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Masterclass, Misconceptions and Branding yourself as a photographer…

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Had the last session in Groningen in Holland last week with the Noordelicht Masterclass.  Another great couple of lecturers in David Birkitt  (MD of DMB – rep of photogs including Martin Parr) and Rob Van Bracht (Creative Director at brnstrm) and of course with the excellent mentoring from Lars Boering and Marc Prust again.

Looking at people’s work develop over the year and seeing projects come to a conclusion has been greatly satisfying and a humbling journey to have been a part of.

It is a shame that the Noordelicht institute itself is threatened with closure as Government funds might be withdrawn for what seems to be a new Government’s attempt in the Netherlands to push it’s own political agenda on the Dutch art world– Art and politics never mix and its politicisation is the first sure sign of cultural and spiritual decline in a relatively rich country like the Netherlands.  I hope sense prevails and we don’t yet see the demise of yet another fine bastion of photography.

One of the most revealing and interesting aspects from my point of view had nothing to do with the course itself but was rather a series of fascinating conversations I had with a fellow student (which I have re-told here with his express permission).

During the entire course, my colleague  – who is an established wedding photographer in his country, had expressed a great desire to go into conflict photography.  He was driven by the idea of diving into the worst depths of depravity and chaos that the world’s war zones have to offer  – building up real experiences and coming back with photographs that have meaning and a place of significance in the world.  I guess being very honest, it is the way I wanted to go a decade ago when I did my LCC course and went to live in Africa.  But I found it ironic, that getting away from this type of photography was the number 1 reason I did the course in the first place.

Won’t dwell too much on the financial disaster that is being a stringer photographer and doing this type of photography as I’ve dealt with it comprehensively in a past blog (Introspection, shooting vid and the way forward).  Although in the last part of the Masterclass in Feb, Magdalena Herrera highlighted the point that as Photo Editor of GEO France she was swamped by emails during the Libyan civil war by photographers saying things along the lines of ‘Hi! I’m in Libya.. USE ME!!’  Most major publications can’t use such pics anymore and if they needed them, they would go straight to one of the news wire agencies anyway (who don’t pay stringers well at all as I have mentioned before).

Most of the convos I had with my colleague were more philosophical on the worth of war type photography and on the authenticity of the experiences and stories that almost come de rigeur now with the pics.

There are many misconceptions and clichés with war photography banded about: I used to have this notion myself that stylistically, this type of pics should be ruled by content and it was wrong – even morally so – to try to mess around with the composition when taking such graphic images.  I used to rant at photographers like Alixandra Fazzina (NOOR) who describes herself as a ‘war artist’ (OK – however good her images are, I still flinch at the term).  But the point is, that the well-trodden path of taking straight up content-dominated images in war zones – done so by greats such as Don McCullin and Tom Stoddart, no longer has the same impact on the viewer as it did 30 or 40 years ago.  The general public have seen these pics a million times before and no longer react in the same manner as they once did.  I am now of the firm belief that adding compositional elements and stylising these images – making them look ever-so slightly artistic even helps such work to stand out and be noticed again.  And that’s what is ultimately crucial.

I am now also of the solid opinion that it is a dis-service to the art of photography itself – which is (or at least should be) the fundamental reason many risk their lives to go to conflict areas to take such images – not to stylise and have some strong compositional element to them.

More importantly though – are the stories and the way many war-type photographers brand themselves that now bugs me.  As the sailors in the colonial days of old (in true Heart of Darkness fashion), came back to regale ordinary folk with their magical tales, many conflict photographers tell of their dark woes, walking around almost with the weight of the world on their shoulders (that at closer inspection you realise is just a big chip).

Don’t get me wrong.  I have seen many horrific scenes in my time on the African Continent that have profoundly affected and disturbed me.  But – in my humble opinion – to go on and on about them is a thinly-veiled and cheap attempt to promote your own work and help establish and brand yourself as a serious war/conflict photojournalist.

As I have mentioned, I am starting to shoot a small doccie on child assault here in South Africa.  While I have already seen some pretty strong scenarios, I must ask myself the rhetorical question – what right do I have to use such dark experiences to basically promote the work when I will only see them and experience them first-hand for a few months, when those around me have been working in-depth with the issue for over a decade in some cases now?

Moving away from photojournalistic type of photography has also been a profound experience for me in terms of moving away from the stereotypes of how one brands him or herself as a photographer and finding a more unusual and unique voice.  In the past, when I was more insecure about what I did and produced, I would def feed right into these stereotypes.  About a year and a half ago, I decided to very much scr*w it and just be myself and to use my own unique voice in representing my work however anathema it might be to the normal stereotypes.

An off-beat example here – but I am a die-hard footie fan and sometimes marrying that with the often pretentious and snotty world of photography (borne out of the great insecurity spawned by a violently transforming profession) can on occassion be hard.  That’s why meeting people like Rob Van Bracht was refreshing.  While being a well-established and imaginative creative director, it became apparent (in the pub after the lectures!) that we were both die-hard football fans having travelled with our respective teams to matches (him Ajax?!  And me Arsenal of course!).

Even in photography, if you act and be yourself – and not let clichés define you – you will eventually attract the people and form strong professional bonds that will 1 day help your work and help you find a great pro-personal balance in life.  This profoundly different attitude has also affected other aspects of my work too:

Recently when working on my child assault film project, 1 of the forensic doctors – who I now see as crucial to my film – asked me where the film will end up.  I started with the usual spiel about interest in the original multimedia piece from certain international pubs but now I am searching for a production company that might take on a larger doccie-version (after getting a competent show-reel together) but stopped half way.

“You know what?” I said.  “who cares where it’s going to end up.  Even if it’s only ever seen by friends and family, this is a chance for you to voice your own opinions – get all your emotions and frustrations on film and get everything off your chest.”

That’s what it’s slowly becoming for me.  A chance to give these amazing people I am honoured to be working with – even for a brief moment – some form of catharsis.  And I could see in their eyes that they understood and it worked.

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