Shooting for the Moon – a David Alan Harvey lesson

Last March I took David Alan Harvey’s class at GPP. One of my fellow students chose to shoot Sheikh Zayed Mosque for his photo essay. It turned out pretty well, except for the ONE shot David kept asking him for: “get me the Moon and the Mosque together”.

It led to some memorable in-class exchanges – from which I learned 2 things: don’t argue with David and you should shoot a day before or after the full moon – it looks better.

Lesson 1 was actually pretty useful during the class. Arguing with DAH over the relative merit of ones pictures is pointless. It’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a class based on objective criteria. It’s self-consciously and shamelessly subjective.

So if David tells you to go get the Moon over the Mosque – you go try to get the Moon over the Mosque (or in my case, the fishermen’s bedroom). If you do, great. If you don’t, chances are good that you’ll have learned something in the process anyway.

Lesson number 2 stayed with me for a while. I live right next to the Mosque, I see it every day – so much so that I sometimes forget it’s there. Until I read something about a Supermoon coming up, and I figured I’d get my ass in gear. A quick check of the “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” told me that I was in luck, full moon was in 2 days so the next morning (remember, a day before) I was in front of the Mosque, double parked on a highway, with my tripod perched on top of a pedestrian bridge.

And that’s where, a full 5 months after the class, DAH taught me something again: I’m really, really, really not a landscape photographer (and I get bored really, really, really easily) (also, even in the UAE and in June, it can be cold in the morning)

By the way: it is absolutely possible to get shots of the moon and the mosque. One of mine made “Photo of the Month” at GPP.

So thanks David, for some great butt-kicking and inspiration. See you next year.

Context is everything

Over on instagram, @donaldweber, a member of the vii agency, posted a nice photograph of the sunset prayer during Ramadan in Al Ain, UAE. It’s a straight-on shot of a group of men and boys at prayer, in traditional Middle Eastern garb, in a fort, in front of a canon.

In the Middle East, and I believe in Maghreb as well, it’s traditional to sound the canon to mark Iftar, the end of the daily fast. Iftar is eagerly awaited by Muslims, especially in the summer months where temperatures soar to 50°C. It’s a joyous occasion for family and friends to gather together; and because it’s not easy to tell when it starts (try figuring out the exact moment of sunset on your own), the cannon used to play the role of the bells in Christian Europe (it’s sound carried much further than the adan – the call to prayer).

When I look at the picture, this background context comes immediately to mind: I’ve lived in Muslim countries for 7 years, and it’s the middle of Ramadan right now; Al Ain is a place where I’ve been more than a few times and I’ve taken countless pictures in that same fort.

But if you read the comment stream on the picture, you’ll see that to some people, this context was lacking, or utterly mangled. They see “Muslim praying in front of a canon” in the context of the ongoing strife in the Middle East. While they don’t come out and say it explicitely (although “it’s part of the problem” is pretty clear), the subtext is about condemning the photographer for promoting images of a violent Islam.

@donaldweber’s rejoinder is very direct: “you’ve assumed my cultural stereotypes, but you’ve projected your own thoughts”.
I tend to agree with him that the implicit criticism is wrong. However he writes two contradictory things that make me a little uncomfortable. On the one hand, he wants to viewer to “enjoy the picture for what it is”, yet he berates commenters for not taking the time to do their due diligence.

You can’t really have it both ways: it’s not a simple picture if you need to dig for context; it’s only a simple picture if – like me – you’ve internalized the context. And even then, there’s nothing really simple about the interpretation process. This of course harks back to the classic question: can you enjoy art without context? Mostly, its an academic exercise. The fact that to my mind Buren and Klein are intellectual frauds and Duchamp is a genius doesn’t hurt anyone. And the question was initially biased because European art criticism is informed by a very deep and mostly implicit set of common references.

But in this case, the exercise is coming dangerously close to brutal reality. It reflects on people being killed daily in Palestine and on the perception of Muslims in the modern world. It shows us that we don’t share the same set of implicit references, however much we’d like to think “American TV shows” = “culture”.
If the simple fact of posting this picture is problematic, we probably need to rethink our notions of context and references. We can’t afford to hide behind the illusion that there are “simple pictures” anymore.

That said, I still think the commenters are mainly wrong or at least acting entitled, even if I wish @donaldweber hadn’t been so offhanded in his dismissal. As much as artists need to explain context, audiences need to assume trust and do due diligence: if the picture is published through VII, and if you follow VII on Instagram, then you should know what VII stands for and what they post before calling them on some illusory bias.

In the end, I firmly believe that the context enriches my experience of the picture. And because it was implicit, my experience was more immediate. If he had been showing me an East Asian religious ceremony, I would’ve been less in touch with the feelings and emotions, and more analytical in processing the image. It would have prepared me for a next time, when I’d have been closer to the emotional relationship. Ultimately, that’s the reason for art: to make us grow as human beings.

“By Tuesday, you’ll hate me”

These are the first words I remember from DAH when I introduced myself the day before class. I remember thinking that it was hype and bluster. How hard could it be?

By Tuesday I was hating him, photography, Dubai, myself and the world.

But let’s get one thing out if the way first: I don’t recommend you take this course.

Yes: It’s the best course I’ve ever taken in my life. But I don’t recommend you take it.

Look, I don’t know you. I don’t know if you have what it takes. Hell, I didn’t know myself if I had what it takes. So on this one, you’re on your own. You’re going to have to take an adult decision. Do you feel you have what it takes? Then go do it. The question, of course, is what does it take?

So what happens during these mysterious sessions?

For the most part, I was trying not to fall asleep, because I’d been up shooting and editing late (yes, partying was involved, but any good GPPer will tell you it’s part of the process.) For another part, I was fascinated and terrorized by my classmate’s portfolios. They were better than me technically. They were more creative. They had better access or better gear. Anything to feed the self doubt.
And then of course, there were the minutes when my own pictures were up on that wall. Typical aphorism: “Your bad pictures are closer to good than your good ones.”
So from the outside, all that happens is that David spends his time looking at our stuff, commenting on it and editing it (as in “no, no, no, no, maybe, no, no …”) And he spends time in between telling us to get an education on photography.
So on the face of it, not much happens.

Okay, but what really happens?

The worse for me was the lack of structure. No guidance, no chapters. Just: “Find a subject”, “Find a place”. “Go shoot.”
But just like in real life the journey matters more than the destination.
And the journey is simple: Find a subject, try to shoot it, show your pictures, go shoot again. Rinse, Repeat.
The trick, of course, is when it fails. That’s where you learn.

As Sara Lando put it in a tweet to me when I was feeling particularly down:

@TSWDAH he’s busy tearing you apart. The beer will come later, when you’ll staple the pieces back together.
And she was absolutely right.

Frankly, I wanted to believe her, but I don’t think I could.
It took three days of me failing.
In the end, David sat me down and told me that I was biting too much, that I wanted to say too much:

“Not everything you can articulate is easy or worth shooting”.

“Find something small and shoot it. Anders Petersen shot the same cafe for three years. “

As frustrating as it was, this was the turning point of my week. Kaya, a Burn editor and David’s assistant, mentionned a fisherman’s accomodation in the middle of Dubai she thought was worth shooting. I grasped at that idea like a lifeboat, and ran with it.

High as a kite

When I got to the warf I was determined to get the shots, and not move until I got them. So I stayed for 3 hours in a space not much larger than my bedroom. And shot, and talked to the guys, and shot again. At the end, I didn’t know if I had a good shot, but I had a new facebook friend who was calling me “photoman”. And I had a sense of the place that allowed me to capture it much better. On the contact sheets, I feel I can see the pictures becoming better and better.
And this waiting through the “bored” state is when I almost hit paydirt. At prayer call, the fishermen were wrapping up their day, we started saying goodbye – and in a reflex, I asked if I could see their accomodation. They were more than happy to oblige, and we started going in. Unfortunately, because it’s a government building, there’s a guard there who was kind of surprised to see me. After some palaver, he agreed that I could go see a room … but balked at the camera.
Dammit.
Yet that night, I was so sure I had something that I put together a slide show with some music (my wife can be your sound designer too, for a fee). When at the next morning critique David turned to me to say “You got it …”, I can’t tell you the sense of elation I felt then and there – until the “… but go get that shot of their room – without it, you got nothing” …. aaaaaaand crash.
That afternoon, the last day of shooting, I was pumped out of my mind. I had an Instax (thanks Fujifilm) so I wanted to give my new friends some snapshots. That alone was an awesome feeling, of giving back something instead of always taking.
Again, I spent hours shooting the scene. And this time, at the end, struck gold – by well prepared luck: I found that I could go in their kitchen, and it was a photographer’s dream. Absolutely no light save the cooking gaz and small LEDs they keep on their wrists. Jackpot.

As I was walking back towards the main road to get a taxi, I stopped because I was feeling weird. Then I realized: I was high. High on adrenalin, high on serotonin. Just plain happy.

The irony is that, for all this work, the shots I like best in the essay (the first and the last one) where almost pur luck. I took the first one thinking it was a snapshot of a guy dozing off, until I realized at home that his arm and the boat were just so. I staged a picture with an Instax in it, which I took many times until I got it absolutely right. In reality, it’s really bad. The one that works I took as I was passing by a net, for fun. But this would not have happened had I not failed spectacularly for three days, and worked the people and the location like a maniac.

Should you do it?

Breaking people to pieces to rebuild them is a classic technique. I guess I was ready to be broken. I’m sure some people aren’t. Or don’t like it. Or don’t want it.
It’s also a dangerous process, and David gets absolute credit for keeping our twelve individual stories and evolutions in his mind. I don’t think he pushed any of us too hard (but again, I can’t speak for the others.)

This is where you have to make your own mind. Are you ready to be run gratuitously through brutally honest critique every day (to be clear: never ever mean spirited – just no holds bared)? Are you ready to subject yourself to a “freeform” exercise where David will guide you, but not impose technique or subject in any way? Are you ready to be left to your own devices, find your own way, at the risk of getting absolutely nothing on the fifth day? If the answer is yes, then you’re in for the experience of a lifetime. If no, then try to work up the courage to do it one day. You owe it to your photography.

” I want to, but I’m not good enough.”

Pretty much everyone I met at GPP wanted to know how it was, and then immediately told me “oh, I couldn’t do it, I’m not a good enough photographer”.
To which my reply would be to laugh: I can’t light my way out of a paper bag, and I have a hard time remembering that f/2 is wide open.

Now, I’m not angelic.
There are good and bad photographers. There are people who will never get out of auto mode. But there are also people who will nail a shot with razor sharp focus every time, with the key light in the butterfly position and a 5/4 CTO gel (did I tell you I know nothing about light?) yet they will say absolutely NOTHING with their pictures. (Another Harveyism for you: “Yeah, it’s a picture, but it’s not a photograph”)

You can’t think of this class in terms of “technique”. I suspect if that’s the way you approach it, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But if you think you have a story to tell, I think you owe it to yourself to think it through long and hard. It just might be worth it.

Cavalia

Qasr Al Hosn Festival announced they had programmed an extra time for the Cavalia show … 2 hours before the show.

Wow.

They play Dubai in a few weeks – already planning to go there.

This pics were NOT taken with a professional camera, as that would be against the rules. They were taken with a simple point and shoot, my trusted Fuji X100s.

Snapshots, really.

Another one bites the dust

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It wasn’t as bad as this Rihanna concert, but Muse succumbed to the same syndrome a lot of these A- list players do: “*It’s a captive audience of idiots who live in the desert and have too much money – why would we get out our A game?*”

Well, for starters because we paid a an arm and a leg to come see you, and just because we don’t live in New York doesn’t mean we’re hicks.

And second, because it’s starting to show. Jay-Z is a top notch entertainer. I really can’t stand his music, but he’s an absolute pro at interacting with his public. The result? the largest audience my wife’s ever seen at Du Arena, and she had a blast even though she didn’t know his act. Muse, on the other hand, was the highest exodus of spectators we’ve ever seen at a concert here. despite the -admittedly impressive – pyrotechnics; I could’ve put the radio on a bit loud in my garden, and it would’ve been exactly the same – nice background music to have a chat with friends.

My theory is that, contrary to other venues, Abu Dhabi and Dubai probably offer very attractive packages to artists to perform – as an incentive to come to these untested waters. I’d bet they guarantee revenue even if attendance is low, or something like this. And some performers probably see this as an excuse to give a “relaxing” gig. The Grand Prix probably skews this even more, with the promise of a captive audience.

What I don’t get is how, in an age where album sales are increasingly irrelevant, and notoriety is built on interaction, bands can continue to take this short sighted view of things.

That said, judging from yesterday nights twitter feed, the die hard fans where really happy. But the fact that – arriving late – I managed to walk up with no effort to the middle of the stadium tells a different story: even Abu Dhabi fans are starting to tire of being fooled.

Here’s to hoping tonight’s Dépêche Mode concert is better.