We live in an age of images. To an extent, we have always lived with images; from the earliest cave paintings to the multimedia world of today. Images abound; and competition between them to gain attention is fiercer now than it has ever been. So I ask myself, what makes one image stand out memorably from all the rest?
I’m sure that we all have images that have burned their way permanently into our memories. For me, many of them relate to significant events in recent history. Robert Capa’s photograph of the Spanish Civil War soldier on the point of death is one that always comes to mind. From the war in Vietnam, a reality in my own lifetime, I recall images of monks burning themselves to death, a police chief summarily executing a suspected member of the Viet Cong on a Saigon street, a little girl running down a road, naked, after a napalm attack on her village; and the last helicopter evacuating people from the roof of the U.S. Embassy. And perhaps the most memorable photograph of all, coming out of China in 1989: of the anonymous young man defying a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I remember these photographs, and others, because they touched me in an emotional way, they made me think of things that I might not otherwise have considered, and thereby, they changed me irrevocably.
So how can I take photographs that will touch people in this way?
The majority of people, perhaps fortunately in many cases, cannot be present when the great moments of history unfold; and therefore will not have the opportunity to take photographs like those I gave in example above. But then again, human emotions are not confined to battlefields and the horrors of war. We all experience feelings; and many of us experience fears at times in our lives. The question I pose myself, therefore, is how do I capture and communicate the everyday emotions that people experience, with honesty and sincerity, without being trite or contrived?
In the Japanese language, there is a word: ISHINDENSHIN. Bilingual dictionaries will translate it as “empathy”; but empathy is such a cold, clinical word. It doesn’t convey the essence of its Japanese counterpart, the emotional meaning that lies beneath the mere intellectual translation.
ISHINDENSHIN describes a process whereby two or more individuals can communicate their feelings without the need for words: literally, from heart to heart. This is what I strive to achieve photographically. I want to go beyond the context-bound image and find a visual language that is universally understood. No, that’s wrong! What I meant was, a language that is universally felt. This is the problem with words: they are tools of the mind and we adapt them, more or less successfully, to convey what is in our hearts. But if we can communicate directly from heart to heart, then there must be much less chance of misunderstanding.
Far too often, in my photographs, it seems that my mind gets in the way, taking control of the image-making process. My heart may have told me to take the picture but it is my mind that constructs the story of the image; the narrative, if you like. It seems to me, therefore, that I must unlock my mind before I can take photographs that others will feel.
I have unlocked my heart;
But how do I unlock my mind?
I am searching for a key that will unlock the prison that logic and rationalism have created for me; but it is a key of relinquishment, not of acquisition. It is about letting go and allowing my heart to take charge. With this release, I would be able to create images that tell the story of what I feel; that would enable others to know what I feel and feel it too. It would allow me to speak in a new language; a language without words or the need for interpretation; without ambiguity; unfettered by context or convention; a language of the heart that would talk directly to the hearts of others.
But in the meantime, my imagination continues to play tricks on me. Compulsively, I anticipate others’ reaction to the images I produce; predictions based on the feelings I experienced when the image was captured. And when, in reality, those predictions do not come true, I fall into a despair of ever being able to communicate what I feel. I peer through the bars of that imaginary window that separates me from the rest of the world and wonder how I will ever get there.
Because, letting go is no trivial undertaking. It requires courage, for I don’t know where it will lead me. I cannot know, because knowledge can only be expressed in words and this particular letting go is about entering a world where words play no part; a world that seems, from the outside, like some kind of oblivion. There is reason and logic in words. Our paradigms of civilisation are based on them. The structures of our lives are described in words. But our feelings exist in another place, a darkness where there are no words to hold onto. And that is where I know I must go.
And so, I walk and think, and wonder what I should do, and all the while I am still taking photographs that attempt to depict the struggle that is writhing within me. If I look at the images I’ve posted on Flickr so far and analyse the comments and observations others have made on them, I could be reasonably satisfied. And I feel that I have improved as a photographer over the past three months, due in equal measure to the inspiration and encouragement I received on Flickr. So why not keep doing what I have been doing and content myself with that? There is enough material out there to last me for the rest of my life.
But that’s exactly the point. None of these photographs say who I really am. They are fleeting distractions that people on Flickr look at and instantly forget; and with them, they forget me. And when I stop posting these photographs on Flickr, I will simply cease to exist; disappear into another kind of oblivion in cyberspace.
I want to be able to take pictures that entertain; but I also want to be able to take pictures that provoke, that challenge and confront, that touch people in ways that change them forever, just as I myself have been changed by the photographs of others. I want to be able to create images that penetrate the psyche, resonating within the viewer at the very deepest level. To achieve this, I believe, that I need to take that final step beyond the bounds of the literal world, into a realm where images are felt rather than understood. This is what drives me to keep on searching, externally and within myself, for my true photographic voice; for the way to shake off the shackles of my mind.
…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The Unnamable (Samuel Beckett)
Exactly one week ago, a contact wrote the following comment on the image I had uploaded that day: “Simply wonderful my friend, you have always wonderful ideas. We never know what the next shot will show us.” But I have to confess that this is not part of some grand plan of mine, to keep people guessing. The truth of the matter is that my photographs are all over the place at the moment because I am still searching for my photographic voice. I am turning over all the stones and looking in all the crevices. I’ll jump from abstract to literal, narrative to pictorial, introspective to flippant; wherever the search takes me. And meanwhile, I look with a mixture of envy and admiration at the work of others who seem to have found their voice.
Flickr has been a tremendous help to me; both in the inspiration I have derived from viewing the work of photographers I admire, and in the encouragement I have received from the people who take the time to comment on my uploads. I am a shameless experimenter who is profoundly grateful to the people on Flickr who tolerate and indulge me; and this week was no exception.
Monday’s image (“Locked”) was an abstract but it was a fairly literal one and reasonably well received. Opening a door was not only a logical way to start a series but it was also a metaphor consistent with the theme of the series about unlocking one’s mind and throwing off the shackles of logic and reason which inhibit me artistically.
Tuesday’s image (“A prisoner of one’s own imagining”), on the other hand, seemed more challenging based on the fewer number of comments it received. It was a pure abstract with no context besides its title, which itself, was a little enigmatic (intentionally). The image was constructed out of a shadow cast by a wooden fence on the pavement outside a house across the street from where I live. I turned the original capture upside down in an attempt to make the image more oppressive, like a window high up on the wall of a prison cell. I was trying to convey a feeling (of oppression and mental discomfort) without any literal reference to rely on. I’m not really sure if it worked.
Wednesday’s image was a straight narrative with a person as its subject; and based on the number of comments it received, it seems to have been the most accessible of the uploads in the series to-date. Showing the figure on the point of walking into a dark space was, again, intended to create an unsettling feeling in the viewer without depicting any rational cause for fear. Did it work? From the comments received, it certainly seemed to have worked better than yesterday’s effort.
Thursday’s image (“Alone with my thoughts, walking”) showed a solitary person and his shadow with extreme blur. The narrative of the shot was the depiction of someone so deep in thought that they were not aware of their surroundings. Of the 4 images uploaded to-date, this one provoked the second largest number of comments and of favourites after the Wednesday upload, suggesting that viewers relate better to people or at least to images depicting a subject they can identify with.
So what conclusion do I draw from this? The obvious one is that removing all literal context from an image, especially one that it not strong pictorially, is something you should only do with extreme caution. Yet this was precisely the point of the experiment. I said above that I wanted to be able to provoke an emotional reaction without the need for literal content (that might be misinterpreted); yet my sincerest attempt to achieve that in this experiment (Tuesday’s upload) showed it to be far more challenging than I had anticipated.
Of course, I will continue experimenting because I need to improve. I will go on trying to find my own voice, no matter what. So, the purpose of the final image in the series was to show me, continuing to pursue my goals, climbing higher and higher in search of that photographic equivalent of ISHINDENSHIN. Like its predecessor, it is blurred to indicate that I am thinking deeply about what I am doing; but it is also in colour (albeit a subdued blue), to appear slightly less bleak. After all, there is still hope.
All of the images this week were intended to provoke a reaction in the viewer without any knowledge of the context or narrative surrounding them. It would be really interesting for me to hear what, if any, feelings they provoked in you.
If I were to list all the photographers on Flickr whose work has amazed and inspired me I would need to buy a space upgrade for my website, for there are so many of them. But in closing this narrative I do want to acknowledge a debt owed to sibemolle99. When he made me one of his contacts recently, I visited his stream to check out his work. Not only did I find great photographs linked to wonderful jazz tracks but I found one particular image that I think will live in my memory forever. I won’t tell you which one it is because you should stumble upon it as unexpectedly as I did; but I strongly recommend that you check out his stream (here) for it inspired me to re-evaluate my output and create this mini-series. I wrote the narrative you have just read while listening to Chet Baker, and edited it listening to John Coltrane. I have not listened to my jazz collection in a long time and had forgotten how much I love it. So thank you sibemolle99 for reawakening me.