Robbing the flower of all its colour doesn’t rob it of its beauty – it just allows us to see differently. There’s a lesson in there I’m sure.
Robbing the flower of all its colour doesn’t rob it of its beauty – it just allows us to see differently. There’s a lesson in there I’m sure.
Another dahlia today – this one with loads of squiggly bits (which will only mean anything if you read yesterday’s post). This dahlia was dancing in the slight breeze- which is fabulous, but it does make it slightly tricky to photograph.
Imagine, if you are so inclined, your favourite music and this dahlia moving along with the beat – whether that’s dreamy, or pumping, or folk-y, or blues-y, or pop-y, or perhaps a little bit classical. The flower doesn’t care what it looks like when it’s dancing, but most of us are not so free.
Over the summer, Tim and I went to the Queen Vic Night Market a number of times. We’d grab a chair and sit and listen to the fabulous music from the likes of Opal Ocean and Horns of Leroy. One of the delightful sights was the little children creeping away from their parents to move to the middle of the stage, stare at the musicians and then dance. Their delight in the music was clearly evident and they felt free to express that delight. Most of the adults were like Tim and I – happy to listen and to dance on the inside.
This dahlia wasn’t keeping it on the inside … that’s something we can learn from flowers. And from little children!
I think I’ve picked the wrong time of year, but I’m going to return to flower photography for a while. I’ve concentrated on portraits for the last little while – although I haven’t featured many on this blog – but now I want to return to flowers.
I love photographing flowers – there are so many colours, so many shapes, so many sizes, so many types. An endless array – and we celebrate that. We cultivate variety, we actively plan for it in our parks and gardens if we are of a gardening bent, and if we aren’t we wander through the park or garden enjoying the variety, looking out for that one different flower. We are amazed at the size of some flowers. We take photos, paint them, adorn our homes with them. We buy them and give them as a token of our love or a symbol of our sorrow, or our appreciation.
There’s no pressure for flowers to be a particular way – they can have whirly bits, and squiggly bits, and movement-y bits; they can be white or yellow or pink or mauve or any colour they happen to be – and they’re all beautiful.
Wouldn’t it be good if we thought of ourselves and each other like that? If we celebrated our whirly bits and squiggly bits and movement-y bits? If we celebrated the variety of colours and shapes and sizes. If we were amazed by each other? How much kinder might we be if we looked at others and celebrated them the way we do with flowers?
Here’s today’s dahlia. Who is your dahlia?
I can remember when my brother-in-law turned 25. He was the oldest person I knew outside of my parents and grandparents. At the time (when I was a teenager) he seemed SO old!
Today he turns 60 … so I guess he really is old now! 🙂
Happy birthday Grant.
I keep returning to the sunflowers – there’s something captivating about them: the depth of colour, the detail, the symmetry of each petal (or perhaps the lack of symmetry).
As I wrote in my long post on Monday last week, I enjoy the creative process. For me, photography isn’t capturing the scene in front of me – it’s not ‘taking a photo’ – it’s creating an image with a deliberate creativity that explores and plays and experiments with light and shape and form and style and depth.
What is photography to you?
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! 🙂
There is so much we can control in our lives; so much more we seek to control; and then there are things we simply have no control over.
It rains for days on end, rivers rise, towns are flooded, 300 cows are washed into the ocean.
A low pressure system gets lower, the wind increases, a hurricane/typhoon/cyclone strips trees of their bananas, houses of their roofs, power lines of their energy-carrying capacity.
A volcano spews lava down its mountainside causing mayhem to those at the foot of the mountain and those on flight paths above it.
We are reminded that there are some things we still cannot control; some things are bigger than us, they are beyond us: we are not as powerful as we thought we were. We don’t have dominion over the earth and all that lives on it.
As with the planet, so too with our bodies.
I have been raised to believe that I am in control of my body, in the same way that as thinking, intelligent, problem-solving people we think we are in control of the earth. Mind over matter. If you think you’re going to get sick, you will. To avoid getting sick, you just have to resist it; you have to be strong in mind and not give in to it.
I haven’t vomited in more than 30 years because I refuse to do so.
When I feel the first tinglings of a cold, I simply tell myself that I do not get sick, and most of the time that’s enough. I do not get sick. I do not give in to sickness.
When I feel pain in my body, I remind myself that my mind is stronger, and the pain dissipates.
Sickness is a weakness of the mind. Both of my parents hold firm to this view, and it has become part of the fabric of my being. (I have written about this attitude here.)
I felt this way until Tuesday 25th October at 3:34pm.
It was at that point that I came out of a meeting with Phil and Jo (two new colleagues) and noticed that I was shaking slightly. I felt a bit cold. I went back to my desk and for the next 47 minutes wrote an abstract for an article on workforce planning for beginning teachers. My fingers skittered across the keyboard in often uncontrollable ways, the shaking intensifying the longer I sat there. I tried deep breathing as a way of calming myself, in case the meeting had somehow agitated or excited me; I walked quickly to the toilet and back as a way of warming myself, in case it was the sitting that was making me cold. I didn’t think about getting/being sick … I was just cold. And shaking uncontrollably. And feeling slightly off my game.
One hour and forty seven minutes later I was in hospital. Admitted straight into emergency, even though the woman in the queue ahead of me had been told that she would be waiting at least an hour to be seen by a doctor.
I stayed in hospital for a week.
In that week, I had no control over what my body did, or of what was happening in my body. I couldn’t think my way out of my sickness. My mind and my body were two separate entities: one did not control the other.
Or rather, my mind did not control my body.
I lay in my hospital bed for a week and my mind was quiet (I am toying with using the word ‘blank’): it is usually busy narrating my life, having conversations with a host of others, skipping from thought to thought, involved in a rich array of experiences, ideas, images, connections. My inner life is integral to who I am and while I am quiet on the outside, on the inside my mind is loud and always on.
I realised, though, on my sixth day in hospital, that my mind hadn’t been on for the previous six days. I lay in my hospital bed under six blankets, sheet up to my chin, neatly tucked in, eyes shut against the light, and my mind was quiet. Nothing. No thoughts, no conversations, no ideas … quiet. I’d sleep (a lot) and when I was awake my mind was quiet.
My mind seemed to know that it had to be quiet so that my body could recover. It seemed, for the first time that I can remember, that my body was in charge, rather than me being in charge of it.
I am home from hospital now, and my mind has switched back on. But it’s now more willing to listen to my body. I lie here, in my own bed, with the blankets piled high, neatly tucked in, watching the clouds flit across the sky, and drift off to sleep, my mind on but quiet enough to allow my body to recover.
I am thankful that I am generally healthy: I had no list of medications to give to the doctors, no bouts of ill-health to share, certainly nothing like the 40 heart attacks and plethora of other ailments the woman in the next bed talked of. Even so, I was not in control. Something was happening to me, and I was unable to stop it.
On day 7, the day of my release from hospital, I thought about my/our lack of control. I had just as much control over the bugs wreaking havoc in my bloodstream, as we collectively do of controlling the force of the wind, the amount of rain that falls, or the size of the wave after an earthquake. We are reminded that there are some things we still cannot control; some things are bigger than us, they are beyond us: we are not as powerful as we thought we were.
It’s an unsettling thought, but allowing it is not a sign of weakness.
My sister Debbie has an impulse to pull people away from the edge if she thinks they’re too close. I have an impulse to shut garden gates when I see them swinging open. Different impulses, but ones we manage to control.
There’s one impulse that we both share, however, that is much harder to control. In fact, we are rarely successful at controlling it.
It is an impulse for fairness and justice. We are aggrieved when we experience, and when we see, unfairness and injustice, when things aren’t right.
When we were younger, and complaining about something that wasn’t fair and wasn’t right, our mother would say and neither is a black fella’s left leg*.
Mum was clearly saying that nothing could be done about the situation that sparked our feeling of injustice: let it be because that’s just the way life is. There was an inevitability, a finality about this aphorism that niggled away at me.
Why do I have to clean the bathroom again when Debbie’s never cleaned the bathroom, my 12 year-old self would wail. It’s not fair!
My mother would chant her now familiar refrain about left black legs. I got that being left, those legs weren’t right, and being black they weren’t fair, but my ‘rights’ and ‘fairs’ were of a completely different nature that I deeply felt weren’t being taken seriously.
I would slump off to the bathroom to scrub it clean, bemoaning (loudly and vociferously) the injustice of this situation. Things didn’t have to be the way they were. We could change things. Surely we could … or else …
I could never finish the ‘or else’, never get to why it was important to challenge the way things were. They didn’t have to be the way they were, I knew that intuitively, instinctively, but I was not able to articulate more than that. It just felt wrong that things had to stay the same, particularly when those things didn’t feel (or weren’t) right. It didn’t feel right that life was a series of inevitable situations that I had to simply accept for what/how they were.
Situations like the men at the local railway station drinking out of bottles wrapped in brown paper bags. It wasn’t right that men should live like that; surely something could be done? It wasn’t right that the children I met when doing work experience in Year 10 had been taken away from their families and forced to live in a community headed by an angry white man. It wasn’t right that someone cut the tail off a Labrador and then abandoned the injured dog by the side of the road. It wasn’t right that I be sent to the principal in Year 12, as a 21-year-old student, for failing to attend the sports carnival and for encouraging others’ non-attendance. (I explained to the principal that I had run a study group instead of the 400 metres, and he agreed, with only a small dose of exasperation, that it was a much better use of my time and, looking me over, my capabilities.)
Fast forward many (many) years and a senior colleague advising me: Sharon, if there’s a choice between peace and justice, always go for peace.
But … but … 12-year-old me and 15-year-old me and 21-year-old-me came rushing back.
But … choosing peace meant accepting things the way they were, and that didn’t feel right to me, not when those things were not right and not fair. Why do others get to make decisions about things that don’t impact them, but impact others (others I care about), and I don’t get to have a say in that decision? When the course my team of colleagues and I had spent two years developing was suddenly scrapped I fought against the injustice and unfairness of it. It had implications for students, implications for staff, it meant accepting something less, something inferior.
Go for peace.
But I couldn’t. I was angry. I felt disempowered. It was as if those making the decisions didn’t value my work or the work of my colleagues, at least not enough to allow it to continue; they didn’t value the ways we’d developed relationships with our students and the meaning and significance of those relationships to the lives of those students. They threw out our work as if it didn’t matter … but it did matter.
Go for peace.
I visited Debbie on the weekend and even though the decision that will change her professional life was made some time ago, she’s still angry. She feels disempowered. The decisions that others made about her work and the work of her colleagues has not been valued, at least not enough to allow it to continue; the relationships with her students and the meaning and significance of those relationships to the lives of those students have likewise not been valued. They threw out her work as if it doesn’t matter … but it does matter.
Deb works in a correctional centre – a gaol (jail if you’re in the US). In May this year, the NSW state government decided that inmates don’t need qualified teachers to teach them, and so Deb, a senior educational officer, and her team of teachers will all be out of work by the end of the year.
Debbie is angry. She still feels the sting of this decision months after it was made. She is fighting for justice and cannot settle for peace. She could walk away, not get involved, accept the inevitability of the situation, the finality of the decision, but she’s fighting for others. She’s fighting for inmates who require expertise and experience from their teachers.
Misty Adoniou, writing in The Conversation recently, concludes by arguing that “we claim that professional, qualified and quality teachers are crucial to improving learning outcomes, and the economic health of the nation. But we pursue policies that don’t put these teachers in front of our most marginalised students”. Misty is talking about students learning English as an additional language, and those with disabilities. But she could just as easily be talking about inmates in the country’s gaols.
Debbie feels the injustice of the decision to remove qualified teachers from NSW gaols deeply – it goes against what she knows is right and just. And she rails against it, wanting it to be different, knowing that it could be different. She doesn’t want to settle for the way things are … but it’s more than that. It’s a deep-seated impulse, a value deeply held, that when things aren’t right we shouldn’t stand back and let them happen. We should fight for others and for what we believe. It’s part of the fabric of her being; it’s who she is.
Peace or justice.
Does peace sound too much like giving in? Giving up? Not fighting for what is right and fair? Is that why I’m uncomfortable with that choice?
Is it because it’s presented as a choice, as a dichotomy? A polarised/polarising choice? Does it have to one or the other? Could we have both? Is that even a possibility?
There are bigger conversations to be had of course, more questions for me to confront– questions like right and fair for whom, and is wanting what is ‘right’ the same as ‘being right’, and does peace mean allowing the status quo to go unchallenged – but this is not the place for that conversation, for those questions.
I just know that when we are confronted with a situation that feels unjust and unfair our impulse will always lean towards justice.
That being said, Deb, I do hope that you will eventually find peace.
*This wouldn’t be said these days because someone stood up for what is right and what is fair.
I pack the car, pick Tim up from the train station and we head up to my sister’s for the weekend. Along the way a bird, pecking at something on the road, continues to peck as if oblivious to its almost certain death. I remain poised as we drive ever closer, knowing with calm assurance that it will fly out of the way.
We arrive in time for morning tea. This is a regular ritual: every Saturday morning Debbie and her husband get together with a group of friends for a cuppa and a chat at a local cafe.
Tim and I are well known to this group of my sister’s friends. We have spent a number of Saturday mornings drinking tea and chatting, as if we too were their friends.
I have done this my whole life: latched on to my sister’s friends rather than making my own. I find it easier that way – Deb does all the work of making and keeping friends and every now and then I pop along and have conversations with them as if they are my friends as well.
Many years ago, when we were in primary school Stacey, one of Debbie’s friends, invited her on an outing to the beach. Somehow I wrangled an invitation too. Even then, I didn’t have friends of my own, preferring to hang out with my sister and her friends. [I don’t think Deb was as in favour of this arrangement as I was.]
As Stacey’s Dad drove us all to the beach, we sat in the back chatting, and laughing at nothing in particular as eight and nine year olds do. I nearly jumped out of my skin though when Stacey suddenly screamed, Dad, slow down. Please, Dad, don’t hit it!
Was there a person on the road, I wondered? A baby perhaps? Maybe a kid had fallen off his bike and was stumbling bleeding down the centre of the road. It must have been something momentous for Stacey to react like that, I thought.
It was a bird.
But Stacey’s Dad slowed down, the bird flew away unscathed, and we continued calmly to the beach.
To say that I was impressed with this interaction between father and daughter would be a mammoth understatement. Stacey had been able to influence her father’s behaviour in, if not exactly an hysterical way, a decidedly dramatic fashion! Stacey’s father, the man who had built the house we lived in, a big burly man who bossed others around for a living, took notice of what his nine-year-old daughter had said.
I sat with this racing and rolling around in my mind for the rest of the drive to the beach. Once we arrived it flew straight out of my mind of course because there were sandcastles to build and shells to collect to make a number eight with (eight was my favourite number that year).
But the episode lingered in my mind, swirling beneath the delight of being at the beach with people who weren’t my family.
The following weekend, I was again on my way to the beach, this time with my own family. A bird was on the road up ahead. I hesitated, then decided to go for it.
Dad, I screamed, slow down. Please don’t hit it!
Dad didn’t slow down.
It’ll move, he said, in that quiet, dry way he has. And it did.
I learnt a lesson that day. I still ponder about what that lesson was even after all these years of working it over in my mind. I think I learnt a number of lessons actually: lessons about emotional responses, pragmatic thinking, the capacity to influence behaviour (or not), and other things I still can’t articulate.
But it meant that when I saw the bird on the road yesterday morning I just knew that there was no need for histrionics.
We drew ever closer, and I heard my Dad again: it’ll move, and at the very last moment the bird flew lazily away.
Thanks Dad … I think.
This is Debbie, my big sister. She doesn’t look much like an axe murderer (mostly because she isn’t) but she did come close a number of years ago.
When I say ‘a number of years’ I’m talking about the late 1960s, so really, quite a long time ago now, when neither of us had yet reached the age of ten.
Our parents had bought a block of land on which to build a house. Dad decided that it would be quite fun to clear the block himself and so after work (for him, school for us) and on the weekends we’d head up to the block and he’d dig up trees and rocks and such like.
As Dad wielded an axe, Debbie, in a moment of father-emulation, took up the tomahawk.
Sharon, said she, hold that rock while I chop it. She knew how this worked. She’d been watching Dad.
Now, I mentioned that Deb is my big sister and as all little sisters know, if your big sister is emulating your father, is wielding a tomahawk, and suggests you hold a rock, you do as you’re told.
So I held the rock.
The blade was lifted, it hung momentarily in the air at the height of its swing, then came down to rend the rock in two.
Well, that was the plan. At the last minute, the rock, which was round, rolled to the right and so instead of the blade of the tomahawk rending the rock in two, it instead sliced through my finger. The pointer finger on my left hand to be precise.
Blood (mine). Screams (mine and Deb’s). Shouts (Dad’s). Swooning (me). Ditching the tomahawk and finding a place to hide (Deb). Swearing (Dad). One daughter getting into trouble.
Now at this point I can imagine that you’d be thinking it would be the tomahawk-wielding big sister who would be getting into trouble as Dad drove (swiftly) to the ambulance station.
And it would be at that point you would be wrong.
Even though the blood dripping off the tomahawk was mine, even though the finger hanging in two pieces was mine, even though the pain in said two-pieced finger was mine, even though the horror of having my tomahawk-wielding sister sitting next to me in the car was mine … it was me getting into trouble.
It seems that I ‘shouldn’t have been so stupid’ and that I ‘should have known better’.
Lesson learned … the hard way.
[I still bear the scar]
[On my hand as well as in my heart]