Assignment 3 – Looking through the Window

Assignment 3 – Mirror or Window

Mirror or window, the choice was not easy and eventually I ended up overlapping the two concepts to merge them.  The starting point suggested itself as I had been thinking about doing it on the gym that I go to regularly.  In addition, I was aware that my Pilates teacher Kelley was preparing to defend her title in the British National Bodybuilding Federation competition. There are several categories and she competed in the Master Over 40 Figure, coming 2nd in the UK heats then overall champion at the World Final in 2016.  It was a matter of ‘now or never’ as the competition heats were in September and the assignment began.  She actually competed in two different federations, the BNBF and the Natural Bodybuilding Federation, and I attended both shows, with some trepidation as I had never watched anything like this before.

Bodybuilding is something that I was aware of but knew nothing about, and I knew Kelley only through seeing her at the gym and at the Pilates class.  She was very keen to help me and spent time talking to me about food, exercise, approach to competitions, gym work and work.  These conversations carried on over the course of a couple of months while we discussed her views, her outfit, what she had to do and eventually about what it meant to her. This is natural bodybuilding which means no drugs or supplements to enhance performance and is done through diet and exercise alone. It is something that takes over her life and is her life.  I must also point out that she is not the extreme end of bodybuilding – the Physique is the more acceptable end of body building. It struck me that this is that it is a very self-centred thing to do as a huge amount of discipline is involved.  Kelley is hugely motivated and has a rigid schedule of diet and exercise that does not waver, along with teaching her classes.  The diet is very restricted and carefully controlled in terms of the ratios of proteins, fats and carbohydrates while drinking huge quantities of water.

The culmination of a year of diet and exercise is the show, and this is where I struggled with my reaction to it.  There are several categories for ages and type of figure as well as male and female.  It is the showing of the physical form that brought up mixed feelings about what they were doing.  Firstly, the males are about strength and muscularity, and the poses are designed to show this.  They are bare footed and wear briefs, and all are wearing fake tan to a deep brown colour to show the definition of muscle structure.  The females by comparison are in sparkling bikinis and wear high heeled shoes, jewellery and lots of make-up.  They reminded me of the beauty pageants for very young girls in the USA.  The poses are much more feminine and the hands are not to be clenched so to show off arms and upper body they have the hands with fingers pointing upwards.  Males clench their hands.  When requested to do a pose of their choice, males cluster round in a show of strength and semi aggression while females are posed prettily.  This struck me as being a divisive and sexist approach, the females are judged on feminine traits while the males are about power and strength.  It is possible that female bodybuilding challenges gender distinction because ‘physical strength and muscles is equated with maleness and masculinity’ (B. Christine Shea, 2001) but the show appears to be the opposite because there is a distinction in how male and female competitors present themselves.  Females are even judged on how they enter the stage. I was very uncomfortable throughout, from the strange rigid poses to the deep fake tan even on black skins, to the way that the male competitors’ muscle structures were so clearly visible like the diagrams from Biology lessons.  I enjoy weight training but this seemed extreme and bizarre.

The images I took are trying to give a balanced view of her life from being at the gym at all hours and even training though pain, to the pleasure that she has from teaching her Pilates classes.  Her diet is paramount and she carefully controls portions and what she eats to the point that she had some meals prepared for her requirements by a local company who specialise in tailor made plans for people wanting to control their intake.  One conversation about food and cravings led to talking about chocolate and sweet things.  I suggested that one lump might satisfy the craving and she said she could never do that because diet is a balancing act.  If she ate one lump and her weight changed or she didn’t feel that she was defined enough, it would affect her mind-set and she would blame the chocolate then berate herself for weakness.  So, the one lump is on a pedestal above all the good things that are usual snacks.  Her outfit is special to her, the heels and her personalised bikini covered in hand-sewn sparkles, that comes in a special box for transporting.  I did one shoot of her in the studio while she practised her set moves wearing the bikini, something that she was a little reticent about as she doesn’t like exposing herself until show day.  The photographs from the show have been chosen to illustrate the competition within her own group and then contrast with how the men present themselves.  The women are in heels and it changes the dynamics, as well as the open hands versus the clenched fists.

I started experimenting with merges in Photoshop while thinking about the diet and exercise routines, merging vegetables with images of Kelley’s body.  My thinking was that diet is of supreme importance and because she is a natural bodybuilder, it is part of her.  Overlaying vegetables with her body I was looking at the texture and lay of the vegetable to reflect the definition in her muscles.  They were interesting to do but I was also disappointed with the results as they seemed a little trite and banal.  Only one really worked enough to include in the final selection.  The one that I liked the most was the multi-coloured one where I experimented with changing it to negative so it came out in bright blues and purples. That was much more interesting but I felt that it did not go with the overall look of the narrative.

Does the assignment work as a narrative about a subject I was unfamiliar with at the beginning? I think it goes some way to explaining what it means to Kelley to be a natural bodybuilder.  She is in effect an athlete and trains heavier than the average gym goer, myself included.  There is a thread of following the same person through her training, her food and her work to the moment when she has to present herself in sparkling bikini and heels to the judges and all onlookers.  There is a comparison between Kelley practising in her outfit in her studio and then on stage so there is progression.  Overall I feel there is more that could be done to round it out but given the time available, I have covered the main points.  This is a wide subject and very personal and so more of her home life as well as interaction with other competitors would have added depth to the subject.  At the time of shooting the competition, I had only just started on the journey and did not have the confidence to approach people outside.  I think it would be different now having spent more time with Kelley and I would be able to use her to link with others, and that would open the assignment out much more.  This is an individual sport but they can support one another through online contact.  Overall it works, and I am relatively pleased with the result seeing that it took me so long to get to grips with the idea.




A view of nude model by an MA student at Falmouth University:

Suggested by Helen Sear as comparison:


General reading about bodybuilding:

  • Shea, B. Christine. “The Paradox of Pumping Iron: Female bodybuilding as resistance and compliance.” Women and Language, vol. 24, no. 2, 2001, p. 42+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 2 2018.
  • Suffolk, Mark T. “Professional female bodybuilding: self-determination theory approach.” Journal of International Women’s Studies, vol. 16, no. 3, 2015, p. 71+. Academic OneFile, Accessed 2 Feb. 2018.
  • Felkar, V. “Marginalized Muscle: Transgression and the Female Bodybuilder”Article. Ignite, vol.4, no.1, p.40-49. Academic Accessed 2 Feb 2018.


Assignment 3 – Analysis of Outcome

  1. Demonstration of Technical & Visual Skills

I have used a variety of cameras to complete this assignment, from my mobile phone to a DSLR.  The phone photos of the outside of the gym allow an everyday feel to it and everyone carried phones with them in the gym, to record times, speeds and workouts.  I used the DSLR at the second competition and the lighting was kinder than I am used to indoors and so they are clearer than normal.  Lighting continues to be problematic as I suffer from camera shake and in low levels of lighting I have to up the ISO in order to get a decent shutter speed.  Most of the times that I was shooting this, I used available light – flash is not appropriate in competition time – except for the still life set ups when I used small continuous lights to light them.  There is a combination of still life setups to demonstrate parts of the process that are important and define Kelley’s ambition.  There are no posed portraits, they were done as happening to capture the feeling of her getting on with the job in hand and shutting out everything else.  In the gym, teaching her class and posing on stage are all things that she does on her own and has to concentrate, be at the top of her game and give it her all.

  1. Quality of Outcome

I took what I knew about – the gym – and extended it to an activity that I knew nothing about beyond my own perceptions of bodybuilding.  I got to know Kelley and was in conversation about her goal to retain her title while also getting to understand what is involved in her daily life in order to do this.  There is a background to the competition show that illustrates a commitment to lots of exercise, good food intake while working in the fitness industry.  The story could have benefitted from fleshing out into more personal territory but time did not allow that level of knowledge.  In addition, it was difficult to illustrate my reaction to the competition show and how uncomfortable it made me feel. Overall though I think it fits the brief.

  1. Demonstration of Creativity

I started looking at montages in Assignment 2 and was quite keen to bring this in.  The two montages of the exterior of the gym help to show that this is not just a daytime activity, it is dark and light, rain or shine, early morning and late nights.  There were some images created in Photoshop that were interesting but did not fit the overall look and feel of the narrative. However, I kept in one that I had done with Kelley and the vegetables, to show that she is inseparable from her diet. I enjoyed doing the still life food shots and this is something I may well pursue on a personal level.  These were more creative than the portraiture as the lighting could be more carefully controlled as well as having time to move around still subjects.  The images of the studio and gym fit the narrative, and helps to show that Kelley works to help other people as well as concentrating on her own exercise.  She suffers from back pain and sometimes this shows as she rests.  The headphones are her way of blocking out the world to concentrate and makes it a very solitary activity.  It is gym etiquette that if a person is wearing headphones, they are not to be engaged in conversation.

  1. Context

The assignment is a window into the world of a female bodybuilder who competes in regular competitions.  Kelley has always trained in a gym, has been a gym instructor running exercise classes and now teaches Pilates full time.  She took up natural bodybuilding at the age of 42 and worked her way up to win the title in 2016 for her class, the Masters Over 40.  Her time is structured to train for the show each year, and her diet and routines are strictly controlled.  The show is her chance, and all the bodybuilders, to show off their hard work.  She is actually very shy about being seen in her bikini when not competing, although she allowed me to photograph her wearing it while practising her compulsory poses in the run up to competition.

I train regularly in the same gym but I did not know her very well before I approached her and asked to follow her while she prepared for the competition in September and October 2017.  My perception of bodybuilding was of huge muscled men and women, and talking to Kelley about her reasons for doing it and the different classes of physique was fascinating.  It did not stop my reaction to it at show time as one of discomfort as there were undercurrents of inequality and sexism that did not sit easily.  I would have liked more time to dig deeper and speak to other competitors but that may be something that I complete in time.

  1. Overall

As a window on an unknown activity, I hope that I have managed to give an idea of what goes into the training for a major competition for a female bodybuilder.  There is a variety of images that follow her preparation and occasionally a view of behind, such as the one in the gym where she is covering her face. Technically some of the images are not pin sharp but I used a variety of cameras to gain the images that I needed as well as lighting conditions.  I am aware of this and I am working on it.  It would have benefitted from more in depth work if time had allowed it.  While it was challenging to capture the feel of what happens on the road to competition, it was interesting to have another view of the gym and my place in it.  It can be a solitary activity and possible to be in a crowd on your own, but it is also something that brings people together. I do not want to do body building but I understand the pull of having a challenge to work towards, even if it appears to be one that is outside the realms of ‘normal’.


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