Since the past several months, I have been in two minds on the place of conversation within photography. And every time I attend a photography festival, I realise why my thoughts tend to veer in two opposite directions.
The pioneering colourist William Eggleston had once said, “Whatever it is about pictures, photographs, it’s just about impossible to follow up with words. They don’t have anything to do with each other.” There is, of course, great irony in the fact that I subscribe to Eggleston’s distrust for words. Having written on the medium for the greater part of a decade, I have indulged in precisely what he warns against. And yet it was six months ago at Silk Inspire 2017, that I reassessed my thoughts, and realised why there is a conflict in the first place. What is it about photo festivals and conferences that speak to each one of us? And what is it about them that we should be wary of?
Photography Festival – Delve Deep Inside The Work Of Someone You Admire
Photo festivals allow us to transpose ourselves into the minds of others. Behind every photographer is a human being, with his or her delightful little contradictions. A festival is a space that allows us to engage with photography, and with photographers. It lets us discover the person behind the persona, the quirks, the motivations, the failings, it is where the personal meets the photographic.
This moment of connection may take place when the photographer is on stage, but often, happens elsewhere, away from the arclights. It may happen when you observe how they initiate a conversation over lunch, or how their eyes light up at any visual opportunity. It may happen if they choose to be vulnerable, while talking to you. It may happen if you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough, to respond. It may happen, like a lot of beautiful things in the world, over beer. It may happen, in between.
For instance, a couple of days after Silk Inspire, my friend Natasha asked Zack Arias and Seshu if they’d like to explore Mapusa and make some pictures. I tagged along for the conversation (and the impending pork sorpotel). An hour into our walk, I was making a portrait of my friend with the mirror of a bike reflecting light on her face. My peripheral vision caught Zack looking at me, seeing what I saw. Quietly but instinctively, he turned the mirror by the slightest of degrees.
Before Silk Inspire, I was intricately aware of Zack’s visual journey, having followed his photos and his online discourse over the years. But in that one splitsecond, I connected to Zack Arias more than I ever had.
In a world of intermingling chatter, nuance seems to have been left behind. Even while writing on photography, it is only the rare interview that manages to go within. Others merely skim the surface. A photography festival allows us to delve deep inside the work of someone who we admire, as long as we keep our eyes open and look beyond the obvious.
Are We Able To Go Beyond?
Usually, the first thing that we notice about a photographer is their subject matter. Jen Huang, for instance, photographs delicate, understated objects that speak of the wedding story. Erika and Lanny Mann revel in photographing the chaos that lies within joy.
The photographer’s craft is the next thing we tend to notice, and, I daresay, obsess over. How does Jeff Newsom conjure up these unimaginable double exposures? How does Sergey Ivanov create these crazy worlds digitally? Of course, we trivialise the very idea of craft, by assuming that it is a coming together of gear and technique. Craft is a conversation that a craftsman has had with his or her tools over months, years and decades. It’s not about which gimmick from a bag of tricks do I unveil. Will the Magmod help me shape light in the way Jesus shaped the waters? Will the new Profoto make me Two Mann? No man.
Craft is relatively obvious. A way of seeing, not as much. Is a photographer able to marry his or her craft with vision? Does their sensitivity to light meet sensitivity to emotion?
The next step to appreciating a photographer’s work is probably the toughest. It is when we go beyond recognising what they see and the way they see it, to actually seeing why they see the way they see.
The Piece That Completes The Puzzle
For however much we may study someone’s work or fanboy over their Instagram feed, being able to experience the artist can be a crucial step in being able to experience the art. It is a tiny step, like a small part of a giant jigsaw, but it is usually the piece that completes the puzzle.
The problem with too much talk, to come back to what Eggleston said, is that it can become an echo chamber. I strongly believe that wedding photography in India is facing a crisis of authorship. While I hope that festivals and conferences can help us get past trends, I sometimes wonder if they only perpetuate them.
I never thought that I’d quote Spider-Man in the same piece where I am quoting William Eggleston (though hey, both are photographers, one can say). Silk does Inspire. But inspiration is a powerful thing, and with great power, comes great responsibility. Studying the work of others is an important step in finding one’s own path, but not an excuse in merely following them on the road that they have crafted. We need to sensitise ourselves to observe the little things. We need to sensitise ourselves to go beyond.