Your portfolio shapes who you are

I'm just on my way home from Bhutan, where I had a really great trip making some new portraits. Portraits? Yep - that's right. I don't just do landscape images, but when I get the chance, I love to photograph people.

It's been a while though and I've found my mind is bringing back earlier memories of my time in India and Nepal in 2009. I feel very reflective about it as I remember who I was at that time - how I felt about life and the ideals I held at that time. This recent trip to Bhutan has made me think about the implications of my photography with regards to how I live my life now and how I've changed over the years.

Portraits, amassed throughout the years. Image © Bruce Percy

Portraits, amassed throughout the years.
Image © Bruce Percy

Every interaction we have in our lives to some degree, becomes a part of us. We are always collating and storing away our experiences. They shape and form our opinions and ideals as we travel through our lives.

In essence, we are our memories. They shape who we are.

I think the same ideal holds true with the work we create. Building up a collection of work over many years is like being in the middle of an unfolding story, one that is being written and will not be completed until we put down our camera for the very last time.

I often rediscover my memories through my older work Images © Bruce Percy

I often rediscover my memories through my older work
Images © Bruce Percy

As I've looked back at my earlier work, I've seen how much I've grown as a photographer. This has been in tandem with me thinking about how much I've learned as a human being from all the interactions I've had with others through my photography.

For example in Nepal I spent three weeks getting to know many of the temple worshipers around the Kathmandu valley, while in Cambodia I met two girls who failed to sell me bracelets for many days until they became indifferent to my presence. It was only then that I was able to captured a photograph of them fishing at the side of a lake. In Japan I stood under a marquee tent and captured a Geisha as she was looking away from me and in Ethiopia I got to know many of the deacons of Lalibela through my guide Muchaw.

I'm sure these experiences have shaped my opinions and outlook over the years. How could they not?

I often think that photography is the act of submission: we give ourselves permission to go out there and enquire, but we also give ourselves the permission to accept what experiences come our way.

Now that I have ended my trip to Bhutan, I am excited to think that my experiences and memories from this trip will shape and help define the work I edit, and that this work over time, will become part of my portfolio but perhaps more importantly, it will become part of me. Because once a new work is born, it is as though it was always here, waiting to be acknowledged and accepted as part of who I am.

Rusty

A few days ago I posted that I was currently in Lalibela, Ethiopia for a special orthodox christian celebration. It’s been wonderful to come back and experience the place for a second time and I feel I’ve done much better this time in portraying the soul of some of the inhabitants of this town. There are a few images etched into my mind that really stand out: I have a few of local priests and of some of the beautiful children here, but maybe the ones that really stand out in my mind are those of the Ethiopian woman wearing traditional head dress.

Ethiopia-21.jpg

I’ve been thinking today about why it might be the case that I’ve done better this time. Especially since I feel my efforts haven’t justified the images that are imprinted on my mind so far. Four years ago when I came here, I really worked the place as much as I could and felt I didn’t really ‘get’ the place. This time round it’s the opposite way - I feel I’ve put very little effort in and yet I think I’ve captured quite a few memorable portraits in the space of two days.

How can this be? I’m really not sure, and currently it’s just a hunch as I haven’t seen the final processed films yet. But if I have learned one thing over the years of shooting film, it is that when I manage to make a memorable photograph: I tend to know it at the time of capture. The good ones just seem to be like that - they leave an indelible impression on your mind and emotions and I’ve found that they stay there, powerfully, right up until I get the processed films back from the lab and the confirmation that what I felt and saw at the time really did work.

Of course, it would be very easy to say that the reason why everything has gone so well this time is due to my improvement as a photographer. But I don’t think so. In fact I’m feeling rather rusty when it comes to photographing people, particularly in developing world countries. 

First there is the issue of feeling that I’m exploiting my subjects, even though I know I’m not like that and would never take advantage. But being surrounded by poverty tends to make you stare at yourself a bit more than usual and ask yourself some awkward questions.

As I stated a few days ago, I seem to have become really shy in front of people I really want to photograph. My guide helped a lot, but he couldn’t read my mind and he didn’t know when I was secretly longing to photograph someone. Inside, I’m crumbing to pieces at the thought of approaching them. God, I really am rusty as a people photographer.

But perhaps there’s something in this unfocussed approach to my trip that’s working for me, rather than against me. My feeling of helplessness is in some ways, making me go more with the flow. I’ve more or less decided that it’s just great to be here, and any good photos are an added bonus. I can’t help but wonder if serendipity is paying me a visit and offering me more than if I’d tried to orchestrate it myslef. I really don’t know.

As well as myself changing in the past four years, so too has Lalibela. Coming back has allowed me to compare, but it’s also forced me to notice the differences between what I was looking for back then, and what I’m looking for now. Years ago I would be very happy if I managed to get someone’s attention to work with me on a photograph, whereas now I feel I’m looking for more of a connection in the way they smile at me or how they talk to my camera.

And Lalibela is a bit more confident these days. Everyone seems to have mobile phones - Chinese fake Samsung Galaxy phones, and the town is a little more touristy than it was back in 2010. Tuk Tuk’s are everywhere - those strange little car inventions from India arrived only six months ago and I can already see the streets of people and mules being replaced by two stroke engines in four years time if I do ever return. But mostly I feel the inhabitants are getting used to cameras being around and I guess that’s maybe why I’m finding things just a bit easier this time. Ethiopian’s are very generous people at heart, sincere and open and they like to share. It seems that asking to make photos of people here is considered a compliment rather than an intrusion.

One last thought before I go. Coming back to Ethiopia has made me re-connect with why I got into what I do in the first place. The wonder of exploring a place that is completely different from my western existence has always made me feel more alive. It also offers me the chance not only to see new things, but to see things about my own life and myself that I had never had the luxury to consider before.

Next stop Japan, then Bhutan in April. I can’t wait to see what unfolds as I feel I’ve found my passion again for photographing people, even if I am a little rusty.

Lalibela, Ethiopia

As I type this, I'm sitting in the Seven Olives hotel in the heart of Lalibela, Ethiopia. I've come here to photograph the special christian celebration Timkat.

It's been four years since I came here to photograph Meskel - a special orthodox christian celebration held each year in September. 

I remember my first visit well. I was a little overwhelmed by the people, who appear to dress the same as back in biblical times. Lalibela is after all one of the birth places of christianity.

Photographically speaking, I was also a little overwhelmed back then and today I'm finding nothing has changed for me. I seem to be going through a period of adjustment. Landscape photography may come easily to me, but I feel it takes me a day or two to settle into making pictures of people. Most of my adjustment period is due to an inner shyness that I have. I'm not really sure where the core of my shyness sits: I was very shy as a kid, less so as a teenager and I'm very open as an adult, but I think we all have that inner-core - that old-self still lurking within us. So I think my young-shy self is still there, but he only really comes out when I'm faced with something I really love. When it matters, as is the case when I see a potential beautiful photograph of someone, I can become quite unable to direct my subjects to get what I am envisaging.

I saw so many great compositions this morning on my first outing with my guide - Muchaw - who is one of the Deacons here. But I really didn't have much confidence to take my camera up to my eye at first. I guess I just have too much respect for others as I simply do not wish to offend and would be hurt if I knew I'd upset anyone. 

But my guide is a great help in this respect. He is able to break the ice where I could not and I think this is one thing that I have reminded myself of - it's always worth employing a guide when I travel, as they can help smooth the relations between the subjects I wish to photograph and me. Plus I also think that hiring a guide is good, because it's a positive way of giving some money back to the local economy.

It's only the first morning, but tomorrow and Tuesday are two full days of celebrations. I think there should be many photographic opportunities since my guide has got me access to the heart of the celebrations.

Looking back at my first visit in 2010, I remember being right in the heart of some dance celebration making photos and found myself staring out towards the surrounding crowd.  In that crowd, were all the tourists I'd gotten to know at my hotel, each of them with a bemused look on their face as if asking 'how on earth did Bruce get in there?'.

It was so tempting to take a digital SLR for this shoot. Many of the locations are in dimly lit churches, and it's something that I might have to reconsider for another time. It is High ISO territory for sure if you want to be able to shoot everything here. But I prefer to work with what I know well and love, and so I've brought two Contax 645 bodies and a few lenses with me. I have the 55, 80 and 140 which translate approximately to 35, 40 and 70mm. Film stock is Kodak Portra 160.

I feel this year is about making people pictures. It's about having a welcome change. It's also something I love very much as it gives me inspiration in ways that landscape photography does not. Even though I feel that portraiture is not something that comes as naturally to me I get a lot of pleasure out of the exchange with my subjects and often the photography is of secondary importance.

Selection Process - The Birth of a Portfolio

A few years back, I discussed the editing and whittling down of a shoot to a select number of images. My post was about 'quality control'. You can read it here.

One aspect of quality control is how the work is presented. I was really trying to get across the message that in order for the final work to have a cohesive feel to it, certain images may need to be removed, despite them being great images on their own. The key point here is 'on their own'.

Maiko, Kyoto, February 2014, © Bruce Percy

Not all images work well together and it's up to us as photographers to see relationships between images and realise that they make a statement or message stronger if they are put together. Conversely, the message becomes diluted if you just place all your good shots together with no thought to how they relate (if at all)  to one another.

A portfolio (or collection of images) should tell a story. That story needn't be about a chronological sequence of events. It just needs to be a visual-story - one that has a pleasing way of unfolding on the viewer. That means thinking about the relationship of tones and colours more so perhaps than subject matter. It just shouldn't jar in any way. Or to turn it around - a portfolio should just 'flow'.

Just as the composition and tonal relationships within a solitary photograph should 'flow' (work together and lead your eye comfortably through the image), so too should a portfolio do the same thing (the images should work together and lead your eye comfortably through the collection).

Looking at portfolios on-line, it's often apparent that many have not taken the time to consider the ordering of the images. Nor has there been any thought about ordering images with similar aspect ratios which exist side by side.

Geisha-Contact-Sheet

If one were to put a book together, you would take the time to think more about the layout -  where to put the images, and although there may have to be certain decisions as to put related subjects together, you will find that the overriding decision will be to use ones where their visual properties are similar. For instance, I really don't like to put two images together that have very different tones or even aspect ratios. On a two page spread, if I have to have a portrait orientated image on the left page, I make sure the right page has an image with the same orientation. This is because each time you turn a page, you are now confronted with two images in one go. They need to be related in some way and this can be achieved through similar orientation or similar tonal properties, or maybe just similar subject matter.

Similarly, I would  put images of similar tonal ranges or 'feel' together, unless the intention was to convey a sense of contrast. An example of creating contrast may be to use two images of the same scene but each illustrating a different season. But just simply jumping around from one image to another with little consideration for 'the story' you're trying to convey will result in your portfolio appearing weaker than it really is. All just because there was no sense of flow to how the images were laid out.

So portfolios are really 'concepts'. Like a prog-rock concept album, they have a story to tell.

Lastly, a portfolio is not just simply created at the end of an editing session. You don't just work on all the images and then decide which ones to put together. A portfolio should surface as the editing of a collection of images is worked on. A protfolio should be one of the aspects you should be considering during the editing stages.

Consider the collection of images of Geisha I have in my contact-sheet above. These are here not just because they have a similar look and feel, but more because, as I worked on scanning and editing the images in this collection the tonal look and feel of the work became more apparent to me. I saw in maybe 4 images a similar look where the dress and white faces seemed to influence or 'guide' the editing. I kept looking at the overall collection of images that I was working on and if I noticed that there was a strong colour or tonal relationship with some of them, I went with them as the guidelines for where the editing should go. So thinking about a portfolio during the editing influenced the outcome of the images you see here.

Conversely, if I'd edited them on an individual basis and not looked at the collection of images I was amassing, I think the body of work would be much weaker. The tonal relationships or 'look and feel' of the final work would be more tenuous, and I'd be left with a body of work that felt 'wooly' and thoughtless.

Everything you do as a photographer should be about maintaining high standards. Only show your best work, and give a lot of care and attention to how it is presented. Badly presented beautiful work can be easily misunderstood and overlooked. Now you wouldn't want that would you?

Getting Acquainted with new work

Back in February, I made my first ever trip out to Japan. It was a very enjoyable trip, mostly because the people there are terrific. Politeness is something that seems to be at the core of the Japanese, and I will definitely be going back next year.

Maiko, Kyoto, Japan, © Bruce Percy

The past few weeks have been deeply satisfying for me on a creative level.

I had originally gone out to Japan for a special one day event in Kyoto. I had high hopes that I might make some beautiful images of Maiko and Geiko (Kyoto's Geisha). All I can say about that day is that by the end of it, I felt extremely happy, feeling that I'd maybe made a few nice portraits.

I'm a film shooter, which means I have to live with the memories of those moments where I felt I captured something good. I think that's one of the reasons why I love shooting film. There is no pressure to review immediately what I've shot, and I go with the philosophy that what's done is done. It allows me to live more in the present moment. No stopping to review, just making images. Which is great.

Once I click the shutter, the image is either imprinted on my mind or it's not. I have to listen to my gut a lot and the more memorable images tend to stay with me in my thoughts and feelings for days after the event. I find it highly enjoyable to let my mind settle and absorb what it was I experienced. I often feel it takes a lot of time, maybe weeks or moths to really be clear on what I experienced, and in this way, it's great to just leave the films until I get home and have space in my mind and schedule to work on the images.

So this posting is really about the experience of watching new work come to fruition. In my studio I have a light table where I place my transparencies, and I also have a daylight viewing booth where I can review the contact sheets for the negatives I've shot. The Geisha portraits I made were shot on Kodak Portra 160 colour negative film, so I always request a contact sheet to be made, so I can easily look over the entire collection of images on a roll in one easy go.

During the selection and editing, I've felt I've been getting re-acquainted with Kyoto and my the day I spent there making images of Maiko and Geiko. It's been such a really beautiful thing to get absorbed in the sights and memories of the trip and also to find that the certain images that really made a big impression on me at the time of shooting, have reliably met my expectations. But there is also the beautiful surprise in seeing other images I had not thought would make the grade come to life, and  to watch the final portfolio take shape.

Each portfolio should have it's own vibe. Sometimes that vibe is based on the subject matter, but more so for me now, the collection of images has to have a cohesive feel to them - usually brought about by the colours and tones present in the work. I often feel my own images tend to speak to me and dictate how they are going to turn out, and it's up to me to see relationships in colour ranges or subject matter to find a common theme or story while I'm editing them.

The past few weeks of sitting in my home studio absorbed in contact sheets and watching the portfolio's story appear before my eye's has been really wonderful.

One mustn't rush the editing. When you have just made a collection of images it's all so tempting to get back to your home and busily start work on them, but there's really something wonderful to be had in cherishing the moment because it is a way of recalling the experiences and feelings you had whilst making them.

My new collection of images can be viewed in the new work section of this website.

Copyrighting Culture

I read a really interesting article on the BBC news website this morning about copyrighting cultures. In the article, the Maasai people - a semi-nomadic people located in Kenya and northern Tanzania are considering seeking copyright for their image. They have set up an organisation to take care of this called the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative. Hindu in Nepal

I think this is most intriguing, because in a world where imagery and branding are extremely valuable and highly protected (think of Microsoft and CocaCola for instance), it's surprising to think that people and cultures have not set about this sooner.

"We all know that we have been exploited by people who just come around, take our pictures and benefit from it," - Isaac ole Tialolo, Massai leader and elder.

I do think there is a lot of exploitation and theft of other people's cultural heritage and one way this is done is through the act of making pictures where the tribes or peoples do not benefit as well as they could. It could be argued that whenever a professional or amateur photographer captures any images with cultural reference that they are aiding tourism to the place. I know for sure that all of the places I have visited myself were fuelled by seeing images by others which captured my imagination. I do however think there should be some form of protection for cultures and peoples. A kind of cultural copyright whereby we all pay towards the protection and acknowledgement of the 'brand' in some way.

I met a photographer in Lalibela, Ethiopia, a few years back. He had raised around £2,000 for an NGO based in Addis Ababa, before he came out to do his photography. I remember him explaining that he felt he could now make his own images, because he had contributed towards the people of Ethiopia. It was a really great thing for him to do.

I do think we need to be mindful and respectful to others on our travels. Treat others as we would wish to be treated. I do think however, that when there is no price put upon something, it is valued less for what it is than it should be. Simply turning up to make images and feeling that you are contributing to the local people through your own tourism is perhaps not enough.

Tibetan exile in Nepal

But there has to be a way forward for tribes of people to gain something of value back for their heritage, while at the same time allow photographers to work unconstrained by hefty fees, or heavy restrictions. And this will be difficult to do, because I've been thinking that in the past decade since I started making images, what used to be a relatively minor activity has now turned into a major one: everyone has a camera, and everyone is looking for that special photo. This perhaps leads this posting into other territories that I do not wish to discuss - namely that of photography etiquette, or the lack of, shown by many who are tourists first and foremost and photographers by the very nature that they are there as tourists. The world of photography is growing as everybody has a camera, but with it too, social graces are being challenged: there are more people pushing cameras into someone's face just because they are on holiday.

But I do not wish for photography to become policed in any way. Surely though - it is inevitable that it will? Surely as photography becomes more and more widespread and commonplace, that laws will be created to protect peoples rights to privacy? Whether this happens is one point, but in the case of the Massai people, protecting their cultural image and ensuring they benefit from what is rightfully theirs is just as vital.

I think copyrighting a cultural image, or imagery associated with it is a really good way forward because it generates an income for many peoples and tribes. What they have is of value, and that value should be acknowledged. By copyrighting it, we not only give it protection, but we also ensure that it is sustained. And maybe, just maybe,  the erosion of any culture with this protection will be stopped as a result.

But one thing is clear: give a culture it's own copyright, and you give them a more recognised value in a global sense.

Cultural heritage is a rare and precious thing and should be respected and valued accordingly.

The art of Photographing Geisha

A lot of people know my landscape photography as 'simplified' and some even go as far as to say it's 'elegant'. All very complimentary to me, and it makes me happy because this is exactly what I aim to achieve with my landscape images. But what of my portraiture work? I personally see no difference between landscape images, and people images. To me, one is the landscape of a place, while the other is the landscape of a human soul. The same compositional rules apply - shape, tone and form are all required and of course the emotional engagement must be there too. So I've always been intrigued with people who like landscapes, but don't like photos of people, or the other way round.

Image © John Foster

When I make pictures of people, it's because I find them very engaging. Either it's their posture, the colour of their clothing, or there is a spirit about them that I find appealing, but ultimately, the composition has to be there too.

So while thinking about the kinds of portraiture work I would like to do as a new project, I've been thinking about how it would be nice if the work was simple and has some beauty or elegance to it. I know myself well, to know where I am with my own aesthetics and abilities as a landscape photographer: so I'm aiming to match my current level of ability and aesthetic with a new subject. For a long time now, I've believed that certain subjects work well for us, only when we have reached the right state of readiness. In other words, we do our best work when we encounter the right subject at the right time in our own artistic development. When both these worlds merge, the work can often bring on a new awareness of our style and future direction.

For some reason, the Geisha of Japan sprang to mind. I've been speaking a good friend of mine who told me about Kusakabe Kimbei's work, and I reproduce a hand coloured image here. I think there is indeed something elegant and beautiful about the work, and it shows me that there is great potential to this subject.

I bring all this up because I'm simply trying to explain how I can become inspired by certain subjects, or how the creative process can begin for me. I still have no idea whether a trip to Japan is actually on the cards as yet, or how realistic it may be to make images of Geisha, but the wheels have started to turn, and I've started to research the possibilities.

One of the things I love to do about anything I get really into, is to buy books on the subject. Today I received a copy of John Foster's book 'Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto' (you can also view his work on Geisha at his website too). I'll start by saying that it's a great book. It tells me a lot about the Geisha and Maiko but also, from a photographer's perspective, he tells me about the issues in working with his subjects over a seven year period.

John is a passionate photographer who has very similar attitudes to making portraits as I have: his first rule is that he is there to make friends, not offend anyone. So making images is secondary to the experience of meeting someone and finding out about them. He cares a lot for his subjects and has the utmost respect for them. I feel this is key to any engagement with a possible subject for portraiture photography  and it's something I've always kept in mind while making images in Cambodia, Cuba, India and Nepal. People are people, no matter wherever you go, and they have feelings.

John's book has given me a lot of insights into the possibilities of engaging Geisha and the chances there are of making any photographs of them. From what I've learned: it's not going to be easy.... But I've been so inspired by his images because they show me the 'elegance' and 'simplicity' that I'm seeking.

Of course, John's book is not the only one I've bought on the subject of Geisha. I also found Jodi Cobb's (National Geographic photographer) excellent book, which has a more 'reportage' aspect to it. Her website has an excellent 'street photography' section on the Geisha.

All of this, is helping me gain better insight, and also helping me build my enthusiasm for a possible project. Whether I actually make it out to Japan is another story all together. But right now, I feel I've found something that is inspiring me to find out more, and this is key to any possible project one is considering undertaking.

For anything to begin, a flame has to ignite first.

I'm a portrait photographer

It's been long overdue. I'm a portrait / street photographer as well as a landscape photographer. And it's been a good few years since I made any portrait shots. My trusty Contax 645 film camera has been gathering dust, and in this time, I've been focussing very hard on building a photographic workshop business.

Everything needs balance. Too much landscape work, has left me hankering to go out there and make some new portraits. Only thing is.... I'm not exactly sure where to go. I have the whole of July free, and also December. Ladakh has been on my list for a long time, but I feel a sense of inertia in booking flights there for this July. This makes me feel as if there may be another story waiting to appear and take my attention. Bhutan is also somewhere I would love to go, but I've not had much free time of late to research it. The climate is a vitally important ingredient in making portraits. Rainy season works best for people shots as the light is soft and diffused. Summer harsh light is the least attractive.

I guess right now, I'm looking for inspiration. I seldom have time these days to wander through other peoples portfolios: running a business, and working on your own photography is very intensive, sometimes too much so. I love it, but I think I'm needing to take a break, look around, see what's out there, and forge a new direction. Got any suggestions?

Do Children make more truthful images?

It's been four years now, that I've been self-employed as a full-time photographer. In that time, I've made the transition from looking upon my own photography as a passion / hobby to something that is at the core of my identity and is also my work.

I was told by a few friends who are photographers, that there is always the danger that turning any passion into a job, can kill that passion. It's true, this is a real possibility and I've had periods over the past four years when I've felt as if I'd hit rock bottom in terms of inspiration, simply because I was working too hard, making sure I was making a living, and spending most of my time teaching others, but not making many images myself. There has to be a dividing line and if you are to venture into something you love doing as a job, you need to make a distinction between 'work' and 'hobby'. It's taken me a while to get there, and part of that process has been to realise that each year, I need to set time aside for myself, for my own photography. It's a hard balancing act to do, when you're always thinking about ensuring you keep making a living, and is not, as I'm sure others assume, an easy life.

So I've been on the lookout for some inspiration. I'd dearly love to put my landscape work to one side for a while, and focus more on making images of people. The last time I did this was in 2011 in Ethiopia, and my real 'blaze' at making people images happened in India and Nepal in 2009.

A good friend of mine mentioned that there is a children's charity called Amantani, based in Peru, who's primary aim is to help Quechua children with their education. Often walking miles each day to get to school, Amantani have been looking for funds so they can house and educate the local Quechua children and prevent them from walking many many miles each day to and from their school.

I decided to look into Amantani a bit more, and I stumbled upon a little photographic gallery (which they have kindly allowed me to reproduce here). The work was really beautiful. I thought, wow - I'd love to go there and work with these children if I could get images like these. They are fly on the wall documentary images. But what struck me most, was that they were taken by the children themselves.

I find it truly inspiring to think that little girls and boys made these images. It's made me wonder - do children in general make more truthful images?

I think they do. Or at least, they must do. I can hardly imagine a child being full of pre-conceptions, and if anything, their eye's must be closer to their hearts and to what they feel, than the average adult.

And the thing is, I really want to get involved. I just don't know in what way as yet, or indeed, if it's a possibility, but it's given me inspiration, and any creative person should follow what inspires them.

One thing is clear to me though, the images captured here were made in the least self-conscious way. I'm fully aware that anything I could do, to document what these children experience each day as part of their Quechua lives, would only capture the surface. For one, I'm not a child (well, I do have some friends who would dispute this) - it takes a lot of effort to blend in, to become invisible. I'm so envious.... if only I were 7 years old again, maybe I could create images as honest as these are.

If you'd like to see the children's original photographs, or find out more about Amantani, then please go here.

And if you would like to donate, please go here.

Return to Portraiture

I've been thinking for a while, that I've not had any chance these past few years to make any portraits. It was startling for me to read reviews of my book, where the reviewer was surprised to see the inclusion of portraits as well as landscapes because they viewed me as a landscape photographer. This in itself was very interesting to me, because it allowed me to get a glimpse of how others perceive me and what I do.

I always thought I was a travel photographer, because it entails all the destinations that I've been to, all the landscapes that I've shot whilst there, and also, all the people I've encountered and photographed too.

For me, there is little difference between portraiture and landscapes. They both have personalities and they both need to be engaged in,  a dialogue of sorts - the interaction between yourself and your subject.

They are also subjects of beauty, and I see many compositional attributes that are appropriate in landscapes, present in portraiture too: I'm often seeking pleasing tones, compatible colours and 'a moment'. With landscapes, we have to watch for elements changing in the landscape and make images when we see detail changing or becoming visible. With portraits, I have to watch my subjects as they dance between different expressions of the face, their body movement, their change in pose.

And they're both very exciting to shoot. Landscapes because you're dealing with the unpredictable elements of a landscapes soul. Portraits are exciting because of the unpredictable elements of a persons spirit.

I deliberately interchanged the words 'soul' and 'spirit' between landscapes and people, because in a sense, they are the same thing when we choose to make images of them with a camera.

I also get a lot of inspiration from making images of people. It's all too easy to become single-minded in your approach to photogaphy. We should often seek out new things that interest us, as often, they are a guiding post to where we should go, to who we are seeking to grow into as a creative person (I hate using the word artist, yet, in truth, that is exactly what we are).

So in order for me to 'feed my soul', I'm heading off to Portugal in November to catch up with some friends in Oporto. We're heading back into the highlands, and I'm hoping that it will be a week of making images of the locals there. My first and only visit was in 2007:

There is a story to tell in the little villages of northern Portugal. I felt I touched upon something in these images at the time, but I've never been back to explore it. I think that's part of the job or 'journey' of a creative person. To know when something has been left unfinished, to know where there is potential to grow, and to take action and put some new work into being.

I'm now hatching plans for further trips to make portraiture. I'm not exactly sure where just yet, but what I do know, is that I've been neglecting my portraiture leanings for some time, and that as a creative person, my inner 'artist' needs to be fed.

Body Language is all we need

I've been watching 'Tribe' by Bruce Parry (cool name!) on DVD this week and I've been enjoying it. Parry has such a sprit for 'getting in there'. I felt compelled to go and look for interviews with him and came upon one in which he spoke of certain things which resonated with me very much and I feel I must share with you.

When Parry is out there, trying to bond with tribes, his interviewer stated that "The secret of assimilation, he reveals, is that he never attempts to learn the language: "It gets in the way of eye contact and human understanding. The quickest way to bond is to offer to carry something, to eat their food, drink their [sometimes polluted] water."

I bring this up, because on all of my travels, when I've been making photos of people, I've often found language gets in the way.

This is very timely because only last week, I was speaking to a girl in the office I now share  (I've moved into a nice office in the centre of Edinburgh), and one of the girls was asking me if I learn to speak in the language when I make images of Cubans / Ethiopians / Cambodians / Indians / Nepalese....

My answer was no... I don't use verbal language. I use a lot of body language and I'm convinced that the people I photograph have a better understanding of 'me' than they would if they could talk to me. As Parry stated in his interview:

"It gets in the way of eye contact and human understanding. The quickest way to bond is to offer to carry something, to eat their food, drink their [sometimes polluted] water."

That is, in a nutshell, exactly how I feel about my exchanges with people I make images with: When I encounter someone, I get involved, and I have to communicate through my body.

We do listen to each other through our body language, and despite what someone says to you, often we're aware if their body is saying something else.

Well, it's just like that.

I'm a pretty open, easy going person, so I just act myself and see what happens. Often it works very well and I'm able to get up close to someone and make an image of them without them being frightened.

The other thing that really got me, when reading the interview with Parry was that he said :

"I used to worry that I would be embarrassed at dinner parties because I would be out of touch. But having travelled so much, I find the news thoroughly repetitive and negative."

Having done a lot of traveling myself, I think I understand what Parry is saying because each time I return from abroad, I'm aware that I seem to suffer a sense of  'not belonging to where I'm from'. Scotland, or the British Isles, seems like a strange place. People are insular. They have worries about small issues. Or so it seems. It's just that each of us, lives in our own bubble of 'reality', and I think what Parry is saying is that it's easy to become wrapped up in all the problems in our own societies, and not appreciate the good that is around. I've certainly found that on my travels... really poor people in Bolivia, who are happy, just existing. They have food on their plate, they have a home, their loved ones are healthy and things are good.

The same in India, if things are ok today, then that is all that matters, because tomorrow is tomorrow.

The same for Cuba... and Cambodia.... these places don't have a long term view. They are dealing with the more fundamental aspects of existence. They are just trying to 'be'.

I think as photographers, we should try to get out there. To experience. To see the world.

It gives us a chance to see a new perspective, but perhaps more importantly, it gives us a chance to appreciate things that we didn't acknowledge about our own societies, and to also question the way we go about living our lives too.

Surely that is no bad thing.

Ethiopia

I've been a bit swamped lately, and I've only just literally started to work on my Ethiopian image this afternoon. But I'm a little troubled. My Nikon Scanner's software isn't supported anymore and I can't get it to work on Snow Leopard, so I've had to resort to buying Silverfast. Talk about clunky. Talk about confusing. Talk about being able to screw up a scan so easily.

I used to work in Software, and I know it's easy to make a hash of stuff (hey, I was never that great a programmer), but the user interface could really do with an overhaul on their software and more importantly, so could the workflow. It's rubbish.

Anyway, here's the very first test scan I've done. I think it's going to take me a few weeks to get to grips with scanning on Silverfast. It's always painful for me having to learn new software, get used to the way *it* wants to work, rather than it working the way *you* want it to work.

Hope you enjoy this first taste of my new portrait images from Ethiopia. I have no idea what is in store at the moment because all I have is a big box of negatives all sitting in their sleeves at the moment, and a cumbersome way of scanning them on a Canon 9000F to see what the digital-contact-sheet holds.

One lens or two?

I'm busy writing some chapters for the eBook I'm working on about Street Photography, and I've been diverted to reading on Photo.net today about David Alan Harvey. I've loved his photographs for some time now, and he's a very simple shooter, only taking with him a Leica, 28mm and 35mm lenses.

I've been busy writing about how I prefer prime lenses and that I prefer to go out with only one or two lenses with me. Often it's only the one lens I use. In the case of India and Nepal last year, the entire collection of images I made were shot with my Contax 645 and an 80mm lens. I didn't need anything else.

I'm a big subscriber to keeping things simple and cutting down on the amount of gear I travel with. It can be back breaking bringing too much kit with you, but it can also inflict a sense of creative constipation because you also have too many choices at hand. You think that bringing all the lenses you can think of will mean you're going to be prepared for just about any photo situation, but the truth is more often the case that we just confuse ourselves with what to use and when.

It takes time to master lenses, but that's not really the issue at hand. It's more about immediacy. If you have one lens on your camera at all times, you learn to work within the confines of that. I prefer primes because they make me roam a location and work the scene more. I also prefer primes because I don't have to think about different focal lengths. I make do with what I have. I also prefer one lens because there is no delay in choosing another one. I also start to 'see' every potential encounter in the focal length of the lens I have on me.

Using one lens makes it easier for me to 'visualise' and be proactive, rather than reactive. And it also means I'm much more free to move around.

a book on Portraiture

For the past week or so, I've been collecting images and stories from my trips around the world for a forthcoming ebook I plan to release about Street Photography, or more specifically, portraiture in a street environment.

It's coming together really nicely at the moment and is going to be a bit of a whopper this one I feel. I have three sections to the proposed ebook now:

Approach

This is where I discuss the conscious and subconscious decisions I make whilst out shooting.

Technique

This is where I discuss the kinds of lenses, the types of film, the choice of light I use and the pre-picture taking techniques I use (my camera for instance, is always pre-focussed).

Street Stories

This is more a 'making of' section, where I discuss what happened on a case by case basis with each of the images I illustrate.

I have topics like 'From Within - getting into the picture', a section on body language which is very important. How you convey yourself to your subject can make or break the exchange.

Which is really what portraiture is : an exchange or dialogue between you and the subject.

Anyway, it's very exciting. I'm really enjoying writing this one as I think I was originally wondering how I would approach it. But now that I've laid out the guidelines for each of the chapters, I'm on a roll now.

I keep getting some folks out in the web call me a 'landscape shooter', but that's only really part of the story for me. Originally yes, I started in landscapes, but I feel that in around 2004, things changed. I'd been interested in shooting people for a long time, but I had simply never made the leap. It all seemed to happen for me in 2005 when I went to Cambodia.

Armed with a collection of cameras, I remember trying each of them out to find which ones worked best. The EOS 1n was put away pretty soon as it was too obtrusive for me. I had a Bessa R3a which was a joy to use and most of my subjects didn't take me too seriously with my small, quiet camera. But strangely, I got the same response with my Mamiya 7II. It was possible to make street photos with a big camera so long as it was quiet.

I've moved onto the Contax 645 system now, primarily because the Mamiya7II has hopeless close focussing (it's a rangefinder) - it's possible to get away with some street shots like this one below:

Anyway, time to get on with my writing, which is great fun because I get to relive the experiences of being back in all the places I've been to. Sort of like a virtual holiday :-)

Monochromatic Colour

I shot this in Jaipur, at the hotel I was staying at. There's nothing posed about it from my recollection and as far as I remember, the girl was very happy to have her photo taken, but she's got quite a strong stance in the image. There's almost a defiant expression there and it certainly took me back when I saw my contact sheet for this - I took so many pictures of people while I was away, I've found that I seem to have suffered blank out periods where I really can't remember anything about the interaction.

But I guess that is a good thing, because it allows me to take the image for what it is, rather than what I wanted it to be. That's the beauty about a bit of distance between shooting and processing.

Now, the reason why I wanted to show you this image is because I think it's fairly mono-chromatic. All the tones are sort of reddish-brown. Personally, I love it (but I'm apt to like my own work - it's what I do - so no surprises there). This is one image that would be very tempting to turn into a black and white because it just has different shades of the same colour, but then again, there's nothing wrong with having a colour image that is mono-chromatic. There's a lot of warmth in those tones and that is something that would, I feel be missing from a black and white image.

Wedding Girl?

My encounters with the people I photograph can sometimes be fleeting. Take this image for instance. One minute I'm wandering the 'blue city' area of Jodpur and I've passed several places of worship with sounds of music and clapping.

Then I turn a corner, and this little girl is on her way with her mother somewhere. I don't speak the language, but I'm able to open a dialog and quickly we're on the same page and i'm able to make this shot.

But I don't know where they were going, or what the occasion was. Does it really matter I ask myself? I guess it doesn't, and in some ways, not knowing allows us to conjure up our own emotion and mood, our own idea of what was going on.

José

While I was in Bolivia, I was taken to a remote village where no tourists go. jose007

The 'road' to the village was a test of nerves, even though we were in a 4WD vehicle. What surprised me the most was that when we got there, I couldn't help but notice a bus that had managed to travel the same impassible road.

I stayed for a long weekend, under the stars, in my tent, very, very cold for the first night. The family I was staying with offered me a Llama skin to put over my sleeping bag. It was rather heavy but a welcome reprieve from the high altitude cold.

Anyway, I'm digressing a wee bit here as I attempt to set the scene for this shot.

This is a picture of José. He's a farmer of Alpaca and Llama. His sister and brother all live in the same farm and he has never been to La Paz or to any other town outside of his small village. I woke up on the first morning there to find him standing in his doorway watching everyone, like he'd never seen people before. I introduced myself and asked him for his picture. What I loved about the whole exchange was that he had no preconceptions of how to stand, how to look and didn't go into that terrible 'cheese' mode that most people go into when presented with a camera. He simply didn't change one bit, so this is a shot of him, with me standing perhaps about a foot away from him.

I love the shallow DOF when using the Contax 645 f2 lens up close. I think this was shot at f4 to make sure that most of his face was in focus, while at the same time, render his bomber jacket with a creamy out of focus bokeh.

Tibetan Portrait

This is a portrait I shot using my newest toy, a Contax 645 system with a standard lens. Notice the shallow depth of field? It was intentional, but perhaps it's too much. I'm not that precious about things and I'm very happy with the image. But perhaps next time I'll ease off with using f2 and shoot at f4 instead, or perhaps I'll shoot both? boudhanath

There's a softness there and a glow which I feel is only possible with film. Certainly not achievable with a digital 35mm slr system anyway, to my eye at least. It's purely personal of course and you may feel differently and also have proof to back up your alternative view point? If so - I'd love to hear from you.

I've been too busy of late. Far too busy to process and work on my images from Nepal and India, and in three days from now, I'm on a plane again, this time headed for Patagonia and Bolivia. I've got three film systems with me. Two systems I know really well - a Mamiya 7 and an Eos 1V. Why 35mm you might ask? Well, because on reflection, it seems that 35mm 'looks' better to my eye than digital does, and it has a flexibility to it that is not apparent in the larger systems.

I spent a good week up north on the isle of Eigg (ground work for an upcoming workshop I'm doing there in September - check out my workshop page if you want to come along), and had the most wonderful weather. Lots of snow capped mountains so I'd like to post you some in the coming days - time permitting.

Baktapur Girl

I'm just heading off for the highlands, but before I go, I thought I'd post this image. I shot this in Baktapur, a village on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley. There are a lot of Hindus in Nepal and on this occasion there was a little ceremony going on.

Hindu Girl in Ceremony, Baktapur, Kathmandu Valley

I'd been out shooting in the early hours of the morning in the daily Kathmandu valley fog, when I kept on noticing small girls being escorted through the town all dressed up. But it was all elusive - the shot I wanted to get. So I let it pass. Then around midday I came across a little building where there seemed to be something going on. Upon entering the courtyard, I could see lines of girls all dressed up, with doting mothers keen to have them get more attention than the others. I'd like to say I knew what was going on, or that I understand the Hindu culture. Is she a living Goddess perhaps? (they appoint a girl every now and then to be a living goddess), I do not know. But it was the perfect opportunity to make some images and this was certainly one of them that when I clicked the shutter - I knew I had a nice composition.

It was shot with a Contax 645 and standard lens. The lens was focused as physically close as possible. The film was Kodak Portra, which I love for it's warm tones. I don't think the image is finished yet. It's my first scan from the Contax and I'm really pleased with it.  I found this camera really nice for portraiture work and now I'd like to find out if it's ideal for landscape work too.

Each camera system has its strengths and weaknesses. As much as I love my Mamiya 7, it's not really ideal for portraiture work, or in particular - getting in close.

I don't like to advocate the promotion of camera gear, simply because I feel there is too much of it. I've lived and worked with my Mamiya 7 for 8 years and I know it's flaws and I also know where I want to be going with my own photography. You can only reach that by building your experience and learning to work and get the most out of your existing systems. It's all too easy to just keep buying more gear, but on the other side of the coin, when you know you have limitations in your system, then it's time to find that missing something. I feel the Contax may be it.

Berber Portrait & thoughts on Film

This is one of my favourite shots from the films I got back from Morocco. Situated in the north part of Marrakech, he was actually sleeping in a big metal wheel barrow when I came across him. The streets are filled with smells, sounds, activity - sensory overload. So I think I was drawn to him because he was stationary. Anyway, he was one of the most willing participants I had. Sometimes a photo just falls into place, other times it takes a while to get it right. This one just fell into my lap. morocco031.jpg

I've finished editing the Portra Morocco shots. I just need some time now to put them up on my site. They are similar to my Cuba and Cambodia shots. I just feel so much more happy about them compared to my previous Morocco shots. The colours are right this time, I've got a lot more portraits too. First time I went to Morocco I came home with a few sparse portraits because I hadn't learned what it took to get them. The culture is difficult, people don't respond to tourists like they do in Cambodia (warm, welcoming) or Cuba (discreet, proud). The Moroccan is a distant person, privacy is valued much more, highly religious, general culture make for very difficult photo taking and I'm not going to do candid shots because it's so easy to offend someone.

Anyway, regarding film, my first shock was how grainy it is. After using digital for a few years now, it took a bit of adjustment to going back to looking at grainy film. But conversely, I had to do very little to the images - the colours were there, and that 'texture' or '3D' look or 'glow'. Conversely, digital is flat, you have to work at bringing the colours out, and when doing that, it really screws with skin tones.

It's hard to describe, and I guess I shouldn't need to. If you need me to describe the different look and feel that each medium has - then you can't see it.