Wednesday, February 21, 2007

musing on photography

boys informal settlement

Since we've been back, I haven't picked up my camera. Well, except for documenting the useless mini duvet mountain and Swee'pea's attempt to climb the half door to the kitchen. I mean, I haven't take it for walks with me. Partly, it's because I'm busy trying to sort through something like 1500 photos; partly because it's been really f-in cold; partly because I've been busy trying to organize our house and selves for my return to work; partly from sleep deprivation I'm sure. But mostly I think it's because everything is so familiar around here.


In South Africa, I found myself once again questioning my motives for releasing the shutter. Why did I make a photo of one thing, and not another. What was it that sparked me 1500 times? (Actually, I SAW a lot more photos than I took. If the camera was packed away in its bag, many times there was no point in even trying to unpack it, the moment was passed as soon as I recognized it.) A few times, well-meaning family members tried to point out and take me to things that they thought were photogenic. In these instances, I wasn't very interested, photographically, but would half-heartedly push the shutter release out of some strange courtesy. The best reason I could come up with for pressing the shutter was difference, sometimes the touristy-everyone-who-visits-here-takes-a-snap-of-this and sometimes the grittier less pretty places. I suppose it was a sort of colonial impulse to photograph The Other, which I find shameful. Except that it didn't feel shameful. It felt like I was finding beauty everywhere.

pass the smoke

For whatever reason, this wasn't a question that troubled me when I was making photos in Guelph. I just shot things that interested me, things that I thought might look beautiful in the frames of a photo, things that made me laugh, whatever. Sometimes it's pure curiosity: what will that look like in a photo? Other times it was an attempt to make an image that expresses something about the subject, or to capture a "decisive moment" as Henri Cartier-Bresson called it. Looking at my photos of South Africa now, I see that in fact all these impulses are evident, and I probably don't need to worry about my motivations. I suppose really, although I find it kind of embarrassing and scary to admit it, I've been aspiring to make art with these images.

gladstone waiting

This is one of my most favourite images from the whole trip. Gladstone, our township tour guide, let us explore the rooms of the hostel and meet the inhabitants while he waited.

My friend sometimes asks me if I had a million (or millions of) dollars, would I be doing the same thing in the same place? I like my job, but I do it because it provides a pay cheque. If I didn't need the cheque, I wouldn't do it. It struck me while we were in SA, that if I could see new things and places and people, make photos and write about them for a living, that would be the kind of job that wouldn't feel like a job to me. I'm not sure that travelling far and wide would be necessary, or that I would want to with children, but the photography and blogging life would be totally sweet. Since that realization, I've been finding myself wondering if maybe I want to work towards that dream, and what steps would I take? I'd have tons and tons still to learn (things like making sure not to leave my ISO setting at 800 when I'm shooting in the bright and sunny Bo Kaap so that I can blow my images up without getting all kinds of grain, and remembering to clean my lens from time to time so that I don't get a bunch of -- like 300 -- beautiful beach shots with an ugly black hair in the sky, for starters), but maybe...

wall detail

I've never had any interest in being the kind of professional photographer who does family portraits, weddings and commercial work. But doing my own thing first, then putting it in books and exhibits, THAT would be exciting. Maybe it's just because we spent time with Grandpa Cape Town, who I wouldn't call one of the BIG South African writers, but he's published several books, and he's certainly friends with the BIG South African writers. Apparently, Nadine Gordimer was like totally in love with Sugar Daddy when he was a wee baby. I've seen pictures of him then, and I have to say, the boy was CUTE, perhaps even CUTER than his progeny (I think it was the dimples). AND Grandpa Cape Town's friends with David Goldblatt, South African Photographer Extraordinaire, and another British photographer who's been exhibited a few times. So maybe staying with him makes books and exhibits somehow within the realm of possibility, without even stopping to consider whether I'm even the remotest bit of good..

langa scene

It's been a long time since I had a sort of professional dream or ambition. In late 1998 I decided I wanted to put my writing skills to use as a job, and by late 2001, I was doing it, and have done since then. So for more than five years I've been on a bit of plateau, enjoying what I'm doing, and unsure what to think about or work towards next.

at the bar II

Anyways, this was supposed to be about photography not life choices. Today, walking downtown in the mild, early springlike sunshine, I remembered one of the things I wanted to do before we left. I wanted to make photos of some of the kids that go to the youth drop in centre. At first I thought I'd just go and try to catch some smoking outside and maybe try to strike up a conversation with them. What I'd really like to do is make portraits of them, and try to talk to them and get their stories so I can also write a bit about them to go along with the portraits. Maybe, if any of the photos are any good, putting it together as a sort of project or exhibit. I've been thinking a lot about the street kids who stayed with us way back in 1998. About how much it sucks that some kids just don't seem to have any options or decent role models or opportunities, except the criminal kind. So now maybe I'm thinking I could try and volunteer there, maybe get to know the kids first, and learning more about photography, before embarking on this kind of project.

langa stairs

And then I get a bit negative and think what's the point? I'm no artist. This kind of project, these dreams are way beyond me. But I don't have to make these kinds of decisions now. Now, I just have to live and love and hopefully keep picking up my camera.

contrast alley

ps Thanks for your kind comments yesterday!


NotSoSage said...

I think it's hard for many people to admit to themselves that they are an artist. Harder even, sometimes, than to be recognised as one by the people who matter.

I think your idea of knowing, capturing and exhibiting the faces and stories of the kids at the drop-in is a great idea. And maybe, if you do, you'll come to realise what you are, through a myriad of different ways.

NotSoSage said...

and, it should go without saying, but I should still say, that the photos are breathtaking.

Denguy said...

I like your eye.
I see things, too, but lack the... I don't know what.
Maybe I just need to try more.

Beck said...

One of my uncles is a photographer - not the studio kind, but a nature and travel photographer. It took him until he was in his mid-40s to really make a career of it. He teaches at a college during the school year and travels during the summer break - so it's VERY doable.

Mad Hatter said...

"aspiring to make art"?

Honey, you done made it.

Mad Hatter said...

OK, I am back after being afforded a bit more time with this post. These pictures are truly stunning, Sin. Their composition, the light levels, the emotive punch... it is all there. I don't know how one goes about being an artist but have you thought about any of the following:
--find and join a photography collective in your region and try to build ties that way and then maybe start out exhibiting as part of a group exhibition
--rent a booth at the farmer's market for a couple of weekends in the summer and layout the cash in advance to blow-up and frame a bunch of your South African and other shots. This will help you gage whether there is a market
--look into local arts and crafts boutiques that sell art on consignment
--are there Flickr communities forming in the same way that blogging communities are forming? Can you find a group of like-minded artists there?

Anyway, it's all neither here nor there but these are just a few thoughts I thought I'd share with you. I'd also be interested in the drop in centre project.

cinnamon gurl said...

Mad, thanks for coming back and sharing your ideas (and for the lovely compliment). Thanks to all for your compliments.

And Denguy: make like Nike and just do it. The more you shoot the more you see. And the better your photos get. I stopped for a few years and when I did pick up a camera during that time the results were really frustrating. I'm pretty sure that the really great photographers shoot A LOT and become really picky about the images they show.

Mad Hatter said...


ewe are here said...

These are some stunning pictures. You have an amazing eye.

I think your idea about capturing the kids - pics and words - would be a fascinating one to follow through on.

gingajoy said...

"I suppose it was a sort of colonial impulse to photograph The Other, which I find shameful. Except that it didn't feel shameful. It felt like I was finding beauty everywhere."

I can definitely see how this could be a challenge--how to photograph without flattening/coopting. But these images are very human. Very humanizing. I love them.