Have you ever had someone tell you that instead of taking a photograph that "you should enjoy the moment"? I have on numerous occasions, and I cannot say that to me it always makes sense. To some extent we can all agree that it is enjoyable to stand back, take a breath and just enjoy being in a place at a particular time. It's a moment in time that only you can enjoy from your view point, not just visual perspective but what we see is effected by our emotions, our beliefs and by what it took us to get to that moment in place. So I guess in many ways I can understand the notion that instead of taking a photo it is nice to experience the singular moment in time and space that is yours and will never be anyone else’s.
On the flip side what if perhaps we understood that for some people this moment is just as enjoyable, or if not even more enjoyable by looking at it through a lens. I am not a professional photographer and more than likely never will be, but I will probably be a camera geek for the rest of my life. Without opening up another debate some people don't view photography as art but for the purpose of my discussion I believe it is an art-form. Throughout time art has evolved in terms of detail and interpretation in more ways than we can often imagine, but in almost all cases the art has served to represent something. This purpose of representing the “moment” is what I believe I try and capture when I open that shutter; and it only dawned on me on my recent trip to Laos and Vietnam.
For years I have loved photography and have taken many classes at college to develop my knowledge both about the camera and the holy grail of learning to taking a good photo. I had been the shy kid in the corner at family parties hiding behind the camera and had enjoyed the magical moments developing my first prints in a dark room. My trusty Olympus OM1 travelled with me everywhere until 2012 it broke and I was left without my beloved rolls of 35mm film. Not being able to afford a replacement the itch was scratched briefly by an addiction to the square format of Instagram. In 2013 I moved into the digital world with the nostalgic looking Olympus OMD EM5 which in many ways resembled my trusty OM1. At first I was like a kid in a candy shop taking photos of everything. I no longer had to pay to develop my film, I was free from the shackles of affording my next roll of Ilford 400 and I could take 400 photos of anything and not worry about the costs. Without realising back then (less than two years ago), the “moment” was lost. Noticing that most of my photos were pretty awful I thought I would enrol onto a new college course. Where better to study than where I first started, SCOLA college in Sutton Surrey working for my City and Guilds. This is where things started to change. Week by week we were set tasks and offered critique; not just from fellow students but also our lecturer Riccardo Carlucci (Ric). The ‘artistic’ side to photography was then slowly building up inside as Ric would notice things in photos that I didn’t even know I had taken. He would point out particularly sharp focusing in an area I hadn’t even intended, or an odd person walking in the distance that added something to a photo. Being much more conscious of what the photo could ‘say’ to others, I started to what now I can only describe as 'feeling a moment through a lens'.
Not knowing it at the time the weekly critiquing of my photos led to questioning myself when I took any photo. We were told to plan all our photos and not just shoot our coursework photos without research and to think of the variables or problems that we may face when out on a location. The chore of planning and the lack of spontaneity was quite disheartening. The entire process seemed almost scientific. The Holy Grail of taking a photo was answered, it wasn’t an enlightening process it felt like a Dummies Guide How to Take a Good photo. I’m sure this isn’t what Ric or the City and Guilds course would want to hear as I imagine they would hope the entire course is fun from end to end. Lucky for them this is where the criticism ended, as what I hadn’t realised is this planning process does become habitual and without noticing the transition soon you can plan a photo and critique yourself in frame and more improtantly in the moment. For example you wouldnt just take ten photos, but instead you watch where people were walking in a frame and would ideally take the one photo at the right time by judging the rhytm of their step. All of the practice work I felt I had struggled through meant that this process got quicker and quicker and soon enough the feeling of ‘being in that moment’ returned.
The above photo was taken in Hanoi in November 2015. It was taken when sitting on a balcony waiting for my girlfriend (Katherine) to finish getting ready. I was about 60 meters away and took this using a zoom lens with 35mm focal length equivalent of 600mm. It’s hard to appreciate from the photo as you don’t see the hubbub of cars and mopeds racing below me but it was an incredibly noisy morning. From the photo you can see the woman is using some scissors. When taking the photo I thought what was that noise? I turned around to see if my girlfriend was standing behind me, not being there I spun around to try take a photo of the pop up snack wagon and heard the noise again. It soon became apparent that the noise I could somehow hear was her using her scissors. “Snip, snip, snip”. Slightly taken back by my superhero like hearing I took the photo and didn’t think too much more of it.
The photo above was then taken a few hours later. We walked past a dark room and I peered in until my eyes adjusted and could see it was a hairdresser arranging her hair. Hard again to see in the photo as I used a higher ISO setting but this room when walking in the sunny streets of Hanoi was comparitively pitch black. It dawned on me again that for some reason I was taking in my surroundings in an odd way. I wasn’t just looking at the busy traffic and colonial buildings but also looking into the darkness, through the trees, in the gutters and hidden corners of the city looking with not just my eyes but also my ears. With my camera hanging over my shoulder I was becoming far more immersed in the moment than I was before. Certain noises and hidden areas of the city became accessible and as I walked through the cities of Laos and Vietnam. I got see things that I feel I could have easily missed. I am certainly not saying that others wouldn’t have seem them, but for some reason without my old trusty OM1 breaking, without me buying a new digital camera I couldnt use, without SCOLA, without the inspiration of Ric, without those good friends that have always encouraged me to follow my creative side, without Katherine planning a trip of a life time, I don’t think I would see the things the same way. Yes we had moments when myself and Katherine didn’t take photos and we did stand and take in the surroundings, sharing a moment that we will always have, one that doesn’t need clarity or a medium to cement it. However, now feeling that there is no set way to take a good photograph, there is no Dummies Guide or Holy Grail; that when I take a photo it is me behind that lens, it is my moment that I can feel and hear all that is around me. And as much as I might take a good photo to show my friends and family when I get home, this is in many ways my eternal moment that I enjoyed all the more through looking through a viewfinder.
I am sure this sounds like a bit of defensive rant, but I wouldn’t ever judge anyone for not taking a photo, or tell them that they aren’t enjoying a moment because they are doing it differently to how I do. All I know is that when I take a photo, it’s not just what I see but what I feel, and that’s why when I close my left eye to look through that view finder, I am not just enjoying the moment, but living in it too.