Why I Do What I Do

 

If I am to answer that quintessential question, just to myself, it leaves me in a quandary, not because I don’t know the answer, but because the answer is that I’m constantly seeking more answers. And to get the right answer, you need to ask the right questions. Questions beget answers, beget questions, beget answers. In tangents and echoes, in spirals and steps, in multiplicities and layers. The answers emerge, and merge. They coalesce into understanding that seems just right for a while. For a time, there is some semblance of balance, of some joy in coming to conclusions. Then it begins all over again. There are many answers to one question. They are all the correct answers, depending on perspectives and circumstances. The churning. As some would call it.

Photography is vast. As vast and energetic as life itself. Imagine… it has permeated every facet of our existence. We have made pictures of the first signs of life, from chemical soups within cells to portraits of embryos. We built cameras that record bullets of photons and see galaxies in a single blink. And there are questions. An image can now be reproduced a million times, and distributed, in a few seconds. Photography can show exactly what we have seen and how we have seen it, through our own eyes, as it were. It has shown humanity to humanity, inhumanity to humanity, and humanity to inhumanity too. And there are questions. We have documented, preserved, studied, memorised, veneered, propagandised, lied, stripped bare, shown the truth, shown our versions of the truth… all with images. And there are more questions. Here, we assume that photography is not much more than a tool.

But it is so much more! There have been moments when I have been inexplicably reduced to tears on seeing the simplest of images. A deliberate spot against an infinite white. A face. Photos where the intent has been so pure, that there was no intent at all. Lost photos, in discarded family albums, sold on mats on a road. Photos of absent family and friends that surface unannounced, when a forgotten box is opened. Ubiquitous offerings of a glimpse through windows into other times, other worlds. Even photos that were never taken at all. And there are questions.

A stranger outside a railway station in Tokyo gifted me and a colleague with tiny instant photos of us. Because there were two of us, she made two pictures, each subtly different; a reminder that no two images can ever be alike. Fascinating images, showing us the way we were, that we were there, that it was the worst snow storm in Tokyo in 60 years, and how we must have appeared… strangers to a stranger, through a viewfinder of a camera with an analogue process that I thought had practically gone extinct. I’ll preserve my print for a long time to come. Why did this incident happen? Who were we to her? We did not speak the same language, but I remember her infectious smile, enthusiasm and grace. We bowed in appreciation to each other when it was done. There was a connection. An elegant math to its occurrence. An evasive simplicity to it all that I can’t quite put my finger on. And there are more questions.

Everytime I release the shutter, all these thoughts come crashing down on me so hard, so violently, that I have to force my mind to forget myself for a while. To compartmentalise. The compartments aren’t really hidden though. That’s why I need to search, just as violently, for meaning in every frame. That’s why I slow down to a meditative crawl. Perhaps that’s why I do what I do. And I know this is the wrong answer, but one easy enough to talk about.

It reminds me of the lyrics of a song I heard as a boy growing up in an odd, traditional home filled with fragments of new, almost sacrilegious ideas. I memorised it, by listening to it whenever it was played (I was never allowed to touch the LP player). ‘And the sign said… The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls. And whispered in the sound of silence.’
Closer home to photography, Ansel Adams had said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” I have begun to see why some very accomplished photographers don’t find it important to say anything, anymore.

A small part of my search is what you see in every issue of the magazine. As it’s Editor, I am responsible for every image and thought that reaches you through it’s pages. It is always the smallest questions, most simply put, that are the most difficult. Why do you do what you do?

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Better Photography.

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