The artwork from my research and thesis Evoke (y)our authentic has been exhibited in the CLCC at Imperial College, London this autumn.
Access and Location
The exhibition is free to access during office hours and can be found in the reception area of the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication at Imperial College London. The Centre is located on the 3rd floor of the Sherfield Building, accessed via the small staircase through the glass doors outside the Senior Common Room on the second floor.
Imperial College is on Exhibition Road, South Kensington – just along from the Natural History Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and between the Science Museum and Hyde Park (nearest Tube station South Kensington).
A walk around the gallery
Pause and look at some of the images in situ
Exhibition context and more about the research
I am a participant ethnographer – a researcher and teacher, telling stories about what happens in my classrooms over time. My research method is ethnographic and autoethnographic observation. My stories are told through narrative prose, poetry, and images.
In this research, I created a series of images to bring to life moments from those classrooms. They don’t merely illustrate the textual storytelling, but rather stand alone as discrete moments presented to provide a visual insight to the context of the stories, to provoke, confuse, inspire and spark the imagination of the viewer.
I accumulate a large photographic record of the shared learning and teaching experiences occurring in my classrooms. Some of these photographs are taken by me, some by the students. The photographs are sometimes taken for pedagogical reasons or to document our working processes to facilitate student reflection, and some are taken for more social reasons.
These photographs would seem an invaluable resource in providing access to the story-world of my classroom, and therefore my research. A picture is worth a thousand words and all that. However. A photograph is actually worth even more than a thousand words. The amount of visual data present in a photograph is vast. And if that photograph is being used to illustrate lived ‘experience’ rather than the exact composition, content and detail of a particular scene, then perhaps it is not the most useful or inspiring version of the image to choose. A story needs to leave the reader free to imagine, to see for themselves.
So instead of including original photographs in my research, I include drawings made from the photographs. The drawings are curated versions of the photographs – sepia line drawings of the main detail of the image, with a pink tint used to highlight the key interest within the image. This allows the communication of a sense of the scene, without the exactitude of excessive detail. This is closer to the ‘experience’ of that moment in time, than a photograph. If I were to describe the scene from my experience, I wouldn’t get close to the level of detail in a photograph. That detail is not relevant to the experience. However, the image created from the photograph is able to convey the ‘essence’ of that experience in a different way.
Is it reasonable to refer to ‘material’ data, such as a photograph, as inert, objective and somehow, therefore, more reliable than more subjective recollections of dialogue and action? If we consider encoded photographic data on a hard-drive maybe that is the case. But as a researcher, my interactions with the data, with the materials, do something vital – in both senses of the word.
Before reviewing a photograph and creating the image, I remember the captured moment well. When I select the photograph to work with, this memory rises to the surface in my mind. But it isn’t alive for me. I am not in the moment with the students. I am not feeling the feelings or thinking the thoughts of that moment as if for the first time. I am on the outside, looking in.
To create the line drawing, I stick a printout of the original picture on my window, and then tape a blank sheet of paper over the top. Using my special sepia pen, I then consider what parts of the image I want to retain. What is the subject of the image, what definition of the space is important, are any of the more extraneous details important? And I begin to draw the outlines. Adding more detail, considering when to stop. I perhaps simplify some architectural detail of the ceiling. I leave out some furniture in the far background of the photo. These details are not necessary to understand the image or illustrate the moment of experience.
And this process is slow. I am not a good artist. It takes me time. Time that I am spending with this moment, these students, with these memories, thoughts and feelings. Each line is a new stroke, a new hand position, a new held breath. Over and over. Worrying that the image is not emerging. Hoping that it will. Nothing else enters this space or time. It is me and the moment. Me and the experience. Me and the students. And something changes between us. Between myself, the photograph, the experience and the new image. Between my living-breathing-hand, my mind’s eye and my inner world; and the supposedly inert pen, paper, ink, and image. The experience comes to life. I re-experience and re-member, as if for the first time, the richness of those moments. And I am not the me, standing with pen in hand, creating the narrative. I am the me in the moment, in the class, a part of the experience. I am inside the image, inside the story, looking out.
For each part of this research, for the telling of the story, as I prepare to write, I pre-select a number of images. I create the drawings. And that process creates life. The images speak louder than my dull old memories. And curating the selection of images, drives my writing. They are my navigational waymarks. They are a familiar sight on an unfamiliar journey. They comfort me in the uncertainty and anxiety of writing. They ground me to the experience, to my living relationship with that experience.
The rhythmic addition of each line drawn, each breath held allows this to happen. Creates the headspace, the receptacle into which this new life can be breathed. And it is a new life. It is not the same as the initial experience. But it is created by and from that experience. And by the materials united in the craft of the image.
Once the line drawing is complete, I photograph it. Give it permanence and a new form of materiality. Before importing it to the computer to add the pink tint. To create meaning within the lines. To direct the reader to what I think is important in the image. To reveal my authorship. The pink tint draws the eye of the reader to the ‘active’ element of the image – the thing that I, as the author of this work, the teller of this story, am looking at.
And with an additional nod to authenticity, I really like the fact that the process of creating the line drawing is as subjective as the process of selecting words and writing a story. Whereas we are used to recognising ‘authorship’ in writing – and perhaps wondering why the author chose to express things in a certain way, it would be much harder to recognise this authorship in a photograph (there was authorship in the moment of taking the photograph, and then in the selection of that photograph from the entire photographic record). However, by creating a drawing from the photograph, that authorship becomes explicit. You know that I have created that image for a purpose. It carries some authority of correspondence to the experience because it has come from the original photograph, but it also wears its authorship on its metaphorical sleeve. My classroom didn’t happen in sepia with a pink tint, so you know this is a constructed image. And in that construction, I have been free to direct your gaze to what I as the creator of the image want you to consider. But I have also been able to strip out extraneous detail to simplify the image and create space for you to imagine and create your own ideas about what occurred.