Shelter, Shanklin, IoW
Recently I had lunch with a friend in London. She’s from Penang, went to college in the US, speaks French and now works for a relief organisation in Central Africa. She just returned from a quick home visit and was passing through London. She did spend a couple of years living and working here and I asked apart from seeing old friends, why she needed to drop by London. ‘Centering’, she said. Putting things into order and perspective. Taking stock I guess. London, is a familiar place. When she first arrived in London, she hated the cold, dark and wet weather, the short winter days, the reserved British, the stodgy food and the exorbitant prices you have to pay for anything decent to eat. London itself never change. Londoners do.
Anyway, I did some thinking whilst riding home on the tube and wondering how this phrase ‘centering’ would relate to photography and one’s approach to it, in a most pragmatic way. It would have to be a personal one, but any kind of ‘semi-theory’ would and must apply universally to prove it true. A quick google of the word in photography returned many articles about composition and basic photography rules, and about the rights and wrongs in aesthetics, portraiture etc, which wasn’t what I was searching for. No, not the practical aspects of the word.
Many photographers I know are seeking the ‘holy grail’ answer to ‘better pictures’. ‘How do I take good pictures’, ‘find good stories’. I read somewhere recently that to make interesting pictures, you have got to be an interesting person. If you do not have interest in your subject, be it a person, community or a story idea, then how are you going to get into the situation of making an in-depth image about it. For keen photographers, taking workshops, attending talks and seminars do help. Learning from your peers and more established photographers will help open your eyes to new methods of working, fresh ideas, and opportunities. However, one mustn’t loose sight to the fact that it will be yourself that will have to make the change, once your instructor or mentor has left, and the workshop is over.
This is about ‘centering’.
Centering is about gathering your thoughts and ideas, into one’s mind, and accepting what is new and understanding your own skill set, ability and determination to progress as a photographer. It is little about ‘moving on’ which is a phrase I often hear. “Let’s move on and do something new”. No, in fact, let’s stay put. Think through your projects and ideas, from the past, and see whether they can be developed or cast away. In today’s fast paced online world, we tend to only want to receive “Likes” and gain followers but are unwilling to invest a little time and effort in self-discovery and education. Until you know what makes you tick, your works will only be a reinterpretation of others, of the familiar and the cliché, and does not have your own ‘stamp’ on them.
What is this so-called ‘personal style’ or visual signature’ that so many mentors in workshops bang on about developing, then ? Hell, if I know the answer. I think this is an often misquoted and misunderstood phrase. One cannot ‘develop’ a style if one has no style. I don’t mean that in the fashion sense, (the images of Sapeurs of the Congo always comes to mind). Visual styles can only come from one’s understanding of their subjects and not vice versa. I mean, only if you know what you are shooting, can you determine a stylistic approach to your photography. Not always, but nearly. They can also develop naturally through trial and error, and experimentation. Digital photography and post-shoot editing software has made it easier, and hence film shooters think different in this approach to visual styles. The ‘shoot first, fix later’ methodology today allows photographers to make imprecise decisions, and hence, their work is less tight than film users.
The other aspect of centering is an examination (of sorts) of self. Asking the questions about who you are, what you aim to achieve, what subjects interests you, your ability as a photographer, understanding of the socio-cultural uses of your images amongst your peers and audience, fame or infamy and acceptance issues is a good way to start. This introspective self-examination will make you a better photographer. Honestly. A newer DSLR would not. After all, we can’t all be a Salgado or McCurry. Now that would be a boring place. Wouldn’t it.