Knowledge and Photography

Do you need prior knowledge to understand a photograph? Or does a photograph gives you knowledge of a certain topic?

This question arose when I was listening to Roger Ballen‘s talk while he was here in Hong Kong. He mentioned a few things that I found myself pondering.

  1. Would you know these people are the outcasts in the book “Outland” if I didn’t tell you about the history of South Africa at that time? Would you be able to relate to the significance of this book to that period of time?
  2. Many have said, when you look at my photographs you feel disturbed or fearful of some sort, actually, people in South Africa laughed when they saw my photographs. They say “Mr. Ballen, your work is funny!” When they have been surrounded by this sort of environment daily, would the photographs have the same impact as you who are sitting here?

Then for the Meteor reading club, I was studying the work by Abbas “God I’ve seen” and Cristina Garcia Rodero’s España oculta and her other work.

With the background knowledge I have on Hinduism, I could easily relate the work by Abbas from this book. It shares the idea of diversity and the different aspects that are important relating to Hinduism. But without such prior knowledge, do the photos speak of what Hinduism is about? Could the people who have no former understanding of Hinduism understand better what the photograph says about Hinduism?

On the other hand, I had no knowledge of Voodoos and very little about Christianity. The photographs spoke to me in forms of different emotions that arise within those religion. The ways the images were captured gave me some new knowledge or ideas about voodoos in Haiti, and the beliefs they have in Spain. Then I wondered, if I had some prior knowledge about these religion, would the photographs have the same impact? And would I be able to understand better those photographs?

I’m not sure.

But what happened was, the work by Cristina drove me to research more about Voodoos and Christianity. The photographs inspired me to want to learn more about those religions. I also researched about Hinduism for a very different reason in that I wanted to know whether the work by Abbas could be understood much better with the knowledge of the religion itself.

And after all what I can conclude is: Do the photographs inspire you? Meaning – do you feel anything when looking at the photographs?


A great photograph.

If you study enough, the patterns is like this. Most, I do mean most, of the masters of photography point towards the same direction for making a great photograph:

“Photograph with your soul.”

Only then you get to have your own voice. Only then it is genuine. Only then it’s something that you care the most and you would be so passionate in shooting.

So how do you get closer to your soul? Or, how do you shoot with your soul?

First, reading more photographs won’t give you that. However excellent you are at interpreting other’s work, or knowing their work… that’s their work. What they are passionate about. Their voice.

Your voice? You have to look inside yourself. You have to look at your experiences. And what interest you. Not other people. Experience. Go out to the world and interact. You won’t know until you are pack full of experiences and on the way figuring out who you are. Nothing will come by when you just study.

So. Find your voice. Find your photography.

No one can help you other than you yourself.


Religion and Photography

When I first read Yang Yankang’s “Reflection of the Soul”, in the prelude it raised this question about the difference between “photography about religion and religious photography” by Gu Zheng. This question made me ponder for a long time looking for answers – How does one decide? How do you define whether the photographs were merely capturing religious activities or whether the photographs captured became a religion? Does capturing religious activities make the photographs more religious? Does photographing about religion makes the activity itself becomes a religion? Do you have to be spiritual to capture religious photographs? And do you have to be spiritual to understand or resonate with religious photographs?

So many questions generated in my mind and so first I went to the dictionary to get a clear definition of “religion”.

Religion / noun
-the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power
-a particular system of faith and worship
-a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion.

I didn’t know much about photography relating to religion. The benefit of a photobook reading club is that different people observe different things, and from discussion about books, we can learn a lot from each other about the way we can see photographs. There I was introduced to three books – Yang Yankang’s “Reflection of the Soul”, Steve McCurry’s “The Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage” and Richard Gere’s “Pilgrim”, all about Tibetan Buddhism.

Yang Yankang – Reflection of the Soul
Yang Yankang, a Chinese photographer, who spent 10 years in North China capturing the daily lives of the monks and their relationship with their religion, Buddhism. From reading his book, one can get pulled into the world of Tibetan monks, as each of the photographs presented although are mere captures of monks’ day-to-day event, they brought out the sensation of how their lives really are. For example, in one of the photographs, a young monk reading the litany while an older monk overlooking him from outside, it reflects a devotion in Buddhism religion. The book also talks about the relationships between the monks and the nature e.g. the landscapes, the mountains, the birds, the cats etc, which metaphorically also express the essence of Buddhism teaching – “Buddha is how one flows with nature.” Whether the photographs themselves have become a “god” for worshipping I cannot say, but one can definitely sense Yang Yankang’s devotion to photographing this particular theme has elevated to a spiritual level.

Steve McCurry – The Path to Buddha: A Tibetan Pilgrimage
As a vivid traveller, Steve McCurry travelled to Tibet and captured portraits of Tibetans as well as the ceremonies of different Buddhism activities. With such signature colours from the work of Steve, one would not question the beauty and artistic forms of the photographs from this book. Yet, I questioned, is that all? A rational answer I could think of for this would be that Steve McCurry is a traveller, the way he captures people and culture reflects the way he moves through the world. And by all means, through the lens of travelling, what he was showing in this book is phenomenal, though to me, the photographs also stays at that lens.

Richard Gere – Pilgrim
This book is a surprise. Surprise in a good way. Never mind the actor background of his, the other side of Richard is that he is a devoted pilgrim of Tibetan Buddhism. He spent years travelling to Asia to devote his time to Buddhism practices, and in respect to that he also photographed his journey as a pilgrim. In some ways, this book is very personal, reflecting his emotions and his inner world about his religion. To me, his photographs talk about his journey to faith. The long exposure images gave me feelings of the doubts we sometimes have with faith, or maybe as some would read it as, faith is something that is there but seems to be untouchable. This book led me to question about my own faith. My faith with my photography.

So, do I have answers to the question? Yes, but what’s more is, do you have answers to this question?