Les Monaghan -‘The Desire Project’ and ‘Aspirations’

May, 2016

Les Monaghan – ‘The Desire Project’ and ‘Aspirations’

I first heard Les at the OCA symposium in Doncaster in May 2016 and my review of that day is on the following link. https://drgsiandp.wordpress.com/exhibitions-and-study-days/oca-symposium-photography-matters/ My only exchange with him on the day was “Are we starting at one o’clock?” “Yes,” said Les. Maybe that was simply hero-worship because I think he is a bit of a star in his firmament (Doncaster) or lack of opportunity. He deserves to shine more widely. All of his work can be accessed on his packed blog/website, http://lesmonaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/the-desire-project-exhibited-at.html

1. The Desire Project

I  saw this exhibition at the Frenchgate Centre in Doncaster in May. You walk through  large ‘shortcut’ to the railway station to quite a bright space with huge images of people with captions below them. It is the size that makes the impact but it is the denotative aspect of the caption or title that draws you into imagining their personal stories.

Comments on ‘The Desire Project’ by Les Monaghan on his blog

Of the seventeen members of the public interviewed yesterday, all were enthusiastic about the work, though some found it trickier to articulate what it was that they found interesting – this could, of course, be attributed to my faulty line of questioning. Some sample quotes –

‘absolutely fabulous, really impressed… its the one thing that isn’t branding, it reminds me of living in Doncaster during my formative years… thanks for making this’

‘good – I told the cleaners that’

‘most people in Doncaster won’t appreciate it… [the statements] are indicative of the level of education in Doncaster’

‘I quite like it, its good, eye-catching with a strong message’, and when asked what that message could be, they replied, ‘hope’

‘I relate to the faces, I’ve learnt not to make a value judgement [based on appearances]. It gives everyone a voice’

‘Impressive, but I thought they’d be bigger… if people read them all [they’ll see some] surprising views’, and, on what the artist might be trying to communicate, ‘it doesn’t matter what your walk of life, or what you’re going through, there’s light at the end of the tunnel’

‘Amazing… this place needed some glamour’

‘The portraits jumped out… its quite deep… nice to see a partnership [with] ordinary people beautifully photographed. We relate to Ben Parkinson [but all] the issues [raised] ring true with most people, even ‘world peace’. It makes us realise that we’re all the same, we have similar targets’ [in life]

‘What’s it for?’

‘What is this? Why are they up there?’

‘Everybody’s different’

‘I look horrible [subject is in the exhibition] – but the rest looks good’

Some useful data here, I had great conversations with the two young people (10 and 15) who asked what the exhibition was for and why was it here, as well as the older couple who liked that the portraits were of ‘ordinary people’. Why have portraits of ordinary people been blown up to near life-size and hung on the walls of a shopping centre in between adverts for coffee and cake? What are they ‘selling’? The audience can only be the wider public, as the space is frequented by over 70000 people per week, but what to make of the statements beneath the feet of the portraits? Everyone I encountered (apart from one) automatically assumed the statements were the authentic voice of each subject – as they are, and this is made clear in the two information panels. The expectation that images must be part of a ‘sell’ was only encountered with very young people, adults recognised that it must lie outside the commercial.

My background is in qualitative research with illness groups and drug users and their carers. I recognise the authentic nature of these voices but it lacks a thematic analysis which would lift the this text. There is an analysis but it does not seem to bear a lot of relation to what the voices say on his site. Is that honest or are the quotes simply illustrations? I would call this respondent validation and for me it increases the validity of the work and will and have used this in my work.

The bigger issue is how much do you follow your own ideas and how much they are informed by people’s voices? Should we be slaves to honestly represent others or use it a starting point for a fabrication. I think that sometimes it is one and sometimes the other – “It depends.”

2. ‘Aspirations’

This exhibition can be seen on an expanse of hoarding in front of a disused building in Doncaster. The images are a young person talking about what they want to be or do in the future and an older person stating what they do now. Normally this is parent and child. I think that they are easy to relate to and the contrast between young and old is effective.


Aspirations 2016, Doncaster

I like this work as he is giving the young and old a presence and voice which often they do not have. I was not clear whether he had researched their voice ahead of shooting but I know that he interviews and holds focus groups to garner people’s reaction to his images.

The place of this work is important. He is a local photographer but the issue of giving voice to those with less power is important. I know that he has ‘political’ views about the current government in excluding people but I think that is fine – a theoretical Marxist framework might fit well here (I have no idea if that was his intention as at the OCA study day he did not take about theory as such).

I like this style of work and am looking at doing something for A2 about people’s ‘alter ego’ (taken in a studio) and their ‘normal’ work (taken in their work place). Visually comparison in photographic portraiture seems to work well.