Besides artistic portraits and street photography, there is another area that captures humans and its called documentary-style people photography. It is about photographing people in relation to issues, situations, places and the environment they are in. It involves documenting their stories as they go about their everyday lives, such as the girl and her little brother in the photo.
They live in a small coastal community in Guimaras Island in central Philippines. The main livelihood of families in the community are fishing but they get a bigger income by ferrying tourists to nearby small islands that boast of pristine beaches, undeveloped and undisturbed patches of nature. The primary means of transportation from one island to another is the banca, a local outrigger canoe that can carry two to three passengers. It is propelled by the sheer effort of paddling, by the girl in this case, with her little brother playing the role of lookout and assistant. The girl has just ferried me and my photo buddy to this small island and I took this picture as they were about to set off to transport more of my fellow photographers waiting in the main island some 300 meters away. I guess we are all chroniclers when we have our cameras and arrive at a new country, city or place. Knowingly or unknowingly, we capture images of people as they go through the daily grind and struggles in life. In the picture above, it is a poignant story of siblings helping their family to make ends meet; their parents are out at sea fishing. The camera is there not only to capture beautiful sceneries but also slices of life, no matter how humbling, as we encounter them.
Around 15 years ago I was diagnosed with glaucoma. It is a debilitating eye condition which, if left unattended, can lead to blindness. I was at an advanced stage and had to undergo expensive and critical laser surgery on both eyes. The medical process was to free up the pressure that was building up inside the eye so that the liquid inside can freely circulate. Unlike the skin organ, the rods and cones in our eyes damaged by the built-up pressure caused by glaucoma cannot regenerate. My sense of sight has not been the same ever since that operation. I wear glasses though the grade is not that high. Glaucoma doesn’t go away, there is always the prospect of a recurrence. How does this affect my photography?
If you have been following this blog for some time now and going through my image postings you may say that I have 20/20 vision. Well, it’s far from that. I have poor eyesight and is nearsighted. I don’t know if that’s because of my previous glaucoma condition. It’s crucial that I wear my eyeglasses when driving because I can not clearly see distant objects, they are all just a blur. I even struggle peering through the electronic viewfinder of my DSLR and find it more comfortable viewing, framing and capturing through the camera’s LCD screen. Such setback (I wouldn’t call it a disability) does not deter me. It even encourages and inspires me to really “see” things. This gift of sight, no matter how imperfect it is for me, propels my photography and visual imagery. Maybe because of this condition I strive to see more, and go the extra effort to perceive light and other elements that make up a good picture. Maybe I am guided more by my internal vision than my external sight when photographing. Or both could be complementing each other. All you my friends who have perfect eyesight be thankful, and utilize that powerful sense to make the most of your capture.
Like all artistic endeavors, we sometimes reach a blank wall. For those who use the mighty pen, it is widely known as writer’s block, the inability to produce new work. For photographers who use their eyes to scan, the mind to process and the camera to capture, there is also such a thing as a photographer’s block. The camera as a tool has nothing to do with it, but it has everything to do with the individual. I read bloggers who have decided to pick up the camera after a long hiatus, saying they were inspired to shoot again after seeing some great images. What causes this photographer’s block? Since most of us treat photography as a hobby, it remains just that – a side activity in our daily dealings with life. We are caught up in our everyday struggles at work, family, home, school, business and whatever we are engrossed with that we forget or don’t have time for our hobby. There is also a condition called eye strain (you know this when you sit in front of your computer for hours) which reduces our perception and the ability to notice (we know this is important for the photographer’s sense of seeing). Then there is the monotony of subjects, shooting the same thing and situation over and over again, resulting in what noted photographer George Barr calls the seeing fatigue. Just these three aforementioned examples are enough to extinguish the creative flame. We need sparks of fresh ideas and inspiration. Though this article, 25 Ways to Jump Start Photography Inspiration, was written five years ago I still find it relevant and applicable to this day because they are simple, practical and can be done (most of them) immediately. Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of tips, they contain just two-sentence explanations each, are short and direct to the point. I won’t mention the 25 of them here, again simply allow yourself a few of minutes to go over them. From among the list, I will just cite one: look at photoblogs and get inspired. I do it here all the time, looking over the incredible works of photo blogger peers. It’s enough to keep my creativity simmering and my passion alive. Kick off the doldrums and take pictures!
This is a scenic picture of a river’s mouth that opens up into a bay, lined with mangrove trees that help stem soil erosion. This is the last picture I have of this scenery which was taken two years ago. It is just 30 minutes from our place, outside of the city center. Last month, when I returned to this place it was no more. In its place now is a large petrochemical complex. The river with its mangrove forest just disappeared, eaten up and erased by an industrial plant. Situations like these rile me, and the feeling is a mixture of sadness, disappointment and utter frustration. I am no environmental warrior, but I don’t need to be one to know that this is totally wrong – big business taking precedence over nature, with the local city government in conspiracy with this dastardly act. Well, in the first place it was the city government that issued permits and the go signal, potentially earning big (in taxes and other fees) from these huge businesses. But to erase an entire river from the map and alter the natural features of the coastline just smacks of utter disrespect and apathy for nature. That is why nature gets back at us through soil erosion, flooding, landslides, rise in sea levels, global warming – ecological disasters brought about by man himself, because of commercial greed and selfishness. I may rant for the rest of my life but nothing will ever be the same, the river will not return. It has all but died, not from natural causes but by the wanton disregard of the human species. This picturesque scene is now vanished; ecology once again vanquished. And all I have now is this picture, a memory of beauty that once was. I bow my head in shame, we are not worthy caretakers of Mother Earth.
So what do we tackle after Christmas Day and before New Year’s Day? I’m actually at a loss, and I thought we just take a break from photography stuff (easier said than done!) and talk about “life” stuff. My “About” page would look something like this: “Hi! I’m JJ. Writer. Blogger. Jazz lover. Image maker. Life adviser.” And lessons would look like something straight out of a photography tutorial: “Class, sharpen your mind, activate your inner eye, visualize what is interesting, never cut what can be untied or fix something that is not broken. Life will heal itself.” Huh? Forgive Dr. JJ. He got carried away. That last part is not entirely true. Physically, emotionally and spiritually, we need some other things, outside forces, external circumstances and situations to fix what’s broken, to heal the wound, to mend a hurt. Time they say heals everything, true. But to heal fast and avoid complications, we need medications, a good dose of antiseptic and antibiotics. If you went through 2012 down, depressed and hurting, take stock. Never carry the baggage of hurt to 2013. Eliminate what made you sad, sick and impaired. We ain’t perfect but to be bogged down by things that don’t enliven and uplift us means to succumb to the power of the negative, the adverse and detrimental. That is no way to live life. Liken it to photography (told you its hard to break from this stuff) – focus only on the essential, exclude from the frame those that distract from the center of interest. If the images are blurry, fix the camera settings, focusing and lighting. If images are still out of focus, then fix the photographer (90 percent of these situations has nothing to do with the camera). The point is, as you take that leap to a new year, bring only the essential. In photography, your camera and your heart is probably all you’ll need. Then fix what’s broken. If you had lots of hurting in 2012, surely something was broken. You’ll need again your family, friends and the Good Lord to help fix things up. Counselling is not an expertise of mine, but I don’t think I need a degree to help someone carry a burden or lighten the load along the way, even just through encouragements or words and images of inspiration.
Time flies by so fast you can only recall so much of what you did in a day. How much more in a month, or a year. But humans have the power to recall, to remember and reminisce, particularly special moments – your first love, first kiss, the time you said “I Do”, the shrill cries of your first born, the smell of your new car, your first out of town trip, family reunions, the first time you stood as god-parent in a baptismal or main sponsor in a wedding, the initial steps as you moved through the door of your very own house, the best sunset you ever saw, the most beautiful flower that beheld your eyes, your first cellphone or digicam, the highest mountain you climbed, the most laps you swam, the fastest you have ever driven – these and many more are the memorable entries in your life’s journal. When you are in a quiet place, a site of solitude, take time to review the notes you have made in your journey. These are moments that may never return or recur, yet you can relish them again by reminiscing. (Photo location: the sea off Mindoro Oriental)
I believe in the miracle of life. I believe in the eternity of the soul. I believe in the wondrous gifts of nature, the solemn grace of a setting sun, the calm of a morning sea, the scent of pure breeze, the warmth of a sunny day, the picturesque scene of solitude, the sway and motion of heavenly clouds, the lines, shapes and contours of a wonderful vision – bright, lucid and clear. I believe in the cacophony of aural experiences, music of the spirit, the ambient sound of sweet whispers, the surreal echo of distant dreams, the ripples and flutter of movement in the air. I believe in the visual explosion of colors, the subtle tints of dawn, the harsh light of noon and the muted tones and shadows of early evening. I believe in so much reality there is barely room for pretensions and lies. Because I believe in what I see and sense, grasp and comprehend, it is truth that beholds my being. I am what I am because I believe. (Photo location: Lake Tri An, Vietnam)