Where are you based? by ellie berry


Where are you based?


Recently, a friend from many years ago messaged me about one of my projects. It was fantastic to hear from someone after so long, and as I was writing my reply I typed out the simple line “where are you based these days?”. I then sat there watching the little curser blink at me for a moment or two. It felt like such a ridiculous concept - people no long just “live” somewhere, but they’re “based” there instead, ready to be swept up in a strong wind and fly off to a new location.

The a few days later, I sleepily stood waiting for my coffee to brew, and I thought about this again. So many artists I know use the term “based in X”, and the more I thought about it, the more alienated I was by the word. There is no living, just existing in a place that can be utilised. Comparing the connotations I have between “based” and “lives'', they speak to me of two completely different experiences. If I am living somewhere, I am in that place, experiencing and contributing to it in some way. When I think of the word based I’m struck with the feeling of disconnected globalisation. And the fact that this word is so prevalent within artist’s descriptions feels wrong to me. When I think about what it means to be an artist or creative person, I think I can assume that quite often creative ideas are only born because of lived experience - be that through research, experimentation, documentation, an epiphany as you do the dishes.

So why this disconnect from locality? If we are based as opposed to living somewhere, does that allow us to have an outside or objective viewpoint of that community/society/way of life? Is that necessary?


After a while I remember that I’m supposed to be making coffee, and decide to leave such extensional musings for when I’ve woken up a bit more.


Published work! Autumn 2018 by ellie berry

It’s only recently that I’ve started adding writer to my by-line. It was what I wanted to be when I grew up since about third class (nine years old). My teacher of the time decided that each student was to try and write their own story. Through the unintentional eves-dropping kids go through, I slowly learnt that everyone else's work was very “real life” based - catching a robber who broke into a shop, working on a farm. Mine was about a girl named Rogue who had a (sarcastic) talking horse, lived in a fantasy woodland, and was sent on a quest to find the collar necklace (that was a spelling mistake that mini-me just pretended was intentional. Even now I remember it was supposed to be coral necklace). I’m pretty sure it was heavily inspired by the never ending story and lord of the rings. And I know now that it deeply cemented my love of writing.

Skip forward through many years of amazing English teachers, continued terrible spelling, discovering the magic of creative critical research in college, and we roughly land in Dublin two years ago. I haphazardly wrote this, my personal blog, but was also about to enter the planning stages of Tough Soles. I know that in 2017 I wrote nearly 35k words through that blog, and I’m hoping to break that record this year. It’s not the kind of writing nine year old me would have imagined, but I’ve really come to love it - although I think I’ve exhausted the variety of ways I can say ‘it rained’. I’ve also (tentatively) started letting text have a more interesting role in my personal creative practices; hence the red girls and there is rarely silence while walking.

All of this has lead me to being braver with my applications and ideas, and so over maybe the past month I’ve had my words and work published in places!


1. In The Frame: Fractured Landscapes

In each issue of Totally Dublin magazine there is In The Frame, a full page given over to printing a single image/piece, accompanied by some text explaining the project. This month I got to share one of the images from my Fractured Landscapes series. At the time of publication, this image was hanging in HALFTONE print fair.

In the Frame: Fractured Landscapes in Totally Dublin is now available online.


2. Intrepid Magazine - Issue 6

Intrepid magazine is a pretty cool thing in my eyes. They are the only female-first print and online adventure magazine that I know of, and so I pitched them an article where I talk about The Highs and Lows of Hiking - not the most inspired article title, but it’s basically me looking at the different things that affect my motivation while we’ve been working on Tough Soles. In it, I imagine “the elephant in the room” as three actual elephants that lumber along the hillside behind me as I hike.

Note: If I’m perfectly honest, I haven’t re-read my article since it’s been published, as I’m afraid I won’t like it.


3. Del Norte:
self published photobook

This book isn’t exactly new - in fact, I first started making this in 2016. However, when I found out in October that I’d been accepted onto my masters programme I decided to run a little online sale, and included my Del Norte books. Being the first photobook I’d ever tried to make, it’s not the surprising to me that there are many things I would change about it. And, happily enough, there was one thing I decided I could change: text.

When I published this I first didn’t have any text, but when I exhibited some of the prints back in 2016, I printed off diary extracts and stuck them to the walls. Since then I’ve wondered how I could incorporate the text into the book. I ended up making a couple of different versions - in one copy I stuck the text in on tracing paper between or onto the pages. It almost worked, but wasn’t quite right.

Some of my books were wrapped in large sheets with stamps, so then I included a plain leaflet inside the wrapping. There were a couple of other variations, and the design I’ve stuck with for now is the one shown in the photograph - the text in a little booklet, the cover of which is tracing paper with some of the stamps I collected while walking printed on it. Also mentioned in the image above is the fact that the book is for sale in The Library Project in Temple Bar! Thank you so much to everyone who has bought a copy from me, or from TLP.

The last piece that will be coming out before the new year is a short Tough Soles update in the winter edition of Mountaineering Ireland’s The Mountain Log.

Also, thank you for all the book recommendations. I have 50 books on my To Do list, and probably 100 more that are saved in notes apps or scribbled on mislaid pieces of paper. Reading hasn’t been fast these two months, but I think by the time this is published I should have finished: Photography and Ireland by Justin Carville; Doing Visual Ethnography by Sarah Pink; and The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin.

At the moment I’m having fun taking part in one of those social media sharing posts “post 7 book covers for 7 days with no titles or descriptions”. To be honest, most of the books I’m reading have all the information on the cover, so it’s not all that secretive or mysterious.

Seeing as this post has turned into just discussing writing; my dad wrote a book - The Dangerous Book for CEOs! It’s just words central right now.

Also, I’m officially 6 weeks into my masters programme, and a lot of things have happened in that time. I think I’ll leave this blog post just to writing for now, and do more recapping in maybe the next post. I do want to mention that Carl and I did some amazing training with Leave No Trace Ireland, and I’m very excited to write my piece discussing it (that piece will probably come out on the Tough Soles blog).

Finally, I wonder would nine year old me be disappointed or relieved to know how bad I still am at spelling.

Building Reading Lists by ellie berry


If I was to guess when it was that I fell in love with reading I’d probably guess it was around when I was eight. There’s no special event I remember, but I also can’t really remember reading books by myself before then. According to others I’ve been a book worm since bed time stories were a thing. As like most people, how much I actually read ebbs and flows - although I still buy books at the same rate, which has lead to some overburdened shelves holding some very clean books.

At the beginning of this year I decided to try and read 52 books. I simultaneously believed that I could definitely, and yet probably wouldn’t, read that many books - but either way, I really wanted to just track what I’d read and try and read something in the double digits. Currently I’m reading Tim Ingold’s Lines: A Brief History.


The Big 2018 Booklist

  1. Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine - Last Chance to See

  2. Dodie Clarke - Secrets for the mad

  3. Ursula K. Le Guin - A wizard of Earthsea

  4. Anna McNuff - The Pants of Perspective

  5. Terry Pratchett - Lords and Ladies

  6. Terry Pratchett - Maskarade

  7. Terry Pratchett - Carpe Jugulum

  8. Terry Pratchett - Jingo

  9. Andrzej Saphowski - The Last Wish

  10. Andrzej Saphowski - Sword of Destiny

  11. J. R. R. Tolkien - The Two Towers

Where I’ve read multiples from one author I’ve listed the books in the order I read them (just to make things a little more complicated).

The slightly long to-be-read list:

  1. Naomi Alderman - The Power

  2. John Boughton - Municipal Dreams

  3. Robyn Davidson - Tracks

  4. Anthony Doerr - All the light we cannot see

  5. Reni Eddo-Lodge - Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race

  6. Lauren Elkin - Flâneuse: Women Walk the City

  7. Ruth Fitzmaurice - I found my tribe

  8. Keith Fosket - High and Low

  9. John Green - Paper Towns

  10. Frédéric Gros - A Philosophy of Walking

  11. N. K. Jemisin - The Broken Earth Trilogy

  12. Scott Jurek - North

  13. Madeleine L'Engle - A Wrinkle in Time

  14. J. Anthony Lukas - Common Ground

  15. Helen Mort, (et al. editors) - WAYMAKING: an Anthology of Womens Adventure Writing, Poetry and Art

  16. Liz O’Neill - Asking for it

  17. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Half of a Yellow Sun

  18. Garth Nix - Sabriel

  19. Shirley Read and Mike Simmons - Photographers and Research: the Role of Research in Contemporary Photographic Practice

  20. Edward Said - Orientalism

  21. Nan Shepard - The Living Mountain

  22. Keri Smith - The Wander Society

  23. Rebecca Solnit - Wanderlust: A History of Walking

  24. Emily St. John Mandel - Station 11

  25. Cheryl Strayed - Wild

  26. Ranne Wynne - The Salt Path

As I’m heading back to college to start a research masters …

… I decided to do a very general google search for reading lists, and stumbled across the page of IMMA reading lists. The one it has for photography lines up very very closely with the reading list for most of the BA Photography course in IADT that I did (which means I might start trying to read them now!).

Reading while walking this summer was both enjoyable, but also tricky as most of the time when we stop I just want to sleep. If I did manage to dig my kindle out of my backpack I really did enjoy reading. I just didn’t often have the strength to go find it. I’d love to get a wider range of books, so please send me on a recommendation or two!
And lets how quickly I can grow my read list before the end of the year!

Also, I went to the botanic gardens with my sister recently, which is always a favourite place of mine. It’s magical getting to share favourite places with other people. So I’m dropping a couple of photos from there throughout the blog post (queue me adding more photos of plants than books).

In the upcoming weeks I plan to finish sharing my BA thesis: so far I’ve shared the Introduction and Chapter One, so lots to revisit still.

IMMA Reading list - Photography

Martin Lister (ed.), The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, London: Routledge, 1995. (✓)

J. J. Long, Andrea Noble and Edward Welch (eds.), Photography: Theoretical Shapshots, London and New York: Routledge, 2009.

Nathan Lyons (ed.), Photographers on Photography: A Critical Anthology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1966.

Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

W. J. T. Mitchell, Iconography: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1982.

Fred Ritchin, After Photography, London and New York: W. W. Norton, 2009.

Naomi Rosenblum, A World History of Photography, New York: Abbeville Press, 1997.

Aaron Scharf, Art and Photography, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Stephen Shore, The Nature of Photographs, London: Phaidon Press, 2007.

Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2007.

John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009.

Alan Trachtenberg (ed.), Classical Essays on Photography, New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980.

Liz Wells (ed.), The Photography Reader, London: Routledge, 2002. (✓)

The IMMA reading list page.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: the Conception of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997.

Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), in Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973, pp. 219-253. (✓)

Richard Bolton (ed.), The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Victor Burgin (ed.), Thinking Photography, London: Macmillan, 1982.

David Campany (ed.), Art and Photography, London and New York: Phaidon Press, 2003.

Charlotte Cotton, The Photograph as Contemporary Art, London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

T. J. Demos, Vitamin Ph: New Perspectives on Photography, London: Phaidon Press, 2006.

Emma Dexter and Thomas Weski (eds.), Cruel and Tender: The Real in Twentieth-Century Photography, London: Tate, 2003.

Steve Edwards, Photography: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. (✓)

Jessica Evans (ed.), The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography, London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997.

Vilem Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography, London: Reaktion Books, 2000.

Michael Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

Michel Frizot, A New History of Photography, Cologne: Konemann, 1998.


Space, Place and Obligation by ellie berry

botanic gardens.jpeg


I’m standing at the spire, waiting for Walking in the Eire to finish her incredible 6 month trip walking the coastline of Ireland. It’s a part of Dublin I never visit - it’s reserved for tourists, no “Dubliner” would put themselves through this stressful street (not that I’m sure I can claim that title). Over to my left there’s a guy literally standing on his soap box, preaching to his un-co-operating congregation that Jesus Christ can forgive them, and they can find their immortal life. Even with his small speaker hanging from his elbow I don’t think many people can hear him. There are hundreds of buses, thousands of conversations, and one busker playing drums pretty well but also pretty loudly, and it echoes up and down this wide thoroughfare.

But it’s not as uncomfortable a place as I was expecting - since coming back to the city I’ve had the opposite experience of most outdoor people I know, and find the mass movement of strangers so energetic and energising. I’m still wrecked at the end of a day, it’s still over whelming, but I think the city gives me as much life as I find in the outdoors.

There’s no immediate sign of the inspiring walker I’m here to congratulate so I start jotting notes for a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for weeks. I know how loose time is when you spend all your days walking. I pick a pole wrapped in bamboo and lean against it. I watch old friends collide in screeching hugs, and first dates ask each other what food they like. There are just so many people. I look around me and wonder who is here for what.

There’s a lull in traffic, and my preacher friend across the road can be heard shouting for us all to trust in our Jewish saviour. Saviour seems to be his favourite word. Then the drummer strikes up a powerful tempo, and a swarm of teenage students pour across the road.

So far I can confirm that standing is harder than walking, but I’m enjoying getting the time to write. I’ve been meaning to write something for my own website since I got sick a month ago. When you’re sick and can’t do anything it’s easy to build to do lists of things that don’t involve going places, but still involve more mental energy than you actually possess. But I’m back on feet, so here we are. Time to do a big general update.



A quick summary of my life this year would be - I walked 1,446km this summer, and then took a short break which resulted in my immune system crashing. In my anti biotic stupor of the past month I; moved back to Dublin, attended a conference, built IKEA furniture, took part in a feminist internet workshop, got lost learning my new corner of the city, more artist takes, and finally, I was accepted to do a Research Masters in IADT Dun Laoghaire!

So lets start from the beginning of this month.

I moved back to Dublin after my immune system crashed and I had to go through a whole series of antibiotics. There are lots of strange things that happen to you when you drastically change life style and living places, so I think I might just say I’m still acclimatising and leave it at that.

The conference I attended has actually inspired the name/grouping of this post. The title of the event was Space, Place, Obligation (An interdisciplinary inquiry into creative practice in contemporary Ireland). Organised by Niamh Campbell in Maynooth university, it was an intense day of artists sharing their artistic practice in relation to the title topics, while also discussing themes of home and sense of belonging. It was still probably too early in my antibiotic days to be attending such a full on event - I hadn’t yet bought a bed so I was camping in my room. My printer stopped working when I tried to print the conference notes off, my shoes cut my heels to pieces running for the bus, and at the event my hands took every opportunity to spill coffee on my notes, shoes, clothes, and hands.
But it was a really great event - thank you to Moran for inviting me to attend it with her. Ideas I had while walking all bubbled up, demanding attention after the event.

People always say that living in a tent with someone must be the ultimate test for a relationship. I disagree - building IKEA furniture for 7hrs together will always be the real exam. We now have a bed on stilts.

I am starting a Masters by Research! It’s two years looking at walking, photography, and the cultural landscape of Ireland. Induction is in two weeks, and I am both incredibly excited, nervous and relieved to have been accepted. To be perfectly honest, I’m still not entirely sure how I’m going to afford the fees, so in the next few days I might have a print/book sale.



It feels a little weird to admit this, but this seems like a good section of this post to write about it. For possibly the past 3 years I’ve kept myself purposefully ignorant of a photographers work. There wasn’t anything malicious in my avoidance, it was purely a naive selfish fear.

I started incorporating walking into my practice while on Erasmus in third year of college. Then during the summer I walked the camino. Arriving back in Dublin to finish my degree, I showed my friends what I’d been working on while I was away. And there was one thing everyone told me: while I was away a photographer had been in to talk about his new work on walking and photography. He’d also made work in Spain. So I looked him up, saw two of his images and immediately stopped. I thought that if I looked at his work before really looking at my own I wouldn’t be able to see mine without seeing his - and I was afraid that if I compared us, I would think his work was far better. Such a scared artist I was. And so I have avoided this other Irish photographer who also works with walking and the landscape for almost 3 years. Now, it’s not like I’d see his book in a shop and frantically jump behind the nearest postcard stand. But I never engaged with his work. Until this conference.

I was sitting on the floor, staring in frustrated disbelief at the pages my printer was spitting out at me. How can it print something without black ink? Why does it have to do this now?! It’s the night before a conference, and my whole body is still fighting me with flus and infections. I haven’t yet really read the conference pack, and because staring at a screen had been hurting my eyes I thought that printing off the sheets would help me. But instead blank pages were being gently washed up against my sock. I sigh as I cancel the print project on my laptop. However, before the new command gets through to the tiny printer brain, the images at the end of the document are being painted onto my the cheap tesco paper, and they look so psychedelic without black ink that I don’t know what’s happening. I smile at the mess, and go to my inflatable bed, falling asleep reading the notes on my phone.

And so at the conference the next day I had the very surreal experience of listening to someone introduce and discuss their walking work that I had selfishly avoided. They went right from that first project 3 years ago, to now. It was a really amazing experience, and I’m glad it was such a surprise to me. I got to see all the similarities and differences in how, what and why we create. I think 3 years ago I would have seen the differences in our work as pit falls in mine, but seeing the development of their practice, and how things changed or didn’t change through each project reminded me how fluid and ever-changing everyones work is, and how impossible it would be for our work to be the same. The fact that I am genuinely excited and like my own work and creative process right now probably helps.

And so here we are.

Most of my writing this year has been for a personal journal or for the tough soles blog. It’s a little odd to remember what and how I usually write on my own site - going back and reading my old posts would be too easy. I’m hoping to use this space as a online visual research journal going forward.

In this post I’ve only talked about a handful of things I want to talk about, so just so future me doesn’t forget:

  • I went to the Sugar Club and heard artists talk about their practice/how they’ve come to be successful. The one that really stuck with me was by Craig Oldham. I think he managed to give a talk about himself and his practice without it just being a slideshow of his life. He was the most eloquent in sharing how and what he learnt from mistakes, and how different choices affected him.

  • The Feminist Internet and Mariam Kauser of Wrk Wrk Wrk collective hosted a workshop in Rua Red as part of the Glitch digital arts festival. I’d like to learn how to think of questions during an event as opposed to just absorbing and then processing at home. The workshop group itself was very small, and so lead to interesting discussions as opposed to working on the exact tasks, which I think I benefitted from more.

  • The Arts Management Ireland site is a wonderful resource and I wish I’d known about it sooner.

  • The botanic gardens are always a good place to go to.

These paths we follow by ellie berry

Lines are phenomena in themselves. They really are, in us and around us... Indeed there is no escaping them, for any attempt to flee we only lay another one. Why should theory and metaphor be thought to be the only alternatives for the line? Why cannot the line be just as real as whatever passes along it, if indeed the two can be distinguished at all? 

- Lines: A Brief History by Tim Ingold

I'm still walking around the country. To date we've walked 2,600km, with a further 1,400km to go. However, for the past few weeks we've been having some down time. I spent a few days with my family, and turned 24. They asked me: "So, what do you want to do for your birthday?"
I didn't really know, hadn't thought of something in the time leading up to it. I then asked them to get up at 5:45am and climb a mountain. It was the first morning in weeks that there were clouds, and as we started our climb we kept our jumpers tight around us. After a while the heat of the climb warmed our limbs, and the clouds rushed around us as we pushed forward. It was a wind-swept, cloud howling summit, with only a few meters of visibility. But it was wonderful to be able to share one of my loves with people I love. 

It was also around now that I was tagged to post a black and white photo of "my everyday life" for seven days. I haven't been tagged to do one of these internet things in a long time, and I really enjoyed using black and white again. It really makes you focus on shapes and light, and with the ideas of lines already wandering around in my head I found the two topics collided rather perfectly. 

The red girls by ellie berry


This land felt cold, and never ending. It was worked for a purpose, and this was built just for passing. It was fen and fey and wild. It was wet. 

I heard the story of the red girls the second evening of the walk; they lived out here in the bog. We would pass their stretch of land soon, and we'd know we were there when the canal rose up above the wetlands,  showing the dismal greys and rich deep browns of the ground swallowing the horizons.
They had all lived together, these red girls, out in this empty place. They were called so for their burning bright hair. I was told they used to do their washing in the waterway, or just walk here, waiting for passers. The made others' journeys pass quicker, with wit and charm and chat as they wandered the banks. 

As we walked these long, open sections in a constant rain I thought of them, in such a monotonous and lonely place. My clothes were slowly being soaked through, drops rolling down the sides of my hood, falling off the ends of my sleeves. Yet after a while my lips dried out. The air tasted of damp acid. I thought of the red girls, and I daydreamed of leaving this banal place, of colour, of dance, of dried lips, and then of lipstick. I imagined colouring in this unchanged landscape, mixing it's textures and masking them with others. 




Fractured landscapes by ellie berry


There are many things I think about when walking - as I've said before, thinking is inescapable. In the past, I think a lot of my work has dealt with ideas of home ... and that was definitely a topic that I was focused on when we started. Finding a sense of place, but maybe more accurately, a sense of belonging. In stead of attacking all the images I've made so far, melding them all into one colossal project, I've started picking at threads, and working through some looser ideas.


Here's one piece I'm still working on, with the current title of fractured landscapes 


90 days later - the connection project by ellie berry


This number game started a few months ago.

I'd moved back to Dublin after fracturing my foot while walking 4,000km around Ireland, and was delaying finding another part time job as, well I couldn't really walk for starters, but I also kind of just wanted to "try being an artist" for a while. With almost no money, and limited mobility I was struggling to leave my room and feel creative. Any creative sparks I did encounter I would quickly blow out in my hasty rush to catch them, my flailing, snatching hands overwhelming these fleeting moments and ultimately extinguishing them. 
The walking project wasn't finished, and after many physio sessions we set a date to return to life on the road. I made a wall calendar to count down the days, and counted them out.

90 days. 
Such a satisfying round number. What could I try to do for 90 days? 

The year before I'd put out an open call for people to send me words, the theory being that I would send them an image in return. Final year college plans changed, and I just put this project in a folder on a hard drive and mostly forgot about it (it's only purpose to make me feel guilty every so often for never getting back to it). 

If I just started making images and posting them somewhere, no one else would know what I was working toward, or was possibly going to happen in 90 days. I went through the images that I'd started making for the project in the beginning and picked out the ones I liked. It was enough to give me some time to shoot some more images - I'd decided to shoot film, just because I enjoyed it. 
The "somewhere" to post was also pretty easy for me to decide;  I'd created a second instagram account for my "Photography", so that I could use my regular one for just posting videos of me messing around in the climbing gym. In reality I'd just ended up with two out of sync accounts, so decided I might as well put one of them to use! 

I received 40-odd words for original project so I knew that I'd be posting a mix of old, new, related and random. I found it really enjoyable to slowly wade through old hard drives and find stuff I'd shot previously while at the same time make new photographs - I got to see some developments/shifts. In the end it took me over the 90 days to publish all the photos, but they're now all out there on that instagram account, if you're interested in the full 90.
One of the only struggles I had with this project was remembering that this was just to be fun, and not to worry about there being any deeper meaning. I am allowed to create work for fun, and when I do it gives me the breather to look at bigger topics with fresh eyes. But now I'm meandering, so let's get to a point. 

Below are the 40+ images that were responses to words sent to me. This small project is called Connection. 




"You send me a word, and I send you a photograph"

This project originally started two years ago when I put out a request for people to send me words, and in return I would send them an image. The project had to be put aside for a while, and I never managed to get back to it. 
I then recently had an unexpected few months living in Dublin, and I looked for a playful way to reengage with photography. Finding the old list of words, I went wandering. 





Chapter 1: The Poetics | Representation and National Geographic by ellie berry

This is the second part in a series of mini essays - here's the introduction

I: The National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is chartered in Washington D.C. as a non-profit scientific and educational organization “for the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge.” Since 1888 the Society has supported more than 9,000 explorations and research projects, adding to the knowledge of the earth, sea and sky.[1]

For many people issues of The National Geographic Society magazine were shown to them as a child, the bright vibrant colours alluring. It was, and still is, marketed as a scientific journal – words which in English carry the ideas of “truth” and “fact”. The articles and the images of far-flung places contained within its pages are continually absorbed by millions of people every year, and have helped form views of the world today.[2]

The quote above can be found as a standard introduction paragraph in a vast majority of National Geographic’s physical publications since the turn of the century. Founded in 1888 as a scientific journal, The National Geographic Society was not an illustrated publication until 1905. Set up as a scientific institution, the Society is a private body that relies on sales to continue running as a company. There are plenty of theories as to why National Geographic became successful, with most claiming it to be a combination of the following ideas. Firstly, the end of the nineteenth century saw the start of mass journalism in the form of monthly magazines (which would not have been possible before the completion of America’s intercontinental railway system in the 1860s) and the start of advertising within said magazines. Secondly, the Spanish-American War in 1898 caused American citizens to become more interested in foreign lands and America’s colonial expansion.[3] Skip forward to 1905 and a ‘revolutionary’ editor goes against the managing board and publishes eleven full-page images of Tibet, increasing membership to the magazine by over 7,500 in that year alone.[4]

Whether such claims are true or not make little difference because it reads as an exciting success story. The company’s mission statement proclaims to be an “organisation driven by a passionate belief in the power of science, exploration and storytelling to change the world.” National Geographic presents itself to the world as a storyteller. The articles and photographic content the magazine began to produce at the beginning of the twentieth century were designed to be consumed as small samples of the places and ideas they represented.[5] It was the idea that these small representations have considerable power to create a specific worldview when viewed as a whole that intrigued me to begin researching this thesis topic.

II: Ideas of Representation


Stuart Hall is a writer who has worked extensively with the idea of representation. The quote below is taken from his book Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices,[6] outlining the power that representation has on the everyday.

In part, we give things meanings by how we represent them – the words we use about them, the stories we tell about them, the images of them we produce, the emotions we associate with them, the ways we classify and conceptualize them, the values we place upon them.[7]

Human communication through language reaches far further than the words we speak. Our language encompasses music and objects, images and emotions, body language and written word - all of which allow us to share our opinions, ideas and feelings.

There are two prominent forms of representational analysis for photographic work: the poetic (semiotics), and the political (the discursive – the effects and consequences of representation). Semiotics is a form of communication; it is a study of sign processes and cultural codes. As Stuart Hall writes “It is we who fix the meaning so firmly that, after a while, it comes to seem natural and inevitable. The meaning is constructed by the system of representation”.[9]

This quote is an example of how through the repetition of a specific notion of representation, the representation becomes an accepted truth or assumed reality without further proof. And these meanings we affix are produced in a set way. To develop this train of thought, we must discuss representation on a fundamental level. To do this, we turn to Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss linguist who is known as a father to modern day linguistics. His ideas about representation and language also helped construct semiotics.

In interpretations of Saussure’s work, it is said he believed that the production of meaning depends on language; if things such as words and photographs are used to communicate ideas, they are part of a protocol. His theory centered on a sign (the protocol) being two parts. There is the signifier (word, photograph, etc.) and the signified (the thought of the object, person, etc. that then pops into your head). These parts of the sign are not separate, but create one idea. According to Saussure, this sign or idea doesn’t exist if it doesn’t have an opposite (or binary). As with traffic lights, the red you see does not hold the idea of stop; it is applied to it through its inclusion in the sequence. It would also hold no meaning without it’s opposite colour, green to ‘tell’ you to go. Of course this categorizing of things into simple opposites and binaries completely ignores the fact that there can be finer details than black and white. But it was this work that lead to Saussure’s “proposition that a language consists of signifiers, but in order to produce meaning, the signifiers have to be organized into ‘a system of differences’”.[10]

Looking again to Hall’s Representation, it discusses a specific example of the power of language in the 1960’s. [11] Discussing how an advertising phrase changed representations of black people during that time period, Hall argues that simply because of a popular slogan, ‘Black is Beautiful’, the signification of the word ‘black’ changed. While the word (signifier) black remained the same, social connotations changed around the word. This clearly presents how signifier and signified are not independently affixed meanings, but come from a hierarchy of social conventions specific to places, cultures, and historical moments. Meaning is not freestanding, but comes from the society.

Roland Barthes took Saussure’s theories a step further. As each sign develops in a culture, with its signifier and signified, this sign becomes the signifier for the next iteration or a deeper cultural reference. In the constant building of signs and meaning, each sign is returned to the beginning and the meanings continue to deepen and evolve. See (fig. 1) below.   

( fig.  1.1)  Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to Semiology.’

(fig. 1.1)  Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to Semiology.’

This meta-data that structures culture, and forms what societies are built on, is the structure through which people witness themselves, and recreate themselves for consumption. In Orientalism by Edward W. Said, he foregrounds his work by discussing how this constant evolution of signified becoming signifiers of further representation have lead to todays representation of the Orient.[12] 

The idea of recreating for further consumption and representations developing naturally within culture is reiterated in Peter Osborne’s Travelling Light[13], where he discusses Dean McCannell in reference to tourism in the modern age. The creation of tourism imagery allows us to constantly review our existence. Osborne discusses the roles that tourism fills: its offer of ‘escape’ from the disassociation and pressures of modernity. The same can be said of the role of the National Geographic photographer. As specified earlier, National Geographic include in their ethos: “We believe in the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to change the world.”[14] It is such sentences where similarities between National Geographic and Osborne’s writings of photography’s flirtation with representation are drawn. Both pieces reiterate this blurred line of fact and fiction. On one side, touristic imagery is an enabler for fantastical daydreams, while holding onto visual realism.[15] Be it their own imagery or photos taken for brochures, tourists see these images as both proof of events and circumstances, while accepting that the situations depicted in this imagery are constructed ideals, fabrications. Taking a quote from Jonathan Culler:

The tourists are fanning out in search of
Frenchness, typical Italian behavior,
exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American
thruways, traditional English pubs.[16]

There is this concept of searching for the perfect touristic image, and an act of detachment with this process. Between you and what you are witnessing there is the camera, a machine built to put order on what one sees.[17] What Culler is observing is the tourist or traveller’s search for ‘authenticity’. If they can capture the assumed culture of the area, on their return they will be hailed as having experienced the ‘real’ place.

In an earlier section of the book, Osborne referred to Zygmunt Bauman describing the tourist as a modern day pilgrim. The word pilgrim invokes the idea of people travelling to a place in search of a special power, and that by reaching this place the pilgrim is given a new identity. As a tourist, it can be read that travelling for the touristic image, the pilgrimage to key sites, are all towards the formation of identity. However, while constructing this identity relies on the tourists immersing themselves in a new element or experiencing something different, the tourist is still disconnected from the activity. Whatever is being partaken in must be ‘wash-off-able’ – something that they can leave at the end of their time off and return to life as they left it. The imagery in National Geographic is styled to offer such escapes, with the text also following a storyline that arches through a beginning, middle, and end, so that the reader may leave with a whole and resolved experience while never leaving the comforts of their own home. To give these theories a context, I am looking at the print edition of National Geographic Magazine from February 2009, specifically at the piece made around the cover image, “What Darwin Didn’t Know”. Split into two articles, the first broadly looks at Darwin and how he came about his theory of natural selection.

The piece starts with four double page spreads, each spread depicting four contrasting landscapes; a green rainforest, a frozen bay with snowy mountains, sheer sea cliffs with birds, and tortoises bathing in misty murky brown hot springs.  Each image is accompanied by a quote from Darwin’s journal, which became the travel book The Voyage of the Beagle.

The article accompanying the imagery is written in a familiar manner, with a clear progression. It opens informing us that the story we know of Darwin and his discovery is more myth than fact. Written in a tone that suggests personal insight and connection to him, the piece goes on to describe Darwin as somewhat an underdog in his field, someone with “intense curiosity … talent for close observation, and … instinctive sense that everything in the natural world is somehow connected with everything else.”[18] This portrayal of Darwin sells him as someone anyone could imagine himself or herself being. The story highlights escaping the boring life of a small town, living for fun and adventure, while skimming over any serious details of his work. When interpreted as such, the text works as a reiteration of The Society’s ethos.

After the opening large landscape shots to the article, the subsequent five pieces of imagery are illustrations of maps and bones. They are all tinted yellow, giving the impression of being aged and ‘otherworldly’. The final imagery is contained in a timeline of how evolution as a theory developed in science. Throughout the article, there is always at least one image per double page spread.

( fig.  1.2) Sourced without text overlay. Text located bottom right corner. Text overlay:  The Atlantic Forest, Carlos Botelho State Park, Brazil “The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest.”               - The Voyage of the Beagle , February 29, 1832

(fig. 1.2) Sourced without text overlay.
Text located bottom right corner. Text overlay:

The Atlantic Forest, Carlos Botelho State Park, Brazil
“The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest.”

            - The Voyage of the Beagle, February 29, 1832

( fig.  1.3) Above. Sourced without text overlay. Text located on the black mountain on the right hand side of the image. Text overlay:  Pia Bay, Tierra Del Fuego, Chile “It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.  - January 29, 1833

(fig. 1.3) Above. Sourced without text overlay.
Text located on the black mountain on the right hand side of the image. Text overlay:

Pia Bay, Tierra Del Fuego, Chile
“It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of snow.

- January 29, 1833

The landscapes at the beginning of the article are all bright in their respective colours. Each image is framed to lead the viewer into the image, with the clear connotation to further exploration, be it the overgrown path in the forest image (see fig. 1.2), or the mountains funneling the reader’s view towards a beach hidden from sight (fig. 1.3). Each picture is also paired with a suitable quote from Darwin’s journal. Through a combination of the vernacular writing, picturesque imagery, and deteriorating illustrations, the piece gives the impression that little to no time has passed since his exploration of the area (or that there has at least been no further development of the landscape).

Here is where concepts of space and place develop. Yi-Fu Tuan introduces this idea clearly in his piece Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective[19], beginning by observing that place has more substance than is commonly recognised. Place embodies meaning and history; it ‘incarnates the experiences and aspirations of a people’[20]. Once acknowledging the substance that ‘place’ holds, its relation to time also shifts. When Western society contemplates distance, tied to the thoughts ‘near’ and ‘far’ are also the words ‘here’ or ‘there’. A distant place (such as a non-Western country) ‘can suggest the idea of a distant past: when explorers seek the source of the Nile … they appear to be moving back in time.’[21] These images of South America give the impression that with the distance between the viewer and the location there is also a transition backwards in time.

The imagery of this article combined with its relaxed text sells the notion that such a journey is possible for almost anyone, and that these places of the distant past are waiting to be viewed. As considered by Osborne, the sight becomes two things for the viewer: a broadcaster of certain meanings and views, and then becoming a magnet for people who wish to immerse themselves in these ideas in physical form.[22]

This theory connects with Said’s discussion of it being our ‘job’ as westerners to go and observe these places – the reason of the place existing is for it to be seen, or alternatively, these places only exist because of our knowledge of them. Said in Orientalism opens his examination of the topic by studying a speech made by Arthur James Balfour in the House of Commons June 13, 1910, titled “the problems with which we have to deal in Egypt.”
To have such knowledge of a thing is to dominate it, to have authority over it. And authority here means for “us” to deny autonomy to “it” – the Oriental country – since we know it and it exists, in a sense, as we know it. British knowledge of Egypt is Egypt for Balfour, and the burdens of knowledge make such questions of inferiority and superiority seem petty ones.[23]

The ‘non-West’ only exists because of the West’s observation of it, and there is no deeper knowledge than what ‘we’ the westerners possess. The ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ are not inherent facts of nature. They are not simply there. They have been constructed. Said refers to the thought that men make their own history, and applies it to geography, and says that ‘both geographical and cultural entities  … such locales, regions, geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made.’[24] He furthers the debate by saying that both representations of ‘West’ and ‘non-West’ are ideas that have developed a history, and therefore their own specific stylized imagery and set of assumed ideals, ending with the ‘two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other.’[25] This reflection can be seen as a direct link to Saussure’s work, where one side cannot have a meaning without there being an opposite to compare it to.


In the following Chapter our discussion moves to two major topics; the digital medium as a way of disseminating photographic content, and content analysis.


[1] The National Geographic Society Magazine.

[2] Currently, National Geographic states that, “National Geographic reaches more than 700 million people a month through its media platforms, products, events and experiences” on their About page.

Geographic, National. About the national geographic society. National Geographic Society Press Room.[www document]


(Date Visited: 27 Jan. 2016) (Date Last Updated: 4 May 2012).

[3] Lutz, Catherine A., and Jane L. Collins. Reading National Geographic. 1st ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. Print. p. 16.

[4] Ibid. p. 27.

[5] During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, George Stocking writes that the Society sold the classical evolutionary idea, where rationality was at battle with instincts, and ‘primitive’ cultures were merely developing to the standards of western nations. It reinforced the mantra of looking at “how far we’ve come”, and reinforced the inequalities towards the ‘others’, be it gender, class or race.

Ibid. p. 19.

[6] Cit. Op. Hall.

[7] Ibid. p. 3.

[9] Op. Cit. Hall

[10] Ibid. p. 32.

[11] Ibid. p. 32

[12] Said, Edward W. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin Classics, 28 Aug. 2003. Print.

[13] Osborne, Peter D. Travelling Light: Photography, Travel and Visual Culture (The Critical Image). 1st ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 10 June 2000, p. 75

[14] National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/annual-report-2014/, 29.10.15

[15] Op. Cit. Osborne, p. 77

[16] Culler, Jonathan. Framing the Sign: Criticism and its Institutions. Oklahoma City: Oklahoma University Press, 1989.

[17]Again looking to Osborne’s text (cit. op. Osborne p. 82), this time with him referencing Davydd J. Greenwood in Culture by the Pound: An Anthropological Perspective on Tourism and Cultural Commodification:

“We look on or look in through the distancing arrangements of the camera or through eyes educated to see with the same ontological remoteness. The world of the tourist is ‘over there’, in the past-present, in the exotic-ordinary.”

[18] Quammen, David. “Darwin’s First Clues.” National Geographic Feb. 2009: 36 – 55. Print

[19] Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective.” Philosophy in Geography (n.d.): 387 – 427. Print.

[20] Ibid. p. 38.

[21] Ibid. p. 390

[22] Cit. op. Osborne, p. 84

[23] Cit. Op. Said. p. 32.

[24] Ibid. p. 5.

[25] Ibid. p. 5.