On 27 April 2019 people across Durban celebrated 25 years of democratic freedom in South Africa with a walk on the beach front stopping for prayer, praise, declarations and an open air communion service on the sand. The walk was finished off with collecting litter off the beach. – John Robinson
As a narrative photographer I take pictures of what is around me, I don’t go into a studio situation to get a picture of say ‘two people looking meaningfully into the middle distance’ or ‘someone next to a window in the morning light.’
I once saw the Oliver Stone film Salvador with two student friends, Hamish was studying commercial photography, Bruce was studying journalism and I was a interior design student. Salvador is a film about two photogs covering the war in Salvador in South America, I came out of the cinema hyped, telling Hamish that as a photographer he should do this type of work when he was finished with his diploma, Hamish just looked at me as though I was mad. Hamish went on to be a successful commercial photographer and I went onto scraping out a living as a narrative photographer. Though both Hamish and I use the same cameras, I seem to think quite differently about photography to Hamish as a commercial photographer. I never wanted to become a war photographer as in Salvador but I have perceived life as it is around me as a photographer.
As Hamish though I was mad, I too have had a hard time understanding the ways of some other photographers in the portrayal of the human form. I posted the following on a Facebook photographic group: What is it with some (group Name) photographers and young womans bottoms and boobs? I got 10 likes and 1 reaction and the comments ranged from because I like it, I can and a sarcastic don’t you know? to the quite defensive and the inclusion of the word pornography. One photographer’s model said “if you have it flaunt it.”
Then there was also the inclusion of the word passion and the sense of the decisive moment which I as a narrative photographer can understand too, I now think that it is something about the personal thrill of the photographer concerned in getting a preconceived concept together. Maybe it’s the same way I get a thrill when a moment came together when I have done a portrait on the streets of Durban.
I think we all as photographers have our driving forces, some forces are exclusive to the different types of photography, and other forces are common to us all.
Diagram courtesy of https://www.videomaker.com
Printing my own black and white photographs in the darkroom taught me a bit about what my M6 camera and a bit of Kodak Tri X film could record for posterity. Learning about the importance of 18% grey, middle grey or zone V taught me about the importance of correct exposure in gaining from all the black & white film could give me no matter what light conditions I work in.
I have now given my Leitz enlarger away and no longer wet the floors of any darkroom floors; I now just do the ‘darkroom’ thing with a Nikon Coolscan V ED scanner, Adobe Bridge and Photoshop CS5 in my office. But my hand held Polaris light meter still ensures that the colour or black & white print film in my camera records the moment so close to how my eyes perceived it. A hand held light meter in incidence mode ensures that the high and low lights remain as just that. When I still worked my negatives in the darkroom, the negatives exposed with my hand held meter in incidence mode were much less hassle to work with. The empirical evidence in front of my eyes told me that it was much better to work with the available light then fight with it in the ‘darkroom’ or ‘lightroom’ as the process is commonly called now.
The hand held light meter in incidence mode meters the light in an as is way, deep shadows or blacks will remain as just that and high lights or whites will remain as is. If you a photographing someone in the dim shadows they will appear as such. When I am doing a portrait I sometimes reposition the subject to get some of the available highlights to fall across their face; I then take a light metering and shoot the portrait. Work with the light, don’t fight with it, you will get better pictures in the end.
Though I have given up on the darkroom, I have not stopped using colour and black & white film; and when I use film I use my Polaris light meter too.
This method of exposure gives me images that have all the tones from the highlights through to the deep dark shadows just as God gave them to us all.
Sisters in Woodlands, Microsoft Lumia 435 ‘phone camera, Photo John Robinson
Cell phone cameras do not produce the same image crispness of a medium format Carl Zeiss lens, but the ‘phone camera does have the same ability of a medium format to take pictures out of the way of the human contact between the photographer and the person photographed…
Way back when I was just starting out on my own photographic journey, I remember Jenny Gordon commenting on the ‘feel’ of her photographs taken on her medium format Hasselblad camera at the time. When a Hasselblad camera is used, it is usually mounted on a tripod out of the way of the photographer and the persons photographed at the time; and this reduces ‘strain’ on the person or persons photographed.
Click your shutter button now, don’t chimp, look and be surprised later. When using a ‘phone camera in bright light it’s often hard to see the coming image on the camera screen, so just have a quick look to make sure of your angles, the camera has already a surprisingly good hold the exposure and focus side of things. So just get on with capturing the moment – it’s only digital, so no loss as ‘they’ say… And your pictures will be more spontaneous and ‘of the moment’ too.
On the theory side, when someone is being portrayed they can become ‘normative.’ Another way of saying this is: they present themselves to the camera in a way that they think they should be portrayed. The result of this behavior by the person been photographed is that the photographer does not get the moment as she or he saw it. The ‘phone camera is much less “serious” in the mind of the person photographed and so they get less up set by the process…
To end this piece, I say spend more time taking pictures and less time getting hung up in photographic gadgets; I also think that if H.C.B. had had a ‘phone camera he would have used it too.
I have a thing for thrills.
In the years just before democracy came to South Africa I had a stable job as a lecturer at a design college in the City of Johannesburg; I taught aspects of interior design and also a ‘basics of photography’ course for their graphic design students because I “knew more about photography” then anyone else on the staff at the time. I had the feeling at the time that though I enjoy teaching I was wasting time and there was something all consuming waiting for me – it was the thrill of my narrative photography.
I believe that I have been created to run with this thrill, it is all consuming, I feel most alive when I am on the ‘street’ with my ‘M6 camera. But the ‘thrill of the moment’ only comes later when I am quietly viewing the negatives on the light box in my home office. I don’t trust the thrill of the moment while still out there with my camera, it has often just been the hype of the moment. Until I see the image I just think that I have something special.
I only stop taking photographs when I feel that I have captured the moment adequately.
Too often I have gone home to be disappointed with my images, by mistaking the hype of the moment for the thrill of the moment caught. It takes me a quiet space to really judge the moments caught; and that space is never while still out on a photographic shoot. It does not matter if you shoot a digital or an analogue camera, judge your images only after you have gone from the scene and you just feel that you have captured the moment while there.
View your thrills in a quiet and calm space.
I take ownership of all the images I have taken, there is nothing such as personal images and work images, all perceived by me and all are personal to me photographs. It does not matter if I took them for personal or monetary gain…
A photograph is just the perception of it’s author.
I am a narrative photographer working out of Durban a city on the east coast of South Africa. I have a passion for environmental portraits.
1. Get out of your personal space. I once had my own car, but I rolled it while texting at the wheel. I now use public transport to get around town; this has let me see a lot more of my city rather then just driving through concentrating only on what is in my path.
2. Be aware of the voice within yourself. I have often waited at a spot in the city on a ‘whim’ or the ‘voice within’ and a moment as above has come together before my eyes. Concentrate on what is around you rather then on exact compositions. Let the moments just speak for themselves. I have general ideas of what pictures I would like, but I let my photos talk for themselves.
I just wanted a picture of a Hare Krishna devotee, but I got one of Gaura Sundara with a flank of young men passing through…
3. Use just one lens, I use a 50mm prime lens on a rangefinder camera. there are no surprises for me when I lift the camera to my eye, a 50mm lens lets me keep some distance from my subject but without giving away a sense of connection. A 50mm lens is close to the natural view of my human eye. My street photography is all about the moments out there rather then about whacky eye views.
If you are using a factored frame camera rather then full frame I would recommend a 35mm lens rather then 50mm, this will give you a view angle that is closer to human eye view.
4. If there is movement in the background, capture the moment. Many times my photographs have been enhanced by an unexpected movement in the frame. I can’t buy these additions for all the wealth in the world. It is just for me to be ready and able to press the shutter button on cue.
I use a hand held light meter while photographing on the streets, and also pre focus the camera as much as I am able. The hand held light meter sorts out the exposure issues for me so when the moment comes I can just press the button.
5. Never ‘chimp’. The moment to view your images is not on the street when taking pictures, you may just miss another moment that has been given to you, rather just carry on just taking pictures until you feel that there are no more moments for your taking; and view your images back home in front of your computer screen.
I have been using my Leica M6 camera for about 18 years, I am so used to it now, it’s like my tooth brush, I can concentrate on the clean feel in my mouth rather then on the brush itself. I feel that many photographers are more interested in their camera rather then the photographs it takes.
The camera is just a tool, if you use it right it will do the job.
Vous ne vous souvenez peut-être pas de moi, je suis venu une fois à votre bureau à Bamako pour prendre votre ressemblance avec mon appareil photo. Je me souviens de ce que vous m’avez dit ce jour-là, je me souviens de ce que vous avez dit au sujet des photographes volant l’esprit de leurs sujets. Je me souviens que vous étiez résistant à moi en prenant le vôtre, à la fin j’ai pris plus que juste votre esprit; J’ai également apporté avec moi un peu de votre perspicacité aussi.
– You may not remember me, I once came to your office in Bamako to take your likeness with my camera. I do remember you for what you said to me on that day, I remember what you said about photographers stealing the spirit of their subjects. I remember you were resistant to me taking yours, in the end I took more then just your spirit; I have also brought along with me a bit of your insight too.
In 1997 and 1998 I was the Photo Editor for Finance Week, a South African business publication, I was in Cote d’Ivoire and Mali doing a story on the gold mining company Rand Gold Resources. While working on the company sites was smooth flowing, photography on these West African streets was another matter. At the time I was more used to working on the streets of South Africa where ‘shootas’ are generally welcome, photogs have also been responsible for opening up to the world the underbelly of the South African government of the time. I also guess at the time I did just not know the importance of just being more human when taking up a camera.
The idea of ‘stealing the spirit’ was new to me then, at the time I just took it as an oddity – a local African belief and not of real importance.
I know different now, merci Madame!
The soul does not just let go of the spirit, without unclamping first no spirit will float free into the perception of the viewer. You can see the unclamping of spirit in the first hostel scene in the film The Bang Bang Club. It’s an alchamy. For myself, I feel it’s a God given thing, I feel out the place, get my camera s*1t together, look hard and the moment materialises and then it is just one click. Sometimes moments come in batches. It is the wrong time for chimping; as if there ever was a right time…
You can help this alchemy along, just be human; the soul softens it’s grip on the spirit when the perceiver shows that it is actually just as human as is the soul.
Portrait photography is hard work; and for the subject too. The other day I was working out in the sun, midday and in mid summer, I am shooting singles of 6 South African paddling champions. We take our shoes and socks off and stand in the cool water of the Blue Lagoon, relief floods through our bodies and the spirit floats free. Click click click. Each of the portraits is unique, I have already got my camera s*1t together, in each portrait the background is the spot where this body and mind beating race ends, and where each of my subjects paddled into fame. My thanks go out to the ‘Duzi champs for being such great sports.
“If your foot taps to the beat… just go with it” – The words of a unknown music journalist at a jazz festival in South Africa many years ago.
What do you sense right now, yes right now as you read this blog. Is it important to you to be in touch, to be conscious of what YOU feel? What do red socks say to you, how does early morning light feel to you. Do you have a pair of red socks of your very own?
Is it hot where you are? What does the air taste like; does it stick in your air-way? Is it bright or are the lights turned down? Can you hear that sound outside right now?
As I write I listen to Viktoria Mullova on the computer, she is affecting me, her playing affects what I write and how I write… What do you think about the 2 wooden faces ‘looking’ towards you in the above photograph? I know of people who have burnt like sculpture because they felt to them as bad. Are you abhorred by such actions?
As I write I also want to hear how others see things. I perceived the above moment? How do you hold it?
Narrative photography is about a photograph telling a story, telling more then one story surely too. Narrative photography is also about the photographer as perceiver taking a step back and letting the photo speak for itself. Narrative photo editing is about a process of deselecting the unsuccessful images and being left with the ‘story’ that remains, and by this process let your photographs at last be able to speak widely as they aught…
The photographer speaks while perceiving the moment, let your photography speak for you the photographer to your audience as perceived.
6 tips on entering for World Press Photo from a 2016 judge…