A number of images are, at the time of writing, etched in various corners in my mind. (Does a mind have corners? Does that make it a square? Am I, then, thinking inside the box?)
Right, let’s try that again. A number of images are, at the time of writing, etched in my mind. I can’t quite make sense of the ‘where’s and the ‘how’s of the organisation of these images. Lightroom, the photographer’s best friend, is absolutely stunning in that regard. As long as space remains plentiful on your hard drive, nothing catalogues photographs quite the way Lightroom does. With such a precise directory that it searches for and immediately identifies any image file in the deep recesses of your most remote folders, dredges it up, and shows it to you, cheerily asking if you’d like to add it to your Library.
The Creative Cloud is even better. Now all those things archived beautifully by Lightroom exist across devices, across space and across time. I can snap a photograph on my Sony A7, edit it in Lightroom, take a break, head to school, and continue editing on my tablet as I sit in the bus. Magic? Magic.
My mind doesn’t have quite the same capability and capacity to archive everything. Images within its confines take on a more screensaver like quality, lazily drifting about before coming, every so often, into sharp focus.
At the time of writing, though, as I said, a number of images are front and centre. None of them are mine.
Three sets of baju raya, bright and lovely, yellow, orange, blue, a family. Hangers intertwined with the fabrics, just a hint of beautiful chaos, exacerbated further still by the fact that the edges of the cupboard are just, just, out of frame.
A couch, in all its glory, photographed twice – once from wide enough an angle to show all three (three again) seats, and all three (three again) couch cushions, and once more up close and personal, introducing me, introducing us, to the perfect juxtaposition of gentle prints in pinks and creams and the lateral rips that give it character. This is not a couch for a showflat, this is not a couch at a store, this is a couch that has been a couch.
A room illuminated by screen with just enough light to see the pillows, the mattress and its little dent, the duvet, that all come together to form a nest, a refuge. Just enough light, too, to catch a glimpse of the pale blue wall in the back, peppered with pictures, posters and postcards, not quite symmetrical, peppered with perfect, purposeful peeks into the life and times of the mind that built this nest. A photograph is a still, but a hint of musicality lies in the air.
Two photographs, a fan and an air-conditioning unit, up close, caked with dust, both.
Three (three again) pairs of shoes, unassuming, by the door, strewn, not strewn, left in all manner of angles in the way that can only exist in the comfort of home where we find ourselves free of the need for the strictures of proprieties like ensuring that left and right lie parallel.
Another bed, this time sunlit, but much the same as the other in that the trappings of a life in progress line the leftmost edge of the frame. This one’s a little different – does the occupant sleep on the right? There’s no nest here, but then perhaps the occupant’s nest is the entire refuge in which all of these images find a home.
A shelf heavy with well-thumbed books, not in any discernible order to those who look upon it, but in an order that is, I trust, discernible to the individual who guards those books so carefully in the first place. Another shelf, above the couch, with ornaments and artifacts, breathing life into that which already lives. A chair by the window, with hints of another time, another life, peeking gently out from behind.
Now, I myself take a fair few photographs. I have invested considerable amounts of money into my camera, my lenses, memory cards, battery packs. My shots have been on display as far and wide as Melbourne, as Sofia, as Budapest, as Amsterdam. But none of my own images have, in recent times, occupied the foreground of my mind quite like these images here, which have been on my mind since the moment I saw them.
Just a few days ago, I was fortunate to be invited by one of my dear friends to a photography exhibition. The featured artists were each also given the opportunity to speak about their work, not simply as an aesthetic monument, but as a call to action too - tailored, as their exhibits were, to causes close to their hearts - and the presentation of realities with an elegant sharpness.
Each and every one of those photographs resonated with me, and the accompanying text made that resonance echo deeper still.
Even as I appreciated the art before me, and the artistry of God and all His wisdom, grace and love to have allowed the souls that brought it to life to have had the breadth of experience, the perspective, and their own grace, their own love that called them to action, I found myself wondering again what it meant to be a photographer.
Reflecting on my own process was, naturally, the first port of call. What am I doing when I press that little button? When I twist that focus ring? What am I doing when I ask someone to stand where they stand, what am I doing when I zoom in with my feet? What am I doing in Lightroom, why do I adjust hue, saturation, luminance? Am I simply following rules, am I simply adopting a formulaic approach to reverse engineer beautiful things?
A WIDER APERTURE MAKES FOR BETTER PORTRAITS
To have a wider aperture means to allow more light into the lens – this in turn allows for the subject of a photograph to be held at stark contrast to a beautifully (ostensibly) blurred background.
Now why should that be beautiful? Am I taking an easy way out, then? I have 24 million pixels to work with – why should I want to focus only on a fraction? Why do I think this is better?
Perhaps I am, in fact, taking the easy way out. I blur out my backgrounds with beautiful swirling bokeh and spare myself the trouble of having to at all think about where anyone stands.
LEADING LINES FOCUS EYES ON YOUR SUBJECT
Leading lines are exactly what they sound like - lines that lead your audience where you want them to go. Lines exist in nature and in most any man made construct, so it is easy and almost seductive to use them as a crutch. It doesn’t matter if my subject is simply an indeterminate point on the horizon – the lines will do the work for me, will they not? But if my subject is, as I say, an indeterminate point on the horizon, then why exactly am I trying to direct anyone’s eyes anywhere?
LONG EXPOSURES MAKE FOR UNIQUE IMAGES
Professional tier cameras allow for the manual adjustment of shutter speed, with a slower shutter allowing the photographer to capture movement. If you hold the camera perfectly still, moving objects leave trails behind them.
But for what, exactly? Why do we strive to capture movement? Never mind the obvious oxymoron - who decided that this was beautiful?
And if this is some sort of well-established platitude, where does the uniqueness come in?
For that matter, who says uniqueness is for the better anyway?
ADHERE TO THE RULE OF THIRDS
The rule of thirds may as well be called the rule of thumb, such is its ubiquity. Essentially, balance in a photograph comes from ensuring that the key points of focus lie on the intersections between imaginary, arbitrary grid lines. Legend (it may as well be legend) has it that adhering to this rule allows for well composed photographs every single time – never mind that ‘well-composed’ is semantically empty, baseless, and subjective.
Are these rules? Are they tools of the creative? Or are they crutches, canes, shields with which we can defend ourselves from the horrifying spectre of having to synthesise our own ideas, build them up from scratch, and run the risk being the only lovers of our own work?
Three sets of baju raya. Three couch cushions. Three seats. Three pairs of shoes.
No conventional wisdom, no wide-ranging consensus, no data-driven, formulaic shortcuts here. Only the simple truth of experience, beautifully immortalized in a frame.
A fan and an air-conditioning unit, up close, caked with dust, both.
No carefully manicured setting. No painstaking edits to smooth over the rough edges of the facts of the way things are. Only the simple truth of experience, beautifully immortalized in a frame.
Two beds, one sunlit, one screenlit, two rooms, each with the marks and trappings of the lives lived by the ones who call them their safest spaces.
No illusions and no delusions of symmetry. Life doesn’t pack itself into perfect little boxes, so why should we carve ourselves those gridlines? None of that here, only the simple truth of experience, beautifully immortalized in a frame.
Life in all its glory is a layer of dust. Life is asymmetry. Life brings messy sheets and tears on the covers of an old couch.
Life is not a collection of f-stops, bokeh, shutter speeds and grid-lines.
Perhaps my commitment to objective standards of beauty were misguided from the beginning.
A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the cliché. I always thought of this as a function of an image’s ability to far more accurately present descriptions, appealing, as it does, directly to one’s visual faculties rather than relying on mental constructions and gymnastics to imagine and replicate the imprecise ramblings of a secondhand description.
I was missing the simple truth of the matter, the simple fact that images have communicative value, that their power goes far beyond reaching out through the optic nerves and resonating in the relevant corner of the brain. Photographs, taken right, have the potential to tell stories. Photographs, taken right, need not be functions and projections of preconceived, painstakingly programmed and perfected pixels. Photographs, taken right, can simply tell the truths of experience, immortalizing them in frame.
And just as we think of the written word as an avenue for comfort and solace, photographs, too, have that potential. It takes a degree of courage to be epistemically transparent, to invite people to have a look behind our lens and into the eyes that capture every still better than any camera can.
As with all art, the photographer may find himself or herself with more than a talent, more than equipment – the photographer may find himself or herself with a duty to tell stories. Stories of their own. Stories of their communities. Stories of the people who need a little help to make themselves heard.
So, it follows, then, that the photographer must find it within himself or herself to step away from the practices, crutches, confines and shortcuts that all but rubber stamp their self-worth with the promise of likes on Instagram. What value is there to having a few hundred people engage with our photographs and think to themselves “oh, that’s pretty” before scrolling swiftly on? Surely there is infinitely more value if we can create for even one person the deeper stirrings in the soul that lead them to feel at peace. Surely there is infinitely more value if we can create for even one person the deeper stirrings in the soul that make them uncomfortable, confronted with the truth in all its glory, or lack thereof.
Aesthetic value is, no doubt, important – but it should be secondary to communicative value. The photographer must recognize his or her duty to capture life as it is, in all its perfect imperfection, in all its asymmetrical, dusty, gritty glory, and communicate these fundamental truths to a world that may not be ready to listen.
The photographer needs no rules for that. The photographer only needs to answer the call to start telling a story. And as the photographer tells that story, perhaps, within its reaches, someone, somewhere, can find themselves a refuge, a place to call home.