A Photographic Enquiry in to the Optical Unconscious and The Truth and Beauty of Me

Hypothesis – Every photograph taken is contingent on the unconscious of the photographer. Every photograph viewed is contingent on the unconscious of the viewer. Interesting photographs are created when there is a meaningful dialogue between the unconscious of the photographer and the unconscious of the viewer through the medium of the photograph.

Throughout the MA I have been interested in why I photograph what I do and what might be interesting to a viewer. I have also been curious about the relationship between images of, or around, me and what they say about my own inner mental state. In my Final Major Project (FMP) I propose to test the above hypothesis and carry out an enquiry in to the relationship between the unconscious and a photograph. I will use myself and my photographs as the subject of this enquiry.

I have included the literature review for the psychological assertions I am making within a separate post as contextual research for this project. Psychological Consideration of the Optical Unconscious. I wish to focus attention on the photographic in this blog.

Benjamin (1931) states ‘Photography…with its time lapses, enlargements etc…through these methods one first learns of this optical unconscious, just as one learns of the unconscious through psychoanalysis. Concern with structure, cell forms, the improvement of medicine through these techniques: the camera is more closely related to these than to the moody landscape or the soulful portrait.’

I believe the unconscious is the primary interaction with an image. The photographer is driven by her unconscious to choose the subject, the environmental conditions and make all the decisions necessary to produce an image that meets some need of her unconscious. I am proposing that the image is therefore in some way a representation of the unconscious of the photographer at the time the image is captured.

Similarly, the viewer of a photograph is driven by her unconscious to project on to the image she looks at. The projection chosen meets a need of her unconscious and again there is a link from the image to the unconscious of the viewer.

Magic happens for a photograph when the unconscious of the photographer and the unconscious of the viewer enter in to an interesting dialogue through the medium of the photograph. If that fails to happen the image is quickly passed over.

Newhaven Fishwife – Hill and Adamson 1843-47


The above image of the Newhaven Fish Wife was taken over one hundred and seventy years ago. She is long dead as a human being but continues to live in this image in a way that engages with my mind. Who was she? What was her life like? Was she happy? All the questions asked through my eyes as I view the image. There is a connection with my unconscious that makes me look longer. The connection arises as some psychological need is met such as a glimpse of part of my mother or wife or someone I have known or met in my life. The more significant the hint of something I see the closer will I look.

Benjamin (1931) commented on this photograph. ‘…fishwife from Newhaven who looks at the ground with such relaxed and seductive shame something remains that does not testify merely to the art of the photographer Hill, something that is not to be silenced, something demanding the name of the person who had lived then, who even now is still real and will never entirely perish….’. It is interesting that he writes almost a hundred years after the image was taken but uses declarative words such as ‘relaxed’ and ‘seductive’ as if they were fact.


The above image is one taken of me and comprises elements of truth and beauty of me. There are many truths and many beauties that can be considered and each will be driven by the unconscious of the viewer. I was driven to take this image by an insight a year ago from Cemre Yesil that pain is good material for an interesting photograph. In this case I was experiencing deep grief after the death of my wife in January this year, was depressed and two weeks in to a difficult antidepressant intervention. To produce the image I looked through Dialogues with Solitude by David Heath and studied how he had represented what I saw as my feeling at that moment in time. I arranged the lighting, the camera, the angle of my face, the look and this is the resulting image. I am suggesting all this work took place in my unconscious mind to produce the image above.

I was able to discuss this photograph with four other photographers on a workshop The Self Portrait Experience run by Cristina Nuñez I am attending online over May to July. It was fascinating to see the different attributes each person saw in this image. As well as seeing sadness and despair some saw strength, some saw an inner child seeking to break out, one saw a Roman General, one saw hope and another saw a politician.

How a Photograph Might Appear

I gave some thought to the appearance of a recent photograph I took. My unconscious was interested in how I might represent my inner state so drew me to watch the movie of Frida Kahlo. There were parallels with her struggle with illness and salvation in art with those of my wife Karen.

I enjoyed the movie and became interested in Frida’s work. Something that has arisen in earlier photographic work was the tension between opposites: strength and weakness, happy and sad, clarity and confusion. It seemed to me powerful opposites are continuously present in the mind and small shifts one way or the other can impact mood dramatically. When I saw the painting by Frida Kahlo called The Two Frida’s it struck me that it represented something I was seeking to capture.

From this image as I was working on ideas for my project and images I might produce I, my unconscious, came up with, planned and executed the following image.

There is a lot of work to do now to create a set of images, media and a method of delivery of this idea. At least for the moment I have a clear idea of where I am heading.


BENJAMIN, Walter. 1931. A Short History of Photography. Literische Welt, 1931. Reprinted from Artforum (Feb, 1977). Vol 15.

Categories: Contextual Research FMP, Final Major Project


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.