Q & A: Dawn Parsonage 'Exploring the Essence of Boredom' Stories

London-based photographer, artist, comedian Dawn Parsonage has been a collector of old photographs from all over the world for more than twenty years. Feeling moved by the human element of how photos can be a showreel to someone’s life, her collection has grown into an extensive archive. She found the main themes she was drawn-to were “instances of emotions particularly any examples of humour in photographs” which she found gave a sense of unity to the strangers of the past.

Her latest project ‘The Boring Exhibition’ was born out of this fascination for the fleeting moments that often go unnoticed, particularly how we express ourselves when caught off-guard and at ease. Connecting photos taken years ago with the present day, Dawn questions whether we can still be bored in our oversaturated modern lives, and whether we express ourselves the same now as we did 60 or so years ago. 

Working alongside psychologists she ran a series of experiments on 22 volunteers to “isolate the essence of boredom” while recording them on video throughout and intermittently taking Digital photographs. She also took one 4x5 photo of each subject, catching them each unaware in a somewhat bemused state of thought. There’s something inherently human about this series of images and that sense of uncertainty in what you capture that comes with film retains a similar notion.

The experiments were:

An endless loop: where the sitter was made to listen to a boring speech on a short loop. 

Time perception: the subject was alone with a loudly ticking clock which only has an hour hand and is in fact running at half speed.

Pain vs boredom: A recreation of Dr Erin C Westgate and Dr Timothy D Wilsons electrification experiment where subjects stay in a quiet room, but could give themselves a small electric shock to relieve their boredom. The experiment explores the lengths to which people will go to get relief from boredom.

You started out collecting photos over 20 years ago, did this start accidentally or did you always intend to make a long term project of it?

I started when I was 14, I was already into photography, and taking pictures myself, there was a darkroom at school so I was always interested in that. I was quite a strange child and teenager, in that I was always into old films and vintage things. I saw an old photo album for sale in a market which actually had a diary with it, and I was overwhelmed by how sad it was. 

It wasn’t really the artistic value of the photographs for me, it was because it was someone’s life that was just there on the table on this dreary Oxford afternoon, I felt like I needed save it. The pictures in the album were very human, the woman was a Brown Owl, in the Brownies in the 1930s and had this real camaraderie with her fiends that you could see. They were laughing, playing games, and clearly joking, which kind of made it even more sad. 

From then I started seeing more and more photos around everywhere and started collecting them, I also started taking more of my own photos. Then over the years they became more of a defined collection. The two main themes in the collection are any instances of emotions and particularly any examples of humour - I just like the fact that it’s very uniting, we can relate to it, showing comedy isn’t a new thing.

In this new project you set out to explore whether we can still be bored and what we may do when bored, did this fascination come from finding old photos where people exhibited this state?

As a big part of my collection is old photos showing real emotions. A lot of the time we are aware of the camera being there, and we put on our ‘camera face’, be it: neutral, happy, smiley, just generally posed which is not a true representation of our feelings.  Even if we’re happy it’s very rare we would look at a friend and smile the way we would in a photo, it’s quite fake.

When I find images of real emotions, at least clearly laughing, or crying, or hugging, or kissing or loving, these feel quite rare and truly human. Part of this was boredom, I realised firstly that to look bored it means people are in a neutral state, very vulnerable and open but a bit of a blank canvas. Also there’s something inherently funny about people looking bored, and it’s quite difficult to define why. A lot of the time people who are bored are unaware their photo is being taken because as soon as you are aware you break out of boredom, because there’s something interesting and distracting so you can’t be bored. 

So I started collecting more and more bored photos and that’s what made me think about our relationship to boredom now. Especially given that we have a more heightened awareness of cameras than in the 50s and 60s which is when most of the images in my collection were taken.

Why boredom? Rather than an emotion like love or anger for example?

My last answer touches on this, but I also feel that boredom is covered much less than other emotions in art, I certainly knew a lot less about it than the other emotions. Obviously artists like Martin Parr have done projects on it, but there’s been far less exploration than with other emotion states. I also really liked the comedy aspect too, I’m a comedian as well as an artist, and like the idea of mixing comedy and photography. 

Why was it important in the experiment that the subjects weren’t aware when you took photos of them and how did you manage this?

When people have an awareness of a camera being there they might do their ‘photo face’, or start panicking. A really big thing with digital photography is because people know that they can see the photos straight away afterwards, that makes them even more vulnerable whereas with film they know its going to be a few weeks maybe before it’s developed so there’s less pressure. 

With digital as well, you know you can retake over and over and people can almost curate and perfect the way the world will see them. So I thought that if there was the constant clicking of a camera that was erratic, it would break the subjects out of any bored stance and they would go into that ‘photo face’ mode, even without thinking about it. They would be too self aware to become bored essentially.

For the digital photos I had a silent shutter taking pictures every 10 seconds. With the Intrepid 4x5 I had a very long shutter release cable, pre set-up everything and only took one photo per person, so that single large format photo would be the only noise in the whole session. It is interesting how people reacted to that, and you can see it in the film shots, it breaks them out of boredom very briefly. But it was surprising how quickly people get bored again. 

Why did you choose to incorporate large format into the project, rather than say, shooting it all on digital?

The digital pictures are great, I’m really happy with them. With digital it is obviously less pressure, but it’s more clinical, there’s somewhat less personality, and it’s more predictable. All of that is good in a kind of scientific way and this was a pseudo experiment, but what these images don’t have is the soul of it. It’s more of a clean representation of what happened. With the large format what I loved was the unpredictability, I didn’t know what exactly I was going to get. 

The subject was sat there for an hour but the focus, shutter and aperture were set up on the Intrepid at the start, you don’t know if the person is going to move much it was very unpredictable and far more of a challenge. So if I managed to get a good picture despite all the massive variables it’s on one hand a bit of a victory and I also felt that it would capture their souls a bit more, and I think it did. 

In addition to this there’s the timeless quality, I purposefully did them in black and white too, for someone just looking at the shots it makes it harder to work out when they may have been taken. I really like this time anonymity, people just in this neutral borderland. I put these people in a bank room, almost in blank time so all you’re left with is the person. As the viewer then all you are concentrating on is the mood of the piece and the person.

There’s just so much that you can’t get with Digital. We’ll also be printing them onto really big fibre based paper in the darkroom at Bright Rooms, London.

Did you find shooting large format presented many challenges? I imagine not being able to refocus/reframe may have been tricky.

It definitely did having just one picture but a huge amount of variables. I had no way of prescribing where people would end up sitting over the hour. The depth of focus is so small that I kind of had to second guess people a little bit, predicting how they might slump a bit or move forwards - a bit of human psychology at the same time. 

Another challenge came from operating a digital camera and a 4x5 camera simultaneously. Remembering little things like taking the dark slide out. I took 22 pictures (one of each subject) but included the 7 I was happiest with. I was using 1/15th of a second shutter speed so it meant some movement would be picked up. On some of the photos the focus is a bit softer or maybe something is slightly out of focus, or the composition is slightly odd but I really don’t mind.

One thing I have learnt from collecting old photographs is that if you look at the work of a lot of pre 2000s photographers some of their work will have camera shake or slightly softer focus but this doesn’t take away from the image. The most important part is always the expression or the moment, it doesn’t matter if it’s not technically pristinely taken.

Did you find any of the subjects took some time to relax and be natural, was anyone overly self-conscious or posed a lot? 

Surprisingly not really. There was definitely a settling in period, for maybe 10 minutes. Then after that they just relax, you can’t pose continuously for an hour. Also because I gave them things to do for some of it, this trapped them in boredom.

Could the subjects see you or the cameras or were they totally isolated?

They couldn’t see me at all , there was a black screen between me and the subjects. I could see them on a monitor as I was filming them at the same time. This helped me with knowing when to take the large format picture.

Comparing the old photos and the photos from your experiment what differences did you find in the ways in which people expressed feelings of boredom? 

I was trying to isolate the essence of boredom, whereas in the old pictures I’ve included they are like natural snapshots often taken by friends or family members. So there’s a difference in the styles of how the photos were taken, this environment was more clinical but that was my choice. I think though it’s a fundamental human thing to become bored. The biggest difference I think is that when people are fidgeting, their default distractions now would be to go on their phone rather than say pick up a book. 

Anything else you’d like to add?

I want people when they come and see this exhibition to be playful with it, I really feel that art doesn’t have to be serious to be taken seriously. A project can be playful and funny and get across messages just as strongly. I want to make sure it comes across as serious 

The Boring Exhibition runs 26th June - 6th July at Bermondsey Project Space. FREE.

Private view 26th June 6-9pm. RSVP: abps@project-space.london

You can see more of Dawn's collection of photos and work on her Instagram and website.

The End.