I have sent a matchbox pinhole camera for you to photograph a favourite space in your home. Seeing the image develop will be like peeping through your curtains… What will you reveal?

Katie Smith c1991
Katie Smith c1991

Last year I was privileged to work on a project which explored the rich cultural heritage of Lincolnshire’s Gypsies and Travellers. The project used oral history methods to harvest unique and, in many cases, dying memories and experiences of community members. My role was to create an archive of powerful photographic images to support these histories visually and to illustrate the key themes of the project. Placing individuals within the context of an environment that matched their story was therefore crucial in creating photographs that evoked a strong narrative in the imagination of the viewer. Providing this context however was hugely challenging and although I was warmly welcomed into the homes of each families that I worked with there was an overwhelming resistance to be photographed. For the first time I felt that the presence of my camera was intrusive.

Reflecting on this experience led me to consider the wealth of unspoken histories, associations and emotions held within a space particular to any given individual and why that person may oppose being photographed by an unknown within it. Retrieving a photograph of my 17 year old self’s bedroom from the depths of a battered box of memories I mused the relevance of its carefully curated fixtures and fittings in an attempt to understand reasons for opposing being photographed within a personal space. Of prominence in the photograph was silhouette of Morrissey’s profile on my chest of drawers neatly painted in two shades of shiny blue gloss. As an obsessive fan of The Smiths when I stepped into my room, I stepped into their world; a shy, awkward world of unrequited love, kitchen sink drama, 60s movie stars and poetry, it was northern and gritty and I loved it! My family were kept out and only my closest friends were invited in; the only photographs I have of myself in this space are self portraits.

Although I am drawn to contemporary works such as Meadows and Parr’s photographs of the residents of June Street and Mortram’s Small Town Inertia series where the relationship between an individual and their environment is explicit, revisiting my teenage bedroom led me to question whether it is necessary for a personal space to occupied to draw out a reading of an individual’s personality. I was curious to know what the spaces my project friends inhabited would say about them and how I could record these spaces without intruding.

As a point of reference I researched Edmund Clarke’s approach to photographing E Wing at HMP Kingston in Portsmouth for his book ‘Still Life Killing Time’ here the inmates could not be photographed in their personal spaces due to issues of representation and consent. His photographs, devoid of the presence of the inmates become a series of images that respond to the detail of living spaces, creating both a documentary archive and a ‘symbolic still-life study of inanimate everyday objects.’ Although Clarke’s presence on E Wing was collaborative rather than intrusive, building up trust with the inmates over many visits, it was still a presence. Within the context of this project I was intrigued to know if I could find a way of inviting my friends to create an image of their space independently.

I was put in mind of Lucy Phillips’ enthralling project ‘What Cannot be Seen,’ which I researched as part of my MA; Phillips posts her participants a match box sized pinhole camera which they use to photograph what cannot be seen before returning it to her for development. Although the idea is simple Phillips has created the conditions necessary for individuals to document a personal, hidden, aspect of their life and the resulting imagery is not only revealing but beautifully poignant. Taking Lucy’s project as inspiration I decided to investigate the potential of using pinhole cameras remotely as a device for my friends to document a space personal to them.

On entering the practical research phase of this project I soon discovered that creating a pinhole photograph of an interior space with a matchbox camera is an action that almost lies beyond the realms of possibility. Initially I experienced a plethora of emotions born of frustration; from disappointment and dissatisfaction to annoyance and irritation and had I not been encouraged by a minute number of sporadic successes I may have abandoned all thoughts of this particular intervention! Driven on by a stubborn desire to crack the code and provide my friends with an intelligible and fail safe set of instructions I realized that actually what I was doing was reconnecting with the fundamental principles of image making. I measured my miniature camera’s focal plane and aperture size in order to calculate its F-Stop, bracketed my exposure times keeping the inverse square law in mind and assigned the photographic paper, that I used rather than film, an ISO rating.

When I reached the point that I felt that I could proficiently produce a successful image irrespective of nuances in lighting conditions, determined by either the weather or time of day, I issued my collaborators with a pinhole mission. I posted nine packages each containing four pinhole cameras, a carefully compiled list of instructions and a stamped addressed envelope. I invited each to photo an interior space which they felt had personal significance to them and perhaps even containing the essence of their personality.

The packages were returned promptly and their contents processed amongst feelings of anxiety, trepidation and nervous excitement. I was thrilled that each of my collaborators had been able to create a well composed, correctly exposed photograph. On viewing the shadowy, vignetted images produced through this intervention it seems to me that they have the power to evoke the sentiments imbued into them by their makers. They reveal havens of safety and comfort, spaces of escapism, reflection and learning, family environments built around traditions and rituals and carefully curated interiors showcasing treasured processions.

A gallery of ‘spaces’ can be viewed here
©Katie Smith 2013


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s