Tuesday, March 25, 2014

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

Feeling Safe with Daddy (Echuca Australia July 2011)

I first published this post in August 2011. I've been thinking recently that as time has gone by and as we are witnessing a kind of revival in photography of all kinds and especially in street photography, the need for a discussion on the language we use when talking about the medium has grown more urgent. So, I've decided to post it again, with only a couple of ever so small changes. I welcome discussion, sharing and any feedback. Thank you all!

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 to go shooting that day." 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 (though I try hard to break the old language habits). In reality it is the language of photographers that has been used, I imagine, from the very beginning of the medium. However, 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.

Shoot is, I suppose, one of the main offenders. 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? Do we really 'shoot' with a camera? Do we really "go shooting" with a camera? Is a person using a camera really a "shooter"? 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. Perhaps we could simply say "I'm going to do some photography" or "I'm going to spend the day photographing"? To me it does seem a little awkward to speak in this way at first, and it will to  you as well, but it really does sound a whole lot better and more accurate than "I'm going shooting in the street today." This last sentence sounds kind of weird and wrong when I think about it now. 

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 or "taking prisoners"! 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: a few years ago, 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 among 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 focus (not aim) our attention and 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 rock concert, at the beach, or as in my case, on the street) are entrusted with a sacred duty.  We have a responsibility to produce a true document to show the world (or our friends and so on) who and/or what we saw and sought to record with our cameras. 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 an integral component of any culture and in this case 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 our peers or be understood by them. 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 managed to connect with that that person I photographed.' 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 other than 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 rather freely for my title. I am sure you don't mind and might even approve.

PICK OF THE WEEK: Street Photography Can Help Change the World

Being a Tourist isn't all Fun and Games (Amsterdam June 2013)

Those of us who are serious about street and social documentary photography have a passionate belief that photographs can change the world and make it a better place. For many it is the driving force behind their work. And this isn't some kind of amorphous, wishful thinking type of attitude: there are many many examples of photographs changing the course of history. And then there are the "little things": those times when a photo touches a soul, raises a smile, provokes a thought in a viewer. Then there are the times when a photo can prompt a person to take action, to do something, either in their own lives or for others.

Recently I received an email requesting the use of the photograph that is this week's Pick. I won't go into the details of the person who made the request. It's enough to say that he is a scientist working in an area that will be of benefit to all human kind. He wanted to use this image as a slide in the introduction to a lecture he is to give at a conference.

Naturally I agreed. Even to have a photograph of mine included in the introduction to a lecture on such important work is an honor and I am deeply deeply grateful. The scientist in question tells me that this photo sums up exactly what his work is about. I've yet to see the presentation, but I can't wait!

In many respects, the work I have chosen is a lonely road. Well, there is the sharing that happens on the streets between me and the people I am privileged to photograph. But even so the work itself requires focus and a kind of silence that can only be achieved by entering a state of contemplation, both on the street and later when the sorting, editing and posting happens. And that is an alone thing!

But, my work is humanist in nature and it is a joy for me to know that I can play even a tiny part in the work to make our planet, Earth, a little better for us all.

Peace to you all

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

PICK OF THE WEEK: Paradise Lost?

Market Shoppers in Bali (Ubud Indonesia March 2014)

We are moving on tomorrow. We leave Ubud in the morning to, we hope, a smaller and quieter part of the island of Bali. Today I made a photograph that, in some ways, speaks to me of how I see and feel about Ubud. So, I thought I would use it for this week's Pick and as a way to introduce some reflections on the town.

Some of you will remember that I wrote on first arriving that I had never experienced such intense traffic in any of my travels anywhere in the world. Well, sadly that impression remains strong: A small group of villages sewn together with narrow and extremely built up roads, crowded almost to the point of gridlock makes for noise almost beyond bearing, and dangerous conditions for drivers and pedestrians alike. But, it is the cause of such chaos that I want to talk about right now. And that cause? Shopping.

Yes, shopping. And of course for there to be shopping there needs to be shoppers. And, shoppers are what Ubud has in droves. Well, what is interesting is that it is now low season, so the droves aren't quite as huge as they might be. That is truly scary. If it is like it is now, what's it like in high season? To be honest, I can't imagine what it would be like and I do not want to be here to find out.

These shoppers come from all over the world to shop, to have massages, to do Yoga, to pose (and this posing is a whole other story I would love to get into but ...), to buy stuff they could buy at home and to generally spend, spend, spend. There is a madness for shopping here. Again, it is on a scale I have never seen before.

Shop after shop selling the same goods. Some stock very exclusive brands, some (most) selling the same tacky tourist kitsch as dozens of other shops. Then there is the Ubud market in which it is impossible to walk one meter without being offered something for sale and where to even cast an eye on an item invites a sales pitch that won't go away.

Don't get me wrong: I do not blame the local people for trying so hard to sell what they can. After all,what was once a rural village, is now a metropolis with its heart ripped out and replaced by very few other ways to earn a living than by selling things or services to tourists. No, it is the tourists who must wear the responsibility

Ubud is "known" as a romantic place, a place where weary people from "the west" with money can come and relax, find "spiritual" upliftment and generally enjoy the beauty of a tropical paradise at bargain basement prices (relative to what they'd pay "at home"). Whether it is a myth they've been sold, or whether people choose to believe all this so they can come and be "cool", and have a story to tell later, I don't know. For some, of course, the myth can become a kind of reality (and I don't mean to say their experiences are necessarily "real"): out there in the countryside there are exclusive "spas" and "retreats" where (for a price) "relaxation" can be bought and "beauty" experienced. But here in these streets full of shopping tourists pushing, shoving and strutting their way to the next place they can spend some money in, the reality is very different. Here there is noise, pollution, crowds, a maddening "vibe" that frazzles the mind and exhausts the body. And that's just for starters.

Strip all this crass and gross materialism away and there is life here of course. Beauty too, in the people and their homes, their temples, their daily rituals. Just as there is in any community really. But, the time cannot be too far away when the constant building, the ever increasing demand on infrastructure and the sheer number of cars, buses, bikes and tourists bent on self indulgence and shopping, brings the place to a point of paralysis, of breakdown.

I am not sad to be leaving Ubud, but I am sad for Ubud and its people. Sad for the loss of another unique place that has now become just like every other place. The destruction of paradise continues.

Peace to all

PS I accept my part in this tragedy. After all I came here as a "tourist", therefore I am adding to the demands being placed on this society and its infrastructure. I guess I have just been shocked by the scale of the destruction here. I like to think my impact is smaller, however: I do not shop beyond the necessities of life, I don't buy souvenirs, I see things. I am an artist and observer. I make street and documentary photographs that, I hope, provide something of a balanced view of what I see. Maybe that's my role too. I can only report what I see, feel and think. The rest is up to you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

PICK OF THE WEEK: On a Tour to the Temple (and some other places)

As you will know, we're in Bali. So, for this Pick of the Week I couldn't resist posting an image made here. Just yesterday in fact. On a tour we went on for the day.

We are not great fans of tours, preferring to do the looking, seeing and experiencing on our own terms and in our own time. But, now and again, we feel the need. Tours can be okay for getting to out of the way places, to see the things we might not otherwise be able to and to get a kind of a general overview of where we are. So it was this time: we just felt a bit disoriented in terms of where we are and what's around us, so we booked the car and driver for the day to take us on the "No. 7" which was a day long tour to three temples, a palace, the beach, and through some very beautiful rice terraces and small villages.

Now, as you can imagine, tours don't necessarily present the best street photography opportunities. But, sometimes there is a scene that pops up and just asks to be photographed. This week's Pick is at a temple called Goa Gajah, also known as Elephant Cave Temple (apparently the carved entrance you see here looks like an elephant). It is an extraordinarily beautiful spot: gorgeous gardens complete with palm trees, lily ponds steep steps and ornate bridges, all surrounded by dense forests. And there is of course the cave temple itself. Just a few minutes before I saw this scene, I photographed the man in the photograph filling his water tank in the bathing pool, normally reserved for prayerful ablutions, and actually quite beautiful in its own right.

I say "normally reserved for prayerful ablutions", as if I mean to say that such mundane and "practical" matters such as filling a cleaner's water tank don't belong in such a holy place. While that was my first thought, it then occurred to me that this was wrong thinking. Why? Well, what could be more prayerful, more holy, than to gather water from a sacred pool to use for the cleansing of the temple guardian which this carved wall represents? It is an act of significance and of immense spiritual value.

But, what of the rest our the tour? Well, it was interesting; the countryside was so very beautiful and we got to experience a tropical thunderstorm in the "Mother Temple" at the foot of a holy mountain. Also, we now have a better idea of where we are and what else is "out there". Overall though, I would say that tours are still not really for me. Except for the Elephant Cave Temple. This place was the highlight of the day for me and will, I think, remain vivid in memory for a long time.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bali: My month on the island of dreams has just begun

Hanging Out with Dad (Ubud Indonesia March 2014)

So many people dream of spending time on the island of Bali. And we were among them. But now we are here. In fact, we've been here four days so far. At this very moment we are in the central town of Ubud, an even more evocative site of dreams for some. First impressions are very mixed.  On the one hand there are the people. I don't ever like to stereotype people, so all I will say is that thus far we have been treated by every person (and I am not exaggerating. I do mean every person) we have encountered, with courtesy, kindness and a helpfulness and hospitality of a sort I have never in many many years of travelling experienced.  And there is the architecture; it is extraordinary. I mean it really is. For example, every house has its own family temple and the front gate to every home looks like the entrance to a temple with lovely statues (always including my favorite, the elephant god Ganesha), floral offerings and even incense. 

On the other hand in all those many many years of travelling, often in the world's largest cities, I have never before experienced the intensity both in terms of noise and congestion, traffic like there is here in Ubud. I have after two days yet to come to terms with the reality of it. If that makes sense. Ubud is a set of villages now more or less running into one large town, and there are only a few very narrow roads lined with buildings. So, what you get is a lot of  cars, bikes, trucks and pedestrians in a confined space which makes for maddening noise and chaos. Well, as I said, I've never seen the like in my life.

But, having said that, I am excited by the possibilities here in Ubud  for street and documentary photography. It's a very colorful place, with friendly people, lots of tourists and travelers. And there are so many wonderful streetscapes. This aspect of the town I love already.

I know that after a few days I will adjust to the negatives and relish the positives (I forgot to mention the great food. And then there is the tea! Best I've ever had, and what a relief that is after travelling to some very tea impaired places in the last year or so). So, to begin my positivity: I am typing this post which I will soon share with you all, on my laptop with my feet up in our very comfortable hotel room and can't hear a sound. Well there is the air-con! I think that, once I get out and into the street a few more times, this place will start to feel like home. I actually got a little hint of that vibe when out today for an hour.

So, stay tuned, for more posts from Bali.
Peace to all

PS I should point out that we have yet to explore outside the town. The traffic really does, from what we're told, affect only the central business areas of the town. I am also prepared to admit that my reaction could be a result of a bout of extreme sensitivity brought on by tiredness and travel weariness. As I say, stay tuned!