I’m writing a reflective piece on my trip to Rwanda and while browsing for inspiration, I bumped into this goldmine of wisdom and thought. David Foster Wallace is considered to be one of the greatest American writers of his time. This is a commencement speech that reflects on our thinking and awareness. It discusses our most reflexive and unconscious cognitions, how that impairs our awareness. I think this has tremendous application to any profession, educational level, etc. Photography is no exception. If you have 23 minutes today, please take the time to watch this video.
For those of us that prefer shooting street photography, active seeing is paramount. But our visual delights are rarely unfiltered by our own thoughts and prejudices. I’d love to hear the thoughts of those who follow this blog on how these ideas can carry over to Art and photographs.
Part Two (try to ignore the hideous music at the tail end):
kid with ball. rugerero, rwanda.
unable to have real soccer balls, these kids tie together pieces of plastic with rope to make a ball.
the view from our lunch table—not bad! a crater lake in uganda
children’s feet. kigali, rwanda
this empty remembrance panel is one of many empty panels at the ntarama genocide memorial site. five thousand rwandans were slaughtered here in 1994 with clubs, grenades, machetes, and gunfire inside the church (now memorial site). but no names are written because entire families were murdered and many don’t remember exactly who fell here. i don’t think i’ll ever understand how one can pick up a machete and cut down a life-long neighbor.
as originally hoped, my rwanda experience has been transformative on numerous levels: perceptions of medicine, a glimpse of third-world issues, empathy, reflections on photography and art, personal growth, appreciation of nature, etc. but since this tumblr is a catalog of my thoughts on photography, i’ll spare you the details about what i’ve been doing here as an anthropologist and medical student. that’s to be written in another lengthy reflection.
i’ve had enormous opportunity to take pictures and think about my work this summer. and this marks the beginning of something new. i’m not sure what, but something. when i return to the states, i’m trading in my canon lenses and 5dmk2 for a smaller, lighter, less obtrusive fuji xpro-1 system. i owe much of this decision-making to some work i’ve recently seen online and the challenges i’ve faced. i’ll detail a couple of realizations below.
growing as a photographer demands growth as a person:
the biggest and never-ending challenge is what you make of yourself after learning the basics of exposure. and with our 21st century digital cameras, “learning” exposure couldn’t be easier: “just set it and forget it!” afterwards is figuring out what to put within the frame, finding your own little special niche if you so choose. winogrand and cartier-bresson roamed the street. nachtwey and capa showed us scenes of conflict. avedon showed us what was vogue. luckily for me, susan sontag wrote about it all. rwanda’s been a catalyst in realizing that growing as an artist demands growing as a person, that to figure out who you are as a photographer requires understanding what makes you tick, what’s holding you back from improvement, the questions you’re most interested in asking, the scenes that make you feel most alive, what your passions really are. right now, i’m just copying everyone else. but that’s because i only have the vaguest sense of who i am and looking forward to the years to come. even still, i feel like many of my photographs are touristy “happy-snaps.”
better photography demands people skills:
here in rwanda, i’m a walking yellow highlighter everywhere i go. i stand out not only because i’m a foreigner, but i’m also chinese. i’m jackie chan, bruce lee, and jet li all in one. people stare and notice me long before i see them. some yell “muchinois” to denote a chinese person and the kids make “distorted cat calls at me,” their funny interpretations of what mandarin sounds like. attempting to take pictures here is a beastly exercise in cultural sensitivity and walking the fine line between curious vs. intrusive. to do it well takes skill, stealth, and lots of confidence. i’ve realized that in addition to my big-ass dslr flopping around like an extra limb, my own fear of rejection is one of the big biggest obstacles to more pictures, afraid that i might upset someone or disturb the peace. to some degree, getting better pictures requires incredible social awareness and non-threatening body language, especially when there’s a giant language barrier. too bad these skills can’t be taught in a youtube video or something. despite the enormous opportunities that i’ve had, i can’t help but feel that i’ve squandered a lot of it.
photography needs to feel less like a “commitment.”
this is 95% of the reason why i’m switching out of the dslr system. its sheer size and weight makes it feel like both a physical and mental commitment. it takes a conscious effort to walk out the door and lug it around, even for a walk. and somehow, i’ve gotten into the habit of only trying to see like a photographer when i’ve made the commitment to bring the camera around. photography—seeing—needs to be a constant celebration of the rich, visual world. i need to be constantly looking, unconsciously framing, at all times of the day. there shouldn’t be an on/off switch in my brain. somehow, i need to get rid of the “switch” impulse.
there’s also been a big internal conflict during this trip: a strange, self-created, dichotomy of the need to take photographs vs. “truly experiencing” what i’m seeing. i’m not sure how i’ve gotten to a point where taking photos oftentimes takes away from an experience. for example, i was brought to tears when i watched a cohort of rwandan children dance, sing, and play the drums for us. for a majority of the experience, i had to put my camera aside. it felt wrong behind the optical viewfinder, as if i was watching from a television instead of live, as if i was “missing out.” without the camera, i watched with heart. but through the viewfinder, those emotional impulses stopped and my intellectual mind took over: composing, looking at light, etc. i felt dissociated from the experience. somehow, i need to figure out how to seamlessly combine the two. cartier-bresson loosely described a great photograph as an act of love, mixed with a great deal of luck and preparedness. the problem is, the first two elements are the most difficult.
my interests gravitate towards the street and the unscripted:
i’m using the word “street” rather loosely here. “street” is anything in an unplanned, “un-contrived” manner, preferably outside of the house. regardless of how much i reflect, i still believe in jay maisel’s mantra: “i’m interested in photographing what i haven’t seen before.” and that’s about as close as i can come to isolating what i like to take pictures of. all i know is that regardless of how many times i visit paris, i don’t need to take pictures of just the eiffel tower because, well, i’ve seen a thousand previous versions of it. no matter what you’re interested in shooting—people, lulcatz, baskets, isolated trees atop hills, whatever—i think it’s an important subject for constant re-evaluation.
a wedding photog friend of mine asked me why i take photography so seriously, with all this analysis. i’ll admit that too much critique does sometimes take the fun out of the game. but it’s really who i am, the intellectual part being half the fun. then i can write diatribes about it afterwards!
i must acknowledge severin koller’s images, personal advice, and reflections on street photography as contributions to my thought process. one of his pieces can be found here.
i’d also like to thank josh gooden, a good friend of mine, as an outlet for discussing street photography.