For any serious photographer nothing is like working on a personal long-term project. If you want to develop your photography, make your creativity bloom, increase your energy and boost your self-esteem and confidence as a photographer, a long-term photo project will do all that for you. Such a project doesn’t have to be exotic at all or take place in a far-away-country. In fact the closer to your home-base the easier it is to follow through and use spare time whenever there is a chance. A personal long-term project can be grand and it can be small. It can be limited to your own backyard, like the project I have described before in the post Backyard Abstraction, or it can be a project about the world’s manual labourers as the famous photographer Sebastião Salgado has devoted a life time to.
The important thing is to devote yourself to a project you feel is important or speaks to you in some way or form and then stay devoted over a longer period of time. I mean keep going back, keep shooting, keep finding new ways to express the theme you have chosen, keep adding new images to the story. And keep doing it consistently even when at times it feels exhausting and nothing comes out of your attempt of shooting. Gradually you will merge into the project, it becomes you, and that’s when things start to take on a development of its own. By devoting yourself to a project over time you start to feel real ownership for the project, you will gradually relax with the subject—and the subject will relax with you, you lose all pretensions and any performance anxiety you may have. It all becomes about you and the subject and expressing that relationship.
“Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion… the subject must be something you truly love or hate.” This is according to another famous photographer, Dorothea Lange.
For a professional photographer as myself, long-term personal photography projects are the spice of life between the humdrum of every day life and shooting. It brings meaning and joy into my work. I can only recommend any photographer to devote time to a long-term project that feels important or inspiring to you—and it probably works the same way in any of the other art forms, too. The important thing is to start—now. Not keep planning it in your head and saying I’ll do it when I have time, or I just need to plan the project a little more. No, just start.
How long is a long-term project, then? There is no telling what is right when it comes to the time devoted to a long-term project. It can be months or it can be a life time. Only you know how long your project takes, and you probably don’t even know before it’s all done. One of my long term projects have been going on for more than 20 years—and still going on. Cuba has been my longest personal photo project to date. Not many posts ago I mentioned the farm I keep visiting in Cuba, where the members have become My Cuban Family. The farm is but a part of my project. Over the 25 years I have been returning to Cuba, I have tried to portrait and captured the changes is this contradictory country.
Each and everyone of us have a desire to become recognized for the artistic work we do—at least to some extent—whether we are professionals or amateurs; whether we are photographers—like me—or performing artists or something else; whether we are pure craftsmen (or -women) or genuine artists. We all want others to see, hear or feel our work, and we all want to be praised—at least that is what I think—for our artistic quality and originality. At the bottom of all this then lies the desire to become great artists—whatever that means.
That’s all fine, as long as it doesn’t become the motivation in itself for what we do. And it’s all fine if this desire doesn’t make us impatient and give up because we feel we get nowhere. I am not going to talk about what is success or not, or what it means to be a great artists or not, but I think we all hope for a certain development, artistically, and for our artistic reputation as well. I certainly know how frustrating it can be when you feel you have an idea or a great vision, but aren’t able to manifest it through your craft, simply because your craft isn’t developed enough. It takes time to understand the underlying rules of your craft or how to bring your creativity to life, it takes time to develop your artistry to a level where you feel comfortably able to express your vision. It might be a frustrating time of development, but just remember that’s how it’s been for all artists, even the greatest of all times.
There is no instant or fast success with creativity. It takes time. And that is part of what makes some artists so expressive, they let time work to their advantage. It’s also part of what makes being an artist so fulfilling; you never stop learning or improving—that is if you don’t make yourself stop.
Artistic development is like painting a house. When you start out you know you have hours—or more like days—of work ahead you. You keep at because you know that’s the only way it will get painted. You long for the day when it’s all done, but just because you aren’t able to do more than half a wall one day, you don’t give up, and you don’t give up even though you know you will have to give the house three coats of paint. You know that one day the house will be shining beautifully and newly painted. So it is with art and the artists. If you only know that your work won’t be shining from the first day, you will not give, up, but have an incentive to keep developing, to keep working. In reality it never stops. Just like painting. Because, of course, next year it’s the garage, and then the deck, and then the cabin by the sea, and before you know it, you are back painting that house again. It just never stops. And so it is with art. It never stops. You never stop developing as an artists, and isn’t that really what makes creative work so exciting?
You could say, I don’t like painting houses, so I hire someone to do it. Fine, no problem. But would you rather start buying art instead of making it yourself? You know what the really good thing about the cycle of painting your properties is? Next time around you are so much better and proficient than the previous time. And so it is with creativity and artistic work. In the end the development in itself is the reward for those of us who seek to express ourselves creatively or artistically.
Being a photographer means moving around in all layers of the society. You get to photograph the rich and the poor; you get to photograph the leaders and people at the other end of the ladder; you get to photograph those who are happy and those who are struggling to survive. For me it’s one of the huge attraction about being a photographer. Besides actually photographing, of course.
After having seen and photographed both the bright and dark sides of human life, you learn to appreciate whatever you experience of happy and good moments yourself—and I believe you start to see the world around you with more humility. Life is not one of the other, not for anyone. Some struggle more than others, and for some life comes easier than for others. There is no telling who will end up where—even when you are born on a bed roses.
Last week I got to photograph both extremes. First, I was fortunate enough to photograph the wedding of a lovely couple. A wedding is one of the happiest and most beautiful events in anyone’s life and for a photographer to be able to photograph this blissful moment in someone’s life is a gift and a blessing.
Some days later, I did a story about a horrible drug scene that has developed over time close to a rehabilitation centre. It was a place of sadness and misery. While I was interviewing and photographing some of the drug addicts, others were shooting up around me, some not being able to set the needle properly. Blood was flowing from a multitude of wounds. Just a few meters or yards away was a young guy completely passed out, laying across a staircase under a bridge. By the end of my visit, an ambulance arrived, this time it was a woman who had overdosed and needed to be taken to the hospital. The place was like entering Dante’s purgatory. In particularly that was true for an underpass. It was simply terrible. Rats were all over the place, it was filthy and full of garbage—and used syringes were all over the place. And then all walls tagged and littered. Not a place most people would want to stay.
Nevertheless, it’s really eye opening to visit and talk to the condemned of the society, to experience their heartbreaking and hopeless way of life, and then realize that they are just as much human beings as the rest of us, with the same dreams and the same desires.
It’s a quite a leap from the happiness of a wedding to the despair of drug addiction. Nevertheless, it’s all part of the human experience—if not for every single human being. Fortunately enough, one would add. However, being able to learn from the whole spectrum is often what makes working as a documentary photographer both fulfilling and such a learning experience.
Since my last post where I talked about the problems I—and the whole media business as such—is facing, I have received so much encouraging and positive feedback, I want to thank you all for such a wonderful response. I have used the week since to get started working on my new projects and feel good about it. However, it’s always a little scary to throw yourself into deep water. Either you learn to swim or you sick. I plan to do the former, but I guess this week’s Instagram is telling for my situation or my feeling.
Once a week—or every so often—I will display one of my photos captured and/or processed with Instagram over the last week. It’s a way for me to show photography that usually is quite different from my regular work. Except for the technical details beneath the pictures are displayed without any comments (well I guess I gave some comments this week), hoping they will stand on their own. But I still very much appreciate any comments you may have.
Facts about the photo: The photo was taken with my cell phone processed in the app Snapseed.
This weekend the long time head of state of Cuba, Fidel Castro, passed away. With his passing, an extraordinary era has come to an end. Not that Cuba will change much because of Fidel Castro’s demise, as he hasn’t been in charge of Cuba for ten years. When he in 2006 handed over the command to his brother, Rául, he also completely withdrew from the political scene.
Nevertheless, Fidel Castro was one of the most prominent and controversial head of states in the past century. He was a man of the cold war—and a master of playing its game. Rightly he will go down in the history books as the one who made the Cuban revolution happened—for better or worse—and with only 81 men began the revolt that finally kicked out the old dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Fidel Castro was controversial from beginning to end. Some saw him as a devil, others as a saving angle. No doubt, he was a complex character, and as a person probably somewhere in between these extremes. I believe he honestly had the better for the Cuban people in mind, during his 47 years in power, certainly in the beginning. At the same time it’s not possible to disregard the fact that he headed a repressive and in many ways undemocratic regime. In the end, though, I think he did more good than bad for Cuba.
I have followed the development in Cuba for 25 years. Although I never met Fidel Castro personally, I photographed him on many occasions. He put his mark on the Cuban society. The question now, is of course where Cuba is heading. Immediately no big changes, I believe. Not as long as one Castro brother is at the helm. But then? Not possible to predict.
Nobody likes to be manipulated. Not by a car salesman, not by politicians nor by a photograph. Of course when it comes to the latter, it depends both on individual preferences as well as the context the photograph is presented in. Nevertheless I think we all can agree upon the fact that there is a thin line between acceptable enhancement and deplorable manipulation. The question is; where do we draw that line? As for myself I am likely to accept almost anything that goes with art, but hardly anything done with a documentary photography.
We often think that manipulation is a feature of the digital era. But photography has been altered through all times, both in desirable ways as well as by shrewd methods. I remember how upset the photography community got when it was first known in the late 80’s how the renowned documentary photographer Eugene W. Smith had altered many of his photos. For instance how he had combined many negatives to obtain one of his most famous images of Albert Schweitzer and how he had burned and bleached the eyes of the mourners in the even more famous photograph The Wake so they would look at the man on lit de parade. Even so, most photographers and connoisseurs of photography accepted during the time of analogue photography, that the negative was usually the starting point of a creative process aimed at attaining an aesthetic interpretation of reality.
The big leap with digital technology, however, is how easy it has become to enhance, alter and manipulate photography. In addition we have gotten a whole array of new tools we can deploy if we wish to. Almost every day the boundaries for what can be done with a photograph are stretched. The result is that nobody trusts a photograph any more. The old saying «a photograph never lies» doesn’t hold much truth any more. In many ways the visual language of photography has reached a staged that can be compared to the written language. Writers have always been capable of writing fiction, personal comments, reports, eyewitnesses as well as lies and deceits – if they wanted to. In the end, how we read something comes down to what kind of text it is and who has written it. The same credibility is about to have – or already has – a similar decisive bearing on photography.
Where do we draw the line, then? The whole photography society is debating the question.
If we are talking about documentary photography, for me the line goes between digital enhancement and actually moving pixels. Darkening or lightening whatever is in a photograph is fine for me. So is altering the saturation – as long it is done true to the how the subject was when the photo was captured. The two photos above show what I find quite acceptable. One of them is how the scene was captured in RAW-format and the other the final processed photo. The difference is quite striking, but then it also has to be taken into account that the RAW-image itself is not by any account true to the original subject, that’s just the nature of the digital negative. On the other hand, the processed photo is very close to how I perceived the street scenery. It’s still an interpretation. And it’s still valid to ask if it’s acceptable.
What I am saying, is that basically enhancing is OK with me. In contrast then, adding, moving or removing pixels is not acceptable – again only in my opinion. At the same time I realize it’s not necessarily as easy as that. For instance if you by accident captured a Coca Cola can that ends up being very disturbing within the frame, most people would agree that it’s still not acceptable to digitally remove it – again talking about a documentary photography. But then, what difference is there really between removing the can before taking the shot and then afterwards digitally? Or is there any difference? Many photographers wouldn’t think twice about removing the can beforehand – but would oppose the idea of doing it digitally. Take another example: The shot underneath of a biking police officer was captured with a fast shutter speed. But I wanted to convey the feeling of movement, and blurred the image after the fact in Photoshop, in a way that makes it look like the biking policeman was captured with a long shutter speed. No doubt pixels have been moved and removed. But what is the difference between this photo and an actually photo taken with a long shutter speed? The end result would have been almost the same. I leave the question open for discussion.
The reality is that the transition to digital technologies is still controversial, even amongst professionals. What happened to Klavs Bo Christensen, disqualified in 2009 by the panel of judges of the prestigious Pictures of the Year (POY) contest for an alleged abuse in colour and tonal enhancement of the original RAW files of his pictures, is just a clear example. I believe that the jury’s request to produce the original RAW files in order to verify that no pixel had been manipulated in the final print was legitimate, but I do disagree with their final decision. Manipulation and digital enhancing – as I have tried to indicate – are actually two completely different concepts. The «over-photoshopping» techniques can be aesthetically judged, but they correspond to a photographer’s interpretation of reality and should not be mistaken with an attempt to temper with the visual content of an image.
Looking back at Christensen’s photo, it’s easy to see that nothing has been added nor deleted from the original image – the RAW file. That is the place where the frontier between manipulation and the digital enhancing process lies: on the one side there’s a mystification of reality, on the other a tonal and aesthetic interpretation of it.
A final example: Do you remember this post’s opening picture of a boxing gym (captured in Havana by the way)? Let’s say I captured an image like the one below, but my client needed to have a photo in square format. If I had known beforehand, I could of course have asked the young boxer to move over to the right. If I didn’t know beforehand, would it be acceptable to digitally move him over? In effect, what would the difference be? (Let me add that the digitally moving of the young boxer was only done for the sake of argument. I didn’t have a client asking for such a photo).
In the beginning, I said that I would accept almost anything when it comes to art. But what if the opening photo was requested by an art gallery? Then it suddenly would have become art, no? Is the digital moving/manipulation then tolerable?
I used to believe in perfectionism. Nothing could ever be good enough. And, yes, whatever I did was pretty good. But what I didn’t realize back then is how limiting the need for everything to be perfect was for my creativity. I started to push the threshold so sky high that it was impossible to reach it. So instead of reaching for the sky, I inhibited myself and didn’t even get up above the ground. My creativity stagnated. I didn’t create because I felt it wouldn’t be good enough anyway.
Perfectionism can be a curse. It can immobilize yourself and it can make what should be fun and exciting to do – like creative endeavours – into a stressful chore. The result may be that you are sabotaging yourself by raising the standards unrealistically high. You may make yourself captive to judgments of others or, even more likely, to your own relentless self-evaluation. In the end there is no joy left in the process because there is so much pressure, comparison, judgment, and unrealistic thinking involved. Even when something is well received by others, you still feel that’s not good enough. You focus almost exclusively on what is wrong, ignoring what is going right. What more is you inhibit yourself from playing and experimenting – and thus from developing yourself. Instead of become better at what you do, you become worse, – quite the opposite of your intentions.
I used to think that I’d rather do three things only – and do them perfect, than do one hundred things with only ten of them being right. Today I see that ten is more than three, even when I by then have produced ninety «failures» to get to those ten. What more is – which I didn’t realize back then – is that «failures» are only failures if I let them be so. In fact they are a springboard to success. Everything that doesn’t work out the way you have wanted it, is nothing but part of the learning process. If you can leave your pride behind, every «failure» is actually a step in the right direction – one that makes you better and more resilient. In addition, mistakes can even become a new way of seeing your work, an inspiration to do things in a different way. Then suddenly, «failures» aren’t mistakes any more, but actually accomplishments of their own right.
In her book The Muse Is In, Jill Badonsky writes: «Get real. Being perfect just isn’t possible within the realm of being human and those who strive to be perfect often sacrifice joy in the process. If you strive for “amazing” but let go of expectations and are happy with whatever results you reap, then you’re on a healthier and more realistic path.»
So relax your expectations, in fact, purposely lower them so low that you can feel excitedly naughty about showing up to perform you work with reckless abandon. Let the creative process – wherever it brings you – be the reason and motivation in itself. And why not consciously try to produce «bad» work? You will be surprised how genuine and good the result will be, when you let go of the curse of perfectionism. In many ways it’s just like any relationship; if you expect it to be perfect, if you expect your love one to be perfect, you are on a path to disappointment. Take it as it come, be open-minded, let go of expectations, be yourself, and love – and creativity – will flourish.
Ethiopian Haile Gebresalassie is one of the all time greatest long distance runners. The prize-money Haile won as a runner has been invested wisely in Africa’s fastest growing economy. But not only does he invest with profit in mind, but he want his investments to be a benefit for the country. Read about our meeting with the 42-year old celebrity on Øystein’s and my blog; Untold Stories.
Our job is done in the camps for South Sudanese refugees. It’s for us – my colleague Øystein Mikalsen and me – to move on. On the blog Untold Stories you may read our last thoughts and see our last photos from the camps we have visited the last week.