How We Can Adapt and Change The Way We Create Visual Products
One of the pleasures of photography is that it often has little to do with the act of actually taking a photograph. Instead, it is about a whole other set of experiences, interactions and activities which either culminate in the taking of a photograph, or evolve from taking a photograph. In a weird parallel, photography is also evolving along with our very experiences, interactions and activities. Take a moment to reflect on this next time you are hovering over that drone (excuse the pun) in an airport duty free, marveling at a digital adapter for a vintage Hasselblad, or considering how to make room for a Go-Pro camera in your life.
Since I shot these images of "Landy" in Chiang Mai, I have been reflecting on this idea that there is more to photography and that to be a photographer now you have to also be prepared to do something "more". I use this example of Landy, who himself is a bit of a paradox - being at once: a cabaret performer, papaya salad salesman, bon-viveur and local legend. His personal story, which literally evolved into the photo series you see here; by way of a freshly-prepared papaya salad, a moment of dressing up in drag, followed by an impromptu dance. A review of a life and love once lived and lost in Switzerland, accompanied by sipping tea and smoking cigarettes, while poring over a stack of well-thumbed photographs. All of which held treasured memories for him; and with surrealism, depicted a high-life of parties and hedonistic fun. Past glory days in locations which seem foreign due to their splendour and wealth, even by European standards.
Had it not been for ordering up a papaya salad and having a sit-down and a bit of a chat - then none of these images would have been forthcoming. The result of this chance encounter (which was in itself engineered by my decision to get better at photographing strangers, enabled two unlikely people to share personal stories with one another. He with his words and me with my camera. Landy's story is one about having to evolve and to adapt to changes. Mine, in a way, is also about that. It is about the discovery that there can be a different approach to obtaining interesting photographs. That well shot images alone, may not always be enough to re-tell a story properly. It takes more. In this case the images emerge from the kind of pleasant conversation you might get when seated next to someone talkative on a long flight.
"It's not what you do - its the way that you do it!", our elderly Art teacher used to tell us at school, before breaking into some vintage song with similar lyrics. Maybe he had a point? Its easy to be indecisive and confused by the myriads of choice and endless nuances of the technology in photography. Just as it is too easy to get entrenched by the idea: that to be a photographer is solely about producing good photographs. Everyone takes good photographs today. You would have to try hard not to. So I am suggesting in this article, that taking a leaf out of Landy's book may be in order. Be a cabaret entertainer but get real with the cooking skills. Use your knowledge of the world and grow from your experience. Mix it up a bit, like the proverbial papaya salad. Have more than one skill at work.
Landy's story, is of someone who has evolved through the adventures that life has brought him and has managed to consolidate his skills and interests along the way, without losing himself in the process. He has learned to be more. The image of him sitting serenely with his tiara on, best depicts this. He is bathed in an otherworldly-light from the translucent tarpaulin above, catching him in a moment of contented nostalgia. His pose, along with his somewhat bizarre attire, is at first-glance reminiscent of some kind of mythical Thai being,
Photographers these days need to be more. They need to be more than simply a creative who is able to operate their device and process their images. Photographers need to evolve with their craft. Maybe this means unlocking another skill? A skill such as writing, to accompany the images produced? (Certainly this is something I would like to see myself doing). Perhaps this would lead to self-publishing? Starting an online magazine? Setting images to music? Exploring hybrids between photographs and film? Or making films instead? It could mean re-thinking, not just how we take photographs (or make videos) but also reviewing the reasons why we take photographs in the first place?
We all know the story of how the invention of the camera precipitated a huge change in the history of art. A change, witnessed through movements like Cubism, which called for a total review of the purpose of painting and making art. "If the camera can give us a window on the world (and do it immediately) - then why do we need art?", they cried back then. Whereas the cry now seems to be: "The camera is giving us too many windows (and too many similar views) on the world! Why can't we understand the world any better?"
Perhaps we are being forced to completely review the purpose of photography? We are, whether we like it or not, being taken in hand by the 21st century and led towards the creation of visual (?) products which are still within shouting distance of what we once understood that a photographer does.
Dr Spencer Johnson's best-selling business book: "Who Moved My Cheese?" describes in a parable form how we might react and adapt to change in our life and work. The book asserts that complacency and dismissal are not options when we are confronted with change and sees the characters in the story navigating their way around a maze (a representation for the environment we live in), looking for cheese (a metaphor for the good things in life). However, the story simplistically skips around how we might develop a mindset which allows us to enjoy life, even without "cheese".
Photography often has little to do with actually taking a photograph. Instead it is about a whole other set of experiences as well, interactions and activities (that make it like traveling in Johnson's maze). When circumstances create situations where we have no other choice but to adapt and change - isn't it better to let adaption enhance what we can offer, rather than detract from it? Whether that be a rags-to-riches transition or the other way around - there can still be "enhancement". Evolution may help us to discover how to unlock new potential, discover different approaches and ways of working, which can either support or transform our creativity, with or without the cheese.