Phonar- Task One: The Process

Phonar (Photography and Narrative) is finally here! This year the module consists of my class completing tasks out of The Photographers Playbook, both individually and as a group.

My first task was written by Laura McPhee, to complete this we had to complete several subtasks.

  1. Summaries the task and tweet it in no more than three tweets, using the relevant hashtags

For me this was the easy part, reading the task I was able to easily understand what it was asking of my and summarising this into three short sentences was easy.

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Although this was only part of the task that mentions we had to tweet I have also tweeted a few other things to keep my class and other people following #phonar2016 in the loop! By doing this not only am I able to keep track of where I am but other people will also have a sense of this as well.

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2. Investigation into artist (Laura McPhee) and creation of portrait, to be posted on Instagram with relevant hashtags.

To be able to create a visual portrait of the photographer you must know a lot about them, I really enjoyed the research part of this task and found it quite simple to find out lots about my author. Laura McPhee has a good website which leads you to lots of other links with work and information about herself. As well as this I also emailed her, not in relation to the task as such but more to get to know a bit more about her, maybe on a more personal level that the internet couldn’t do. Below are the emails that we have exchanged and also the other information that I have noted down.

‘Hi Laura,

I am a second year photography student at Coventry University, UK. We have just started a module that is based around the photographer’s playbook, as a class we are aiming to respond to as many of the tasks within this book as possible and send our responses back to the editors. My first task is the task that you have written. I had never seen you work before I received this task and I absolutely love what you are creating! Before I get going with the task I want to find out as much about you as possible, this could inform the way that I go about what I decide to do. Like yourself, I am very interested in human interaction, maybe not always linked with landscape but I am very excited to give this a go.  I am lucky enough to be going to Mexico in the next few weeks so this really is the perfect time to try out your task. Within my work I always like to make people think a bit more, notice what is around them on a daily basis. I find that now we are in such a digital age people are so absorbed in technology that they don’t notice all of the beautiful things around them. If you are interested in seeing some of my work please visit: What was it that first got you interested in this area? And how do you decide on the locations that you photograph? Whilst you are at these locations do you go there with specific intentions or do you just ‘get lost’ and let the camera guide you?
I look forward to hearing back from you,
Kind regards,
Bethany Crisp’

‘Hi Bethany,

I like the sensation of being lost and out of my element (though not necessarily in serious danger!).  I have many interests but the one that now seems most pressing is the human relationship to the environment and how that will play out over the coming decades (and centuries).
You are very lucky to be going to Mexico.  Read about it first and think about the multitude of ways you might photograph in a culture not your own and be guided by your interests and your instincts.
All best wishes,

‘Hi Laura,

Thank you for such a quick reply! Our interests certainly seem to align. Human presence and our lack of seems to be a big interest in my own work, although your task in the playbook certainly makes me think about a different take and style that I am used to!
As part of our assignment we have to make a portrait of our photographer, this obviously won’t be the generic portrait as most of us don’t know our photographer personally. I was wondering what first got you into photography and where your passion for this subject came from? Is there any important elements to you that you think should definitely be involved in this representation of you?
Best wishes

‘Hi Bethany,

My mother was a commercial portrait photographer–families, weddings etc…  She supported her five daughters that way so I think I saw it as a viable economic opportunity for women of my generation–and also a creative endeavor.  My father is a writer so I had that urge to tell stories–only I followed a visual route.  Collaboration is so important to me and drawing on all the things you learn about in life and thinking of how to make stories which can contribute something in the world.
I love the following quotes and poems:
What am I then…? Everything that I have seen, heard, and observed I have collected and exploited. My works have been nourished by countless different individuals, by innocent and wise ones, people of intelligence and dunces. Childhood, maturity, and old age all have brought me their thoughts,… their perspectives on life. I have often reaped what others have sowed. My work is the work of a collective being that bears the name of Goethe.  (Goethe)
….and then a sudden golden silence
in which the traveller takes a notebook, writes:”Is it lack of imagination that makes us come
to imagined places, not just stay at home?
Or could Pascal have been not entirely right
about just sitting quietly in one’s room?Continent, city, country, society:
the choice is never wide and never free.
And here, or there . . . No. Should we have stayed at home,
wherever that may be?”
Elizabeth Bishop
Good Luck!’
I do not see this as cheating but just as good initiative, I haven’t asked for directions for my task but just for some more information about her, I do of course explain a bit about the module in the first email and that I will be completing her task. This however isn’t questioning how to do it but just informing her why I am asking these personal questions. Being in contact with Laura will help for part 6 of the task.
Other information that I have found:
  • American photographer
  • Born 1958 (57/8)
  • Parents: John McPhee (award winning author) and Pryde Brown (photographer), siblings Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee (novelists and Sarah McPhee (architectural historian)
  • McPhee considers her work to ‘look at and understand language of place’
  • McPhee has a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Princeton University in 1980 and a Master of Fine Arts in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design in 1986
  • She was awarded a Fulbright Scholars fellowship in 1998 for work in India and Sri Lanka and a residency in Idaho from Alturas foundation 2003-2005. Also awarded a new England foundation for the arts fellowship in 1995 and a John Simon Guggenheim memorial foundation fellowship in 1993
  • McPhee is a professor of photography at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, she joined in 1986
  • Known for her stunning large-scale landscapes and portraits of the people that live and work there
  • She is currently working in the desert west of United States where she is chronicling visual stories of time: both geological and human
  • Human interaction with land
  • Works on various genres- landscapes, portraits, still life and interior, seems like landscapes is the main focus and human interaction with these
  • Her work is often concerned with place and the way we see ourselves in regard to land
  • She captures subtle histories, forgotten spaces, and landscapes dominated by human technology
  • Her practice is constantly evolving- with time
  • “I think that things evolve, that there are no real resolutions or solutions to things,” McPhee says. “My desire is for people to think about things and feel things.”

Even with all this information I found it hard to put this into a visual portrait, it would be easy just to recreate her work and class this as a portrait of her with the Instagram description giving the audience more information. However the recreating the photographers style is part three of the task. As well as this it just didn’t seem like a suitable solution to me.

I considered several different options for this section, including: a mosaic style- lots of little images taken in McPhee’s style to create and outline of a portrait of her, a contact sheet style- both images and text giving and overall image of McPhee, a short video doing the same and an open book- with both images and text certain parts bolder than others giving and example of what McPhee was like. In the end I decided that I was thinking too much into this and going to complex. Laura McPhee’s work is simple in the sense that she lets the camera guide her, she enjoys getting lost. In the end I took a simple approach of a line maze with the odd bit of text included, describing what made McPhee the photographer that she is, accompanying this is a bit more of a description about her.

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3. Create an image in the style of the photographer with a summary of this.

This was another task to be shared on Instagram with the relevant hashtags. I found this task quite simple, Laura McPhee and myself have very similar styles in the sense that we want people to notice what they may not originally. We go about this in different ways, so in a sense this task was a challenge, in trying out a different style, however a challenge that I enjoyed.

McPhee is most know for her landscape images, so I decided to focus on landscapes for this task. I noticed that a lot of her work may be displayed in diptychs, triptychs or even with more images in one square, this is a style that I find visually pleasing and decided to adopt for this task. As human interaction was a joint interest I had decided on the subject of my images and they way of presenting them I just needed to take the images.

For this task I posted two images on Instagram, in two different styles I have noticed McPhee use. The first was a diptych that showed the comparison and slight differences between the landscape and the second was still concentrating on human interaction but from different viewpoints and presented as a triptych.

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4. Complete the task assigned to you from the playbook.

For my task I had to go to a location without researching it and let the camera guide me, be my companion and sense of direction. As I was going on holiday to Mexico I decided to get a map and chose a place where the name interested me, this place was Tulum. Before going here I made some notes on my initial thoughts and from things that I had found out about Laura McPhee that I thought might be relevant for this task. The task states once I have returned and have my images in front of me to write a reflection of my time here and what I have produced, after this I need to research the place and revisit it. I will then reflect on this process as well.

Initial thoughts:

  • Think about human presence within a place, even if the images don’t include people- how have we affected this place?
  • ‘Contemplation of how we use the earth and to what ends’
  • The images show our efforts as we continuously restore, protect, alter and exploit the land
  • Zoomed out images (these will be more picturesque) and then slowly get closer in to reveal the effect that humans have on the place
  • Think about using diptychs and triptychs
  • When researching the place on return does my opinion change? Think about this in second reflective piece of text, what stories are there about the location that I choose?
  • Where do these pieces of text fit in? if at all? do the images speak for themselves?
  • Revisit the area on Google maps
  • Portray eras? Can you see the aging in the landscape/items found there?
  • Collect things that I find there? Photograph these at the location and separately as well- think about how I could use this in presentation methods? Include writing with this? Maybe a diary style?
  • Think about time: past, present and future
  • Provide a subtle story, not something in your face and an obvious story, provide an audience with a set of images that they have to think into to understand fully- think how text can aid this
  • Different people could take different stories from the images, it really depends on what they have previously experienced in their life- Barthes: studium and punctum
  • ‘We aim to represent multiple possibilities for understanding landscape’
  • ‘No part of the earths surface is unaltered by human activity’
  • Think about incorporating text, and items/ pictures of items? Scrapbook style?

Here are the images that I produced from my time in Tulum. When I visited I found out that there was actually two areas: the Mayan ruins and the main town. I went to both of these, even though they were separated by about 3km of road! For my presentation I decided to use diptychs to show the comparisons of these two different locations that are labelled the same, Tulum. Within these I found that I was most drawn to the change in culture I found in Mexico and also the human interaction I could see within the location. Although this is true none of my images have people actually in them, but I am focusing more on how people have affected the landscape.

Here is the reflection that I wrote when I returned home from Mexico:

When travelling to Tulum I really didn’t know what to expect. The task in the playbook stated not to research the location I selected before visiting but only after I had been there. This was a strange concept to me however on returning from Tulum I realise that this allows you to visit the place with a completely clean slate, no expectations. I think this allowed me to get the most out of the experience without other peoples thoughts, experiences and facts blurring what I saw. Although having facts behind your images can often enhance the message I think opportunities that may otherwise not present themselves are offered when using this technique. While I found it a challenge to not read up on where I was going I would definitely recommend the experience.

Being in Mexico I was sure that there was going to be a complete change of culture to what I am used to in the UK. I was right to think this and looking at my images I can see that I have definitely been drawn to this, the change culture almost guided me through location and is what my attention was drawn to the most. Another reoccurring theme that I have noticed within my images is human interaction, but generally without people being in the images. This is mostly hinted through structures and other things that humans have placed within the landscape. Although this may be seen as a separate theme this is still closely connected to culture change, mainly due to the fact that the human interaction is very different to what I am used to seeing in the UK.

Originally I was unaware that there were two separate parts to Tulum: the ruins and the town. These are not just separated by differences in scenery but also by about 3km of road. By going to both of these places I am able to provide a comparison, not only of the two completely different locations but also of history: the past, present and future. The time itself provides a story of human interaction as different structures are aged differently; this is a story of the rich Mayan culture found in Mexico.

These themes reflect the main points that I want to say within my work, culture and understanding different countries cultures is very important and I think doing this visually is a great way to get audiences interested and learning more. I think that by looking at my images it is evident that this is what I want to say.

After writing this I then researched Tulum, this is what I found out:

Tulum Research

  • Divided into two parts both physically and psychologically
  • Both parts make Tulum what it is today, a place for both tourists and locals
  • One of the last cities to be built and inhabited by the Maya (Mayans)
  • Formerly known as ‘Zama’ which means ‘City of Dawn’- this is because it faces the sunrise
  • Tulum is also the Mayan word for fence/wall/trench
  • The walls surrounding Tulum protected it from invasions
  • There are access to land and sea trade routes- making it an important trade hub
  • Tulum had an estimated population of 1,000- 1,6000 inhabitants
  • Juan Díaz, a member of the Spanish expedition of 1518 was the first European to spot Tulum
  • Tulum was occupied during the late Post classic period around AD 1200
  • The site continued to be occupied until contact with the Spanish was made in the early 16th century- by the end of the 16th century the site was completely abandoned
  • ‘Tulum is magical’ –NYTimes
  • ‘It’s the next big thing’- can be seen in two ways, visit before its two touristy or everyone is wanting to go
  • Unspoilt and eco-friendly- very different to Cancun, although there is still tourism there is a charming bohemian feel

 Ruins (main tourist attraction)

  • The most picturesque archaeological site in Riviera Maya and the only one built overlooking the ocean
  • An ancient Mayan fortress city that rose to power at the end of the classic period
  • ‘Castillo’ the most iconic structures is on the cliff edge over the beach and one that you see on many postcards
  • This coastline remains relatively undeveloped
  • Located on the north end of the town
  • These aren’t the biggest ruins in Riviera Maya but tourists are attracted for the views over the ocean
  • The ruins are located on 12m or 39ft tall cliffs along the East coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea
  • Typical architecture of typical Maya sites, like Coba


  • Sits on the highway- this puts holiday makers off making the town more for locals and the ruins where tourists are attracted to
  • Town about 3/4km from the ruins
  • There is a wide choice of restaurants, shops and accommodation for both tourists and locals here
  • Tulum has a more relaxed atmosphere compared to a lot of tourist complexes, it is slowly developing- whether this is a good thing or not is personal opinion
  • There are more natural looking buildings here as opposed to what you may find in a tourist area

From this I wrote another reflection and revisited the area on Google Maps, here are the images that I took and my reflection.

After researching my area there isn’t much that I would have done differently. I liked the fact that I didn’t know anything about this place, I think misconceptions and stereotypes are too easily believed and this would have heavily influenced what I took. On this specific occasion after researching Tulum I don’t think that I would have changed my approach much. Tulum is a town that is growing and attracting more tourists however it is still developing. The town itself is a place mainly occupied by locals and the beach and ruin area more attractive to tourists.
The comparison of these two separate areas, within the same place, really is what I see to be the main focal point of Tulum, both before and after my research. Culture was another focus for me, however I think this is a fairly obvious response seeing as I am most attracted to cultural differences in this new country. After research I am still drawn to these two things and it is what my task is revolved around.

The one thing that I did think I would concentrate on slightly more was the fact that Tulum is the only Mayan area located on a beach. This fact is important to its irregularity to tradition. Although I did capture some images to suggest this I think that I could of emphasised this a bit more. Looking back I am happy with the images that I originally shot and don’t think that the research that I completed would of changed the style of the work.
Revisiting this area proved hard, seeing as I was in Mexico on a family holiday I didn’t have much time to go and reshoot my project. However I decided that I would revisit Tulum in a different sense, on Google maps. This may not be seen as the most convenient way to do this but it does provide a completely different perspective. I found that I had to think more about the images and these sometimes couldn’t be exactly what I wanted. I decided not to crop the Google maps logo out of these, this adds consistency and allows people to know these aren’t my images, this avoids any copyright issues.

Overall I much prefer the images that I took, before research. I have decided not to take forward the images from Google maps, my final piece will be completely made up from the images that I have created. I don’t think the second series of images are as aesthetically pleasing or have the same impact. I also am not as keen as I haven’t physically taken the pictures myself. This is a new method and seemed a bit daunting and strange to not research Tulum before I went. Now it makes perfect sense and is even a method that I may use in the future.

5.  Write a 250 word critical rationale focused on the choices that have been made for step 4.

As part of step 4 I have already have to write two reflective pieces, this almost is a rationale, but more in depth than what we are being asked for here. This is really brief and just explaining our task as a whole, not going in depth to each separate part. I have also explained each part of the task in this blog post, this is just a way for my followers to see the process that I have been through. It is also important to translate this into a more concise piece of text.

Critical Rationale:

This task really interested me and pushed me to take my own practice and interests in a new direction. Laura McPhee’s task was open to interpretation and different outcomes could have been produced. When researching McPhee it was clear that her main love was getting lost and creating something beautiful, yet with meaning. This is what the task was asking me to do, I found this daunting and strange. I felt that facts belonged with images, which I still think, however I’m now not sure these need to be known before you reach the location. By researching I was able to visit the location with a completely clean slate, no stereotypes, opinions or facts to guide me, only my camera and interests.

The final piece that I created is a set of 10 diptychs; these show the comparison of the two locations at Tulum. The style I have presented these is similar to what McPhee may use herself, this was unintentional and the subject matter varies due to the images being in slightly different locations with direct comparison. Travelling to Tulum with no idea what I was going to find really did put me out of my comfort zone, what if I didn’t come back with images that I liked? From this task I have learnt not to have complete control over everything. I believe that by letting go of some control I have created something that I never could have done knowing all these facts. Overall I am happy with the work that I have created and even decided not to use the images from after researching as part of the final piece.

6.Write a letter to the author of your task telling them that you have completed it.

For this part of the assignment I decided to make postcards instead of simply writing a letter, the reason behind this is in the letter itself. Here are the postcards that I sent and the writing that is on the back of them (one paragraph per postcard).

Dear Laura,

As you are already aware I have been completing your task from the Photographers playbook. I am writing to you to share with you my response. During my research and completion of the task I have found that our practices definitely have their similarities. Like you I am very interested in human relationship with environments and maybe even a lack of this! From completing the task I feel like I have really been able to push my practice and interest a step further and in a new direction…

Not researching the place I decided to photograph before going seemed very daunting and strange to begin with, to me the facts needed to be there to make the work. Although I do not completely disagree with this statement now, I do understand that I maybe took this a little too literally. By not having any facts, stereotypes or other people’s opinions at the forefront of my mind I was able to go to Tulum, my chosen location, with a completely clean slate. This really did allow my camera to be my companion and guided me through the location through my interests. Realising there was two completely separate locations that made Tulum interested me greatly, along with the culture change and human interaction. For my final piece I have made ten diptychs showing the comparison between these two different locations highlighting these themes, 4 of these can be found on these postcards…

Having completed the task I would certainly use this technique again and also encourage others to try this! After researching there was a few things that I thought I may have done differently, however these thoughts were minimal, and in the end I decided to only use the first shoot for my final piece! (Something I never thought I would do when first receiving the task.) Looking at your practice and getting to know you, I can understand why you have written the task and I really think that it allows people to know what your work is about, even if they don’t research it themselves…

I have decided to write to you in the form of postcards, with the images that I have taken on the front. This seems appropriate due to the distance I travelled to complete the project. However I feel this would be appropriate whatever location was chosen, this is due to the fact that I am not only getting lost in this place but also my thoughts and interests as well. The whole task really has been a journey for me! The envelope is a map of the location that I have been too and also provides a little more information. I hope you enjoy looking at my response, if you want to read more about the process I went through to complete it please go to my blog at

Kind Regards,

Bethany Crisp



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