I love travelling. Who doesn’t, right? The thrill of the exotic, making new friends in different places, learning another way of understanding day to day life. Other languages and cultures and ways of being.
I’ve been addicted since even before I hucked my first backpack onto my over-excited 21 year old shoulders. Since then, I’ve done my fair share of galivanting around the globe, and while I’m nowhere near done with exploring the world, right now I’m in the process of putting down some roots. Maybe shallow roots, granted, but even shallow roots need time to take hold. And so there are no big adventures on my immediate horizon.
Of the places I have been so far, one of my favourite is definitely South East Asia. Laos and Cambodia have a particularly special place in my heart. My favourite vicarious past-time is to greedily consume the images of photographers who live there, or at least get to shoot there on a regular basis.
But guess what Sydney has to offer? An overlooked, quiet suburb out in the west called Bonnyrigg. On face value Bonnyrigg is just another mish-mash of identikit houses and wide, empty streets with a sleepy and quiet feel. But Bonnyrigg is home to a little gem of a secret. There are Buddhist temples – Chinese, Cambodian, Laos – tucked away down in the side streets. Apart from the Chinese one – which is huge – they are sprinkled around the suburb, just begging to be tracked down with the help of the street directory.
They were mostly closed on the day I visited, and so I was only able to lurk around the outside, but the thrill of seeing Asian architecture nestled amongst Sydney homes and gardens was a lovely thrill all of its own.
Photographing Sydney is proving to be quite difficult. Not because it isn’t a photogenic city, because – without exaggeration – Sydney is as photogenic a place as you could dare to dream of. I’m living in the supermodel of world cities, and it’s hard to stop staring. The problem that I’m finding is that this city is rather too photogenic, and it’s turning my head.
Honestly, it’s next to impossible to not be blinded and dazzled by the beauty of the harbour, the intensity of the light and the iconic draw of the Opera House and harbour bridge. I’m sure this is normal. I’m sure that it takes time to see past the stunning loveliness of what is one of the most naturally beautiful cities in the world. But, lord alive, this place is gobsmackingly beautiful. And I’ve lived here before, I knew what to expect.
Does that sound weirdly like a complaint? I don’t mean it to – but as a photographer interested in people, place and culture, my interest tends to lean towards capturing the feel of a place. Searching for the stories that walk along the streets, sit on benches and make up the substance of what makes a city unique. At the moment, however, I am blinded by sea and sky and sparkling bodies of water. All I want to capture is the surface beauty that confronts me every time I look out the window, or go for a walk along the clifftops.
OK, that was a bit of a longer break than I had planned. It’s so easy to just get out of the habit of doing certain tasks, and I well and truly got out of the habit with this one. Yes, I have moved to the other side of the world, and I have to admit that it’s been more of an upheaval than I anticipated. As I result, I stopped being sure about what it is that I am going to be writing here, because all that I’ve been up to is finding my feet. Yeah, yeah…excuses, right?
I went for a long walk a few days ago, just me and my camera and the local area that I’m living in. I had a good think about my photography career and this blog’s role in that career, and I reached some conclusions. For now, anyway. Making the choice to pursue photography a little over a year ago – at the risk of falling back on trite cliches – was the beginning of a journey. And it is the journey that is important, that has to be important, because from one day to the next I have no idea where the final destination will be. Especially right now, and believe me, this is a prospect at once exhilarating and terrifying. Part of the process is going to have to be documenting that journey, both as a place to articulate my creative needs and discoveries, and as a way to maintain my focus.
So, here it is. I’m starting over. The progress I was making in London has kind of ground to a shuddering halt, as the work I was getting was location-specific – jobs for people and companies rather than magazines and publications. Or at least, the publications I was working with were region-specific too. It’s not so easy to pop down the road to shoot a cover of a local landmark or a portrait of local business people when the people and place in question are a 24 hour flight away.
When I first decided to turn my long-suffering hobby into some semblance of a profession, I spent an inordinate amount of time researching the careers of successful, working photographers. Trawling the internet, magazines and books for the special secret that cracks open that magic professional door. You know the one; the secret, magical, hidden, special one. That other’s know about but that the rest of us can just never find. I then applied a bit from here, and a tip from there, came up with a personal plan, and discovered for myself that ‘secret’. It is a ‘secret’ in that it there is nothing secret about it. It is the one refrain that you will hear and read and see. Over and over. And over.
Hard work, and plugging away. Keeping at it. Taking rejection, filng it away, and then going back for some more.
I’ve already gone down that path once, and it’s time to go down it again. And, for a while at least, this is going to be my space for outlining how I’m going to approach this. With practical tips and links and everything. Because, well…it’s a blog. That’s how they operate.
My bible along this journey will be this, as well as my well-worn copy of The Freelance Photographer’s Market Handbook. Australia is still feeling exotic, so I’m going to run with my impressions and work on finding a market for my stories. That’s the beauty of working in these times – there are fewer geographical boundaries to restrict our choice of clients. The market over here in Australia is quite significantly – and worryingly! – smaller, and so I will need to leverage my UK experience for all I’m worth.
Things are getting quiet around here at the moment, as I wind up my life in the UK. Thirteen years ago, I decided to head off into the big wide world and see if could have some crazy adventures. I had grown up in Australia, and I was twenty-one.
It’s been a hell of ‘year’ so far. A ‘year’ that stretched into more than a decade. A ‘year’ that saw me live and work in Mexico for 18 months. Followed by a decade where I found some of the best friends I’ve ever known tucked into all corners of London. A time of travelling, learning, growing up, and, finally, after any number of twists and turns, discovering my true passion.
This isn’t meant to be a blog about my personal life, but you’ll have to bear with me. This upheaval is major. I’ve been pursuing my photography dream and building up my photography business over the last 12 months or so. At times it’s been tough, but lately…things were starting to happen. Instead of only getting work through persistent knocking on many doors, people were starting to approach me.
I’ve been in a national paper. I’ve worked with local magazines. I’ve been not only photographing, but also doing some writing. And now I need to start over again, on the other side of the world. I like to throw some extra hurdles my own way, it seems.
But, you know, when it’s time to go home, it’s time to go home. And, it’s time to go home.
At the moment, most of my possessions – including computers and hard-drives – are sailing somewhere across the oceans between here and Australia. I can get to pictures I need to, if it’s a burning necessity. But mainly, between now and March, I’m working on limited hardware. And I’m not very patient with slow computers and a severely curtailed filing system. I can’t tell you how much I need to have my virtual things in their right place. Weirdly, the complete opposite of how I am in real life.
Still…hang on a sec. I’m going to go and see if I can find a photo I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s from Christmas, it’s got nothing to do with any clients. It’s a purely personal conceit to put it up here, but that’s what this post has ended up being about. So let the image support the words.
Dang..I can’t find it and it’s getting late. I’ll try to update over the weekend. It’s a picture of some horses. Welsh ponies to be exact. I’m not a massive fan of horses normally, but these ones were truly striking. And the light was beautiful, really soft. Now I have to find the picture, cause those words aren’t painting anything.
I recently put a 4 image portfolio together as an entrance into one of the biggest annual travel photography competitions – The Travel Photographer of the Year.
This is a hugely prestigious competition, open to professional and amateur photographers alike. The standard of entries is extraordinarily high and I am competing against the very best of the best. So, really, if I’m honest – I don’t have a chance! You know, though, I still decided to enter. One, I may get lucky . But two (and mainly), the process of entering competitions – no matter the level – is always a worthwhile exercise. I makes you sit down and really look at what your images are saying; and let me tell you, putting together a coherent series is hard work. Especially if, like me, you suffer from chronic indecision and mind-changing.
In the case of this competition, submission was in a portfolio of 4 images which have to work together to fit into a specific theme or brief. Picking those 4 images is supremely difficult. You may pick 4 images that you really like, but actually don’t work particularly well together. You may have 3 very strong images that tell the exact story you were envisaging – but the 4th in that series just isn’t there. Or – and this was the case in the series below – the technical standard of the images just isn’t 100%.
You see, to enter an image into a competition, it needs to be technically perfect. I has to be sharp and in focus. Quite simply, unless it is exactly spot on, the judges are going to discount it, no matter how good it may be otherwise.
I put together the below group, and was starting to feel quite excited about their potential. The section of the competition I had in mind was ”People of the World’ and this group is a series of some of the schoolgirls during a lesson at the school I visited in Zambia a couple of months ago. I like the light in the shots, the intimacy of the images and the expressions on their faces. I liked the feeling these images gave me when I look at them, that often undefinable something that photography can produce. And I think they work together well to tell a story about education in Africa. That story isn’t necessarily the typical African one of deprivation and poverty – what I was most happy about with these images was the more universal theme of enjoyment in learning and the potential for a better future through education.
But then I had to be honest with myself. They weren’t 100%. The classroom I shot these images in was very dark, the only useable light was coming through one door and a couple of tiny windows. One the one hand, this natural lighting setup is what gives them the feeling and intimacy that I like. The flip side is that I had to shoot at a high ISO and low shutter speed. I managed to get away with it in 2 of the shots, but a close and frank inspection revealed that the other 2 images were slightly soft. Only slightly, but there was no way the judges were going to miss it.
I submitted a different series in the end, and I was equally happy with that. I’ve been thinking about this set though, and decided that I want to put it together somewhere. And hey! that’s why I’ve got a blog.
Do you ever feel that life is just dishing out too much goodness, do you feel like maybe you’re not getting your fair share of petty grievances, and you want to even up the balance a little? Here’s a tip to ensure you get your fair share of frustration and misery. Take the last bank holiday of the summer, that one right at the end of August. Plan a camping trip, preferably to the West Country, but anywhere that involves a motorway that begins in London will probably do. Throw in some glorious summer weather the weekend before, to make sure that it’s all been completely used up. Pack the car and off you go. You’ll be guaranteed colossal traffic jams, overheated cars but underheated beaches, plenty of rain and a thoroughly miserable time squeezed alongside about half a million of your fellow Britons.
If, however, you think that maybe it’s time things went your way for a change, I’ve got a couple of sneaky manouevers up my sleeve to share with you. We gave them a test run over the weekend, and – miracle of miracles! – they paid off. A 6am start on Friday morning was a little bit early, yes, but as we made our way westward, we were practically (although sadly not literally) flying down the M4 and then the M5, with barely a car sharing the road. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve even crossed London in 40 minutes before, so maybe we set all sorts of records that morning. Sure, I was very tired for the rest of the day, but believe my sincerity when I tell you it was worth it. Add a return trip on Tuesday (thus avoiding the Monday mayhem), and your weekend will be bookended with hassle-free driving. No small feat, I think you’ll agree.
We chose a campsite that caters for the less rugged of camping customers. That would be us, in case you were in any doubt. The tents were provided. Not only provided but pitched and waiting for us. There was a dining tent, no less, fully kitted out with camp stove, cutlery, crockery and even a cool box. Clever design with wooden pallets and bark ensured we stayed dry and comfortable inside our tents even when it was raining outside. No waterlogged nastiness for this little holiday.
And. And, there was a hot shower. (But let’s quickly gloss over the compost toilets.) In fact the only thing not provided at Hole Station Campsite (follow that link, campers) was a dog. And so we brought our own.
That’s Dave the Dog. Technically, he doesn’t belong to me, but I am an official Dogparent (God spelt backwards, gettit?!) and I do love him so very much. Incidentally, that is one of his favourite poses – to just sit there, and stare coyly at the ground. I’m sure he’s a genius.
While we got lucky with the driving, the weather was a little more…predicable. In being unpredictable, that is. It’s not an English holiday without a spot of rain, followed by sun, then gale-force winds, some more rain and then – suddenly - it’s baking hot. But only for an hour, because now it’s raining again. The day we visited the coast, the grey of the sky was resolutely reflected in the flecks of surf being blown onto the beach all over those hardy souls who refused to relinquish the holiday dream. We even saw – and I kid you not – someone swimming in a jumper. Now, that is dedication. I didn’t get a shot of our waterlogged beachcomber, but I think this juxtaposition of ice-cream van and umbrella is mining the same happy vein.
Our final day, however, was glorious. We went for a drive through Dartmoor and it was truly spectacular. Quintessential English countryside, narrow lanes, rolling green hills. I really don’t think there is anywhere in the world like it; it has a rugged beauty all of its own. And makes for some very pretty pictures!
I have to admit, I’ve been back over a week now. I’ve been spending this time working through the all the images I took (oh, and there were just a couple!) in sporadic bursts between bouts of technological challenges. My computer had a hissy fit, then my hard drive decided it didn’t feel like doing very much for a couple of days. In between the re-installs and the upgrades I lost Lightroom for a while, but finally (thankfully!), it has now all come together.
The trip was very much a success, but first, a little bit of background.
I went along with a group of 18 year old college students and a couple of their fearless teachers to live in a remote community in the Zambian bush for a fortnight. We were working with the local carpenter co-operative to help them knock out a whole heap of benches and tables for a community school in the area. At the moment, the student sit on planks of wood, balanced on bricks.
With lots of help from the carpenters, and a few hurty and hammered thumbs, we produced somewhere in the vicinity of 20 of these:
Alongside the carpentry, we tried our hands at a bit of building work, which involved helping build a toilet block for the same school. What started out as a hole in the ground:
was transformed into a an actual toilet building for the kids:
Living in the community for 2 weeks was such a unique and amazing experience. I’ve done a lot of travelling, but this was a different sort of trip. Although our accommodation and living arrangements were of a relatively high standard within the community itself, there was no getting around the sheer distance from the modern world in which we had found ourselves. No electricity. No running water. Very limited food and shops. Every day life becomes so much more of a challenge when all the conveniences that we take for granted just simply aren’t there.
One of the biggest hurdles was finding myself without any communication to the outside world. Some of the group managed to get mobile phone signals (by heading over to the ‘signal tree’; one of the number of arbitrary places where a network wafted in and out of range), but O2 in Zambia wasn’t up to the challenge. After the initial shock of the first couple of days, I relaxed into my communication bubble and actually started to enjoy it. Being unable to check messages and emails and facebook updates has its own particular novelty.
Anyway, enough of my waffling. Here are some pictures of Luansobe and its people. That African light is something else, let me tell you. If I could bottle it and sell it to photographers in England, I could take early retirement on the proceeds.
On Friday I managed to visit Highgate Cemetery – a photo session that’s been on the ‘to-do’ list for ages. It was a lovely day actually, very sunny and bright (in English intervals, of course), and I spent those hours running around between statues and tombstones, waiting for the sun to break through the clouds and fervently hoping a beam of light would land on the angel that my camera was poised to shoot in that instant.
I’ve always loved wandering around cemeteries. Maybe that makes me a little morbid, and maybe I shouldn’t even be admitting it, but the peace and quiet and gentle silence always soothes me.
I don’t find them in the least bit spooky, but then I’ve never found myself locked inside one at night…