Category Archives: Assignment 3

3/9/16 The photograph is an image not a reality: Reflecting on assignment 3

By adding an additional dimension to this learning log I will attempt to note down my reflections within the context of the broader concepts that frame and develop my photography practice.

I can sense a deepening awareness and growing fascination  in the knowledge that the photograph is an image of, rather than a picture of reality. That is to say that the image is a construction which contains references and meanings which imply a representation of reality but this will always fall short of being the only version of that reality. This in itself is nothing new to students of photography but the extent to which we adopt this as part of our practice is for myself an interesting development.

Having started my OCA Context and Narrative journey very much of the thinking that our photographs were an interpretation of an objective truth or reality I have learned the aforementioned point throughout this course but perhaps never quite understood the significance or potential implications of this issue and therefore I haven’t quite fully integrated this thinking into my work previously apart from making surface level observations.

On this (assignment 3 submission see here) occasion I started from the premise that I would use myself as a subject or model to represent my thinking and to create scenes which had no actual basis as a pictures of something that happened but rather were constructed images so it was interesting to note that the people that have seen these images don’t necessarily see beyond the assumption that these photographs are literally pictures of myself Allan O’Neill, which of course in one respect they are.

A passage that I read seems to illustrate what I am trying to, “Fundamentally, photographs are convincing because they hide ‘behind’ the referent, the things in the picture. The indexical ‘naturalness’ of what we see is itself the core ideological feature of photography. This seeming ‘innocence’ of photography is part of it’s rhetorical power, a power multiplied in every reproduction of that picture, that we see something apparently ‘as it is’. Photography gives the illusion of a transparent access to ‘reality’ as the real ‘language’ of photography.”(Bate, 2009:17)

This is in many respects going back over old ground but at the same time I am beginning to see how this unique aspect can be exploited to add a real depth to our photography. In my assignment 3 I felt that this illusional effect served the purposes of one of my underlying assignment themes in that any attempts to establish a genuine objective reality remains unresolved, parallels which can be seen in photography itself.

There are many possibilities within this context and I will certainly explore this further as I continue my journey.


Bate, D (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.






Assignment 3: Performance against assessment criteria

Assignment 3: Performance against assessment criteria

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I have communicated the concept and ideas contained in the assignment through strong compositions utilising good photographic technique and visual skills. I might have varied the scale within the framing to make the overall series more interesting but also to give the location and space greater weighting.

Quality of outcome

Very good consistency and quality in the outcome coherently presented in an interesting fashion throughout in both written and visual formats.

Demonstration of creativity

Very good demonstration of a creative process gained through a clear and strong frame of reference plus wide research fuelled by a clear intent to develop of original ideas.


Very good development in coherent research and reflection covering a range of wider and specific practices supporting the development of a creative journey throughout the module.


This assignment was very important to my development in terms of my overall engagement, application and as a result, my overall competence and confidence. I found the course very interesting and inspiring and above all enjoyable and rewarding. A very positive experience.


Assignment 3: Putting yourself in the picture

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Background statement

“The power of society, remains irrational, however we try to rationalise it,” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1944, 1997:41)

To give our human existence purpose and meaning we pursue our lives according to a system of socially constructed conventions and realities effectively imposed upon us by a society lacking in the rationality that supposedly binds it together.

In simple terms we are shaped by rules which make no sense. This assignment is a photographic exploration of the human condition within the boundaries of this irrational society.

Photographic and creative concept

The above statement provides the wider context for the assignment where we focus in on the comfortable material home and lifestyle deeply embedded within our cultural framework as one of the major aspirations and purposes of modern human existence, and as such, a recognised metaphor and symbol of the successful life within the conventional society.

Whilst I draw upon my own thoughts and experiences the use of my ‘self’ is not to make an autobiographical statement but to use these self-portraits to “touch upon broader, universal issues and themes” (Bright, S. 2010:25).

In the series I pose as the average ‘middle-class’ person in their average ‘middle-class’ house. There are no specific links to personal history only standard reference points such as mass produced curtains, bathroom tiles, pine floorboards, garden hedges and designer aftershave.

The images are constructed in settings portraying a life and existence, which to all intense purposes is exactly the same as the lives of many others in the same socio-economic category and this familiarity allows access and is used to establish a relationship with the viewer.

The scenes are self-portraits posed and gesturing in a constructed manner with the intention of suggesting to the viewer that they may possess a sense of identity with the broader context surrounding the images; that we can never find the rationality that we are conditioned by society to believe exists.

The constructed nature of the scenes highlight the ambiguous relationship between the image, reality and objectivity and this relationship acts as a metaphor for an exploration of the mass deception that Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) described.

A key motivation behind this assignment was to consider the contribution that we all make in the construction of this pantomime and the reasons why we can play our parts without missing, questioning or improvising on our lines.

At the same time I recognise that it more likely that the viewer will form their own interpretation and rationalise the meaning according to their own viewpoint and needs. This becomes ironic in relation to the broader context that we search for a rationality which cannot be found.

Research and background development

Initially I kept a personal diary for three weeks’ and this journal became a document of my frustration and disbelief in the happenings in the world.

During this period there were significant events magnifying a sense of absurdity including the UK’s EU campaign and referendum, terrorist attacks in Western Europe, the continuation of the Syrian War and refugee crisis and the unjustified shootings of black people and police officers in America. Even as we speak we have seen the banning of the burkini on French beaches.

This sense of absurdity was exacerbated by what I began to see as a general lack of objectivity, fairness, transparency and at times even truthfulness in everyday human behaviour and by reflecting on my diary entries I could see that I was finding myself in varying states of disillusionment.
Whilst away on holiday I began to recognise that the only coping mechanism I could utilise was to see the absurdity in life and this was the creative catalyst for the idea of the assignment.

My research was led by a deep desire to explore my personal thoughts and feelings whilst referring to credible sources accessed from a broad spectrum of mediums including art photography and academic cultural sociology studies to ensure that the assignment was fuelled by genuine intellectual content.

Potential for development of this assignment

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By creating a gallery wall I could experiment with different combinations to show how the images might appear in an exhibition-like context and this allows a more fluid and complex interpretation of the images.

I think that the nature of the images also lend themselves to a successful presentation in a photo-book format if the collection of images could be extended. With more variety and diversification in the composition the number of images could be increased in order to justify the production of a book.

I think that a more specific focus on human behaviour might be an interesting development as this is a subject which is of great interest to myself.

Other important observations

Taking up the role of model and subject was initially un-nerving but quickly became very liberating and increased my confidence which in turn improved the creative process.

I was able to personally explore and express feelings and ideas whereas working with models can be restrictive in this respect. This benefited the quality and direction of my photography and it felt very exciting.

By working independently and free from the pressures of finding willing models I could take the necessary time to find the best working solutions and this improved my technical approach.

Experimenting with presentation through a makeshift gallery wall also had an enormous impact in developing how I interpreted the images and enhanced the creative and intellectual value of the assignment as well as the enjoyment of preparing the work.

I was able to break away from a linear thought process and the usual formal structure with a beginning, middle and end. This more flexible approach created a format for interpreting and developing the series in a much more fluid and complex manner.

All of these liberating factors created by far the most inspiring experience of photography that I have undertaken to date and hopefully this will benefit the quality of my work. 


Bright, S (2010) Auto-Focus the self-portrait in contemporary photography London: Thames and Hudson Limited

Elina Brotherus les-femmes-de-la-maison-carre (online) at (accessed 21 July 2016)

Simmons, L. Sussman, E. (2015) Jimmy DeSana Suburban New York: Aperture Foundation.

Eggleston, W (2002), William Eggleston’s Guide, 2nd edition. Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Esslin, M (1974) The Theatre of the Absurd London: Eyre Methuen Limited (review see here)

Horkheimer, M and Adorno, T (1944) ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ In: Spillman, L (ed.) Cultural Sociology (1997). London: Wiley-Blackwell. pp 39-46. (review see here)

Naomi Klein, (2010) No Logo. revised 10th anniversary edition release, London Fourth Estate reviewed (review see here)

‘Lisa Ohlweiler Self-portraits’, Bright, S (2010) Auto-Focus the self-portrait in contemporary photography London: Thames and Hudson Limited pp. 84-85.












Assignment 3 working processes: Notes on research, creative process and image making

Initial research

Throughout assignment 3 I kept a journal of ideas and plans and the challenge was to balance the scribbling of creative thoughts with the process required to develop a log which later would make sense.

The idea of a journal came from keeping a personal diary as suggested as part of the initial research and it was interesting to see clear recognisable patterns emerging as I reflected on my entries.

How these entries were interpreted was on an entirely different level to what I would have imagined and this process really clarified my thinking and changed the direction of the assignment.

Research development of the photographic concept

The first working idea was based on the concept of absurdity as events from the 1st July to 21st July had created such significant turbulence so I began to research Absurdist philosophy and it’s relationship to art (see here).

The first creative idea was a reinterpretation of the traditional country walk and came from the fact that many people had voted in the EU referendum on the basis of their desire to get their Country back.

A reference was made to the absurdist play Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot set completely in a country lane. Also using Susan Bright’s The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography (2010) I found an interesting series of self-portraits by Lisa Ohlweiler (84-85) and what was interesting about these nuanced images was that the expressions of the model seem to draw a reflection on emotions existing at a deeper psychological level.

As my diary reflections continued I became less enthusiastic about the idea that the world has just gone mad as I began to consider that, whilst there was a heightened sense of irrationality during those July days and weeks, in many respects what we were experiencing was actually the absurdly predictable outcome of a mass media frenzied society which is structured around the needs and wants of advanced industrial capitalism.

I developed my thinking through further research and read a significant essay in cultural sociological studies The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (1944) (see here) and this text became very influential in my thinking.

Around the same time I had also greatly appreciated the contemporary work of Elina Brotherus (see here) and especially her series les-femmes-de-la-maison-carre prompting the idea to move the photographic setting from the country lane to a domestic scene which was more relevant to my thought process. What also developed whilst reviewing Elina Brotherus’ work was the idea to take a starting point that can be quite personal but which can develop into broader more universal themes.

Lisa Owhleier -1

Figure 1: Self-portrait by Lisa Ohlweiler (2005) taken by Allan O’Neill (2016)

Inspired by both Elina Brotherus and Lisa Ohlweiler’s work was the idea of a more ambiguous expression in the model’s gaze and posture which also raised questions about the relationship of the image, reality and objectivity which was relevant to how I was planning to present the concept behind the assignment.

I was also beginning to focus on a specific concept derived from my interest in Jimmy DeSana’s Suburban (see here). I was interested in DeSana’s questioning of human authenticity and was exploring similar thoughts to this concept as part of my own assignment.

What I also took from Suburban was how the artist had staged the images in standardized settings and then added in his own theatre; so there were lots of ordinary beds, bathrooms, light switches and sports bags acting as a backdrop to models in abstract scenes lit by garish coloured lighting creating the overall effect with an underlying and disconcerting familiarity.

Making the images


Figure 2: Initial test self-portrait image taken by Allan O’Neill (2016)

Initially I tested a few shots to see which direction I wanted to take in terms of putting myself in the picture and decided and whilst I have n’t been for for having my photograph taken I wanted to break out of my comfort zone and maximise the learning and development experience.

yellow t shirt-1

Figure 3: Test-shot self-portrait by Allan O’Neill (2016)
For some initial test shots I dressed in a bright yellow tee-shirt and old shorts and I immediately recognised how I could improve my work. I needed to take a more professional approach and decided to dress or appear appropriately to communicate the relevant themes and build colour combinations that would look more coordinated and aesthetically pleasing.

Figure 4: Photo-shoot

Most significantly I developed the photo shoot step by step so that each image was a carefully planned and constructed scene and this worked well. I was able to try ideas, move things around until I was happy with the final scene. In total I took 470 images in approximately 15 different sessions over a four-week period for the final cut of 6.

Making self-portraits was a new challenge as there were technical issues that I had n’t previously considered around focal point and shutter release as on this occasion I was in front instead of behind the camera.

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Figure 5: Test shot self-portrait
I used a number of tactics including the camera’s own self-timer function, a short cable release, infra-red shutter release none of which were perfect. Finally I invested in a wireless trigger kit to fire the shutter and this worked fantastically at any distance or timing and under any lighting conditions. To set focal points I taped bits of cardboard to things and used a light stand set to my own height before joining the set and casting the light stand or cardboard circle aside. I had initially encountered problems with jumping into scenes only to discover that the model was completely out of focus.

By using the wireless trigger I could also shoot each frame individually rather than having to pose under pressure for a number of images taken on self-timer which was causing staleness in the compositions. Shooting frame by frame gave much more flexibility and freedom.

Also another major step change was a visit to the William Eggleston exhibition (See here) at the National Portrait Gallery where I immediately felt inspired to make more varied and interesting images; I arrived home and discarded two-thirds of what had previously been considered as final short-listed images on the basis that they were too similar, boring or didn’t create the right feel.

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Figure 6: Makeshift gallery

I also created a makeshift gallery wall in the bedroom where I began to experiment with presentation by setting different combinations to show how the images might appear in an exhibition-like context. This allowed a more flexible presentation and a more fluid interpretation of the images.

Finally I shared the series via the OCA level 1 Facebook group which proved to be another very positive experience. In my last feedback session with my tutor I was encouraged to get more involved with my fellow students so I have been contributing to this group on a regular basis sharing ideas and techniques which always proves to be a very worthwhile and positive experience.

The feedback that I received from my peers was very encouraging and motivating and one I will repeat in future. The discussion of ideas and concepts was invaluable as was the personal motivation and confidence that I gained from having to opportunity to show my work to other likeminded people. Below are a few examples of the comments that I received.

Peer comments

“Hi Allan, Before reading your brief I was already drawn to the pictures because of the overall atmosphere they breath. There is a bored, kind of depressing feel to the set, oppressive as well. After reading the brief, I find that it really enforces the images. The colours are striking and the images make me think. The only image that stands out a bit is the one in which you are standing in front of the bricked wall. The white board is a bit distracting, does it have a particular meaning? All the best with your studies! “

“Thanks for sharing this. I’m inspired to improve my work now”

“I very much enjoyed your series. Works very well and your text is succinct but cleverly developed. Well done.”

“I did not much think about how absurd life can be – but you are right. It´s a strong contradiction to how we tend to define our individualism today in times of internet, and a bit in the tradition of Arthur Millers death of a salesman? It´s funny to see that kind of thinking evolve today again. Your images are funny – the one in the bathtub has a depressive element, whereas the after shave image is very individual as I think. What do you mean with this “brick in the wall”??? History of Rock´n Roll??”


This has been a truly fantastic course to participate in and I have enjoyed the curriculum enormously. Whilst I have put more working hours into this part of the course than ever before the approach and journey that I have undertaken has taken my technique, awareness, standards, confidence and commitment to an entirely new level.