Realisation day (a long read)
If you’ve been following my blog (or even my Facebook feed) over the last few days, you’ll know I’ve been reaching for something … looking for some answers to questions about the type of photographer I am, what I do it for, what I find enjoyment in photographing, if I have any feeling or sensibility for it (notice I didn’t use the word ‘talent’ 🙂 ).
After much thinking and reflecting, and responding to questions Tim posed, I have come to some important realisations.
1. I don’t have to take the same sorts of photos that others take.
This might seem self-evident and hardly worthy of days of contemplation, but for me it’s an important realisation. When I first started taking photos I predominantly photographed flowers. Up close. I even had a few exhibitions of my work and lots of my photos are now hanging in others’ houses. That’s immensely satisfying now that I think about it. But along the way I lost confidence in my ‘style’ or didn’t recognise that I had one, so I started taking photos that looked like other people’s or photos that I thought other people would like … and then I stopped taking photos, or at least stopped taking photos I was really happy with. My realisation came in the shower – that place of many realisations – a few days ago, and it was an acknowledgement that it’s okay to take photos that reflect my way of seeing the world.
2. My way of seeing the world focuses on the detail, not on the environment in which the subject exists.
My portrait work can be slightly confrontational for those who are being photographed. I get in close. I am interested in faces, in the diversity of faces, and what a face can tell us when there are no clues about who the person is or the environment they’re in apart from their facial features; when we can’t see the clothes they’re wearing, or the way they stand or sit. What interests me is the detail. It’s the same in my flower images. The way particular petals curve slightly differently from the others, the variations in colour across a flower or even a single petal, the shapes, the perfectness … even when its dying. They speak to beauty and dynamism and decay and … and life. And my way of seeing the world also involves a process – a process of envisioning, of thinking, of reflecting, of experimenting, of playing, of looking at different perspectives.
3. I enjoy the process.
I started working in community radio in 1991. I was an on-air presenter as well as a producer, a news gatherer and newsreader, an interviewer, and eventually music director. After three years and a move to a new city I had the opportunity to produce and present programs on ABC Local Radio. Throughout my 16 years working in radio, one of the elements I liked the most was getting the technical details right: making sure there was no dead-air, knowing a piece of music well enough to know when to fade it in (or out), making sure there was variations in pace and tempo of the songs across the course of an hour and of the program, knowing how to edit an interview to ensure it was coherent and told a story, leaving space for breaths (my very first ABC radio interview had no breathing space – it wasn’t good to listen to), finding the right piece of music to fit with the mood of the interview … it was in the process of making radio that I found most enjoyment. When I was a drama teacher, I enjoyed the process of developing a production. I wasn’t a ‘find a script and put on a play’ kind of drama teacher. Rather, the students and I (and for one memorable production we engaged the help of the amazing Lisa Roberts) workshopped ideas, played around with images and sounds, how to create them, and how to add them meaningfully into the production. We played around with how to use the space, how to light it, how to confront the audience or how to keep it at arms length. We played and experimented and even if we didn’t know where we were headed at the beginning, or quite how we ended up where we did, we worked our way through a process of experimentation and play and ideas and representation.
When I started taking photos, I enjoyed the process. I enjoyed working out where to put the light, how to reflect it, how to shape it. I enjoyed the process of figuring out which part of the flower to focus on, where to put it in the frame, what else to include in the frame or what to exclude. It was a creative process, and I liked the process as much as, if not more than, the product. It was a deliberate process, one I had to think about because I was so new to it; over time I have lost the deliberateness of the process. One of my realisations was that I need to become more deliberate about my process, because it’s not just the product that excites me; the process gives me a real sense of meaning and purpose.
4. Meaning and purpose.
In some ways I am a very pragmatic person, although I am also an idealist. But the pragmatist side of myself is the one that often causes me to derail. The question ‘but what is it for‘ bounces around inside my head with sickening regularity. The big existential questions are one thing, but to bring that thinking to the little things in life can rob them, I’ve realised, of joy. For me I mean. I’m not talking other people here, just me. If photography is for a pragmatic purpose – if it’s to exhibit or to sell – then it’s important that other things happen: you get clients, you know how to engage with people and make them feel comfortable, you spend your weekends shooting weddings and then the days in between getting the photos ready for the happy couple. You bill people and have contracts and meet people’s expectations. But what if that’s not the sort of photography you want to do? What if you just want to take photos? But what for, was a question I would ask. Constantly. To what end? What will I do with these images? Why am I taking photos? Those questions nag at me, tug at the edges of my mind, wear me down. Why am I spending time and money on this pursuit? What is it for?
Tim asked me a question the other day and I answered “Yes I really should”. His immediate response was: “Don’t use should. Use ‘will'”. And that was enough for me. Just that change of thinking. ‘Should’ has an expectation attached to it or a judgement. For me, the final image isn’t the thing I find of most value in the photography process; it’s the process of creating that image. That’s what brings me joy and excites me about photography – about anything creative. It’s in the experimenting, the exploring, the playing with ideas, with ways of representing the world around me (a world primarily of flowers and faces) … that’s where the meaning and purpose of my photography resides.
I went through many years of not thinking that was enough, but if I don’t have that, then I find little joy in using a camera. As it’s my only creative outlet (apart from the occasional piece of writing I do) it’s a very important part of my life.
Last week, for the 52 Week photography project I’m involved in, our theme was photographer’s choice. I decided to photograph a flower and initially I took the kinds of shots other people might take (sunflowers against a white brick wall in a jar) and used one of them for the final image for the project.
I like it as an image. But the process of taking it didn’t excite me, there was little enjoyment for me.
So I decided to go back to what I find enjoyment in and took a series of close-up shots. I used light, natural and otherwise; I played around with positioning, with framing, with considering what was important. I was deliberate in my process. What surprised me, no it was stronger than that, what amazed me was the excitement that came flooding back. It reinforced for me that it’s the process that gives me meaning and purpose in my photography work.
So after all that, here is what I came up with. This is not about which is the ‘better’ image, or which one I like the most. This is about which one was taken in a way that gave me a sense of enjoyment, satisfaction and purpose.
One final note: yes, it was a very long shower! 🙂