Look, I have a Life!

KK-MoskovaYleisurheiluMM-X1KK9858-The other day I was shooting (along c. 200 other photographers) when Usain Bolt – yet again – won the WC in 100m in Moscow.

And then did his compulsory round around the  stadium.

Something caught my eye. Right on the track there was this young kid taking pictures of himself with Bolt on the background. Watching thru my 600mm lens I could read Bolts lips: “Get out!” and “Get off the track!”.  The kid just grinned happily with his cell phone, snapping away.

I don’t know how the situation ended, I got swept away and it was kind of a mess with all the photographers swirling around and security not really as alert as they should have been.

Anyway, I was thinking: What is this guy doing? Is he going to post this happily to Facebook?

Shout to the world: “Hey, look at ME, I have a life, I am in the same picture with Usain Bolt!”

This is the high point of his life? His ultimate claim to fame?

But then I started thinking about our culture and I had to pause for a while. Is this really what we do with pictures nowadays? Try to convince those around us in the social networks  that we really have a cool life?

Disclamer

Yes, being a photographer I also do post pictures from these games on FB – as I do from practically all events I work in.

I see my pictures/posts having several functions. They work as teasers (often in favor of the client):  “Wanna see more? Well, you know who do I work for…”

Or I try to illustrate something technical. Or I try to show something that I noticed, but which is not going to end up in the printed publication. Or – I confess – I am simply advertising my work and my skills: this is what I do for a living, so if you ever need a good photographer…

And sure, occasionally I do post something funny. To me Facebook has become a way to have at least some kind of social connections with people I know when traveling as much as I do.

Do I try to prove I have life? That what I do  or where I am is somehow cool?  I know it isn’t, it’s a job, but do I try to make that allusion? I hope not.

But I have to add: naturally, I could be wrong. You are most blind when it concerns yourself, I do know that much.

Motivation

BlogMoskow0101My motivation is simple. I am professional, I do what I am asked to do. Or should I say: hired to do.

But I also feel that I think through my camera. It is my way of relating to the world around me.

I see the world differently, because I am used to seeing through different focal lengths and different colors through a viewfinder.

Which leads to my second fragment of a thought: I saw this guy taking a picture of his friend in the Red Square with a cell phone. To show: I was here, I have a life.   To be posted on the social media later on, I’m sure.

And totally ignoring the woman behind him asking for a coin.

BlogMoskow0099Or the beggar in doorway who gets no attention… as the people are flocking behind her taking pictures of themselves with cheap Lenin and Stalin lookalikes.

So I started thinking: is it really so that our desire of getting pictures of ourselves on the stadium with Usain Bolt or on the Red Square so great that it  really dominates our minds to the extent that we ignore the real world around us?

 

 

beggarYes, beggars on the streets and pictures of them is the cliché of all the clichés… but  the point I am trying to convey: you don’t need to be a professional photographer to see them. Being a normal human being should be enough. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be so.

As I was watching the behavior of these people – tourists – what caught my attention was the amazing ability to ignore these people of  lesser means, while setting full focus on  “I need a picture to share so I can show that I have a life…” -behavior.

Are we so busy proving we have a life that we actually in that frenzy manage to ignore the life we really have – the world we really do live in?

 Seeing vs. Understanding

Which sort of kindled yet another thought. I travel quite a lot because of my work. Consequently and by the nature of my profession  I see a lot. I have  thousands and thousands of pictures from all around the world to prove it (would that be my motivation…  :-) ).

But I realized: seeing and understanding are two totally different things.

I remember Hemingway saying: “Never confuse movement with action”.

And now – as I was walking thru the streets of Moscow the other day –  I twisted my own, perverted one-liner out of it:

“Never confuse seeing with understanding”.

Meaning: here I was, roaming on the streets, taking pictures, seeing a lot… but what did I really understand about this culture, this society? Where (with no knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet to start with) I couldn’t even read the street signs?

Not much, I’m telling you.

Photojournalism

“The purpose of photojournalism is not to correct or amend human suffering or social injustice, but merely show its existence”.

I have heard that so many times lately… and while it is true on the surface, I feel something is missing.

KK-MoskovaMM-216I do not think it is enough that you show something exists – be it some form of social unjustice  or simply something in a sports competition – with your pictures.

If you want to live up to being a “photojournalist” there has to be some more  understanding and depth to your work.  If you don’t have that element, you lack the “journalism” part of your professional role.

You become just an illustrator of things.

You become sort of skilled, professional version of a  tourist, proving that something exists but not relating it to anything.

You should somehow be able to make the connection to a bigger picture. Or at least strive to do so. Somehow increase the level of understanding of your audience, their appreciation of the world as it is. Or how it shouldn’t be.

To me, that is photojournalism. Increasing understanding, not just showing yet another picture.

And that is very, very hard sometimes. As you feel you yourself are in the dark – and that by showing one aspect of a society/person, you might be misrepresenting by failing to show something you do not understand yourself in the first place.

So I guess the thing  to do is to strive to increase your own level of understanding and skills. To be better prepared and positioned  to tell the stories (be it with pictures, multimedia or text) you feel ought to be told.

Stories that matter – instead of snapshots desperately crying for affirmation of your own life and its worthiness  in the social media.

Concluding with Sotchi

Sorry about this burst of seriousness. I guess the long summer break has something to do with it: lots of time to think about stuff… and not writing anything.

Coherence of thought is not  what shines thru my words here…  :-)

Which sort of  leads to Elena Isinbaeva…

I was watching her struggling with her not so perfect English in the press conference the other day. And in the process, obviously and unintentionally making a huge, huge mess. Defending her opinion that guests should respect the culture and the law of their hosts. And obviously she was misunderstood, big time.

And  I have to respect her: she tried to convey how she felt in public. With a foreign language.  I’d be so proud if one day I could speak Russian half as good as she expresses herself in English. And as I said, the mess was to a great extent due to lack of understanding.

But I think the burden – or rather the responsibility to understand lies elsewhere than in her broken words. It lies in us.

So Sotchi (or Сочи as it is written in the local dialect) is  like 6 months away. There has been all kind of commentary, pleas to boycott, etc.

I could naturally say: “I’m not going”. But I feel that’d be so stupid and childish, it’s like stating: “You are wrong and I will not talk nor play with you”.

It leads nowhere.

I try the other way:  I decided to really make an effort to learn the basics of this strange language. I’ve started with the cyrillic alphabet and will see how far do I manage to get with it before the games start in February.

Just that I could understand a bit more.

 

5 Comments

  1. fi
    August 17, 2013

    Aren’t you actively using Google plus yet?
    Just asking, because fb sucks and G+ is where most of the photographers are very happily at..

    Reply
    • Jan Vehrenkamp
      August 21, 2013

      If for no other reason than that even my parents have an account there, FB doesn’t suck. At least my G+ stream is full of beautiful yet meaningless photos from people I don’t know.

      + who on earth has the time to manage so many accounts? For me personally even twitter feels like too much.

      Reply
  2. Hopper Stone
    August 18, 2013

    Somebody posted this quote the other day:
    “If the photographer isn’t going to pay attention to the picture he is making, that if he thinks the camera is just a machine and not an avenue of expression, then he has no business asking anyone for anything, let alone their time and interest. Don’t show the world, he said, invent the world.”
    ― Whitney Otto, Eight Girls Taking Pictures
    To which I replied that that was a bunch of grandiloquent nonsense. The camera is very specifically a machine and, inherently, has no soul. The sudden ubiquitousness and facility of enthusiast photography and the marketing machine which has told people that anybody who has more megapixels is just like a professional photographer has brought us to this avalanche of content which is all too readily available.
    When you and I started in the business, there was a certain mystique to it. The reason for that is because it was actually kind of difficult. You had to work hard to develop skills and abilities that were both mental and physical. You had to see the story, find the decisive moment and then have the right lens at the right setting with the right film in the camera and manually (gasp!) set your own focus and release the shutter; all of this knowing (hoping) that the ensuing chemical process to develop the photo would work to your expectations.
    I am approached almost daily by somebody who thinks they want or thinks they can do my job. It’s part of the territory now and is a mixed blessing. While it is annoying, it also keeps me honest and makes sure that I am always doing my best to stay on top of things.
    Which brings me to Elena Isinbaeva.
    OK, there is no graceful way to make that segue, but, then again, yours was pretty clumsy too.
    I have to respectfully call bullshit on using the language defense. Whether she eloquently or ineloquently expressed herself, her personal opinions were very clearly between the lines.
    She accepted the position of “Mayor of the Olympic Village”. The Russian authorities who give out such a title surely vetted the athlete to whom they bestowed such an honor. Yes, one can easily make the argument that one has to respect the laws and customs of the host country. If, for example, the Olympics were ever to be held in Saudi Arabia, it must be understood and agreed to by all participants that women will dress modestly in public and that there will be no alcohol available. I get that.
    But the comment (which, despite her poor grammar and vocabulary) which chapped my hide was when she basically said that homosexuality is out side of the normal mainstream of Russian society and that’s why it shouldn’t be allowed.
    You are a sports photographer but also a journalist. I know you can’t ignore a good story if one unfolds in front of you. But realize, that if you photograph and publish a gay athlete hugging his/her significant other after a victory, that you will be breaking Russian law and may be arrested. The photo which you showed in this blog could land you in trouble. The Finnish sports minister brought both a rainbow flag and a Finnish flag to the games to show his support. The Russians were smart enough to not arrest him. I also only heard the story and didn’t see a single picture (not that none existed…I just didn’t see any).
    Elena Isinbaeva, whether she can speak English or not, knows what the law is and how it may affect her fellow athletes and she clearly has no problem with that. She isn’t a winter olympian and isn’t participating in the games themselves. So she accepted this, albeit largely ceremonial, position because she felt that the honor was greater than the human rights issue.
    You don’t need proper grammar to express yourself that way.
    As they say, actions speak louder than words.
    Good luck in Sochi and try not to get arrested…or, I guess in a way, I hope that you do.

    Reply
  3. Hopper Stone
    August 19, 2013

    PS Your picture of Bolt and the idiot with the cellphone is a serious contender for vuoden urheilukuva (and you should definitely enter it in World Press as well).

    Reply
  4. Hopper Stone
    August 19, 2013

    Or at least vuoden “what the fuck?” kuva.

    Reply

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