Artefacts and Ethics

Taryn Simon’s Contraband (2010) is a series of 1,075 photographs of items seized over the period of one week from passengers and express mail entering the United States via the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Federal Inspection Site and the U.S. Postal Service International Facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York.

Anne Collier’s oeuvre incorporates appropriated images and found objects into still life compositions skilfully photographed against plain white (or black) backgrounds. Collier’s images raise questions concerning gender and power whilst demonstrating her interest in the mass media and popular culture of the 60s, 70s and 80s.

French photographer Sophie Calle employs a heavily investigative approach to produce images which provide a voyeuristic disclosure of the private lives of strangers. Again, the images are reliant upon found objects, The Hotel, is a body of work which Calle describes accordingly:

On Monday, February 16, 1981, I was hired as a temporary chambermaid for three weeks in a Venetian hotel. I was assigned twelve bedrooms on the fourth floor. In the course of my cleaning duties, I examined the personal belongings of the hotel guests and observed through details lives which remained unknown to me. On Friday, March 6, the job came to an end’ (Calle, 1999).

The premise for the FMP is a series of still life images based on pertinent diary entries of a former anorexic. The relevance of the aforementioned artists to my practice is, therefore, the approach taken by each in documenting artefacts.


Simon, 2010. Unidentified liquid, hidden in Thermos in satin bedding

Simon’s Unidentified Liquid (2010) is an outstanding image. Pink satin and golden liquid are depicted with a glorious richness, the textile’s fine texture is portrayed exquisitely by the beautiful lighting which also gives the shadows a depth which is almost tangible.

Double Marilyn_Collier

Collier, 2007. Double Marilyn

Double Marilyn (2007) is an antiseptically clean presentation: identical LP album covers are photographed side by side against a simple black and white background, the lighting is exceptionally well-balanced resulting in a subtlety of shadow which is almost total. Despite the no frills approach seemingly taken by Collier which shows the subjects as being what they are – artefacts with a history, it is an aesthetically pleasing image capable of holding the viewer’s gaze.


Calle, 2017. Sophie Calle: Rachel Monique

Sophie Calle: Rachel Monique is the story of Calle’s mother told through extracts from her mother’s diary and family photographs. Items are photographed in a very neutral way – against a crisp, clean background and with diffused lighting producing soft, graduated shadows – the intention being clear, to allow the artefacts to tell their own story devoid of any bias which might result from a more artistic presentation.

sophie-calle_english-grey-final2Calle, 1979. The Striptease

Many of Calle’s images are accompanied by text written by the photographer in order to expand the narrative. The Striptease (1979) demonstrates the matter of fact yet interesting manner in which Calle successfully combines the two elements of image and text. This is also highly relevant given the premise underpinning my FMP.

How, then, do I present my images? How do I effectively include the essential first-person account into a series of still life images?

There is a valid argument for photographing the actual diaries and the salient entries contained within its pages. As we have seen, this worked very successfully for Simon, Collier and Calle.

There is integrity through authenticity.

However, the participant in my research is reluctant to allow this because the pages of her diaries contain other entries which are not relevant to the project, many of which are sensitive and/or personal in nature. I am privileged to observe the diaries and the entries they contain – it is not a privilege which extends as far as the public domain.

Brady et al posit that ‘once a visual image is created it becomes very difficult to control its use or remove it from the public arena if the participants decide that they no longer want to be represented in a fixed visual trope for ‘time immemorial’’ (Brady and Brown, 2013 cited in Mannay 2016).

This may deal with a participants change of heart after the life of the study, but what of the situations where relevant material is contiguous with sensitive material which should not be shared.

Mannay informs us that ‘where topics are particularly sensitive and where visual images act to represent, and fix, participants for ‘time immemorial’ (Brady and Brown, 2013), researchers need to think carefully about whether this recognition is ethical, both in the moment and beyond the lifetime of the study (Mannay, 2016).

Negotiation is an essential aspect of participatory visual research but there has to be some compromise.

There are two positions, then, on the use of artefacts. It boils down to which ideal one is prepared to compromise. If the original artefact is not used, artistic integrity is compromised. If the original artefact is used, the wishes and trust of the participant are betrayed, compromising professional and personal integrity.

For me the choice is clear.

There is fundamental need to carry out impartial, objective research. As a visual researcher, I have an overriding duty to ensure that the needs of the participant are met: a right to have a voice which is heard whilst anonymity and confidentiality are maintained.



Calle. S. (1999). Double Game. London: Violette Editions

Mannay, Dawn (2016), Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods: Application, Reflection and Ethics. Oxon: Routledge

2 thoughts on “Artefacts and Ethics

  1. Pingback: Evolution | The Photographic Art of Food - An MA Photography Project

  2. Pingback: One Man’s Meat … | The Photographic Art of Food - An MA Photography Project

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 )

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.