The way they look

Photography = a piece of belonging?

“To the imagination, to memory, nothing is really lost if
it is experienced with affirmation. … In my photographs…,
I attempt to arrive at something poetic, something I can hold on to both as an image and as emotional sustenance…”

Taken From Memory published by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg is the result of a 25-year long-time project by American photographer Sheron Rupp (b. 1943 in Mansfield, Ohio). Searching for connections to her own biographical past, Rupp took these photographs in rural America looking to find a piece of someone else’s life to give her a sense of “belonging”. Personal in nature, these photographs offer a stirring glimpse into the life in the commonly disregarded rural areas and small towns between the bustling metropolises of the East and West Coast. Without pretence or irony, without assertation or judgment, Rupp’s impressions from the past also work as a commentary on today’s US society.

To be honest, just judging from seeing the images on the screen, I like some of the images from the book, but I’m not in love with it. But what I really want to talk about from this book is what Rupp said, “these photographs were taken at a time when I felt desperate to find a piece of someone else’s life, which could give me a sense of ‘belonging.’” The question is, aren’t we all photographing something which gives us a sense of ‘belonging’? Isn’t that the reason why we take pictures? Because that’s the stuff we care so much about, which basically is really something that we truly want to be associated with? I belong to this community, I belong with this concept, I belong with this social issue. We are objectifying these feelings into images and prints so that we can hold onto and present them, so others who happen to want to ‘belong’ to the same space would resonate, would want to be part of it?

The notion of making pictures feels like a constant need to lead ourselves to be part of something, to belong somewhere, to associate with a moment in time. I don’t know for certain. It’s a theory I came up with. But what’s intriguing is the work by Dawn Parsonage which maybe is one of the outliers of this theory. Her “boring” series brilliantly highlights the private struggles we all face when bored – the struggle to find meaning, to find ways to occupy our restless minds. Do we want to be bored? Especially living in the 21st century when mass information can be loaded for you every second? I certainly don’t think that this is a concept that modern people would want to belong with, but it is no doubt a piece of us that we have and most often deny.

© Dawn Parsonage, from the work ‘Boring’; Source @ Dawn Parsonage

While some works remind us about what we care about, what we want to belong to; some remind us about what really belongs with us that we are constantly fighting to avoid or deny.


The way they look

Photography as narratives, and how social media is shaping it?

Recently I’ve read some articles that I felt somehow are linked together – one was talking about photography as a narrative medium, what position exactly does it stand? One was about photographs getting censored in IG, and how the platform works is now questionable as technology and the line of ethics blurs, the final one is about how social media shapes our identity.

Why I think they are closely linked because since the development of social media e.g. FB and IG, the use and function of photography has widen and is constantly tied in with our everyday life. Anyone who knows how to use a phone can easily snap a photo to represent something about him/her and post it on social media. Narrating our own stories is easier than ever. It is cheap, fast and skill-less. While this is happening, yes – artists and crafters can easily share works to the world wide public, and art doesn’t have to be something prestige anymore, but some worries about the code of ethics and whether e.g. nude photographs is same as porn. Plus the recent news about images of a murdered victim has been posted on social media, how are we using photography and social media? Should there be some sort of policy? But if one company uses its powers to decree which art can be shown and which art can’t, then art isn’t free. What solutions can there be?

Especially now with teens who are born in the Internet era, they are the cyborgs of constantly documenting their life experiences with images. How are they using photography and social media? How is this culture shaping their identity?

The way they look

Sabine – Jacob Aue Sobol; Dream Away – Michael Northrup

Aside from Sally Mann’s Immediate Family and Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, here’s another example of work that is photographing and publishing the work of someone that is personally very close to the photographer.

Sobol’s first work “Sabine” is a book about the girl that he fell in love with when he was living in Greenland. The work shows intimate, closeness, sensuality and emotional photographs of his relationship with Sabine and his relationship with Greenland. For Sobol, he wasn’t a photographer in this project, he was a hunter, a boyfriend whom carries a camera and takes pictures. His work shows us that he was in it, part of the community, shooting from what he sees and feels as being one of them. It is a visual story of what he was experiencing, rather than an outsider trying to understand the community which, was what he tried to do when he first went.

‘I was ambitious and driven, but that meant nothing there,’ he laughs. ‘After a while, I realised I was only meeting the outsiders and outcasts in the community. They were drawn to this strange foreign guy with a camera, but no one else was even remotely interested. I was a distraction, an intruder.’

And then when he fell in love with Sabine the 2nd trip he went,

‘Something changed inside me and I got so much into hunting, shooting and fishing for trout and salmon. I realised that it was more important for me to come home with food than photographs. When I picked up the camera again, I was part of the community.’

As we know, later on Sobol and Sabine fell apart, and the work was published under the name of Sobol. Now maybe they had consent with each other for the work to be published, who knows? Or where Sabine was from, somewhere that’s so primitive and aged, did she know about her portrait rights?

Now a similar work about intimate relationship – “Dream Away” by Michael Northrup which was produced in the US. It is about his personal relationship journey with Pam – his girlfriend, then wife and then ex-wife.


Similar sort of route and experience as Sobol’s with Sabine, yet with this work, there was a huge controversy discussion as to whether the book should/can be published. The case even went to the court. Pam although earlier on in their relationship consented these photographs, towards the end of their relationship, she refused to make her work public. This frustrated the artist, Northrup, and consulted Blake Andrew, a blog writer and photographer, about this issue.

Here’s the blog post about the email conversation exchange:

Which brings back to these moral and ethnic questions evolving around photography:

Should a photo subject (assuming they consent to the image) ever have some level of control over what eventually happens to their photos? Or is it always up to the photographer? Is this culturally affected?

Some food for thoughts.

The way I look

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.