Speaking about myself

توم يتحدث عن نفسه

Art in the Dark, Western Park, Auckland
(The Arabic means, I believe, ‘speaking about myself’, the title of a piece I wrote for Hamdan International Photography Award in 2020. This is an edited, revised version.)

Many years ago, two journalists came to interview me. They asked the usual questions: who inspired me; what was my favourite work, and so on. After an hour or so, they reviewed their notes. They looked at me, puzzled.

‘Do you know you haven’t mentioned photography! Not even once!’

The explanation they heard was that photography for me is not the end; it is the beginning. Photography is not about the final image but about everything that it initiates. If photography is the end of what you do, then what you hold in your hands are only photographs. If it’s the beginning, they can take you where you might never otherwise go.

Photography has taken me into the microscopic worlds of tiny insects. It has taken me into the homes of great artists. It has pushed aside a fly-covered blanket leading to a mud-floor hut. It has connected me with strangers. Above all, photography is a journey of continuous learning. It has made me learn more about science, made me understand more about people, pushed me into history, and it has opened my eyes to life.

One way to explain what this means is to share my photographic habits with you. First I tell you about three things that I try to avoid, then I share three ideas that I try to follow.

Avoid rules

Photography is not a sport or game; there are no rules. If you want your photos to look like everyone else’s, then it makes sense to follow the same rules as they do. Rules help make life flow smoothly, but the nature of artistic creation is disruption.

Some teachers use rules to control their students, to limit adventurism. Any instruction that begins ‘Never ….’ or ‘Always …” or ‘You should ….” are the harbinger of a rule. Rules of composition. Rules about correct exposure. Rules about checking the histogram. Following these rules may make you feel safe. They give you comfort that you doing the right thing, but whether that’s the same as doing what is right for you, is entirely another matter.

Learn the difference between following instructions and following rules. In the beginning, it helps to follow instructions. But it is good not to make a habit of following rules.

Avoid the easy

It’s taken many years to learn that the easy way usually works out to be the hardest path. I know now to avoid the easy solution. For example, following rules is easier than going your own way. It’s easier to buy a new camera to improve your photography than making 10,000 new images. It’s easier to make work that you know will be accepted than to make images you really believe in.

Remember: a trap is made to be easy to enter. If a problem looks too easy, I get suspicious. I think ‘Wait; there must be a harder way to do this.’ For example, I use a copy stand with two lights that are excellent. It’s easy to use. But the lighting is always the same. To make a variety, I added some reflectors, some diffusers. Then I accepted that I was being lazy; it was too easy. Now I use six different light sources to vary light quality, angle, colour.

Avoid doubt

Self-doubt has prevented the creation of more great images than all the mistakes and technical failures by photographers put together. We have all experienced it. We hold back from making a photograph: we think our ideas are silly or not original, we hear a voice of mockery in our head. These are all signs that your ego is interfering with your spirit: your sense of self-esteem is overpowering the risk-taking that creativity needs.
Remember that while fear can’t stop you from dying, it can prevent you from living. The way to deal with feelings and words that hold you back is not to fight them, but to acknowledge them and face them. Once, in Tajikistan, I was photographing in a very remote valley. It was beautiful, and I was making black-and-white landscapes. I could hear the voices and even see the faces of colleagues (ugh!) from my university. They were mocking me for my ‘pathetic’ work. I tried to ignore these voices but they grew louder and more distracting. Then I got angry.

I said ‘I’ve had enough of this. I don’t care what you think. I like what I do. You’ve had your say. Now leave me alone!’

And, to my surprise, it worked.

Now, here are three habits that I try to keep.

Respect structure

Not paying attention to rules doesn’t mean you ignore structure. This means respecting the way things are. Black-and-white tones can do visual things that colour cannot. And colour in images can do things that black-and-white cannot. The picture frame is the foundation for all that we do, so how we compose images takes place within its straight lines, its square corners. Not only images, but books, language — and everything else — all have a structure that is part of their nature.

Recently, I photographed random effects for a new exhibition. Drops of ink, fallen petals, bits of paper and old prints just scattered about. I also tried placing bigger items at odd angles and distances. But I found that they refused to work. Anything that referenced the picture frame needed to be exactly parallel. Even when working with random effects, some structure was needed for the image to work.

Listen to the quiet voice

The modern world is loud with everything and everyone trying to get your attention. And that’s mostly because they want your money. We all have loud voices in our heads telling us to be more efficient, to earn more, to live better, work faster, be more creative. Under all that clamour is a small voice, the voice of your true self. It is recognised in all the wise traditions of the world that until you pay attention to that voice, your work on earth will only be an empty dream or unfulfilling at best.

It’s hard to believe now, but back in 1999, when I started using digital cameras, the voices telling me I was wasting my time and money were very loud indeed, very insistent. Best friends were openly dismissive. Even in 2002, when my Digital Photographer’s Handbook was published, most of my professional photographer friends were still sceptical, still holding back. It was hard work to hold my attention to the little voice that said ‘Don’t listen. Just do it!’

Leave things better

At its heart, art is about making the world a better place. That is what music, poetry, painting and photography are for. So it is not a good idea to do harm in the process of making a photograph. It is not a good idea to exploit anyone, deceive or do any wrong just to get the shot you want. The bad action takes away any good created by the photograph.

Leaving things better than when I found them is also why I photograph, why I teach, and write, and share what I can. It is what I wish my pictures to communicate, and it is what I hope this short article does for you.

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