A couple of years ago we went to Sao Miguel island in the Azores. The Azores had fascinated me ever since I heard about them; most people have no idea where they are and neither did I till I went there. (Just to fill you in, they’re a small archepelago of islands right in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, roughly level with Lisbon in Portugal) They’re volcanic islands, and there’s still a lot of geothermal activity going on, with thermal springs, bubbling hot mud, and the sort of thing you’d generally expect to find in Iceland. In fact, that was a large part of their appeal to me – Icelandic geology but with sunshine and warmth instead of cold and rain. They’re also a prime whale-watching site, but we never did see any of those.
There’s some stunning scenery there, but two things were working against me at the time. One was that I was feeling very uninspired and disillusioned with photography in general, and landscape photography in particular; I’d just started my Landscape course and I knew I wasn’t interested in taking the kind of standard landscape shots that I thought it required. Over time I realised I could interpret the brief much more freely than I’d thought, but that’s another story.
The second thing was that roads on Sao Miguel are narrow and there is only one main road that rings the island. You can’t just stop anywhere you feel like it, so you’re forced to drive past lots of – what were to me – very interesting shots. To accommodate tourists, stopping places have been created wherever there are ‘views’. You stop, you get out your car, you stand in the designated place, and you take your shot. To me, this feels like painting by numbers. You end up with a very nice shot, but it’s identical to the ones on the postcards in the tourist shops and so I think you might as well save yourself the trouble and buy a postcard. I couldn’t find any way of getting my own vision into these shots and I got very bored with taking them. So bored that they’ve mostly been lying on my hard-drive for the last two years without seeing the light of day.
As our stay went on, I dutifully shot the prescribed views but I also started looking for other, often smaller, things that interested me. I took some ‘view’ shots that weren’t from prescribed places on bright sunny days and liked these a bit better.
And then I became fascinated by all the little thermal springs and wells that we found everywhere we went; some of these had quite astounding colours formed by the sediment left by the minerals in the water.
I was also drawn to taking small detail shots; the distinctive roofs and tiles, windows, wildlife, and the wonderful light and shade caused by the strong, hot sun. By this time I was enjoying my photography a whole lot more.
What I remember when I look at these is the push/pull I felt between taking photos that ‘explain’ the place to people who haven’t been there, and taking these pictures of small details that say ‘Azores’ to me when I look at them but would mean nothing to most folk. These shots could work for someone who’d been there, and in fact might be quite effective in that case, but would be pretty useless for a tourist brochure or to give someone an impression of the place.
This is more of an issue with somewhere like the Azores because most people have little or no knowledge of the place. If you take a very well-known tourist destination – let’s say London – people all over the world are familiar with the major sights and icons, so shooting small and quirky details only expands on that knowledge. However, if you want to communicate to people what the Azores are like, you really do need to concentrate on the ‘tourist’ pictures that I found so boring to take. I like all of these shots much better looking at them now than I did then and wonder why I was so ready to dismiss them at the time. I know I was bored and uninterested taking the ‘postcard’ shots, and felt much more inspired and involved when taking the detail ones; these seem more ‘me’ somehow.
I guess the question is who you take the shots for, and why. I think I was trying to do two things at once: take photos I could show to friends and family to let them see what the place is like, and take photos that I enjoyed taking and were very personal to me, but which wouldn’t function as ‘tourist’ pictures.