Category Archives: Practitioners

Authenticity and Personal Voice

https://discuss.oca-student.com/t/authenticity/6325

Interesting discussion on the OCA discussion forum which caught my eye because I’m thinking a lot about personal voice as I approach Level 2 and a sense of authenticity in others was such a key part of my I&P Assignment 5 just completed.

 

Andrew makes the distinction with cats:

“when the work of photographers is researched as the basis for a piece of work ‘does anyone know a photographer who has worked with cats jumping out of windows’, which is then used as an inspiration for a series of cats jumping out of windows. This seems too contrived to produce authenticity. Whereas, ‘I saw a series of cats jumping from windows and wondered how it would feel to be that cat’, which is then used to make photos while jumping from objects speaks to an authentic interest of the photographer.”

 

Like I’ve done in Assignment 5 – taking clear inspiration from Arbus in the method of approach, relating to subjects and highlighting less ‘normal’ members of society -for the Assignment to work I had to internalise this and expresss it in my own way.  I’m genuinely interested in exploring how individuals relate to place in a spiritual way and find their own path away from the mainstream religions.  I hope this diversity and authenticity (in them) shows through in the result.

 

Clive W adds that “the degree is all about finding out; who you are as a photographer, what you want to photograph and why. It’s investigative.”

It makes sense now why the course advocates that I take risks, discover, explore.  It’s this self exploration and learning how to express it using a camera that is so important.

 

Looking back, I can see that the early signs of developing a personal voice started to appear late in Context and Narrative, then developed steadily over Identity and Place. Reflecting on my own work now themes around personal spirituality crop up again and again, as does a relationship with the land around us.  At one point I feel quite disheartened with I&P and the focus on people and portraits, I yearn to say more about the places we occupy again, our relationships with our environment.

By contrast, in Assignment 5 I absolutely relished working with people and portraits, enjoying every shoot and resolving to continue as a personal project.

 

As these themes crystallise into a personal voice it looks clear that I’ll better relate to subjects who actually say something about me.

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Assignment 5: Final Submission

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Commentary

People are increasingly turning away from mainstream religion and are defining their own unique spiritual paths through an uptake of Buddhist and Hindu practices such as mindfulness and yoga.  One of the fastest growing spiritual paths in the west is now actually paganism, as people seek to rediscover the native sources of inspiration perhaps followed by our Druid and Norse ancestors.

As people find new spiritual identities, the concept of a spiritual place is also changing dramatically.  Until recently the term would only be used to describe buildings such as churches and mosques.  However an increasing number of people would now describe nature, an historic site or even their home as their personal ‘church’.

In this assignment I wanted to explore the identities of these people.  Not as freaks or social curiosities, but a celebration of their authenticity – daring to be who they truly are in a western society ruled by convention and traditions.  I discovered that for some of these people, forging their own meaningful spiritual path meant major life upheaval and sacrifice.  I also wanted to explore the relationship between these new-age spiritual seekers and their special place.

My approach to the work was to purchase an advertisement on social media, asking for volunteers who would be prepared to be photographed for an art project depicting them practicing their spiritual path in a place important to them.  A strong and diverse response allowed me to select from a range of people.  However a major logistical challenge lay in being able to combine the demands of a full time job with travel to locations around the UK and meeting the Assignment deadline.  The work presented here is therefore only the start and has opened the door to a longer term personal project.

With the exception of the first image (Glastonbury Tor) which contains a personal reflection, in each case my approach was to interview the subjects beforehand and learn about them, their own spiritual paths and special places.  They each played a major role in defining the shot as I wanted all aspects of it to reflect their authentic self.  I guided them on pose, gaze and position in addition to selecting the lighting and composition.  They chose the location, props and clothing.

For example, the Priestesses of Avalon were keen to show how their chosen path allowed them to be strong, independent women within a spiritual community.  I therefore included two people in this image to suggest the power of relationships.  Conversely, the Druid found his inspiration alone in nature; the Pagan artist in her riverside studio surrounded by her previous works.

In conclusion, the work sets out  to provide a glimpse into how people are finding their true identities in the very diverse spiritual paths found in Britain today.  It aims to portray the deep relationship between them and the places that inspire and empower them to be their authentic selves.


Images

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Pilgrims and seekers, Glastonbury Tor

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Mandi. Sacred Crafter. Somerset

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Steve, Ovate Druid, Doll Tor Stone Circle, Derbyshire

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Elaine, Pagan Artist, Staffordshire

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Tesesa, Sacred Sound Bath, Slitting Mill

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Janet and Dawn, Priestesses of Avalon, Glastonbury Goddess Temple

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Sarah, Moon Mother, Derbyshire


Reflection and Self Assessment

Demonstration of technical and visual skills (40%)
Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
All the images are tied together cohesively by being in a landscape format (despite being portraits).  As well as keeping the frame dimensions consistent for the set, this subtly reminds us that there is more than just a portrait here – the landscape it is set in is just as important to the subject’s identity.
To decide upon the sequence of the images I printed all of them as small 5×7 proofs then spread them on a table.  This allowed me to play with various combinations.I did consider whether the ‘Pagan Artist’ fitted aesthetically with the rest of the set but decided to keep it in.  This is because the whole point of the work is to show diversity.  If some seem not to ‘fit’ with the rest then that is exactly how these people are in real life!  The rhythm of the set is supposed to change with each image – dark, light, muted, bold, inside, outside.

Given more time I would have liked to have included another image of a lady called ‘Ellen of the Ways‘ who lives in woodland and wears stag antlers to connect with her spirit energies.  But the journey to the Scottish Highlands where she lives was not possible in the timeframe I have available to me.

As described under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I had to pre-plan various combinations of lighting –  including the use of coloured gels on off-camera flash – to portray a sense of how the environment is perceived by the subject.  In contrast to the creative lighting used in some, the Druid is shot with very natural lighting, echoing his connection to the natural world and trees around him.

I consider that the real test of success for this project is whether the subjects like the images and feel that they reflect their spiritual identity well.  I’m pleased that all have been very well received with the Sacred Sound Bath lady declaring that ‘it is the only photo of myself that I like!’

 

Quality of outcome (20%)
Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a
coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.
 
I’m less satisfied in that I would like to have done more.  However, the demands of full time work and logistics of travel are limiting the pace at which I can get the photographs.  This is compounded by bad weather, travel and the onset of Christmas holidays, meaning that prospective subjects are now unavailable.  I do intend to continue this as an ongoing personal project.
The project required a lot of preplanning.  I was very glad that I got to know the subject, planned the shot then arrived with a clear plan and the right photographic gear.  In some cases I tested lighting setups at home in advance to save time with the subject.  One required a long walk and so carrying everything ‘to be on the safe side’ was simply not viable.For several of the shots I used a tripod even though this was not technically necessary.  This allowed me to fix the composition and focus on staying engaged with the subject.  I found this to be a great help and will definitely do it again.  This was a tip provided to me by my tutor in the feedback from Assignment 1.

The First image suggests that the viewer may wish to come with us on a journey to see something new and spiritual.  It invites the viewer to consider that some places are pilgrimage locations rather than just tourist attractions.  What are people seeking?  What are they searching for?  The image also introduces the visual cue of a ‘path’ to echo the spiritual paths we will explore.

The final image, Moon Mother, looks out of frame to the right and towards the setting sun.  The moonlight is behind her, supplemented by flash (the image was actually taken on a full moon).   It therefore symbolises the end of something and the start of something else, finishing the set of images in a logical manner.

See the further comments above regarding selection and sequencing.

For Assessment, the images will be printed A4 and presented as physical prints.

 

Demonstration of creativity (20%)
Imagination, experimentation, invention,
development of a personal voice.
 
In this work I’ve tried to bring a fresh and interesting angle to the primary themes of the course: ‘identity’ and ‘place’.  I have not seen this aspect of spirituality explored in journals such as the British Journal of Photography before (the closest being Tomasso Fiscalletti’s study of Shamanic Practitioners in 2016; http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/10/photographing-shaman-women-in-south-africa/#closeContactFormCust00)
Possibly the most creative image is The Moon Goddess.  This shot attempts to portray the transient and illusive qualities of moonlight by using  a very long exposure combined with flash.  The off-camera flash was fitted with a pale blue gel to simulate the moonlight.  I then asked the model to move out of shot before the end of the exposure, allowing a small amount of the background to show through her cloak, creating that ethereal, ghostly aesthetic to the image.For the Sacred Sound Bath, I wanted to create a sense of being in a tranquil  ‘bath’.  To create this effect I hid two off-camera flash heads fitted with green and blue gels behind the gongs.  A third flash was set up to provide some fill light from the camera.  I balanced the three manually using a light meter before taking a test shot.

The Priestesses of Avalon are lit by a single flash head fitted with a brolly.  They were celebrating Samhain (Hallowe’en) at the time which marks the influence of the dead ancestors on our lives.  Combining this lighting with the temple background I sought to show both light (for the living)and shadow (for the dead) as a metaphor for their beliefs at this time.

 

Context (20%)
Reflection, research, critical thinking(including learning logs).
Diane Arbus has been a major inspiration for this project in the way that she was able to win the confidence of individuals from more eclectic sectors of society and help them to feel positive about themselves in front of the camera.  It would be easy to make the subjects feel like freaks in front of the camera if not approached and photographed sensitively.
I’ve sought to follow a similar path here, identifying people with less than conventional spiritual paths and celebrate this rather than denigrate them.In practival terms this meant  befriending them beforehand, talking sincerely about their path with empathy and understanding before even bringing a camera long.  Some of these people reported to have suffered ridicule in the past for their beliefs and they wanted to be assured that this was not going to happen here.

Contact Sheets

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Assignment 5: Firming up the approach and asking for models.

I have now settled on the idea of taking a series of images of spiritual people in their own special place.  I want the subjects to come from a variety of less common spiritual paths such as pagans, witches, shamans, etc. But rather than make them look like freaks, I want to present a dignified and empathic view of them in their land, their homes, living their lives fully.

One inspiration for the project is the empathic yet curious approach of Diane Arbus. Finding humanity’s more interesting people yet not making fun of them in any way. Before shooting I first need to know them.

To help find suitable people, I placed an advert in Social Media, paying to ‘Boost’ it’s visibility to a much wider audience than my own friends:


So far I’ve had a variety of people contact me from the Midlands, Scotland, south coast and London.  They include Druids, Shamanic Practitioners, Witches, Faerie artists, Moon Mothers and Priestesses of Avalon.  So the idea certainly looks viable.

I’ve now contacted all who have expressed an interest.  The next step it to work with each to decide:

  • Logistics -I work full time so we need to agree when we can meet to shoot
  • Understand more about them and what they do in their special place. This will allow me to plan the shoot to a degree. I want it to be collaborative with them feeling part of it, proud of how they are being portrayed.
  • My assignment deadline is 11 December, so I need to see if this looks achievable once plans are in place, and let my tutor know if not.

‘Photography is now over’ – Wim Wenders

It was a bit startling to read this when 1/3 of the way through a photography degree, especially coming from Wim Wenders, my favourite film director and a keen photographer himself!

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/12/wim-wenders-interview-polaroids-instant-stories-photographers-gallery?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Wenders, who created Paris, Texas and Until the end of the world, makes the argument that “It’s not just the meaning of the image that has changed – the act of looking does not have the same meaning. Now, it’s about showing, sending and maybe remembering. It is no longer essentially about the image”.

I would take the view that photography has always changed perceptions about how we see, and always will. Neipce, Fox Talbot and Daguerre opened the door for people to see themselves perhaps for the first time unadulterated by a painter’s vision. Sontag argued in the 70’s that Photography was undermining our sense of empathy through constantly seeing war images.

The ‘selfie generation’ is driving one such paradigm shift in ‘seeing’ right now. I believe that to be Wenders’ key point when he talks about ‘Now it’s about showing, telling and maybe remembering’ instead of having “produced something that was, in itself, a singular moment. As such, it had a certain sacredness. That whole notion is gone.”

Firstly, outside of the ‘selfie culture’ i’m not sure that I agree with him.  There is a thriving commiunity of contemporary photographic artists as well as installation artists using the medium as a tool for displaying their work.

Looking at the selfie culture itself, he has a point.  But Pictorialism, abstract and other movements may come and go as Wenders laments, but the fundamentals of photography are unchanged as it evolves as an art form. i.e. it is for the photographer to derive meaning from what he sees before him and communicate that meaning through an image.

I do agree that an intended meaning of “Look! Me at the Eiffel Tower doing a duck face” on a selfie isn’t very stimulating to most people.

Martin Kollar – This Place

This caught my eye, so saving to my blog for reference.

Kollar’s This Place is an example of work that contains few people but says a lot about how and where they live.

Set in Israel, Images of people-less settlements eerily suggest clean, modern living while at the same time suggest isolation, abandonment and lonliness.  There are signs of life everywhere – building, shops, children making ramps out of junk to play on -but noone to be seen.  Their abence makes you womder whether an air raid alarm has sounded? People fled in fear? Disputed settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip? The tension in the lives of these people is clear without them being, in the main, visible.

http://www.this-place.org/photographers/martin-kollar/

Laura Letinsky

Canadian photographer Letinsky’s still lifes resemble the aftermath of a restaurant table, fruit peelings and dirty crockery arranged in an apparently haphazard but actually carefully placed layout.

Why would Letinsky apply all the meticulous control over lighting, perspective and placement as for any normal still life in order to recreate a ‘pile of washing up’?

It could be as simple as Keith Arnatt’s Rubbish Tip, or Tillmans’ exploration of the aesthetic beauty in discarded items.  But that would not be consistent with her careful placement of items with all the attention to detail of a normal still life study.

I find that I admire her work a lot, noting how it is “a vehicle to explore the tension between the small and minute and larger social structures“. 

Although carefully placed and so storytelling rather than historical in nature, I feel like a historian gazing over a map of a battlefield when I view it.  Where was the power around the dinner table? Did the meal end amicably or with someone getting up to leave? Were passions high or convivial?  A landmark birthday or celebration?  The detritus on the table resembles the fallen soldiers on the battlefield, the dirty plates their bombed-out garrisons and hides.  I often perceive elements of our human condition and relationships in her images, all backed by crisp white linen.

Letinsky talks about how “photography conflicts with and constrains our sense of our environment by reinforcing certain ideas we have about perception.”  I’m not confident that I fully understand her point here, but it could be a reference to how we take and consume photographs, reinforcing these perceptions unconsciously as we go in order to make thing fit our model of the world.  The plain white tablecloths may well invite us to view the images – and the human behaviours they represent – with a fresh backdrop, not influenced by our prejudices and past experiences.

 

Alfred Stieglitz: Clouds

Reading Sontag’s On Photography again, Chapter 5 introduced me for the first time to the cloud formations of Alfred Stieglitz,  taken between 1922 and 1935.

For some time I’ve been collecting my own series of cloud images, a few of which are shown here, for apparently similar reasons to Stieglitz in that:

  1. They are aesthetically pleasing to look at:
  2. They can “represent corresponding inner states, emotions and ideas

Clouds can be transient, heavy, light, mysterious, forbidding, domineering or airy.  They can influence moods and reflect them.  Of course they can also be changed for better or worse by man in the form of contrails, hinting that the scars man makes on our environment.

So are they images about people or the clouds themselves?  What does choosing to take the photograph, like or dislike it reveal about us as people?

There is something disorientating about an image without any ground.  Yet looking up is such a natural thing to do.  Are these Landscapes? Skyscrapes?  Naturescapes?  The decision to include or exclude the ground has a significant effect on how the image is viewed, becoming abstract formations by the simple action of cropping or selective framing.

http://www.phillipscollection.org/research/american_art/artwork/Stieglitz-Equivalent_Series1.htm

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