Sunday, March 29, 2015

Leonard Cohen Speaks about Street Photography (well songwriting actually, but...)

Do not Forsake Me (Melbourne Australia June 2011)

In case you don’t know, I love Leonard Cohen, and I do mean love. He is not only one of the greatest poets and songwriters of our times, he is one of the greatest of all time. His music has guided me, inspired me, enabled me to connect with my emotions and uplifted me in many troubled times of my own.

Recently I read a post from a site I subscribe to called Brain Pickings. The posts I get from them are always stimulating, thought provoking and often enable insights and revelations that I value. Please visit the site and you will see what I mean.

Anyway, the post I was reading was a description and review of a wonderful book, Songwriters on Songwriting. The book is a collection of interviews by Paul Zollo with some of the huge names in songwriting.

In his 1992 conversation with Zollo, Cohen was asked to consider the purpose of music in human life. This was Leonard’s answer:

There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

As soon as I read this I knew that what Cohen was saying applied just as much to street and social documentary photography as it does to songwriting. In fact, you could say that what he is talking about is the foundation, or one of the foundations, upon which humanist photography stands:

Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.

This idea resonated deeply within me. Ever since I have been photographing people, and even before I realized I was practicing documentary or street photography, I had the sense that the act of me photographing a person does not make that person special; it is their presence in my photographs that makes the photographs special. In other words, human activity dignifies my photographs. Or, to put it another way: photographing humans and their activities (whether they are mundane or “ordinary”, or what we might call unusual or extraordinary) is not a way for me to “make them seem worthy or impressive” (one definition of dignify). Rather, the humans I photograph as they go about their so-called ordinary lives offer me the opportunity to produce worthy or impressive photographs. Of course, as I've said, the photographs are already worthy and impressive simply by virtue of the presence of humans and their activities in them.

This is not to say that my (or anyone’s) photographs are automatically “good” and that I can ignore the notion of applying skill, care and control in their production. In fact the contrary is true: in order to fulfill my responsibility to depict the people and their activities I photograph in a way that does justice to their presence in the photographs, I am obligated to do all I can to make the photo as good as it can be.

Many of you will have read or heard that I believe that there are no ordinary moments. This is, of course what Leonard is saying in the quote above. As I wander the streets and other public places in openness to receive images from my fellow humans, I see couples kissing or hugging, and couples fighting or looking glum; I see people working and people who are unemployed; I see people shopping or daydreaming at shop windows; I see parents caring lovingly for their children, and I see parents unhappy with their children for some reason or another; I see people smiling, crying, chatting, walking, talking. I see people with friends and I see people alone-and sometime people who are lonely. I see people slowly strolling and others rushing to or from somewhere. I've seen people being arrested, and I've seen others “resisting” arrest. I have seen joy and sorrow, laughter and tears. As well, I have experienced all kinds of emotions as I witness life on the streets.

Most of the human activities cited above would seem to the vast majority of us as ordinary, perhaps not noticed or worthy of note, as we go about our ordinary, and often busy, everyday lives. This is where I and others like me come in. It is the role of the humanist street photographer to, firstly, be open to seeing these fleeting moments that are quickly lost and gone forever for most of the people who experience them. Secondly, it is our job to bear witness. We do this by making photographs that are, not only of high technical and aesthetic quality, but that reflect an empathetic, compassionate and loving approach to the people photographed and to the moment itself.

For the humanist street photographer this has nothing to do with “taking” photos, or “stealing souls” or “capturing great shots” or any of the other junk and rubbish spouted noisily in the so–called street photography forums and blogs as well as on the websites of savvy social media marketing “togs” all over the internet.  For the Humanist street or social documentary photographer it is about being open to a connection and a sharing between ourselves and our fellow humans with whom we are fortunate enough to be experiencing those fleeting and so-called ordinary moments.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Photographing the Self: What's it all really about?

Pucker Up and Pose for a Self Portrait (Almere The Netherlands July 2013)

Do you take photographs? And if you do, have you asked yourself why you do? Have you thought about the motivations, the reasons, the end results you are looking for when you make a photo?  Of course as a social documentary/street photographer, it is part of the job description to be questioning my own motivations, my own purpose and intention, on an ongoing basis. But, I have been thinking lately about that oft quoted observation: “everyone’s a photographer these days”.

I’m not into the debate about who’s a photographer and who isn’t. I am simply interested in what all those people who are now “photographers” are doing, and why. 

First up, I thought I would find out how many photos are posted each day on the internet.  As of February this year (2015) 300 million per day were being put up on Facebook, and the latest news from Instagram reports that over 70 million photos and videos are uploaded every day to their site. When you think that these are only two of many social media platforms (not to mention other types of websites), it’s probably true to claim that the total number of photos being made and then posted to the internet every day is many times those figures: hundreds of millions of photos. Every day.

There is no doubt that the proliferation of mobile phones equipped with cameras accounts for many, even most, of these photos. And according to my research, it seems that most social media sites are experiencing huge growth in the number of photos posted. Many claim that this suggests photography as a pastime or hobby is growing ever more popular.

While this may be true, I think there is something else at work here. I believe that most people making photos today are not doing it as a hobby for pastime: for the majority “taking” photos serves other purposes. Of course I can’t speak for everyone who posts photos on social media, but I am convinced that the camera (or more often the smartphone) has become for many of us another tool we use to get ourselves noticed, to “be seen” as one writer has put it. For many the photograph is not a way to explore or view the world or even “as a way of seeing what the world looks like in a photograph” as the prolific street photographer Garry Winogrand once said of his own reasons for making photographs.

Just take a scroll through your Facebook feed, or have a look at Instagram. On both you will see untold numbers of images of food, people’s meals and desserts. You will see photos (and discussions too) of the latest clothes the poster has bought and countless photos of people’s possessions: cars, computers, sound systems; the list is endless. And then there is the ubiquitous “selfies”. What we used to call self portraits have now become less a way for us to explore ourselves and our place in the universe and more a way to compete, to show off, to tell the world what we’ve got, how “cool” we and our possessions and our lives are.

You can even buy “selfie sticks”, equipped with Bluetooth no less, for taking those photos of yourself with your phone. I see them more and more on the street. Once upon a time it was fairly common to ask a bystander or someone passing by to take your photo if you were alone and wanted to record what you were doing or where you were. Nowadays, even this sharing and connection is denied as we slip more and more into a kind of narcissism which is aided and abetted by our materialistic and status driven society.

Remember Narcissus? He was that guy who came across a pond in the forest. Kneeling down to take a drink, he caught sight of his face reflected in the smooth surface of the pond. He was so taken with his reflection that he fell in love with it. He talked to it, smiled at it and tried to convince it to return his love, but each time he reached out to touch that beautiful face in the water, the image dissolved into ripples which faded away. 

Eventually he realized that the face in the water was his own reflection but he was still so obsessed that he stayed by the pond until he starved to death (one version has it that Narcissus was so grief stricken at not being able to possess his new love that he stabbed himself).

I think the lesson from this sad story is plain. The infatuation with mirages or reflections of ourselves is not healthy. As was the case with Narcissus, we can become so caught up in the surface reflection that we present to the world that we are not able to go any further with an exploration of self. Maybe we don’t take it the extremes that this guy did (he had already rejected love from all who offered it) but a fixation on that surface reflection does lead to disconnection from others, a growing lack of empathy and an over-concern for surface appearances to the detriment of the real us and what is really going on in and around us.

Am I saying that all “selfies” are bad? Of course not. Am I saying you should never share with your friends what you had for breakfast, or your new outfit/car/whatever? No, I am not. What I am saying is this: sometimes, just sometimes, when you are tempted to take a photo of yourself or your breakfast, look around. Ask someone near to you would they mind taking the photo for you.

One more thing: Dump the selfie stick (literally and/or metaphorically) and turn the camera or your phone the other way and engage with the world.