Photographing the City: Life on Sunday was one of the more challenging classes I’ve run. The lecture part went well and I think Matt boiled it down nicely with a clear framework and examples that drove his points home. But when we came to the walk itself the enormity of the brief came into view.
Construct a narrative. Tell a story.
A pretty picture or a striking composition wasn’t going to cut it here. We wanted a series of photos that spoke to each other, that established a theme. Fundamentally they had to be about something.
We took the students up to Victoria Square and told them to explore from the top of New Street to the entrance to the Library. Unlike the other classes we weren’t going on a walk, we were examining a space. We wanted them to get to know it, watch how it worked, identify the patterns and the shapes, get into the grain.
The first stumbling block was the enormity of subjects. Like kids in a sweetshop there was too much to choose from, especially the more they looked. Some tried imposing restrictions, narrowing in on a specific area or only taking a certain sort of shot. Others started a scrapbook, collecting themes to review later. Others just wandered around, letting the ideas settle. But it wasn’t plain sailing.
During the break in a cafe I discovered one student was so disappointed with their progress had deleted all their photos. That was a bit of a shock and caused me to invoke René Descartes and his pit of despair. As explained in this blog post the Enlightenment philosopher was trying to create a solid foundation for knowledge. As you do.
Descartes observes that many of the opinions he once had he now knows are not true, and, moreover, the basic principles which these opinions were based on are doubtful. So he resolves to “demolish everything completely and start again” and to “at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions”.
Having done this he kinda loses it and falls into a pit of despair, wallowing like a teenager until he finds the first rung of a ladder out to self-confidence and a better world. It’s something I’ve experienced a few times and I find it useful to show people who have progressed to that stage. Because it is progress and a good thing.
It looks a little like this:
You start off ignorantly thinking you’re awesome, but as you learn stuff you begin to doubt your awesomitude. Eventually you reach the point where your knowledge and awareness of your place in the canon exceeds your actual ability to such a degree that you consider giving up, even though your skills have improved. If you stick with it, though, eventually you begin to catch up with your high ideals whilst tempering them with deeper knowledge.
Here’s that graph again with another line and some different captions.
It’s worth watching the whole five minutes but the key bit is:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.
Back to the classroom and it seemed everyone had similar, if less drastic, problems. The other classes had been a breeze compared to this. Those who had produced good photos in the past tended to have played it safe with the brief while those who had pushed themselves to tell a story did so at the expense of their images.
Documentary photography is hard.
But while it might have been frustrating not to have taken the perfect set of photos in those two hours the “failure” was much more useful. Guiding someone to take a nice photo is easy but they don’t learn anything from the experience. There’s no learning going on, no deeper understanding. Letting someone fail might might seem harsh, and certainly doesn’t come under the category of smiley fun times, but helping them understand what happened and bringing them out of it is much more useful and sustainable result. You just have to ensure you don’t leave anyone behind, which is what the 90 minute critique period is for.
The next Life course, which we’ve renamed Stories as it’s more descriptive of the brief, is on July 15th though we plan on applying the lesson’s we’ve learned as tutors to the rest of the course.