The Art of EncouragementWritten by John Macpherson
A couple of things over the last few weeks really got to me. One made me annoyed, another…well…just moved me, with good old emotion. But all of it made me stop, and think.
First was the very peculiar decision by the judges in the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival Photography Competition to not award a winner. I’ve written about this here. Now, I’ve not seen the entrant’s work and maybe the judge’s criticism of it is wholly accurate, but they were still contractually obliged to determine a winner. However, all that aside, the aspect that really perplexed me was the way that (three of the four) judges, Ian Brown, Conrad Habing and Craig Richards subsequently used their privileged position as adjudicators as a platform to comment on the general state of photography in a rather vitriolic article titled “Humanity takes millions of photos every day. Why are most so forgettable?” in which they poured scorn on the Banff competition entrants and their work. Not content with the humiliation inflicted on entrants by not awarding a winner, they saw fit to further embarrass them in a national newspaper with comments such as:
Even the entries that were remotely in the neighbourhood of telling a story – and most were hopelessly lost – were edited incomprehensibly. (Not experimentally. Incomprehensibly.) In other words, the best photographic sequences taken by amateur and professional wilderness photographers alike had no perceptible story, and therefore no significance.
Conrad Habing, one of my co-judges, a former fine-art photographer who has since turned to painting, dubbed it “an incredible surge in mediocrity.” The entrants “were trying to make up for a lack of vision with a bag of tricks” – vision being “a point of view that says something about yourself.”
Another judge, Craig Richards – an internationally exhibited photographer, and the curator of photography at Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies – was even blunter: “People take photographs because they can, not because they should.”
Oddly, and despite the competition rules clearly stating what was actually required:
“….a set or series of photographs that are intended to tell a story or evoke emotions in the viewer. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order, or they may consist of non ordered photographs which may be viewed all at once or in an order chosen by the viewer to reveal their character and dynamics.”
….the judges seem to have been fixated only on ‘story’ and as they apparently could not discern any they dismissed everything else, which seems to have included ’emotion’ as well, going so far as to declare the whole lot so unutterably bad there wasn’t even anything worthy of a runner up award.
Author Ian Brown continued in his dismissal of the majority of current photography with the observation:
Maybe it’s harder to be moved by a photograph these days because there are so many of them……
The volume alone guarantees that most are forgettable. So why do we take them? For the same reason addicts are addicted to anything: to kill the pain of awareness, the uncomfortable difficulty of actually seeing. I admit that this is just a theory, but I watch tourists take the same four photographs minute by minute, hour by hour, day after day in downtown Banff, and it’s a strangely upsetting experience.
Addicts? Pain? Upsetting?
If I was a first-time visitor to Banff, with my family, sharing a moment that was memorable in a place that is so impressive, we’d like to have that image to remind us, to pass on to our grandchildren. It would be a little emotional memento of our family, and of the mundane beauty and significance of our lives. Not “killing the pain of awareness” but instead celebrating that awareness – the joy of the new, the here and now, and just being ourselves.
Renowned Photo Editor and writer Stella Kramer, in a thoughtful piece on her blog “Support: shouldn’t it be a two-way street?” teases out a little bit more about the responsibility we in the photographic ‘community’ have towards each other, and the power that social media enables us to wield:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about support and what it means. Is it something you can ask for, but not give back? Are we obligated to return the favor, or is it even important to worry about that?
Sometimes self-interest has to be balanced by the greater good; the greater needs of the community. How else can we protect and promote what is great about photography? I don’t mean scratch each other’s backs, I mean help others (if you can) to achieve their goals as well as your own.
Photographers have always been thought of as loners, and for some people they revel in that. But it’s through networking, and getting out, and talking with others, and reading about what’s going on that can help to create a stronger and more unified community.
This resonated for me as I’ve recently both sought advice through social media, and been asked to provide advice. Not just a casual “can you tell me what lens to use” piece of advice, but a request for deeply personal, observational and insightful comment on the worth and resonance of the work we do. And in both cases the interactions have been generously offered and graciously received, and been hugely rewarding for all concerned. And the important aspect of ‘mutually supportive’ ways of working such as kickstarter, is that the investment is as much in the individual as it is in the financial aspect of their project.
And then to eloquently underline Stella’s sentiments, I came across a very emotive post from Sabrina Henry, “Photographs that matter” where she talks of a dear friend and colleague Sue with whom she had shared many moments, as a friend but particularly as a photographer, and who has just passed away:
She was always though so much better than me in many ways. Sue knew what made people tick, how to work with their weaknesses and make them better versions of themselves. If there was potential in you, she would find it and make you believe in yourself. And it was that way with my photography. Unlike some people, she knew that you couldn’t tell a good photograph just by looking at it; you have to feel it. I would share my latest image with her and we’d spend time talking about it. When I made the picture above, she absolutely loved it and would come back and talk about it often. She felt the emotion of the empty chair and connected with the loneliness, the tender sadness of someone who was once there but no more. When she became ill, this picture became a symbol for what we knew was ahead but we refused to talk about it in those terms. Instead she used it to encourage me, to remind me to keep making photographs that mattered to her and to others. Along with just a handful of people, she has been the biggest supporter of my photography.
There was one other photograph Sue and I discussed. Following ART last year, I sent her links to a few blog posts people who had attended had written. She was particularly taken with this one by Jacob Lucas.
As she had with Matt’s picture, Sue asked me to let Jacob know how much she enjoyed this picture and how his work has had an impact on her. She wanted me to encourage Jacob to pursue that same kind of meaningful work. In many ways, Sue saw herself in this photograph and that’s the universality we always speak of when we talk about making pictures that matter. Just as its title “What Next“, I am sure as she looked to her future and the uncertainty of her family’s life without her, she had the same question but this picture gave her peace. She had no fear (perhaps only briefly in moments made up of seconds) and this is a reflection of the calmness she had about what was going to happen next.
And as is the way of the web, and its long reach, that image popped up again, tied to the ongoing story of mutual ‘support’ being explored by Sue, Sabrina and Stella, and now Jacob F Lucas. Jacob is a Seattle based photographer, and as the author of the image that had so moved Sue, he responded on his blog ‘Beyond Photography’….
The other day I received one of the most impactful and unexpected emails that I’ve ever received. It’s taken me a little while to fully understand and comprehend the contents of that email because put simply, what was said of my photography could well be the most important piece of feedback I’ve received thus far in my pursuit of my art.
The email came from my good friend and fellow photographer, Sabrina Henry. The email was about a friend of hers, Sue, who Sabrina had discussed photography with, discussed her own art with and discussed pursuits such as ART (Artist Round Table) that she’d developed to help others (myself included) with their own art. Until Monday, I had no idea that these discussions had taken place. Sabrina and Sue had in fact talked about ART experiences after the round table last year, and some of the attendee reactions (such as mine) at some length. I had no idea, but Sue fell in love with the image I posted, entitled “What Comes Next”, alongside my reaction post (included in the previous link, and on this post, above).
Tragically, Sue was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer late last year and passed away on Sunday. Sabrina had a chance to visit with Sue on Friday before she died, where Sue had an opportunity to again bring up my photograph. Sabrina’s email to me on Monday was to pass on Sue’s final thoughts on how much she enjoyed my image and how much it meant to her. The image brought her a peace and comfort, helped to allay concerns of her family left behind, and helped her to accept that she was about to move on from this life to what comes next. She wanted me to know that my art has an importance and to encourage me to keep pursuing it.
Which brings us full circle, and to those judges at Banff, who had an opportunity to…….well….simply, offer encouragement. To tease out the best in people, by example. And to make a difference, at best by finding something worth applauding, or at worst eloquently offering their guidance, thoughtful critique and motivation to entrants to try much much harder next time. But who instead chose a different course. Looking for ‘the story’ is a laudable aim. But to let that blinker you, and dismiss the storytellers and everything else they have to offer you, is an act you all may come to regret.
For me the “pain of awareness” is not something to stifle, but to celebrate, because it reminds us we’re alive. Jacob and Sabrina know that only too well, and so did Sue. And so do all those people in Banff with their cameras who are joyously shrugging off “the uncomfortable difficulty of actually seeing” and reveling in open-eyed wonder at all that surrounds them.
I’ll leave the last word to Jacob because it should serve as a reminder that what we each have to offer is considerable, but we may not ever know it, and those of us who do make that discovery should consider ourselves very, very lucky:
“I was floored when I read this. Humbled. Proud. Sad for my friend Sabrina who lost someone close to her. Sad for Sue and her family. Elated that my image could comfort someone so much at the end of their life. Shocked that my art could have such an impact. Grateful that someone thought to encourage me in such a way.”
(For information on ART – Artists Round Table 2013 events contact Sabrina Henry)