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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Looking At The World Through A Lens


Time for a little introspection: what is it that drives me to create images, to take photographs? To answer properly I have to turn this into a discussion. It’s quite an important discussion as the answer is different for every photographer. Understanding the motivations behind creating images has the potential to refine our vision, to make us better photographers ultimately. Its not an easy introspection either and I suspect that the answers that it conjures shift over time. Nevertheless, every photographer should at some point stop and consider why it is that they feel the need to view the world through a lens.



To Create Memories

Probably the first and foremost reason that someone picks up a camera is to record an event; to create a memory. Susan Sontag in her seminal ‘On Photography’ talks about how the act of creating a photograph somehow makes the experience real. It is almost as if the very presence of the camera ratifies both the event and the actual experience of the participants. It is a little like the philosophical conundrum of the tree falling in the woods. If the camera isn’t present, did the event or experience ever really happen? The level of recording has been ratcheted up a thousandfold now with cameras that automatically record our lives and even post these timelines online so that others can watch the minutia of our daily existence, frame, by frame, by frame.

Recently I found occasion to go through a series of photo albums that my mother has put together over the years and I must confess that the goal of recording life’s passing suddenly seemed, if not noble, worthwhile and important. I looked at the images of my father’s life (the reason for going through the albums in the first place was to find images to display at his 70th) and there were mixed feelings of pride, nostalgia, curiosity, wonder and love. Would those same feelings and memories be as easily drawn up without the aid of photographs? Sontag reads almost deprecatingly of ordinary peoples’ obsession with the camera as a recording instrument of the mundanity of ordinary life. However, on the viewing end of that image, whether an actor in the images or a descendent of the actors, the image creates connections and empathy where perhaps in the past the same feelings may not have been as strong or as focussed. The image allows them to be.

Still, it wasn’t for these reasons that I first picked up a camera and it certainly isn’t a reason now as I lift the camera to my eye. This doesn’t mean I don’t capture images of the family. I do on an almost daily  basis. The focus of my image making goes beyond the family. This is to the point that I ended up buying a different camera for my images of family and friends so that I could almost psychologically separate family from work.

To Play With Equipment

Many photographers fall into taking images through the equipment itself. There’s a small amount of gear head in all of us. For some of us it’s the actual starting point in our photographic lives. Ask almost any ‘photographer’ about their first camera and they will likely be able to do more than simply say what type of camera it was. Many will have a story to go with the camera while most will know the details of the camera backward (mine was a battered secondhand Pentax ME Super with a 40mm f2.8 ‘pancake’ lens). A fixation with equipment often follows during the learning curve of photography. A lot of photographers who want to be better, turn to the equipment as a magic bullet for their technical skills; as if owning a professional grade camera and lens will improve their exposure and composition.

Although photographers are not unique in the world of art for their love of their equipment, they are certainly singular in their complete obsession with it. A painter probably doesn’t remember her first brush, or first set of oils. They may remember their first successful painting though. Photographers on the other hand devote books, and webpages, and clubs just to the equipment that they use. There are whole communities of Nikon and Canon users (predominantly men - this should tell us something about the type of photographer who becomes a photographer for the equipment) who spend hours online extolling the virtues of their equipment, and hours more berating the manufacturers of their beloved toys for not fixing/updating/creating/announcing more of the same. In many ways I am also guilty of this, and was certainly more so when I was younger.

The chase for the magic bullet can lead photographers down a rabbit hole that siphons money out of their bank accounts very quickly. I have to admit that I enjoy using good equipment. When I pick up and use an excellent (which often means expensive) tripod, or focus an oily smooth lens, I get enjoyment out of the equipment itself. Knowing it works (and works well) allows me to concentrate on the image. But it’s the focus on the image that tells me that the equipment is not the reason why I create photographs. Good equipment becomes a solution to an image rather than a goal in itself.

To Tell The Story

Possibly the noblest of reasons (or so I used to and do sometimes still think) is that of the journalistic enterprise. To record and reveal the world around us. To highlight injustices and educate others. I grew up in awe of photographers like Nick Ut and Robert Capa. I venerated Frans Lanting (advocacy of nature rather than people) and Sam Abell. I thought that photographers like Peter Magubane, David Goldblatt, Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange were like gods.   What could be more noble than recording the world and it’s foibles around us? What better venture than to educate and enlighten. Imagery as a sword of truth!

Voting day 2014 - South African elections - iphone photograph
Education has come with it’s own depressing cynicism sadly. Although I still think extraordinarily highly of the amazing photographers who cover human conflict, expose avarice and open our eyes to the world around us, my respect for the viewer has maybe taken an opposite turn. The never-satiated eyes of the viewer (I include myself in this) continually searches for the ‘other’, continually elevating the self to a position of power or enlightenment over that strangeness that the photographer has uncovered. Possibly it’s a lack of courage on my own part that I no longer wish to uncover and expose in the same way that I once did.

Yet, there is a desire in even the most subtle and quiet of images that I create that there be a story. The goal of that story has changed somewhat to that of the militant mind of my youth. Joe McNally writes in ‘Sketching Light’ that he has a mantra for whenever he feels confused as to the scene that he is photographing: “What is the story? What is the story? What is the story?” Ultimately an image that conveys something of the essence of the scene, of the person being photographed, has a story in it. We read the photographs, we don’t just view them. In this sense yes, I want my images to tell a story. Does this make me a story-teller?

As a shield

It comes as a surprise for many people to find that a great many photographers are actually quite shy. Socially inept comes to mind to describe a few of the best that I have met. Then there are those that are the biggest presence in a room. They’d be the minority. Photography, almost as a definition, is viewing the world through a window. We place a machine between us and the world we photograph. It’s literally a physical act of separation. It’s just an observation, but people who are used to being the centre of attention don’t want to hide behind a lens.

As a gangly thirteen year old my camera became a shield from bullies, a passport into worlds that I wasn’t ordinarily allowed, an introduction to meet people I would never have otherwise, an excuse to do things the way I wanted them and an excuse to not do things that other people wanted me to do. The camera was an amazing tool that protected, gave access and was even - if the imagination provided - a weapon.

By no means am I an introvert. Anyone who has attended one of my workshops will attest to this. Yet, I find that without the camera I am less likely to initiate an introduction. The camera can very easily become a social prop; an excuse for being there. Without the camera it feels almost as if the excuse is gone.

A social entree is only the beginning of how the camera can be used as shield though. Conflict correspondents talk of how the camera is like a numbing instrument. Placing the lens between the world and the photographer almost separates the photographer from that world. We peer through the lens like Alice into the looking glass. There is only the possibility that what takes place in front of the lens is truly real (an irony considering Sontag’s analysis that we create image to make it real). How else do individual photographers manage to witness so many atrocities and not go absolutely mad. Eventually the roll runs out though, and the reality does sink past the shutter blades and a great many photographers end up suffering serious depression in their later years.

The shield doesn’t have to be against the horrific either. Many photographers place camera to eye to better understand their world, and in some ways separate themselves from it. If I have the camera I become the outsider looking through the window. Diane Arbus’ incredible work comes to mind quickly in this instance. As much as she befriended her ‘freaks’ (in her own words), there is always the sense that she is an outsider looking into the world of those she photographed. It’s a privileged view certainly, but it is still that of an outsider. It is almost reminiscent of the anthropologist attempting to be completely absorbed in a different culture. But she will always be ‘other’ to those she studies simply because she is studying them. The photographer will always be an outsider simply because they raise the lens between themselves and those they photograph.

To Make Sense of the World

The camera as a shield makes sense in terms of the social melee that we find ourselves in daily, but what about a landscape image, my favoured genre of imagery. The camera is less a shield here and more a microscope on the world around us. I personally don’t know if I have a style or even a vision yet. My friend and colleague Paul Greenway (an excellent photographer and educator) has said to me that my personal work is immediately my own because of the simplicity of composition. Everything in the frame seems meant to be there for the viewer. Certainly this is what I attempt in creating my images, and it leads me to wonder if it’s a way of discerning through the chaos some sense of order in the world.

Photographers I have been lucky to have met have spoken about sharing a feeling or emotion through their images. The desire to create a sense of tranquillity, quiet or awe in images of the world. In some ways perhaps the camera can even become a tool of catharsis as we escape the world we live in and relive it through the camera and its creations. We are saying ‘this is the world we want, this is the world we believe in’. The camera lends itself to being the vehicle by which we evangelise our vision of the world, of the way it should be.

Conversely, and again I return to photojournalism, the camera can also be the instrument by which we throw our hands in the air and cry, ‘the world is chaos!’ Eddie Adams’ image of the Saigon execution, Greg Marinovich’s image of a man (Lindsay Tshabalala) burning to death in Soweto during the dying days of apartheid, Horst Faas and Michael Laurent’s images of Vietnam and the brutal execution of West Pakastani militia in 1971. There is no sense to this world, only horror. The camera in the midst of this is both the bringer of catharsis and harbinger of despair.  

To Create

As I narrow in on my own motivations to create images, the simple act of creation becomes a particularly important theme. I notice it more and more amongst my students and there is a subset of students and colleagues that seem to epitomise this frame of mind. Highly educated, high ranking professionals such as doctors seem to don the mantle of photographer in order to create. There is likely an artist deep down in them that feels the desperate urge to be creative - something that they cannot be in their professions. Looking through my contact list of enthusiast photographers reads more like the doctor’s board at a hospital than a list of like-minded photographers.

The urge to create has become particularly strong over the past few years. I find myself creating images in my imagination that I then try and create via the camera. This is not journalism or a search for the truth in any way. It isn’t a recording of memory or a snapshot of an event. It is orchestrated from the moment that I am moved by a scene to draw it in the camera. Perhaps the creation ultimately acts like an escape, both for the photographer and for the viewer. I want people to feel as if they could open the image and step into the world that it depicts. More deeply, I want the viewer to feel that they care for the scene that is being photographed.

The commercial photographer must by needs recreate the vision of her client. If the client doesn’t have a vision, then the commercial photographer has to create one for him. David Hurn in the excellent ‘On Being a Photographer’ talks about how the subject is all important. Not for him is Avedon’s feeling that the personality of the photographer is evident in every frame that they create. Hurn would rather have the photographer an anonymous presence allowing the essence of the subject to shine through in the image. Possibly this is where I currently find myself. I attempt to have the scene inject something of itself into the viewer. As a by-product, possibly an intentional one at that, there is an element of advocacy of nature in the final image. I want people to feel that they are standing there, experiencing what I feel as I am influenced and inspired by my surroundings (and this is true too of some of the situational portraiture that I create). Maybe this is why I don’t have a style, or certainly one that I would recognise. Right now, I want the landscape (or the person) to speak for itself. I want to show the essence of what I am photographing. I want the viewer to think to themselves ‘I know this place. It is in the recesses of my mind, but I know it and it is good’.

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