A visual exploration of Wilful Blindness

Continuing on the exploration of the concept of wilful blindness, or the tendency for humans to ignore the ambiguous or difficult, I shot a few scenes last weekend on the shoreline of Connecticut.

This first picture is setting up for a scene called “Selfie”. The two young women facing away from the camera will be set up to seem completely self-absorbed by getting the perfect selfie shot. The woman, lying face-down on the beach, is the subject of the photograph. Her position is meant to seem ambiguous: Is she alive, drunk or dead? Unintentionally, this woman has clothes identical to the young boy who was found on the shore, dead, by Turkish police during the major migration of Syrians two years ago. Interestingly, the person who snapped this shot captured the expression of a passer-by who isn’t quite sure what is going on. I am the photographer in the back of the shot. Ironically, I am not aware that my picture is being taken in this shot.

This next shot, two people in a low-cost hotel room, is practice for a scene depicting human trafficking. In this version, the victim is on the floor and her leg is visible. The lighting proved too cheery and the the foreground too busy. I made some adjustments for the final shot which will be posted as my Work in Progress Portfolio.

Tableau: Family Portrait

I set up my first complex tableau photo shoot, based on the concept of wilful blindness, or seeing the unseen. Wilful blindness can be an act of pretending something that is uncomfortable, or threatening is simply not there. I hope that this photograph demonstrates that concept. In this photo, three siblings are posed for a family portrait while a table, set for dinner, blazes unseen in the background.

This was a challenging photograph for me in few different ways: My siblings are spread across 4 time zones and two continents are see each other once a year, so I needed to be ready to go with this shot when they arrived at my house. I planned this photograph out over about a month, trying out different sites and looks. I made a decision to burn a table as it had to be something that definitely did not look like a bonfire or campfire. My husband built a table out of old wood, and I purchased flowers, a plastic vase and paper tablecloths on Amazon.

The major potential hazard of this project was the unplanned spread of the fire. I mitigated the risk by placing four 5 gallon buckets of water and a fire-extinguisher next to the site. My husband started, then managed the fire.

The lighting sources were a set of work-lights, a high intensity LCD flashlight as a spot and the headlights of a pick-up truck.

Overall, the look I was going for was slightly surreal with a simple color scheme. I was inspired by the work of Gregory Crewdson who creates complex and cinema-like tableau.

I was pleased with the timing of the burn and the quality of the image. I can see the set table in the background. I might have posed us a bit differently if I had to do this again.

The pallets that made the table burned strongly, and we had to end the shoot to put the fire out. I did get a few more unplanned shots:

I am planning my next family tableau and will use a bit more light, such a speed-light, for effect next time.

Site Research and Project Development: The Family Picture

I am intrigued with the concept of ‘seeing the unseen’.  Margaret Heffernan’s 2011 book,  Wilful Blindness, explores the concepts behind why individuals or groups are blind to impending tragedies. In my personal life and in my work as a healthcare practitioner, I have observed situations where something was not right, but, but no-one noticed, and the effected individual had a bad outcome.  I am guessing that many people have had the experience of seeing something – a parent grab a child aggressively, a man lurking, a woman’s frightened glances, and not known what to do. Considering the idea of willful blindness, I wonder if ambiguity, or, uncertainty as to how to interpret or respond to a situation, can lead to the state of being willfully blind.
To explore this concept, I am going to utilize the tableau, or a scene, to express situations where there seem to be activities or things at odds with one another.  For example, there may be parts of a scene that seem totally normal while other parts could be ok, or they could be alarming.

I will be working with my siblings to create an outdoor portrait in the style of a tableau.  The idea is that a group of people are being photographed and seem not to notice that an object is on fire.  Fire, for this particular instance, is relevant as my siblings and I were fascinated by fire when we were young.  Not felonious activity, but we did build small structures and light them on fire.  It was better than TV.


I am inspired by the work of American photographer, Gregory Crewdson (1999), who created large-scale cinematic tableau.  In this work, he uses primary colors, dramatic lighting and odd juxtapositions that inspire discomfort. 

This work will be challenging for me as I have limited equipment and  lighting experience, however, I have a supportive family and a fire extinguisher.

I have done some research on lighting, model and camera position. I have chosen colors, purchased props, coached my siblings, built a table to burn and am ready for the shoot this weekend.

Wish me luck.

The Tableau

I am interested in the idea of the photo made, rather than the photo taken.  In this post I explore the works of three contemporary artists who have created effective photographic tableau.

According to the Tate Gallery, 2019: Tableau is used to describe a painting or photograph in which characters are arranged for picturesque or dramatic effect and appear absorbed and completely unaware of the existence of the viewer.

Jeff Wall, 1993.

The photograph above, Jeff Wall, 1993: A sudden gust of wind (after Hokusai) exemplifies this art form.  The subjects are unaware of the camera as a gust of wind carries away a stream of papers.  The flat lighting, and dramatic positioning of the figures adds to the affect.

Cindy Sherman’s work (1990), Mrs. Claus, features a rather grotesque rendition of Mrs. Claus that, despite looking at the camera, still evokes that lack of awareness of the photographer.

sherman, cindy
Cindy Sherman, 1990

The grotesqueness and surrealism of this photograph seems to arise from the stuffed cheeks and fake wig of the model, the white lighting which directly illuminates the subject and awkward hand placements –as if the model is trying to push herself away from the camera.

crewdson, gregory
Gregory Crewdson, 2007

Gregory Crewdson has created complex, subtle and cinematographic images.  His naturalistic detail and serene demeanor of the model is thrust into the surreal through the use of dramatic lighting.