Friday, February 12, 2010

Yellow paper mango

I just wrote an entry about my photography class, but I hope my zeal in writing another will be excused. My first class is almost over, and I think my expectations have been reversed. From the beginning I’ve been operating under the assumption of a technical/artistic dichotomy, and I’ve split my classes along these lines. My guess at the start was that the kids would pick up the technical and struggle with the artistic: they would learn how to operate a manual camera, but wouldn’t have time in only a month and a half to really learn how to develop a style. Learning to press buttons and twist a lens is, I think, a lot easier than figuring out how to make something look beautiful – or to preserve existing beauty.

Now that time with my first batch is nearly up, I see that I was probably wrong. They’re learning the technical aspects of photography, but there will be much I can’t fit in; they won’t learn how to set a white balance or lock an exposure, and they won’t have enough time to really get good at balancing manual exposures. The first two were never within my planned scope for the class, but balancing an exposure is really the basis of learning manual photography. Hopefully with the next group I can plan a little tighter.

On the artistic front, I expected every single class to fight my students’ preconceived notions of photography, filtered through their own cultural lens. Every week in the Manila Bulletin newspaper there is a photography insert. There are some good photos, but most of the photography exhibited is either the studio-sterile work of photographers who can afford thousand-dollar lenses or HDR-esque “photos” (I use the word loosely) bruised and battered to a pulp by Photoshop. In my experience, these two categories along with the ubiquitous posing-posing snapshots make up the large majority of Philippine photography. And I’ve seen student photography exhibits – they are almost uniformly awful. So when I read one Bulletin writer’s opinion that artistic photography is a “national hobby,” I had to snicker.

And it’s true, as I’ve said, that my students love taking self-portraits and casual photos of their friends. (Personally, I see it as something akin to sacrilege to use a nice camera for posing-posing photos. That’s what point-and-shoots are for. A recent development in the camera world is the camera with a live-view screen on the front, so people can more easily compose self-portraits. When I saw that, I thought I could hear, far-off and faint, something like a death knell.) I’ve reconciled myself with the reality that every batch of photos I get from them will have, in some proportion, the same tiresome pictures from the same tiresome perspectives.

And there is another enemy in this battle aside from posing-posing. A huge facet of photography is finding new ways to see the world, and that is not something actively encouraged in Philippine culture. Fitting in with the group is often the most important thing, and independent thinking can be an aberration.

An example: only a few months into my service, a coworker asked me to help draft the judging criteria for a competition my center was holding for our kids. In anticipation of our upcoming sports tournament, they were asked to submit a logo and slogan that we could use for tshirts. I made up what I considered a pretty basic set of criteria – integration with that year’s theme (flowers), artistry, creativity, and something else I can’t remember. When I presented it to my coworker, I could tell she wasn’t satisfied, but she didn’t say anything. We discussed other aspects of the tournament for a little while… then she turned to me with my judging criteria in her hand and said, “Do we need this? I don’t think it’s necessary.” She was pointing at a criterion: creativity.

Coming from a place that values and celebrates creativity, that inculcates it in children from an early age and encourages its development as a boon to individuality, success and happiness, I was stunned. Adding that to the criteria was an unthinking act for me, as automatic as blinking, and my knee-jerk mental reaction – again showing my own cultural biases – was How can it not be necessary?

Relative cultural merits aside, a reluctance to look for new viewpoints is inherently a problem when it comes to photography, and I had no idea if my kids would be able to step outside those boundaries proscribed to them by their society.

So recently when I assigned a documentary project, and two of my kids chose flowers as their subjects, one chose trees and the fourth chose graffiti (only because I had shown them a graffiti project I had done myself in college), I mentally sighed. No original thinking here.

Then I saw their pictures. They got it.

IMG_2223 IMG_2190 IMG_2194 IMG_3178IMG_3060 IMG_2985 IMG_3051IMG_2277 

(Again, I haven’t edited any of these photos.) Sure, you could point out that the soft focus which makes some of these photos pretty is unintentional. You could pick out lots of technical details that would improve them. It doesn’t matter.

Because what’s important is that these aren’t things you’ll see from the sidewalk or the window. You’d have to get down, crouch in the weeds, scrape some knees to see the world askew.

What’s important is that some of the photos don’t show a thing so much as a moment. That’s a big shift, to capture an instant rather than a scene – to notice the people walking behind a grove, or the retiring sun setting rosy petals alight.

What’s important is that the photographers are seeing patterns and backgrounds and idiosyncrasies. The pink flower above would be nothing without its isolation, without the sea of green surrounding it, while the yellow flowers are special for being arrayed, as they are, in their little community.

As technical as photography can be, usually the best photos don’t seem technical at all. If an observer looks at a photo and her first reaction is “Hey, that’s a nice composition,” then the photographer has failed. The gut reaction should be emotional, you should feel the photo – joy, sadness, empathy, confusion, edginess, anger, horror. You don’t just see a photo: you taste it, smell it – you touch its softnesses and its rough edges; the whispery silk of a captured flower petal is as tactile as the real thing against your skin, and a jagged rusted slice of steel, though printed and framed, should make you recoil. A yellow paper mango can taste as sweet, or sweeter, than one in your hand.

Most people are familiar with the National Geographic cover photo of the Afghan girl with the green eyes. That picture isn’t famous because it’s technically perfect, but because it captured the girl’s glare in such a way that you feel you understand her. You know nothing about her, but you understand. The solitary protester in Tiananmen Square, facing down anti-demonstration tanks – his face is unseen, but you know him. The starving Sudanese girl curled over with a vulture behind, waiting for the death rattle; nobody from a privileged world should be able to comprehend the situation, but the photo makes you, on some level, comprehend. The photographer of that moment, Kevin Carter, understood – so well that he later killed himself.

A good photograph forces you to participate, just as a masterful film jangles your emotions without your consent, or the perfect song over the car radio forces you to pull over to the shoulder and close your eyes – whatever you can do to shut out everything else, because the moment has found you and you’re helpless to resist.

It’s not escapism. You’re not abdicating from the real world; you’re in it, intimately, tasting and touching, grasping a reality that’s as true as anything outside.

3 comments:

cassandramarie said...

No creativity? I think I'd shrivel and die. Or... be extremely counter-cultural and make everyone around me nervous. I need it to function. I had never considered it as a cultural value, but it really makes sense. It is an aspect of individualism-- which is HIGHLY valued in the United States.

As far as your student's photography, I absolutely love the first one displayed. It immediately evoked the emotional reaction you spoke of.

Ryan Murphy said...

Of course, the respect for individuality can be very contextual even in the US. Hence factory-standard schools and hive-mind moral indignation.

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