It’s currently 1:42am on Saturday, December 31st, 2016.
When I was little, the countdown to Christmas went by in the time it took you to blink. Then before you knew it you were counting down the days until New Year, and until you had to go back to school, and that seemed to go even faster.
But I’m grown now, and the end of 2016 feels like these last few months have staggered and almost crawled to the end.
2016 will probably not be looked on fondly when people look back years from now. I can practically feel the echoing wave of collective sighs of relief when the clock ticks over around the world into the near year. To a lot of people, 2016 has felt like one long drawn out ending. We’re all holding our breath.
Good things happened; of course they always do. It can take longer to look for them sometimes. I feel like this year my photography finally took a step forward – it’s closer to where I want it to look, feel. I’m still not there (I’ll never feel quite “there”, I don’t even know where “there” is) but it definitely took a leap over the seemingly immovable static I had been feeling.
I was privileged to get to work with incredible people, to be supported by incredible people. I was able to push myself way out of my comfort zone and found I liked it; no, I loved it. Even when I hated it, even when I was scared of it, I loved it.
2016 firmly cemented in my mind that portraiture is where my heart and soul is; it’s where I feel strongest, where I feel the most afraid, where I feel the most exhilarated. I was so, so fortunate I had such a wealth of amazing people that helped cement that for me.
But 2016 was an ending for me too. I don’t know what the future will bring, and it was an ending for me thinking that if I just sit back and be patient enough things will happen. I have to stop thinking that way. I need to become proactive and make things happen. Patience is a virtue, but so is passion and movement and action. If I really want this as much as I claim I do, I need to go out and get it.
I don’t know how.
I will still tell myself I’m not good enough.
But I won’t listen anymore.
It’s now 2:22am, Saturday December 31, 2016. I’ll go to bed, wake up, and it will be the last day of this crazy, unrepeatable year.
I was thinking about how many different ways we have of describing the rhythm of our heartbeat and how we use it to punctuate different moments and events in our lives. We say our heart races when we fall in love. It stops when we’re afraid. It aches when we get hurt. It swells when we feel proud. It hammers, it skips a beat, it bursts, it thuds, it breaks. It’s a muscle, roughly the size of our fist, that plays like a silent soundtrack throughout our lives.
Sometimes I can look at photos and all I see is a heartbeat. I can see it swell, I can see it race. I have felt it when I’ve taken photos; the feeling like it’s beating so loud I could hear it echoing in my ears. It’s usually when I know something is coming, when I’m anticipating some moment I want to photograph.
Some might say that’s esoteric or simply a whimsy, that I’m placing too much on capturing a photo. But it’s these photos that I know have effected me that are the ones that seem to move people the most.
Photography is a shared, universal language in the same way that emotion is. Emotion doesn’t know or recognise age barriers, gender barriers, religious barriers, language barriers. It just is. It’s something we all know, and we don’t necessarily understand why we know it. But if we can look at a photo and recognise the emotion in it we will respond to it, regardless of the context of the photograph itself. It’s no wonder that photography is what is mostly used to document our history and humanity. It can tell a story that can cross borders in ways that words can’t.
I truly believe that the more you put into a photo the more someone will take from it. If you want it to last and to have meaning, the feeling behind it should be equally as sincere. This is even more important in the editing process. You have to be quite strict and ruthless in what you cull. What you don’t show can be as important as what you do. It’s something that I battle with; I have to learn not to over-saturate, but instead to be more deliberate about what I show. It has greater impact that way. Leave people wanting to understand but not being given all the tools to understand.
Sometimes putting so much into photography can be exhausting, and when it’s all going wrong it can feel overwhelming. It’s tempting to just coast along and it’s tempting to not try to shift and grow.
But as exhausting and overwhelming as it can be there’s nothing really like putting your whole heart into a photo and seeing people respond to it.
There really isn’t.
If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.
What is it about some photos that makes us really make us stop and take a look? Those photos that make us think? The photos that make us feel?
Before I go on; I’m not even just talking about the “worthy” photos, the ones that end up in National Geographic lists about photographs that changed the world. I mean even a photo that your grandmother took of you at your fifth birthday; you can look at that twenty years later and you can hear everyone’s voices singing happy birthday, you can feel the weak heat coming from the candles, and smell the cake. Photographs are powerful no matter who took them and how.
If you think about how many different images our brains take in and filter through in any given day, it’s a wonder that we are actually able to fully process and engage with any singular image. But some images really do have a unique power. It’s arresting, that sudden stop that you make when you see one. All it takes is that small seed, that tiny tug on the rope that pulls us in. But what is that? And is it the same for all of us?
The truth is I’m not really sure; I’m just as in the dark as you and as a photographer these are questions I ask myself all the time. When I’m shooting, when I’m culling through whatever I’ve shot, when I’m editing, when I’m deciding what to post; what’s foremost in my mind is what is going to be the one thing about each photo that is going to give that tiny pull. You know when you have a magnet, and you hover it over a fridge or something metal? And there’s that point, right on the edge of where the pull only just starts. That’s the feeling I’m looking for.
But I could shoot a hundred images and never feel that personally about any of them. Or I could shoot one image and feel it so strongly and someone else doesn’t feel anything at all. It’s the thing that makes photography so amazing and confusing and frustrating at the same time. We all come to look at different images bringing a lifetime of other images with us. Not only that, we’re bringing every thread from our own individual lives – who we’ve loved, who we’ve lost, what we think, what we know, what we think we know, what we’ve learned, what we’ve forgotten. No two people will look at an image and have that same background framing the meaning of a photograph for them.
As an example, if I take a photo of a person and another person looks at that photo, how they see the subject in that photograph can be dependent on so many different, very personal things. Do they know the person? How does this person make them feel? Have they interacted with them? Have they heard of the person? Does the person remind them of someone else? Someone they loved? Someone who hurt them? Is whatever the subject is doing something universal that we can all relate to? Does the person’s facial expression make us feel joy or discomfort? Is there more than one person in the photo? What does their dynamic suggest about their relationship?
Not only that, but there is a third person in the equation – the photographer. Are they trying to make you see the subject in a certain way? Or is the photo candid, and so it reflects something the photographer doesn’t even really know they themselves feel? This tension is a theme in all art forms; once it is out there, your work never really belongs to you anymore. It is a part of you, in some aspects a deep part of you that you don’t really know, and now suddenly it’s up for interpretation by anyone else.
As scary as that is, that’s actually why you do it though. At least that’s how I see it. I want people to feel something looking at my photography, because I feel so much when I do it. It’s another form of communication, it’s a narrative, it’s an expression, it’s a question, it’s an answer.
And yes, there are some photos that just simply exist. They just are. They don’t offer deeper meaning, they don’t need to be read. They just exist. That photo from your birthday may never make a list in National Geographic but for that time you look at it years down the track it won’t matter, because it means something for you. We need those too. The more we look the better we get at seeing.