The Unsayable

The recent edition of Source features three works that address different views of ideas that are difficult to verbalise but easier to depict in photographs. All are interesting and deal with different aspects of unsayable concepts.

Sophie Besse and Jose Farinha collaborated with people who work as translators for non-English speakers in difficult situations such as hospital visits or court appearances. The idea is to try and document the translator’s dilemma in that they have to remain neutral and are only allowed to translate exactly the words being spoken. As someone who has never been in this situation I found this work fascinating. My only reservation would be because the piece seems more to do with the actual creation of the scenes and that the photography is really just a record of the workshop results. As stand-alone images they are largely inexplicable without any contextual explanation.

Lorraine Tuck depicts her two daughters and two sons in their normal daily life on their farm. Both sons are autistic and her photographs of her two boys are good at trying to illustrate how they see and interact with their home. In particular one photograph of her son Manus by the washing machine, with a horse entering from the right of the picture, does well to capture how she sees Manus’ obsessions.

Claire Maxfield uses her own archive photographs to try and illustrate her own experiences of domestic abuse. Photographs that on their own have a haunting, enigmatic quality become more sinister when seen in association with her captions. A photograph of a toilet cistern reflected in a wall mirror, with just a small part of her face in the bottom corner, is strange but becomes something much more with the words ‘I admire the wallpaper as I apply concealer’.

I looked at these at around the same time as I had been reading the Brighton Photo Biennial 2008 brochure for the exercise on page 90 of the course book. I see a link between this idea of depicting ‘The Unsayable’ and the ‘late’ conflict photography featured at BPB 2008 by Paul Seawright and Simon Norfolk. I wrote about my concerns with late photography in my A4 essay for ‘Landscape, Place and Environment’ ( Although I largely still find Simon Norfolk’s ‘Chronotopia’ project to fit much more into Liz Wells’ concept of ‘elegant art object’ than is suitable given the subject matter, reading  Julian Stallabrass’ essay ‘The Power and Impotence of Images’ leads me to feel more charitable towards Simon Norfolk. Warfare nowadays is conducted much more remotely than ever before, and together with the political desire to ‘control the message’, means it that artists have to perhaps be more creative than ever to try and depict what is otherwise undepictable. Without unfettered access to the actual action, he attempts to depict an emotional response to warfare.

Paul Seawright has more success – to my mind anyway – in trying to illustrate the horrors of sectarian murder in Northern Ireland.  For slightly different reasons to Simon Norfolk he is also finding new ways to depict something that cannot be shown directly.

One could argue that to a certain extent all art is about the unsayable; one expects there to be more than just what is being shown, otherwise it is little more than what one might see in a catalogue. The nature of war, and the political desire to suppress uncomfortable images, means the photographer has a harder job to give the viewer a way to understand what it is really like.


John Duncan, R.W. (ed.) (2020) Source. (s.l.): Photo Works North.

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