Is it possible to reach the stage where you’ve spoken too much about your own work?
I don’t know, maybe?
I’m always very grateful, and it truly does mean a lot to be asked to speak about it. Yet, while I always give my best and people do say nice things afterwards, at times one can feel like an actor reciting words in a matinee performance. With the full knowledge that those very same words, in the very same order, will be spoken once more perhaps, in the evening or weekend performance, albeit to a different audience.
I once watched a photographer whose work, let’s just say, chronicles an inferno *winks knowingly* of death and despair, reciting exactly the same words as I’d heard in a youtube video I’d watched on the way to the talk.
Of course, they’re the same words you shout - it’s the same bloody story!
Well, yes of course, but perhaps it’s also the same bloody performance.
I watched a man die on a plane once.
Just prior to take off, on a flight at Montreal airport that was taking me back home to England.
Jesus, I know you’re thinking, not again, not more stories of death. Hasn’t he got any tales about kittens or maybe a fluffy white rabbit called Oscar?
In the absence of Oscar, I remember the hour-long wait in line at the gate, a hot and heavy hour of standing on my feet, after they had called us all to board. As I shifted my weight from one leg to the other, I began to watch an elderly man in a wheelchair looking off somewhere into space. A call for priority boarding had seen his wife and perhaps his daughter push him through the queue, past the boarding desk, and, as he sat in his chair, onwards to the other side.
I watched his wife fixing the long, white pointed collars of his shirt, smoothing them out so that they hung outside of his beige cardigan. Maybe he was of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern origin, I thought, as she turned away and left him alone again. Looking off into space, I conjured up a narrative about him heading back to the old place, his homeland again, perhaps for one last visit.
After a while he was wheeled off, leaving his fellow passengers sighing in the heat of a summer, a heat that, even though it was October, seemed never ending.
I finally passed through boarding, leaving the gate behind, finding myself a few people away from getting onto the plane. Getting closer and closer, finally stepping onto the plane, showing my boarding pass and about to follow the steward’s direction and turn the corner to head off down the aisle to my seat, the chain of passenger ants trooping to their seats in single file halted.
Someone trying to lift their luggage up into the overhead bin, blocking the aisle as they struggle, I thought, until a steward barged by quickly with a first aid kit in hand.
I stuck my head out around the bulkhead, or whatever it’s called, and saw the steward pounding on the chest of the old man lying there in the aisleway. Pounding up and down on his chest as passengers, on either side of him, sitting in their seats, nonchalantly scrolled away on their phones, unfazed by it all.
I pulled my head back around the bulkhead and stood there alone. Noticing that the passengers in the queue behind me were all gone, leaving me alone. I began to look around, thinking that I should get off too and then felt someone behind me. It was Captain of the plane, speaking to me in French. I was too surprised to reply.
He nodded his head around the corner and I looked again at the scene and then back around to him. We looked at each other, sharing this moment while all of the moments left this man just around the corner.
The Captain spoke to me until he gestured, and I knew that the moment I had feared was going to happen: he was about to ask me a question I wouldn’t understand.
Then he gestured.
Then that’s when I came clean and had to admit that I didn’t have a bloody clue what he’d been going on about for those last few minutes, as I didn’t speak French.
Look up the word disgust in the dictionary and a photo of that pilot’s face bearing the very same look he gave me, as he turned and walked away, leaving me there alone until another steward told me to go back up upstairs in the mid-space world between the gate and the plane.
As we waited, some people cursed their luck. Talk of the flight being cancelled echoed out, and paramedics with an empty gurney pushed by us.
People sighed and cursed their luck once more. After a while, the gurney returned but this time carrying the old man on his final journey, wrapped up tight under a white sheet, black straps buckled in place. Beside him were his wife, and, I think, his daughter sobbing. They walked through our silence, my eyes looking away from them at the end of a long summer.
In their wake, we waited to hear if the flight was being cancelled. Anxious energies of assorted passengers combusted into angsty sighs, until over the tannoy we were called to board the plane again. And that’s when someone chimed in, “well, there are going to be a few free seats now.” Laughter followed.
Humans suck sometimes, right? They really fucking do.
Yet, every single one of us, even that turgid bag of blood and bones who made that comment, dreams of going home.
I don’t know what I’m going to find when I come back home in September on a flight I’ve been putting off for as long as I can.
This is the first time I’ve told this story in public, outside of an Instagram video I made at the time to explain the death of the old man, the jokes which ensued and the emptiness of it all. The video was made just after take off, as the plane rose upwards through the clouds, to break free up there in the heavens as a burning orange sun shone to lead the way home to England.
Yet I know that I will tell this story again. In the very same order and in the very same way when the time comes.
But why did I feel the need to share that experience then and now?
In hindsight, perhaps recounting personal and painful experiences - again and again - currently helps pay the bills these days.
How do we stop repeating ourselves?
*I've been told, by the way, that I need to ask the audience more direct questions in these posts.
So let me try that again.*
How do we stop repeating ourselves?
No, not just in these ten blog posts, but in the photographs we take or perhaps even within the lives which we lead?
I used to teach at a particular college in a popular cathedral town. From the start of the term, until Christmas break, I must have purchased the same ham and tomato sandwich every day I was there during lunch. I bought it so many times that when I went in, just before the Christmas break, the staff in the canteen handed me a Christmas card addressed to *drum roll* Mr. Ham and Tomato sandwich.
I mean in this story the need for repetition was easily accounted for - as the ham and tomato sandwiches were the only items on the menu that I didn’t think would make me violently ill. Let’s just say that the rest of the items on sale there didn’t look like the most appetising of morsels.
Is it familiarity (in a better the devil we know sense) or fear of the unknown, the fear of failing, which makes us repeat ourselves?
A friend of mine once did a particular body of work that became quite successful. Selling enough to take a year off work, whereupon he consigned the body of work to history.
A few years later a particular world event happened which caused a wealthy buyer to ask if he would continue the series - which could have enabled him to perhaps take more time off work - he stood firm turned the buyer down.
I will always admire him for that. Well, I will always admire him because he is one of the most decent, dignified, and forthright people I know.
But I wish that I had his tenacity.
If many of us are honest, we know that we use the same technique again and again in our works. That no matter how much we think that we might want to ‘try something new’ and leave old approaches behind when the crunch comes - or the client calls - we take the safe path home. The same lighting set up gets used, the same framing is utilised. The same camera, lens, film, even down to the same action in your favourite editing software gets pulled out of the bag.
Or maybe this is just me?
There are so many different things I want to do and try - or I tell myself that I do want to. So many different approaches to take. Yet I don’t do them.
In the end, I return to only that which I know that I can do.
Is this fear of failure or clever marketing and brand development? Perhaps we have been fixed into our approaches by the expectations of others, clients and commissioners, who ask us for specific things and who want to have fixed notions of who we are and what it is we do? Commissioners who want to see us fixed as a particular type of photographer. In this light, maybe it’s better to be seen as a master of one trade as opposed to a Jack of all?
So we edit new approaches out even before we start and play to our strengths.
Maybe that’s what photography is all about? It's more about editing out our failures than ever it is about showing the world our successes?
Success, yes, whatever that means.
I messed up my French exam last Thursday evening. I’d revised and studied for it, but I just didn’t understand the questions and what was required of me to answer them.
If I’m honest, I’m totally out of my comfort zone trying to learn French, as in truth, I only usually play games that I know I have a chance of winning.
Because failing hurts.
It burns with such an intensity that all is left is shame. Even when failing comes within the parameters of an online French class with eight total strangers whom I will never meet in the real world, or remember in the years to come. Well, that’s not quite true, especially as in my mind, I’ve created a back story and identity for each of these strangers in the class - especially the professor.
Have you ever had a commission where you’ve been so nervous of failing, of messing up, that that fear stifles your creativity? To the extent that when you’re uploading the images afterwards, all of the ideas you should have used - and were absent during the shoot when you were in the eye of the storm - only comes to mind then?
I might just be asking myself these questions, by the way.
Well, it’s with great shame that I have to admit that my fear of failure has been so high, that, at times, I have even tried to talk commissioners out of hiring me because, well, not being able to eat and pay the bills didn't seem as painful as failing or at least being outside of my comfort zone. I turned them down in full knowledge that the night before the shoot would have been the most anxious and angst ridden of times for me, as I imagined, again and again, all of the things which would go wrong.
Even if the job might be, let's say, be only to photograph two artists in bed with animal masks on.
I still would be nervous.
Some will say, well, my friend, you are in the wrong profession.
It's strange, or maybe it really isn't, but I would never fear failure in any of my own personal works.
Sure, that fear dissipated as I did more of them - and, to be honest, it was only when I began to see working for national publications as basically not that important, in terms of contributing to where I wanted to be, that they became easier to the extent that I enjoyed them. But that desire to talk my way out of doing things still persisted for a long time.
*For the record, my client, in a prepared statement, would like to say that he is, in fact, available for commission and that the above paragraph relates to a previous period of time in his life*
Nonetheless, in an industry where you are only as good as your last photograph *phrase used for dramatic licence* failure is not an option.
Failure is not an option for photographers who constantly have to daily chronicle their success in their Instagram and Twitter feeds. Demonstrating to all and sundry that they are brilliant and the best person for the job. So we edit out our failures, we - and I know that should be using I - ‘we’ stick with what we know and nous repetons again and again until it’s everything we become.