial, so I felt confident to carry on exploring that particular subject.

We were asked to submit our own creative brief for our chosen topic quite early on, so it felt good to be able to get my ideas down so quickly and be able to get to working straight away.

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I experimented with a few different techniques for capturing subjects. One was to have a slow shutter-speed and capture the range of motion of a person during that period of time, but I felt as though it contained too little detail to be quite as effective as I would like for this particular project.

I conducted a little more research, and remembered a particular chapter from John Berger‘s Ways of Seeing that I really liked. In it, he mentions that wealthy people who commissioned portraits of themselves often used the opportunity to document all the great riches that they owned, because they knew that these paintings would likely extend past their own lifetime. The best way to realistically depict a subject at the time was through oil paint, which of course required a painter, skilled enough to produce work satisfactory enough for the noblemen and women, and so not many people could afford the time or money required to pay for a lot of works throughout their lifetime. They had to squeeze as much into each piece as possible.

“Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.” – John Berger

In lieu of oil paintings, we now have photography — a marvellous, now ubiquitous medium by which we document ourselves and each other every day. However, it seems to me that there are still a few practices left over from those early days which affect our mindset around photography today.

For one, compared to the era of oil paintings or even the early days of photography, we no longer have to hold still for any substantial amount of time for a picture to be made of us, and yet we still feel compelled to pose ourselves whenever we feel a lens pointed at our faces. Posing was required back then, but now we are free to move and express more of our true selves. Humans like to move, so why shouldn’t they be documented moving?

For two, despite it being easier than ever to capture a hundred images within even a minute and discard the unsatisfactory shots if we need to, many of us tense up and stress out in front of a camera as if we must look composed and presentable in each and every shot. The camera seems an almost magical device because of the power it holds, but it is still under our own control, and I personally feel that we let it control us more than we should.

For three, even though we are now able to record such a wide gamut of scenes and situations with our cameras, we still continuously look for that one singular image that represents us entirely, and deem the rest unworthy. It’s silly when you think about it, because none of us are perfect and not only are we all prone to change, but we do change constantly. It would be unreasonable to expect a single photograph to represent an entire person!

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I then thought about ways I could address this dichotomy, and decided to incorporate the traditionally regal colours purple and gold somehow. I bought a roll of purple paper to use as a backdrop for my photos, which would also have the added benefit of helping the images stand out in a unified way. At the same time, I concluded that I definitely wanted my images to be in full colour rather than black & white because I needed to display as much humanity as I could, and real life is in colour after all.

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I proceeded to produce some test images using myself as the subject, working on framing, colour balance, lighting, and exposure.

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At this point, I was still reaching for intentionally ‘bad’ photos to completely counteract the traditional ideal of a ‘good’ portrait, but I was struggling a little with achieving these ‘bad’ moments naturally and with a willing subject. More on that later.

I also looked at the renowned photographer, Steve McCurry, whose phenomenal book, Portraits, delivers a fantastic insight into what photography can do in communicating the emotions of the subject.

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And on the subject of emotions, I also read Paul Ekman’s Emotions Revealed, in which he talks about the universal nature of expressing human emotions and his great study on micro-expressions (the process of betraying our true emotions through milliseconds-long muscle reflexes). It was a very interesting read, but a little too in-depth for what I needed to use for my project.

Passport

I was also once again inspired a lot by Dallas Clayton and work by similar artists because I wanted to keep my work fairly light-hearted and loving.

As for the presentation of my work, at this time, I was looking into producing a magazine of sorts to display full-page photographs. I thought perhaps the ability to print the photos in a keepsake would reinforce the idea that these ‘bad’ photos are more valuable than the countless digital posed ones all over the internet, and if I could sell these magazines, it might give reason for people to appreciate them more. However, after thinking about this for a long while, I realised that this method was just too convoluted — might hiding the photographs in a book lessen their impact or general perception of importance? And if I’m selling multiple copies, wouldn’t that effectively cheapen their overall value? Also, would it not be a little bit boring?

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Thus, I decided to scrap the magazine idea, although it could have made me a bit of money (such a shame!). Instead, I thought about other options, such as a high-quality photo album (more along the right lines of suggesting the sentimental significance of the photos, but high-quality bespoke photo albums are expensive and once again I would be hiding the photos away in a book) and a handmade box of photographs with perhaps a handwritten note to go with it (similar problems here too).

Eventually, after discussing it with a few different people, I settled on the idea of displaying the photographs in nice, ornate, gold frames on a wall. With this, I would be able to suggest the sentimental value of each photograph (like pictures of family members!) while keeping them all completely visible.

The next problem I faced was the fact that I’m studying on a graphic design course and I have yet to do much graphic design in this project… So, again, I spoke to a few different people to get their opinions on how to approach it, and, after a while, landed on the idea of producing examples of what my portraits would look like if they replaced typically serious or professional portraits, such as passport photos or author biographies.

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Throughout this process, I’d also been trying to find people to photograph. At first, I expected to need an almost overwhelming number of subjects, but after a while I realised that having ~20-25 different people would be ideal, because it would mean that there would be few enough to not be overstimulating to the audience or to make each individual photograph less significant, but a large enough number so as to achieve a fairly wide variety of subjects and expressions.

Also, along the way, the focus of the photographs had evolved subtly. Moving from simply ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ photographs, I had learned through photographing each person that a lot of us are more animated and comfortable when engaged in a conversation. When we are caught up in a story or telling a joke, we lose sight, at least just a little bit, of how we are coming across to the other person, and we stop worrying so much about our appearance on camera. I found that a lot of the best, most natural photographs happened when people let their guard down during a conversation. The upside of shifting my focus from simply ‘bad’ photographs to natural candids exposing the movement of a person during a conversation was that a lot more people were willing to sit as subjects! (BONUS!)

After finally completing the photographing-process, I realised, and as it was pointed out to me, that the photographs themselves might not be quite enough to convey my message to the audience. This was a rather sad realisation to me, because I had originally hoped that the photographs could stand alone and communicate what I needed to say on their own, but at least I had realised it at some point, rather than having a frustrated and confused audience on the opening night of the exhibition!

I decided that, since I was already planning to display a few examples of printed media that would typically contain text, I could write a mission statement/essay/manifesto and spread it out across each object, which would also ensure that the audience would spend the time to appreciate each individual piece.

The next thing was to actually write the damned thing. Firstly, I intended to write a formal statement, addressing my key points in a very straightforward, serious manner, but eventually I realised that I didn’t actually have to do that! I could be colloquial and loose and maybe even funny if I played my cards right! Right then, I became a lot more excited about it, and gradually formed some kind of piece involving a form of positive nihilism, which is an approach that I enjoy taking in many situations. Besides, being able to have fun writing it, I felt the piece actually fit a lot better alongside the personality of the rest of my project, if not enhanced it.

In the structure of the writing, I tried to use quite a lot of repetition in order to enforce the idea that the text from each printed object is related to the rest, and they are meant to be read together.

Here’s the text in full: 

When the world ends, everything will be forgotten.

In the meantime, however, it’s quite nice to be able to look back through old photographs and relive fond memories.

When the world ends, there will be no more photographs; no more cherished memories to peruse fondly.

Before there were photographs, there were paintings.

Painters used to paint portraits of people who had a lot of money. It used to take ages. They used to charge more for purple. And gold.

Today, purple isn’t so expensive. All the colours are cheaper now. Now we can each have as many pictures of ourselves as we want, and sometimes more than that. But if it’s all so easy, then why are we so bad at it?

There certainly won’t be any photographs left when the world ends. No, they’ll be long-gone. Burnt to ash by the Sun’s fiery curse. 

We’ll all be forgotten when the world ends. 

The world probably won’t end for a long time, of course, but who knows? We’d best enjoy what we have while we have it. Why bother wasting precious time posing for a camera? Since when is a posed-you the real-you, anyway? You’ll probably have more fun in the long run if you’re just you.

When that big yellow ball melts all our ice, we’ll all be too sweaty to have fun anymore.

Why do we worry so much about how a camera looks at us, and why do we try so hard to exhibit that “perfect” depiction of ourselves? How long has a single person ever stayed still? Motion is an integral part of life, and it’s vital to remember that. No-one’s going to be cherishing their passport photo. 

When we’re having a good conversation with someone, we stop thinking so much about what we look like. If we can relax and let ourselves feel emotions, we’ll all be better for it. It’ll make for a nicer picture, too.

How do you want to be remembered? Is it through artificial approximations of humanity, able to be reproduced countless times; or is it through actual unique examples of your personal emotions?

How disappointed would you be if there were no way to remind yourself of what you used to really look like? 

We’re always worrying about how we are being perceived by everyone else, but if we worry about it so much that we don’t allow ourselves to be unique, then we lose what makes life so interesting in the first place.

When our star’s eventual death engulfs the planet, there’s not going to be anything left to worry about anyway.

If we show our vulnerabilities just a little bit, we’ll be able to understand each other better, and maybe then we’ll stop being so awkward and defensive around each other all the time. Have some fun.

When the warm sphere gobbles us up and nothing matters anymore, we’ll be sorry we took everything so seriously.

Love from
Eliot

As for the print designs themselves, I spent a while working on the typography, but ultimately used photographs of myself as the focal points of each piece (I felt that using myself would be the best option because it’s all my own text, and using anyone else might place unnecessary significance on that individual person).

Now that all of that was done, the final step was to set up my exhibition space!

In order for it to become what I wanted it to be like for the audience, I had to spend a few hours painting metallic gold onto ~20 frames of different sizes and designs, and I also had to locate a nice wooden table in order for the space to feel like or at least suggest a scene from someone’s home. Thankfully, I was able to find a fairly cheap, high-quality table (which I will be taking home at the end of this, thank you very much!) and hang the frames on the wall in time, and now the whole thing is done! Wow! Yeah, I guess this is the end of the blog post! Finally!

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I thought it might be interesting to note that I ended up taking A LOT of photos overall…

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Over 3,800 actually. I realise now that I was very lucky that I didn’t run out of space on my hard drive.

This project turned out to be a lot of fun for me!!! I got to improve my photography a lot, especially with actual people, and I’ve struggled with that for a long time. I was also extremely happy with the fact that I was able to communicate my opinions and my ethos as a person/designer to a wider audience.

I’m very happy with my final outcomes as well. That might change, given enough time. Actually, I hope it does change, because I’m still expecting to grow and mature as an artist/designer/human from now and for the rest of my life. That given, I really am please with what I was able to achieve, and it’s great to have this be the final project I undertake for my degree because it means that I have the motivation to keep going and keep learning more!

While I’m here, I might as well write down how thankful I am to everyone I’ve been surrounded by throughout this experience. All of you (yes you!) should have complete confidence that you have made a positive impact on my life, and I hope I was able to do some of the same.

Love from
Eliot



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