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
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 true – true 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)
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 true – true 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)
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)
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
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
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)
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 true – true 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:
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
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)
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.