Video results

My uni results came in this evening, and my video project did spectacularly badly. The video itself got 37%, which is quite the achievement – I don’t know of anyone who’s managed a lower score. The how-i-made-it documentation pulled the overall mark up to 40%, which is the lowest possible mark to still get a third.

They had two major problems with it: the lack of research, which I hold my hands up to, and the concept, which was ‘inconceivable’ and totally unrealistic. I don’t want to whine, but it seems reasonable to mention this is from the teachers who, when I pitched a previous idea about a party political broadcast that focussed on under-appreciated issues, told me it would be better if I made up all the issues, as this would be surreal.

I don’t know – maybe a non-realistic Childline theme was a tasteless thing to do. I knew it wasn’t a completely believable situation, but I thought the metaphors were clear and had a strong enough message to justify the liberties. Maybe this is just wishful thinking.

They also said my technical skills were weak, which hurts. If there’s one area I thought I was fine, it was the technical side.

So I’m a bit down about the whole thing. The low mark doesn’t actually affect anything important, due to the weird averaging-out system of marking, but it’s not nice being told that something you worked very hard at is rubbish. I’ll get over it, though.

Other than that, my essay got 63%, which is my lowest essay score, but still a 2:1. I’m fine with that. The lecturer crossed out all the don’ts, can’ts, won’ts, etc. on the basis that contractions are ‘not appropriate for an academic text’. This is the first I’ve heard of it – all my essays have used contractions – and I suspect I got a (ridiculously) old-fashioned dude. Who are these academics who can’t understand contractions? Luck of the draw, I guess.

Video: done

I handed in the video today, which is quite the weight off my mind. I spent most of Christmas worrying about it, one way and another, and while it didn’t spoil things, it’s still nice to nuke that nagging voice. The module was far harder than I anticipated – I thought it’d be fun, but producing three minutes of moving footage that doesn’t seem too hacked-together was surprisingly stressful. Lighting is the main problem – with a photo you can just bounce a flash off a wall and it’ll probably look ok; with video a similar effect is only possible with alert-the-fire-brigade lighting kit, which is a nightmare. It’s revealing that the final result had none of my own video/audio (which may have been pushing my luck). I think I’ll stick with photos for a while.

We then had a talk on upcoming projects, which threw us a large curve ball. Apparently, everything we do from now on counts towards our degree. Now, this was an odd thing to hear. We’re in the middle of our third year, after all, and you’d think our work so far would be of some use. Not so much. The first year is completely ignored, and everything else – up to now – is combined to produce an overall ‘Level 5’ mark. Everything from now on is ‘Level 6’. Our averaged Level 6 grade will be our final degree classification, but only if the Level 5 grade is within one classification. So: if I get a 2:1 for Level 6, my previous work has to average at least a 2:2 for the 2:1 to stand1. I’m pretty sure my Level 5 grade will be a 2:1. Which essentially gives me a blank slate: if I decide to really work for the next 16 months, I could get a first. Interesting.

Anyway, our next project is: do whatever you want. I can make a 90-minute feature film if I feel like it (I don’t feel like it). I have to present a rough idea in 10 days time. Humm.

  1. to be fair, this information was probably written down somewhere, if we had but looked. []


The brief for last term’s video module was ‘a 3-5 minute video’, and my attempt is below. It has to be handed in on Wednesday – could you possibly let me know if you spot anything amiss? I’ve seen it ~a bajillion times now, and data blindness has set in…

The Self and The Penis

This term at uni was rather odd. There was surprisingly little work, and very few lectures. Of the few, though, two stood out. One was about properly interesting philosophy, although nothing to do with photography. And one was about how racism is caused by penises.

You see, when you’re growing up you pay a lot of attention to parental genitalia. It may seem like you don’t, but let’s pretend you do. If you’re male, you get very upset that your mother doesn’t have a penis. If you’re female, you get very upset that your father has a penis and you don’t. You then go through ‘mirror stages’ and formulate the concept of the Other, and eventually your penis-based psychological trauma manifests itself in conveniently subconscious and unfalsifiable ways that result in us all being racist. The lecturer in question was a PhD student at my university. She was very enthusiastic about her subject. We were less so.

I’ve been moaning about the psychoanalytic bullshit on my course for a couple of years now, and I still find it irritating as hell. Previous years were at least fairly academic: here’s some Freudian drivel about why we look at photographs the way we do, blah, whatever. But the causes of racism aren’t academic – that’s a pretty important subject, and I have a huge problem with lecturers spouting spectacularly stupid crap to people who may well believe them (through no fault of their own – it’s reasonable to expect uni lecturers to know what they’re talking about). Especially when you’re implying that a) we’re all racist and b) there’s nothing we can do about it.

There was some skepticism in the room, I’m pleased to say. A couple of the second years made her clarify some evasive language. As ever with psychoanalysis, it was all dressed up to maintain a veneer of respectability: your mother not having a penis is called ‘the lack’, presumably so they don’t have to keep saying the word ‘penis’, and so you can just say stuff like ‘the lack causes us to behave differently’ and pretend you’re not talking shit. But we made her spell it out, penises and all, just so we were clear. This was quite funny. Then another of the younger students queried, magnificently, whether we were learning this for historical context or we were meant to believe it was true. The answer was muddy, and eventually we asked outright if there was any evidence. We were told the guy who came up with it thought it was true. So that’s all right. I eventually got her to say out loud it was ‘just a theory’1, but it was a brief moment of lucidity.

So that was pretty annoying. A couple of weeks later, though, the course redeemed itself with the most interesting lecture we’ve ever had. A lecture that actually inspired me to willingly research the topic, which is, um, rare.

We’d been given a David Hume essay on ‘the self’ – essentially our inner experience of our own consciousness. But, rather than simply go through the essay, in this lecture we were taken on a grand story, beginning with Decartes and ending with Hume, explaining the different philosophical arguments. Decartes had his famous ‘I think therefore I am’, from which he derived, well, some dubious stuff, but was still pretty clever. Then Hume came along and demolished this concept of ‘I’, pointing out that his own inner experience consists of a bunch of perceptions, which are linked only by memory, which isn’t necessarily reliable. ‘I’ is therefore at least a bit problematic.

I found it all very interesting, and it wasn’t presented in any kind of dogmatic way. The only problem came at the end, when the lecturer linked it to photography. Firstly, this was surprisingly dull by comparison, and secondly, he did so by referencing Cindy Sherman, which is a bit of a cheat.

cindysherman1Cindy Sherman is a bingo photographer. We sit in lectures with so-far-theoretical bingo cards, ready to stamp the names of Cindy Sherman, Rineke Dijkstra, Andreas Gursky and – above all others – Bernd and Hilla Becher. As a general rule, three of the four will turn up (always the Bechers – despite their portfolio consisting entirely of industrial buildings). If you get all four, there are Not Really Prizes. Anyway – Cindy Sherman’s most famous work saw her photographing herself in various film-like scenes – I’ve put a couple of shots on the right. She’s often unrecognisable from one image to the next, and so this was linked to the Hume concept of the self: what does it mean to say we are always the same person?

cindysherman2Thing is, Cindy Sherman is massively ambiguous. You can read a lot into her images, and nobody will ever tell you you’re wrong. Feminism, politics, film theory, even philosophical concepts of the self – you can make arguments for all these interpretations (and people have). I suppose you’d have trouble saying Cindy Sherman was about soup, but I bet you could give it a go. None of which is to say anything about the quality of the photography (if you believe in such things) just that it’s sometimes suspiciously easy to corral it into an argument.

So the photography part of the lecture was a bit weak, but the philosophy fascinating. We have to write an essay on something we’ve found interesting this term, so I figured I’d read up on the latter. This sent me on a fascinating journey through Greek/Roman/medieval/Renaissance/Enlightenment attitudes to the self, which intrinsically links into discussions of the roles of faith and reason2, then the various political theories that fell out of these concepts. It’s been great. I have learnt a lot. Unfortunately, none of it has much to do with photography.

You may be thinking: you’re doing the wrong degree. And you may well be right. But I do enjoy the practical side, and I only have 17 months to go, and I’m going to get through it, dammit. In this case I think I’ve been saved by the aforementioned ambiguity. You can find photographers to back up whatever you like. I’ve got a bunch who are “clearly” discussing the differing relations of subject to state, and the inner experience thereof, as regards Greeks vs. civilizations with absolute rulers. It’s obvious, just like Cindy Sherman.

So I’ve finished an unsatisfactory term with an essentially historical/philosophical essay, plus some photographs to pretty it up. This may be taking the mickey – we’ll see. However, I’d rather have too much history and too little photography than it be entirely about penises.

  1. which felt odd, given the usual connotations of that phrase []
  2. Greeks = reason!; medieval thinkers = reason bad! faith good!; renaissance = WTF medieval thinkers!; enlightenment = ok time to grow up now []

Plugging skepticism, badly

I’m studying video this term, and the module project is to produce a 3-5 minute film by early January. Today was proposals day, and I pitched a documentary-ish thing based around skepticism. I started out by introducing the concept of skepticism as an organised movement, followed by skeptics and the kinds of things we’re interested in, and I’m not sure I did a very good job.

For starters, one of the teachers was pretty hostile. She immediately asked if I’d heard the modern view that science just ‘proves’ whatever it wants to prove1, and later called skeptics ‘annoying’. Another was clearly unconvinced but didn’t argue, while the third listens to Little Atoms but sometimes finds it a bit ‘fundamentalist’. I think my maybe-a-little-contemptuous response of ‘fundamentalist?!’ stopped him arguing further, but I’m not sure he was any more won over than the others.

I’m not really bothered what the teachers think of me, though – I’m more concerned that I came across a bit too strident to my classmates. I’m unused to speaking about skepticism to non-skeptics, and I worry I didn’t pay enough attention to we-attack-ideas-not-people. I spent ages trying to define modern skepticism2, when I should perhaps have concentrated more on the general impression. I used the example of a recent lecturer who claimed racism is caused by stress over parental genitalia3. I called it a highly dubious realm-of-science claim, about an issue that actually matters, and said she needed to offer some evidence to back it up. This might have seemed a bit know-it-all. Plus, arguing with the teachers in front of everyone is probably self-indulgent. Given that organised skepticism genuinely isn’t unfriendly, I’m annoyed that I may have promoted it badly. Sigh.

That said, I’m somewhat sleep-deprived after the past week and it’s possible my judgement is off, but I’ve felt slightly abashed all evening. Grmph. Still – they approved my idea!

  1. I replied that I didn’t think any scientist would recognise this, when I should have just said ‘how would that work?’ []
  2. eventually coming up with ‘skepticism is the study of things that are interestingly or harmfully wrong’, which I was quite happy with []
  3. standard psychoanalytic stuff []


I shouldn’t really do this, but it made me laugh. Last term I wrote an essay about Flickr, which did far better than I expected, but I’ve only just today seen the full feedback. It includes this:

[The essay is] a little evangelical and defensive at times (and in the process it becomes clear that you do skirt around the shortcomings of Flickr culture in which browsing is enshrined as some kind of right, access is elevated over meaning, and drifting becomes the ideal mode of attention).

I do indeed skirt over these things.

I’m also told I should read Allan Sekula’s ‘Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea’, which I did already.

Happy Humanists

I’ve been mentioning my ‘Happy Humanists’ project for about six months, but I’m not sure whether I’ve ever properly explained it. It’s coming to a conclusion this weekend, so I figure a proper writeup can’t hurt.

It started as an idea for my uni documentary module. The idea was to take portraits of as many humanists as I could, and ask them all the same question: ‘What are you happy about?’. Nothing deep or profound – just a feel-good little book; something to maybe help counter the idea of humanists / atheists as grumpy and reactionary. My teachers hated it from the outset, but I wanted to do something I’d enjoy, that would push me, and that might possibly be useful for causes I think are important. I hoped to win my teachers around, and though this didn’t happen in the slightest, it was totally worth it.

I emailed as many humanist groups as I could, cheerily inviting myself to their meetings. I also contacted the British Humanist Association, who were incredibly helpful, and kind enough to help with contacting their Distinguished Supporters. So I spent a few months heading around the country1, meeting people in offices, parks, pubs and cafes. The BHA asked if I’d photograph some of their events, which was great fun and gave me the chance to meet otherwise busy and hard-to-contact humanists, and a few big names.

As a general rule, I found anyone actively involved in humanism/atheism was happy to be included. The group leaders, the writers, the philosophers2, the people who attended the EHF/IHEU conferences last month – all very willing. But not so much the general members, which I suppose makes sense. A few were happy to take part in a university project but didn’t want their photo being used beyond that, which was fine, and a couple went out of their way to say how much they didn’t like the idea. I’ll contact them next year for Grumpy Humanists.

It’s been quite the experience. I’ve met many lovely people, including various of my intellectual heroes, visited many new places, had photos published in humanist newsletters/magazines, spoken in front of large groups for the first time since school, and worn a suit3. I’ve also made countless mistakes, some small and some not-so-small, but improved my portrait skills as a result. I’m still far from smooth, but I’m much better than six months ago.

Final printed books arrived early. Yay!I’ve also really enjoyed reading the answers to ‘What are you happy about?’. Some went with profound statements about the world and our place in it, others were happy about birds in their garden, making curry, or their boss being on holiday. It’s a nice mix, I think.

The project is responsible for my blogging tailing off for a while, both because I was busy and I suddenly got nervous: I was meeting lots of interesting people, and what if they looked me up, found this blog, and decided I was an idiot? This was obviously a muppetry (let’s face it – if they’re going to think I’m an idiot, it’ll probably be in person). I’m over it now.

By May I had nearly 40 people+quotes, which I printed up and and handed in to uni. I used that as a first draft, and since then I’ve added a proper foreword by Brendan Larvor, a lovely cover design by Graham Nunn, and almost thirty more humanists. The final printed books turned up yesterday, and I’m pretty happy with them. It’s a much better size, and feels more professional. But I’m obviously a touch biased.

Tomorrow I’ll be displaying the book at the BHA’s AGM. I’ve no idea how people will react – hopefully they’ll like it. I’m not sure what, if anything, happens next, but I’ll see how it goes down.

  1. well, Wales and the south of England – I tried and failed to get in touch with the Edinburgh humanist group, and sadly couldn’t afford to get over to Ireland, despite an offer []
  2. incidentally, all the philosophers I’ve met rank amongst the nicest people I know – it’s a remarkable correlation. []
  3. without a tie, obviously []

My degree is stupid

The first bunch of marks just came in, and I’m forced to conclude my degree is broken.

Theory side: The module this term was ‘Contemporary Photographic Practices’, which is pretty much what it sounds like, if you pretend it’s 1997. One of the guest lecturers actually puts his photos on the Internet, but only one, and I don’t think Flickr was mentioned once. It was all about photobooks and gallery spaces, which are the primary practices of contemporary wanky photography, and I didn’t feel anything at all. Last term’s module, with its focus on anti-scientific Freudian bullshit, annoyed me no end. But this one didn’t even get that far. Sure, I’d be interested in the lecture for 2 hours, but nothing followed me out of the room. I wasn’t all that interested, but there was still an essay to write.

So an essay I wrote. About Flickr. And it was woeful. I managed my time very badly this term, and knew it would come down to two weeks of crazy work+worry. At the same time my personal life had a few unexpectedly exciting turns, and the essay took the hit. I typed it in a day and a half, in my uncle’s flat in London, with barely any research. It should have been ‘critically informed’, and I found one appropriately highbrow article talking about Flickr (it was silly). I made up bullshit theories about gallery-wall-whitespace having parallels with Web 2.0 page layouts, with nothing to back me up. Most of my topics were stuff I remembered reading about online, and quickly googled to fill in the blanks. My references were all blogs and tech sites. I hit 2500 words without a problem, because it was – genuinely – a long blog post. It felt exactly the same as writing for this site, and I handed it in knowing my notoriously sarcastic head lecturer would rip me to shreds, but I didn’t care – I’d handed something in, and it should scrape a pass.

I got a first – 73. This can only be because I know how to structure an essay. There’s no other explanation: that essay went against everything we’ve been taught, and had hardly anything to do with the module! This isn’t me being modest when in fact it was secretly good – it was honestly appalling. In the end, it apparently all comes down to writing style. While this is good for me personally, it’s stupid. That shouldn’t be the point.

Practical side: We’ve only been given the marks for our workbooks, which are are worth ~25% of the final mark when combined with the photographs themselves. My workbook for the ‘Happy Humanists’ project was less than ideal. I can’t claim it was excellent. I can’t even, hand on heart, claim it was particularly good. But it was ok. It had research, written notes throughout the project etc.. The stuff you need. It was, however, a bit of a departure for me by being scrapbook-style. Notes and pictures were pritt-sticked in, and almost everything was hand-written. A similar-style workbook on a different project netted me 64 – a 2:1 – which was fine. Another, a 16-page typed report, got 63. No problem. I’m not great at workbooks, but they get by.

My Happy Humanists workbook scraped a pass: 43 – a low third. That’s enough to get me in trouble – anything below 50 and they’re worried about you. 43 is going to raise questions. I haven’t seen the detailed feedback yet, but it’s going to be damning. I have to hope the photographs themselves do ok and bump my mark up a bit.

But I’m still pissed off – it wasn’t that bad. Jesus. Somewhere in the 50s, sure, but 43? What the hell? Much as I hate to be this guy, I have to mention these are the teachers with whom I had the fairly exciting public disagreement about how much I cared about visual consistency. Plus, one gave me my only other <50 mark, in the first term of the first year – I’ve yet to drop below 60 with any other teacher. Clearly I’m doing something they don’t like.

Hell, maybe it’s deserved and I’m just annoyed at getting such a terrible mark. Maybe my judgment’s off and I need recalibrating. I don’t know. But right now, 43 feels ridiculous.

I’m not actually bothered about workbook scores, above and beyond their repurcussions for my university career. The marks for the photographs themselves are more interesting to me (although increasingly less so, but that’s another post) and I’ve yet to receive those. But these two marks are way, way off. Not impressed.

All done

Everything’s handed in, and the second year of uni is over. Now to do the many, many things I’ve put off for the last few months. And pick up my guitar, which I’ve barely touched since February. And tidy up. And perhaps try to lift my blog out of this interminably boring phase1. Still, it’s quite the relief to have all that out of the way. Half-way through the course now…

  1. ymmv []

Cutting it fine

The success or epic fail of today was entirely reliant upon the vagaries of UPS and the Royal Mail – I really needed them to deliver my projects in time for me to get to London before 17:00. This was a dumb situation to get myself into, but into it I nevertheless got, and my inability to do anything other than wait made for a spectacularly annoying morning.

I didn’t sleep much last night, and was up pretty early, glancing out of the window every few seconds for any sight of a UPS van. My secondary project turned up in the standard post, which was a relief, but the big project – the one I’ve been working on for 4 months – was more important. I really wanted to get it in on time.

As the morning wore on I figured out ways to stay longer at home. If I caught the train at Leamington I’d have an extra half hour…and if I got the later train, then a taxi to uni, I could get another 15mins…or what about driving to London? But the latest reasonable time was 14:15 – anything over that and I’d really be pushing my luck.

I spent most of the morning pacing up and down, trying and failing to distract myself. A Parcelforce van gave me false hope by stopping directly outside – maybe UPS had farmed it out to another company? No.

Midday came and went, and I decided it was time to email my teacher. Should I submit low-quality inkjet prints of the book’s pages today, or submit a high-quality book tomorrow and lose 10% of the marks? Then I realised that if I went to London they’d have to re-deliver tomorrow, and I’d be in the same situation. So should I lose 10% of the marks for my secondary project too?

My answer to this was to repeatedly mutter ‘fuckmonsters’1 and generally bemoan my existence while staring grumpily out of the window. At which point there was the brown flash of a UPS van. It slowed down, as if looking for my flat…then buggered off.

Then came back. Thank the FSM. It was 12:45.

For obvious reasons I’d already written the evaluation of the finished book, and I was rather hoping it would match up to my expectations. After a brief and spectacularly explicit hunt for some scissors I discovered it did, so I emailed my teacher a ‘belay that message’, ran for the next train, got to London, got to uni, handed everything in, and the relief was ridiculous.

Now, obviously this was all a massive overreaction. These things are not that important, and I got myself far more stressed than was necessary. But I did anyway, and I am certainly not making that mistake again. That was not fun. I’m also aware I caught a huge break – UPS could have delivered any time up till 20:00 and, hell, the book was in Eindhoven thirteen hours before it arrived at my flat. Still, it turned out ok. Exhausted now. One more project to go.

  1. I love Twitter []