Pictures and words

I very rarely publish a photo without writing about it. Sometimes just a few words. Other times 2-3 paragraphs. A few times it’s mostly text and the photo seems almost a secondary element.

Good photography can talk by itself. Truly great photos carry the story and the emotion within that frame. But great photos are few and far in between for anybody, including accomplished photographers. And all photos, great or not so great, can benefit from written word.

In some cases, written word just adds context and detail. The story is transmitted visually. The text is secondary and only accentuates, clarifies or adds color to the visual narrative. Sometimes, it talks about the personal connection or involvement with the subject of the photo.

Blue, green and gold.
The rising sun has set the top of the trees on fire and it’s just starting to reach the forest floor. Parts of this blanket of bluebells are still in deep shade.
Everything is changing fast. The light, the colors, the mood of the whole scene.

In some other cases, visuals combine seamlessly with text. One could not stand without the other. The text is more than a caption. The photos are more than an illustration of a written idea. The photo essay or the documentary photo projects are classic examples of this.

The combination of visual and written has something powerful not so much because “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but because each of these means of expression adds something that the other cannot. They are complementary, not contiguous.

In the end, the means of expression is less important than what is transmitted. Is the story genuine, interesting, meaningful? Is it something that speaks to you, that will stay with you?

Quarantine

This is a good time to ask ourselves what are the things we could go without, and what are the ones we really need. The ones we couldn’t or wouldn’t want to live without.

We often confuse want and need. And we’re not always clear about what we need. This takes information, learning and reflection.

The quarantine forces us to think about what we really need. On the one hand, we can experience first-hand how it is to live without a lot of things for longer. On the other hand, it forces us to change habits, shift priorities and focus on the essential, in order to stay sane.

I used to be a passionate skier. This winter I haven’t skied at all. Last winter I had one day of skiing. As it becomes more difficult to find natural snow and ski resorts are scrambling to ensure good conditions, skiing becomes too much of an environmental nuisance for me to go on. I miss waking up in the morning to fresh snow, and making the first descent on the slopes while there’s nobody else around. But building huge water tanks up in the mountains, to ensure enough water for artificial snow, is not cutting it for me. And skiing on crowded slopes in high season, on those patches that can be covered by snow cannons, is not my idea of being in nature.

I am a passionate dancer. Being in the flow, having the right connection with your dance partner, being fully present in that moment are pretty amazing things. Would I be able to go on without? I know I would be missing it a lot. After a while I would probably start dreaming about it. I would dance alone. And then it guess I would just think less and less about it. I’d miss it from time to time, but nothing unbearable. As you would miss a lover.

I’ve been in love with forests and mountains for most of my life. Being deep in the forest at sunrise. Looking all around you from the mountain top after a day of hiking and climbing. There’s no formulation that does justice to this feeling. There’s nothing that compares. Would I be willing to give up hiking and mountaneering? If I had a choice, if I had the slightest choice, no.

If there would be no choice, I would survive. But my life would not be the same.

Isolation

It’s not until you are forced to isolate that you realize to what degree photography is a social activity. I don’t mean just taking photos but the whole lifecycle of a photo. Planning, travelling, publishing your work – it all depends on a social infrastructure we usually take for granted. From the inspiration we take and the feedback we receive to the coffee we are able to buy early morning, before we get to the location, it is all part of how we organize our life together.

Lisbon/Alfama, Nov 2019. Harsh afternoon light can be interesting. This scene wouldn’t have worked at sunrise or sunset. The sun needs to be high enough so that this church entrance is directly lit, with all the shadows and patterns it creates.

While getting feedback online may have gotten easier, with so many people staying at home, other parts of this social web are not doing ok. That seller of coffee may never reopen. Your retired photographer friend may fall seriously ill. Anxiety and depression are a lot closer than usual.

Is there a silver lining to this?

I think so. I think there always is, even in the gloomiest of situations.

For one, isolation gives a lot of head space. You have the time to reflect on what is it that attracted you to photography in the first place. Or what made you start a particular photo project and invest so much of you into it. Or where you want to go from here, how you want to develop. These simple questions may be at the back of our heads, but chances are we don’t often confront them directly. Even with the activities we love, we are functioning most of the time on autopilot.

Isolation also gives us the chance to look more closely at the work we did so far. Organize it better. Maybe drop the conventional categories that you used so far on your website or blog to group and present your photos. Find more organic ways of connecting them, that goes across traditional categories. Put together portraits, landscapes and urban shots that are all about light – the quality of light and how it transforms the scene.

This may result in more work. Revamping that site. Think differently about what are our best photographs. Go back and re-edit some of them.

This may also result in a radical change of the type of photography that we do. Business as usual is not particularly conducive to revolutionary changes, even if we’ve been feeling stuck or unhappy with that way of doing things for a long time. Disruptions are painful, but they also make it easier to accept change.

Light

Most of my photography so far has no human subjects.

This is because it started out of my love of being outside, in the wild, deep in the forest. I’ve come to appreciate all types of photography and I’ve started experimenting with portraits and street photography. But the emotional core of my photo work remains connected to nature and wilderness.

What is the subject of my photos then?

Many times, it is the light.

Its quality, its direction, the way it transforms a scene. The way it adds depth to a scene and highlights what would otherwise remain insignificant details.

Being alone in the forest, observing the light and letting things unfold around you is a powerful experience.