Thoughts from the Bangkok Workshop
Stepping outside of the comfort zone
Photography is a game of small
victories and incremental learning.
Whether we focus on technical
challenges or the artistic ones,
there will always new areas to
explore. Workshops can be
a great place to step out of your
regular approach and try a new
way of seeing.
What do you do when you get bored with your photographs? Everyone gets bored at some point. Its seems to be a natural part of the process. There are ups and down, mixed with side steps and transgressions. The emotional pendulum can swing every direction, but when it finally comes to rest, we need a burst of energy to start it moving again. How can we reactivate the excitement that once filled our frame?
Many photographers come to me with the same problem. They feel as if they take the same photographs all the time. This is not a problem if you are repeating Pulitzer Prize winning photos, but how often does that happen? Photography is a game of practice and repetition. The backbone of our photography is also a curse because inevitably we get tired of our our own patterns. How can we break out of the comfort zone and shed fresh light on old situations?
Never in New York
When I was in art school I hardly took pictures in New York. For each photo assignment I would hop on a train and shoot somewhere else on the east coast. While most people are clamoring to come to New York and take pictures, the city never held my attention as a subject.
While I was in Thailand, one of the workshop participants named Rammy Narula said that same thing of Bangkok. He felt badly for being bored to death with his own city. I told him about my relationship to New York to reassure him that it is perfectly normal to be bored of your home, no matter how exotic it may seem to someone else.
I did not know if he would enjoy the workshop, since we were going to be in Bangkok the entire time. Part of me was really hoping to deliver a great workshop, but boredom can be a big monster to overcome. I wondered, is it possible to transmit my curiosity about a place into his camera, simply by walking around together?
We set out from the hotel to some of the participants favorite spots. To me, they were all new. I was happy to take them in slowly, the way I do most things. There is no rush in street work because there are no deadlines, no bosses and no expectations. Twelve hours of wandering can be justified by a single frame. While we were walking together Rammy commented on my sparse style of shooting. Some days I shoot more than others, but in general I don’t take a lot of pictures. Photography is a waiting game for me. Most of the time I am looking and only a few minutes of any day are spent shooting. This came as a big surprise to him. Along the way he would ask, “How would you shoot this scene? Or is there are shot here?”
Without the camera to my face, I would reply, “There is no shot here,” and we would continue along. He wanted to know why I thought there was no picture…what was I looking at that allowed me to decide without taking a shot and looking at the screen? What were the things that I look at that makes me feel as if a picture is worth taking?
Over the next few days, we explored the wet market, a few smaller neighborhoods and even the train station which seems to be a regular stop for many workshops. One afternoon Rammy and I walked the tracks as trains came and went. The light was too bright for shooting outside while the glass roof of the station acted like a huge diffuser. It made for some brilliant light.
Finding a Style
When we started the workshop Rammy knew that his style of street portrait was at an impasse. He was not afraid to get close to his subjects. His, in your face, portraits even landed him an few magazine spots. But he felt like he had hit a wall. He was afraid to step back. What would he do with the rest of the frame and how could he coordinate 2 or 3 or 5 subjects in a single scene? We worked on some strategies to help him build a scene beyond his typical shot.
Inside the train station we found a pocket of light and camped out. In less than ten minutes the shot came together and Rammy took, what I would consider to be a spectacular image. Adding to the composition was the fact the bench had a child on the left and an old man on the right, with all the steps in between. It was a rather poetic image that represented a giant leap forward for Rammy and his work. He stepped well outside his comfort zone and discovered that by letting a scene develop he could create a stronger image, but also enjoy the process of waiting as much as he enjoyed shooting.
Success as a habit
The picture at the train station was just the beginning of Rammy’s new start. He has moved outside of the realm of the mug-shot-portrait and entered a more complex and subtle realm of design. Bangkok went from his boring hometown to a perfect training ground for his direction. While it would have been easier for him to stick with the style he already knew, I give him a lot of credit for embracing change.
Learning can be an uncomfortable process. New techniques always feel awkward at first. Over time, the stiffness gives way to fluid motion. We no longer think about the mechanics we just dance through the scene. The results speak for themselves.
The examples of before and after are not always crystal clear. Like one of my former workshop attendees Cyrus, it took six months for the ideas to come together in his work. Rammy was a bit of an exception. As his teacher, it was exciting to see things start to bloom so quickly. My time in Thailand was exceptional and I am already planning to return in January of 2014. In the mean time, I look forward to seeing Rammy embrace a few new ways of taking pictures. It won’t be a seamless process, learning is never perfect. But over time, the experiments will yield a body of work that might have never come about. All I can say is that I was happy to bare witness to the transformation.
Back in New York I have a few weeks to prepare for my exhibition at the Impossible Project before heading off to Zurich for another workshop in April. I hope to get back to a regular schedule of posting articles, since the beginning of the year has been so busy. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for your patience. And to congratulate Rammy on his success.
Good to be back on line. I will talk to you all soon.