Creating a Brief
Creating a project, or a portfolio, isn't just a matter of collecting a bunch of individual images until you have enough; no matter how good you are at making those images. There needs to be 'through lines', 'internal consistencies', 'over-arching narratives', etc... Something that makes the whole, more than the sum of its parts. There needs to be a vision (or a brief) that informs the work from the very start, so that those strands do get woven in. It's possible to grow this vision as you grow the work, but if you don't give it attention at some point you risk ending up with just a jumble of images. All the way through Project 269 that was one of my main concerns, how to ensure I didn't just end up with a confused jumble of pictures.
I didn't just decide one day to spend two years photographing tube stations, the idea grew a little more organically than that and I suspect the best ideas always do. If you start with a very fixed and definite idea, there's less room for growth and creative freedom. When it comes to writing I've often heard the adage "write about what you know", but I've always been uncomfortable with this idea. Art should be about discovery, for the artist and the audience. A fixed idea exploring a thing you know intimately well can bring a deep and unique perspective, but may well fail to engage others. But then, a completely alien landscape can leave you floundering, barely scratching the surface, and ultimately confused. If you can forge a journey for yourself into the unfamiliar, but not utterly alien, then perhaps you can take others with you and ultimately have an audience for your work.
This journey follows a map, the project brief. The brief for Project 269 was deceptively simple:
To present one representative image for each tube station.
The tube is at once, both familiar and yet unknown. It is in fact globally familiar, being the oldest such system in the world it is known about by, I'd suggest, very many people. Yet even Londoners who use it everyday rarely take time to consider it in any detail, and very, very few of them have ever travelled all of it. So it was a perfect framework for a major project, familiar enough to be accessible yet unknown, unexplored, enough to be interesting.
I'd been living in London for about 8 years, shooting plenty of street and architecture images along the way. I had a handful of stations already covered just as a consequence of that. So when, one day, my wife suggested shooting them all it came as a very good idea. It suited both my skills and my interests, and still represented a significant challenge.
When taking on a major project it's important to know the brief is solid. You don't want to get a year in and then decide its undoable, or not worth doing.
Also, I've described the brief as a map for a journey. How does such a simple statement achieve that for us? Put simply, by raising questions; the answers to which provide guidance on the approach.
8 questions a project brief poses:
Is it accessible to others (is it interesting?)
Is it meaningful to, or challenging of, yourself (is this how you want to spend your time?)
Is it exploratory (will we learn something along the way?)
Is it novel (has exactly this already been done?)
Is it timely (is there a good reason for doing it now?)
Is it finite (is it clear when the project is complete)
Is it realistic (are there any major impediments to achieving it?)
Is it achievable (do you have the skills, time and resources needed?)
A good brief doesn't have to answer all of those questions, but if you understand the brief in these terms you'll avoid wrong turns and dead ends. These questions help to direct the minute decisions as you go, and it's this direction that weaves in the lines of consistency needed to ensure you create a set, not a jumble, of images. Regards Project 269 the essential features of the brief are:
It's a system that millions of people use to facilitate their daily lives. Many people already have a connection with it and so will be able, in some way, to relate to the work. To help ensure this I deliberately travelled as a normal commuter, I didn't seek out any special access. Every view is available to anyone else so if an image is surprising they can visit the station and see the context of the shot for themselves.
I'd taken an interest in the tube so knew quite a bit about it, but I hadn't travelled it all. The project would build upon a little knowledge I had, and would round that out significantly. This didn't inform the shooting, but was certainly helpful later when making shot selections for the portfolio.
So few people have seen the entire network the project was implicitly exploratory. This certainly directed the work, with certain shots deliberately picking out detail, or presenting abstracts, that are simply not registered by people going about their daily lives.
People do visit every station, but as a marathon or world record attempt; not so much to experience and capture the station itself. This was a very important consideration - it made me realise that the project was more about experiencing each station as fully as possible, not just visiting to get a shot. Several times people have remarked on how well I've represented their home station in a single image. You can't consciously do that, but a well considered brief can make that possible. By thinking about how my project could be novel, different to what others were doing, I decided I would not only visit every station but I would exit and re-enter them. Which led to a really good appreciation of every station. Which then led to strong and recognisable representations.
By finishing in 2015 I got around the network just before the whole Crossrail project led to major station refurbishments, station closures, and new station openings. Thinking about the timeliness certainly helped to direct my approach. For example I was sure to shoot the iconic mosaics at Tottenham Court Road before the major remodelling of the station. I chose to shoot Bond Street mid-remodelling. The whole portfolio represents the impending moment of significant change that Crossrail represents, but definitely sits on the "before" side of that change; firmly stamping the work at an historically significant moment.
It was a little complex deciding exactly how many stations there are but the project is implicitly finite; there was a definite finish point. Whilst not critical to a photography project this does help in creating a sense of momentum, which is certainly important in a major undertaking. It also helps in creating 'headlines', a news worthy story.
There are some real challenges in a project like this. Legal issues, access issues, privacy issues all impinge on the work. Many years of street photography equipped me well for this and these constraints became a part of the signature of the work. Thinking them through beforehand meant that I avoided frustrations along the way. Read the section (below) on Permits and Rights for more details.
With a full time job to hold down I had no idea how long such a project would take. So I set a target to shoot 10% of the network (27 stations) just as and when I could. I then looked at how long that took and made a projection that said the whole project would take 18 months. I checked progress at 25% and that estimate still seamed reasonable. This is when I finally, truly committed to the project. I was happy with the rate as I realised I'd be able to represent the city across the seasons - and this also helped to direct my approach. At times I deliberately chose dismal days to shoot, exactly because I wanted all weathers represented.
These questions aren't intended to make it hard to create a brief - rather they're a framework for fleshing a brief out so that you get some over-arching direction in to the work, which brings a coherency that ensures the whole is greater than the parts.
For Project 269 the coherency that the fleshed out brief gave me was:
Ensure we represent the network before/during the Crossrail change, not after it
Try to represent a range of seasons
Show the stations as part of the city (no special access, not too many roundels)
Treat people sensitively
Experience the whole station, inside and out
Of course, I'm writing here with hindsight. I didn't work all this out quite so neatly at the time. Some of this thinking is implicit within my own approach to photography, but it is a useful framework for a major project. That said, once I hit the 25% mark I took a step back and considered the work as a whole. It was at this point I really nailed the brief, I had full answers to all 8 questions, and I was confident that if I progressed along similar lines I would end up with a coherent set of images.
I had a recipe to manage the rest of the shoot:
Exit every station
Shoot platforms, stairs/escalators, interchange levels, ticket halls, ceilings, exteriors and details
Limit number of stations per session to 10 at most
Do not be deterred by time of day or quality of weather
The creative process requires that you walk a line between the wholly spontaneous and the wholly planned. By developing my brief over time, over the first 25% of the work, by starting with a loose idea but by consciously firming it up I achieved just that. And this approach left me in a strong place when it came to selecting just one shot for each station, so I could effectively manage the portfolio.
Notes on Permits and rights
Photography in the field is a little wrought with so many constraints on what is allowed, but we're fortunate in the UK that there's an underpinning in our legal and cultural history of basically allowing photography. So if you go about your business sensitively, and true to your own vision, you shouldn't have too many troubles.
With Project 269 the main concerns were
am I allowed to take photographs 'here'
am I allowed to take photographs of 'that'
am I allowed to take photographs of 'them'
In the UK you're allowed to take photographs on public land so long as you're not invading privacy. So you can't stand on the pavement and point a long lens at someone's window, but shooting a street scene with people in it is fine. Given how much CCTV we're subjected to this feels like a fair position to me. If the state is going to film every moment it can, we ought to be allowed to make a few shots ourselves. This has also allowed us to enjoy over a century of public photography, showing us 'how we used to live'. Such collections (consider Bob Mazzer) are thoroughly enjoyed by many people and its important that today's photographers are allowed to create an archive for the future; this is at the heart of Project 269.
They key is to ensure you don't invade privacy. Of course, it's quite impossible to know that as a fact - so my approach is to never try to steal a picture from someone else's life. I will be discrete in my work (I don't get in the way, I don't make a fuss) but I am never furtive (I don't hide, or use tricks to disguise what I'm doing). Whenever you see a distinguishable person in my photographs they will always have had reasonable opportunity to ask me what I'm doing, or not to, or just to wait off frame until I'm done. You can see in some shots people looking directly at me, but they nevertheless made no fuss.
Tube stations of course aren't public land, but they pretty much follow the provisions of the railway act when it comes to photography. Commercial shoots will buy permits which I'm sure makes life easier when creating schedules and looking for special access - but they're expensive, I didn't want any special access, and I'm by no means a commercial photographer. So I abided by the expectations of any passing photographer: I didn't use flash, or a tripod; I didn't cause an obstruction; and I never put myself or others in danger. In short I was discrete - as any street or city photographer has to be. I took in excess of 5,000 images for the project, only once did a member of staff ask me what I was doing. The act of observation doesn't HAVE to change the observed.
So before starting the project I had a pretty good grasp on the permissions relating to Where, How and Who of public photography - but when considering the What, there was one potentially thorny problem.
I'd read reports of Intellectual Property Rights cases where the owners of billboard adverts felt a photograph of the street had infringed their copyright by reproducing the advert. I understood the ruling considered the 'prominence' of the advert in the photograph: was it just part of the background, or was it an intrinsic part of the narrative. Now that's a hard call to generalise about.
I had a degree of awareness of these issues, and I think most people know that TfL consider the Roundel to be their IPR. Now, I wanted an eclectic collection of images across the network so I was never going to litter my work with roundels; but at the same time, it would feel like an odd representation of the Tube not to have at least some prominent roundels in it! I had no idea what TfL's attitude might be and there's not much case precedent (that I know of) to offer clear guidance.
It was a confusing and unfamiliar problem space, but it's one of the things that eventually made me glad to be executing the project as a passionate amateur and not a professional or commercial photographer. As an amateur I was able to put aside worries about "will I be allowed to sell my own work" and so to shoot every station exactly as I wanted to.
So when I got an e-mail from TfL's head of IPR development I wasn't in the least worried, because I knew I'd set out to represent the tube not reproduce it for my own evil ends.
I knew there were images that TfL would feel they had to exert their rights over, and that some of these would weaken the collection if I took them out - because representing the roundel to a degree is core to the concept. I felt in every case that I had artistic integrity, that there was more to the shot than a mechanical reproduction of somebody else's design. However things went, if I were to challenge TfL's view I may win some arguments and would probably lose some arguments; the project would ultimately suffer. So my objective wasn't to win the "it's not your IP argument" at all, but rather to assure the collection remained complete.
The original contact was very cordial, not over officious at all, so I suggested we sit down over a cup of tea or coffee. Which we did. I pointed out, I think, 28 shots with prominent roundels and around 40 or so more with any size or part of roundel in them. TfL considered that 24 of the shots (less than 10% of the collection) impinged materially on their Roundel IP. I was very happy. That's just about the right level to represent the Roundel in the collection without the whole set being dominated by this very bold but simplistic and repetitive device.
Then it was a question of what was to be done about those 24. I knew I could swap them out, but I just didn't want to. I didn't think that was the right choice in any way. So I reverted to basics. At this point I had three aims: to exhibit the collection again if I wanted to; to publish them in a book; to bequeath them to a museum for future generations.
TfL's only real concern was that I had the images in an online shop. The idea of a future book was fine, they're used to working with publishers regards rights. Anything none-commercial they were happy not to block. They just didn't want me selling those particular images as greetings cards etc.
The online shop has been pretty low volume and isn't core to what's important to me. So without having to agree with TfL's stance I happily took those images out of the shop. Nobody argued. Nobody admitted or denied any claims. We simply came to a mutually agreeable conclusion.
TfL were then really helpful in forging a link for me with The Transport Museum. This was the first, professional, rights conversation I'd ever had to have. The outcome is that Project 269 is in a better place than ever. Sometimes it isn't enough being right, and sometimes being right isn't even important - always chose your battles.
To summarise the legal aspects of Project 269 (remembering I'm no lawyer, these are just my experiences):
be aware of where you're shooting and what the restrictions/permissions are
be aware of who you're shooting, don't invade privacy, don't use your camera to steal moments of people's lives
be discrete but not furtive
respect the IP of others, bring something new or unique to the image
don't fear the IP of others, especially where it's a part of the cultural landscape
don't freak when someone questions you on IP, there's almost certainly a win-win solution
Finally, trust to your work. If it's strong enough it can enhance the value of any IP that others seek to protect, and that can lead to collaboration not litigation.
This is a full description of exactly how I managed shooting the entire tube network; but then I had to turn those thousands of images into a coherent portfolio. I knew I had the basis for that as I'd fully considered the brief and allowed it to add direction to my approach - so all I had to do now was to Manage The Portfolio... Which I'll talk about in my next posting.