Our second living room, or snug, with its woodburner stove
I’m behind with my blog posts this week, partly due to a nasty cold but also because I’ve been sorting out a new venture. You may have heard of Airbnb – it’s a site where you can list your spare room for holiday rent, as in a kind of informal bed and breakfast. You can offer anything from a sofa bed with nothing else provided to full professional bed and breakfast, and set your own prices for it. People book through the website, you get some spare cash, they get something individual and characterful and/or reasonably priced, and hopefully everybody’s happy.
We have a lovely sunny front room that wasn’t really being used so we’ve turned it into a bedroom, and if someone stays they get this, plus light use of the kitchen, share of the bathroom, and use of our second living room or snug, and the garden when the weather’s nice. It’s taken me ages to put the listing together as there’s rather a lot of information to write up, plus a profile to create and photos to take and upload.
This has been my only photography this week and it only took about five minutes to shoot the photos, and half an hour or so to process them. However, I spent several hours before all of that cleaning and tidying so that it all looked good enough to photograph. It’s not that we’re particularly dirty or messy, just that we’re not immaculate or minimalist and the house gets cleaned on a room rotation basis so it’s seldom all freshly done at once. (It has made me slightly apprehensive about the amount of work involved every time someone stays………)
This is a different kind of photography, of a utilitarian nature, and I didn’t spend much time on it, thinking that as long as the rooms look appealing and the photos are sharp enough, its other photographic merits aren’t that important. Photography is one of the strangest of the visual arts, in that it has this other very practical use of recording what’s there so that people who’re not there can see it.
It’s this muddling of art with documentation that I believe leads to people getting very upset when they find out a photograph has been manipulated in some way – there’s an expectation that photographs tell the truth. They don’t, of course, even when used like this – you’d know it was the same rooms if you came in and saw them, but they look subtly different when photographed and I feel oddly as if I’m looking at someone else’s home when I view them. It was Garry Winogrand who said he photographed things to see what they look like photographed, and that alone is enough to make photography interesting because things do look different photographed.
But getting back to practical matters, if you know anyone who’d like a welcoming, comfortable place to stay in Newark on Trent, for a very reasonable £35 a night (£45 for two), you know where to send them!
I have always hated having my photograph taken. These days I admit that it has a lot to do with vanity, as I always hope that I look better than it turns out I do in most of the photographs taken of me, but even as a very small child I didn’t like it. In the photo above, that’s me, hiding behind the deckchair on the left because I didn’t want to be in the picture. I was only about five or six years old at the time, so issues of vanity didn’t prevail and whatever it was that I didn’t like about it has to be something I would have been unable to articulate then but still instinctively feel today.
A few years back I had a friend who was always trying to sneak photos of me, taking them at odd moments when I wasn’t paying attention. I found it quite annoying, especially as he knew I really didn’t want to be photographed. One day he took a photo on his phone and then applied an app to it that turned my face into a kind of zombie/living dead thing – the kind of thing you see in horror movies, with half the skull showing through and eyes melting down the cheeks. I thought it was awful and even quite disturbing, but what was worse was that he posted this photo on Google+ – it’s still there as far as I know. That’s not the reason I’m no longer friends with him, but it didn’t help.
I’ve just started reading a book called PhotoTherapy Techniques by Judy Weiser, and she has this to say about photos of ourselves taken by other people:
“Photos are a good means for exploring the power dynamics in our relationships with the people who have photographed us. As each photographer ‘takes’ another person’s picture, the terms subject and object acquire additional meanings in terms of subjectification and objectification. It is interesting to consider which person’s picture signals the most truth to us about ourselves and to explore what that may signal about whose reality is the most accepted as being true (and who can therefore be trusted with the photographic equivalent of one’s self….).”
It’s the last sentence that interests me most – who can be trusted? While I don’t think I’m ever going to like my photo being taken, I have another friend whom I would trust implicitly to do the job, and indeed she has taken one of the few photos of me that I’m happy to use for online purposes. I know that the way she sees and portrays me is likely to reflect the way I see myself and want to be seen. I know she would delete any in which I looked laughable or odd or just plain terrible, and she wouldn’t dream of posting them on social media sites without my permission – in fact, it wouldn’t even occur to her.
I’ve always instinctively felt that the taking of someone’s photo by another places the weight of power in favour of the photographer. Certainly, the traditional idea of the photographer as male, with his female subject (victim?) posing according to his demands, supports this. Of course the reality is often very different and this is a heavily stereotyped version of the relationship, but something of it lingers on, especially in amateur photography magazines where articles on portraits always involve some pretty, thin, and very young female being photographed by older male photographers laden down with phallic lenses.
There are obvious feminist issues here concerning the male gaze and how that objectifies women, but that’s not where I want to go with this – the question that intrigues me is one that would apply even if the photographer were female and the subject male. What I’m interested in is whether or not the balance of power always lies with the photographer, however sensitive s/he is, and how much of that understanding hides behind the reluctance of many of us to have our photograph ‘taken’?
*For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.
I’ve lost my way, I really have, but I’m finding it again, and discovering that it isn’t the same way after all, but a new one. The path I’ve been on till now was never wrong or badly chosen – it was taking me where I thought I wanted to go and it ended up teaching me a lot about what I really did and didn’t want. Now I’ve changed my mind about where I want to go and how I want to get there. The path I’ve been on has become a little rocky and uneven lately and I’ve nearly turned an ankle on it more than once. Sometimes I’ve even sat down on one of its rocks and not felt much like moving again. I’ve noticed another path, a lush green grassy one, that’s been running alongside this one but is now beginning to veer off in another direction. That’s the one I’m choosing. I’m just picking my way over the rough and boggy ground that lies between me and it right now, and when I get there I’ll get going again. No doubt there will be obstacles on this one in places, too, but I like the look of where it’s headed.
For those who’re not into metaphor, let me talk to you about what’s been happening. You may have noticed that I haven’t been here for quite some time – this is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing a blog post since I started this blog. I’ve been doing much thinking and pondering. A lot has happened and I don’t know where to start or how to tell it, so I’m going to take the easy way out and bullet point it – in no particular order. Some things are events and some things are feelings, thoughts, or things I’ve learned about myself (which I suppose are a kind of event in themselves):
• We’ve bought a house and hope to move into it in February
• I’ve decided not to continue studying photography in any formal kind of way, although I still want to learn and grow
• I want to expand on the photography classes I usually teach and do something a little different and more creative with them, which will involve finding out where the market for that lies
• This blog has become stale and tired and I want to make some big changes
• I yearn to write about a lot of other things as well as photography
• I’ve been asked to write another blog for a local magazine which will involve a lot of work for no pay but I’m going to do it anyway because it will be interesting
• I’ve realised how much I dislike writing articles about the technical aspects of photography, and although it’s my only paid work at the moment, something needs to change here
• I want to learn to make books
• I have little motivation to write, do photography, or anything else unless I can share what I do with other people and have some kind of interaction with them
Let me start with the first big change. We’ve bought a house – it’s an old Victorian townhouse with three floors (four if you count the cellar) and four big bedrooms and two reception rooms. For the first time ever, we’ll have space to spread out and expand. Space has been an issue for us since I first moved in with Geoff and we had to combine the contents of two small houses into one small house. We’ve got rid of a lot of things, cleared the clutter, done all that. The fact remains that we still have a lot of stuff that’s related to our interests and activities, which in turn add to our quality of life, and we’d both like to follow up on even more interests that will involve even more stuff.
I think this is important. There are things I’ve given up doing due to lack of space – I used to paint but I needed space to leave work in progress in situ, and space to store materials. It wasn’t the only reason I stopped, but it was a contributing factor. There are other interests I’d like to take up, but the problem of having to find room to store equipment and materials has always been enough to put them on hold – I’ve got an awful lot of things squashed into a small space as it is. Fortunately, neither photography nor writing take up huge amounts of room and that’s one reason why these have become central in my life. With this new house both of us will have more freedom and space to explore new things.
Even more importantly, we expect to gain the kind of stability that we haven’t had for over two years now. While I’ve done it all quite willingly, I do feel as if I’ve spent the last couple of years following Geoff round the country from job to job and trying to give him the kind of support he’s needed, often at the expense of fulfilling my own needs. Lately I’ve felt that I no longer know what I want or who I am. I’ve lost my identity to some extent because I feel I’ve been living Geoff’s life – or more accurately, our life as a couple – more than I have my own. I’ve lost track of what I want as a separate person – to have, achieve, give, be. With the knowledge that we’ll now be staying in the same place for an extended period of time, I’ve had room to think about all these things for the first time in ages.
One thing I’ve given a huge amount of thought to is whether or not to continue studying photography formally. In many ways this dilemma has been solved by circumstances, because I simply can’t afford to pay for another course with OCA. Oddly enough, I find this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. In terms of academic photography, or photography that situates itself in the conceptual art world, I think I’ve gone as far as I’m likely to go. I could say a lot more about this, and I probably will at some point, but I know that world is not for me although I’ll always have an interest in it.
This doesn’t mean I’m in any sense giving up – just searching for a different direction to move in. Looking back over my life, I see that a constant driving force for me has been to create beautiful things or in some other way add beauty to the world. (Sounds embarrassingly pretentious put like that, but it could be something as small as planting flowers or re-arranging the furniture). It’s not fashionable, this feeling, but it’s real and it’s important to me. I want to continue to take photographs and to do something with them that satisfies this urge in me. I want to find a way to avoid the saccharine pretty-prettiness this often leads to, and create something with more depth and more feeling that still celebrates the dark beauty of our world. I don’t know how I’ll do this, or even if I can, but I want to try.
Which leads to my next thing: I want to learn how to make books. Books have been a passion all my life. Not just reading them, although this is vital, but also the tangible aspects of books. I love the way they look, the feel of them in my hand, the weight, the varying textures of the covers and pages, the smell of a new book, the history of an old one. I love them whether they’re blank inside like a journal, or full of the promise of their contents. I do have a Kindle, and it’s great for when I travel, but there just isn’t anything to compare with holding a real book. Combining my passion for books with my passion for photography seems like the way to go.
I’d like to make two kinds of books: artist’s books that contain my own work and are likely to be one-off pieces, and blank books for people to buy and fill with their own creativity and thoughts. So far I haven’t been successful at finding any kind of instructional course locally, but I do have a project in hand that will force me to get started on my own, with the aid of Youtube videos. It’s going to be a little book of photographs and other bits and pieces for my landlady, Maria, who has now become a friend. After we leave, she’ll sell this house. I know she dearly loved this little cottage when she lived in it – as do we – and I want to make a memento of it for her. I’ll write more about this in due course.
I can’t write about everything I bulleted above without this post reaching (even more) epic proportions, but there is one last thing that I need to say. I feel my blog has become tired and stale and I want to make changes. Photography has been – and is – a huge part of my life but there are other things I long to write about. I’m going to do things differently, and I know I’ll lose some of you because of it and that makes me sad, but perhaps I’ll gain others. At the moment I’m not quite sure how this will all pan out, but I think I’ll probably give the blog a different name to reflect the different content. I will still be writing about photography and it will play a big part, but I’d like the blog to reflect the whole of my life and not just one part of it. There are times when photography blends into the background of my life and at these times I find it very hard to write anything. There are other times when I’m enthused about or fascinated by other things and I’d like to feel free to write about those too. It’s going against everything they tell you about blogs – to concentrate on one small niche, to make it clear what people will find there, etc – but sometimes you have to ignore the advice and do what you feel the need to do. To quote Walt Whitman, ‘I contain multitudes’ – and I’d like to write about them.
I’m going now, but I hope to be back very soon. Please forgive me for this very long and rather self-indulgent post, but since I haven’t been around for a while I wanted to explain. And although these may sound a lot like new year resolutions, it’s just coincidence that the changes are happening now. I’ve always thought that if things need changing, then you don’t need to wait till there’s a new year to do it.
Finally, and very importantly, I want to wish everyone who’s made it this far the happiest of times in 2014 – last year was a difficult year for so many people and I hope that 2014 will bring a smoother ride for all of us.
As you slide down the banister of life, may the splinters never point in the wrong direction!
‘Where or what is home?’ is a question that’s been occupying me for some time – for obvious reasons – so when I came across this TED talk by Pico Iyer I stopped everything to watch it. If the question interests you, then I recommend you watch it too – it’s fourteen minutes well spent. (I’ve had terrible trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s disappeared again you can link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/pico_iyer_where_is_home.html)
Iyer points out that ethnic origins no longer define where home is – he’s Indian by ethnicity, but has never lived there nor can he speak any of its languages. For myself, I’m Scottish by ethnicity and birth, but although I identify to a great extent with Scottish culture and I have a great deal of love for the landscape, I’ve never actually felt at home there. Even at a young age, growing up in the west of Scotland, I never felt as if I belonged. As time went past I managed to forget that, and a few years ago I went back there to live, expecting it to be a permanent move. I was miserable. That whole feeling of not fitting in and not belonging came back in a huge rush. Scotland is where I come from, and a place I love to visit, but it isn’t home.
There’s a problem with linking home to a physical place – what happens if that place disappears? Iyer had the misfortune to have his house burnt down in a Californian bush fire and was left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing and a toothbrush. That’s an extreme example, thank goodness, but most of us have lost a place that represents home in some much less dramatic way. Leaving Canterbury felt like losing my home. I was back there for a week recently, and it really did feel like going home even though I no longer have any physical roots there. But the latter isn’t really what home is about:
“…for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than, you could say, with a piece of soul.” Pico Iyer
That piece of soil may be strongly linked to a piece of our soul, but the soil itself isn’t home.
If home isn’t synonymous with place, we could think of home as being where the people we love are, which is fine if we’re thinking about spouses and pets, but what if your children, parents, and friends all live far away from you? And what if they all live in different places? No, home is something far more nebulous and much harder to pin down. And perhaps it’s something that’s different for different people.
Part of my feeling that Canterbury is still home lies in its familiarity. For the first time in a year and a half, I knew how to get to places, I knew where the best places were to go, I knew where to buy the things I wanted – it was all so easy and reassuringly familiar. New places are exciting, it’s true, but when you have to actively remember where the light switch is each time you want to put it on, novelty can get a bit wearing. I know some people thrive on it – they’re the travellers, the adventurers. I’ve never been like that. My taste for adventure lies in new ideas, different ways of thinking and being, and to travel effectively in my mind, I find I need a familiar, reliable, physical base. You may be quite different.
Home is more like a feeling than something that you can point to. I still find it difficult to understand why I feel at home in one place, but not in another, which doesn’t help when I have to make choices about where to live. I never felt at home when we were living in Cheshire, although it isn’t obvious to me why that was. And I already feel much more at home where I’m living now, even though I’ve been here less than two months. It isn’t exactly ‘home’ yet, but I can see that it might become it in time. Home, for me, feels something like having a familiar, stable base – a metaphorical and physical fixed point from where I can venture out and explore. It’s a mixture of familiarity, proximity to people I love, and perhaps most of all, a feeling of belonging. The first and last of these take time to develop, and sometimes never do. I wonder if there are places where we simply never can feel at home? I think it’s possible.
I may well be flattering myself that anyone at all is asking themselves where I’ve been, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Here’s the short version: the removal men broke my computer and the insurance company is still deciding what to do about it, and our existing ISP told us they were no longer dealing with domestic accounts and wouldn’t port our connection. We then had to set up another one, leaving us without internet for three weeks. We’re now fully connected internet-wise, but I’m working on Geoff’s old laptop and it’s not very well equipped for photo editing or any kind of serious use. Still, I’m grateful to have it.
I’ve missed writing for my blog, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get started again once you’ve left it for a while, so I’m writing this to help ease myself back into the whole thing. I’m going to keep it short, but let’s just say that we seemed to have turned a corner with this move and that things are going surprisingly well, and that I’ll talk more about that later. I’ve got my photographic mojo back again, and have a load of images to process – not too easy at the moment as all I’ve got on this laptop is an extremely old version of Elements that doesn’t recognise my RAW files and won’t open them, and I have one spare USB port that has to accommodate the printer, my external hard-drive, my camera upload cable, and anything else I need a USB port for. I’m sincerely hoping it won’t be too long before I have my desktop computer back in working order again, but in the meantime I thought I’d simply say ‘hello’ and confirm that I haven’t fallen off the edge of the world 🙂
I and the village – Marc Chagall, 1911, oil on canvas
It’s been a tense couple of weeks, with one big up and an awful lot of downs. The big up is that Geoff has got a job – yeehah! One of the downs is that it’s in Nottingham so we have to move there, and quickly. I’ve now had time to get over the fact that if I had to pick one area of the UK where I’d choose not to live, the East Midlands would be a strong contender, one of the major reasons being that it’s as far as you can get from the sea in this country, and I need to get to the sea for stress release every so often.
Another reason I wasn’t keen is that the cities of the Midlands aren’t particularly attractive or appealing, and Nottingham has held the label of the crime capital of the UK for some time. It hasn’t helped that on researching Nottingham I came across official advice that instructed lone women who found themselves in the centre of Nottingham after 8.00pm to carry a rape alarm – mmmm…..
But anyway, we don’t actually have to live in Nottingham and its reputation for crime is, like many things, probably over-stated and sensationalised by the press. I cheered up a bit when we did a recce trip and found that the countryside and virtually all the little villages are extremely pretty (and safe), and that Newark is a nice little market town with an impressive ruined castle and riverside gardens and a 30-minute rail link to Nottingham. We were also very taken with Southwell – a quaint and pretty village with its own small cathedral and lots of interesting independent shops and cafes. Nice – very nice – although also very expensive and probably out of our price range. We decided to look at renting a house somewhere in a village between Newark and Lowdham (another lovely village with a train station).
We have pets, which in this country makes you a pariah in the eyes of letting agents, but despite that we’ve always managed to find something before without too much trouble. This time, not. Rental property that allows pets is scarce, and nice rental property that allows pets is scarcer, and we’ve had three trips to Notts now and found nothing – well nothing, that is, that we’ve been able to get.
I’ve sometimes had the feeling that Fate has got it in for us these days, and looking for somewhere to live has done nothing to destroy that illusion. On our first trip we saw a lot of houses that ranged from positively awful to nice-but-wouldn’t-work and then, an hour before we drove home again, we found the perfect house. Only trouble is, someone else was interested too. We were up at 6.00am the next morning, filling in the application forms, which demanded details about our lives extending to our shoe sizes and what we had for breakfast on weekdays. We sent it off and then had a very tense 24 hours of waiting. Then they came back to us – there was a problem, Geoff had only had temp work for the last few months and there was an employment gap (of one month!) before that. We would need a guarantor. No problem, we said, thinking there were several possibilities. However, it turned out that said guarantor would have to actually walk into the letting agent’s office, clutching his passport in his hand, to prove he wasn’t something we’d made up. Now that was a problem – our nearest possibility lives about 150 miles away and has a demanding job that would not leave him free to make a little trip to Newark in his – almost non-existent – spare time. A demanding job, incidentally, that was the reason he’d be able to act as guarantor in the first place. We offered to pay six months rent up front – but no, they didn’t like that. In the end, the house went to the other applicant.
Big sighs, a lot of cursing, and back to the drawing board. Another trip, this time a day trip – three hours drive there, view six houses in the afternoon, then three hours drive back, but worth it if we find something. After trying desperately to mentally fit our lifestyle and belongings into all the houses we saw, there was only one that would work. There was just one problem – in the details, it said it was available now, but when we went to view there was a very elderly, rather doddery, couple living in it. It turned out that they weren’t going to look for somewhere else to live until they knew the house was going to be rented. Of course we couldn’t commit to renting it until we knew when it would be available. Stalemate. We phoned and emailed several times to ask for a date, and nobody bothered to reply.
While all this was going on, Geoff was being harassed from all sides. The job agency were phoning every day to ask when he was going to start work, his new employer was emailing for the same reason, our landlord was phoning to find out when we were planning to move out, the removal men wanted to know if our provisional date could be confirmed – it went on and on. Every property we phoned about either wouldn’t allow pets, or had just been taken by someone else, or had no garden (essential for the rabbits), or something else that ruled it out. We were spending hours every day on Rightmove, hoping to somehow magic up a property we hadn’t seen before.
Eventually, a new one came on, one that looked perfect. We decided that, things being as they are, we’d just take it sight unseen. We phoned the letting agents. ‘You can’t do that’, they said, ‘you have to view it first before we can take an application. Oh, and other people are viewing today and tomorrow so if you’re interested you need to get here quickly.’ We contemplated jumping in the car, driving the three hours to view it, then another three hours home again, without any guarantee or even probability that we’d get it. We were wiped out, exhausted, irritable as hell, screaming at trifles, and tense as over-stretched rubber bands. We just couldn’t do it, not that day.
Something had to give. Ok, we thought, Geoff will just have to find a room so that he can start work and then he can look for a house while he’s there – it’s obvious that you have to be on the spot to get something decent. We searched for rooms to let, but they nearly all wanted a commitment of six months. Since we can barely afford to keep two places running for even one month, this wasn’t viable. Then we found somewhere that would take a rolling month’s rent and thought we’d got a solution but……..no internet. No landline, no internet, and at the moment Geoff absolutely must have internet access. There was some talk of a dongle, but no certainty that it would work. We were tearing our hair out in frustration, minds obsessively looping round all the possible ways we might deal with things.
In the end, there was only one thing to do. ‘F**k it’, we said, ‘this is getting us nowhere – let’s go into Liverpool and go to the Chagall exhibition.’ It was absolutely the right decision. We looked at some fabulous art, forgot about the whole housing issue for a few hours, had a lovely lunch in the Tate café, and talked about other things. The knotted muscles began to loosen, tension headaches disappeared, life seemed good again. We laughed in the train on the way home, playing a silly game, and then when we got in, watched a film and drank some wine, and slept like logs.
And you know what? Things began to improve a little. We decided that Geoff would find somewhere to stay next week, even if it had to be a B&B, he’d view the desirable house on Monday and take the filled in rental application forms with him, hand them over to the letting agent in person, and then start work on Tuesday. The rent for the desirable house is well under budget, so we have the idea that we may offer to pay a bit more rent if they’ll choose us. It may work, it may not – I’m sure there’s probably a rule against this somewhere, but it’s worth a try. The agents for the house with the elderly couple phoned to say that they may have found a place to live, and if they have then we could have that house within two weeks. They’ll know for sure on Monday. Another possible house turned up, which perhaps Geoff can also view on Monday, although you have to fill in an application form simply to view it – they wouldn’t make a viewing appointment until he’d done that and by the time he’d done that they were closed for the weekend. But you never know, they may squeeze him in for a viewing on Monday and it could be another option. Nothing is solved, but it’s looking a little more optimistic.
Having something to distract us from agonising over the situation obviously played a big part in making us feel better, but the uplifting quality of seeing some wonderful art had a lot to do with it too. Great art really does have the ability to lift us out of ourselves, and bring some sense of proportion back into life. It was a joy to see this exhibition, and just what we needed.
This is not a post about photography as such, although photography does come into it indirectly, but if you’re only here for the pictures you might want to skip this one and come back when normal service is resumed. For those of you who’re up for reading on, this is a long post so you may want to pour a cup of tea and make yourself comfy.
Over the last few years, I’ve discovered that most women I know are either on anti-depressants now, or have been at some time in the past – I include myself in this number. This may be true of the men in my life as well, but I don’t have the evidence to confirm that. I think men would be less likely to admit to it, even to a doctor, and male sadness is more often – though not always – expressed outwardly as aggression. Women are more likely to turn the sadness and hurt inwards and then it manifests as depression – I read something once that said depression is just ‘anger without the enthusiasm’. I rather like that. Anger, uncomfortable as it is, is actually a step up from depression in the emotional health scale. There’s energy in anger, while depression drains energy away and keeps you frozen and stuck.
One persistent question I have in my mind is: ‘what sort of world have we created that lots of us can only manage to deal with it by using mind-altering drugs?’ This bothers me, and I wonder about it. People have always suffered from depression, but not in such huge numbers. At any one time in the UK, one in ten people are suffering from depression, with one in twenty experiencing a major depressive episode. That’s a lot of people, and there are doubtless more who never tell anyone or get any kind of help. (Statistics from www.mind.org)
I would never knock anyone who decides to go down the drug route – it can quite literally be a lifesaver and even when not that dramatic, it gives you back enough energy to dig yourself out of the depressive hole you’ve fallen into. I did it myself for a short while, and have been sorely tempted recently to go back for more, but I don’t deal well with drugs in my system. I get bad side-effects. More than that, I know it isn’t a long-term answer and it’s not really going to solve anything. If I broke my leg, it would help to use crutches till it mended and using the crutches might make it easier to do other things to help get it back in working order, but the crutches themselves aren’t going to do anything to heal my leg. Sometimes a leg is so badly damaged that it’s never going to mend, and you might have to use crutches all your life and it’s a damn good thing that they exist because they help you function and lead the kind of life that would otherwise be impossible. There might be times when depression is like this, but I feel that mine – thank god – is of the mending variety.
I took the photograph of the broken tree quite recently, when my friend Eileen came to stay and we were walking in Hawarden park. The minute I saw it, I identified with it. This is how I feel right now – battered by circumstances, isolated and set apart from the other trees, lots of branches missing, some broken and hanging, bits of it dead, but still standing, still alive. Over the last year or so depression has got me in its grips again and has been clinging on with talon-like strength. I’ve managed to dislodge it now and again, but since the beginning of the year it has clung with renewed force. It’s made it very hard to write blog posts – I don’t want to whinge about my life and my problems, but it’s difficult to pick out the better bits and pretend they represent the whole, so I tend to keep quiet at those times. I’m coming clean now, because it’s clear to me just how many of us secretly suffer and depression is a very isolating thing. When we hide parts of ourselves, it’s hard to feel connected to others and that feeling of disconnection feeds back in to our sadness.
In the past, it’s got a hold on me for different reasons than it has now. These days, I think it’s more of a reactive kind of thing. Like the tree, life has beaten me up a bit – I feel broken and I’m missing parts of myself. I’ve lost a fairish number of branches – when we moved here I lost regular contact with my friends, the work I was doing, a place that I loved and felt at home in, and a feeling of purpose and usefulness. This last one, I think, is the most important.
I could – and need to – make more efforts to change this, and I’ve taken some small steps to doing that. I feel much better when I do. However, Geoff is the only one of us who’s capable of earning the bulk of the household income and so the shape of our lives depends on where and when he can find work. One week it looks as if we might be going back to Kent where there’s some temporary work, another week there might be an interview for a job in Nottingham, or Yorkshire, or Ireland. My head spins as I try to visualise my future in one place after another, and my motivation to make something of my life where we are right now drains away. For one thing, if I create something here that gives me joy, I’m going to have to lose that too. In some ways it’s easier to have nothing here that I’ll be upset about leaving behind. The flip side of this is that I’m not happy this way, and of course it’s just possible that Geoff might find work locally in the end and we won’t have to leave, and I’ll have wasted all this time. I have to act as if this is how it will be, because there is no alternative other than giving up.
The main problem, I think, is the lack of control I feel over my own life. I’ve been in unhappy situations in the past, but it was always up to me to do something about them and to decide what that something was. Now, it feels as if it’s out of my hands and I’m sure it’s the feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that that entails which is messing me up. But this can’t go on – I’m tired of feeling this way, I’m tired of feeling like that broken-down old pine tree. It may be impossible to regain my original shape again, and some of those branches are gone for good, but a bit of pruning, a bit of feeding and nurturing, and some sunshine could at least do something to help turn me into a happier, if still somewhat battered, tree.
To that end, I’ve made some improvements to my diet (particularly the chocolate and wine part of it) and I’ve started on a regime of supplements and daily yoga sessions, all of which should feed the soil my tree grows in and help it recover. It seems to be working – I’ve got a bit more energy and some of the depression and lack of motivation has lifted. The thing that would help the most, of course, would be to grow some nice strong roots somewhere, and until that happens this tree’s always going to feel somewhat in danger of being felled when the winds of life batter it. But – stretching my tree analogy to rather ridiculous lengths – since my roots have been dislodged anyway, I need to pick them up like long skirts and go find some other trees who’ll welcome me in. I need to find a way to fruit, even if my roots aren’t sustaining me too well.
I hesitated to write this. There’s a thin line between being open about the ups and downs that our lives consist of, and telling too much. Two things made me go with my impulse – the first is that, if I disappear for a little while now and again, you’ll know that this is why. And the second? The tree made me do it……blame the tree.
The results of my assessment are in, and they’re not good. I’m too embarrassed to give the mark here, but let’s just say that, while it’s a clear pass, it’s at the low end of average. The mark is divided into four sections, and under ‘Demonstration of Creativity’ I’ve been given 10 marks out of 25 – in other words, they see me as a definite creative failure. Obviously I didn’t do too well in any of the others either, but this was the worst, and the biggest disappointment for me, since I believed that during the last year or two I’d made quite a bit of progress creatively.
A couple of years ago this would have devastated me but the one thing I’ve learnt while doing these courses is to shield myself against what anyone in authority says, good or bad. Where once a good comment from a tutor would have thrilled me, now I shrug my shoulders and think, well, yes………maybe. It’s obviously nicer to get good comments than bad ones, but I’ve stopped allowing either of them to impact on me. Whether I’m as detached as this in truth I’m not sure – squashing one feeling down has the result of squashing them all and this might go some way to explaining why I’ve felt so little consistent enthusiasm for photography for quite a while. I certainly feel very flat at the moment, and a bit lost as to where I go from here.
If I accept the assessor’s opinion that I’m mediocre in the extreme, then I feel little incentive to carry on doing photography in any serious way. I like to do things well – and I usually succeed in that – and I’m not really prepared to be that bad at something. But photography has been my passion and is also my way of earning a living, so to give it up would be a huge loss to me.
When I did an Access to Art & Design course many years ago, I was told after a couple of months that I was likely to fail the drawing section of the course. Since I’d only started drawing at all about three months before I started, I knew very well that I wasn’t much good. My immediate reaction at that time was ‘what do I have to do to get better?’. I was told simply to practice as much as possible, and I did just that, with the result that I ended up passing that part of the course with no problems at all.
That hasn’t been my reaction this time. Firstly, I honestly don’t think I’m that bad. It’s easy to be self-deluding – anyone who’s watched the selection process in The X-Factor will be well aware how many people there are out there who have no idea how bad they are at something for which they think they have a talent. It’s possible I fall into this group, but I do have a modicum of self-awareness and I don’t think I’m entirely fooling myself. A more likely explanation is that I simply don’t fit into the parameters of what OCA considers ‘good’ photography.
A while ago, I talked about an article by Tara Sophia Mohr on the whole business of criticism, and I’ll quote a bit now:
Tara’s view is basically this: feedback/criticism doesn’t tell you about you, it tells you about the person giving the feedback. She says that when we seek out feedback, we shouldn’t see it in terms of our own merit or value, but as useful information that tells us whether we are reaching the people we want to reach in the way that we want to reach them (my emphasis). So if you want to win the camera club competition, feedback from the judges can tell you how to do that. Of course, you may not actually want to produce the sort of work that pleases camera club judges, or higher-level education tutors, or someone who likes ‘greeting card’ photography, or the people who buy for IKEA, and in that case feedback from those people is essentially useless to you and means very little, except whether or not you’re not giving them what they value. If you take on board what they say when you don’t actually want to compete in that field, then you’re going to end up becoming discouraged or untrue to yourself. Of course, if you have ambitions in the area in which they’re expert, then it would be sensible to consider their opinions.
So really, this mark is only important if I want to produce the kind of work that pleases OCA assessors and thereby gets me a good result, and I’m not sure I do. I was never very bothered about getting a degree-level piece of paper out of this, but saw it as a way of being made to stretch myself and give myself a structure to work to. I’m not great at self-discipline, so having the imposed discipline of a deadline – albeit a very flexible one – was useful to me. I’ve enjoyed the contact with other students and the feeling of belonging to a group of people with similar aspirations. But you know, that feeling of belonging has been dwindling slowly over the last year or two, as I’ve become more and more disenchanted with institutionalised art education and feel myself less and less accepting of the group mentality.
You may be wondering what was in the feedback? They started by saying my assignment was very well presented – the one thing that means nothing since it has little to do with the work itself and is something that anybody can learn to do well. They also liked my essay a lot, which is making me wonder if I should be putting down my camera and picking up my pen. The main criticism of my photography seemed to be that I wasn’t showing ‘evidence of a conceptual progression‘.
Ask yourself, why would someone look at these images? Are you conveying your interest and is it one that is likely to be shared with an audience? One of the reasons for contextualising your work is that you will gain awareness of how others will perceive it. We live in a shared culture, images that signify endlessly similar things to us become quickly meaningless, your audience will be very quick to dismiss work that either is not immediately striking or does not contain references or evidence that thought has taken place in the construction of the image.
It raises a number of thoughts, the first being that they’re assuming a certain sort of audience, probably one like themselves, and this is not the only kind of audience there is. I guess it’s true that if I knew better where my work fitted in with the kind of work they rate highly, then I’d be able to tell how they would perceive it and modify it accordingly. But do I want to do this? The crux of the matter is that I’m not too interested in doing the kind of work they appear to value just so I get the mark, and I’d prefer to hold onto my integrity. Much – although definitely not all – contemporary photography leaves me cold and seems contrived, over-intellectualised, and lacking in aesthetic satisfaction. This is not ignorance speaking – I’ve looked at many people’s work and opened myself to finding what I could in it. It might be my age (I’m getting on a bit), it might be that I’m too rigid in my opinions, it might be that I lack understanding. Whatever, in an era when the idea has become vastly more important than the image, I find myself far more interested in the image than I am in the idea and that puts me firmly at odds with the zeitgeist – never a comfortable place to be.
I’m left with some very mixed thoughts and emotions – an inner battle between confidence in my own ability and the fear that perhaps I really am below-average; the acknowledgement that the assessors may well be right from within their own context, but perhaps wrong from within mine; the immediate impulse to give it all up in disgust and the equally compelling impulse not to let ‘them’ win; the knowledge that photography has become less and less enjoyable for me since I started doing these courses, but also the understanding that I need to keep learning and to be part of something that will stretch me; the hurt and frustration that’s finally beginning to come through as I write this and the feeling of freedom that, were I to stop studying, I’d no longer have to care what ‘they’ think of my work and could avoid the depressing feedback that accompanies every assessment and tells me that my work is nowhere near good enough.
And finally the big question – why am I doing this, and where do I go from here?
My Buddha has acquired a hat! Takes away from his dignity a bit.
Snow has been falling here on and off for the last week. We had a serious dump of it last Friday and Saturday, with about six inches lying, but it was nothing to what they got over the other side of the estuary on the Welsh coast. I drove there for a meeting yesterday, and they must have had several feet of it – although the roads are clear, many of them are down to one carriageway instead of two because of snow piled up high at the sides of the road.
Any winter wonderland prettiness has more or less gone now, but we’ve got some spectacular icicles developing. The derelict house next door has a slide of snow and ice that looks as it it’s trying to get inside.
And the drips from a hole in the guttering on our own house has created these wonderful icicles on the bush outside our front door.
These are just quick snapshots, but I’m hoping to get a chance to do some macro icicle shots before they melt away. It’s not getting any warmer, that’s for sure, and there’s a blizzard blowing around outside right now, despite the fact that the current weather forecast makes no mention of snowfalls at all. Ah well, I should know by now that they always get it wrong…….
Reaching for the sky – reflection in fish pond, Cambridge Botanical Gardens
I have very mixed emotions about the whole concept of educating people in art, and they’re escaping like worms from a can as I try to get my course assessment material together. My biggest bone of contention is the learning log. This, they’re quick to tell us, is for our own development and we should create it in a way that works for us. So far, so good, but then they give us a 14-page A4 booklet telling us how to do it properly. Mixed messages or what?
The logbook is part of the assessment, and as such, it gets a mark. If they were telling the truth about it being purely for our own benefit, they might want to see it, but they wouldn’t mark it. Because as we all know, if you mark something you must have certain criteria that have to met in order to be able to give that thing an appropriate mark. So that means there are certain things they expect to see in it, and certain ways in which you’re supposed to write about things, and if doing it that way doesn’t suit you, then you’ll get marked down. Mmmm…..it’s for us, is it?
There are three questions, they say, that we should ask ourselves:
am I being honest with myself?
is this a useful process for me?
is this helping my own process of learning?
If the answers to these questions are ‘yes’, then ‘your learning log is right for you’, it says. I think these are good questions, and I can answer each of them with a clear ‘yes’. But I’m worried, because then it goes on to tell us about things we ‘must’ include in our logbook.
Of course you know where this is going. I’ve used this blog to explore my thoughts on my course and photography in general. I think I’ve done a fair bit of reflecting on the course and on various aspects of photography, and that’s good – but there are an awful lot of things I haven’t done. Or – let me be more specific – there are a lot of things I’ve done but haven’t written about.
I’m a voracious reader and not just of photography books. I read a lot of these, but I read a lot of other non-fiction as well and also try to relate what I learn there back to my photography studies. But I haven’t written all of this down, mainly because I read so many books that I don’t have the time or the inclination to document them all. I see lots of exhibitions, too, but I don’t write about many of them. I don’t want to write about something because I’m supposed to, but only if I feel I have something interesting to say about it. So I haven’t documented most of the books I’ve read, websites I’ve looked at, exhibitions I’ve gone to, or discussions I’ve had.
Another thing I haven’t done is to record my experiences with the exercises in the course materials. This is a very old-fashioned course that desperately needs to be re-written (I think it is being re-written at the moment) and it’s bad enough having to work my way through exercises like ‘try taking your shots in both landscape and portrait orientation’ or ‘take a photo with as many shades of green in it as possible’, without having to write all this up as well. I hope I’m not suffering from hubris, but most of the exercises cover things I did ages ago when I was first learning to use a camera. The remaining ones relate to film, which I don’t use. The exercises are tired and old-fashioned, and I don’t feel they’ve contributed much to any learning I’ve done.
So I’m a bit worried right now, because the learning log counts for a substantial proportion of the marks and I think mine is likely to be frowned upon. Doing this course hasn’t been easy for me – there was the demoralising tutor criticism at the beginning, and the subsequent loss of confidence that led to me taking a year off and not planning to come back. I’ve also had to find a way of doing the landscape assignments that fits my particular style, which isn’t that of a traditional landscape photographer. I’m proud of myself for having finished the course, when I thought at one point I was done with studying photography for ever, and I feel my personal style has developed and deepened in the process. But because I see these courses as being for me rather than as a way of getting a bit of paper that qualifies me, I’ve gone about it very much my own way.
The first question they want us to ask ourselves is ‘am I being honest with myself?’ Well, yes, I am and I’m doing my best to be honest, too, to the people who’ll decide if I pass or not. I’m probably going to suffer for that, but I’m past the point in life where I’m willing to play the education game any more. I’ve already done that and got the certificate to prove it – I don’t need another one. If I fail or get a low mark, and if part of that is because I’ve made the course fit me rather than fit myself to the course, then I guess I’ll just have to live with that. But I know myself, and I know I’ll find it hard to deal with, and so I worry.