"Which is it?” How contexts can alter our interpretation of the genre of a photograph

November 08, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Something a little different this week, as I’m away for our annual break in London.  I thought I’d share a recent critical essay assignment from my ongoing degree studies.  It discusses my confusion over attributing photographs to a particular genre.  

Here it is:

Critical Essay

"Landscapes can show the infrastructure of power, can show the dividing lines of power. Sometimes we don't think of these as landscape, but they are, because that is the defining part of them". (Colin Pantall Presentation “The way we see...”, s.d., video timestamp 11m,50s)

Pantall was referring to an image by Mohamed Bourouissa from his series Périphérique (2005-2008), which depicts groups of youths in what looks like an underpass. The classical visual codes that usually describe the landscape genre are missing. There is no apparent aesthetic beauty relating to the natural world, or a picturesque view attributed by the photographer. There is little to suggest that this image is about the setting, owing to the primary subject; events that are apparently unfolding in the foreground. At first glance, the image looks as though it belongs to Street Photography, a sub-genre of Documentary. How then, does Pantall’s identification of ‘power’, as a contextual element within the composition, make this a landscape? How do our considerations of the visual (internal) context affect our subsequent categorisation when we interpret as a single image and as part of a series (external context)? 

Figure 1 – From the series Périphérique (2005-2008), (Mohamed Bourouissa, s.d.) 

Barrett tells us that there are multiple interpretations to an image and that a critique is not intended to arrive at a single view. He goes on to say that the subject matter of any photograph is taken from a larger context which is both internal and external (Barrett, 2006, p.128). Using his CRIT approach to analysing images (Subject + Medium + Form + Context = Meanings), we can determine the following: the photograph shows two distinct groups of young people, one black and one white, each also being of different genders. The setting is an underpass of a major roadway, with the support structures and lighting visible. A group of black males stand next to one of the structures. The white girls appear to have walked past the men, one looking back at them, but both continuing to walk away. There are two other men outside of the main group, one on a bicycle and the other looking towards something out of frame. The landscape, in the traditional sense, is in the width and depth of the composition which is cinematic in aspect ratio. The use of space fits with the idea of a landscape being ‘a general coda’ for a whole range of cultural scenes (Bate, 2016, p109), this one being a city-scape. Indeed, any image from an urban environment would qualify owing to the predominance of architecture, concrete and artificial light. What prevents us from initially seeing the landscape in Bourouissa image is the dominant presence of main subjects, the people. The groups are staged in apparent confrontation, emphasised by the two groups maintaining eye-contact. The direction of the girls and the cyclist suggests an altercation has taken place between them; that sense of fear being clear on the expressions of both girls. Internal context suggests a narrative about racial, class or gender tension, of intimidation and prejudice, which is alluded to by the artist’s statement. 

“Confrontations, gatherings, incidents, looks, and frozen gestures all suggest a palpably dramatic tension. Readings of these images were inflected from the start by the violence of the 2005 riots in the French banlieues”. (Mohamed Bourouissa, s.d.) 

Any confusion regarding the image’s genre is further compounded by it being mise en scene, that is a carefully constructed composition, visually resembling the fantastical photographs of artists like Crewdson and Wall. The immediate interpretation becomes more a fictional storytelling instead of a representation of real events as would be expected in a street photograph. Those artists use landscape to direct mood, create a backdrop for the experience of the primary players in the scene, and to provide the viewer with signifiers to help create a narrative. Bourouissa uses the space within his scene to present a ‘battleground’, akin to his own experiences as an immigrant entering France from Algeria; this is borne out when we review the image as part of the wider series. Repeated visual themes of urban decay, waste, scars of violent behaviour become more obvious and the area of Le Périphérique, a ring road encircling and dividing Paris, becoming more recognisable as the boundary between societal groups. The contexts that Barrett refers to include the external, provided in this case by the image’s place within the series. Bourouissa uses repeated themes of the environment, the landscape, as an anchor for the stories, so it is critical that the other images are taken into account when trying to assign a genre to it. The image further conforms to the idea of landscape as three verities: geography, autobiography, and metaphor (Adams R, 1995). Bourouissa’s motivation was to represent his place and his friends in the work (Louisiana Channel, 2021), which covers the first two. The assembly of the image provides signs that are metaphorical battlegrounds, whether physical, psychological, or emotional. 

“Representation is, of course, ideological, but so is looking, since our engagement with what we perceive is subject to cultural currencies and preconceptions. The image is a statement of what was seen. We know that photographic vision is highly constructed. Nonetheless, photography significantly contributes to our sense of knowledge, perception and experience, and to (trans)forming our feelings about our relation to history and geography and, by extension, to our sense of ourselves.” (Wells L, 2011) 

By considering the image as landscape, we can connect with the cultural and ideological ideas of ownership and power woven through more traditional art from the genre. Works such as Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (c1750) and Johan Zoffany’s Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their Garden at Alipore (c1784) both convey the sense of ownership of land. The former creates tension between the subject and the viewer in terms of the vastness of the wealth being portrayed, taking the form of positive social affirmation and of ‘showing off’, depending on what the viewer brings. This was intentional as at the time, such paintings (this one could be considered a portrait) were commissioned for that very purpose. Zoffany’s painting extends the tension to cover people as possessions; painted during the colonial occupation of India, the inclusion of the Indian servant further emphasises the Hastings’ power and ownership of everything around him. Unlike Bourouissa’s image, the visual elements of the landscapes, which include the aesthetic beauty of the open countryside, are more obvious upon first inspection. The external context provided by British history soon provide some viewers with the narrative about the relationship between the people and their space. The inclusion of people is similar to Bourouissa’s photograph, but there is more balance between the portraiture/landscape codes, than his portraiture/documentary equivalents. 

Figure 2: Mr and Mrs Andrew (c1750) by Thomas Gainsborough 

Figure 3: Warren Hastings with his wife Marian in their Garden at Alipore (c1784) 

Bourouissa’s photograph uses the landscape as the demonstration of power, only differing from the above in that it conforms to the notion of the sublime. Sublime landscapes introduce unease or fear in the viewing, whether a demonstration of the raw power of nature or something that might cause harm to life. Sublime is not limited to this genre, as demonstrated in Le Périphérique as it is the action within the scenes that provide the fear that this really is a war zone. 


When considering the contextual significance of the space in this photograph, an argument can be made that the strength of the combined verities (Adams R, 1995) can direct the viewer to categorise it as landscape. The iconic elements used as mise-en-scène, help form a narrative that is familiar with a contemporary eye, asking what the conflict is about, but bringing preconceptions based on current affairs. The sense that some people have strayed where they shouldn’t, provides the geography, while the repeated contexts in the rest of the series builds the autobiographical and metaphorical. Whether considered landscape or documentary, the narrative of the image and the series that it’s taken from, remain the same, even if it’s classification may not be. It is for the viewer to form an opinion as to the relevance of classifying the picture, beyond its use for academic study. 


Figure 1: Mohamed Bourouissa (s.d.) At: https://www.mohamedbourouissa.com/peripherique/ (Accessed 10/10/2022). 

Figure 2: One painting, many voices: Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews | Stories | National Gallery, London (s.d.) At: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/stories/one-painting- many-voices-gainsboroughs-mr-and-mrs-andrews (Accessed 12/10/2022). 

Figure 3: E-Catalogue entry, VICTORIA::Home (s.d.) At: https://www.victoriamemorial- cal.org/home/content/en (Accessed 13/10/2022). 


Colin Pantall Presentation (s.d.) At: https://oca.cloud.panopto.eu/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=7818fd51-11c1-4dec-b524- adc100b4b808 (Accessed 21/09/2022). 

Mohamed Bourouissa (s.d.) At: https://www.mohamedbourouissa.com/peripherique/ (Accessed 10/10/2022). 

Barrett, T. (2006) Criticizing photographs: an introduction to understanding images. (4th ed) Boston: McGraw-Hill. 

Bate, D. (2018) Photography: the key concepts. (Second Edition) London New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. 

‘I’m not a political artist. But it is political.’ | Artist Mohamed Bourouissa | Louisiana Channel 

(2021) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9k_z2B8DfWw (Accessed 10/10/2022). Adams, R.(1995) Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values. (s.l.): 


Wells, L. (2011) Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. (s.l.): I/B Tauris & Co Ltd. 



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