Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Rose by Any Other Name is Still a Rose, But Would it Smell as Sweet? Photography & Language

Recently I've read a couple of posts on various blogs about the language of photography. I don't mean here the ability of a photograph to communicate an idea or story or whatever. No, I'm referring to the language we use when talking about things photographic. There is a school of thought that asserts that the language we use is aggressive and violent. I would add one more word to these two: acquisitive. Obviously by the adding of this third word, you, dear reader, are safe in assuming I agree with the first two. Let me try to explain.

What do we say to describe what we have done when we press the shutter of a camera? We will say something like, "I've taken a photo", or if you are a little more posh you might say, "I've captured a lovely scene". And, let's say  you've been out with your camera for the day and you come home and your partner or whoever asks about your day. You might answer, "Great, I got some terrific shots." And, my favourite: you post a photo in an online gallery or group and one or more of your fellow onliners will say something like, "Wow. What a shot. You really nailed him/her/it didn't you?"

I hope by now you are beginning to get where I'm going with this. taken, shot, captured, nailed. All rather harsh words aren't they? And really, are they truly accurate or appropriate for what we do as photographers? Look at the image above for example. It is, in my opinion, a fairly good photograph of a father and his  young daughter. Looks like they are waiting for someone, or perhaps the father is watching something not in the frame. The child has seen the photographer (me by the way) adding a nice layer to the photograph's story. So, what do I say about this? I could say something like, "I took this shot on the weekend, and I think i've really captured the souls of these people, and I've really nailed the dad's hair, don't you think? I reckon this shot justifies the effort I made on that day to go shooting'. Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that on that day I was really hunting good street shots.

This all sounds rather unpleasant,don't you think? Of course, don't get me wrong: I'm as guilty as the next 'shooter' of using this kind of language. In reality it is the language of photographers that has been used, I imagine, from the very beginning of the medium. However, it is possible, I think, that the time has come for a thoughtful conversation on whether we should continue using this language or whether we should begin to look at the true nature of our craft or art, and adopt more appropriate words to describe what it is we do and how we do what we do.

To shoot someone or something is quite a violent act; it's a term which is also associated with the use of a gun. A most violent instrument and certainly nothing like a camera surely? De we really 'shoot' with a camera? I think that on the whole there would be few photographers who would seek to harm their subjects with their cameras, so maybe shoot is not the right word for us to be using. At its very mildest a word like 'shoot'  just speaks of aggression.

I added acquisitive as a third way to describe the language we use in the photographic world. Words like take and capture (whether used as verbs or nouns) speak of acquiring or stealing or even kidnapping! And we are doing none of those things with our cameras. There is even a group on a popular online photo sharing site called Soul Snatchers (for readers eager to explore said site, a disclaimer: Before I saw the error of my linguistic ways I was a member of that group, but once my eyes were opened I deleted myself and my photos from the group). We are photographers, are we not? Surely we are not thieves?

This language speaks of what we can either do to our subjects, or of what we can obtain from them. I am beginning to think it might be time for the thoughtful amongst us to start to explore new ways of talking about our art (or craft. More linguistically loaded words) that speak more to what our subjects give to us, and what we can offer to them. I think there is a lot for us to think about here.

Many of us seek to find that decisive moment (thank you Mr Cartier-Bresson), that fleeting gesture, glance, smile. Whatever it is that has inspired us to point (not aim) our camera towards a potential subject. But whose moment is it? Whose gesture do we watch for? Whose smile? The answer is obvious: all these things do not belong to us, they belong to our subjects.

We are allowed into the lives of others, through their spoken or unspoken permission. We are granted access to their moments, their smile, their gestures. We are granted the privilege of being able to photograph people in all their humanity. I don't really want to sound grandiose or pretentious here, but we as photographers (and it doesn't really matter whether we are working at a wedding, a children's party, or as in my case, on the street) are entrusted with a sacred duty. We do seek to reach the essence of a person or other subject, to bring out the 'real' person or thing or whatever. We do seek to produce a true document to show the world (or our friends and so on). I will be the first to admit that there have been times when I may have betrayed that sacred trust. And, if I am to be totally frank here, I see images online every day that very clearly show a breach of trust sometimes amounting to gross exploitation.

I will also be the first to admit that the changing of a language, which really is a part of the culture of image making with a camera (AKA photography!) will be no easy task. I do not judge others for using those bolded and italicised words; I use them myself. After all, we all have to use a common language if we are going to understand or be understood. But I am trying to come up with new words. Like, 'I've been making photos today', rather than taking them; or 'I really think I've reached the soul of that subject' rather than capturing him or her; or 'I would love to photograph wildlife', rather than wanting to shoot animals.

And that word nailed is for me truly problematic. I don't have to learn a new word to use in its stead: I've never used it to refer to photography or anything else apart from carpentry or woodwork. It has other connotations which I have also never liked. Just goes to highlight even more clearly the importance of language and how we use it.

I don't have any answers really. I only bring this issue up because it seems that it is time for a new way of speaking about what to me is a true art form that has the power to change lives, end wars, enhance our environment, showcase the beauty in our world as well as to bring our attention to the ugliness that exists but shouldn't. In other words we are the practitioners of an honourable art or craft, and we really need to be speaking about what we do in language that does honour to, and speaks accurately about this art of photography.

But I'm just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh lord please don't let me be misunderstood

Thank you to Mr Burdon & The Animals for the snippet of lyrics from one of your great tunes.
Also a big thank you to Mr Shakespeare for the quote from Romeo and Juliet which I have taken great liberties with and paraphrased for my title. I am sure he wouldn't mind really.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Stare of the Ex-eeRoadie

I am assuming we all know what a roadie is? False assumption? Yes, well a roadie is a person who travels with a band and does all the heavy lifting. You know the things like setting up the stage, unpacking instruments, carrying the can when something goes wrong. You know? Oh, sometimes they also make coffee, make sandwiches and generally are there to help the band to do its thing.
    Well, this guy is an ex roadie. Which means he used to do all the above and, by the look of his tired and weathered face, a whole lot more. Anyway, he's retired now, and I found him just sitting back enjoying some very cool Blues music at a festival recently held in the town I live in. He isn't a rich man: I mean, a roadie doesn't earn much at the best of times, and a retired roadie, well, he's not much good for anything else is he? He says he was too busy out there on the road and had no time for all that extra schooling that getting a "qualification" would have meant. Besides, there was a lot of fun to be had!
      Our friend here does manage from time to time to pick up a bit of light work with the odd band here and there. But, after lugging heavy gear like speakers and other stuff for years, his back isn't what it used to be. Anyway, his lungs aren't too good either after spending too many years in smoky venues with the bands he worked for.
      But, he gets by. That's what he wants me to know. What with the dole and the odd casual gig, he even manages to get to the odd concert or festival. He likes to keep his hand and his ear in the loop so to speak. He is on the whole a happy chappy who wouldn't change one minute of his life. He's earned those wrinkles and he's damn proud of every one, okay?
      Now I have a bit of bad news for you dear blog reader. A lot of the facts above are just not facts. I made a lot of it up. Surprised? Of course you are. Anyway, here's the thing: What have I made up? And what facts are for real?
      Can't say? Of course you can't. You weren't there. You don't know this guy. Why some of you don't even know me! You give up? Okay I will tell you. Here are the facts:
1. I was the photographer
2. The picture was made at the Blues Festival as I said
3.The guy is a man (well I think he is anyway)
     And that's it. I have no idea what he does or did for a living; I didn't speak to him. Not a word. So there really are only those three (sort of) facts known to me, and therefore to you dear reader(s). But, I have another question for you. Do I or you know for sure that the other "facts" in the little tale above are false? Of course we can't know can we?. We could, I think, make an educated guess about what this guy does or did for a living. But at the end of the day it would be just that: a guess. We could guess that his weathered face was caused by hard work and/or hard living. Again, just a guess. And who can say anything about the state of his health? That part of my little story really just flowed from all the other bits I made up.
    My point is this. A photograph does indeed tell us stories. There is, at least in this kind of portrait made on the street, a narrative that can be drawn from the picture. As we have just read, facts are few and far between in this kind of street work, especially when it is a case of making photographs on the run as I do.
    But what about truth? Just because my facts are invented, does that mean there is no truth present here? No, I don't think it means that at all. Here we have a man, a "middle-aged' man (sorry not a term I like but you get the picture) with "hair" and a weathered face. He was at a music festival and he looked very satisfied with the situation thank you very much.
    No. I think what I have managed to do in this image, and with my little invented biography above, is capture some essence of truth; some fragment of a reality not my own; some little piece of the life of another person. I would now like to make  reference (as I have several times in the past and as I no doubt will again in the future) to a cliche, that, after all, being a cliche must contain some element of a truth.
    I am a story teller. In the current context I tell stories through the magical (in my humble opinion) medium of photography, more specifically, street photography. As a story teller, I am given (by whom I am not sure: perhaps by the gods of Art?) licence to tell stories in which, while the facts may be invented, there is at least  the essence of truth. This essence goes beyond mundane facts and appeals to the heart and soul of the audience. That's you by the way.
I have a challenge for you. I challenge you to come back to me and tell me your mind wasn't engaged, nor your heart touched and your soul remained un-shifted. I bet you can't do it! Why am I so sure? Because I have given this image life, with the very able assistance of the gentle man in the image. (Well I don't know if he is a gentle man or not; he just looks like one to me. Okay?)
I think this discussion should now be turned over to you, my valued and dear readers.
Peace to you all