Does a photograph have to represent something?

Laura Hynd came up with a great provocation when we were discussing some work in my portfolio. I had offered some images to ‘represent’ what goes on below the surface. Here is her provocation.

How to approach this description, to represent…? A word so often used when artists are discovering what their practice is. Do you think there is a way to avoid the use of that word? That the work doesn’t represent, or does not need to represent? It is. You are. The photographs are. Do you need to represent something? A question to ponder perhaps?

I am.

This is a photograph.

Does anything more need to be said? I am making images to meet some need. If I try to understand that need I believe it is related to some pain I am suffering and a desire to be in a more homeostatic state than I am. Along with mindfulness, exercise, diet and other activities photography is one of the methods I am using to find a better state of homeostasis than I currently experience.

Aside from photography it would be great to just be. Over the last ten years every six months has been the worst of my life as my wife, Karen, progressed through the horrible decline of health with her secondary progressive multiple sclerosis. I have been very close to suicide on three occasions as a response to the existential crisis I was/am in. I don’t want to die but got in to so much mental and emotional pain that it seemed an attractive way out. My head and emotions are a mess but as a human being I am fighting to hold myself together and to get myself to a better place.

Coming back to photography. The process of searching for ways of ‘representing’ what is going on inside me has been therapeutic. As I look at the images of me and see an organism succeeding at life it reminds me that my problem is thoughts. One way of looking at myself from the outside is that regardless of what I am feeling what the world sees is an active functioning human being.

Why do I want to represent or show the agony within? One answer is HELP! I want the equivalent of going home to mum, telling her what is wrong, her putting her arm around me and that making me feel much better inside. This is consistent with my inability to accept the way the world is. Karen is ill and other than love her there is nothing else I can do. So accept it buddy.

I do know that the photography is an activity that is consuming me and preventing me from filling my head with some horrible thoughts that go nowhere. Perhaps a phase to play with is removing the word represent and see if that takes my images to a different place. Let’s see. This idea interests me.

I did some searching to understand what representation is. I like the flow charts above put together by Alica Acosta . From this I understand my work will have meaning and a form of representation. I can play with reflective, intentional or constructivist representation. Descriptions follow and although referring to language are relevant to a photograph.

Cultural theorist Stuart Hall describes representation as the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture through the use of language, signs and images which stand for or represent things (Hall, 1997). However, there are several different theories that describe how language is used to represent the world; three of which are outlined above: reflective, intentional and constructionist.

With reflective approach to representation, language is said to function like a mirror; it reflects the true meaning of an object, person, idea or event as it already exists in the world. The Greek word ‘mimesis’ is used for this purpose to describe how language imitates (or “mimics”) nature. Essentially, the reflective theory proposes that language works by simply reflecting or imitating a fixed “truth” that is already present in the real world (Hall, 1997).

The intentional approach argues the opposite, suggesting that the speaker or author of a particular work imposes meaning onto the world through the use of language. Words mean only what their author intends them to mean. This is not to say that authors can go making up their own private languages; communication – the essence of language – depends on shared linguistic conventions and shared codes within a culture. The author’s intended meanings/messages have to follow these rules and conventions in order to be shared and understood (Hall, 1997).

The constructionist approach (sometimes referred to as the constructivist approach) recognizes the social character of language and acknowledges that neither things in themselves nor the individual users of language can fix meaning (Hall, 1997). Meaning is not inherent within an object itself, rather we construct meaning using systems of representation (concepts and signs); I will elaborate upon these systems further in my second model.

Categories: Contextual Research SP, Project Development SP, Sustainable Prospects


I am a Photographer. As well as taking many photographs I am currently studying for an MA in Photography at Falmouth University. I will direct my attention through the lens of my camera for the next couple of years and see what shows up. I see a photograph as a little bit of magic capturing a moment in time. If successful it surprises and engages your emotions. It tells a story about the wonders of being alive or tells us what we need to change to make it a better world to live in. That is enough for me to get going and then like walking a 1000 miles, which I did across the UK in 2010, or walking 200 miles across Cyprus, which I did in November last year, it is one step at a time.

I was a writer. The title of my unpublished book was ‘You Would Have Done The Same.' It is about a successful guy in love with his wife who lets her die when he discovers her in the process of committing suicide. The title gives a clue as to what I think you would have done. The book is 200 pages long. I found it cathartic to write it but after two years of work and reviewing with agents decided it probably needed another 2000 hours to get the whole book up to the standard of some of the pages. Writing is great but it is a lot of sitting down so I decided to get out and walk, play tennis, play bridge, go birding, watch football at Nottingham Forest, Arsenal and Valencia and anywhere else if I can, meditate, cook and eat. I was a writer who has so far failed to become an author.
I was a young man who loved Mathematics and thoroughly enjoyed getting a BSc at Liverpool University. While there I went often to Anfield and the Philharmonic Hall. I was all set on doing a PhD until I went for interview practice at BP and got seduced by the excitement of an International business career. BP was a great adventure building trading teams and businesses in London, Antwerp, Cleveland Ohio and Singapore. Fabulous people and some great challenges and also very hard work, constant jet lag and lots of fun along the way. I married Karen, my stunning wife, and had the most amazing time with her and our three boys Alex, Tom and Dan. She has multiple sclerosis and we have taken on many challenges together but somehow keep creating a new normal against the horrors thrown our way. She is the love of my life.

After BP I decided to coach senior executives and quickly realized I had a lot to learn
about what makes people tick. I had a fantastic 18 months on the International Programme of the Cleveland Gestalt Institute. A great faculty and a
wonderful group of people on the programme. We studied and worked in Dingle, Singapore, Holland, Cape Town and
Lisbon. This also got me interested in the way we think and make decisions so I studied for an MSc in Psychology atUniversity College London in 2010. The
Masters was in Cognitive and Decision Sciences and I found it fascinating what
we do know but also how much we don’t know about how we think and make

I loved coaching and making a difference. I got a number of people to hear themselves, remove some of their own chains and free up the way they thought about the world. I remain fascinated by how people react to and engage with the world. My Masters thesis was why do two people given the same information make different decisions? Put simply, it is because each of us are unique in the way we are constructed.

Since returning from Singapore I found English winters tough so moved to Spain where I now live. The people are lovely, the scenery amazing, food delicious and the sun shines all the time. Almost.

All of these experiences will feed in to my time now as a Photographer. Three motivations I am lucky to have are enthusiasm, curiosity and a continuous interest in learning. All the time I look forward to meeting old friends and making new friends and experiencing this wonderful life together.