Back To the Basics

I’ve been in London, England for the past few weeks, attending a documentary photography course led by two incredible photographers, Stuart Franklin and Chris Steele-Perkins. Both are a part of Magnum Photos, which is known for capturing the human condition with a great sense of care and consideration. It’s been a remarkable experience thus far. Though the course is only halfway through, there have been a few takeaways that I found really poignant to my work, and to photography in general. 

I wrote a bit about my motivation for street photography in my last blog, which stems from the experience of engaging strangers in an uncontrolled environment. I’m a person that too often lives in my head, so those moments of talking with someone on the street and eventually taking their photograph is incredibly rewarding. It forces me to be absolutely “present” and focused, deciphering what’s important within all of the externalities of that environment.

The assignment for this course with Magnum involves discovering “A Sense of Place” here in London. We were asked to bring a number of concepts to class on the first day, as well as a portfolio of our strongest work, so that Chris and Stuart could get a feel of where each of us is as a photographer. Knowing that these two, along with the other guest lecturers, have taken some of the most iconic images of the past century, I wanted to bring them something of significance. 

My concept for “A Sense of Place” was to cover both sides of the protests in London concerning the conflict in Gaza between Israel and Palestine. I planned to engage members of each ideological group and hopefully gain access to a more intimate side of their lives. If I was able to do so, my plan was to then photograph those parties going about their daily routines, in a way that the viewer wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell which side each person supported. My hope was that whomever viewed my images would see how integrated these individuals are to the city of London, blurring the lines of "profiling", and draw parallels to their own lives and struggles. An example would be a shot of members of each group, drinking coffee or tea at a table. I would frame the heads and faces out, and just concentrate on the details that are available in the shot and their inherent symbolism. Another, might be an image of a small group gathered in a pub to support their local football team. I would stand behind the group, again, leaving the faces out so that the viewer wouldn’t quite know how these individuals are involved in these protests.

After attempting to capture this over the past few weeks, I can easily say, both my idea and intent were far too conceptual in nature. I was reaching for metaphors hoping that this would lead to powerful images. Moreover, the logistics and feasibility of attaining these relationships and the images I required in the six shooting days that we have during this course are quite improbable. I still struggle with "letting that go", as I feel like I've failed or haven't tried hard enough, but the reality of the situation is that whatever shots I did end up with would never have the meaning that that I intended.

Both Chris and Stuart, who have been incredibly helpful, sensed that this was something that I needed to learn through experience, because as much as they tried to gently persuade me otherwise, that understanding just wouldn’t sink in. In a world where anyone with a smartphone can be a photographer, I think there’s a misconception amongst developing photographers, myself included, that our approach to photography must be grandiose in order to cut through the clutter.

Now, though, my project has shifted dramatically for the simpler. To paraphrase Chris’ words, “I need to use more shoe leather to get a great photo, rather than time spent reaching for conceptual significance.” Thus, my project involves walking around the Bankside SE1 area of London and simply documenting what I see: the people, the buildings, the alley ways, etc. There is merit to having a notion of what you want to say with an image, but ninety-nine percent of the time, the viewer won’t draw the same parallels of symbolism to your work as you, if you spend too much time and energy conceptualizing. We've all had shots that we think are home runs, but in reality, we're "too close" to the image to be unbiased.

There’s a real sense of humility that one must have with this, because if someone asked me what my project is about for this workshop, I would want to share my first idea. It sounds better, in my opinion, and possibly provides an illusion that my work is important. But, as a friend of mine, whom is an incredible writer, once told me about finding your voice, “Start with the simplest way you can think of to convey your message. When you know how to do that, what's inside of you will naturally shape your style. After all, if you can’t tell a story simply, how can you expect to handle something complex?”

So, all that to say, I’ve gone back to the basics of what I enjoy doing, which is merely documenting the way I see the world around me. And, to be honest, the experience has been tremendously liberating. Though the classes and shooting schedules are rigorous, I’m doing what I love and feel incredibly blessed to be able to live out this dream. I’m thousands of miles away from what’s comfortable of the world I know back home, but rarely do I even think about what I could be missing, let alone lament. 

While the days of being hired by and handed a stack of traveler's checks from The New York Times to cover a story in some remote location may be over, I can't help but get excited for the future of this industry. Maybe it will be "all for not" when it's all said and done, but even if that's the case, I'd rather enjoy this pursuit for all that it is, because it consistently gives back to me more than I feel I give to it. And, in the end, what more can you ask out of life?

Here are some slides from exploring the Bankside area in London. Click to enlarge...