Skilled photographers learn to see the world like a camera, not through a camera.
To the camera, the content of a scene is devoid of meaning. The lens focusses light onto a two-dimensional light-sensitive surface, and the sensor or film emulsion records the location, amount, and colour of the light that hits it. You can’t open up the aperture to let in more emotion, or use a fast shutter speed to freeze a mood. Merely pointing a camera at someone you love and tripping the shutter doesn’t guarantee that you’ll capture and convey your feelings about them in the picture that results. Unlike modern cars, cameras don’t come with automatic transmission.
If we want to communicate with people using pictures, first we have to learn to communicate with cameras using shapes and light. Forget what you know or feel about the subject in front of you. The camera doesn’t care. In fact, the camera is the barrier that stands between you and your audience.
In a perfect world, we’d be able to share our mental snapshot of a scene, replete with all of the meaning, emotion, and memory that we experienced at the time. While we wait for someone to figure out direct mind-to-mind transfer, we have to use lossy mediums to communicate instead. Language and writing, art, film, and music.
How can we use exposure, composition, and timing to pass information and emotion through the camera without losing too much along the way? If we want to communicate using photographs, we have to set aside what we know about the objects in front of the camera, or what we feel towards them. Only the forms, hue, and tone of the two-dimensional shapes that they make on the sensor matter.
Likewise, forget what you know about the relative brightness and colour of the objects in front of you. If you expose for the brightest highlights and plunge the rest of the image into darkness, the contents of the shadows that are visible to your naked eye don’t exist to the camera. Instead, how are you going to use the blocks of rich black you’ve created to carve up the frame to maximum effect?
Look out at the world and reduce it to colour, tone, and two-dimensional form. Flatten everything. Organise these shapes within the rectangle of the viewfinder. Place the focus and choose the aperture to select which shapes are sharp and which are soft. Set the exposure to bring forward or knock back the key shapes. When you see a strong arrangement — shoot.
The process I’ve outlined sounds slow and abstract, but with practise it becomes second nature. It can be applied equally to scenes of turmoil and tranquil still-lifes. We might feel like we’re hunting for expressions, gestures, and symbolism when we shoot; but fundamentally, we’re just organising shifting shapes in a rectangle. Emotion, mood, and meaning are downstream of this arrangement.
At a micro level, we’re waiting for the ‘face’ shape to morph into an arrangement that suggests ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ from the perspective of the camera. At a macro level, the colours and tones of the shapes and their arrangement across the frame will suggest a mood or level of dynamism. Are the key elements hemmed in? Claustrophobia. Are they swimming in acres of negative space? Freedom — or perhaps isolation or insignificance. A wonky horizon and leading lines? Movement, energy, unease.
There are no hard and fast rules. No universal symbols. When it comes to meaning-making, the brain of the viewer is as important as the eye of the photographer. The audience’s experience of a photograph is shaped as much by their idiosyncratic personality and memory, as by the content and composition.
Photography is an iterative process. We use the camera to transform three-dimensional reality into a two-dimensional object, then the viewer’s brain translates this image into thoughts and feelings. We only control the first step. And even the photographic masters must be humble about their abilities to influence the second. How should we proceed? Well, if we can’t learn to see like another person, why not learn how to see like a camera?
Last month I wrapped Season One of Signal Chain, my collaborative project with generative musician Duncan Geere. We shared images and music back and forth between us, publishing our progress across ten issues of a pop-up newsletter. Each issue, one of us would respond to the track or picture from the previous episode, along with a little of the backstory behind the work. I’m really proud of it and think it’s a nice insight into our picture-taking and music-making philosophies. If this sounds interesting, I’d love it if you would check out the Season One archive.
I finished two books recently that I forgot to add to the previous newsletter — The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef and Against Empathy by Paul Bloom. Both are solid, though better to blast through, rather than pore over.
In Against Empathy, philosopher Paul Bloom makes a case that rational compassion is a better guide to doing good in the world than empathy. In fact, he argues that the latter can sometimes do more harm than good. For example, a reliance on empathy can lead you to prioritise emotionally salient issues affecting people like you; distracting you from the greater impact you could make by contributing to causes that don’t pull at the heart strings as much. For example, giving to NGOs that distribute de-worming pills or insecticide treated bed nets to the developing world, rather than those that give free books to low-income families in your area. As an aside, GiveWell is an excellent resource to help you find the world’s most cost-effective charities to donate to.
In The Scout Mindset Galef posits that most of us use a ‘soldier mindset’ when evaluating our beliefs — we defend them aggressively and reject any evidence that we might be wrong. She suggests instead that we adopt a ‘scout mindset’: survey the information landscape — prioritising accuracy — and seek arguments both for and against our position, so that we can get a more accurate picture of the world. There are lots of good tips to help avoid self-deception, notice your biases and combat tribal thinking. I particularly liked the section where she shows you how to use hypothetical bets to assign probabilities to things you blithely predict are ‘certain’ or ‘impossible’. The book is accessible and useful, and of course, joyously nerdy. (There is a good summary of it here too)
Kitchen — a very short and sweet blog post about the important things in life
Remittance by the Barrel — a cool article about a practice that I knew nothing about: the NYC-based Caribbean diaspora curating barrels filled with sought after items, from electrical goods to ramen noodles, to send to friends and family left back home.
Interstitial Journalling — a nerdy guide to a practice that I find really helpful when working across multiple projects. Every time I finish a sub-task within a project or switch between projects, I write a short entry into a daily log file, to track my progress and record what I need in order to pick up where I left off. It’s much easier to return to a project if I have all the necessary information readily accessible. It’s also great for seeing how long tasks actually take, rather than how long I think they’ll take.
I use the ‘daily notes’ feature in Obsidian for this, but you could use anything from a paper notebook to a notes app on your phone. The key is to make a habit of dumping the crap out of your head and into a holding area to free up your brain for new tasks and ideas.
Spell 31 by Ibeyi
Afro-French Cuban twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz are the musical duo behind Ibeyi (‘twins’ in Yoruba). They sing in English, French, Spanish and Yoruba and make music that melds jazz, beats, and traditional Peruvian/Cuban percussion. I photographed them for CHANEL and Elle Online last weekend and got to see them live at Hoxton Hall after shooting backstage. They switched back and forth between singing, dancing and playing piano, cajón and Batá drum effortlessly, and were joined on stage by Jorja Smith for Lavender and Red Roses. An amazing performance.
Untitled by Jelani Blackman
Rolling beats, hypnotic flow and fuzzy bass. Laid back, smooth and grimey. Stand out tracks for me are Hello and Gone Freestyle. The latter has the best earworm melody since Shut Up by Stormzy.
Lone Swordsman by Daniel Avery
Beautiful slice of atmospheric techno. The bass pulses and the beat shifts under a synth melody that soars over the pulsing core of the track.
Some Kind of Heaven
I really enjoyed this bittersweet and slightly weird doc about the largest retirement community in the USA, The Villages, Florida. It follows various characters as they seek meaning, connection and peace in their old age. The cinematography is amazing — rich colours, absurdist juxtapositions and keenly observed portraits. And it features the best ‘driving a golf cart very fast as a metaphor for impending mental breakdown and departure from reality’ sequence I’ve ever seen…
A one-take banger that follows the staff of a high end restaurant through a dinner service as the pressure mounts and events spiral out of control. The camerawork is flawless — the operator is always where you want them to be — whether that is close in to catch a micro-expression or pulled back for context. The acting is so naturalistic that I kept forgetting I was watching a drama. Combined with the straightforward cinematography, and the lack of cuts, it feels like a doc. This is another fine addition to the canon of Incredibly Stressful Films, joining other luminaries like Shiva Baby and Uncut Gems.
The first in a classic British documentary series that follows a group of children from diverse backgrounds, checking in with them every seven years. In the first episode the children are seven and it’s so interesting to see the way they perceive the world, their place in it and each other. You can also hear the adults in their lives (and in particular their attitudes towards class) speaking through them. Shot in 1964, in beautiful black and white, I found it equal parts heartwarming and jarring. One moment the upper class children say something hilarious or charmingly naive and the next they dismiss all working class people as work shy and stupid… I watched the whole thing with a mixture of glee and horror.