Research · Surrealist colour documentary elements

Research in surrealist colour documentary

In Mobutu’s work one of the main referent images gives us the denotation of a boy urinating by the side of an old abandoned boat. This takes place in the foreground. The mid ground and background involves general infrastructure such a sheltered structure and a pylon which scales up to the top of the portraits vertical frame. The image connotes a certain rebellion or disregard perhaps of authority and history.  Unlike other surrealist images that I have seen this one does not appear overtly humorous but more matter of fact. Below this images we see the fallen statue of explorer Henry Morton. The statue lies on top of the boat (which I think would of been interested to have had as one integral picture) without feet and is if clinging in some way to the boat.

There is a general sense of disregard if one wants to continue to explore the connotations. Obviously for the urinating boy there is no loss of reverence here.

Carl de Keyzer
DPR Korea
Chongam Kindergarten in Chongjin, North Hamgyong Province. Korean children are expected to learn how to sing and dance from a young age.
© Carl De Keyzer – Magnum [1]

The course intro to the work of De keyzer explains that the photos offer a dissonance to what one might expect to see of the gulag administration in ex-soviet territory. However, De keyzer himself in this monologue excerpt below tells us that a lot of what was going on might of been mes en scene or set up before he arrived. This included the painting of walls, giving prisoners uniforms etc. The camps and prisons appear to be of different species and intensities.

The images shot by De Keyzer in a sense are a mix of straight documentary and set up scenes although not by himself. The gulag of the stalinist era is not depicted here as the camps were largely reduced to general prisons post Stalin era. (the infograffics show, 2019) [2]

De Keyzer’s work of Siberian prison camps is quite affecting. Partly I think that this is because it is rather unknown corner of the world and as for this project very few photos have been shown of the subject matter. De Keyzer notes: ‘I decided to use colour… there wasn’t even a possibility to get the real situation. I don’t think so anyway. I never saw any really hard situations like torture… very shocking things.’ (De Keyzer, no date)  [3]

As for the surrealist elements, there is something there within the photography that he does but it appears to me quite subtle. In the project about Korea, it seems as if the surrealist elements are just there, integral to the photos, as if you cannot escape surreality. However, in some of the frames clearly he has identified surrealist elements that become a focus for his camera.

Researching colour, surrealism and documentary

Photography from the 1980’s has largely been led by ideas and concepts. The origins of surrealism have their roots in the 1920’s with the likes of Man Ray and Mahoney. The world of photography since then, having made decisive moves away from the pictorial tradition has felt free to play with what Soutter describes as a photography ‘being tied to the world’ but flexible enough to adapt the meaning of the content of photos (Soutter, 2013) [4]. This creative move away from the pictorial tradition I believe is what allows us to begin to imbue photography with meaning and significance as a language of its own.   

Martin Parr

Martin Parr is an interesting case in point as his work blends the satirical with the surreal.

“The fundamental thing I’m exploring constantly is the difference between the mythology of the place and the reality of it. Remember I make serious photographs disguised as entertainment.” (Parr, date unknown) [5]

In Parr’s work I see each photo of his pointed towards satire but framing the images in a surreal way. The use of colours is distinct. He saturates the images thus giving us his signature motif, the sometimes absurd and surreal brought out with the help of strongly saturated colours helps to bring out the surreality even more.

One of the questions that arises for me is, is the above statement true?: ‘Remember I make serious photographs […] entertainment.’ In a video that I have studied regarding satire, one of the questions raised or pointed out is that Satire ideally provokes change. In the use of Parr’s satire which involves irony, hyperbole and exaggeration he is also alluding to a surrealist element of otherworldliness. But is this pure entertainment or  does it make a serious point for reflection? Does his work call on the viewer to look closer at their conditioning for example?

Taking a closer look at two surrealist images I want here to analyse a photo by De Keyzer and another by Zoe Crosher.

Carl de Keyzer: Havana, Cuba 2015. Book ‘Cuba, La Lucha’. [6]


Zoe Crosher
Zoe Crosher ‘De bois’ 2008

Crosher produces archive work, based on a figure ‘Du Bois’ which is perhaps a pseudo name in itself. I like these images because they provoke a sense of the uncertain and unclear yet point to something surreal and even dreamlike.

“Crosher plays with DuBois’s excessive archive, manipulating, refracting and reflecting on it further, making groupings or multiples. These multiples are considered versions of the excessive. Crosher considers the excessive and asks us to consider it; in this reflection we recognize some form of our own anxiety. It is a meta-reflection of the excessive, a signifier of the infinite, that speaks about anxiety instead of from within its grip.” – Kim Schoen [7]

Both Crosher and De Keyzer’s work display overt elements of surrealist elements although neither is as it were strongly so. One could say that the second photo of Crosher is manipulated with an intention towards surrealism whereas De Keyzer is essentially a found narrative on the street which falls into the area of surrealist work.

Lastly for now a brief look at Mckenny
Christopher Mckenny [8]

Mckenny’s work, which was some of the last that I looked at takes a difference surrealist stance away from the found narrative to the decisively photoshopped arena and horror and fear as a theme. His ghostly images are nightmarish and possibly would put you into a state of anxiety or fear if looked at in a prolonged manner. He uses dubbed down desaturated colours to give a particular feel to the image as menacing. He uses outdoor locations such as forests or empty lanes to enhance the feel of the photo as something strange and isolated taking place.

I see surrealism as using various techniques such as hyperbole, irony, burlesque, travesty (Martin Parr comes to mind) and satire in the sense of parody and humour. This gives us a great range of devices that can be incorporated into visual language, giving the viewer something to decode and reflect upon. However it seems to me that photographic surrealism and painting are quite different. Perhaps photography because it is always related to something in the world, can only contain surrealist elements whereas with painting, one is free to run with the imagination in whatever direction one chooses.


  1. De Keyzer, C. DPR Korea Grand Tour (2017) [online] [accessed, March 2020]
  2. youtube: The infograffics show: the horrible lives of people in Soviet gulags (2019) [online] [accessed, March 2020]
  3. De Keyzer, C. Zona text (no date) [online] [accessed, March 2020]
  4. Soutter, L. Why art photography (2013:6) Routledge
  5. Parr, M. Martin Parr, art or street? [online] [accessed, March 2020]
  6. De Keyzer, C. Cuba la lucha (2016) [online] [accessed, March 2020]
  7. Crosher, Z. Poladroided (2008) [online] [accessed, March 2020]
  8. Mckenny, C. [online] [accessed, March 2020]


  1. Short explanation of the Gulag [accessed, March 2020]
  2. Short video on satire, irony and hyperbole in visual and written forms [accessed, March 2020] 
  3. Short surrealist video, Youtube: fr=yhs-GenieoYaho-INTtraffichp&hsimp=yhs-INTtraffichp&hspart=GenieoYaho&p=short+videos+about+surrealism#id=7&vid=54d3e1da4719172cdb1c0754450843ce&action=view [accessed, March 2020]
  4. Video: symbolism, Dadaism and Surrealism: [accessed, March 2020]
  5. Surrealism explained [accessed, March 2020]
  6. Max Ernst, surrealist artist, painter [accessed, March 2020]

Published by Truevisionphotography

I'm a student photographer studying through the OCA a UK based arts university. I'm in the foundation year of my studies and enjoying it immensely. I'm also a yoga teacher and co-founder of Bodhiyoga a buddhism based yoga teacher training program that runs in the UK and Spain each year. As a photographer I'm interested in all forms of fine art. I find the arts really important in my life. I love nature and aim to be in the outdoors as much as I can. Generally I think that all the different strands of my life are flowing to towards self development in the greatest sense of the term. The arts, buddhist practice yoga and meditation are all tools to that end. I feel committed to communication the these values in the world both through the visual arts as well as teaching.

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