THE DECISIVE MOMENT
Quarterly journal from the Documentary Group
May 2023 Edition 26
ISSN 2634-8225Photo: Hazel Mason FRPS
May 2023 Edition 26
ISSN 2634-8225Photo: Hazel Mason FRPS
Welcome to another edition of The Decisive Moment. It has been a little longer in production that normal as we have re-organised ourselves, with Nick Hodgson taking over as Editor, and Dave Thorp focussing on Publishing. They are supported by a team of sub-editors (Lyn Newton and Rachael Hill) and content providers (Mike Longhurst, and Gerry Phillipson). I’d like to thank Dave for running both the editor and publishing side for so many years (and holding down a full-time job!) and helping ensure a smooth transition.
This issue coincides with our Documentary Photography Awards (a re-working of our DPOTY). The submissions open on 1 June and close on 31 July. For students and RPS Members, entry is free. We have set a small fee for the Open category, but offer a concession if requested. We are looking for strong documentary and visual storytelling with between 10 and 15 images, a title and a statement. We plan to select three projects from each category to be part of our UK touring Exhibition, there are also some ‘prizes’. For more details see the website: rps.org/groups/documentary/dpa-2023.
I’m sure many of you will have seen the recent debates around AIgenerated images. To be clear here, we are talking about images generated or created by applications such as Open.ai DALL-E and Midjourney using text prompts, not photo processing or editing software such as Photoshop which has AI-based tools (although more on this later).
For our Documentary Photography Awards we have taken a simple and clear position – no AI-generated images will be accepted. Other groups within the RPS will have different views, but our current position is simply that it is difficult reconcile the expectations for authenticity and integrity in documentary photography using an AIgenerated ‘illustration’. Let alone the ‘minor issue’ that no AIgenerated image can be copyrighted, which makes it somewhat difficult to submit an entry into any Award or competition where you must be the copyright holder. Some of the newest AI-tools in Photoshop allow you to edit images using ‘generative fill’, so we now have the challenge of images can be partially generated with AI.
Again, it is hard to reconcile this with the copyright, integrity and authenticity expectations. Policing this will be a challenge, but we have explored several tools that appear to be quite good (some very good) at detection!
In complete contrast, I’m really pleased to see the work of Marc Wilson in this issue. I think I have most of his books, which he self-publishes. His projects are extensively researched, long term and in-depth studies, taking multiple perspectives on the story. They are a great example of what documentary photography can be.
Closer to home, I’m pleased to see many of our regional sub-groups have been active, with a range of events and talks. Several have held exhibitions which we have financially supported. If you are in a region with a local group please come along (or join online), if you don’t have such a group you can always help start one. On that, I’m happy to see to the new Scotland group being formed jointly with Contemporary. And on the topic of working with others, we are planning to hold a joint distinction Advisory Day (for A and F) with Travel in February 2024 at RPS House Bristol, … watch this space.
A final reminder, if you have any projects or work you think would be suitable for Decisive Moment, please contact our editor Nick (decisive@ rps.org). We would really like to showcase more members’ work.
Have a great Summer and don’t forget to enter our Documentary Photography Awards!
Best wishesMark Mark A Phillips FRPS Chair, Documentary Group
Documentary Group Committee:
Chair: Mark A Phillips FRPS firstname.lastname@example.org
Secretary: Nick Linnett LRPS email@example.com
Treasurer: Andrew Ripley firstname.lastname@example.org
Members: Harry Hall FRPS, Chris Martinka, Valerie Mather ARPS, Wayne Richards, Dave Thorp, Nick Hodgson FRPS
East Midlands: Volunteer Required email@example.com
South East: Jeff Owen ARPS firstname.lastname@example.org
Northern: Peter Dixon ARPS email@example.com
Southern: Christopher Morris ARPS firstname.lastname@example.org
Thames Valley: Philip Joyce FRPS email@example.com
East Anglia: Malcolm English ARPS firstname.lastname@example.org
Yorkshire: Carol Hudson LRPS email@example.com
Central (w/Contemporary): Steff Hutchinson ARPS
The Decisive Moment:
Editor: Nick Hodgson FRPS firstname.lastname@example.org
Sub-Editors: Lyn Newton LRPS, Rachael Hill
Editorial: Mike Longhurst FRPS, Gerry Phillipson ARPS
Publishing Dave Thorp email@example.com
And the Rest of the Team:
Bi-Monthly Competition: Volunteer Required firstname.lastname@example.org
Social Media: Wayne Richards email@example.com
Flickr: Volunteer Required
To support the RPS Strategic Plan Photography for Everyone and to enhance the relevance for Documentary Photography by engaging more diverse audiences and ensuring our activities self-fund. We have focussed our goals and 2021-2024 targets under the RPS Mission of inspiration, creativity, and connection: Inspire – showcase inspiring photography and to shed new light on subjects of importance
These activities are focussed around showcasing and celebrating high quality photographic work and thinking, which is fundamental to the RPS’s purpose:
The Decisive Moment
RPS Documentary Photography Awards (DPA)
To develop the range and reach of our educational activities. We want to help photographers develop their practice, and also educate non-photographers about what is current in documentary photography:
‘Telling Stories’ Workshops
Distinction Advisory Engage University courses
Support individual development
To engage with more people and connect with other communities, including those who are not photographers, to appreciate the value of documentary photography, so that it is enjoyed and accessible to as many people as possible:
Work with groups outside RPS
Regional and international activities
Website and social media
Documentary Group Bi-Monthly Competition
Bath-based photographer Marc Wilson was born in London in 1968. After studying Sociology at the University of Edinburgh, he completed a BA and then MA in Photography at the London College of Printing (now part of the University of the Arts in London). His work has been published widely around the world by the Guardian, Times, National Geographic, Wired and the BBC, amongst others.
Remnants is Marc’s fourth book, following on from The Last Stand (2014), Travelogue 1 (2020), and A Wounded Landscape – Bearing Witness to the Holocaust (2021) which is stocked in the bookshop at RPS House in Bristol. He was the last photographer to have an exhibition at Side Gallery in Newcastle before it recently (and hopefully only temporarily) closed its doors.
Remnants follows on from Wilson’s work The Last Stand on former second world war coastal installations and their relationship with the landscape. This time the work is set in the far north of Italy where fierce fighting took place in World War I between the allies (of which Italy was then a part) and the German army, in what was known as the ‘White War’ which ended one week before the armistice was signed in November 1918.
All images ©Marc Wilson 2023
Remnants by Marc Wilson, published by two&two press as a first edition of 1,000, is priced at £32 and is available at www.marcwilson.co.uk/book-print-sales/p/remnantsbook
After your magnus opus A Wounded Landscape which took six years to create, Remnants seemed to happen very quickly. How did this come about?
I was approached by an Italian architect called Marco Ferrari in 2019, who had seen my work The Last Stand and told me how much he admired it. He explained the research he had undertaken about the former first world war alpine landscape of Trento in northern Italy, due north of Verona, where there are numerous sites of long-abandoned concrete bunkers, forts and other military installations. As we spoke, I realised it was a perfect fit for me, because the research had been done so I could fall into the work from a creative perspective. The timing also suited me because I was coming to the end of the lengthy process of publishing A Wounded Landscape. Remnants was a really great opportunity to make a straightforward body of work after the mental battering I’d had over the subject matter of A Wounded Landscape.
I get itchy feet if I haven’t got at least one idea on the go, so all of this seemed like a project that would be very soothing and beneficial to me. It was also a logical extension of The Last Stand, not just photographing another set of abandoned military installations, but taking everything one stage further – not just about the object in the landscape but an extension of that. The project is about the creation of a new landscape, blending the manmade buildings with the rural landscape and creating almost a third landscape, or as Marco puts it, the ‘new ecology’ of a hybrid landscape. The manmade concrete materials are blending with the natural landscape to become something more, with a fascinating hybrid future ahead of it.
No. Although I’d been to Italy many times before, I knew nothing about the history of Trento and its mountainous landscape. I visited the area, did more research and quickly realised the landscape was beautiful. It immediately connected with me from both an emotional and historical point of view. The thought of spending time in the mountains with my camera was very appealing. I organised two four-week trips, to both reccy and shoot. I had a list of locations supplied on Google Maps by Marco and I had an idea of how I wanted to spend my time. If it was sunny, I’d reccy and if it was grey, misty, and damp then I’d shoot. I then showed Marco work-in-progress to make sure that the visuals I was creating worked well with his research, something that would be essential for future exhibitions.
Documenting the relationship between mankind’s trace and the landscape can often feel melancholic and disturbing, but you seem to have approached Remnants in a more positive way than that.
I think so, but it was not preconceived, it was simply a reaction to the landscape that I found myself in. Unlike The Last Stand, where I would come across former military pill boxes looking lost in the sands at the bottom of cliffs, I found objects
that had basically become part of the landscape, literally physically, mentally, and emotionally in every possible way. The wooded alpine landscape felt softer, and gentler. It felt as if the manmade objects had let themselves fall backwards into the landscape, allowing them to be consumed, subsumed and connected. Yes, there is a narrative of trauma and tragedy behind these locations, but this is a body of work about becoming one with the landscape. The mountain scape is so big that these remnants of war are dwarfed by the sheer scale of the locations. I felt the scenes in front of me were guiding me, directing me, which was a different way of working for me.
I had done a lot of preparation, scouting locations and working out composition ideas and how best to photograph them. Without sounding too technical, I remember the first location I visited, Forte Busa Verle (image on page 13), and thinking “Wow!”. I had come across an object that looked like an alien spacecraft that had landed in the mountainous landscape and was now being consumed by grass and hills, so I was left in no doubt about the potential visual power of this project. I then revisited the locations with my camera, often with early starts and in mist and rain.
Your aesthetic is distinctive with muted tones, mists and even snow. This aesthetic is also present in your other works such as The Last Stand and A Wounded Landscape. How did you come to achieve this in your work?
I think it came about from doing early work that was terrible and realising that, although people liked some of this work, I never felt it was that good! So in the early days when I was working on The Last Stand, I’d research a location and return many times shooting at different times of the day and in different seasons. You are not necessarily at the mercy of nature, as you can control the light. I can choose the time of day, the weather conditions, check the tide times, etc. so my aesthetic came from that. Generally speaking, the flatter, the duller the weather, the better for me.
My job as a photographer is to create the arresting visual images that makes the viewer want to stop and think, read the image and read the accompanying text to contextualise everything. And these muted tones work really well for the subject-matter.
Remnants was shot in October 2021 and March 2022, with lots of early starts. Sometimes I’d leave the village where I was staying in bright sunshine and reach the location in the mountains a few kilometres away in rain and mist. There are no people in these images because that can be a distraction with a body of work like this – it’s not about one person’s story, even if it’s partly about a war that took many lives.
The accompanying text has a really important role to give people the background information. It’s not a game. I want people to understand what they’re looking at.
They initially choose to look at an image, and then have a second choice whether they want to read the image. Text allows people to understand to a greater depth by reading the small captions and comments. It helps lead the viewer, like an arm around the shoulder, through the images. I want the viewer to imagine themselves there today, not a hundred years ago when it was a warzone. And there’s an opening essay which contextualises the project, which is obviously very helpful.
I’ve had four exhibitions in Italy already and the reaction so far has been fantastic. Marco has adopted a multi-disciplinary approach, using his text and research, my images, and some illustrations of the locations. An artist has taken earth and flora samples, and another has built some three-dimensional models of the buildings. Marco’s been amazing at getting funding from Italian corporates which, from my perspective, has meant that production costs were all met so that I’ve been able to concentrate on the photography.
My first book, The Last Stand, had a publisher but during the second edition they went out of business, so I became a self-publisher almost by default. This has allowed me to have much more input into the whole process. With Remnants, it’s not about me being in total control as I always collaborate with a designer and bow to their genius and brilliance. They often laugh at some of my ideas, although it’s good to test assumptions. But self-publishing allows me to be in control of how I make my living. So now I’m not just a photographer, I wrap up the books, stick labels on packages and go to the post office. But it allows me to fund new work as all the revenues come to me. My books are a financial investment that allow me to make new work. The harder side is the distribution, but I seem to do alright! But it hasn’t altered the way I work. I’ve never once had to compromise commercially. I just make work that seems to sell quite well. And it also allows me to build a connection with the people who buy my books.
Given it was a relatively quick project and I also wanted to share work-in-progress with Marco, I shot Remnants digitally using a Leica M with an old Nikkor shift lens and EVF. So a lightweight body and one lens and filter, all very portable in the mountains, and with low post-production costs. The shift lens allowed me to get everything right ‘in camera’, meaning there was very little post-production work required.
Keraniganj Shipyards are situated on the banks of the Buriganga River in Dhaka. Shipbuilders and their families live here.
Much of the work is centered around repair and renovation using reclaimed components from the better-known ship break yards in Bangladesh where vessels at the end of their useful lives are broken down.
Elements are either reused, refurbished, or remade. Panels are beaten by hand before being welded and painted. Propellers are renovated or cast from recycled bronze in underground furnaces before being poured into handmade, single use
moulds. This is the largest centre for propeller production in Bangladesh. Skilled work is undertaken without formal qualifications or training, knowledge passed down through the generations.
The environment is harsh. Acrid fumes burn. Oil, metal dust, paint and smoke pervade the yards.
I want to show some of the processes in renovating a vessel, propeller production being at the core.
One of the most frequent discussions around distinctions perhaps comes under the question; what makes a Fellowship? Whilst some assessors say you know one when you see one, that is not a helpful answer for those at an earlier stage in their exploration of photography.
One answer could be that everything has been considered as a whole. That is certainly true with this submission by Hazel Mason. It is not just a narrative, or technical capability, or even an understanding built up of what is going on with the subject matter - of course these are very important criteria in their own right - but they are also not isolated. In her submission Hazel has brought together all the key elements needed to be successful. It is when you see the submission laid out, mounted and presented in print form, that the thing as a whole has been able to fully achieve its intent.
Planning, forethought, consideration, seeking support and the right opinions, are all important activities for a photographer at this level, beyond the capture and process of images. A Fellowship project is not thrown together, it is planned, but also allowed to evolve. When working on a project it is important to be open-minded and able to adapt, if and when needed.
The quality of light that Hazel found at the location, whether by patience or luck, was worked into her cohesion, then exploited through process and printing to create beautifully crafted images. These grab the attention of the viewer and Hazel is part way there. Holding the viewer’s attention, she gains time to share the narrative. Introduced through the statement of intent, an idea of recycling of huge ships, the atmosphere and aromas, and the lack of training. What is unsaid in words but comes through in the images is the additional, sometimes gut-wrenching lack of health and safety. Boys and young men working with molten metal and sledgehammers in everyday clothing and bare feet. All considered through to the last image and the clear statement on the ships structure. A body of work such as this is not completed by accident and coincidence alone.
This is vision and understanding, clearly the work of one photographer through that use of light and colour palette, again producing that cohesion, that single voice, and to any viewer of this submission it is very clear what Hazel wanted to say.
Two of perhaps the most powerful shots have been carefully placed in the centre of the top and bottom rows. Children, their playground amongst the hulls and debris of the regeneration process, innocents whilst presumably fathers, older brothers and uncles, earn their keep.
So what is a Royal Photographic Society Fellowship? Purpose, direction and framework, not without evolution, but clear demonstration by an individual of their ability to manipulate all the elements of a documentary submission, narrative, vision, understanding, cohesion, technique, presentation, and working them all in conjunction to create one clearly distinctive body of work.
In this submission the Documentary panel clearly recognised this and were very happy to award a Fellowship.
“A Fellowship project is not thrown together, it is planned, but also allowed to evolve. When working on a project it is important to be openminded and able to adapt, if and when needed”
What led you to want to document this project? What first attracted you to the subject/location?
My husband and I have travelled extensively and spent time in Bangladesh between 2017 and 2023 with a break during Covid. I have been inspired by Sebastian Salgado and Steve McCurry’s work and have seen images of the ship breakyards in Chittagong and Mumbai.
However, I wanted to tell part of the story of the ship recycling process which takes place at Keraniganj, on the banks of the Buriganga river in Dhaka. Ships are made seaworthy through recycling components and then rebuilding. It is one of the largest areas for propeller making.
Fascination, admiration and intrigue in being allowed to watch these skilled labourers building mighty vessels from component parts and skeletons of ships. Having the access, and allowing time, enabled me to witness the process at all stages, helping me to understand the industry taking place on the riverbanks and in small workshops.
Did you find you needed to relate to those working on the site? If so, how did you develop an affinity?
I am a GP and have an interest in people and communication, thus I always try to relate to subjects whom I photograph. I feel it is important that permission and engagement are sought, rather than stealing an image from a distance. My husband and I travel as a couple and so have been able to gain access where larger groups may not have done so. Most importantly for me is the ability to watch, learn and take in the scene before picking up the camera and taking an image. Communication does not necessarily need a common language but can be through a gesture or showing an image. The superb and sensitive series of guides has made things easier.
Camera in hand, were there times when you were regarded with suspicion? Did you ever experience antagonism or feel threatened?
Interest? Yes. Suspicion or antagonism? No. But it is important to be introduced to the subject and if that person does not wish their
photograph to be taken it is usually clear and that must be respected. We have never felt threatened in any way, on the contrary, people were accepting and happy to share information.
One of the big challenges was photographing for many hours in the heat and remaining hydrated. There were small workers’ tea stalls but little else in the immediate vicinity and I spent many hours on site on each occasion. The light can be very bright with harsh shadows and bright highlights, so having that understanding of light direction and use of light could be a challenge with exposure and tonal range. The site was active and very busy with the transportation of sheets of metal, use of large machinery, heated furnaces in the ground and rapidly turning propellers - all of which had to be navigated without getting in the way. Both our personal safety, and that of the workers, had to be always considered.
Some of the subjects, for example interiors like images 5, 6 and 8, would work well in black and white. Did you consider showing monochrome work?
I wished to portray life as it is today for these workers and that is in colour. It can be a challenge to ensure cohesion and consistency, and I feel the colour adds to intent and communication. One can see visually what is being portrayed in monochrome but using colour to show the dust and dark smoke, for example, along with the heat of the furnace, adds another dimension for interpretation and awakens the other senses.
This is a digital project shot over several years and visits. Digital allowed the use of variable ISO to help with dark interiors and more challenging light. I was also the able to take a greater number of images. I always feel it is important to try and achieve the composition and decisive moment at the taking stage of an image if possible. It can take time to wait until subjects are interacting with each other or forming a pleasing separation in the composition and this, I feel, adds to a stronger image. This is easier to achieve with digital rather than being constrained by film.
who are in arduous conditions. I want the viewer to appreciate the story as a whole narrative but also the story being told within each individual image.”
Which photograph from your panel is the most successful for you and gave you most satisfaction?
I do not feel that any image is stronger or more successful than another. I tend to work in projects and bodies of work, and here I wished to create a visual narrative whereby the individual images, although hopefully strong in their own right, needed the other images to fulfil the story. I intended them to work together for this personal project rather than submitting single images for any other purpose. I do have my favourite images, but the narrative was not based on this.
Which photograph in the panel did you find the most difficult to achieve?
The most difficult image to achieve was image 12. The propellers are not cast every day and considerable preparation goes into the point at which the molten bronze is poured into the pre prepared mould. I have only seen them poured twice. It is a quick process to melt the bronze, take it out of the ground and into the workshop whilst it is in liquid form. It requires numerous workers and occurs around the heated furnace and the oil drums. It was a challenge to be in the right place at the right time without being in the way or having the distractions within the composition.
Is there one that got away, the photo you really liked but decided not to include, and if so, why?
Numerous photographs were discarded along the way as they did not add to the story. The one image that I almost included was a substitute for image 3 but it would have sat in position 1, therefore starting the panel. This image was taken with a wide-angle lens at low level close to the boat and of the whole boat. I wanted to show the huge sense of
“I hope the viewer can go away with some knowledge and awareness of the complexity of the process, and the hard work and skill of the workers
scale, but I felt it could be a risk due to the distortion of lens use that might not appeal to some assessors.
If you could rework the panel, what changes would you now make and why?
I would not wish to rework the panel with the images I have achieved over the numerous visits. I think it is important when submitting a body of work at Fellowship level that one has tried one’s best to achieve that distinctive cohesive standard. There has to be an investment in time and access to produce a body of work for which one can stand back from just before the assessment submission deadline and say “I could not have done this any better”.
Yes. Fellowship is a marker on a longer journey for a project and it’s important that this can continue to be explored. Hopefully we will be back in Bangladesh next year, and return to Keraniganj to further explore the subject in more detail. Repeated visits allow a continued photographic growth in terms of subject matter and understanding of light.
What do you want the viewer to take way from these photographs? What general impression do you want to convey?
I hope the viewer can go away with some knowledge and awareness of the complexity of the process, and the hard work and skill of the workers who are in arduous conditions. I want the viewer to appreciate the story as a whole narrative but also the story being told within each individual image.
Yes, I would be keen to look towards a book documenting a lot more of this industry, its people and their families. I am still working in the NHS and have not been able to devote time to consider how I would do so. It would need considerable thought about the images and perhaps some limited narrative. For me the project is ongoing, hence I currently would not wish this point for a book to mark the finality of the project.
What thoughts would you like to share with those embarked on a submission about understanding what is required for Fellowship?
I am Chair of the Travel panel and previously achieved a Travel fellowship. I feel it is essential in all genres to read the criteria which are clearly set out by the RPS distinctions. Guidelines vary within each genre and the Statement of Intent is there to set out aims and objectives. In each case, having a statement in advance gives a framework for the images and context to the story and, in this case, hopefully “communicates a clear narrative through visual literacy”. This contrasts with the Travel genre which is photography that “gives a sense of place” and so here the images are less about the storyline and more about giving the viewer - who may not know the subject - an idea of what that place is like without words.
One of the most important elements for me is that the Fellowship should be a project for which one has a passion, and the distinction process is a marker on the journey. A clear understanding of light and composition is required along with technical ability, and this was gained by repeated trips to Bangladesh and in particular the shipyards of Keraniganj. I knew in advance exactly what I wanted to photograph and how. Time and access are very important, and I spent many hours on repeated visits in the blistering heat of the shipyards to obtain a very large body of work which then had to be distilled so that each photograph had its place in the narrative.
I very much valued the advice from a current Documentary panel member’s (James Frost FRPS) in the final selection. However, it was important to make that body of work my personal project over which I had ownership and was not otherwise influenced by anyone else. I felt that printing the panel with an appropriate paper choice was paramount as it gave me oversight and control in how my images would be viewed on the assessment day.
The Documentary Photography Awards (DPA) is organised by the Royal Photographic Society’s Documentary Group. It runs every two years. The previous editions (as DPOTY) have been running since 2012 and provides an opportunity to showcase documentary work and visual storytelling.
The Award categories are: Open, Student and RPS Members.
The selected projects will feature in a UK touring exhibition, currently planning to cover London, Bristol, Newcastle with other events in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Bursaries and support will also be offered to selected projects.
All selected projects will also have opportunities for publication in The Decisive Moment and The RPS Journal and selected photographers will be invited to present at our Engagement Talk series.
Specifically for each category:
Open Category - in addition to the exhibition, one of the selected projects will be awarded a £500 bursary, and a selected photographer will receive development support from a leading photographer.
Student Category - in addition to the exhibition, one of the selected projects will be awarded a £300 bursary, and a selected photographer will receive development support from a leading photographer.
RPS Member Category - in addition to the exhibition, one photographer will be offered professional development support from a leading photographer.
We also have other prizes including free supporter membership of the Martin Parr Foundation and RPS memberships to award.
See out website for more information on the Awards, Key Dates, the Selection panel and How to Enter.
Opening Date for Entries: Submissions will OPEN on 1 June 2023. All submissions must be made via the online portal.
Closing Date for Entries: Entries will close at 23:59 BST on Monday 31 July 2023
Judging: All entries are reviewed, longlisted, shortlisted and selected anonymously. Images will be initially longlisted by the RPS for judging and then shortlisted, followed by final judging to select the category awards and projects to be exhibited.
Awards Event: will take place in December 2023 online (date to be confirmed later).
Exhibition: from early 2024 as a UK touring Exhibition to include RPS House, Bristol, other venues will be announced later in the year.
Our international panel of experts and selectors currently includes:
Alejandro Chaskielberg, photographer and curator, Buenos Aires
Liz Hingley, photographer, curator and anthropologist, London
Roy Mehta, Photographer and Lecturer, London
Rosy Santella, picture editor, Internazionale, Rome
Roger Tooth, former head of photography, The Guardian
We are looking to add to the panel and will provide an update later.
“As someone who enjoys visiting and photographing some of the more dilapidated corners of the UK, especially those that have attracted street artists, I was excited to find two accessible Royal Air Force (RAF) stations that have long been abandoned. Much of my spare time over the last few years has been spent between the two.”
RAF Collyweston, three miles southwest of Stamford in Lincolnshire, was originally built in 1917 as a satellite station of nearby RAF Wittering. First named as No. 5 Training Depot Station, it was renamed RAF Collyweston following the formation of the RAF in April 1918.
Throughout the second world war a number of different units were stationed there. These included 133 Squadron, which was one of the famous Eagle Squadrons formed from American volunteers, and No. 1426 Enemy Aircraft Flight (nicknamed the Rafwaffe) which used captured German aircraft to give allied crews a chance to brush up their recognition skills and spot enemy weaknesses. RAF Collyweston was also used later to accommodate prisoners of war. In 1955 an Explosives Storage Area was built as a munitions storage site for neighbouring RAF Wittering and RAF (USAF) Lakenheath. It mainly stored bombs and rockets, and there seems to be no foundation to rumours of it being used for nuclear weapons. The site was decommissioned and abandoned in 1996, and today it is used for storing fireworks – which seems an appropriate change of use in view of its history.
Since the decommissioning, the site has been vandalised, stripped of all valuable metal scrap and is now open to the weather. It has also been used for illegal raves (reportedly up to 4,500 revellers attending one in April 2006).
More importantly Collyweston is also home to some amazing street art. Much of the best street art has been overlaid with graffiti and a lot is on deteriorating surfaces. I find the combination of the dilapidated buildings, whose purpose was war and the abstract beauty of the fading street art fascinating. I started urban exploration or ‘Urbex’ of the site in September 2000 and returned twenty times up until the site was made secure (and inaccessible) in July 2022.
I then started to visit the abandoned RAF Upwood site just north of Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, most recently with my friend Ben Warburton. Although partially demolished, there are still numerous buildings on the site. Originally used by the RAF from 1916 until 1919, Upwood was reborn in 1935 as a bomber station before reverting to being a ground station. In the 1960s it became a USAF support base for nearby RAF Alconbury and subsequently housed a training college and hospital but was finally closed in 1995.
Like Collyweston, the buildings at Upwood have been damaged and vandalised, but they are also heavily covered in street art. Because I’m attracted to abstract images of dilapidation, I found both former RAF bases very satisfactory for my photography. So much so that I am currently basing an Associate Panel, in book format, on images taken at the Collyweston site.
For the technically minded, almost all of the 6,000 images I have captured of the two sites have been on a tripod, initially using Nikon then Sony cameras. Lenses used have been a standard 24-70 zoom and a macro. A number of images have been processed in stacking software to ensure good depth of field.
Chance so often plays an important role for the documentary photographer as an idea for a project unfolds. And so it was one day in 1978, when a young Jem Southam working at the renowned Arnolfini gallery in Bristol peered out of his office window to see what all the noise was about. The cacophony opposite was the demolition of an old quayside warehouse, so he quickly went over to the site with camera in hand to investigate further. As Southam writes in the foreword to his new book The Harbour, ‘So began a photographic study of the remains of the architectural landscape of the docks’.
Today Bristol is both a thriving regional city and arguably a key hub for the British photography scene, boasting the headquarters of the RPS and Martin Parr Foundation together with photo-friendly institutions such as the Royal West of England Academy, UWE and the aforementioned Arnolfini. But back in the late 70’s, Bristol was, like many British cities, searching for a new economic identity. Its traditional industries, including tobacco, wine importing and aerospace were all, for very different reasons, under threat. Financial services, and Wallace and Gromit, had yet to arrive. Central Bristol, dominated by its dockland area, was an area waiting to be transformed. Centuries-old industries such as shipbuilding had virtually ceased and there was little activity apart from visits by a sand dredger. All other commercial ships were too large to navigate up the River Avon, so they offloaded their cargoes at the then recently-built Royal Portbury Dock on the Severn. The central Bristol dockland area of the ‘Floating Harbour’ - so called because it was originally the tidal river until the city fathers realised the importance of building lock gates at each end of the docks to retain a constant water level, thereby creating a separate tidal waterway called the ‘New Cut’ - was a scene of empty, decaying warehouses and old cranes. Apart from the fledgling museum of Brunel’s ship Great Britain, few people bothered to visit the area. Apart from Southam.
Often working on a Sunday morning, he would walk around the derelict dockland sites pretty much unimpeded, tripod and 5x4 MPP folding bed camera in hand, and set about recording the vistas. In the fiveyear period of the project he shot over 1,000 images. The results portray at times melancholic scenes of yesteryear, of abandonment and former industrial glory, of erstwhile sites of employment and pride (the harbour was home to the phrase ‘ship-shape and Bristol fashion’), but with no indication of the transformation the area was later to experience.
The Harbour is a beautiful hardcover landscape first edition of 104 pages with 58 monochrome plates. The edit is sequenced geographically, starting at the western end of the docks and heading east. The pacing is deliberately slow, as these images require full examination. We see old gas works, bonded warehouses, derelict dock offices and old crane piers set against an empty sky looking somewhat lost. Abandoned warehouses are juxtaposed against the distant Georgian terraces of Clifton. Traces of old railway lines, boat moorings and collapsed roofs abound. Look at many of the backgrounds and the compositional depth is remarkable - Bristol’s famous landmarks can often be seen in the distance.
The book’s cover might on first examination appear abstract but is in fact an outlined map of the Floating Harbour and New Cut, with the rear outside image (Sand Wharf, Hotwells 1978) featuring the Harry Brown sand dredger being unloaded - poignant as this was the last commercially-working ship in Bristol docks and the picture is one of only a handful of images in the book depicting ongoing human activity.
Southam first exhibited these early images at the now-defunct Bristol Arts Centre in 1981 and a book featuring rather more text than images was published in 1983. In 2021, as part of the Bristol Photography Festival, a selection of his prints were shown outside The Underfall Yard at the western end of the docks. RRB’s decision to produce the book now, especially as the majority of the photographs are previously unpublished, is a logical final step along the journey of Southam’s project.
I grew up in 1970’s Bristol and my great-grandfather worked at the docks there as a shipbuilder, so I’ve enjoyed both the personal nostalgia of The Harbour and its historical documentary qualities. But The Harbour is more than just a fascinating delve into the past for Bristolians of a certain age and as such should undoubtedly have a much wider appeal. It’s an important body of British industrial documentary landscapes, of an area about to go through significant and lasting change, created by one of Britain’s most respected contemporary documentary photographers.
The Harbour by Jem Southam is published by RRB Books
All upcoming RPS Documentary Events can be found on our events page.
RPS East Midlands Region - Photowalk and Photobook event
‘Abstracts of Whatton’
03 June 2023 - 13:00 - 17:00, Whatton Village Hall
Since 2015 we have organised a number of street photography events which then regional organiser Stewart Wall via his Future Heritage group creates a collaborative photobook. These photobooks become an great learning opportunity to see what you fellow photographers create of the same thing on the same day, with the same opportunities. The added bonus is that in the future someone might be looking at the book, and remark on your work. It is a nice feeling.
RPS Women in Photography Group - Nicola Tree: ‘Civil Disobedients’
05 June 2023 - 18:30, online
Just Stop Oil is an environmental activist group, using civil resistance and direct action to halt new fossil fuel licensing. I set out to document this community that have been outcast by the establishment for having incompatible values and actions. Through meeting and photographing the members, I found a community that was engaging, strong, kind and connected, supporting each other through incredibly brave actions and taking the consequences in their stride.
RPS Documentary Thames Valley - Barry Lewis
07 June 2023 - 18:30, online
In this Online Talk run by the Thames Valley Documentary Group Barry Lewis presents his current work “Intersections”: a study of London through portraits and the words of the people photographed.
01 June 2023 - Opening date for entries
31 July 2023 - Closing date for entries
December 2023 - Awards event online
2024 - UK touring exhibition
As well as centrally organised events, our Regional Groups put on local events. These include talks and presentations, local workshops or exhibitions of members work, group projects, visits and photo walks, feedback and critique sessions and online Zoom meetings. We currently have Groups in:
Northern, Yorkshire, East Anglia, Thames Valley, Southern, South East, and joint groups with Contemporary in Central and North West.
The documentary group has a presence on the following platforms, come and join in the conversation. We understand that not everyone has a social media profile or wants to create one. That’s why all our profiles are public and can be viewed by everyone, no matter whether you have an account or not. This means you will be able to view all our posts and book on to ticketed events. Checking our RPS page and searching for events is still a good way to keep informed with all that is happening in the Documentary group. If you have any questions you can always e-mail us – all our contact details are listed there.
Facebook Page - facebook.com/rpsdocumentary
Our public Facebook page is new, but it already highlights the successful projects that entered our Documentary Photographer of the Year competition. You can also find albums for the Bi-monthly Competition winners and short texts from our Journal The Decisive Moment (DM) there – these updates are designed to be easy to read on a phone screen that also provides you with the link to the full articles.
Facebook Group - facebook.com/groups/RPSDVJ
We also have a closed group Facebook page, exclusively for our members. If you want to join us there, you can share your pictures with us, ask for advice, and engage with our online community.
Instagram is an image-based social media platform, so think of our profile as of an online gallery. If you follow us there, you can see pictures from our competition winners, DM contributors and members along with invitations to events and images from these occasions. Instagram is the place where we want to promote the work of our group and our members to the wider public and encourage them to follow and engage with our projects.
Documentary Group members run an active group on Flickr with plenty of images and the opportunity to discuss them with the group.
Our Twitter page is for short important updates such as events, exhibitions, call for entries or other announcements. If you do not have much time for scrolling on social media but still want to be in on the action, we recommend you to follow us there. We promise we’ll be short and concise.
The Decisive Moment is published on the Issuu platform where you can read each edition online or download pdfs to read offline. Please follow the Documentary Group in Issuu and use the buttons to like and share your favourite editions or individual features - it really helps support the Documentary Group.
The Documentary Special Interest Group has a section on The Royal Photographic Society website. Here you can learn more about the group, hear about recent news and future events and access an increasing number of documentary photography resources. There are now nearly 100 recommend photobooks, nearly 20 reference books on approaches and issues in documentary and around 30 street-photo references/books, plus links to 24 online archives. All free and available to anyone.
Documentary photography as a practice spans a range of approaches, so makes precise definition difficult. Taken literally, all forms of photography can be described as documentary, in that they document someone, something or some place. As a working definition, the Documentary Group uses the following:
“Documentary photography communicates a clear narrative through visual literacy. It can be applied to the photographic documentation of social, cultural, historical and political events.
Documentary photographers’ work always has an intent; whether that is to represent daily life, explore a specific subject, deepen our thinking, or influence our opinions.”
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Members form a dynamic and diverse group of photographers globally who share a common interest in documentary and street photography.
We welcome photographers of all skill levels and offer members a diverse programme of workshops, photoshoots, longer-term projects, exhibitions, an online journal and newsletter and the RPS Documentary Photography Award (DPA).
Some longer-term collaborative projects are in the pipeline for the future. We have a active membership who participate in regional meetings, regular competitions and exchange ideas online through our social media groups.
Overseas members pay £5 per annum for Group membership rather than the £10 paid by UK based members.
The Documentary Group is always keen to expand its activities and relies on ideas and volunteer input from its members.
If you’re not a member come and join us. Find us on the RPS website at: rps.org/documentary