A Photographer's Notes and Musings

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New Blog Address

Thanks for all of your support so far. You guys have been awesome. My photography blog with news and stories in portraiture, music and photojournalism has moved here. Please also take a look at the new and improved www.photoammon.com. Catch you on the flip side, where I am getting ready to post a new series on my project on Moroccan Argan Oil over the next week. Keep in touch,

Phil

 

Moving Homes

Quick hello to everybody. I let myself get out of the routine of blogging.. Starting back up very soon, and moving everything over to a nicer home. Stay posted for a new blog, a new site, and a few tales from my latest work in Morocco and overcoming some of the hurdles of shooting a story. Have a look:

Constructing “The Enemy” in Popular culture Vietnam Films

*Note: This clip contains violence and rough language

I have edited a compilation clip of excerpts and outtakes from a variety of popular culture Vietnam War films.  I chose to explore these with a focus on the construction of the “Vietnamese enemy” by means of establishing a dichotomy between the Americans, “us”, and the Vietnamese, “them”. My aim is to reveal some of the mechanisms that build a discourse of power between the West over the East in these films, through repeating the language and images that establish a colonized “Vietnamese identity”. What is interesting to note about the war in Vietnam is the confusion that spun off from the United States troops having to distinguish between Vietnamese enemies, Vietnamese allies and plain civilians. In terms of Hollywood, this also poses an interesting challenge in the representation of “the bad guy”, because it is not simply down to race. So, who is “the enemy” in these films, and how is he depicted?

Frantz Fanon argues, “Every Colonized people – in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality finds itself face to face with the language of the civilizing nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.” (Fanon, 19)

The war in Vietnam was an attempt by the United States to halt the spread of communism in South East Asia. In light of Fanon’s argument, the war also forced Western ideals upon the people of Vietnam, and those who resisted were seen as the enemy, or the threat to Western ideals. My compositional piece explores how language and image generate a racial “other” in the Vietnamese people, where their apparent “distance” from Western ideals can determine their status as enemy and their overall “threat level”. It is interesting to note, that in most cases all Vietnamese are by default represented as the “savage” that must be rescued from his own ways by means of Westernization. Those, who continue to resist, are “the bad guys”.

One of the methods of representing the Vietnamese people in these films is often through the constant use of belittling or derogatory Terms such as “Charlie” “gook”, “dink”, “little bastard” “zipperhead” etc. by the Americans. Already, the audience is preconditioned to view the Vietnamese through the dominating Western gaze as insignificant, worthless and disposable. We begin to feel hatred towards the enemy, without even getting to understand a human side. The “other” becomes a dehumanized and alienated entity.

As the Americans are the central characters with which we associate, despite the fact that they too often commit heinous acts of atrocity, most Vietnamese characters are denied any form of established character, which furthers their alienation from the United States forces. Instead, we come to understand their characters solely through the acts of atrocity they commit against Americans and harmless civilians, or their ability to remain unseen, sneak, set nasty traps and attack from behind.

A further reoccurring representation of the Vietnamese people is by means of their “Orientalized” exoticism. By this I am referring to the constantly occurring images of ritual, mystery, sexualization, and even implied insanity. This form of representation builds on the dichotomy between West and East, civilized and savage, free and communist, good and evil.

Sniper in Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Despite the fact that these war films are all fictional, they have a tendency to convince us that they represent true events as the story is situated in a historical occurrence. Without having been there, one is able to piece together a “reality” of what it was like in Vietnam during the war, and it is important to comprehend the impact that these media images have on our concept of history. While many of these films are indeed a critique of the Vietnam war, the question remains: are they furthering our comprehension of the Vietnamese as “other” or simply commenting on what affects the invention of “the enemy” had on Western troops during the war?

Works Cited:

Texts:

Fanon, Franz. 1967. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

Said, Edward William. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 2003.

Films:

Apocalypse Now. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando,  Robert Duvall. Paramount Pictures, 1979. DVD.

Forrest Gump. Dir. Robert Zemeckis. By Eric Roth. Perf. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright,    Gary Sinise, Sally Field, and Mykelti Williamson. Paramount Pictures, 1994. DVD.

Full Metal Jacket. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Prod. Stanley Kubrick. By Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford. Perf. Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Lee Ermey. Warner Bros., 1987. DVD.

Hamburger Hill. Dir. John Irvin. By James Carabatsos. Paramount, 1987.

Platoon. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. An Orion Pictures Release, 1986. DVD.

Rambo, First Blood, Part II. Dir. George P. Cosmatos. Perf. Silvester Stalone. TriStar Pictures, 1985. DVD.

Rescue Dawn. Dir. Werner Herzog. By Werner Herzog. Prod. Elton Brand, Steve Marlton, and Harry Knapp. Perf. Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2007.

The Deer Hunter. Dir. Michael Cimino. Perf. Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Cazale. Universal, 1978. DVD.

We Were Soldiers. Dir. Randall Wallace. Perf. Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe and Greg Kinnear. Paramount Pictures, 2002. DVD.

Heygate Estate

The modern Strata residential tower looms over a now vacant Heygate Estate. Many of its former 3000 residents evicted as part of a £1.5 billion redevelopment plan feel they are targets of a great social injustice.

I recently came across this site on a walk near my campus. I find the evolving nature of it intriguing, and the vacant feeling haunting. The site, however, does not stand empty, and has attracted a variety of different activities from gardening to parkour. For the first trip, I decided to focus on the landscape..

As Heygate estate slowly lost its residents to evictions, crime levels soared and the empty spaces became a haven for gang activity.

The Heygate Estate is a massive government-housing complex that was completed in Southwark, 1974 as an attempt to modernize living for the working class of London. At its peak, it was home to approximately 3000 residents.

When the housing and community development act of 1977 was passed, Britain’s social housing scheme prioritized the needy on waiting lists for subsidized apartments. Some argue that this emergency housing plan was the downfall of the estate, slowly bringing in drug abusers and gang related violence.

The estate grounds pose a haven for drug abuse.

The almost completely vacant complex is now under a £1.5 billion redevelopment scheme, and is set to be demolished to clear room for a planned 2,500 new homes and 150,000 sq. ft. of retail space. Currently, the public spaces between the buildings on the complex have been appropriated by a small number of urban gardeners and athletes. The evidence of a turbulent history on this landscape acts as a silent witness to bare this story.

A flower grows from an Urban garden in Heygate Estate. Small pockets of space throughout the complex have been reclaimed by the public for leisurely pursuits.

Getting Winded – Escaping the Creative Rut

Life as a photojournalist can be a bit surreal at times. You find yourself drifting in and out of complete stranger’s lives. You get incredibly close, as you look to them to share their story. You listen, you feel, and you begin to record a history. There is a great deal of beauty in experiencing the relationships those you encounter have with families and friends, their joys, sorrows, hopes, fears, pains and challenges. It is a search for what it means to be truly human and every fragment; every story adds to your concept of that question. Then you move on. You weave through the world, and your collections of photos make up a strange tapestry of your life.

I truly do believe that every photographer, regardless of age and experience makes images that reveal their unique way of viewing the world around them. It is as if these photos map out the way they make sense of their surroundings.

I am beginning to realize that this is what I love about photography. That it acts as a language to express myself, to communicate that vision through my images. At the same time it allows me to explore and build on the perception I have of what “life” is.

The difficulty is, that as you grow as a photographer, your understanding of the language it presents and what impact it can make expands as well. You begin to offer your expertise to others. You cover news stories, weddings, or any other events with your client’s expectations in mind. You shoot products and even people to conform to some collective consensus of “beauty” and before you know it, some of your voice is lost in the images you make to fulfill the expectations of others.

I think this is the point where most emerging photographers (such as myself) experience a form of fatigue. You lose the initial love you had for the art, because you want to live up to a certain level of perfection, perform to a certain standard, and if you can’t achieve it, then you don’t bother taking the picture.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in this. There is nothing wrong with developing as a professional photographer. In fact, there are many things I could go on about, as to why I love trying to break through into the professional scene.

What is your view of the world? How is your photography representing it? If you feel you are losing some of the excitement you originally had for the medium, try to think about your past and present, and how photography gives you a voice in sharing that. Now go out and shoot for you. Put your thoughts of the expectations others hold of your work aside, and just take some pictures to celebrate being human.

About the photos in this post:

These photos are part of a series I did on human interaction. My assignment was to focus on emotions in the lives of somebody I had not met before. I really love this kind of work, because its giving me a reason to go out there an push beyond my comfort zone, but also to capture something that is an extremely important part of life. I ended up posting an announcement to my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Friends shared them and before I knew it, I had some people that were interested in having me come and photograph family moments. I got in touch with a man who was spending the weekend with his two sons, and so we went on a trip through Kensington Gardens. It was a beautiful day, and something really moved me about getting to experience the joy he felt spending the day with his boys.

The later Photos are of a Man named Bob Cooke, who runs a Pie and Mash shop near Broadway Market in east London. If you are ever in London, or live there, I highly recommend a visit for a traditional London dish (9 Broadway Market  Dalston, London E8 4PH). The shop has been in the family for over 100 years, and Bob is very proud of his shop. He told me he was born upstairs, and the business was was only closed down during the second world war. Family portraits running back a few generations adorn the walls, and Bob is very happy to share his heritage. He also insisted I try one of his pies, and gave it to me on the house. I will be returning to him with some prints soon!

 

It’s never easy getting over the initial fear of asking strangers to photograph something rather intimate like their personal lives. If you are there to take photos, and not give back, they probably won’t trust you in the first place. Think of it as making photos, and know what it is you can give back to them when you are finished. Be it prints, publicity, or even just a chance to be heard.

So to sum up this week’s advice:

-       Make time to shoot unprofessional images if you are feeling stuck.

-       Take a look at some of the work that came from your early days as a photographer. Ask yourself how it reflects your view of the world. Has it changed?

-       Carry your expensive lenses and gear when you are at work. Pack light fore pleasure.

-       Try using your phone (if it’s got a camera). Its always there, and you have a perfect mental excuse for not shooting “flawless and professional” images.

-       Talk to strangers.

-       Gain the trust of others, and they will open up to you. I feel like that is when you will be most comfortable taking photos, and it will show.

-       I’ve said it before, but yes, it is a bit weird asking strangers if you can make pictures of them. Get over it. Besides, they usually end up becoming friends anyway.

-       Before approaching strangers about making photos of them, think about what you can offer in return. Usually people are very happy to have somebody document a part of their life, and get some images out of it.

Shattering the Mask – Studio Portraits

For a recent project, I started to focus  on portraiture in the studio setting. I have been exploring the notion of camera-shyness over the last few weeks, especially on the streets, and I wanted to bring some of what I loved about that work back into a controlled environment.  The reason I am quite fond of street photography is because it offers countless opportunities to make images of people who are unaware of your presence. There is something very beautiful about capturing the mundane, or the candid moment. A small number of these photos will reveal instances where a person drops their guard and exposes a side that the viewer feels he or she can connect with. These moments are short, but add a uniquely human element that can be universally recognized and understood.

Personally, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I hate a posed photo, because I know that they too can serve an important purpose in peoples’ lives, but I am much more fond of portraiture that I hope most viewers can connect with or relate to. And for this to happen, an image can’t feel too stiff or posed; where every gesture feels contrived and unnatural.

So, how does the photographer take an “unstaged” picture in a studio environment? The person you are photographing is sitting in front of a backdrop, the “spotlight” is on them, and they stare into a camera. It’s up to them to “perform” now.

We tend to spend a great deal of our time performing. Whether it is as a professional at work, a family member at home, a friend, a lover, an athlete or any of the other various roles we are trained to present. I feel that there are moments where people reveal the human under these many masks, and sometimes these are the moments where we as viewers of an image feel like we can truly connect with that person; even if we know nothing about them.

The camera can evoke a similar pressure to perform from people. Some might feel inclined to grimace, “smile”, or “look beautiful” because that is how they have been taught to perform in front of a camera.

If we want to show the true essence of a person in a portrait, we as photographers must find ways to break through these social constructs. There is nothing wrong with a smile, or a grimace in my opinion, as long as it is real. I started to experiment with a method I hope can relieve some of the notions to perform – especially for the camera.

The idea is to remove myself, as the photographer, from being a hidden face behind a lens to start with. For this reason, I set the camera up on a tripod with a release cable and engaged with my subjects while asking them to maintain eye contact with the lens.

By having them sit for 20 minutes, my hope was for them to become more comfortable in front of the camera. With the release in my hand, I was looking for the moments between performance, the breaks and pauses, where the sitter sheds their camera-mask. A true burst of laughter, a second of boredom or frustration, a grin, fixing of the hair or anything that reveals something less contrived about the person in my portrait.

My hope is that with this method, every pop of the flash and shutter click makes the process less of a threat, and more of a repetition and thus an excuse to forget about being photographed. Finding the right shots then boils down to the process of editing at the end of a session. It is interesting to see which images the sitter picks as their favorites as well as the ones I feel best accomplished my own goal.

Now I must admit, in the end some of my favorite photos were ones in which the person is clearly performing for the camera. But this usually at a point where it is also clear that they have become much more comfortable with its’ presence… I think these photos may not achieve what I originally set out to do, but I am content with the fact that they don’t feel too posed or stiff. All in all, I had a lot of fun with this session, and will continue to experiment with this style. I am really curious to see where it leads over a prolonged period of time, with a bigger collection of faces to help me understand my own work. Keep posted to see some more as I build the collection.

And just for the fun of it, I threw in some random props at the end. Maybe a bit off topic from the purpose here, but it brings out a sense of play at the end of a sitting and was quite enjoyable.

So here is some advice I could boil down from this experience for photographers looking to capture some less contrived portraits:

-       Try to help your sitter forget about the camera: Play music, talk, joke around, and most importantly, try to find something you have in common with them.

-       Don’t always hide behind your camera. Try setting it up on a tripod, pre-focusing and setting your exposure. Then use a remote to take pictures.

-       Look for facial expressions and emotions. Smiles, laughs, boredom etc. If your camera is set right, this is much less difficult when all you have to do is click the release/remote.

-       Give your sitter the remote for a few photos, and see how those differ from yours.

-       Try sitting yourself, and have somebody photograph you in the same manner. There is a lot to be learned from sitting behind the lens yourself!

Street Wise – Some Advice for Street Photographers

So when I took to the streets with this experience behind me, and a camera in my hand, I was on the lookout for interesting moments. Triggers. That is the Zen part of street photography. You become a sponge. You look, you absorb, you think and you learn. Then, there is another side to it. As I mentioned in “On shooting People”, pointing your camera at strangers can be more political than it sounds.

The camera embodies a fear. It has the potential to “see” somebody, and forever freeze him in a frame. What if that image does not align with how they want to be seen? What if that moment in time pierces the “mask” he carries. His identity, which he has so carefully constructed, could then be “misreported”. The human mind is an incredibly creative organ. Especially when it comes to playing out worst-case scenarios, so being photographed by strangers can become an incredibly scary process, as can photographing the stranger. It works both ways.

As photographers, we need to be aware of how we project ourselves, because if we show fear or uncertainty in what we are doing, it becomes very obvious. The people we photograph will pick up on this, and become equally uncomfortable with our presence. That is why we as photographers must find ways of reassuring people of our intentions (unless you are a paparazzi). There are several ways of doing this, and I have decided to outline some of them in the context of street photography (one of the most socially difficult forms of photography, in my opinion)

- You can ask for permission… Most people will even be OK with this. Especially if you explain what you are doing, and why you would like to take THEIR picture. The problem is, you are out to capture moments, and by asking you are changing somebody’s behavior. You are throwing them off of their planned course of events. This approach is definitely not how I would like to capture beauty in mundane. Still it is important to know why you are taking photos. When you do get caught and confronted, it usually puts people at ease when you can explain why you are doing what you do.

- You can hide your camera or shoot from the hip. This is a great way to take photos without being noticed. Try to use a small and quiet camera. It works quite well on the underground, but let me assure you when you do get spotted, things get especially awkward. And if you are riding the train, you don’t even have a way out until you reach the next stop. Be prepared to do some explaining…

- My personal favorite technique is to be obvious about the fact that I am taking pictures. After all, I am a photographer with nothing to hide. The trick is just to help people assume that they are not necessarily the one being photographed. Look “behind” them. Avoid eye contact. Smile. Look like a tourist waiting for that perfect moment to make the 89 billionth photo of Buckingham Palace. Do what you need to do. Wear an “I heart London” shirt if need be…

So here is a short form of my advice for people looking to try street photography:

-       Use a smaller camera. It looks much less threatening than a massive SLR with a telephoto lens attached to it!

-       Be quick: Pre-focus your camera to a set distance (ie 1.5 – 2.0m) and wait for your subjects to step into that range before lifting the viewfinder to your eye and snapping.

-       Check you exposure whenever the light changes. I like to read it off of the back of my hand to get an average exposure. Remember some people will be lighter or darker than yourself, so this method is not 100 percent accurate

-       Know what you are looking for and why you are photographing. If you are just starting out, think of a good story for why you are shooting. It puts you at ease, and it makes it less difficult to explain why you took somebody’s picture if they ask

-       Think about your backgrounds as well. It is very easy to get carried away with focusing on your subject, just to find you took their photo with a tree growing from their head.

-       Know that you look like a bit of a freak, and be cool with it. Most people don’t walk around the streets taking pictures of strangers, so of course you appear to be a bit strange.

 

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