A Level Photography: Perception, Culture and Identity

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

This A* CIE A Level Photography project was completed by Freya Dumasia of Macleans College, Auckland, New Zealand. Freya achieved 92% overall for A Level (89% for AS) and was awarded an Outstanding Scholarship for NCEA Level 3. Her work depicts a young Islamic woman wearing a burqa and explores issues related to culture and identity.

Two of Freya’s sketchbook pages are included in our new book: Outstanding High School Sketchbooks. This book has high-resolution images so that fine details and annotation are clear, making it an excellent resource for students and schools. Learn more!

There is often the perception that Photography is an easy high school Art subject; that those with a good eye for composition can snap a few shots, tweak the contrast and overlay a filter or two on Photoshop. This project is a reminder that that those who excel in A Level Photography do far more. Freya’s photographs are the result of deliberate compositional choices, sophisticated use of her SLR camera and use of an innovative 3D installation to present her final work. Instead of relying on digital manipulation to remedy or create photographic works, Freya focuses upon the magic that occurs in front of the camera. Her images are intriguing and haunting: a project to remember.

A level photography portfolio exploring identity
Freya’s A level Photography portfolio consists of four x A1 prep sheets, a sketchbook and final piece.

Freya was kind enough to allow us to interview her about her work. Her responses are below:

Please give us an overview of the themes and ideas behind your A Level Photography project.

Freya: I was born in Dubai, a country rich in religion that intrigued my interest in the Islamic culture. I am interested in using photography as a tool to reframe perspectives and emphasis the way in which a cultural image within society has been constructed through the media. I want to raise awareness within the viewer of the way newspaper coverage and online access to current events manipulates our views and opinions of Islamic culture. My photography aims to express the way the media distorts, blurs and shows a selected view, and to explore the way this process can result in the loss of individual identity.

A level photography work
From the outset, the photographs within Freya’s A Level project are deliberately composed. These initial works are striking, symmetrical compositions, with strong contrast of light and dark. Crucial aspects of the subject matter are clearly introduced: the black fabric of the burqa, the intricate patterns of the burqa veil, and the striking eyes and glasses of an Islamic girl.

The girl in my photo shoot is a friend with a unique eye colour. I wanted the viewer to be immediately drawn into my work through her striking eyes. The moving people helped me communicate her alienation through vision. I zoomed in on the people because the blurring world around her showcases the way she stands out within the crowd. It gives the opportunity for the viewer to feel more connected to my work as they can see themselves as the crowd. The focus on the lens represents the way we scope closer into her life, beneath the blackness. The viewer is in the girl’s position – this draws the viewer in and helps to emphasise the blurry view you gain from someone else’s perspective (as through the media). The false, altered image is ultimately confusing and turns reality upside down (as shown in the circular shape created by a macro lens towards the end of the first sheet of preparatory work, which inverts the image). The glasses act as the limited frame of the media that shapes our view of the world. Lastly, the TV screen (printed upon an OHP plastic sheet) reinforces the influence and power media have over culture.

A Level Photography examples
Moving well beyond ordinary ‘point and click’ photography, the images of a moving crowd in these A Level examples are blurred, distorted and inverted through circular lenses.
creative photography
The blurred background of moving figures in this photograph takes on a painterly quality, helping to emphasise the quiet, stillness of the central figure. This is a photograph of the girl standing in front of an overhead projector screen upon which crowd scenes have been projected. Creative approaches to photography, such as this, help to lift Freya’s A Level Coursework project out of the ordinary.
photo of glass
Showing the distorted, blurry views through lenses, this beautifully composed photograph explores ideas related to perception: the way an individual frames their view of the world.
a level photography online
Here Freya combines the different subjects she has investigated in her A Level Photography project: blurred crowd scenes (abstract paintings of light), distorted views through glass lenses and a motionless image of a girl wearing a burqa, looking at the world with clear, unflinching eyes.

The colour choice gains the viewers attention, as the reds slowly come through the stark black with the crowds and textured sections (in the middle of the second preparatory sheet). The warm colours invite the viewer and create a comfortable atmosphere, before moving into the blue and eerie black, to showcase her loss of existence. The white space was used to create a sense of loneliness and alienation.

example of photography techniques blurring
Even when using unpredictable photography techniques, such as intentional blurring, using slow shutter speeds, Freya makes sure that the colour scheme (reds, blues and black) links in seamlessly with her project.
photographic study of glasses

experimental photography
experimental photography ideas
More experimental photography ideas: Here Freya has printed an A3 photograph of her subject’s eyes, which has then been photographed (a photo of a photo) on long shutter speed. In Freya’s words, this ‘displays the double identities she has, as her culture speaks for her rather than her speaking for herself. The effect of multiple eyes represents the multiple perspectives created by the media, which are repeated mass produced images’.

Which photographers (or artists) did you study and how have these influenced your project? 

To see the reality of [culture] you need more than just sight; you need vision – Peter Sanders

Freya: To me, vision translates into multiple perceptions, viewings or interpretations. To understand the complexities that lie under any culture and the rituals and customs which strive to be kept alive is challenging. It takes an effort to respect and explore these hidden complexities, which I have explored through framing devices and selected vision. Sanders’ photography uses different angles to draw in the viewer. In similar ways I use perspective to portray a negative aura about how wrong it is for the media to manipulate such a culture with deep history and tradition attached to it. I achieve this by limited use of colour (red, blue and black), strategically placing lighting and using overlay techniques (such as the texture of static on a television and framing of glasses).

Lalla Essaydi focuses her work on Arab female identity in 19th century Oriental style. Her images show women covered in a repeat pattern, merging into the wall with the same pattern. My images capture the texture of material, like Essaydi, but do not hide body parts; rather I place more emphasises on the girl’s face and hands. The black fabric I have used is one that the media typically uses; an image we are used to watching on television.

portrait photography lighting
Some of the most captivating images within Freya’s portfolio are portraits taken through the burqa veil: a fine mesh of cast shadow and intricate pattern. With soft blue lighting, the shadows ‘communicate the way the culture imprints onto her skin.’
beautiful photography of Islamic girl
It is important that a CIE Art & Design project develops in a visually coherent way. This image reintroduces the girl’s clear, captivating gaze, making visual connections with the initial photographs taken in Freya’s A Level Photography portfolio.

Photography is a visual language often used to manipulate certain masses of peoples, cultures and identities – Greg Semu.  

Freya: I wanted to explore the way the media ‘projects’ an image. The beauty of Islamic culture has been submerged due to the controversies over the burqa. The media shapes and cuts things to suit their own purposes, often for political reasons. I have used movement to depict confusion and depth of field and pixelated close-ups to showcase the misunderstanding of a culture.

Davis Ayer projects images onto the naked bodies of women to create the effect of ‘perfect tattoos.’ I achieved a similar effect in my photography on the third sheet of prep work, portraying the way the media implements printed judgments on this culture, which stay in peoples’ minds forever.

portraiture photography techniques
These images are the unplanned result of experimental photography techniques. Taken in the classroom using natural lighting (on a cloudy day) Freya fixed her camera to a tripod and, with a slow shutter speed, zoomed the lens in and out at a slow pace, while taking the photo of her still model.

Your project includes an exciting array of photographic techniques and creative approaches, such as intentional blurring and distortion of images through lenses and screens. Explain how these techniques helped to support and communicate the ideas explored in your project.

Freya: I intentionally blurred my subject matter to communicate submerging of culture and loss of individual identity. My third sheet of prep work focuses on the veil, with the girl blurred in the background, and then switches to her in focus and the veil blurred. This technique helps to highlight the delicate netting and beauty of the burqa. The transferring of the veil onto her skin mirrors the permanent imprint of opinions of media and others’ perceptions upon her identity. The burqa becomes no longer a choice of clothing but a strong representation of who she is.

a level photography technique using OHP
Yet another creative photography technique used in this A Level folio: this image depicts the girl holding an image of a static-filled television printed onto clear plastic film (OHP transparency). This is an extension of earlier ideas of photographs within photographs: an exploration of the way perceptions are shaped, distorted and framed by the lens through which they are seen.
A Level photography projects
As Freya’s projects develop, the compositions become more resolved, communicating her ideas with a quiet and moving clarity.

In my fourth prep sheet, I question the way individuals within a culture can lose identity. The girl’s choice of clothing not only speaks for her, but also the media, which assumes her thoughts. The blurred layers diminish her presence. As she wears the burqa, more controversy arises and more negative opinions generate. I blurred her to denote how people judge her even if they do not know what she is like without her burqa or what the burqa represents. The inclusion of the television connects to media. The image of the television screen is powerful because the outlined figure is placed directly in the middle. The viewer immediately sees it and, even though they do not know what is behind the TV, they assume it is her with the burqa. 

There was minimal digital manipulation with my photographs, as I only used Adobe Photoshop Elements 8.0 to adjust contrast, brightness and levels.

playing with light
This is one of my favourite images from Freya’s A Level Photography project: eerie, undulating colour – an infusion of shadow and light.
blurred photography techniques
Drawing from the blurred photography techniques explored earlier – slow shutter speeds, projected light, and camera zoom – Freya extends the illusion of layers and depth, reinforcing ideas of multiple viewpoints and an inability to discern truth amongst a mishmash of media perception.

Your final piece is beautiful, contemporary installation: a photograph enclosed in a dark box. Please provide us with some additional information about this piece.

Freya: The final image is of a thick black border that is surrounded by crowd of people. If you walk past the box, the crowd is all that you will see. But if you look into the box, through the view hole, you are immediately confronted by the girl’s eyes. I strategically did this so that the viewer would be shocked by a set of eyes staring right back at them. The view hole is designed as a straight slit going across. This places you in her shoes because the view of her world is only through her eyes, the same width and height as I have cut as the slit. When you place your face on the view hole, it covers your face in black except your eyes, just like a burqa.

A Level photography final piece
Freya’s final A level Photography piece consists of a wooden box placed on a set of drawers, inside which an iPod plays an original soundtrack of chatter (a recording of a crowd at a food court) and Arabic prayers. One side of the box slides up (see top left photo), allowing access to two lights that are placed beneath it. These lights have blue cellophane attached, so that that the photograph (printed on tracing paper) is lit by a blue glow. The very top of the box lifts off, allowing access to the whole photo. Once assembled, a black sheet is draped over the box and viewers place their eye against the hole in the lid to view the work.
experimental photography techniques
An outstanding conclusion to her project, this final image (viewed through the slit in the box) brings together a rich array of experimental photography techniques in a captivating composition. Surrounded by an abstraction of blurred figures and movement, you are immediate captured – unable to look away: a young girl’s eyes meeting your own.

Freya’s A Level Photography sketchbook can be viewed in the video below:

What advice do you have for other high school Photography students who wish to gain excellent grades?

Freya: To choose subject matter you are passionate about, because that passion will translate into a high standard of work. Although the most important part is passion, you also need to be organised, with good time management right from the start! This allows room to experiment in different ways and to choose the most effective and explicit ways to communicate your ideas. As a result, the best images will help you reach those excellent grades.

NCEA photography scholarship board
This last image shows Freya’s NCEA Photography Scholarship board. This is a New Zealand qualification entered by the top candidates in Level 3 (Year 13). Freya was awarded Outstanding Scholarship for this project; the highest grade possible.

Freya used a Canon 550D SLR camera (affiliate link) with 55-250mm and 18-55mm lenses for this project, as well as a 58mm macro lens, with studio lights and tripod.

This is the third project we have featured from the Macleans College Art Department. If you found this article helpful, please share it using the social media buttons below!


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