Assignment 5: People and place, on assignment

Assignment brief

The great distinction between professional and amateur photography is not competence or special skill or technical quality (although these may play a part, and professional photographers certainly work hard to achieve excellence in these areas). It is that professional photography is performed to order, for a contracted purpose, and in order to deliver results that a client has asked for. The client may be a manufacturer, a magazine or book publisher, an individual who needs specific images, or anyone who is paying for an imaging service. Quite apart from the commercial aspect of this, a well-defined assignment actually benefits the photography because it directs the creative effort. This is what you will explore here.

For this final assignment, the choice of subject is yours, with the only limitation in that the subject should be from this course, which is to say people and/or the places they inhabit.

First decide on a notional client. Choose the kind of client – newspaper, magazine, text book publisher, advertising agency, television graphics, etc; the purpose of assignment – educational, informational, promotional; and how the images will be used: to illustrate a story, to sell a product etc. You choose.

You then need to imagine what the basic brief would be, which will mean thinking from the other side of the fence – what someone commissioning a photographer might want. Write yourself the brief so that you can refer back to it.

Having assigned yourself the brief, you now need to complete it. You need to submit between eight – 12 photographs. Accompany the final images with a short written assessment.  This should include:

• the ‘client briefing’ that you gave yourself

• a statement of how you set about planning the photography

• how well you succeeded, including the difficulties and opportunities you encountered that you had not anticipated at the outset.

Please note that one of the most important aspects of photography is using discernment in your choice of the images you choose to submit. You need to show both your tutor and assessor that you can project good judgement in your choices.


The client briefing

Notional client:

A magazine that uses photography to illustrate entertaining articles of the type produced by the photographer Tom Craig with AA Gill for The Sunday Times Magazine.

Purpose of assignment:

Informational / factual / entertainment

How the images will be used:

To illustrate an entertaining article about the trials, tribulations and realities of being a tourist.


Most travel articles depict the sights that people might see.  They present locations and experiences in a favourable way providing a context that readers can pleasurably imagine themselves being in.  The purpose of this article is to better reflect the realities of travel and tourism – the queues, the busyness, the mundanity of mass site seeing etc.  It aims to present the view through the perhaps slightly jaundiced eyes of a somewhat world-weary participant in the travel/tourist merry-go-round.  The work should focus on the experience of the traveller/tourist and those around him/her, it may include images of the destination, but it’s the experience that’s important rather than the destination itself.

Planning the photography

Shortly after writing the brief I put together a potential shot list as below.

 Potential shot list:
  • in transit
  • organised excursions
  • crowded locations
  • people interacting with the location
  • people experiencing the place
  • tourist areas, bars, cafes, souvenir shops and trinkets etc.
  • unusual or unexpected travellers or tourists
  • unusual, (to the eyes of a visitor), or unexpected scenes
  • people capturing their own photographs / videos of their experience

In order to better meet the requirements of the brief, I decided that I would visit a location I hadn’t been to before and participate is some of the more typical activities that needed to be reflected in the article.  As I was beginning to plan the work, an unexpected business trip arose which also   provided me with the opportunity to take a week’s holiday and so carry out the assignment.  I therefore draw up a list of activities which included taking a coach excursion, a river trip and visiting an all day festival that would include music, food and markets.  I also planned to visit the key attractions that a typical traveller/tourist might visit both during the day and at night.

As I intended to blend in as much as I could, I decided to minimise my equipment to a DSLR, a wide angle and standard zoom lenses.  I also took a polariser but had no tripod, no flash and far less equipment than usual.

In addition to my shot list, I also tried sketching some ideas – although I found I didn’t use these in practice.  The work of  Martin Parr in ‘Last Resort‘ also influenced my thinking and I suspect that this is evident in the brief I prepared.

The selected images

Click any image to view full size in a new window. 


A5-A: 17mm, ISO 1600, 1/100@f4

Image A5-A was made on the City Circle tourist tram and provides the ‘in-transit’ shot from the shot list. In order to make this image I had to make several trips before I was actually able to secure one of the few seats that gave a clear view of the tram.  It took several more trips before the crowds dropped sufficiently for me to be able to secure a worthwhile shot.  This is really quite a claustrophobic environment in which to fire off a DSLR – it would not go down well in London but here, looking like a typical tourist I managed to get away with it.  The man on the left could see what I was doing and the eye is immediately drawn to his slightly confrontational gaze.  The man on the right also saw what was happening and his posture is somewhat more evasive.  Overall, I hope that this is a useful context setting image for the article intended by the brief.


A5-B: 45mm, ISO 400, 1/100@f5

A5-B meets the shot list requirement for people experiencing the place.  I took many many photographs in this location on two different visits.  The scene in image A5-B caught my eye for several reasons.  The scene is unusual – in terms of the line of people looking intently, their lack of interaction with each other, the reflections in the glass and the mirror on the right, and the curious lines taped on the floor, (which direct people around the different views).  My feeling was that this scene had enough interest in it to draw the viewer into trying to work out what is happening.  Paradoxically it is an internal view of people looking to the outside.


A5-C: 50mm, ISO 400, 1/35@f5.6

Part of my set brief was to capture unusual travellers/tourists.  I hadn’t expected to see a Buddhist Monk hitting the tourist trail and I also felt that his traditional clothing was particularly incongruous in this modern hi-tech setting.


A5-D: 35mm, ISO 400, 1/80@f4

A5-D meets the shot list requirements for organised excursions and people experiencing the place.  During this assignment I ‘staked out’ a few locations that I had learnt were popular with the many guides who walk tourists around Melbourne.  This back alley is surprisingly popular with tourists and the guide in the red shirt is pointing out the tag mark of a particular graffiti artist.  I must admit that I hadn’t encountered tours for graffiti before and so I found this idea quite unusual and therefore picture worthy.  For this shot I waited for the guide to gesture and the participants to look before making the image. The fact that the guide happens to be wearing a red t-shirt helps to make what is happening clearer.


A5-E: 105mm, ISO 400, 1/4@ f5.6

A5-E meets the shot list requirement for both people interacting with location and unusual/unexpected scenes.  The National Gallery International in Melbourne has a water feature that cascades over the very glass windows/walls.  Quite a number of visitors feel compelled to come up and touch the running water and I realised that this might make an interesting image that would meet the requirement of showing people interacting with the location. Making such a shot proved tricky in terms of anticipating people approaching the glass (which is many yards wide).  It was also technically challenging because the external light was constantly changing from bright sun to shade, which such a significant difference to the exposure that for these ‘grabbed’ candid shots that I could not set a manual exposure and I had to rely on the camera’s metering – which is likely to be fooled, (and often was ), by this fast changing extreme brightness range.


A5-F: 25mm, ISO 200, 1/800@f8

Crowds are one of the subjects I had envisioned in my shot list and I soon became conscious of the difficulty that people had in seeing the entertainment on offer.  Quite a number of people resorted, as here, to using the video on their cameras to watch what was happening in front of them.  I was intrigued by this idea of experiencing a live event ‘second hand’ through these screens and could easily have put together an entire project just on this idea.  The bright colour of this woman’s top and the oblique position of her arms help to isolate her from the general crowd at the Japan Festival.


A5-G: 105mm, ISO 400, 1/200@f8

My plans included a coach excursion and I duly went on a 13 hr coach trip!  Stops on the trip were relatively few and I realised that all that most of the passengers, myself included, could see was the drivers face in the mirror and the t.v. above his head showing the road ahead.  Image 5-G shows the driver’s smiling reflection whilst the passengers are shrouded in darkness – my attempt at a Barthes punctum!


A5-H: 24mm, ISO 400, 1/500@f13

A5-H also meets the shot list requirements for an organised trip.  My second trip as part of this assignment was a late afternoon river cruise.  Image A5-H is suitable for the article because it illustrates the somewhat quirky behaviour of the participants in such an activity.  Although we are in a relatively small space and undertaking a shared experience, nobody is apparently looking at the same thing.  Typical tourist photographs are being taken – a  partner with the background behind and a snapshot of some of the passing scenery.  I think that the viewer’s eye will keep roving around the participants whilst working out what is going on.  This image was at least in part influenced by Garry Winogrand’s  ‘Circle Line Statue of Liberty Ferry, New York 1971’.


A5-I: 24mm, ISO 400, 1/200@f8

Part of my brief and shot list was to capture unusual or unexpected scenes.  In this case, passersby would relax in deck chairs whilst watching short films being shown on this giant outdoor screen, (which was very clear despite the setting sun immediately to the right). In this particular frame I liked the juxtaposition between the strange, possibly violent, image on the screen and the serenity of the viewers lolling in their deck chairs.


A5-J: 28mm, ISO 3200, 1/200@f4

A5-J meets the shot list requirements  in terms of tourist areas, bars and cafes, people experiencing the place and a crowded location.  The Queen Victoria night market positively buzzed with people and energy.  This gave me an opportunity to capture one of the requirements, a crowded location. The light streaming through the smoke from the grills helps convey the atmosphere of this place which was incredibly busy.


A5-K: 17mm, ISO 3200, 1/4@f4 hand held (IS)

A5-K brings the project full circle and shows the night-time view to the left of the viewpoint in A5-B.  This shot again shows people experiencing the place but the transformation from day to night means that the place itself is much more prominent than in the day.  There are multiple reflections of internal lights, other people, and indeed myself, within the glass.  You will see from the exposure details that this image was made at the maximum ISO and aperture of my camera and the exposure is 2 stops below the 1/focal length ‘rule’.  Although image stabilisation was used the image is only ‘acceptably sharp’ in the context and would not stand up to being used for a large print.


What I set out to achieve

The brief I set myself allowed a degree of creative flexibility but also required some serendipity.  I sought to provide quite a wide range of images that would in turn allow the writer some flexibility to create an appropriate ‘tale’.  I also set myself the task of being an active participant within the events and situations that I was photographing.

How well did I succeed?

I made several hundred photographs for this assignment and, although the eventual selection would be fairly flexible, after a few shoots I became more confident that I was achieving some of the required images.  Because I was a ‘participant’, most of the images are spontaneous which meant that for most of the time, my mindset was that of a photographer rather than a traveller/tourist.  At times I did worry that this meant I was missing out on experiencing the locations but in fact I eventually concluded that if anything I had got more out of it due to the extra effort and thought I was putting into everything.

I found the selection of the images quite difficult and revisited it several times over a few weeks.  What helped me eventually was to write out a simple ‘narrative flow’ and this made the selection and sequencing of the images more straightforward.  The ‘narrative’ is below.

Many days begin with a trip on the free, City Circle tourist tram.  A visit to the highest public viewing point in the city, the 88th floor of the Eureka Skydeck, enables everyone to take in the view of the city and get orientated – including an unusual visitor.  Moving outside, the local tourism industry has sprung into action with guided walks for everything – including, as here, the best local graffiti sites. Some choose to experience the sights first hand.   Events are running everywhere and for many, the only way to see is to take photographs or even watch videos on their phones – an oft observed phenomena during this project.  Moving on to an organised excursion, the experience was dominated by the travel rather than the place.   Out on a river trip, another common tourist trait is in full swing, photographing oneself in front of the sights or scenery.  As sunset approaches there is the slightly surreal sight of films being watched outdoors in Federation Square, (Melbourne’s second most popular tourist attraction).  As night approaches, the Queen Victoria night market sees attracts huge crowds for food and music.  Finally, the sun having just set, we come full circle back to the 88th floor of the Eureka Skydeck.  

Of course there were a number of images where it was difficult to choose which ones to include and indeed, some of the images in the selection are either weaker or less obvious contenders than others.  I would include A5-E, A5-H, A5-I and A5-J in those categories, however I do have plenty of other images in reserve if required.

The assignment brief also asks for comments on difficulties and opportunities.  Often I find that these two are inter-linked.  For example in A5-E, I could see that in this situation, a potentially interesting image could arise but, I would have little or no control.  On my first trip to this location, the shots were entirely spontaneous.  However, when I reviewed the images on my computer, ‘near misses’ and poor exposures dominated.  This first trip was on a Saturday and visitors and therefore opportunities were plentiful.  On my second trip, I set out to photograph this scene exclusively but, although my technique was better, being a weekday, visitors were fewer and so were opportunities.  In the end I set myself a time limit and ‘staked out’ the scene for one hour before moving on to seek other opportunities. Other difficulties during the assignment included extreme lighting, i.e. very dark as in A5-J and A5-K and extreme contrast in A5-E and A5-G which demonstrate how I coped with these lighting conditions.  One genuinely unanticipated difficulty was a smeared sensor that was not apparent until images were reviewed on the computer.  This meant that I had to reject a number of one-off shots, particularly those that featured expanses of blue sky. Looking back at key opportunities, these mainly related to grabbing opportunities as they arose, the monk in A5-C, the guide’s gesture in A5-D and the particular frame on the film screen in A5-I.  But there again, to some extent you make your own luck by being prepared.

Summary and conclusions

One of my own key observations when I look back at this final assignment in people and place is how far I have come.  Were you to look back at the many tens of thousands of images I have from over the years, one of the fundamental characteristics that you would observe would be the absence of people.  I even have images of some of the most crowded places in the world that are completely free of people.  Yet, in this project I have provided a set of images full of people and I have photographed complete strangers from very close range without hesitation.  I’ve come a long way indeed.


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