Reflection

Week 1: I eased back into my studies with a combination of relief and fear – relief that everything was still there having been traveling for much of the first unit and fear – the common feeling of impostor syndrome – what am I doing? How long will it take them to realise I don’t belong here?

The overview of this unit makes me think that I am about to be firmly thrown from my own comfort zone – apart from 18 ill-advised months working in an advertising agency some two decades ago, I haven’t ever been in a situation where I am selling myself in this way. Scary times ahead!

The feedback from this week’s first activity has confirmed that I have chosen a subject that I think will work – the lesser seen side of the UAE, particularly in terms of how different cultures exist and impose themselves upon the physical infrastructure of the country.

The second activity was a familiar one, having run through many of the exercises (this one included) a few years back. I really would have liked to have given more time and effort to this exercise (and it is, indeed, one I intend to revisit at a later juncture) but early-term busyness and the ensuing post-work exhaustion effectively curtailed that idea. As it was I managed to get snapshots from whatever I was doing, though somewhat less than inspired.

In terms of the course materials; I found the delineation between the different types of photographer interesting, though I think I need more time (and learning!) to work out where, if anywhere, I fit on that model. As it is, I am most interested in travel and fine art photography. I need to find out in more detail how these might work as commercial practices, particularly here in the Middle East. However, in terms of the non-photographer jobs in photography, I feel I might be a little to old to start over as a photographer’s assistant. However, having a teaching qualification and having been a teacher for very close to twenty years now, well there may be something in that…

Next steps:

  • Research travel photography/journalism market in the UAE
  • Speak to dad (travel journalist)
  • Look at the possibility of teaching photography

 

Week 2: This is SCARY. I am not a businessman. I cannot promote myself – in fact the one thing at which I excel is self-deprecation. And I’m not very good at that. Looking at the other work posted on the seven shots in seven days assignment really amps up the whole impostor syndrome thing. Oh well, it’s paid for now, so may as well make the best of it.

Current research/favourites are Jason Lee (he of My Name Is Earl and Mallrats fame), Edouard Sepulchre (who has the best name I have ever heard) and Scott Behr (whose work nearly always blows me away when it appears on my Instagram feed) – very much three of a similar kind: wide open spaces of Midwest America shot on film. A pale, low-contrast look very different from the high-contrast look I always thought I preferred. Have been experimenting in Lightroom to see if it is possible to use a similar aesthetic on my shots of Dubai – I think the desert atmosphere and faded buildings would lend itself very much here. Particularly areas like Al Sufouh and Jebel Ali where local life carries on unhurriedly far from the eyes (though actually not physically that far, I suppose) of the tourists and business visitors. Equally, bandwagon jumper I may be, it has cemented a desire to experiment with film. I have an old Olympus OM2 somewhere, and a Yashica Electro. And then there is my dad’s Bronica medium format mouldering away at home – perhaps a project for the Christmas holiday…

 

Week 3: Developing my love of Americana photography, which I suppose stems back to early-ish exposure to Walker Evans and William Eggleston, I have been really impressed this week with the photography of Stephanie Moshammer: incredibly brave. The sort of photographs I would love to but never dare to take. I would like to add more (candid?) portraiture to my work – I seem to be able to do this no problem when I travel (I think the shots I am most pleased of in all my work are the portraits from Sudan and Iran and Bangladesh) yet can’t seem to do it at home (either Dubai or the UK). Though I managed some fairly pleasing shots on the Iftar photowalk back in June.

The viral photography challenge also started some sort of flame in me – a reminder of those long-gone university days when we would try and create what we fondly imagined to be Dadaist-influenced art and then set about attempting to provoke a controversy in the letters pages of the university newspaper. How innocent those pre-digital days now seem. It has led me back to wondering about the stuff we used to read back then and whether or not it might, as part of my own personal cultural background, be able to provide some interesting ideas. I have ordered copies of the three Rapid Eye books to revisit old times, and started reading about Genesis P-Orridge and his doings. It doesn’t seem immediately useful, other than the fact that it has awoken a degree of creativity by simple connection back to the days when I thought everything I did was fresh and exciting. Though that may not have been the case, there was indubitably a creative freedom brought about by not knowing the rules.

 

Week 4: I finally got round to looking at Olivia Arthur’s Dubai-based work Stranger. I think I put it off for so long because I was afraid it might discourage me. And, boy, was I right. Initially at least. Incredibly powerful and with a vision I could never hope to approach. After my initial response, however, repeated exposure led to a sense of exhilaration – this series of photographs transformed a place that I have lived in for close to a decade into something magical and, to my eyes, fresh. Yes, I can’t hope to match that vision, but it showed what is possible. I am, however, starting to doubt my pretensions towards fine art photography. In all honesty I don’t think I have either the imagination, the understanding or the technical skills. Perhaps, instead, as the genre still delights and challenges me, this could be something I look to grow into?

 

Week 5: The networking assignment was terrifying but brilliant – a totally new idea (to me) about co-authorship and collaboration. I have previously avoided trying to photograph and talk to people, partly because I’m a miserable goth (and very shy) and partly because since Brandon Stanton’s seminal Humans of New York, the idea has become well worn, to say the least (though to me, like to most people, HONY was a revelation) But to get someone to tell about their neighbourhood and then take the photographs (and of the neighbourhood, rather than of them) afterwards was brilliant. I know the Al Sufouh neighbourhood relatively well as it is just across the Sheikh Zayed Road from where I live and has numerous opportunities for views of traditional Emirati city-based life. But this was a new view. Highly enjoyable and very stimulating. This is something I will try again and again, though perhaps not with complete strangers so much…

Week 6: Although there was no ‘homework’ this week, in following my ideas about a psychogeographical project, I acquired a copy of Urbis: A Language of Urban Fabric by Aleksandar Janicijevic (1). Although the photography was very interesting, and the chapter headings helped, the book (which I believe to be self-published) is difficult to make sense of – some sort of forward or artist’s statement would indubitably have helped. This could, of course, be my own relative inexperience with photographic texts, but it is still something I shall have to assiduously guard against in my own work – it needs to be clear what I am trying to show and what I am trying to do.

Week 7: As what I thought of as being a psychogeographical approach to Dubai was not working, I started reading more about psychogeography and its background to see if I might broaden my ideas. Once I got started on the Letterist and Situationist Internationals I was swept away. Who would have thought that a 50 year old somewhat-esoteric art movement (albeit one that helped precipitate the 1969 Paris riots) would not only still be relevant today, but would actually be considerably more relevant that when it was initially thought up?

Guy Debord, the helmsman of the movement, wrote of the society of the spectacle – a society where the representation of a thing or experience was more important than the thing or experience itself. It doesn’t matter what you do, only what you are seen to do. “The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (2). The fact that this was written in 1967, 40 years before the first iPhone, 43 years before anyone had even heard of Instagram, and 17 years even before Mark was even a twinkle in Mr. and Mrs’ Zuckerberg’s eyes is just incredible. Though I am not sure where this will fit in with my project. Or even whether it might not be another project in itself – certainly the ideas it raises are setting off all sorts of fireworks in the part of my brain that badly wants to write a novel (yet has only so far managed to write a novel badly).

One promising new idea is from another text about the Situationists, which expounded the idea that, psychogeographically speaking, cities are divided into three zones – one for work, one for rest and one for leisure. Debord introduced the idea of the derive – an apparently aimless walk through city streets. “the derive cuts across the division of the space of the city into work, rest and leisure zones. By wandering about in the space of the city according to their own sense of time, those undertaking a derive find other uses for space” (3). The derive is not a new idea to me, having indulged (and indulged is indeed the word) in the practice in my pre-photographic days living in London, and also having used it as an idea for photography in the first unit of this course. However, extending the theoretical background gives me something to aim at rather than just taking photographs every twenty paces, or whatever (though I really loved that exercise!). I had already been looking at how different cultures utilise public space in Dubai (Indians playing cricket on empty lots; the street-based public Iftars during Ramadan; impromptu public firework displays for Diwali) and this, I think, will be an ongoing project, albeit one which will take more time to complete.

New ideas: an Iain Sinclair-esque walk the length of Dubai, from the Sharjah border at Al Mamzar park to the Abu Dhabi border at Ghantoot. The last part of this could cause problems with there being no walkable roads, but it is something that interests me greatly. The downside is that there is not enough time for this in this unit. Still, it is something I will do, even if just to satisfy myself. Another idea from the Situationists – work out the directions from my former flat in London to various famous landmarks (e.g first right, straight for 1 km then next right) then take a series of photographs of these landmarks only following the instructions from my flat in Dubai. This is also something I intend to do, even if just for personal, playful purposes.

Although my previous ideas for my project seem to have come to little (though some of the shots I will use in the ongoing public space project), this week has been an absolutely exhilarating tumble of new ideas.

 

Week 8: I am much more comfortable now I have decided to concentrate (for the time being, at least) on travel and documentary photography. I think my work from Bangladesh and Sudan is pretty strong and I got some good shots in Cuba (though I still feel that Cuba, like Iceland, is almost impossible to shoot badly but also very hard to shoot with a degree of originality). This also makes the one main worry – choice of market/end placement for my photography – much more straightforward. Whereas I was getting concerned that the fact that there is only a handful of galleries (two at the last count) in Dubai, and that they would be much more likely to go for proper fine art photographers, I am much more at home with the idea of travel photography, as it is that that I mostly consume. And my dad is a travel journalist who, through magazine articles, also sells travel photography, so he knows something of how and who to approach.

Following Paul’s tutorial recommendations from a couple of weeks back, I’ve been enjoying the work of Ben Quinton whose beautiful, ethereal personal shots are just incredible, and Ben Roberts – finally, although these guys’ talent is immense, I feel I am in an arena where at least I understand the rules. They also bring up the idea of shooting on assignment in the travel/documentary sphere – something far more attractive to me than shooting for clients (even though in most ways it amounts to the same thing – the power of language!) and this is a pathway that would very much interest me. I particularly enjoyed Ben Roberts’ work about private and public space in the Occupy movement (as that very much is in line with my own interest about how space is used and the difference between the spheres – see last week’s journal entry) and I loved the idea of presenting travel work as observations. This will certainly help me re-evaluate what I have done so far, not only on this course but also in my past years of photography and travelling. I really feel inspired!

 

Week 9: Too busy out photographing (and preparing for an upcoming school inspection) to do much reading around the subject this week. Now that the project is UAE-based, I’ll read some Nabati poetry (particularly that of Sheikh Mohammed, whose poetry is indeed very good and is a backbone for contemporary Emirati culture) when I get a moment (it would be lovely to link some of this to specific images and this is something well worth pursuing – perhaps not before the 15th December deadline. Another one for the future!) The further struggle of this will, of course (as I currently keep telling my Y12 students) that it is very difficult to keep the true sense of poem when it is translated into another language. And this is particularly so when the translator chooses to keep a rhyme scheme (just compare the Allen Mandelbaum translation of the Divine Comedy to the Mark Musa, for example). I digress…

 

Week 10: Another inspiring week – although I fear I am far from being good enough to display in a gallery or publish in a book, the material this week gave me some impetus to become that good. I was inspired to haul out a book that I had almost forgotten, even though it is by my (probably) favourite author: City of Glass: Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver (4). This is an incredible (I think that back when I first read it I was less photographically aware) fusion of photography, creative writing, graphic design, memoir, non-fiction – you name it. Although I looooove Coupland, I had not really picked up this book since I first acquired it about 5 years ago. I don’t know whether it had lodged subconsciously or whether it is just a happy accident, but at a time when I was looking for a home for my photography, I found that this was exactly the sort of thing I want to produce. Of course, Coupland is a bona fide, voice-of-a-generation genius and I am a middle-aged English teacher, but I know precisely where I want to aim now.

 

Notes

1. Janicijevik, Aleksandar. Urbis: A Language of Urban Fabric: self published, 2012

2. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle (Kindle version): Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014.

3. Wark, McKenzie. The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, New York: Verso, 2015.

4. Coupland, Douglas. City of Glass: Douglas Coupland’s Vancouver; Revised Edition: British Columbia: Douglas & MacIntyre, 2013.

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