The problem with photography

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A common question that people ask when I am explaining my research project (at least, trying my best to) is ‘what’s the problem with using photography?’. After a bunch of reading and thinking about it the reason is as clear as day for me, but, I can see why people would ask. So, this post aims to explain it the best way I can.

We often become outraged by images of ‘anorexic’, ‘buff’, and ‘stacked’ fashion models and public figures we are exposed to every day. These kinds of images (combined with a whole bunch of other cultural forces) promote unobtainable body shapes as something we should all aspire too. These body shapes are commonly called the ‘thin’ and ‘masculine’ ideals. If someone internalises these ideals, they accept them as being normal, and their own body as abnormal. This can lead to all sorts of issues, from negative body image to eating disorders, and depression. If you want to know more, read Body Image by Sarah Grogan of Manchester Metropolitan University who writes about this topic in a very clear and concise manner.

How visual designers use photographs

So, how should visual designers approach communication related to body image and eating disorders (and more generally, communication related to youth and other high-risk audiences)? Currently, in the face of this, the use of ‘average’ and ‘healthy’ body images would be considered a safe strategy to avoid harm (I certainly did before starting this project). It’s even suggested by Australia’s National Advisory Group as a key strategy of promoting body image diversity. They state using ‘a more diverse range of people within the fashion, advertising and media industries’ allows ‘more people to identify with popular images of beauty and help them view their own bodies more positively’ within their Code of Conduct on Body Image.

However, from my perspective, any photographic representations of a body — even one which might be deemed ‘average’ or ‘healthy’ — should be avoided if possible.


A few images used on the NEDC website

A great example of is kind of strategy at work can be found in the website and other designed material produced by the National Eating Disorders Collaboration (NEDC). The designers involved have put thought into the visuals used, as the people depicted in the photographs are happy, smiling, friendly, and above all else, have the currently accepted ‘average’ body size. I can imagine the dilemma in the studio when these decisions were made — photographs rejected left and right trying to narrow it down to only those that looked ‘average’. In the end, the selected photos would make sense to the designers involved — in their mind, it would have been a job well done.

How we all read a photograph

An important point to make is that we might look at the same photograph, but we read it differently. Photographs have also been historically elevated in regards to their ‘truthfulness’ — for example ‘the camera never lies’. Scholars such as Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Roland Barthes have written a great deal about this topic, and while the way they describe it is different, my interpretation is that they all come to the same conclusion: while we might perceive a photographic image to have a static and true meaning it does not. What we read is our own individual narrative created by our own background, views and experiences — our ‘lexicon’ as Barthes described it.

As an aside, in the sea of essays and books I’ve been exposed to in recent times, Sontag’s On Photography, Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the updated Understanding a Photograph, and, Barthes’s Camera Obscura were such a relief to read. They all have a way with words that made their work a joy (imagine that) rather than a chore to read.

All images have been sourced from online photo libraries — this particular one is titled 'bored teenager in bedroom'

All images have been sourced from online photo libraries — this particular one is titled ‘bored teenager in bedroom’

The limited range of visual diversity in the NEDC examples — not only in body shape but in age and race — is not surprising when you consider they have all been sourced from generic online stock photography libraries. Stock libraries are notorious for perpetuating homogenised ideals, best explained by Ellen Lupton & Abbott Miller in their book Design Writing Research, when they wrote that stock libraries provide a ‘tremendous increase in the supply of pictures available’ while simultaneously ‘narrowing the representational field’.

The problem with photography is, these carefully selected images may only serve to reinforce negative thoughts because of how the viewer reads the images. Viewers who are susceptible to developing — or have already developed — a distorted or ‘negative’ body image could compare themselves with these representations of ‘average’. Objectively, there is nothing average about these images anyway, as while it appears they have avoided anyone with a catwalk model frame, all the people included are ridiculously good looking. Similar criticism has been aimed at the popular ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ by Dove (actually owned by the giant Unilever). Some have suggested that even though it brought the topic of diverse body types into mainstream conversation, it only really promoted a restricted view of what ‘beauty’ was, with the only real positive being a massive increase in sales of Dove products.

The real shame is that the information provided on the website is fantastic: well researched, well written in an understandable and relatable way — but the visual design works totally against it! It’s not really the fault of NEDC or the designers either — most design schools inadvertently perpetuate the thin and masculine ideals with no alternatives offered (coming from an educator in this field).

If you’re interested in the topic of the power of images, Helen Razor has recently written a face-melting take down of the Butterfly Foundation and their use of celebrity photographs in their recent Don’t Dis My Appearance campaign.

But how is using lettering any different?

The visual nature of communication in this area is important — the information is critical and the visuals can assist in backing up the information and also making it easier to digest. I’m not naive enough to believe that using lettering rather than photographs is going to completely solve this problem, however I do believe that the use of lettering can communicate a greater range of visual diversity (that’s kind of the whole point of my doctorate study). It’s still a grey area though, and recent use of lettering in fashion advertising is making it blurrier — it will be important to make sure the lettering I produce is distinctly different from the mainstream, yet diverse, and visually interesting.

Happiness Not Perfection

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Happiness Not Perfection 2015
digital animation
0:59 min (loop)

This is a variation of the final animation that will be exhibited at Crane Arts (the original is arranged vertically, but hard to display in this blog format). I think I might also look into developing a square version, so that it can be shared easily across multiple formats.

Here is a little snippet from the exhibition catalogue explaining my intention:

The characters are vivid, constantly changing, overlapping, mixing and moving in and out of sequence. The result is designed to look somewhat unfinished and unresolved, ultimately aiming to communicate the message that individuality, difference and spontaneity is not only acceptable, but hopefully more desirable than the dominant cultural messages it aims to subvert.

The animation features over six hundred individually created letterforms — hand drawn, hand painted or computer generated. I actually created over two thousand letterforms for the project, but left most out as I found these became more ‘variations on a theme’ rather than distinct, unique letterforms.

Exchange logotype

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The work for the upcoming Exchange exhibition is rapidly coming together (but it will as always be a last minute rush to complete it). I had to take a break from it as I was asked to produce a logotype to promote the exhibition — luckily I have literally thousands of custom letters floating around on my hard-drive from my studio work. The current final outcome looks very much like the ‘h’ in this image, as I’ve found the overlapped lettering produces a sense of energy but also a kind of ‘beautiful messiness’. I’ve also discovered to create a nice animation using this visual style I need to generate even more letters…


Upcoming exhibition: Exchange, October 2015 in Philadelphia

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I have been given another great opportunity to submit a work in a follow up from last years Design In Flux show in Philly. This time the show is bigger, and I plan to build on the work from last year by trying to develop it into an animation.

This particular exhibition will be themed and titled Exchange. From the submission notes:

In professional design practice, design has been conceived a service performed in exchange for fees, but in its larger, longer history, design is a cultural practice enmeshed in custom, obligation and unwritten understandings. While widespread nuanced and complex systems of exchange have been articulated and theorised by scholars such as Marcel Mauss (“The Gift”), Georges Bataille (“general economy”) and Jean Baudrillard (“symbolic exchange”), design discourse has largely neglected to address their importance. With growing understanding of informal systems and their importance in crisis situations, the rise of new “wiki” models of internet-enabled exchange and the “sharing economy”, the call for broader understandings and richer models of design practice is more urgent than ever before.

This exhibition of design projects and collaborations aims to shed light on the art of exchange in design practice, furthering discussion and understanding of how design projects can gain in strength and flexibility as they are passed around collaborators and exchanged across cultures.

There are quite a few links in the theme to my work, so looking forward to pulling it together. I think the only issue will be time (it always is) and finding enough to do the outcome justice.

Process work

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There is a follow up QCA exhibition in Philly later this year and I am working towards submitting another work for it. I’ve started experimenting with overlapped characters after some success in the last major work for the Design In Flux exhibition.

It’s quite an intensive amount of work, as you have to produce multiple unique characters for each letter, and the random process of overlapping them often means most of the work is never shown. This word took a whole day of drawing, scanning, colouring, and assembling. However, it’s creating some very diverse letterforms, and forcing me to accept un-perfection which I think is really great.

Reflections: Respect Every Body

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Now that the Design In Flux exhibition is all done and dusted, it’s nice to reflect on what worked and what didn’t with my contribution. Overall, I proved to myself that the direction I am heading in is fruitful and worth pursuing (a great relief in many ways as I do from time to time wonder about it). Feedback on the work has been positive, according to someone there it was the most photographed work in the show and it has been shared on social media a few times.

I set out to try an assortment of approaches (throwing shit at a wall to see what sticks) working with manual/analogue tools and also experimenting with repetition. The processes used generated some surprising visual results but will also lead to other interesting and effective methods — especially the idea of embracing mistakes and subverting my own previous practice ideals — to be explored in later projects.

Right off the bat, the ‘Every’ word just didn’t work. Visually, uninteresting, but also far too derivative for what I was aiming to do. It was worth doing, but only because I now know to stick away from trying to replicate / emulate what happens to be ‘trendy’ at the moment.

Out of the three methods I experimented with, the word ‘Body’ proved to be the most ‘successful’ of the three, in that it was visually more interesting and also portrayed the idea of ‘diversity’ due to the nature of the individual forms. Interestingly, out of the three words created, this one used a more studio-led experimental approach, while the others had more thought, planning, sketching and preparation behind them. Elements were drawn in pencil, traced in ink, scanned, then assembled and coloured in Photoshop.


The letter ‘B’ was primarily a mistake! This occurred when I was assembling the carefully drawn pieces together. I accidentally overlaid shards of my working drawings (developed to help proportions and spacings) but decided to keep them there. The ‘o’ experimented with overlapped patterns, which I think worked well. The letter ‘d’ followed on from the work with the ‘B’, but trying to use drawn colour fills rather than computer generated. I remember when I worked on this letter I was trying to achieve the same effect as the ‘B’ but just not getting it. There is something to be considered there — I’m starting to believe it is impossible to force uniqueness! The ‘y’ looked at using photographic elements as fills (the image here is of a starry night) and was probably the most middle-of-the-road and least successful character produced for the word ‘Body’.

On the topic of trying to force uniqueness and diversity, the project reinforced that my embedded unconscious way of working constructs what I perceive to be uniqueness rather than letting it happening organically. I had spent weeks planning, drawing, cutting and assembling pieces of letters together in a certain manner, organising components in an offset manner to ensure the viewer knew it had been manually constructed.

I realised that I had forgotten that I was working without thinking critically. I was unconsciously controlling my actions and the visual outcome, aiming for diversity but actually homogenising the outcome. I was also relying heavily on Photoshop as a tool, however rather than using it on an image of a person, I was digitally manipulating the letters to bend to my will — to be brighter, to look more hand crafted, to be positioned and prodded into perfection. This is an important discovery to consider for future work.

Lessons learnt:

  • the approach of using ‘lettering’ can lead to some very diverse and visually interesting outcomes
  • big is better — it looked great in it’s scale and detail
  • the absence of other design ‘elements’ and photographic forms does not detract from the outcome
  • visually, there is something exciting about the overlapping and mixing of forms
  • working quickly with a general ‘direction’ rather than a solid, well thought out plan produced the most diverse outcomes
  • working on the ‘B’ and the outcome created from a mistake was a poignant moment and has me enthused about future work
  • I do really need to catch myself from falling back on years of training and practice in which I unconsciously control the outcome and lean towards it being ‘perfect’ rather than just ‘how it is’

Design In Flux Exhibition @ Crane Arts, Philadelphia, 9–30 October 2014

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Many thanks to Beck Davis for the photographs of the installation and opening night above.

Design In Flux ran in the Crane Arts, Philadelphia from 9 – 30 October 2014. It featured work from QCA Staff and Post Grad students including myself along with Eleni Kalantidou, Donald Welch, Petra Perolini, David Sargent, Beck Davis, Michael Epworth, Tristan Schultz, Peter Hall, Steve Bowden, James Novak, Jillian Breadmore, Kacee Fitzgerald, Jen Loy, Sam Canning, Chris Miller, Troy Braverstock, and Elivra Sebegatoullina. There are plans for the exhibition to travel to Shandong College of Arts, which also has strong connections to QCA.

My contribution was Respect Every Body, a large scale print representing lettering experiments from the last few months.

If you are interested in reading more about the exhibition, you can view the catalogue online here. The Knight Foundation also wrote a nice review of the show and a few select pieces (including mine).


Respect Every Body

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Respect Every Body 2014
three panel digital print
80 x 210cm each

Here is the final outcome of my recent work that will be shipped over to Crane Arts in Philadelphia for the Design in Flux exhibition in October. In person, I’m hoping it will be a visually imposing work in the space due to the size and vibrancy of the colours. When displayed at the show it will be over 2m high and 2m wide, which I’m excited about. The work was all generated in RGB gamut colours too, so when it was printed with Epson Ultrachrome K3 inks (using the large format printers at Liveimage) it really pops. The outcome features stencil spray painted, hand drawn and computer generated letterforms.

The slogan ‘Respect Every Body’ is from an Australian Government education program of the same name. I felt the slogan itself was great, but the way it was used… not so much.

I used the opportunity to test out and further explore some of the type experiments I have been tinkering with the last few months. Now that is is complete I feel some of the experiments worked better than others. I’ll try to find the time to write further about this once the exhibition is over.

Edit: I have written a reflection on the process and outcome here.