Stranger happenings

I have always been intrigued by how text can be combined with an image to construct a meaningful photograph, but never really knew where to look for inspiration. Cotton (2011) offered me some inspiration in her first chapter by introducing me to the work of Gillian Wearing's 'Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say'. 

Gillian Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a white piece of card. 

Gillian Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a white piece of card. 

Wearing's resulting photographs 'revealed the emotional stress and personal issues that were occupying their minds' (Cotton, C. 2011, p. 30) that passers by would otherwise fail to notice. 

Usually it is the portrait photographer who is in control of the subject, being able to manipulate their muse within their studio. Wearing has relinquished this control, allowing the subject self-determination of the photograph's message. Her method transcends that of traditional portrait photographers, capturing the profundity and experience of everyday life. However, Gillian Wearing is still in control of the strangers she invites to be photographed and which images will be included in the final collection.  

Shizuka Yokomizo adopts a similar method of transference of control to the subject, who is unknown to her. Yokomizo's 'Stranger' (1999) involved her sending letters to potential subjects who would be easily photographed at a ground floor window, at a particular time in the evening.  Each willing participant kept their curtains open and lights on, posed in anticipation to be photographed by a stranger. Yokomizo produced 19 photographs in which the subject dictated the pose and clothing worn. Cotton (2011) likened the windows to mirrors, as if the strangers are looking at themselves, in anticipation of being photographed. The 'mirror' marks the physical space that separates the seer from the seen.

Angier (2007, p.72) sums up this encounter as: 

"a zero-degree confrontation in which the pre-condition for intimacy is present, but intimacy itself is left deliberately unfulfilled." 

A stranger stands at her front window, waiting to be photographed by a stranger. 

A stranger stands at her front window, waiting to be photographed by a stranger. 

Unlike most voyeuristic portraiture, Yokomizo's subject are aware that they will be photographed by a stranger, having been informed anonymously by letter, saying:

Dear Stranger, 

I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know...I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening.  

Angier (2007) points out that The salutation on Yokomizo's letter is a paradox, suggesting both intimacy (Dear) and distance (stranger). 

Some portrait photographers could be considered to have an air of arrogance in knowing how the sitter should pose in order to produce the right type of image. Both Wearing and Yokomizo allow us more information about their subjects by allowing them greater influence in creating the scene.  


Angier, R. (2007). Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA

Cotton, C. (2011). The photograph as contemporary art. New edition. London: Thames and Hudson.  



A head for bread

Charlotte Cotton's first chapter also illustrates the role of photography in creating alternate realities as art. An advantage of photography is it's easy of use to capture three dimensional scenes. 

'Bread Man' is the performance character of Tatsumi Orimoto. The Japanese artist hides his face under loaves of bread and then undertakes everyday activities.  


Tatsumi Orimoto, Bread Man Son and Alzheimer Mama, Tokyo, 1996. 

Tatsumi Orimoto, Bread Man Son and Alzheimer Mama, Tokyo, 1996. 

It is not just the bizarre nature of his persona that is of interest, but also his interaction with passers by who permit him to be photographed with them. This would appear to be a very pointless art form, however further empathy for Orimoto is given when you understand that he cares for his sick mother, and that 'Orimoto has...used his bread guise for double portraits of himself and his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, a visual merging of her changed mental reality with his performance of physical difference' (Cotton, C. 2011, p. 27). 

Oil Can, bt Tatsumi Orimoto. In a small white room, expressionless Asian people stand in green 44 gallon oil drums.

Oil Can, bt Tatsumi Orimoto. In a small white room, expressionless Asian people stand in green 44 gallon oil drums.

At 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, volunteers assisted Orimoto by standing expressionless in an oil drum for 30 seconds. The meaning of the artwork was unclear. For some it represented alienation or the influence of he oil industry. For others the act of gathering strangers together to perform in this way was the reason. 

What is the photograph? Is it the documenting of a live art tableau, or is the photograph the purpose of this activity? The fact that Orimoto's work asks more questions than it offers answers, is responsible for his popularity. 


Cotton, C. (2011). The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames and Hudson.  

Food for thought

If this is Art

Cotton's first chapter dives straight into the scenario of photographers devising strategies, performances and happenings especially for the camera. The same image-making intentions that other artists have also apply to this section of photographers. 

Similarly to a painter, the photographer has mentally constructed an image long before the picture is painted, or photograph taken. Cotton (2011, p. 8) considers this as "The object chosen and presented as the work of art, not merely a document, trace or by-product of an action that has now passed." It always seems perfectly acceptable for an artist to create an abstract, or fictional piece of work. However, the ability of the camera to replicate a true likeness of what is in front of it, makes the viewer associate the photograph with reality and truth.

After all, we all take photographs of everyday, normal occurrences. It's what we experience and expect from photographs. So to be confronted with an image that has been entirely constructed can often be seen as bizarre and irrelevant to people. 

Examples of this constructed image making includes Sophie Calle's The Chromatic Diet, 1998, depicting her diet of eating food of a single colour for six days. The act of eating food of a single colour had no other significance other than being intended to create a final image of each dish. We don't even know if Calle actually ate the food that has been artistically arranged for the benefit of the final image. There are no other images of Calle eating the food. However, by knowing that she ate this restricted diet for six days does connect the audience with her narrative. 

Sophie Calle. The Chromatic Diet, 1998. 

Sophie Calle. The Chromatic Diet, 1998. 

Sophie Calle's book, Double Game, informs us of her colourful menu of the week. For example Monday was orange and she consumed:

Purée of carrots

Boiled prawns

Cantaloupe melon

Orange juice

The availability and accessibility to food makes it a convenient subject to photography in this way. A much more recent example is The Happy Meal Project by Sally Davies. At first glance it would appear as though Sally Davies has bought a McDonalds Happy Meal every day and photographed it. It's not until closer inspection that you realise the fries are positioned in the same way and the hamburger is positioned identically to the previous image, that you realise it is the same McDonalds Happy Meal that she is photographing. At first there is some relief that she hasn't been eating a Happy Meal every day, then you begin to wonder how it has maintained its appearance. In fact after six months the meal appears to be indestructible! On its own, a photograph of a McDonalds Happy Meal, but the same meal photographed daily creates a body of work that raises questions about the nutritional value of fast food. 

For every incredible story on the web, you will find an article discrediting it. Some people found it too difficult to digest the Happy Meal Project without some scepticism. It was impossible for the fast food to not show signs of decomposition, unless it had been modified in some way. With art comes controversy, which in effect adds to the narrative and increases it's exposure. 


Calle, S, (.    ) Double Gamer

Cotton, C. (2011). The photograph as contemporary art. New Edition. London: Thames and Hudson.