Sometimes in those quiet moments when bravado and bluster leave me, taking with them their comforting whispered words of solace - "it's going to be OK", I begin to wonder what the future holds. My shoulders drop slightly, the world drawing in under dark clouds for silence to reign.
“Only in silence do you hear the voice of your mother singing a hymn in church 30 years ago”, commented the recent million-dollar winner of this year’s Alone series this week. He said this upon surviving 100 days in the arctic circle - alone. I’ve watched 4 seasons of the show during the pandemic.
Yes, 4 seasons. Maybe I’ve been looking for some survival tips, who knows?
That said, in the silence, I too hear the past.
As August draws to an end and autumn rears it’s evil golden lit head, I always, ever since I was a young boy, have feared the end of the summer and what it means. That loss of freedom, marked as it is, by the tyranny of a return back to school.
I hated school and still do, for that matter, after all these years. I didn’t think I could hate anything more than school but then there were, well, teachers.
Oh, how I hated teachers.
So, yes, I’ve always hated this time of year when the blue skies begin to turn grey and the clouds drop low to close me in and cast my world in the hues of blue.
Even though the last days of summer haven’t come yet, here I am mourning their loss already. I guess I’m the last piece of pizza kind of guy. Yes, I’m the guy who opens a box of pizza, looks at the 16 slices inside and then grows sad when he thinks of how he will feel when the last piece will be gone.
There is something which draws me to the tv show Alone, a reality show that pits people against nature, asking them to remain in the wilderness, filming themselves surviving on whatever they can fish, hunt or trap, hoping to be the last one standing. Each time, watching eager survivalists battle more against themselves as much as against mother nature, in a way that seemed so apt to me in these uncertain times. Well, they are uncertain for me. I hope that these times are much clearer for you.
Maybe I watched Alone because, well, I’ve always been a loner, and photography, with its ongoing narrative of solitary survival, was the perfect job for me. Photographers have always had to be survivalists, of course, but more so now, trying to stay alive in a pandemic-made recession.
But also I became a photographer because photography gave me the chance to hide in plain sight. To travel, and to run away from it all when things got too hard, and to have relationships with people which I could make and break at my choosing. Even in the media savvy world of today, photography still gives one so much power over people. It still gives the holder of that mechanical or electronic eye the power to coerce people into doing thy bidding.
Which one of us hasn’t just asked for one more photo? Even when we see the person we’re asking dying inside - we still ask. Just one more photo, even when we have forced them to take down that distracting photo on the wall, move their furniture around so we can get a tripod set up, asked them to change that distracting top they’re wearing - even when we know they’ve spent hours choosing it. Shots inside, shots outside, shot in the local park perhaps? Can we try one in the shed now?
Just one more photo.
For a Guardian shoot, I once tortured a man in Manchester with three and a half hours of this. Just because I wanted the right photo.
Then, right, I’ve had enough of your life now, I would sometimes think, I’m going to parachute into someone else’s. I used to enjoy trying to get accepted, to be liked, to be welcomed in and given access. All the time knowing that after I had what I wanted I would leave.
On longer works, I would tell myself that this is just a professional working relationship, just like any other. When the work is over, so is the association - the ‘relationship’. Just like any other working relationship I have ever had.
Yet I know that it really wasn’t.
People would tell me stories of their abuse. Of their pain, their inner turmoils, dramas, fears, doubts, and so on.
I would never share anything of myself though. They would know nothing of me, yet I would, or at least think that I did, know everything about them.
But it’s so easy to manipulate and to take control of others' representation. Especially when you’re the one taking the photographs. Choosing which photographs get used and the one constantly telling the story about who this person is in the frame.
Even now, after photographing the same group of people, on and off, for the last 12 years, I’m the one still in charge of what is hidden and what is seen from this encounter. Even when I’m fully aware of how I could make this process more collaborative - or give it the appearance of collaboration - I don’t.
How many supposedly collaborative works have you seen anyway? When the photographer gets paid and the ‘community’ don’t? Aren’t the community just unpaid fixers in this light?
Right now though, my world seems so small. Even if the outside does come into my apartment each day via the wonders of Zoom, the world appears to be spinning, but I feel that I am standing still as others run ahead.
It pains me to feel bitterness in the success of others, even in a pandemic - or more so during one. I hate the feeling that I have when I wish that someone else’s success was mine.
Success, right? I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, whatever that is.
I hate too that we all have to - more than ever - look and act as if all is well with our careers. Constantly posting on our Twitter feeds all of the things we are winning at and hiding our failures and fears.
Which perhaps is why this post and the others might prove to be a mistake.
But the pandemic, work, distance from ‘home’, George Floyd, and the constant daily reminders that Black lives don’t actually matter in Photoland and, well, let’s say it - in the West - have just finally caught up with me in the past couple of weeks. Maybe this has coincided with all the initial opportunities that came my way at the start of the pandemic seemingly all over.
This isn’t a cry for help, it’s just a statement of facts, but I don’t know what’s coming next for my photography, and, I say to you, my friends, when it has been the foundation of my adult life and of who I am and who I see myself to be, that is some scary shit, right there.
Another aspect of the Alone show, by the way, is that each survivalist is forced to speak their truths to a camera they have taken out into the wilderness with them. The camera becomes a surrogate friend, a confidante, who, in their low times, they tell their truths to.
But it sometimes becomes a snare for guilt, a source of anxiety and amplifier of doubt - it becomes a psychological trap that whispers notions of home and of ‘tapping out’, giving up and calling the producers to take them home. The camera, that pretend friend and therapist’s chair, is a maker of good TV, [see also photography] there for our benefit and never theirs.
They know that other people will see this, and yet they don’t, not really. They don’t really realise that other people will look at their lives as they sit alone in the wilderness. They forget that strangers in the comforts of their homes will scrutinise and make harsh judgments about them and their choices. And so they share themselves with strangers - if only because they think they are sharing them solely with the camera. Their intimate moments are recorded. Even if their words and actions are carefully chosen and edited before they reach me, of course.
But how many times have people seen themselves in my images and been shocked by what they see - even when I have been honest and open about what they should expect? Even then, when I have been ethical and respectful, I can see when people are not happy with what they see of themselves in my photographs. Because, quite simply, they don’t share them on their social media platforms after I give them the images.
When they are pleased, when they see themselves, they share them with family and friends. Sometimes they are unhappy with what they have given away, what they have revealed, and they know that they can never claim it back.
Perhaps I, too, will look back on these posts, these 10 weekly melancholy meanderings through my life during a global pandemic and wonder why I gave so much away. Even if it was very little. But I can simply take these posts down when I change my mind.
Every adult who lets a documentary photographer into their lives does so at their own risk. Once they give them permission to show the world who they are, through their photographs, they walk a tightrope of shame, exploitation and mockery - even when the photographer attempts to work ethically.
Because all the risk wrests upon the shoulders of who let themselves be photographed - once the photographs are out there.
It’s not on the photographer et al., but on the person being stared at. Scrutinised and judged by appearance or the context created by the photographer in which these images exist.
If these are the risks for adults, let’s not get started on impressionable or young people here.
I guess it’s just been too long since I made any work. This is perhaps why I’m listening to those voices of the past which live in the silence, as I try to find myself in Zoom chats about old work and new work I fear I might never make.
Anyway, as the days grow darker, and the clouds begin to brood and hang low, I’m hoping for my bravado and bluster to return, bringing back with them those comforting words of solace, “It'll all be OK.”