Framing The Integrity of Violation – Senior Thesis 2013


Framing the Integrity of Violation

Meg O’Neill

The photographic series Framing the Integrity of Violation addresses how personal experiences become embodied as place. Experiences such as violation, helplessness, self-revulsion, repulsion, and aggression, as experiences that are personal, not only influence the way we perceive place, but they actually define it in very specific ways, specific enough to be considered as embodiments. A perception of place now becomes one that is full of uncertainty, and fear, and often leads to a sense of isolation.  These experiences create a disorienting tension between hope and vulnerability. Photographs in Framing the Integrity of Violation not only explore forms of violation, but present images that threaten to violate. This threat, emanating as it does from the 2-Dimensional space of photographic images, also relies on certain types of subject matter. The images frequently are of barriers and morbidity, and together with their formal aspects, inflict a sense of disorientation and separation. The disorientating rendering of these emotions, as well as the composition of the frame, forces distance between the viewer and the work.  In addition, in the choice of expressing these feelings through the medium of photography, a sense of isolation is reinforced by the isolation of a moment in time, which restricts a full connection between the viewer and the scene before them.  Sequencing is important as the photographs rely on formal connections across frames to guide the eye through the work. This connection is a necessary opposite in order to establish a sense of disorientation. Our tendency to be attracted to light, color, and the unusual draws us to the photographs, allowing for connections between forms and subject matter to be made, and even allowing for a sense of hope. Nevertheless, the images still present a threatening discomfort, which when juxtaposed against hope, create tension throughout the series. This thesis considers ways of resolving the separation between violation of self and place as seen as a reflection of body.

Framing the Integrity of Violations images are rendered in such a way that frames place as reflection of the photographer’s understanding of body.  If place is a reflection of body, then these photographs of place have to be considered self-portraits. Images have been drawn from several smaller series such as A Letter to Louis; which specifically deals with its subject’s struggle with depression and a loss of innocence.  This series began to establish themes of morbidity and disconnect. It is in this series the photographer begins to frame her own personal connection to a loss of innocence. The next series, entitled Leave Me, was created as a documentation of Cuba. It presents both physical barriers and implied barriers that resulted from social and economic conditions. The choice and framing of barriers displays the photographer’s own desire for and connection to barriers. The last series, Abandoned, begins to fully acknowledge forms of violations. Drawing connections between photographs is the locations of important forms contained within the same geographic location within the frame.  The stringing of these objects together through location demonstrates how violation can be a connecting experience. In combining these series the thesis acknowledges the photographer’s perception of place as a reflection of the body. The multiple boundaries that establish territory, including the lens, reflect an attempt to protect oneself from violation. This, along with the tension that is created through the repulsive and alluring, reveals an attempt to overcome experiences of violation.


Filth. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Violation often leaves individuals in a state of hopelessness and uncertainty. Violation breaks down boundaries making it difficult for individuals to understand their own space, particularly in the case of the body. This disorientation is reflected in the photographer’s tilted framing. This tilt confuses understanding of space, in the same way violation does. In Filth, the framing tilts what should be a horizontal line between the floor and wall to be instead diagonal. This tilt takes away this space’s sense of location, as it alters how we would normally see it. Adding to the confusion of space is the ambiguity of this space as being either interior or exterior, through eliminating the light source. Isolation projects out from the space in the removal of coherent understanding of location. This reflects the isolation one imposes upon oneself in attempt to reestablish boundaries to prevent further violation.

Filth evokes feelings of isolation through the presentation of a filthy place where framing has shutdown space to reference a potentially threatening memory. It displays an image of a scene in which one cannot easily understand all the forms. The disgusting state of the space repulses, disconnecting desire for interaction it. The red solo cup left within this dirty environment enhances a sense of abandonment and helplessness. Color association and the muck of the environment suggest a potential violence that might have taken place here. Connotations behind the solo cup include alcohol, whereas the color red, within this specific environment, references morbidity. In addition, the complimentary color of the green further references morbidity when in relation to decay such as algae.

Light highlights the lines along the ground, creating a path to the wall. The suggestion of a path, or journey, being blocked off by a wall shuts down the space within the photograph. Toiling with emotions, one is given a path, yet is denied the journey, evoking a sense of restriction and hopelessness.


New Beginnings. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Creating a sense of isolation through failed attempts at connection is New Beginnings. It’s illusions to religious hope uses light and symbols to mislead the eye to a barrier instead of a connection. This is similar to how religion often brings people together to share in a common worship of a god, yet it also disconnects people in different religious groups. The “New Beginnings” text on the sign references a hope, which then is denied by the arrow pointing to the blocking force of the fence. Through placement, light can be seen as a holy entity that attracts, but in subject matter is shining upon a physical barrier. This failed attempt at the prospects of either starting new or finding connection to religious salvation evokes hopelessness, which in turn leads to a sense of isolation. In addition, the black arrow points a black skid mark that ends in a splatter. The splatter insinuates a destruction that has occurred in following the direction of a sign that promises “New Beginnings.”  The open road presents a choice, to follow or to stay. Yet, the misleading direction of the arrow and the threat of potential destruction create impediments to making a coherent choice. Thus, the established desire for connections becomes severed.


Noose. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

The photograph Noose, which yet again morbidly mocks hope, continues to evoke the sense of isolation and violence. In the same manner that the skid mark on the road tainted the idea of “new beginnings,” a string hangs around the lamp, creating what looks like a noose. The noose form subtly references a violence inflicted upon oneself as a result of isolation. The forces driving one to suicide often involve feelings of isolation or disconnectedness from the rest of the world. This disconnects leads a lack of hope for the future and an imposition of isolation upon oneself. In Noose, statues in their leaning state allude to Caged Scarecrow’s illusion to humanity, while their nature as objects disconnects them. By comparing these two statues on the ground to the hanging figure of the noose, this space becomes complacent in its own mortality, thus instilling hopelessness. Furthermore, the correspondence between light and death becomes significant. In these photographs references to light, which are traditionally associated with hope, inflict a sense of isolation through  subtly violent disconnections.


Call of Duty(Eugene Richard). 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Call of Duty connects violence and isolation by subtly presenting violence in different states of reality on TV screens, and in a photograph within a photograph. The rounded forms play off the other rounded forms within the image. Connecting these rounded forms to the motifs in the rest of the series something begins to feel amiss. The head of the man being hugged becomes warped, shifting a tender moment into one of grotesque morbidity. This and the title, Call of Duty, leads to an understanding that the screens are displaying a rounded scope that is used on guns in violent video games. Awareness is brought to the threats of violence the two different forms of viewing are portraying together.  The multiplicity of realities within a reality, all of which project a threat, creates an obstruction to the work.


Caged Scarecrow. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Physical barriers are made less impermeable through composition and color avoiding complete isolation within the work. In Caged Scarecrow, vibrant colors, such as the orange rust attracts the eyes to the fence. Delicate blues then pulls them through the fence where a scarecrow hangs. This scene is bizarre. Typically a scarecrow would reside in an open field protecting crops, yet here it dwells in a restricted urban environment. The alternative landscape, as well as the frame in which the scarecrow appears, disorients the viewer.

The fence further creates disorientation. It obscures the scene as it covers a majority of the image with diamond forms that break up what is behind the fence, limiting the knowledge of what appears. The receding of size of the diamond forms plays with the eyes’ understanding of space, creating further disorientation. The fence covers a majority of the photograph, yet in the top left corner is the top of the fence. Illusions to potentially accessible spaces provide relief from the disorienting barriers. This relief subtly hints at spaces that are beyond the information given in the photograph. Thus presenting alternatives for access that are still restricted by the barrier of the lens.


Do Not Cross. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Connections are created through the opposition between the photographs Bay of Pigs and Do Not Cross. In Bay of Pigs, the foreground with its bright inviting colors is in focus, while the references to threat are blurred in the background. While Do Not Cross has an out-of-focus foreground, that uses inviting yellow colors to tempt despite the threat of danger that is suggested by the police tape.  The unfocused foreground allows for the tape to become a barrier that is ambiguous, yet overbearingly present. The yellow proves important as it is carried out through the series, imposing more caution when one thinks of these relationships. The background, with light bathing the trees and sharp focus, attracts the eye, seeking ways around the tape. The formation of the tape across the frame cuts across and up the foreground pulling the eyes upwards.  Vertical lines parallel the frame’s edge guide upward towards the sky. Having the background in focus creates desire reach beyond the threatening boundaries.  Yet the tape is still present, obstructing view of what lies beyond. This relationship between focus and barriers plays with the mind’s understanding of accessibility, as well as offering a hopeful space that is bound back by some threat.


Bay of Pigs. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Tension between desire for connection and repulsion of threat is apparent in Bay of Pigs. The focused foreground with the complementary colored bush of flowers attracts, while the thorns on which the beautiful flowers grow repulses. What was once something that was attractive has now become something repulsive, creating a barrier pushing the viewer from the work. Yet, the forms of the branches act against the suppressing nature of a barrier, guiding the eye upwards toward the background. The hexagonal shape created by a reflection of light off a lens, reminds the viewer that what is being presented is a photograph, further disconnecting the space. The hexagon physically connects the flowers to the missiles. The missiles suggest a risk to life, establishing morbidity as the landscape.

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Image 13-Body Farm. 2000-2001. SALLY MANN. Digital Image

The use of mortality as a landscape presents a common theme between this thesis and Sally Mann’s photographs from Body Farm. Mann’s use of muted color attracts the eye. While the subject matter of decaying bodies repulse. Decay’s association with time, an inevitable factor of mortality, also proves threatening. Both works display a splitting between attraction and repulsion that illustrate a struggle between connection and disconnection

Body Farm depicts both decay and entrapment. Observing dead bodies amplifies one’s own entrapment in the container of a mortal body, thus Mann’s photographs evoke empathy.  However, the bodies simultaneously act as barrier, in that one viewing the work is a living being who will never completely connect with the dead until his or her own death. Displaying decaying bodies acknowledges the body as a part of nature. The disconnecting barriers become important as the photograph reflects a connection between the dead human and nature while disconnecting the living being. This disconnection of death and nature from the living being reflects isolation and violation; where violation and death both disconnect one from the reality of others, while simultaneously creating connections through shared experiences that are a part of the human condition.


Sacrifice. 2012. MEG O’NEILL. digital print (18 X 13 inches)

Overwhelming feelings of entrapment are seen in the imagery of walls, cages, bags, and jars. This theme of entrapment is further echoed in the act capturing an object by the lens of the camera. Sacrifice shows a clear plastic bag lying on the beach containing some sort of bird, only identified by the yellow claws. The bag is in the foreground and cuts through the earth, water, and air, giving the bag and whatever is inside omnipresence, like that of a spirit. The bag is similar to the clouds in shape and color, consequently linking death to religion through the merging of the sky and the dead bird on the earth. The irony that the bird should be in the sky and not trapped on the ground associates containment or entrapment in death.  As seen by all the objects that have to access the sky order has been imposed to allow for this access. Thus, Framing the Integrity of Violation depicts access to freedom from physiological chaos, as a result of violation, is to be done through containment and order.

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Pittsburgh Project. 1955. W. Eugene Smith. Digital Scan

Through his use of form, content, and light, W. Eugene Smith creates a continuous flow between his photographs taken for the Pittsburgh project. This flow displays a perspective of the city as inherent to Smith’s experience.  This thesis compares to Smith’s in the guiding forms, the binging of hope, and the imposition of the photographer’s experience upon the landscape. The two different bodies of work evoke a sense of isolation. Tension, created by “a struggle of light and dark, light struggling to free itself from the serpent of darkness,” propels this isolation (Trachtenberg 164). Forms fold upon one another creating a path through what Smith references as the “labyrinth.” Similarly, this thesis utilizes forms, such as grids, grasps, and barriers, to draws connections. Connections between photographs become a testament to the photographer’s specific perspective imposed upon his or her landscape. Furthermore, “drawn to tableaus and silhouettes rather than individuals, to spaces deep and shallow, fragmented into isolated parts, Smith conveys an experience of brokenness, aloneness and mutilation, a place drained of nurturing emotion, where ‘love’ and ‘dream’ are mocking street signs” (Trachtenberg 164). Smith’s photographs are similar to this body of work in that the images lack connection to the individual and portray aloneness and brokenness through contradictory signs and fragmented parts. These senses all speak to isolation, which, through a consistent perspective, reflect the photographer’s own sense of isolation, as imposed for protection from violation.


Don’t Catch Feelings. 2012. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

The objects acting as barriers impose disconnect between the viewer and the subject in the same way that the lens has created a barrier to time and space. This carries the theme of violation and isolation throughout the work. Don’t Catch Feelings presents disconnection in many ways, such as the mask. The mask references disease and the risk of contagion that is present from simply sharing the same space as the masked person. The bands one the mask act as a physical binding of the body to an object that allows for interaction, yet restricts communication. Again, we see the dichotomous relationships between invitation and restriction. The mirror male further mimics this, by creating a secondary image of the male. The mirror, moreover, objectifies this person. The male is broken into different realities, which isolates him by disconnecting his physical being. The mirror not only creates another state of reality, but, in doing so, it also splits the figure, widening the gap that presents the viewer from connecting with the male, as he is now in three different planes of reality. Finally, the eyes, the only visible portion of the face, are shut, removing communication of the man’s feelings. Thus creating the final isolation of the subject, transforming him into a barrier. The barriers within the work push and pull the viewer in a way that leaves him or her isolated, stuck in a state of in-between existence. Ultimately this disconnects the viewer in a way that allows them to understand the risk is not their own, but impels them to feel empathy for the potential jeopardy of another being.

close the window

Close the Window. 2013. Meg O’Neill. Digital Print. (18X13in)

Continuing to evoke feelings of abandonment and inaccessibility, Close the Window presents a dark unknown space that is blocked from the viewer. Curiosity becomes important as this dark, inaccessible space engages the attention of the viewer. The barrier of the window, not only contains the space, but actives further desire for accessing it. This is done by drawing attention to small details, such as the cracks in the glass. These cracks show an attempt at penetrating the space. Another example is the multiple applications of window sealant. These failed attempts to access space, elicit a sense inaccessibility. The space becomes curious as it gives way for the viewer to freely fantasize whatever they can imagine the space inside the window to be. The freedom to image the spaces contents when juxtaposed against a confining and separating force references a hope that is present, yet not fully accessible.

Moreover, despite the violation felt by the presentation of an inaccessible hope, the reflection of the background on this barrier alludes to an awareness of space behind the photograph. This acknowledgment of something that should be behind the viewer orients them in relation to the barrier of photograph and the barrier of the window. This layering of different spaces is reflective of the sealant of the window, which has been sealed and resealed over and over. The layering of space is continued throughout the series. However, Close the Window shows a shift in these layers of orientation as it clearly acknowledges not only the viewer’s orientation to the lens, but also the acknowledgment to the space which the viewer occupies in relation to the photograph.

In conclusion, Framing the Integrity of Violation  is a thesis body of work which uses photography as a way of attempting to work through the hopelessness of violation. It is a testament to the struggle of re-establishing a sense of self, as well as an understanding of boundaries. More importantly this series through exploration of isolation acknowledges a hope to move beyond isolation and form connections. Framing the Integrity of Violation through the public presentation of emotions, which tend to be hidden from others, has proven the ability to move beyond the fear of vulnerability in order to see that we are not alone in our battles. Furthermore, the series is also a testament to violation as an unavoidable human condition, which should be explored in order to fully understand our experiences and move beyond them.

’Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. And intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.”

― Janet FitchWhite Oleander

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