Category Archives: self

In praise of selfies

Real photographers (or those who think they’re real photographers…) always seem to mock selfies – self-portraits, usually made with a mobile telephone.  In particular, they mock people using selfie sticks – ugh, how crass! 😉

Man inflicting crassness on a woman at the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, 2014

Man inflicting crassness on a woman at the Ataturk Mausoleum, Ankara, 2014

Actually, selfie sticks are crass. I can find nothing redeeming to say about selfie sticks.  They should be banned from polite society.  There is only so much crassness the world can take, and selfie sticks go too far.

However, I think selfies are inappropriately mocked.  Having previously had a rather snooty attitude to them, I’ve come to rather like them.  I’ve even started taking a few.

It seems to me that selfies undo certain power dynamics that are problematic in portrait photography, especially photographs of women by men.  In 1975 Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, published a now-famous essay called ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (Screen 16.3 Autumn 1975, pp6-18 – it’s a closed access journal, so if you don’t have institutional access, you could try here or here or here…).  Not without its problems, and bearing in mind Mulvey is writing in an era of second wave feminism (Wikipedia article here), Mulvey’s essay is nonetheless really helpful in understanding images of people.

Mulvey argues that many films portray storylines from a male perspective: we identify with the main (usually male) protagonist, and want to see how he deals with the situation he is in.  In such heteronormative films, women are simply passive extras subject to the male gaze, manifested in camera framings that emphasise their body rather than their character. They are ‘to-be-looked-at’ (of that time: watch the opening of this awful 1975 interview, in which Michael Parkinson discusses Helen Mirren’s ‘equipment’). Mulvey says (section III.A):

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.

She discusses voyeurism and fetishistic scopophilia (which I don’t want to get into here in any detail), but in this regard she says (III.C.1):

… in psychoanalytic terms, the female figure poses a deeper problem. She also connotes something that the look continually circles around but disavows: her lack of a penis, implying a threat of castration and hence unpleasure. Ultimately, the meaning of woman is sexual difference, the absence of the penis as visually ascertainable, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex essential for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father. Thus the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified.

How does Mulvey propose to challenge this?

The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form – illusionistic narrative film… Going far beyond highlighting a woman’s to-be-looked-at-ness, cinema builds the way she is to be looked at into the spectacle itself. Playing on the tension between film as controlling the dimension of time (editing, narrative) and film as controlling the dimension of space (changes in distance, editing), cinematic codes create a gaze, a world, and an object, thereby producing an illusion cut to the measure of desire. It is these cinematic codes and their relationship to formative external structures that must be broken down before mainstream film and the pleasure it provides can be challenged.

Four 500px screenshots, 27.4.2015

Four 500px screenshots, 27.4.2015

I think much of her analysis works for photography too.

Whilst drafting this text I looked at a popular photography website,, and the ‘People’ category in the ‘Popular’ images (these are currently being frequently viewed by users).  I took four screenshots of the first page of images, reproduced here.  There are 38 images, broadly classifiable by subject:

  • 1 man
  • 1 boy
  • 2 girls
  • 35 women (one photo has two women in it).

So the only people really worth photographing are… women?  And judging by this random sample, ideally a number of them will be wearing surprisingly little. Unsurprisingly, most of the photographers here appear to be… men.  There are some technically skilled photographs here, but only rarely is there a sense of narrative in the image, of communicating something more than ‘look at this pretty woman’ – this is about ‘to-be-looked-at-ness’.  The male gaze is alive and kicking on 500px (and on Flickr and elsewhere).

Of course, this is not just the case on photo-sharing sites: I bought this month’s Marie Claire magazine (it could have been Vogue or Cosmopolitan etc. – but MC was on offer!) and wading through the endless advertisements to get to feature articles, of the 9 or 10 named photographers in the magazine, only 1 appears to be a woman.

Bemused selfie... and when do they get to the post-structural theory?

Bemused selfie… and when do they get to the post-structural theory?

The 500px and the MC images are remarkably similar: beautiful, but vacuous and narrative-free. Perhaps this isn’t surprising for a magazine focusing on beauty (website strapline: ‘THINK SMART. LOOK AMAZING‘ – think about the language and colour for a moment…). This women’s magazine is clearly all about (satisfying the putative) male gaze.

Photography books reveal similar patterns, as a quick scan of books in the categories for Fashion and Portraits and Nudes on Beyond Words demonstrates (incidentally, not only is Beyond Words the best photo bookshop in the UK, they also pays their taxes, unlike global parasites such as Amazon…!).

Clearly, the male gaze as Mulvey and others have defined it, dominates much of our photographic portraiture.

But with selfies, we see something else.

Selfies mean the person in the photograph has agency, has control: they freely determine every aspect of the image. They:

  • frame it – how much of the room/outdoors should be included?
  • determine the time – when do they feel they want to be photographed?
  • decide how much of themselves to show – is this to be a close crop of (part of?) the face, or will (part of?) the rest of the body be included?
  • think about who else is to be included – is this about the photographer alone, or should others be included?
  • and so on…

I see occasional selfies on my Twitter feed, but really only from two “serious” photographers. Here is a selfie from a wonderful fashion and art photographer I follow, Jodie Mann, trying out her new lipstick:

For someone who works with makeup all the time, that is clearly important professionally, but she also makes it personal:

It is very easy for stupid men to dismiss this as frivolous, but Mann is showing us something really important here: our self-image is important to most of us, even if we say we don’t care about what we wear: scruffy jeans and the tshirt that was on top of the pile in the cupboard is a ‘choice’ (yes, that’s often me…). Our image is almost always carefully constructed to convey something about ourselves to those around us – and scruffiness is just as much a constructed image.  Posting selfies online allows us to convey that image far beyond the people we will meet that day.  But they do more than that.

Four EyeEm screenshots, 27.4.2015

Four EyeEm screenshots, 27.4.2015

Looking at selfies on sites for sharing mobile photography such as EyeEm (where I have an account) or Hipstamatic, or Instagram, etc. is something I can do for ages.  Here are four screenshots of selfies from EyeEm from the same evening as the four 500px screenshots (EyeEm doesn’t have a popularity ranking, these are ‘recent’). There are a lot more men, and there is a wide range of ages (including a baby – ok, that’s probably not a selfie, but hey…!).

Regarding the poses and contexts:

  • many emphasise particular body parts – pouting lips, hair, cleavage, muscles etc. – and (coincidentally?) there are no (even nearly) naked women, whereas there are several men wearing very little (one man appears to be completely naked, holding a towel to cover his penis; his other hand is holding his mobile to make the photograph)
  • one woman has included a dog, whilst several photographs include other people
  • various digital ‘filters’ have been applied (monochrome conversions, as well as ‘antique looks’)
  • some photos are highly stylised (e.g. look at the pouting woman in the low cut vest in the top right of the first screenshot, and the two of the man in the white shirt and blue jacket in the second screenshot etc.)
  • backgrounds vary enormously: plain walls, cluttered rooms, a car, outdoor scenes – the contexts mean something to the photographer, to the subject.

This is what really attracts me to selfies – the subject is the photographer, and the photographer is the subject.  Whilst a woman might, for example, strike a ‘sexy pose’ taking a selfie, doing so is about her making herself a subject, not automatically being an object. The photographer has agency, has control, challenging the dominant narrative (Mulvey). Furthermore, in a world dominated by the male gaze of women, this is perhaps also why so many men take selfies.

Of course, selfies can have purposes beyond directly constructing a self-image based (largely) on appearance. Often they are evidence of being at a particular event or in a certain place, or in the presence of someone famous, whether this be a musician, actor, or politician: currently searching on Twitter for ‘selfie Nicola Sturgeon‘ produces hundreds of photos.  Many of these are taken by the person who wants to be in the picture, but Sturgeon is also taking many photos herself.  A photograph with a celebrity figure like this is, of course, also about constructing an image, but it is also about other (in part related) things: whether that be endorsing the stance of a politician, claiming (even just momentary) closeness to someone famous, and so on.

In short: we should value selfies, rather than mock them.  They’re an expression of the egalitarianism of contemporary photography, of the claiming of agency by subjects, and in the case of women in particular, they (can easily) subvert the male gaze.  Many selfies are not necessarily classically ‘good’ photographs, but as Colin Pantall wrote recently in reviewing a book on show dogs,

Possibly we can get a bit precious about it all, and not enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them – while still recognising that there is some work that is just unadulterated crap.

But Showdogs isn’t. I don’t think. It is what it is; a book of dogs, and I quite like it for that.

Similarly, selfies can be enjoyed just for the sake of enjoying them – they are what they are, and if we don’t expect them to be great art (which is not what 99% of them are trying to be), then we can simply quite enjoy them and appreciate their political subversiveness.


It seems only appropriate to end with some of my recent selfies, that I post here without much further comment:

From my student Twitter account, attending a student awards ceremony with my colleague Dr Stewart:

With the lovely Stephen Segasby in the Scottish Malt Whisky Society:

Go on, photograph yourself – you’re always there, and always available! 🙂

Editing this text...

Editing this text…


The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

I feel I owe those of you who follow me on Twitter for my photography an apology for the paucity of images in recent months – this is entirely due to the stress of recent months at work, as I mentioned in my last posting (Preview: The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness).  It seems almost perverse that such experiences could be the inspiration for a series of images that really speak to me.

I have now posted the complete set – 22 images – of The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness online, my first substantial complete set of images since 1. February this year.  It is a dark and lonely set of images that reflect an abstract interior landscape of the self, but I hope they will be of interest to some of you, and not just to me!  Click on the image to be taken to the page:

The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness 14

The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness 14

All were made on a Nikon FM2 with a 28mm lens, on a film emulsion that is new to me, but very beautiful: Neopan Acros 100.  I might still tend towards Ilford’s FP4+ or Delta 100, but the Acros is definitely a film I will use again.

Nervousness and questions of interpretation

I should be finishing the first page on wind farms (or working on a lecture for tomorrow!), but I wanted to share some reflections that I have found I can articulate quite clearly at the moment…

There are good reasons not to publish photographs. Some are very good reasons – the best reason of all probably being that the photograph in question is rubbish! Rubbish? Is that too harsh? How about “does not correspond to the pre-visualisation”?! (By the way, Alan Ross has just written an interesting post about Ansel Adams’ first moment of real pre-visualisation, if you’ve not come across this story before.) Of course, some are just rubbish! 😉

However, many are not. Many might even be rather good: they are technically fine, they are reasonably well composed, and the exposure is sufficiently on target for it to be usable. And yet… and yet…

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The safety of darkness (Loch Leven, December 2012)

… I don’t then click that “Export” button in Lightroom – the first step in moving an image onto my website and making it available to others to see. It’s not that I worry about what people will think of it: there are a select group of friends, particularly on Twitter, whose opinion I greatly value, but I wouldn’t not publish something just because I thought someone might not like it, nor would I publish something just because I thought someone might like it! Those who know me personally will know that I’m not really that bothered by what it is that others think in this kind of context.

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The welcoming warmth of the cold (Loch Leven, December 2012)

No, the problem – if problem it is – is that I am not happy to share the image. My finger metaphorically (and sometimes literally) hangs over Lightroom’s “Export” button, and I study the image once more. And thoughts appear, almost as involuntary spasms in my brain: “it’s just another hillside”, “haven’t I photographed XYZ frequently enough?”, “what do I think I’m really adding to the world with this?” – and so on. Whilst some of these stop me, none of them necessarily do so. But there is another thought that does. So I don’t then click that button – and then nothing appears for others to see. Others being people like you, reading this. What is that thought? Before I come to that, it’s worth taking a step back.

The problem – if problem it is – is simply that in the meantime I know I have sufficient technical ability to be able to produce a certain kind of image and for it to come out reasonably well. I have many technical skills still to learn and don’t deny that, but I have come a long way from relying on the ‘auto’ setting! Now I’m wanting to inject more into the image, more than compositional ability, exposure, and so on. Now I seek to impart meaning through it.

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

First flight (Loch Leven, December 2012)

However, the problem – if problem it is – is that this meaning is not just down to me. Yesterday, the wonderful Deborah Parkin released this photograph, which I interpreted as the child (Deborah’s daughter, Fleur) being content and self-assured; Lucy Telford, another talented photographer, said that it “Captures that self-contained feeling – poignant – signs of growing up, going inside oneself, inevitable but somehow sad.” Deborah responded to us both, noting that we saw the image differently, but with some commonalities. It is stating the obvious, but so much of the interpretation of an image is down to the viewer. Sometimes this chimes with the intentions of the photographer (for example, I understand from their interaction on Twitter and the comment she left that Rob Hudson’s interpretation of Lucy’s recent new image corresponds closely to her initial vision), but sometimes it does not. And what makes me far more nervous than someone misinterpreting an image, is someone interpreting it correctly.

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The great escape into freedom (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The problem – if problem it is – centres around how I deal with that. On the one hand, as I said, I am rather stubborn and that means I don’t worry about what other people think of what I do, but there is another side to that. I am aware that I see some things differently to others. In Assynt in autumn 2011 Bruce Percy looked at images I had made in one of the workshop’s critique sessions, and said something like, “ah yes, you see differently” – not as a judgement, just as a comment.  What I see, and what I want others to see, varies, of course.  All the images in this posting come from a morning last December, spent on the shore of Loch Leven, watching the sun come up – except that I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the sun itself, of course – and they communicate something for me. Should I give them titles that simply say “Loch Leven, 2012”, or should I give them titles that point to my mood at the time? Obviously, I have done the latter, but it takes effort. I was reflecting on a particularly difficult autumn teaching semester at the university – difficult not because of the students, of course, but because of management, and I was wanting to reflect on those experiences. Whether they communicate the same thing for you as they did for me, I don’t know. Do I want to explain what they do for me beyond what I have done here? No, I do not. But do I want to share these images in case you work it out? Of that, I’m not always sure.

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

The last dark refuge (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Despite what some may think, I’m a fairly reticent kind of person and do not like to give much away. Clicking that “Export” button in Lightroom is the first step not only to others being able to critique an image (“it’s just another hillside!” being an entirely fair response!), but more importantly, it gives others – that’s you – something of me. You get to see something of me, and I’m nervous about showing that, giving something of myself away. I’ve described a related issue in connection to photographing a model (the first image on this page), but my photography is also giving something of me. What you see might not be what I think I am showing, but… it might be. The danger – if danger it is! – is that you see what it is that I am seeing, as happened in the Lucy/Rob example given above, and that makes me nervous. My stubbornness means I don’t mind what people think of my images (good/bad/indifferent) because – as I don’t yet tire of saying – I am making photographs for myself, nobody else. They explore things for me, they explain and dissect and reassemble thoughts, they reveal hidden depths to me, and make me reflect on who I am and what I am doing. And now I’m supposed to share that with others, with you? Are you surprised I’m nervous about doing so, that I often can’t quite make my finger click that “Export” button?

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

Resignation, followed by return (Loch Leven, December 2012)

And yet – getting over that and sharing images, sharing myself, is also a privilege. So thank you for taking the time to read this posting, to look at the images, to think about them. Now, I had better click “Publish” before I change my mind and delete this posting…

Photography as an expression of self

What this is not: a theory-laden exploration of self-identity.  Or, at least, not much of it is.
What this is: quite long! 🙂

I have been following various recent discussions on Twitter about creativity between some very different photographers.  Seeing the ways in which people have interacted and some of the statements that have been made has been thought-provoking (and at times rather irritating!).  The debate initially came about because of another posting from Rob: A poem on a misty morning.  One of the people in these debates, Rob Hudson, eventually felt so misunderstood that he sought to articulate his thoughts in a blog posting (helpfully entitled My views on landscape photography – “it does what it says on the tin”, and is worth reading).  In the course of all this, he also posted this tweet:

Do read the article at that link, if you haven’t read it already; it is a well-written and thoughtful piece.  To begin with, however, I want to take issue with Rob’s tweet, because I think it can help elaborate on some important issues.  I am aware that tweets are often written in haste, and given the 140-character limit maybe not always be formulated in a way that might more accurately reflect the author’s views, but this does give me an opening to reflect on my theme.  But first, a story from a different context.

Aspirations and realities

Several years ago, I was in a large meeting of Members of the Iona Community, debating some statement about the Community’s purpose.  I have been a Member for many years now, and these lovely people are my friends, in some senses I even regard them as my family.  And as with all families, there are some crazy people.  Sometimes, the crazies get a bit full of themselves, and I vividly remember several people standing up and in the heat of the debate arguing that we should be describing ourselves as a ‘prophetic community’.  Eventually, Kathy Galloway, poet, seanchaidh, theologian and all-round wise woman, stood up and said:

Prophecy is in the ear of the hearer, not the mouth of the speaker.

She then sat down, and the room fell into complete silence for a moment.  More sensible discussion then ensued – with that one line, she had silenced the pomposity of the lovable crazies and clarified the terms of the debate.

Iona Abbey, ca. 1990 or 1991

Iona Abbey, ca. 1990 or 1991

I think we need to think about creativity in a similar way.  I’m not sure we can aim to be creative, instead I think we should aim to be truetrue to our subject, true to our intentions, true to ourselves.  I’ve written about similar themes before, in less explicit fashion and in other contexts (for example, here and quite a while ago now, here).  I think one of the key issues is the importance of reflecting, of thinking, and not just of ‘shooting’, as another wonderful contemporary photographer, Christopher King, expressed it on Twitter a little while ago:

Torridon, Scotland (click image for more Torridon photographs)

Torridon, Scotland (click image for more Torridon photographs)

One of the issues that arises here is, of course, knowing what and how to think!  Working that out can only happen over time, and by doing: I am very aware that I am on a journey with my photography, a journey that has taken me from seeking to make pretty images such as this landscape in Torridon, to images that ‘do’ more, at least for me.  This is something that I continually struggle with.  It has to do not only with how I understand what that ‘more’ is, but with how I might go about achieving it.

There are, I think, two aspects to this.  The first is very simple: learn technical skills.  This is rather boring: it is something that happens through making images and learning from what has worked and what has not, learning from other photographers about how they created certain effects and so on.  All this is, of course, important to some degree, but it is mostly a bit tedious and I don’t want to waste time on it here.

The second aspect is more complex: if I say ‘we should aim to be truetrue to our subject, true to our intentions, true to ourselves’ then the obvious question to ask is ‘what is true to my subject, true to my intention, true to myself’?  These are all related and inter-dependent, and I want to elaborate on each of them briefly.

Being true to my subject

Stephanie (click image for more photos of her)

Stephanie (click image for more photos of her)

One of the prompts for the recent Twitter debate on creativity was the recent debacle over the Landscape Photographer of the Year competition.  I disapprove of such competitions and don’t want to discuss this story in any detail, but in short: the winning image was withdrawn and replaced with another after it became clear it had been manipulated in such a way as to break the rules, which specified minimal manipulation of the image.  Whilst there are complex questions around what such representations mean (and I think Jean Baudrillard would have had much to say on this story!), one interpretation of the story is that the photographer had not been ‘true’ to his subject.  Some people might say that landscapes can be more difficult than portraits in this regard: Stephanie told me that she likes this portrait, and, as I note on the page that this comes from, she has used a version of this image herself – so it might at first seem as if I am being true to the subject, if even the subject likes it.

However, being true to a subject does not necessarily mean that the subject likes the end result or that something should ‘look like’ whatever was in front of the camera.  This next image, from my What Lies Beneath series, did not ‘look like’ this, because we do not see moving water in the way I have photographed it here – and yet I would maintain that it is still a true representation.

Glen Affric (click for more What Lies Beneath images)

Glen Affric (click for more What Lies Beneath images)

Some photographers, such as the wonderful Lucy Telford, create images that sometimes bear only a passing resemblance to what something ‘looks like’.  And yet I would argue that Lucy is being completely true to her subjects.

So how do we know when we are being true to our subject?  I think it is not enough if someone says they like it and feel it is a good representation, and in some cases, that might even be counterproductive: I have made portraits of people that they do not necessarily like (I’m sure we’ve all had subjects say ‘I look too fat/tired/pale/silly/worried in that photograph’!), but which I think accurately reflects who they are in some way.  I therefore think I am being true to my subject.  And this takes me to the next point: the photographer’s intention plays a key role in whether a photograph is true to the subject.

Being true to my intention

Some photographs (actually, quite a few in my case!) don’t work out, and at the moment I can only be rather vague about how this relates to being true to my intention: perhaps this is about honing intuition.

What (doesn't) Lie Beneath I

What (doesn’t) Lie Beneath I

Sometimes an image appears to be technically in order, and I might even feel it to be true to my subject – but it doesn’t actually do what I want it to do.  After releasing my What Lies Beneath series, I also put some images online that didn’t quite make it into the series.  This is an example of the rejects.  I was reasonably happy with these images, but none of them belonged in the final set.  The reasons varied.  Apart from the fourth image, which predated (by a matter of hours!) the beginning of the series in my head, all the others just didn’t evoke the right emotional reaction for me.  It is very difficult for me to articulate precisely what that is, and I’m not going to try and do it here.  I spent a long time with each image, studying it, letting it work its way into my head, seeking to ‘befriend’ it – a difficult selection process.  But some photographs just were not right – they didn’t seem to be sufficiently engaging or they didn’t have the emotional connection I was trying to seek out.  Whilst I feel I can’t say much more about this, it does point to the third aspect, because part of what I’m saying is that being true to my intentions involves being self-aware enough to be true to myself.

Being true to myself

Click the image to read why this doesn't work

Click the image to read why this doesn’t work

I have explained before why I think this photograph does not work.  The fundamental problem is that what we wanted was to communicate a feeling of loss and abandonment, and what I have created is an image that emphasises Stephanie’s breast.  But I didn’t want this to be about her breasts (and neither did she!), and being true to myself means not using this image (other than to illustrate a point, I mean – it’s not in my galleries or for sale; I feel I want to add that this photograph comes from 2009, and I hope that I would approach it differently now, taking in the entire frame rather than focussing on her facial expression before squeezing the shutter).

Being true to myself means that what I really want to create in every single image is something that is of me – and photographs that focus just on a woman’s breasts are not what I want to create.  Portraits of people are in some ways also self-portraits (as Oscar Wilde and numerous others have said), but so are the landscapes I photograph.  Therefore, whilst the monochrome portrait of Stephanie above communicates something of her joyful approach to life, it also communicates something about me (despite the faux-grumpiness I often exude, I am mostly optimistic and take great pleasure from being alive!); the landscapes I photograph are meant to do that too.  This may not always be obvious to others, but – and I’ll come to this in a moment – I don’t really care what most others think about my images.

Dornoch Sands (click for more Dornoch images)

Dornoch Sands (click for more Dornoch images)

For example, this image from Dornoch Sands communicates something about my state of mind and thinking at the time I made it. It may be that this is a bland blue nothingness to most people who see it, but to me it conveys something very important.  There are various factors at work here: the expansive depth of the sands, the sky and the clouds, the distant hills, the magical dawn light – all speak of home to me, though I had never been to Dornoch and the surrounding area before, and had spent just a few hours on this beach.  Nonetheless, there was something inviting, welcoming and generous about what I was encountering, and that is what I have sought to capture here.  Whether I have done that for anyone else doesn’t really interest me.

Having said that I often exude a faux-grumpiness, it may seem as if there is nothing ‘faux’ about it!  I’ve said I don’t care what most people think of my images, I am not interested in whether they generate emotions for others… surely that makes me a grumpy misanthrope?!  Far from it…

The question of identity

Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the truly great philosophers of our age, has written a profoundly important book on The Ethics of Identity.  He discusses the need for us in the contemporary world to pursue what he calls ‘rooted cosmopolitanism’.  This, he argues, is a way of engaging in the world that allows the individual to make a life for themselves (the classical task of modern individuality), but he connects this individuality to the global context we are in and the ways in which we relate to others.  We need to understand our own place in the world in order to be able to engage with it.  What and who we love needs to be clear to us, because without that we cannot relate to others: ‘no island… is an island’ (p219).

What I want to glean from this relates to the first part of my statement: ‘we should aim to be truetrue to our subject, true to our intentions, true to ourselves’.  I have explored, briefly, three aspects that I suggest constitute being ‘true’.  As should be clear, these are all aspects of our identity, and identity can be formed in numerous ways, for example:

  1. ascription – to attribute an identity to someone (e.g. ‘you are… [something]’ – clearly, this is often problematic because it silences the voices of others and casts a singular identity upon them, something that Amartya Sen criticises)
  2. treatment – to act as if someone belongs to a particular group (e.g. ‘women are… [something]’ – but this silences a collective group that may not choose to mark any common identity in this way at all – for example, in certain contexts, being women might not be important to the people concerned, whereas being photographers, for example, might be more so)
  3. identification – when someone uses particular markers to identify themselves (e.g. ‘I am… [something]’ – this allows individuals to speak for themselves).
Ardalanish Bay (click for more Mull images)

Ardalanish Bay (click for more Mull images)

We all, of course, aspire to the third of these possibilities – who would not want to be in a position to define themselves, rather than be defined in some way by others?

And yet, this is not easy!

Above all, it requires self-knowledge, self-understanding, self-awareness.  We need to know what our roots are before we can engage with the cosmopolitanism of wider (photographic) society, and that means we need to know what we want, what we are trying to achieve, and how we might go about portraying this in photographs.  Most of this activity is not about thinking, it is about feeling, about emotion.  This happens by listening: to ourselves and to the landscape, for example – it is always possible to force a composition when out somewhere, but to engage with the landscape, to really begin to understand it, requires more.  Michael Jackson, who photographs just one beach, is an exemplar of someone who listens to the landscape and himself – and his images convey profound personal emotion.

In the course of the Twitter debates, I have seen the term ‘workshop photographers’, meaning those who go on workshops and produce images similar to those of the workshop leader.  Now, I have been on two Bruce Percy workshops and have benefited from them enormously, but his images are not mine.  I do not want that photographic identity to be ascribed to me (‘oh, look, you can tell he went on one of Bruce’s workshops’), nor do I want to be treated as someone who makes images in a ‘Bruce Percy style’ (not that I could or would, and Bruce wouldn’t want it either!).

Instead, I want to make my own images that are rooted in my own experience, that come from my own listening to the hills, my own engagement with my subject, my own conversation with the individual I am photographing, my own understanding of my place in the wider cosmopolitanism of the world.  My photographs should be about my voice.  I need to know what it is that I am wanting to express with my images – and my sense is that I am gradually getting there, gradually finding my own way to express my thoughts in my photographs.  Getting there requires a certain level of stubbornness (something I do not lack…!) and the ability to persist with something, even when others have no idea what I’m trying to do.

Tolastadh Chaolais, Isle of Lewis (click for more What Lies Beneath)

Tolastadh Chaolais, Isle of Lewis (click for more What Lies Beneath)

I have found that there are many people who would look at an image such as this from Tolastadh Chaolais and ask why I pointed the camera downwards instead of seeking to capture the fantastic hilly vista cliché visible from the road.  Part of the process of finding my own voice has been to differentiate between (a) the people who say that, and (b) those who ask what it is that I am trying to do, or find something for themselves in the image.  That is what I meant by not caring what other people think – if I pander to the beautiful hilly vista people and produce clichés, then I miss the stones and grasses under the water that actually speak to me, if I take the time to listen.  Being true to my subject, my intention, myself is what creates my identity, and enables me to be rooted in a wider – cosmopolitan – context, and this identity-construction is, of course, an on-going process.  I’m not, in the words of Rob’s tweet, trying to be creative, I’m just trying to be… me.

Two final thoughts

Firstly: doing all this is about being whole people.  Photography is not my ‘hobby’, in the sense that it’s something I do in my spare time for pleasure (I’m reminded of the Edinburgh-based artist, Trevor Jones: ‘Whoever says painting is relaxing isn’t doing it right’).  It’s an integral part of who I am, as is my academic work, and my engagement in contemporary Middle East issues – and all of it needs expression.  That is one of the things I was trying to communicate in my What Lies Beneath series, and it is also why it grates and irritates me that a student resource page I used to have on this site had to be moved due to administrative managerialism (see e.g. Richard Roberts’ article on this, summarised in a short blog posting here) in case students – who are not as stupid as the university’s managers seem to think they are – thought the university was endorsing my photography.  All of these things are part of me, and I seek to live out my identity in my academic work, my writing, and my photography.

Secondly: all of this requires effort, and in some ways, courage.  Many of us are conditioned away from listening to ourselves (‘scientific medicine’ has often led us to ignore our bodies and seek a ‘fix’ for ailments, for example).  It is, of course, immensely rewarding to do so, but the effort is a strange one.  Much of the time I find the effort is about the need to stop trying to constantly do – it is about being still and listening to the inner voice we all have.  Letting that voice come to the fore is a risky business.  We may find things out about ourselves that we would rather not know, or rather not share, and doing so can involve courage.  We are, after all, exposing something of ourselves to others, and that makes us vulnerable – it’s like becoming naked.  On the other hand, it is only through allowing ourselves to be touched at our core that we can truly be who we ought to be.

Finally, one last thought from Christopher:

Warm thanks to Rob Hudson for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this text.

On patience and time in processing

Stephanie: an intimate moment

Stephanie: an intimate moment

This is not going to be a long piece about patience and time (I have neither the patience nor the time for that – haha!).  Rather, it’s about taking the time in certain contexts, specifically when it comes to editing.  On looking at the tag cloud on this blog, I notice that I’ve written several times about the need to take time when seeking to capture images, but yesterday I found that after much time I had finally managed to get an image edited the way I wanted it to be – an image that I took in June 2009.  Now, 15 months later, and after several different attempts at edits, I’m finally happy with the end result (a previous version that I still like, but isn’t quite ‘right’, is here).

Sometimes, I just need to leave an image alone for a while, sometimes different edits need to be tried out, sometimes it will take a long, long, long time to get it right.  I can remember taking this image ‘in-between’ shots – Stephanie wasn’t really posing as such, but this seemed to me to be a gentle moment of some intimacy, and I wanted that to be reflected in the processing… and to my mind, that is reflected in this final (for now…) edit.

What makes a good photographer?

Matthew Jordan Smith has some simple advice for becoming a better photographer:

To become a better photographer first you’ve got to be secure in who you are, you’ve got to know who you are, and be secure in putting that out there, ’cause the secret of being a great photographer is being you, putting your stamp on all your images, and that takes a little soul-searching.

The interview this quote is taken from is on the Silber Show – a really interesting resource, with lots of short interviews with great photographers.