This fascinating 10 minute video explores the photo, ‘The Young Farmers 1914’ by August Sander.
August Sanders was a German photographer, who aimed to photograph people all over Germany in different professions for his project about people of the twentieth century.
The video poses some ideas about the young men in the photograph, their lives, who they were and what they might have been thinking about their lives ahead, before history intervened.
It’s also about what photography doesn’t tell, and what we can never know by looking at one mere frame of someone’s life.
This video explores the historical context of the photo and of the young men, who in this photo are on their way to a dance, but as the date indicates, are about to get swallowed up into World War 1.
The team at PBS also tracked down what happened to these three men, giving the photo a startling new atmosphere, once you know what lies ahead for them.
The presenter said this and it particularly struck me as a way that we respond to photography:
“Photography can make us feel like we’ve seen things we haven’t really seen. Or know people we’ll never really meet. But a picture is not a life. The Young Farmers is about what the boys don’t know, but also about what we don’t know, and what a picture cannot show us.”
“Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be very silent if no birds sang except the best.” Henry Van Dyke
Greetings from Tuscany! I hope you have all been having a fine holiday season. Mine was filled with delicious food, roaring fires and long walks in the forests and olive groves of the castle grounds we are staying in.
It’s been pretty epic.
We arrived in Italy with no warm weather clothes. Nada. We had been planning to go from Morocco further towards the Equator, not away from it. But forces greater than me (my English children) insisted on an ‘authentic cold Christmas’.
Something, somehow, led us to an unbelievable Christmas in a castle.
On landing in Rome we made mad dashes around the shops, scooping up the warmest clothes we could find – before jumping on a train to take us on a rambling journey north.
We arrived at The Creators Castle at night. The air was fresh and cold, the smell of trees and earthiness, the scent of woodsmoke and the black, black sky with glittering stars greeted us.
It was with much excitement that I awoke the next day, before dawn, to start my photography exploration. I know if I hadn’t got my camera and that desire to capture images, I probably would have stayed in my nice warm bed. Who wouldn’t?
But that itch to get some great images and explore got me out – and I am so grateful I discovered the landscape during that first frosty morning with fog rolling over the valleys and a beautiful pink sunrise.
Of course, I have to give credit to my kids. I would never have willingly thought – Europe in winter! Given that we can go anywhere right now my internal homing device says – stay warm Tony! Stay warm!
Sometimes we all need a little push into a different direction to find something incredible. And of course, like the multitude of photographers before me, I am finding Tuscany a dream to photograph.
Answers on a postcard please – where in Italy isn’t beautiful? I need to know! I have only found fascinating places in Italy so far – this year alone Venice, Naples, the gorgeous towns and villages of the Amalfi coast, Rome and now Tuscany have met my camera’s gaze while I stand behind it in total awe.
This is the time of year when I always feel the desire to reflect. To draw lessons from things I want to improve (and there are always things you want to improve if you’re a creative person and you run a business.)
But before I jump into that world of critiquing, I want to do some celebrating. I don’t want my work and teaching to always be about – what can be better?
I want it, for now, to be – what have we done really brilliantly this year?
I want us all to think about what we have photographed this year, what we have done really well, what we are proud of and what we love about our photography?
A celebration of our photography and our creative spirit
I often get so caught up in taking images and working with them, that I get hooked on what’s next and forget to look at what I’ve done.
I think it means that we are so bent on looking at what is wrong with our images and what we could do better that we often don’t fully appreciate the amazing work that we have done.
It’s definitely not about chasing perfectionism. Yes, we can all improve. But we are thinking about the journey, right? Creativity is a journey.
Our photography is telling us stories about our lives, it’s inspiring the people around us with the focus that we have on our creative habit.
One of the most important parts of any journey is to recognise one’s gifts, talents and effort. Because if you can start the year with a spring in your step, a feeling of I’ve got some photos I’m really proud of! then I think you start with a way more positive, excited and motivated attitude to propel you into doing even more awesome creative things next year.
Plus it’s just so boring to continuously think about what could be better, what can we find that is beautiful and amazing now?
So, before we go any further, I hear a few of you shouting at the back – but my photos weren’t amazing! I didn’t do anything brilliantly!
To which I reply – you need to let go of the desire for perfection, and embrace the concept of imperfection. After all:
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dalí
The gift of imperfection
“Better to do something imperfectly than to do nothing flawlessly.” Robert H. Schuller
So many photographers, artists, writers talk about how their best, finest work is anything but perfect. We are not aiming to be perfect, we are aiming to reflect our stories, our selves, our feelings and our thoughts about the world.
We want to show people what we think is important and interesting to us.
We want to share our adventures and ideas with our friends, the people we love, our communities and tribes that we form, the world at large maybe.
The serenity, the fun and the excitement behind the image is just as important as the execution.
The joy that we share when we show our work and people connect to it.
The joy that we have looking at other people’s work and seeing the things they are passionate about.
It’s connecting to the communities of people who share our passions and who elevate and grow our passions.
Being a creative person, always ready for the new thrill of making something new.
Creativity is as much about what we give to others when we are in the process of making. Whether it’s because what we end up with is interesting or beautiful, or maybe it’s about inspiring people.
I encourage you to do something with your images – print them and hang them in your home, exhibit them, create an online gallery, make a book. But really do something with what you have already done.
I am really fired up at the moment. I had an amazing trip to the Amalfi Coast earlier this month; that place is out of this world beautiful. On Tuesday I went out for a very fun photo walk with my Light Monkeys group – plus I am pitching for a cool new art project and life just seems so awesome in so many ways. It’s even getting a bit warm here in London, lol!
I want to share some of that fired up, inspired energy with you.
Let us begin with the genius that was John Lennon.
You probably know that I love getting inspiration from all kinds of places. Recently I have been thinking about, and listening to, a lot of John Lennon. I have loved his music for years and years – since I was a teenager really. He is one of the few musicians whose words I actually listen to – usually I am one of those people who get absorbed by the rhythm and gheetars!
Not only is Lennon’s music amazing – Tomorrow Never Knows , In My Life, Jealous Guy,Woman are all awesome songs – but I really liked his philosophy on life. His later ideas feel very similar to my own, so I’ve picked 7 thoughts of his and I am putting them with some photos I took in Naples and along the Amalfi Coast last week.
I hope you find it a little espresso-shot of inspiration!
All the quotes below are from John Lennon.
“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”
I am a big fan of a bit of mooching around, daydreaming, getting lost. It’s often at those times when we have our best ideas. And it seems many great scientists have been the same way! See Darwin Was a Slacker, and You Should Be Too.
2. “Creativity is a gift. It doesn’t come through if the air is cluttered.”
I harp on about this all the time – you can’t be in the zone, the flow, when you are preoccupied with your to-do list. Here is a 2 min film from the amazing Jason Silva on Finding Your Creative Flow State that will help.
3. “Music is everybody’s possession. It’s only publishers who think that people own it.”
I photograph a lot of street art and what always strikes me about street art is how it feels like a very generous act. It’s such a temporary medium but it’s a creation – sometimes of epic quality and skill – that might be removed within hours or days.
Art for me is to be shared and taken on in the eyes and hearts and minds of anyone who enjoys it. Creating with this idea of letting out into the world, and not possessing it, for me is very inspiring.
4. “When you do something noble and beautiful and nobody noticed, do not be sad. For the sun every morning is a beautiful spectacle and yet most of the audience still sleeps.”
Don’t create for anyone but yourself!!! When you are thinking about creating with an audience in mind, in my experience it’s never as good as when you are just doing it because you love it and just have that itch to create.
Please yourself, not your audience.
5. “My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all.”
6. “There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.
We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”
This is everything I feel about life right now. No need to add my thoughts, perhaps except to say that meditation really helps me with my whole creativity / free mind / openness. And Lennon meditated too! Great article on Brainpickings about just that.
7. “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”
I’m ending on Lennon’s very famous quote, because this is what I like to say to remind myself to (as they say in Shawshank Redemption) “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Bang – there we go. Hope that short-ish post was fun.
Please let us know what you thought of this post by commenting here on our blog. Sharing it with friends is also very helpful!
If you want to join me on an Italian Photography adventure – take a look at:
Venice for me is an incredible place to photograph, because not only do you have this wonderfully surreal city, set in the lagoons, with its ancient crumbling beauty – but the light is stunning. How the marine layer affects the sunrise is awesome to photograph (see my 2 min film on light & Venice here)
I get incredible reviews from this workshop – which I have run for several years now. Join me and I’ll show you all of my favourite places to shoot the city, how to escape the crowds, how to create a stunning portfolio – as well as getting your tech and creative photo skills well exercised. You will learn tonnes!
“Tony knew exactly where to go to get the best interaction of light and scenery and gave impromptu tutorials on capturing light and shadows, framing the scene, relevant shutter speed etc during our walks. This was an ideal environment to keep the adrenaline flowing and encourage the “Eureka moments”. Breakfast stops, group lunches and the final feedback session oiled the wheels. A thoroughly enjoyable, unforgettable experience.”
I was so sad to hear of John Berger’s passing last week. He was a fascinating man, one whom I had the great pleasure to photograph a few years ago. He was very generous too; he sat with me after our shoot and read to me. I was really touched by his warmth.
It seems like now is a great time to reflect on his ideas and what he has to teach us photographers. I had written an outline of a post about Berger many months ago, and it had sat languishing in my almost-ready folder. So given that I am in Cuba this month with very little internet Di has hauled it out, polished it up and filled in the (many, many) missing gaps.
John Berger was a English writer and artist who, though born in London, spent much of his life living in Europe. He is famously known for his writing about art – his BBC TV show and accompanying book Ways of Seeing, made him well-known in the 1970s. As well as writing plays and fiction, he was also a passionate political writer.
He weaved his way through many genres and I think that is what made his work so thought-provoking; he was both fiercely engaged and fascinated by the world around him. I encourage anyone with an interest in art, photography, culture to read or watch his work.
And I admire anyone who makes the time to improve the life of others, and his thoughts and ideas about photography, art, all of it, were an incredible gift to all of us.
Here I want to talk about some of the ideas I love from Berger, that can help us develop our own ways of seeing, as well as thinking about, our practise of photography.
What I think I get from reading John Berger’s writing is a fascination with stories, and ultimately with the human experience. That there are always different ways to view the world around us.
What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time. John Berger
I love to keep things simple in my life, and in my photography. I love to be ‘clean’ in my approach, not having extraneous elements in my photos, and work always to simplify the shot so that I have the cleanest, strongest composition possible. That’s just me and my style. There are some amazing photographers out there who love to compose more complex compositions. It’s whatever floats your boat.
What I like about Berger’s quote (above), though, was this reminder that photography – like any art form, like how writing is just words – is using the most basic and simple elements. From it, so many incredible things can be formed. So however complex your ideas become about photography, a good way to not get overwhelmed by it all is to remember its inherent simplicity. All photos are made from just ‘light and time’.
To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his. John Berger
To me this shows us how we have to lose the sense of ourselves when we are taking photos of other people. We have to lose our preconceptions and just watch, absorb and try to understand what it is to inhabit the life of the person or people we are photographing.
This is super hard. Think about how much time you spend in your own head thinking about the world from your perspective. Your very subjective perspective formed from all the millions of experiences you’ve had that makes you so unique. Now – how much time do we spend thinking about things from someone else’s view? Jeez, I find it hard to think about the world from my wife’s perspective, let alone a random stranger on the street, and I live with her. Lol!
For me the lesson here is you don’t want to be just photographing through the lens of your own experience: try hard to dismantle that, try and move out of your little bubble.
And in a slightly different way – this aspect of thinking about your subject is particularly relevant when I am travelling in countries where there is a lot of intense poverty, or even when I am in certain parts of London. It’s so easy to wander around photographing ‘atmospheric ruin and decay’, forgetting this is people’s homes and their lives. It’s like a trend, and I see it all the time, forgetting that we are visitors to these places, often much wealthier that the people we are wandering around amongst. That’s when you have to remember to imagine what it’s like being on the other end of the photographer’s lens.
Even when I was writing on art, it was really a way of storytelling – storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people.
Being open to the lives of other people – yes! That’s what we photographers who like photographing other people should really embrace. We have hundreds of opportunities to observe people and their humanity every day. It’s an incredible thing to do, have the chance to really dig beneath the surface of what is going on in other people’s lives.
As Berger also says:
If one thinks of appearances as a frontier, one might say that painters search for messages which cross the frontier.
We are looking to dig beneath the surface, aren’t we? Looking for messages, clues, opportunities that help us see something beyond the appearance of things. Don’t settle for the surface.
The act of going beyond ourselves is the art act. Writing about Cézanne he [Berger] calls it “his love affair, his liaison, with the visible”. Here he is on Rembrandt’s A Woman Bathing: “We are with her, inside the shift she is holding up. Not as voyeurs. Not lecherously, like the elders spying on Susanna. It is simply that we are led, by the tenderness of his love, to inhabit her body’s space.” He quotes Simone Weil: “Love for our neighbour, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius.
To pay attention to the people and the world around us can be a tremendous gift – to see people in a way that is kind, generous and full of genuine interest – that spirit also helps us to create portraits that are full of emotion and interest.
Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through the appearance of whatever it is one is scrutinizing. John Berger
When you take yourself out of your own little bubble and really concentrate on noticing, looking and observing life in closer detail, you become aware of the intense energy that other people, places and things are emitting.
Everything in our world has some form of energy – light, land, weather, the energy of movement between people. Even when it feels like there is an absence of energy – an inert object, a barren landscape, an empty wall.
That energy creates a dialogue, a quality to recognise and to understand within the scene.
Drawing is a constant correction of errors, maybe a great deal of creation is actually that. There is not really a point you’re suddenly aware that there is nothing more to correct, and if you were aware of that it would probably be very bad. John Berger, from this excellent 5 min interview on Newsnight
This is a reminder to all us creatives that creativity is a journey and we are not aiming for perfection, but I think instead, towards the act of exploration. Being creative means you are in constant motion, examining, probing, questioning, looking. Don’t be afraid of mistakes, do your best for yourself and your work, and keep moving.
If I am a storyteller, it’s because I listen. John Berger
I love this, and for some reason it reminds me of one of my favourite photographers – Elliott Erwitt. Erwitt has a stunning eye for the comedic and hilarious moments of life. He is one of the ultimate ‘listeners’ when it comes to noticing amazing visual stories in his photos.
I look at Elliott’s photos and I image him wandering around in a totally drifting mindset, just looking for stories, looking for comedy, being in an intense state of open awareness.
There are stories everywhere – we just have to pay attention.
The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight. John Berger
This made me think about when we look at a photograph that makes an impact on us, there is the obvious aesthetic appeal, but there is also something that is very hard to explain. It’s almost that somewhere buried in our subconscious there is a reminder of an experience, or something else that we know. But we don’t know what. That feeling is almost like an echo to something you can’t recall, can’t explain – you just know that that photo means something more to you that the sum of its parts.
Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. John Berger
I love watching very young children go about their days. The very young are in a permanent state of observation, as they watch without inhibition the world unfolding around them.
I think we could all benefit from doing that a little bit more – being in a state of open, uninhibited attention. Because words will only take you so far. We are, we should be, so much more fluent in the visual as words came much later into our worlds. So let’s stop translating everything into words, and trust in our visual intelligence.
The arranging of artists in an order of merit seems to me to be an idle game. What matters are the needs that art answers. John Berger
I’ve talked a lot in the past about what being creative brings us as the creators. For me it’s about being more aware and more connected to what’s around us. But what about the people who view our creations? Now maybe we are not on the level of the grand old masters, but I do believe that every single one of us has something interesting to communicate.
Humans are by nature storytellers – whether that is through song or photos, paintings or writing. The act of taking a photo is saying – hey, I am here and this is what I saw, this is what I found profoundly and amazingly interesting. And that’s exciting, that possibility that something you see and photograph could mean something to someone out there.
Maybe also it’s a bit like the human pyramid of needs, that once you have food, shelter and safety the mind likes to look around and see – what else is possible here? Maybe it’s great tequila, or travelling to warm places, or an awesome book (one of my favourites) and then art. Art for me in its many ways and many facets is an opportunity to explore, to reflect, to learn, to understand.
To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life in the giant scales of fate if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. John Berger
Accept what life is, and relish every cloud… I really want my life to be an interesting experience. Maybe it’s not possible to do interesting things every day, but to me it’s about the spirit of how you live. How you perceive your life and the small choices you make to deepen your awareness of the world.
Living and interesting, inquisitive life is an art in and of itself.
Do you know the legend about cicadas? They say they are the souls of poets who cannot keep quiet because, when they were alive, they never wrote the poems they wanted to. John Berger
This is permanent issue on the horizon for most creatives – the act of getting started and finishing! Sometimes it’s not even about finishing, because photography becomes this long story that we are involved in and we dip in and out of. It’s the act of doing and continuing to do that I think is so essential.
Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman. John Berger
I photograph a lot of cities and they can be hard to get a handle on them. They are chaotic and big and multi-faceted and hard to break down so that you can create interesting shots. But there is always a spirit to a place. Much like the fact that everything radiates energy, I believe that there is an atmosphere, a spirit, that you can discover about your subject. It’s something you can detect, something you find from observation, and this will help you get under the surface of a lot of subjects.
Maybe it’s your own interpretation of the spirit of your subject. Leave a dozen photographers in a city and they will all come up with something different, but there is an atmosphere that makes sense to you.
A photograph is not necessarily a lie, but it isn’t the truth either. It’s more like a fleeting, subjective impression. John Berger
Every photograph you take is a subjective impression of the world around you. I am always amazed how when I am out on my workshops the group can all be in the same place, but we came come out with very different photos.
This should give you tremendous confidence with your photography. We don’t have to worry if this place has been photographed 50 million times. We don’t have to worry what someone else has done, or is doing. We are unique and if we keep at it and keep pushing ourselves out of our little bubbles of what life is to us, then we will create something unique and interesting.
In 1960’s Berger collaborated with photographer Jean Mohr on a book about a very committed doctor in rural Gloucestershire, called A Fortunate Man.
It was suggested by his friend Victor Anant, who told him:
“‘You know, this man is really remarkable,’ Anant told me, ‘but one day no one will know of him. His goodness will have consequences, of course, but unless you write about him, the specifics of his life and his attitude may not be preserved.'”
I really like the idea for this project, because although we are now photographing and documenting life in an unprecedented way – most of that is just private or what I like to think of as reactive-photography. It’s not thoughtful, it’s oh there is a nice monument, there is an looking interesting person and up comes the camera – click. There is still so much that goes unseen in our world.
Look beyond the obvious, look at the people who aren’t been seen, puncture the appearance of things, and you’ll go a long way with your photography.
I feel that Berger is encouraging us photographers to be patient, watch, look and listen. Stories will come – in whatever form you are looking for them. Partly because…
“. . . the genius is by definition a man who is in some way or another larger than the situation he inherits.”
I’d love to know what you think. Does this strike a chord with you? Have you read any of John Berger’s writing and loved any particular ideas he presented? Please comment below 🙂
Sending great wishes for an awesome 2017 from Cuba (Anthony) and London (Diana).
“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun”
Yesterday I talked about the importance of sharing and showing your work. It gives your work a new dimension when other people engage with it. And I love to know that I am creating photos that make a connection with my viewer. I don’t want my photos to just be glanced at, then forgotten.
If you want your photos to be meaningful for people then – what becomes such an essential part of photography then – or any act of creating, painting, music – is imbuing your photos with feeling. Even if you have everything else perfect – great composition, beautiful light, perfect exposure, there will be *something missing* if the photo isn’t imbued with feeling. It will be looked at and forgotten.
And this starts with you. As Don McCullin says:
“If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”
So my challenge to you today is: decide on an emotion you want to communicate, find it and photograph it! Now, why decide before you go out and take the photo? Because I want this to be a decisive act. I want you to see how you can train your awareness by making a choice to seek out and find one particular emotion. And after all – what you concentrate on expands, right? (that’s new brain science there for you!)
Or you could think about it this way. You always notice things more when they come into your life – so when your wife is pregnant there seem to be pregnant women everywhere. Or your friend buys a yellow car, and then as if from nowhere, yellow cars appear everywhere. (This isn’t a trick, it’s just the fact that your mind blocks out most things in the outside world because there is too much stimuli, it’s too tiring to go around noticing everything, so your brain helpfully blocks most information.)
Now the obvious way to communicate feeling is through human beings. But I don’t want you to photograph people’s faces. I want you to seek out that emotion and capture it in the world around you – in everything but faces.
I want you to look for the feelings that you experience when looking at light, the ocean, a puddle on a rainy day – or a door, a set of deck chairs, a pavement filled with children’s chalk drawings.
There are so many emotions to choose from, how lucky! How about sadness? Joy? Love? Fear? Excitement? Anticipation? Disgust? Here are some popular emotions – but don’t confine yourself to just these. Play around and find something you are really interested in.
Last rule – you can use people figuratively – but not as the main subject.
*Tip: it really helps if you are in the mood that you are trying to capture. It’s like your feelings flow out of you and into the camera. But it is still possible to recreate that feeling if you are mindful enough.
Here are some examples from me of emotions and feelings I’ve created in my images.
The chilly feeling of foreboding….
Hmm…what’s the feeling here? I think the yellows and the greys communicate something quite distinctly….
Advertisers are always trying to communicate feelings with their images, so they must be powerful 🙂
And I would love to see what you come up with. Let me know what you think, and post your photos, in the comments below.
Greetings from Istanbul. I am here with my family working on my next book, and continuing to explore this enchanting city. Highly highly recommended. And now for something I was nervous to reveal…
Last year CNN asked to publish some photos from my project on the Homeless World Cup. It’s an amazing feeling to have someone call you up and not just pay you to do some work, but pay you to publish your personal work. It feels so validating.But…
CNN wanted to see everything I had taken, so I sent it all to them. Of course I had already done a mental edit, I had a pretty good idea of the images they would pick. Why? Because I had worked so hard on this project, going to Mexico City and Poznan to photograph the games over two years. I knew the project, and my photos, inside and out.
But when CNN replied, they asked for fourteen almost completely different images from the ones I had in my head. What the heck was going on?
But you know what, once I had time to go back and look, and look again, and the images they had chosen, I was able to see beauty of these other photos. They weren’t my favourites, but together they told an impressive story.
And it made me realise something extremely valuable – I am often not the best person to edit my work. In fact very few photographers are. I am constantly coming across stories about famous photographers who ignored images on their contact sheets for months, years even, before realising that they had an amazing image on their hands. Trent Parke ignored one of his most iconic images for a decade! Jonas Bendiksen for many months. You know why photographers can’t always be trusted to recognise their best images?
Because we are too emotionally involved with our photos (and ourselves). We see our work through the ever-changing filter of how we are feeling – about our images, ourselves, our lives, what was going on the day we took that shot. Sometimes we look at our images and feel a surge of excitement, and at other times we plunge into the depths and think – my photos are awful!
And that’s OK. Every photographer, every artist, every person who is creating, is in the throes of the mysteries of creativity and isn’t always able to be objective about their work. Get a fresh eye to look through your work – to give feedback, provide ideas, suggest new ways of developing, to prod you sometimes out of your comfort zone and into new ways to thinking and seeing. These are essential if you want to keep improving your photography. And unfortunately it can’t just be your other half or your mum who does this (hearing ‘that’s so great! I love your photos’, isn’t objective feedback :)). It has to be someone who loves photography and who can see your photos for what they are.
For me photography is only a solitary pursuit part of the time. And the more I continue on this journey the more I see how integral other people’s feedback, ideas, suggestions and comments are to one’s growth as a photographer. Even to this day, after twenty years, I rely on other people. I have a small team that I consult with. They help me edit, help me discover images I’d left out or discourage me from images I have an attachment to but don’t quite work and who I talk through new project ideas with. They help me keep the flow of inspiration fresh and my eyes clear.
A few years ago I decided to create a group that would help all of the amazing photographers that I was meeting through my workshops in the same way. And so I created the Light Monkey’s Photo Collective. Each year I offer a group of passionate amateur photographers the chance to be part of a group that meets regularly for walks, talks, feedback sessions and hosts online challenges. The group is there to motivate, inspire and inform.
“Creativity is contagious. Pass it on.” — Albert Einstein
It’s for people who want to connect with others who love photography – and in the process be encouraged, inspired and motivated by the group and having regular events to attend. It’s not a formal education program, but you will learn a ton.
The group has been an absolutely incredible, surpassing my ideas of what it could be. We’ve been on evening walks through Little Venice, explored the docks at dawn and had fantastic sessions looking at each other’s work in my studio in Waterloo.
Maybe you are looking for a trigger of inspiration, you are stuck in a creative or technical rut; you are looking for ways to be more motivated; you want to know what people think of your images (and maybe where to go next), you want to find new ways to bring a regular photo practice into your life; being part of a group excites you; you just love photography and want to share it – ideas like this? Then Light Monkeys is for you.
And I am really excited that I am now opening up a limited number of new places for the 2016 group.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Annie Dillard
How will this help my photography?
We are all busy people. We all have a lot on our plate. Even professional photographers like me find it hard to carve out time for working on personal work. Life, family, work – always gets in the way. But I know that if I don’t carve out time to dedicate to my photography, to wander and imagine, to explore and adventure, toplay – then my life doesn’t feel as full or as deeply connected.
Photography not only makes me feel more alive, it makes the rest of my life a more heightened, interesting and rich experience.
Life is, after all, an amazing adventure. And every day I make sure I do something that acknowledges that.
Membership is designed to be flexible.
You don’t have to come to every meeting. The idea is that every month there is always something happening so that if time allows you have something to get involved in.
We have photo walks, studio meet ups or review sessions. We get together to take photos, explore technical issues, look at programs like Lightroom plus we’ll review and critique each other’s work.
This is one of the most exciting, interesting and fun groups I have ever been involved in. The people are great, the sessions are fun and next year’s program is going to be the best yet.
The year long membership includes:
Monthly photo walk or in-studio sessions
Three dawn walks just for Light Monkeys
A one-to-one session with me to discuss your images, any issues or developments you want to make or a project you are working on
Opportunity to attend any one of my London workshops throughout the year for free (and in addition where there is a last minute space, I will offer these spaces to Light Monkeys, also for free)
Monthly online photo challenge, set by one of the members
Online community for support – to share your images, ask questions and share knowledge
Who is this for?
This group is for people who have attended one of my workshops and want to do something more. This is for anyone who is passionate about photography, regardless of their skills and abilities. We’ve got people who have just graduated from camera phones to a DSLR and people who have been photographing for years. The thing that unites us all is we love taking photos and we love sharing our experiences with other photographers.
There is a very limited number of new places available. We are offering an early-bird price of £345 until Oct 31st for the year long membership program. If there are spaces still available, the price will then become the regular price of £445. Full details and schedule here.
Imagine a year from now how much you could have done with your photography. Imagine, the photos taken, the feeling of accomplishment and nourished creativity. Imagine the connections you’ll have made and the adventures you’ll have been on. There is no way you will not love this experience.
“Human resources are like natural resources; they’re often buried deep. You have to go looking for them, they’re not just lying around on the surface. You have to create the circumstances where they show themselves.” Ken Robinson
Of course you can do all this yourself, set up a group with some photo loving friends. But what I am doing with Light Monkeys is taking all of the organisational headache out of it. I am bringing together a group of super motivated passionate people, so you don’t have people drifting off after a few months. I am creating events and situations where you will be abundantly inspired. And to be honest – there is me! A seasoned professional, who lives and breathes photography, to help you. I am on hand to answer your questions and give you insights into photography. I want to make this as easy for you as possible to create an abundance of fun, adventure and photography in your life. All you need to do is show up, with your camera.
Questions / queries….?
Get in touch. I am working in Istanbul at the moment on my new book but I am on email and checking in every day.
Not in or near London?
For those of you who want to get more involved in your photography but can’t come to my group – or want something shorter or more focused – I have just launched a limited series of Private Skype Sessions. I will have one to two sessions available per month and these can be used to review your images, get detailed feedback from me, and for personalised help with the development of your photos. I can also answer tech questions! See here for more details.
As always – please send feedback, questions or thoughts to me. I read every email and I’ll respond! Or comment on my blog.
Finding the confidence to make brilliant portraits out on the street
About ten years ago, on one of my dawn escapades, I came across a homeless man who was asleep in an alley. He had covered himself in magazines and newspaper to keep warm. Lying on his chest was a magazine-spread of a lady’s buxom breasts. It was a perfect photo.
But I was struck by anxiety – was this crossing my internal ethical line? He was asleep, not participating in the photo. Was I using his misfortune and the naked lady who was keeping him warm, to make fun of him? I battled internally for a few minutes and then I walked away.
I still think about that photo and wonder if I made the right choice. Sometimes I think I should have taken it, but most of the time I know I was right not to. And the reason I start this post with that story is that I think that it’s really important to consider your ethical line when you are taking photos of strangers.
The world is your oyster when you are a photographer, and you have the right (often enshrined in each country’s law, not in Hungary though!) to take photos (although usage is a different matter. See the P.S. below).
Considering the people you photograph and their right to be represented fairly is essential, in my view.
Last year my family and I were at an exhibition in an empty car park in London. My kids were having a great time running up and down a ramp. Suddenly a man appeared and started taking lots of photos of my daughter.
My wife approached him and asked him what it was for. He said “ohhhhh, I am a new photographer, it’s just for my website.” Even though she is married to a photographer my wife was really nervous about approaching him. I eventually went over to talk to him and told him it was definitely not cool to photograph someone’s child without asking them first and, secondly, to be so vague about usage.
You should always give your subjects the courtesy of knowing where the photos will be and what for if they ask – particularly if you’re photographing children.
So once you have your ethical code in order, I would like say that photographing strangers is awesomely fun! Not only can you get great photos but you can also meet some really cool people. It’s a brilliant way to penetrate a new culture and get under the skin of a new place. And for the most part, people like to be ‘seen’, to be noticed and that’s a point to focus on.
Be friendly, polite and hopefully relaxed, you will rarely encounter someone who doesn’t respond in kind. And for those that don’t want to be photographed – just smile, apologise and be on your way. Don’t try to force the issue, or wait until they aren’t noticing.
Everyone has their own style My style is more environmental portraits. I am not a ‘street photographer’, although I occasionally delve into that territory. Street photography is a candid genre, focusing on capturing moments of life – not creating or pre-visualising a shot but seeing and capturing what’s happening out there on the street right now (the street photographers collective In-Public have a good explanation)
My style is to take portraits on the street, which fall into three categories, which I am going to explore here:
Portraits I ‘find’ and ask permission to photograph
Another (yes, another!) amazing thing about shooting at dawn is the fact that when you encounter people they are usually really friendly (and drunk) and want to know what you are doing wandering the dawn streets with a camera.
The photo, above, was a very typical experience for me. Two inebriated young men fell into conversation with me and wanted me to take their photo. They decided to climb this tree (it was completely their idea not mine) and I got this shot, one of my favourites from my London book.
Now I know many people don’t feel safe wandering around alone at dawn – I totally get it. I probably feel more confident alone because I spent the early part of my career living in Los Angeles. The city not only has horrid crime statistics (America’s great gun culture), but feels really hostile because everyone is in their car, not engaging with each other and making themselves feel even more paranoid and frightened of each other.
When I moved to Europe it was like a great big sigh of relief. Walking around on actual streets does a lot to combat people’s fear of strangers. That’s not to say I haven’t had any dodgy encounters (I love that English word, dodgy).
But of the hundreds and hundreds of mornings I’ve been out, I can only remember two, and it was intimidation not actual violence, so fingers crossed, it stays like that. The upshot being, take out a friend or two (or five!) if you feel a bit strange wandering at dawn (or join me on my workshops!)
I do a lot of these posed portraitson the street (my entire Belly Project is exactly that – over 100 bellies of strangers). You would be amazed by how many people will pose for a photo (even people who aren’t drunk). Amazed!
There are people who are just perfectly happy to be photographed, and those who are down right exhibitionists and hams in front of the camera (both my son and my wife are of the ham variety), but there are only a small, very small proportion of people who hate being photographed. And that’s OK. So – remember that the maths is in your favour.
If you are new to photographing strangers I would start with this type of photography. You need to work up the nerve to ask the person but once you have their permission, you won’t have that fear of them noticing you and smashing your camera (that’s a fear by the way, very rarely a reality even for hardcore street photographers). So you get to relax and then work on composing your shot.
I usually smile at someone I want to photograph If they seem welcoming I will approach them, tell them what I am doing and ask if I can photograph them. I try to say something about why I want to photograph them – “You look like you have an awesome belly! I love your hair!”
Although it’s hard not be scared, I think it’s important to seem fairly confident so that people trust you. Taking things slowly, being relaxed, not rushing – are all ways to imbue your approach with confidence.
I came across the above scene in Paris and was mesmerised. I was super quick (you are not setting up a tripod for this kind of shot). Now, what would have happened if the man had turned and seen me? I would have smiled and gestured ‘OK?’
If he wasn’t happy I would have apologised and walked away. That simple. At the very worse you can always show them the photo and delete it if they are truly unhappy (although this was shot on my still amazing Hasselblad on film, I presume most folks in this modern age are, you know, shooting digital :))
So if you are scared of doing anonymous portraits like this, or street photography, think what’s the worse that can happen? And then work out what you would do if that were to happen.
Elliott Erwitt is an endless source of inspiration for me. I love what he says:
“It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organising them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”
Portraits I ‘find’ and ask permission to photograph
I often come across a ready made amazing shot with people in it. But I know that if I just snapped they could notice, and it would be weird. Can you imagine me coming across these two lovers lying on this empty bridge and chatting, then putting up my tripod and taking a photo? Weird! So of course I just asked them.
Now you will notice that this photo is in Paris. I don’t speak French. So if there is a language barrier (I admit I do just break into English), I just point to my camera and smile. Again you would be astounded by how most people are perfectly happy to be photographed if you are warm and friendly.
Even in such an intimate moment as this. I sent the couple in this photo a copy and they were both very appreciative.
Now a few other thoughts / ideas / tips:
Attitude is everything. Being friendly, open, polite and relaxed is the best thing to focus on when you are out taking photos.
Don’t hide your camera. I know quite a few street photographers who advocate hiding your camera (and many who suggest otherwise – but that just feels really creepy to me). Be honest. Be human.
Have a few lines prepared. Sounds strange, but have a few lines prepared for people you’ll talk to, like: “Do you mind if I take your photo? I’m working on a photo project about fur coats.” Then when you are out and about you’ll be less likely to stumble over your words.
Have a purpose: If I could sum up my purpose as a photographer I think it is ‘beauty in the every day’. I think my purpose is to show people the incredible beauty of what’s right here on our doorstep which I hope will lead you to feeling more connected to this wonderful world, and loving it more.
I have always been fascinated by light, I’m a bit of a loner, I love empty/quiet places and I love nature. So that’s what you see when you look at my work. My passions and my personality shining through.
That’s when you know you have really got somewhere as a photographer, when people can look at your work and see your personality.
I recently came across the photographer Ruddy Roye and I love his work. He calls himself a ‘Humanist/Activist Photographer’ and has found fame by shooting what he is most passionate about: people who are usually ‘unseen’ (he has an amazingInstagram account).
In this great interview on Longreads he said he thought about something that Eugene Smith said, and that propelled him to focus his photography in a different way:
“You know, there are enough photographers photographing the pretty things, and not enough photographing the things that aren’t as pretty.”
He then decided that “I want to introduce white America to people who they might never have met, and I want them to fall in love too.”
In the interview he also talks about how he engages with his subjects. He’ll often chat to them and get to know them before he shoots them. Sometimes he finds a subject and ends up not photographing them, just chatting. Just being human.
And that’s something we photographers sometimes forget. Humans love connecting, so just be human.
When you have a purpose photographing strangers on the street is much easier. It’s easier to talk to people, to communicate to them why you want to photograph them.
It doesn’t have to be something really epic like Roye, it can simply be that you find people interesting, you want to show people your vision of the world, that you care about people being seen in an engaging, interesting, compelling way.
And this is where ethics comes in again. I think people can feel your purpose, they can sense if you are a genuine person and you have their best interests at heart (unlike the rather misguided photographer who was shooting my daughter).
Deciding on your purpose before you go out helps set you up for when you start shooting.
All of this advice is rubbish though…if you don’t practice, practice, practice. By doing it over and over you will find your style, what you are comfortable with, how you like to photograph strangers, what attracts you and what doesn’t.
I promise it gets easier and easier every time you do it. There are endless opportunities out there for you so just try, fail, try and fail, try and end up with something really special and completely unique that you created.
Be polite and friendly
Remember most people like being noticed for their uniqueness – and will welcome you photographing them
If someone isn’t happy to be snapped, just apologise and walk away
A smile and a relaxed attitude will take you far
Remember your humanity
Have a purpose
And after all that…STOP thinking. Once you have thought all of these things through, and done some mental preparation, then just forget it all and get on with it. And again I use this Picasso quote “To draw, you must close your eyes and sing”.
Anthony and Diana
PS a note about usage and permission
In most countries you only need people’s permission if you are going to sell the photos or use them for commercial gain. Photos for art and editorial usage usually don’t require individuals’ permission (but there are exceptions – like Hungary! Where it’s now illegal to photograph anyone without their permission).
There are exceptions, particularly for children, so always check out the law in the country you’re in. I have yet to find a website that covers all countries – here is one for the UK to get you started, and remember laws change all of the time
Plus, when you are travelling it’s important to be aware of cultural sensitivities before you blaze out there, camera in hand. There is a tonne of info out there on the web. Load up on knowledge and that will also help you feel confident as you go out to shoot.
‘We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation.’ John W Gardener
A few years ago I was shooting at dawn in East London for one of my books. I walked past a butcher and thought – awesome! Capturing people up at dawn can be really hard as they are either not around or it can be difficult to find people doing interesting things.
The scene was great. I liked the blue early morning light on the buildings contrasting with the yellow tungsten inside. It really was a perfect combination of elements. I lifted my camera, shot this, but I obviously wasn’t happy with it because the positioning is all wrong.
Then I saw that the butcher had spotted me. Guess what I did? I carried on walking! I had been totally overtaken by the fear and just left the scene.
To be honest it sort of surprised me how fearful I was. I have a lot of years under my belt of photographing strangers. It just shows you, though, that fear is not something you overcome and then that’s it, it’s gone. It can come back at any time. And of course, we professionals are not immune.
But you know what? That’s OK. For me the best way is to accept that fear is a bit like clouds in the sky or rain in London – it comes and then it goes. The worse thing for me to do is let it stop me from taking the shot – or in this case, going back and getting the shot.
Fear is an interesting concept (I like to think of it as a concept because the more I emotionally distance myself from it, the less it’s likely to eat me whole). A little fear and a little anxiety can be great drivers for creating work.
Fear can keep you motivated and alert and save you from the most dreaded of all creativity killers – inertia. But too much, and it’s a real threat to your creativity. And it’s too much fear that I see most often on my workshops.
It’s good to note though that it’s totally natural to feel fear when you are creating.
“We’ve evolved to distrust creative ideas: except in a crisis, there’s little survival benefit to trying something new.” Oliver Burkeman
As creative people though we are always striving to be better at what we do, trying to create original and beautiful things with our photography.
I believe that fear in its many forms is the main barrier to improving your photography. It’s not just the thing that will stop you from photographing strangers – it will also stop you pushing yourself further with your creativity. It will stop you from envisioning what is possible to do with your photography – and then getting on with it.
I see fear all the time with my students, and often they are surprised when I tell them that most people can experience fear when they are taking photos. They are not unique or alone in this. With my students I see fear come up in the form of:
Not staying at a scene long enough
Self-consciousness when shooting around people. So instead of being in the moment, connecting to your environment and composing your image, half of your mind is distracted with what people might be thinking or what is happening outside the moment of the photo
Not shooting what you really want to photograph because it scares you too much
Not shooting that intriguing stranger
Not getting started! I see this a lot. Worrying about doing it just right, so people don’t even get themselves out the door. (Perfectionism is just another form of fear.)
I agree with Oliver Burkeman (again) in that:
“The real question, then, is not whether creativity provokes fear, but what to do when it does. Far too many authorities urge you to conquer it… but as with any emotion, launching an all-out attack on fear is counterproductive. That just puts it centre stage, and risks reinforcing the notion that creativity must – and should – be one endless, bare-chested struggle.”
So what I encourage in the dealing with fear is:
Be patient with yourself. Fear is just a feeling. Don’t react to it. Let it come up and eventually it with leave you. Probably the worse thing you can do is start adding lots of thoughts and judgements about your fear. Thoughts are like adding fuel to the fire. Let the fire just burn itself out.
Accept that it’s part of being creative. Putting yourself out there in terms of showing your work, being out there in the world with your camera, doing something outside of your day to day life is going to provoke feels of discomfort. And really, if you are feeling discomfort you are on the right path – it shows you’ve stepped outside your comfort zone, you are onto to something new and different.
I also like this idea about overcoming fear by distracting your mind and creating habits:
“There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks. A basketball player comes to the free-throw line, touches his socks, his shorts, receives the ball, bounces it exactly three times, and then he is ready to rise and shoot, exactly as he’s done a hundred times a day in practice. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.” Twyla Tharp
Accept it is impossible to totally quieten the mind – thoughts just keep coming in whether you want them to or not (I love what the meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says – that the mind has no shame, it “secretes thoughts the way the mouth secretes saliva.”). So the only choice you have is to ignore your mind, the thoughts, and pay attention to being completely present.
Don’t think ahead
Don’t wonder where you are going
Listen to the sounds around you
Look for the light
Spend three times longer looking than you usually would. Stop yourself from moving
Imagine yourself just drifting, like a small child looking around with fresh eyes, catching the things that interest and being totally absorbed until you are ready to shift the interest to the next thing
Try and look at the whole scene
Don’t think about taking photos, think only about looking and seeing
If in doubt, stay still
And perhaps most importantly….have fun! (remember how much you love photography?)
When I am really struggling with fear I like to remember what Seth Godin advises about starting small:
“What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?”
Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s to intellectually realize – we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.”
Photography for me is not a list of technical skills or camera gear to acquire. It’s not exotic locales or hip people to photograph – photography is a state of mind. The more you work on removing what is cluttering up your vision, the more you’ll see searingly original, interesting photos that make people go – wow!
Last thought for you – if you are struggling with fear, and not sure if you want to overcome it, then I like to remember this:
“Can anything be sadder than work left unfinished?
Yes; work never begun.” Christina Rossetti
I hope you enjoyed today’s post and please if you have any thoughts or ideas please do comment – I love hearing your feedback.
“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
– George Eastman
If I could give you all one tip – and only one tip ever again – it would be to commit yourself to noticing light. Why? Because light is photography’s most interesting, engaging and diverse subject. It can bring texture to a boring flat landscape; it can bring humour and humility to a photo; it can make our heart sing when it illuminates a tree with golden light on an otherwise grey day. Learn to notice light, then learn to capture it and you are leaps and bounds ahead of most photographers (and I include many professionals there too.)
I believe that creating singular goals for yourself in photography really helps to train your eye. In college we had to do things like go out and photograph blue balls. They were exacting and difficult tasks, but they elevated my ability to see in an extraordinary way. And it’s those types exercises I’d like to encourage you to do to help you train your eye and help you take more interesting photos.
In all of my photo workshops I am try to get everyone to slow down. Many people I meet approach taking photos as they do other parts of their lives – in a sort of ‘getting things done’ sort of mode. Which, as I bang on incessantly about, is the opposite mind-state to how you need to be when taking photos (perhaps with the exception of war or event photography :))
Light is a huge subject when it comes to talking about photography. There is a lot of technical teaching that you can learn in order to capture the light the way you want it, but what I wanted to do here was provoke your thoughts and give you a few ideas on the different types of light you can look for.
Look at the colour of the light
I am not much of a black and white photographer. I’ve done a little in my earlier life but colour is what really excites me. Probably my favourite photographer is Ernst Haas, someone who I think should be a lot more famous than he is. His work, particularly his colour work, is incredible: he looked at the colour of light, and worked to capture that in his work. So not just the beautiful shafts of light, or the sky, but he used its colour as part of his composition. When you can see the colour of the light it seems to add another dimension so you can also get a sense of its texture. It gives you a feeling of being ‘there’ in the photo.
So as well as looking for light sources and for beautiful light, try to think how the colour of that light can assist the composition.
I think this photo of mine, below, shows the colour of light idea well too. Without the warm yellow colour of the light this photo would be semi- dull. Nice clouds – sure! But the yellow light really makes the photo pop.
One benefit to having such short days (yes, there are benefits!) is the more opportunities you have to see the interplay between the natural light and the artificial at twilight. When 4.30/5 pm hits, you have some brilliant opportunities to capture the fading blue light of the day and the arrival of artificial light. There is a huge amount to play with – go out and take a look.
Of course there will be a lot of competition for your eye: the glowing lights of shop windows, the luminous glow of buses, street lamps, the twinkerly, over-the-top Christmas lights – but that will be part of the fun. Look for the contrasts between natural light and artificial, and ask yourself some questions: what’s interesting here about these contrasts and interplay? What story are you telling? What feelings are you creating in this photo?
Along with lines and reflections, I think shadows are one of photographers favourite things. There is so much to play with when it comes to shadows, so many emotions we can create.
They can create a powerful opportunity to show a lack of light, to show contrast, and often to show humour too. Noticing where there is a lack of light can be just as significant as where there is good light.
I will talk in my next post about the importance of pre-visualising your final photo when you are shooting, and one photographer I would like to talk about is Ray Metzker. Much of his work’s power was the created in the dark room, but it was no accident. He will have pre-visualised his photos as he was composing and capturing the shot. Metzer used shadows to incredible effect in his work.
You also couldn’t talk about shadows without mentioning Bill Brandt – master of the shadow that looks so simple, so easy, so opulent almost and yet is the result of some incredible planning, focus and vision. Very inspiring.
(There are some rather funny/silly colour shadow photos too here)
I am going to carry on with this subject next week as I have more ideas for you. I really hope you enjoy my thoughts – and I would love to hear your thoughts/feedback/ideas. What do you love to do with light in your photography? Please do comment below.
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