It’s a rainy January day in London, 2012. I’ve borrowed a camera from a friend to decide whether or not I want to buy one. I’ve been shooting street photography seriously now for a year or two, mainly in Borough Market. I walk through its stalls every day and take pictures of other commuters, the market sellers setting up their stalls, and during lunchtime when it’s packed full of people. I’ve been unwittingly training myself to get closer to my subjects but I haven’t really got a great close up portrait yet.
On the tube home that night with the Nikon in my hand I step onto a crowded Victoria Line train and there about three feet away from me is a woman, early twenties, bleach blond hair, headphones and looking very striking. I bring my camera up to my eye. It takes a couple of seconds to get the shot, but she holds my gaze. She doesn’t smile and she lets me take the picture.
In that moment my entire creative life changed. Things that have not made sense before suddenly slot into place. The exchange between myself and my subject, the eye contact, the moment…it felt like a lightning bolt. I didn’t speak to her and only once saw her again when I was on a bus and she was walking down the street. I don’t usually speak to my subjects but in this case, if I ever saw her again, I would, because my initial chance encounter with her was such a profoundly groundbreaking moment in my journey to find my creative voice.
Since photography was invented it has been a mechanical process, there has always been technique involved. For a great deal of people that technique was a barrier to entry. We overcame that a while ago but now, with the killer app of sharing, more people take pictures in a year than for the whole history of photography combined. With so many people out there shooting everything they possibly can, the key factor that will make you stand out from the crowd is your voice.
Your voice is your take on a subject. It’s a sideways glance at something people have been looking at for years but have never seen from that point of view. Or it’s something they never knew existed. It could be a mixture of both but the important thing about it is not the subject but your interest in it. For writers the advice is always, “write what you know.” The world of painting went through this process a couple of hundred years before photography with abstract and modernist painting. Your technique can be perfect but your story needs to hold the weight of the photograph.
I say your story because I firmly believe that every great photograph, certainly in the candid and portraiture but maybe less so in reportage, is about the photographer. We bring our upbringing, our worldview and our approach to life in every shot we take. Your story should be writ large over every picture you take.
From what I have learnt there are a number of ways you can exercise this view to find a groove which feels nice to sit in and explore. There is a great comfort finding a spot in the world where you feel you are saying something differently. For some people, like me, it will come in a one shot bolt, for others it will be a slow realisation. If you do these things it will certainly help it along.
Firstly, it’s said over and over again, but shoot every day you can. The more you shoot the greater chance of finding a sparkling gem. The fantastic thing about photography is that your practice can be a rewarding and fruitful endeavour in and of itself, so shoot, shoot, shoot!
Who Are You?
Think about your life and what you are interested in. If you have other pastimes, think about how they are represented in the outside world and how does that compare with your experience. There is often a discrepancy. That difference is an opportunity. Whether it’s street, portraiture, still life, landscape or taking pictures of people’s toes, what you like about it, how you see it and your interest is the key.
Of course it might not be something that is as simple as a subject or process, it could be how something looks. Notice the light wherever you are. Look at the way things are illuminated and how they change in different light. A subject can have a completely new lease on life in the right light so love it, manipulate it and make it work for you.
And lastly, who are you? How do you connect with this world? How do people see you and who are you really? We all take pictures of things that directly signpost back to us in big neon letters saying ‘look this is really me!’ Embrace it and lay bare exactly what you are scared of, I guarantee you it will be gold.
One of the most valuable things I did early on was to have a photography review. I took twenty pictures to Photofusion in Brixton and saw Gina Glover. The images were all different in subject, some were black and white and others bright vivid colour. They were pictures taken from a train window, of friends, of animals.
Looking back at them now there is an aesthetic that I was honing but there certainly wasn’t any narrative. When you compare it to a second review I did with Gina just over a year later the difference is striking.
I am starting to really solidify who I want to take pictures of. The types of people who are interesting to me and how I want to achieve it. Suddenly eye contact is a really strong theme and my place in the world is suddenly being thrust into the forefront of every picture.
From these images you are starting to see me and that is my voice.
And this is me now, from seemingly random pictures in my first review to a clear candid portrait view in my second to my latest project of New York City street style and attitude. The progress is clear and it can all be traced back to the first picture in the second review.
A valuable piece of advice Gina gave me on these reviews is to write about your work. Start a blog and talk about what is motivating you to choose the images you are taking. Talk about where you go to get the images, the editing you do, the response you feel and how this is affecting the result. Something I didn’t do until recently, but I’ve found it to be even more useful, is write about other photographers. I have just started a series called ‘and me’ which is looking at a photographer and how their work intersects with mine. I think about how the pictures make me feel before I know anything about them and then how I feel once I have read about their life. Currently an important person for me is Winogrand, I have been shooting close up portraits for many years and through looking and writing about him, I’m trying to step back and see what a wide angle lens can do for me like it did for Garry.
Print your pictures. My first photography teacher, David Hodgkinson, had a saying ‘a picture is not a photograph until it’s printed’ and this holds a lot of truth. If you get your shots printed and stuck up on your wall you will live with them and over time they will speak to you. A course at ICP I took called ‘New colour projects’ with Christine Callahan taught me to print, view and edit. Editing your pictures will simplify the message, make them stronger and build the relationships between them. For a lot of photographers editing is a hard process because you are emotionally attached to your images. Find a friend, get your pictures on a wall and talk about them.
And lastly, let go, shoot what you want, when you want. Don’t let blogs with a 100 tips to do X or Y cloud your gut reaction. Shoot how you feel and then analyse your results and look for the story your subconscious is bringing to your work. You know the answer already, it’s just not found its way to the front of your mind, you need to edge it forward by shooting, writing and talking about it. It’s a fantastic journey and when you find it you will know. It will just feel right.