In deciding between Yes and No, Scottish voters are bombarded daily with a plethora of authorities. Celebrities, academics and business leaders are used to trump or extend rational arguments. "David Bowie said NO should vote NO". "Mrs Businessleader said YES so you should too".The voice of the everyday person is lost in the glitzy soundbite.
This short film considers the views of William Wallace, Scotland's greatest authority on independence and freedom, through the everyday namesakes living in the country.
Unicorns are so common in Scotland that people don’t notice them. They try to get our attention by standing on two feet, with shaggy manes and even sticking their tongues out. They are so everyday that it has taken me three decades to notice they are everywhere. Then an American journalist mentioned, in passing, the fact that unicorns are the national beast of Scotland and I immediately began my search.
I soon discovered they may be magical and mythical but unicorns are not trivial.
You can find them in buildings across the country in councils and court rooms, schools and even bakers (by royal consent). There are literally millions of the beasts being magically invisible on the front of passports up and down the United Kingdom.
If independence does happen the unicorn is in danger of going extinct. Already the Scottish office has replaced the coat of arms (a lion and unicorn) with a simple, modern saltire. In this letter-headed mass extinction they have reduced the unicorn population by tens of thousands. And even have the cheek to prescribe the Pantone colour for saltire blue! Heraldry is dead!
Unicorns were ubiquitous and conspicuous in past centuries, appearing on royal insignia, shields and anywhere power was exerted. Two were resident on the royal branding until the Union of Crowns in 1603 when James IV of Scotland also became James I of England. He expanded the Unicorn's population over the border as an equal partner to the English Lion on the new coats of arms. He also commissioned a world famous Bible which hosts nine cameo appearances from the unicorn. This was a heyday for the Scottish unicorn.
In the country they sat atop the Mercat crosses at the very centre of civic life as well as being the symbol of royalty. From kings to paupers the unicorn's gaze was ever upon you.
I remembered that in Dundee there is a ship called the Unicorn. The war-frigate is moored beside some new build houses in the waterfront dock overlooked likes the beast itself. The figurehead is perhaps Scotland’s largest unicorn- a six-foot high beast gleaming in the sunlight of Scotland's sunniest city.
I called the ship and spoke to Bob. He soon told me I was too late and I had missed the picture. The unicorn had been removed and renovated and he said it would have made great pictures two years ago! I was about to hang up when Bob told me about his unicorn on wheels. A unicorn on wheels! I gasped. Then he made another passing remark about the workshop. The workshop? I gasped. Yes, the workshop where Peter makes the unicorns. Peter, I quickly reasoned, must be some reclusive magician-like carpenter from Narnia.
I hung up and called the Peter who was from Blairgowrie as it happened, not Narnia.
What follows is the actual transcript of that phonecall.
“Hi Peter, this might sound odd but I am looking for unicorns”
"The true state of every nation is the state of common life. The manners of the people are not to be found in the schools of learning, or the palaces of greatness, where the national character is obscured or obliterated by travel or instruction, by philosophy or vanity; nor is public happiness to be estimated by assemblies of the gay, or the banquets of the rich. The great mass of nations is neither rich nor gay: they whose aggregate constitutes the people, are found in the streets, and the villages, in the shops and farms; and from them collectively considered, must the measure of a general prosperity be taken."
Samuel Johnson 'Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland' 1775
Dr Johnson, one of the world's greatest diarists, launches into this flourish of brilliance after a comment on the poor-quality of windows in the north east of Scotland. His small observation expands our vision to wider horizons. In this book he does also comment on 'the banquets of the rich' and is well versed in the philosophy of the day but he emphasises the need not to overlook significant detail. Johnson reminds us to focus on the everyday, or the 'common life'. That is a sentiment I try and emulate in my work but there is a great temptation to go for the big events.
To all photographers, writers and other artists trying to make sense of their country in significant times please read this and learn. Maybe my bias is the opposite and I need to learn to attend more banquets of the rich? All invitations welcome.
"Only a ginger can call another ginger ginger." Tim Michin 'Prejudice'
A red-haired child's mother corrected me saying ginger is a spice not a colour. The word, it seems, has become a curse. But the hair colour isn't red or orange or yellow or copper or auburn, the colour is ginger but use the word carefully. All hair from strawberry blonde to deep red lies on the ginger spectrum but I can say that because I am a ginger!
What’s it like being ginger?
Cue lots of abuse and online trolling. Gingers are common fodder for idiots. Gingers, they tell us, are stupid, ugly or degenerate. Its a recessive gene so by extension we are mutants in the bad sense. Not in the mutant hero, super-powered, X-men style mutants. If we could do that stuff no one would mess with us. All we can do is look great and reflect the sun with our porcelain skin.
Scotland has the highest percentage of ginger people in the world. Recently it was announced that Edinburgh is the world capital of ginger hair with 40% of the population carrying the gene. Only 13% actually have the blessed hair so we are still a small minority and a group that needs documented.
Stories tend to be clinical and focus on the genetic basis of the colour, its impending extinction (not true by the way) or the enduring cultural persecution. I want to build on that and make this personal. This story is asking ginger people in Scotland what its like to live with the rarest hair colour on planet earth.
Heirs of historical hair
Scotland is synonymous with ginger hair. The 1st century historian Tacitus referred to the people in this land as “red-haired”. Clearly he wasn't ginger. In the Scottish National galleries I noticed paintings of a ginger Jesus and Mary (see these examples by Bottichelli, Poussin and Raphael ). I asked a member of staff why Jesus had ginger hair but they didnt know. Perhaps they were bought by patriotic Scots? I have been told a number of theories- its because the paint pigment degrades or its a visual trick to draw the eye or its a crown of gold to show symbolic importance.
That moment triggered this project. I am interested in asking what's so special, or not, about being ginger in Scotland today.
Be part of the story
"I’d say I’m British because dad is Irish, mum is Scottish and I was born in England. I have lived in Scotland for nine years. I don’t know what I am!" Caitlin, 20, Dumfries
"People ask why is your hair that colour? Do you drink a lot of Irn-Bru? Mum says its very helpful to find me in a crowd. No-one in my school year has red hair which means I could get in trouble because I am easy to spot." Stewart, 9, East Kilbride
"I describe my hair as highland auburn but it only appears in my beard. A few mates have it and our dog- Pixie the destroyer. She is a rehome and was going to be put down. I wanted a dog to go with my beard!" Dez, 31, Rothes
"Luckily, I have never had a problem with bullying and it was more a problem with my mum. She didn't like two girls with red hair and kept it short if possible.
“Really?”, she would say “you can’t wear that colour, it will clash with your hair!” Kirsty, 45, Perth
"People usually say we have a fiery temper but I have always been the opposite, level-headed and calm and friendly. My experience is most red heads are quite placid, keeping their heads below the parapet." Davie, 43, Glasgow
We are looking for more gingers to be part of this story. If you are ginger and live in Scotland there are sessions happening across the country in the coming months. Get in touch: email@example.com
Still life (natur mort) is a grimly accurate description of this dead Bee-eater lying on a vet’s steel table. Found at Xemxija on the island of Malta, 20th April 2011 the cause of death was due to gunshot injury on its left side. Hundreds of thousands of birds return north every spring from Africa and are greeted with a storm of gunfire. Three main avian motorways guide birds across the Mediterranean, over nation’s with unsustainable hunting cultures. Malta is a stepping stone on the central route that continues up through Italy. Gibraltar and Cyprus mark the western and eastern flyways, respectively. This work documented the birdwatchers who watch the hunters watching the birds on Birdlife Malta's Spring Watch camps. Malta’s 11,000 permitted hunters give the island the highest per head in Europe backed by a powerful political lobby with guns! No where is birdwatching so countercultural and subversive. In northern Europe millions are spent on habitat conservation yet birds may never return. Turtle dove and quail can be shot in limited numbers but everything from eagles to herons are been seen falling from the sky every spring.
Many millions set out into the world of photography. Thousands linger in the limbo of technical forums, many content themselves to sit and contemplate the aesthetic. But to be a rounded and complete practitioner you must cast out into the dangerous waters of meaning. Even the word will have postmodernists throwing up over board.
There are three main areas involved in making the perfect picture. Two are familiar- the technical and the aesthetic. How to take it and what it looks like. The third is the elusive and often ignored element of meaning. This trinity allows us to dissect and judge the near-infinite possibilities of photography. We develop and improve our work advancing toward the centre where the three elements find balance. We may not ever find perfection but some images close to transcendent. In them this trinity holds together.
Techniphobes are people who value the idea more than the machinery. Thoughts are more valuable than things. Concepts more than contraptions.
At the other extreme, we have the technophilic photographers, often found in camera clubs and on-line forums. Focal length and megapixels are the two iron-fanged snares that trap herds of photographic enthusiasts early on. And generally the male sex. I know many brilliant women photographers, many feisty feminists who could attack this observation but it seems to hold true so they don’t. This is not to say women don’t learn technical practice, they do but they use it to make pictures rather getting lens envy. Men, and some women, love talking about the latest technology- f-stops, photoshop plugins or those age-old existentialist problems- Canon or Nikon? Mac or PC? Analogue or digital? So let’s resolve this once and for all and move on- Canon, Mac and both.
Technical mastery deepens the artistic endeavour and is a vital foundation and the driver of innovation. This must become second-nature, the camera becomes something to look through rather than our adversary. In one day I can take photo newbies from ignorance to shooting manual on complex DSLRs not by Jedi mind tricks alone but by clearly outlining the interplay of light through the shutter, aperture and on the sensor. There is delight in this understanding and so begins the journey of photography. This technical discipline is essential.
The first element we notice in a photograph- what it looks like. The composition of objects in the frame, the balance and tone of colour, placing of focus, motion and direction of light and choice of subject. All work together to produce the visual element of a work but it is not just gloss on the surface.
Recently, the glass on my cooker hob cracked. The warranty people refused to fix it because the damage was “cosmetic” not “functional”. So I asked, if I remove the glass can I cook my quails eggs? “No!” they exclaimed in shock at my refined but dangerous ways. “Well its functional then?” I replied, shocked by the power of my logic. My point is this- the look of an image is functional not cosmetic.
The aesthetic conveys both physical and emotional information. The awesome mountainscape is both awesome (emotional) and mountainous (physical). The angry protesters are both angry (emotional) and protestors (physical).
The aesthetic conveys this function across a range of subtle levels. Often we see the aesthetic as the thin gloss to bring out the technical skill. Often it is the motive to take a shot- “that looks nice!”. But the aesthetic also functions as narrative.
Within this realm we talk of people having an ‘eye’ for photography. A natural gift at seeing what is beautiful and arranging it in the frame to communicate that to the viewer. But I think it can be learned too. We may need to unlearn our styles.
Photography is about our worldview and it is deeply personal. The best actors can understand the subject they are imitating but they also interpret. But if we imitate another photographer’s style by aesthetics alone we are more like a poor mime serving canapés at a party. If we connect to the photographer's thinking we can avoid plagarism and find our own voice.
Aesthetic has a narrative function, it can be learned and is the second member of our photographic trinity.
“We don’t make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies, we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved” Ansel Adams
This is Meaning with a big M building on the emotional and physical meaning the aesthetic has already conveyed. This is the forethought or driving motive behind all our work. It may be simply “I think that looks nice, do you agree?”. Or “thousands of innocent families are dying in civil war”. Meaning matters to give photography its power.
Photojournalism and fine art are close kin in this regard. The only tangible difference seems their family tree or the context in which they work (publication or exhibition). Their lives overlap.
If I can return to my vomiting postmodernist for a moment, who may have died at my continued assertion of a perfect standard. The aesthetic is the design of the ship that helps it function The technical practice is the engineering that holds it all together. Meaning is the rudder and sails to direct us to the destination of the perfect picture.
Meaning drives the photographic endeavour. Without meaning people perish. And so does art.
When a taxi driver in China asked me if Scotland was to be independent I thought I had missed some big news. That was 2007 when the SNP (Scottish National Party) had managed a landslide victory in a parliamentary system designed to prevent one party majorities. The SNP were surprised, Alex Salmond was surprised but my Chengdu driver was not. He had seen Braveheart.
Everyone I meet traveling has seen Braveheart. It's my passport to acceptance globally, except in England. The movie may lack historicity but it resonates with human desire for freedom, whatever that means.
Here lies my current dilemma. I want to tell Scotland's story to a world that is passionate about the Scotish people but I fear they are in love with a fiction. My new work is motivated by the desire to connect to the deeper story without dulling the senses using works like historical or nuanced or stereotypes. I also want to avoid the temptation to cry 'Freedom!' while wearing my kilt to satisfy the appetites of publications.
Editors often come at Scottish stories from two extremes- the beautiful or the beastly. The beautiful involves the romantic land of film and fiction. The noble savage and their wild world epitomised by Braveheart. Severed heads and war are beautiful in this definition. Which is odd, I agree.
The beastly side of Scotland comes in the form of alcohol, drugs and poverty. We have world records in this kind of thing and its chronically depressing. A decade in Glasgow have shown me all the worst areas and confronted me with hard questions as a fellow citizen. But I have seen stories of hope and humanity in adversity. People make Glasgow the marketers tell us. They are right but not every person will make it into the advertising or should. But my work can include them.
Consider the photo above which is similarly ambiguous. Is it a statement of fact or a rallying call to revolution? I assume they mean revolution but a lack of exclamation mark doesn't help. The revolution shall not be punctuated. Tolerance in society is marked by a lack of definition, we agree on statements but don't actually ask what they really believe.
My ambition is to define Scotland connecting both the beautiful and beastly to show how often both are present in the land. I have been surprised, shocked and amazed by the deeper national story. The landscape is where the culture was born and where it is continually reformed. Culture is not a static thing or a museum piece. Landscapes likewise change. Landscape photography tends to focus on natural beauty but I see no Scottish landscape devoid of human influence. My work, I hope, will capture landscapes that display the national story from historical battles to the significant landscapes today where people live, work and explore.
The land offers the narrative to ask who are the Scots today? What landscapes tell Scotland’s story? Submit suggestions or support the work here: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Checking your availability for a trip to Peru* next week?”
Freelancers, I am told, need to be Able, Affable and Available. I got that from a doctor, who probably got it from a businessman who I expect got it from a freelancer. The sad reality is- if you are available the other two don’t really matter. There are gaps needing filled and your responsive frame can be mashed to fit. If you are not availablethe conversation is over. So whether a goodie or a baddie, you have to ask what happens when you have plans?
Do I answer:
A. “Yes!” I will change everything because it sounds amazing. Or because I need the work.
B. “No!” I am sorry I am working on a self-initiated stories that might become nothing but dust in my hands. Or I need to worm my dog that week or be at a cousin's wedding.
C. “I’m interested!” Wait and see if it will actually happen, plan how to change everything and try somehow to juggle meantime to maintain peace and harmony in the world.
I find C the hardest. There are clients I will drop everything to work with and try and keep the door open as long as possible. At some stage we need to arrive at A or B but until then I have to maintain availability. I may turn away work or cancel personal appointments but that's my choice. Waiting is frustrating but its the cost of being freelance. I wish I had a softer solution for you but suck it up champ, that’s life!
*insert country here. I have never been or asked to be in Peru but would like to go.
A new website brings a flurry of interest from across the world but among all the pie charts and line graphs in my analytical war room I discovered something surprising this week- that I was big in India. Thanks to a portrait of super megastar A.R.Rahman and his fans.
He has sold more records than the Beatles or Elvis and he is still going strong. Most people in UK will know him, if they do, for his soundtracks including the Oscar-winning 'Slumdog millionaire'. One article described this “Mozart of Mumbai” as the “most prolific recording artist in the world”. And by extension the universe. Superlatives scare me before a shoot so I only glanced briefly at a biography before I met the man.
The portrait was scheduled in a hotel after the journalist's interview. I arrived early, chose a suitable suite and waited for my allotted time. The limiting factor in most shoots is the subject and how much time and effort they bring to the shoot so preparation is key. The brief was brief- use a colourful background because the paper is pink in colour. Lighting was simple- a flash head shot through white umbrella. But what about the subject?
Many have attested that fame makes people monstrous. Mind you, so can obscurity. Gladly AR was courtesy and very obliging. We chatted about cameras (he uses Canon if you must know) but I refrained from sharing my ambition to star in a Bollywood film. Its a new but true ambition.
I can’t claim to have looked into his soul but I discovered this- he is refreshingly normal. I don't mean it as an insult, his musical talent is clearly stellar. But he behaves like he is a human and he knows you are one too. That is the highest praise I can give. That must explain why he has legions of adoring fans across cyber space, the same fans who repost my work across their sites.
Freelancers must learn quickly to define time off or else they will burnout. Everything is work or nothing is work. We will be trapped by work rather than liberated for work.
As a freelance I am always trying to create the kind of work that will maintain my passion under pressure. When time, money and life constrain the creative instinct. The experience is restorative and pushes me forward.
I experienced the restoration this weekend on a wind-blasted frozen expanse. The conditions in the highlands are remarkable for skiing this year so me, my wife, my best man and his family ventured onto Cairngorm mountain. At the top, I wrestled against gales to take a light meter reading, adjusting the focus with my gloves and took a few clunking exposures on my hassleblad. I felt alive, like I was made to do this. I returned home ready for the week with another picture in the bag for one of my current Scotland stories. I felt I had put the freedom back into freelance.
Free doesn't refer to fees, as some cheeky people think. So what does it mean? Free allows us to make the kind of work that keeps us passionate in busy times when deadlines all collide and we can't board the private jet for Mauritius. Work that makes us feel alive. Work that can be both restful and useful. And usually work we care about.
Free also can involve asking your wife to carry the camera bag because you are a novice skier and keep falling. Thanks love!
Seventy politicians, civil servants and business people are standing trial in Malawi charged with stealing $100 million (£60 million) of government money months before a general election in May 2014. Foreign powers, who provide 40% of the nation’s budget, the largest part from the UK, are withholding $150 million in foreign aid until this scandal (dubbed 'Cashgate') has been resolved. Below this depressing crisis, however, lie the promising shoots of a grassroots movement that is bringing hope to vulnerable families is one of Africa’s poorest nations.
Tumpe Kire was 10 when she was sold to pay for her own medical bills. Her father, unable to pay the 20,000 kwacha (£30) fee, gave his ill daughter to the traditional healer to settle the bill. For six months she lived and laboured for the man; the length of time which, by local custom, she should have qualified as the healer’s wife. Before this happened, a local Mother and Father group discussed the case and pressurised the father to sell some of his livestock to buy his daughter back. This is but one example of the pioneering work by the Livingstonia Synod Aids Program (LISAP), a local charity, which focussed on helping the 16,000 children most at risk from underage marriage, child labour and other harmful traditional practices in northern Malawi. Word is spreading with more and more community groups keen to see change.
Against unenviable odds, one woman and her small team of workers have a successful solution that appears tantalisingly simple- showing local people how to take action for themselves. Mphatso Nguluwe began her work when she came upon a girl selling home-made beer at a road side. The former nurse was working for local humanitarian charity LISAP when she saw the need to go deeper to challenge the traditional beliefs that lock children into the cycle of poverty associated with HIV/Aids in the most remote regions. Underage marriage traditions predate the arrival of missionary explorer Dr David Livingstone- the man who ‘discovered’ Lake Malawi over 150 years ago. This natural wonder covers a quarter of Malawi’s surface area and draws tourists to watch from the shore as fishermen undertake their nightly commute into dangerous waters over the horizon. Below the surface of this placid scene, however, lie stories of children as young as nine paddling to the point of exhaustion through lethal offshore currents.
The recent discovery of oil in the lake bed underlines the fact that this small country is blessed with an abundance of riches. But Malawi's majority subsistence farming population remains untouched by the profits from exports of tobacco, tea and sugar. Development is stunted by systemic poverty as harmful traditional beliefs prevent children from going to school, sometimes enslaving them in early marriages. Mother and Father groups are part of the Girls and Boys Empowerment project, revolutionising the lives of children through positive pressure of parents and life skills education for children. Elders and local chiefs are encouraged to create bylaws that allow the necessary leverage to bring about change. Chief Mwakaboko, a strong opponent won round to Mphatso’s vision, knew of only five educated women in his area when this work began. Now he hopes that this will change. “They are not putting money in their pockets but putting money with the people” he says encouragingly.
Ronnie’s eyes glaze over as heroin creeps into his brain. Addiction is one story photographer’s are drawn to. It is a graphic horror too easily exploited. I was reluctant about doing this story but was convinced by a good friend, himself a former addict. I wanted to show the hollow life in which individuals are trapped and which the addicts so eloquently describe. It was a cold January day when I met Ronnie and his flatmate Dave. They had signed up to a detox programme and were being documented through the process. We sat around watching daytime TV quiz shows, drank tea and went to the supermarket with this calm normality interspersed by drug sessions. The drugs were the symptom of a deeper problem- for Ronnie the boredom of unemployment in a former mining town. Drugs offered escape and a community. Heroin numbs the user’s emotions like ice and the thaw of detox brings a flood of emotions, guilt and fear. The terror drives them back to be comfortably numb.
“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Winston Churchill
The power of persistence is vital as an independent photographer. After a month in the Zambian bush I felt ready to move on. In many ways it was an ideal place to live but the incessant diet of beans and omelettes combined with fatigue had affected my mind. Aware of this I forced myself to get out of bed on the last morning. One last shot of Kasanka’s bats was needed. Edmund fired up the plane and took us above the canopy. With the door off, cool air filling the cabin before the sun burst through the clouds. The peat land had been slowly smouldering for weeks and its smoke created a diffuse light and a sweet, smoky smell. I was astounded but kept shooting. One of those rare moments you work for. Often the best pictures come right at the end when you are ready to give up. Note to self never give up, never give in!
To suggest a picture please email: email@example.com
For my latest work on Scotland I am returning to my roots- shooting film. And this is why...
1. to see
A wise man once said, “If you see the picture you have already missed it.”. Maybe it was a woman who said that. Either way its wise and tell us that photography is about predicting the moment. Its all about timing and being ready. The discipline of having 12 frames before changing a film forces brevity in picture making. We begin editing long before we press the shutter. Analogue film forces us to look up and look out from the camera rather than hunching chimp-like over the screen looking for digital fleas.
2. to be
The most famous photographic mantra is “f8 and be there”. But with digi we are tempted to f8 and blog more. Our minds are distracted by the outcomes of social networking even in the most remote parts of the world. I was the first Westerner to email from a remote village in China's Qinghai province after they received a new phone aerial. The local Tibetans gained a data network that is the envy of Glasgow residents but something was lost for the traveller. Don’t get me wrong, the internet does make life better and is a great way to get the stories out there but it has gone too far where we forget what it is to be. This mindfulness of shooting analogue will inform my digital work- to f8 and actually be there.
3. to slow down
The Italians have the slow food movement to savour the flavour and make central the social function of eating. My therapy in a frantic world is the slow photo movement. I may have just started that movement now. Using film today is the photographic equivalent of speed bumps on roads. We spend thousands of years evolving our roads to become smoother and slicker so we have increasing efficiency and then some fool puts massive obstacles in your way to slow you down. But we do it because people are more important than simple efficiency. Viewing people as machines tends to have been harmful to humanity. Slowing down may actually be beneficial?
4. to take fewer bad photographs
If you take fewer frames you will take fewer bad ones, right? Even with percentages, film is still the winner. On a shoot with 1000 frames, let's say, my first edit gets me down to 100 then I can whittle it down to 10-30 depending on client and how good a day it was. Thats 1-3% success rate. With film I expect 1 or 2 good ones in each roll of 12- thats at least 8%. Film increased efficiency by 800% just by slowing down! BOOM!
5. to enjoy life more
A Malawian driver said how it must be wonderful in the UK because of our greater comfort and healthcare. I agreed its a privilege to have free cures for preventable diseases but we Brits don’t enjoy it and instead fill our time with moans about being busier and more stressed than before. The UK has an epidemic of stress-related disease and the irony is Mr Malawi (not his real name) was the most pleasant, relaxed but industrious man I had met in months. He drove slowly but we still got there on time. Somewhere between Malawi’s pace and that of the UK could work. Maybe the pace of an independent Scotland? Or maybe not.
6. to celebrate imperfection
What analogue lacks in electronic wizardry it makes up in soul. Sorry if that sounds fuzzy but it is true. Like canned salmon compared to a fresh one wrestled from the Highlands' finest rivers. The result tastes better somehow. Or playing a vinyl record compared to a pristine mp3. The imperfect crackles and pops offer a more authentic rendition of reality in some respects. Remember in The Matrix they had to add flaws to the programme because people were getting suspicious? Ergo...Vis a vie...concordently!
7 to be cool
Film is objectively cooler than digital. This fact is based on the evidence that my local lab process scores of rolls per week thanks to the trendy students in Glasgow’s west end. Mind you, paying £11 per roll of E6 is uncool. Thats where the analogue mail service works better than its digital brother.
Seven answers to the first question every photographer must ask themselves.
Werner Hertzog’s epic Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the paintings of people 30,000 years ago and how they saw value and purpose in visual art. Creativity appears to be a universal and fundamental human instinct. One reviewer commented- the Chauvet people of southern France found meaning in something bigger because anthropos is the “upward looking one” from which we get anthropology, the study of who or what we look up to. Today, photography offers the quickest method for discovering where people find meaning, what intrigues and defines them. Arguably photography its the most ubiquitous form of human creativity in the 21st century. But creativity isn't necessarily a good thing. The inventor of dynamite realised the destructive legacy of his work and decided to leave a more life-affirming form of creativity. So, Alfred Nobel created global prizes that continue to inspire human flourishing. Will our creativity benefit or inhibit life? Will our work bring hope or cynicism?
Even cynics love being cynical. Consider for a moment the object of your affections. A person, a thing or pleasure? Look at your photographs. What are you drawn to? Is it the subject, the aesthetic, the process or the personal discovery? There is a pleasure in creativity which is addictive and hard to unpick. Love of creating or communicating can be the end in itself. Perhaps love for the subject of your work is the key motivator? Or you love praise as measured in Facebook likes or Guggenheim fellowships? Love is perhaps the strongest motivating factor but its hard to dissect.
Kills cats but is more beneficial to people. We ask questions looking for answers. Some answers will elude us but curiosity is another unshakeable urge. People often love chatting about what they know and showing others what they don’t. But at its best we want to share what we care about and think is good so others may appreciate it too. Curiosity is not the end in itself but the direction to travel in. The proverb writer may have been warning humans against the dangers of curiosity or maybe she was teaching us to look after our cats? Or at least to be prepared to film their hilarious antics for youtube?
The news business has taught me there is something wrong in the world. There is suffering and pain, from political states down to personal relationships. We ask, we create and we think to overcome and adapt the world to make it better. Science tells us entropy is increasing, we will be swallowed by the sun and the universe will burn out to death. But in the meantime we want to make the journey to that heat death a little more enjoyable. Do something good for others, make a change. Photography helps inform, testify and explain our world. Most effectively it acts to change my stupid mind toward something better. Ultimately that is all I have power over- my mind- but even that is a battle!
Photojournalism is a particularly vital strand of photography, the root from which branches grew. Early pioneers documented the world, like realist painters, before creating more expressive and impressionistic styles but it was orginally rooted in record. Photojournalism gives voice to the weak and oppressed, as a unavoidable witness to their leaders and oppressors. Perhaps we are driven to right some wrong, raise a voice of dissent or remember the overlooked. Revenge and retribution are hugely popular motivations for life but so are restoration and redemption. How will we yield the power given to us?
A world-class war correspondent once commented that most journalism students she taught were hoping to be rich and famous. I laughed and thought she was joking. Her face suggested she wished she was. A few do achieve this but most don't. Is greed good for art or journalism? Personally my worst work has come from hunting money. The images, like the paper they are printed on, are wafer thin and functional, forgettable and superficial. As such the work only connects at a superficial level. But money is very good when I need to pay for a roof, food and the occasion round of golf. Money helps you raise the profile of meaninful work, put on exhibits and keep going! In large quantities it can also bring fame, that fickle and unfaithful fruit tree Nick Drake sang about.
Social networking puts us at the centre of the universe and makes us feel nice. Well for a while, then we are forgotten about and we feel sad. I have seen many use fame to reach a vast audience and lobby for good but others crave it to support a brittle ego. In reality if you want lots of likes put up a new baby pic or a cute kitten or a cloud that looks like Elvis. The problem with fame as a key motivation is the way it will eat away at the photographer's artistic soul and play to the gallery. When photographers are driven by their own passion (which could rightly be for kittens or clouds) it shows up in their work and the viewer will be swept along in your excitement.
On discovering the noble profession to which I am called, people always ask "What kind of photographer are you?" After some um-ing and ah-ing and wondering how to define myself I might reply- "I’m a poor/ I am an amazing/ I am an amazingly poor photographer”. They laugh. Or stare. Then they try again, "What kind of things do you take photos of? Weddings? Or wars? Or wildlife?" (If you really want to know then read my profile) But I think people miss the more interesting question, one that is far more revealing- why are you a photographer?
Our lives are limited
Steve Jobs gave this sage advice to encourage a class of the world’s most promising graduates:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life” (1)
Stay with me on this, it a sobering but liberating truth. Jobs was asking the 'why' question - "Why will you do what you are planning on doing?" We don’t want to admit it and I wish it wasn’t so but its the ultimate statistic- 100% of us die. And that will change the way we work if we resist the urge to run from the fact. Your photographs are numbered. Maybe its one thousandth of a second or one thousand million frames but there is a day when what you will shoot will be your parting shot.
The best photographers I know of, dead or alive, all had a clear idea of what they were about. They have known where they have come from and where they are going. And that shaped their work. To survive as a professional you need a drive- something bigger to strive for. And that’s what I am getting at.
What pushes you to overcome the inevitable roadblocks and rejections. And where will that drive take you? What is driving you and where is it taking you?
I mean this lovingly. With a disembodied, electronic kind-of-love. Not like the worried parents or dismissive editor wondering why are you a photographer? The ‘why’ question is an antidote to artistic stagnation, mediocrity and produce your best work. So, why do you take photographs?
I ask it daily. Its fundamental to everything I do. This simple question will change how you photograph, where you photograph and what you photograph. Why are you a photographer?
In the digital world its always better to see people in person. And the quickest way to get around them in Paris is by scooter. Colin from Rea said he has been driving these streets since he was 12 and managed to squeeze between trucks, wing mirrors and pedestrians like a pro. My hierarchy for contact, if you are interested and from best to worst: in person, video call, phone, email, twitter, text, facebook.