Inspired by the work of Tillmans and Goldin – who both became part of a social circle so that it could be photographed with insight and sensitivity – I eventually opted to take a series of photographs of a close friend who is a shamanic practitioner.
The shaman has his roots in the oldest religious practices on earth. He attunes to the natural spirits of life and nature in order to live harmoniously and in balance. He sees himself very much as carrying a responsibility to contribute to his local community and offer help and healing where possible.
Nevertheless, it is a very practical spiritual path too. The shamanic practitioner has his feet grounded in the real world of bills, work and feeding the family. As the great Native American teacher, Sun Bear, once said “if your philosophy does not grow corn I don’t want to know about it”. I wanted to explore through portraiture how the modern shaman lives in the real world.
We all separate our lives into compartments or boxes depending on the role we are expected to perform. For example we wear different clothes and behaviours at work compared to those we adopt at the pub. We wear masks to fit in to the various boxes, or backgrounds, to our lives. So which is the authentic ‘me’? Ironically these masks are never seen (except when we interchange them) because everyone else wears the same mask in each separate social ‘box’. How many of us harbour a fear of being invited to a fancy dress party only to discover that we are the only one in a costume? We only feel out of place when we actually arrive at the party.
Over time the shaman or spiritual warrior develops his mind to seek to ‘live impeccably’ (while recognising that nobody is perfect, making this a lifelong work). He is therefore always trying to be the same authentic person, but we may actually perceive him quite differently. Just like us, he also wears a different mask depending which social box he is in at the time, but his values and aims are consistently the same. And he is very conscious that it is a mask.
So the gentleman helping you to choose wine in the supermarket is wearing such mask because he doesn’t want to startle you. He genuinely wants to help your day go better and not be labelled as weird. But what happens if the shamanic ceremonial mask is made invisible and the supermarket mask vice-versa?
The photographs presented in this assignment are an attempt to show the shamanic practitioner first as the stereotype, in ceremonial costume with hide drum, then as his authentic self working in harmony with nature. These images are punctuated by images of a normal working day in the supermarket, as the working day punctuates his life.
From this alternative viewpoint the masks are not where we expect them to be as he goes about his business, serving his community in his quest to ‘live impeccably’.
Studio shots were taken using a softbox placed at 45 degrees to the subject and a reflector placed opposite. I felt that this gave a good balance between being flattering and even while still having enough modelling to suggest two sides to his character- light/dark, visible/hidden, masked/unmasked.
I deliberated over the use of a supermarket background as I did not want to risk getting my subject into trouble by not seeking permission at his workplace. We discussed taking them in a ‘real’ setting felt that permission was unlikely to be granted and so I took the images in front of a white background then added a separate background in afterwards. My intention was to have a background that suggested actually being present in the supermarket (although the viewer would not know it was technically not the same one he works in).
All images are cropped to be square format and a physical wine box is included in one of the images to reinforce the concept of living in various social ‘boxes’.
The outdoor shots were taken on an overcast day to contrast with the indoor shots while offering flattering, naturally soft lighting to emphasise the idea of being in harmony with nature with no harshness. Shutter speeds were chosen to give a hint of movement in the drum beater.
The Final images
The images have been selected to be viewed in a specific sequence as follows:
1. The Ceremonial Shaman. Here the shamanic practitioner is the person people want to see – the robe, the drum, the drama – at fairs, gatherings and other events. He wears no mask in the image although would be in real life, for effect, to complete the costume. But the background is plain as there’s little real substance to the facade, nothing behind the ceremony. He’s pleasing the crowd but he’s not healing the land.
2. Boxed. Life is punctated by duty.
3. Wth Nature. He finds time to regain his authentic self in nature. The Y-stick represents duality of life (Yin and Yang, male and female) stemming from the same earth source. This oak tree knows his innermost thoughts, his confidante and friend right there behind him giving him power.
4. Gift. Puctuated again by having to wear the mask in the ‘real world’ he acts with duty in his community.
5. Work. The same image as the first but without the ceremony. The tree can be seen in the background as he works to heal the land and inspire his life work.
Sun Bear et al. The Path of Power (1987) New York, Fireside. Available on line at: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PHkrDv5oiUQC&printsec=copyright#v=onepage&q&f=false [Last accessed 26/2/17].
(Also see previous post for references to photographic practitioners who were influential in the planning of this assignment).
Self-Evaluation against Assessment Criteria:
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
In this assignment I’ve tried to capture the essence of the shamanic practitioner both at a physical and personal level, gained through a sincere insight into his ways and beliefs.
In addition to achieving this personal reflection into the life of the subject, I am satisfied that the work portrays something about my own life too – the juggling of personas, the frustration of having to fulfil multiple roles in society and the idea of wearing a ‘mask’ to be accepted as normal.
Nature plays a large part of the shamanic practitioner’s belief system and the outdoor backgrounds were specifically chosen to augment the visual interpretation of his spiritual path. These are alternated with indoor shots to emphasise the conflicts he lives with. They are real places of significance made to work photographically, rather than places with aesthetic value with an imaginary story behind them.
The first and last shots are intentionally similar in subject matter but with different backgrounds. This is to raise questions about how the stereotypical shaman is perceived versus the authentic work he undertakes for himself and his community. Society would probably view the first image as the ‘real’ one whereas that it not actually the case, as I hope the work reveals. In both images he is fundamentally doing the same thing.
Similarly, the supermarket shots are given background context despite this not being feasible without the use of a composite image to add the background in afterwards. I have learned that it is valuable to pre-visualise how the shot needs to look then to find practical a way of achieving it.
Quality of outcome
Im pleased with the final outcome of the assignment, particularly in light of the challenges I had at the beginning with finding an approach i was happy with. I believe the work presents as coherent, showing how the shamanic practitioner moves between the conflicting needs of a spiritual path and living in the real world.
I questioned myself as to whether it was appropriate to use photoshop to add in the background afterwards. I’m satisfied that this is acceptable for several reasons:
- I was clear on the required outcome but this was not possible by other means
- It was a good opportunity to build my photoshop skills. This was achieved through making the suportmarket shot the background layer the using a ‘layer mask’ to erase the foreground layer (with the subject) to reveal it. I’m sure with time and experience my photoshop skills will improve but I’m happy with the result
- The subject remains the principal element in the shot rather than the background. The use of photoshop is merely to add in the required background not to change the essence of the shot in any material way (through distortion, filters, etc).
Demonstration of creativity
Here I’ve tried to juxtapose the shamanic practitioner’s view on life between the two realms he inhabits by moving the visual mask from one persona to another. Backgrounds, costume and sequencing all play a part in revealing this to the viewer.
While perhaps overused in ‘Instagram culture’ images, I feel that the square format is justified here. It highlights the idea of being constrained in a ‘box’ by society (and further reinforced by a physical box in one of the images). The slightly claustrophobic feel that a square format can bring underlines this further.
Although used for practical reasons, the use of photoshop for a background is acknowledged as being a risk.
In this assignment I’ve attempted to show how I’ve been inspired by a variety of contemporary practitioners of recent years (Parr, Gawain Barnard, Clare Strand). Challenged with a block as to how to approach this assignment Also ventured outside of the course recommended reading list to find stimulating new ways to inspire my creativity (Ingledew).
I’ve found beneficial to split the assignment into multiple blog posts – one covering the research and planning, a separate one for the final submission. This has allowed me to draw a line under the planning and present the assignment as a discrete and separate piece of work.