letters to a young photographer (part one: edited for clarity)
- What advice would you give me—as far as taking pictures goes—as I depart for Thailand on Friday? I am hoping to have minimal "should have" and "could have" moments when I come back, and to prevent these, I've been thinking ahead a lot about what I want to focus on…—Maria
- 1. I would suggest you reconsider using the phrase "taking pictures" and possibly replace it with "making pictures". In the final analysis, you are the author of your photographs and your personal viewpoint in a single image or series of images is of principle concern in the interest of effective storytelling value. Mostly, there are in between moments in photography and the division between these and the matter of successful evocative imagery may be the made up in the passing of a fraction of a second and in the movement of a fraction of an inch to the right or left, up or down.
- 2. Remember that light and all it's qualities are the basis of photography and without there are no pictures (or at least no successful pictures). Always consider the lighting; your subject(s) gesture and their rhythm; the relationship between figure and ground; the moment when these elements relate best in the interest of the story—with care.
- 3. Don't over think things. Simply witness, respond and calmly cover the scene from as many valuable angles as possible. Always find pictures from far away, near and in the in-between—this means many overall angles, details and medium-distance vantage points. Seek out all the visceral angles that might best tell a given story.
- 4. Work predominantly in even lighting situations and avoid distracting elements of formal dissonance or hi-key color such as blown-out highlights in your frame. Recompose to avoid items of stark contrast where they detract from the subject. First find the "safe" photographs and craft them well, then diverge from there. Always photograph using the full-frame and experiment copiously. Watch your edges.
- 5. Do not censor yourself. If you find something which captures your interest, slow down and stay with it for it may not be revealed again. Trust your intuition.
- 6. Be mindful of cultural ritual, influence and tradition. Learn the language and use it with respect and good humor. Work to portray your subjects with both dignity and honor—keep this in your heart and they should notice. Be patient.
- 7. Never carry fear or anxiety with you—yet be mindful and careful of your immediate environment—watchful toward what is to come. Find fascination in your surroundings, be curious about everything in the capacity of your senses and ask of your experience many questions. Slow down. Look to the periphery. Always remember to breathe deeply as this simple act will find you all the more relaxed and aware in your surroundings.—Seth Butler
in silent protest
Kham Province, Tibet. 2007.
A Chinese settler works to process recycled grain bags as two native Tibetans walk past. Due to oppressive government policy, ethnic Chinese have taken many of even the most rudimentary of jobs in Tibet, as well as much of the land the native population once used for it’s primarily nomadic culture. In an intervention document prepared for the United Nations, the Tibet Justice Center has stated “The massive transfer of Chinese settlers and soldiers has had a devastating impact on the economic, social and cultural life—and rights—of Tibetans. Tibetan farm and grasslands have been confiscated and incorporated into collectivized and communal farms. The rapid increase in settlers and soldiers lead to the first famines in Tibet’s history, with the death of over 340,000 Tibetans, because the land could not support the rapid increase. Ill-conceived efforts to boost productivity of lands suitable only for nomadic grazing or limited farming has resulted in widespread desertification.” Social unrest flared up in Eastern Tibet again in early 2011 when monks began to set themselves on fire as a form of silent protest against what they view as political and religious represssion. A total of at least twenty Tibetans are believed to have self-immolated since then, most of them either former or current Buddhist monks & nuns. © Copyright 2007 Seth Butler. http://www.sethbutler.com
The situation in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and the neighboring Tibetan autonomous areas of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan province, remained tense in 2011 following the massive crackdown on popular protests that swept the plateau in 2008. Chinese security forces maintain a heavy presence and the authorities continue to tightly restrict access and travel to Tibetan areas, particularly for journalists and foreign visitors. Tibetans suspected of being critical of political, religious, cultural, or economic state policies are targeted on charges of “separatism.”
The government continues to build a “new socialist countryside” by relocating and rehousing up to 80 percent of the TAR population, including all pastoralists and nomads.
The Chinese government has given no indication it would accommodate the aspirations of Tibetan people for greater autonomy, even within the narrow confines of the country’s autonomy law on ethnic minorities’ areas. It has rejected holding negotiations with the new elected leader of the Tibetan community in exile, Lobsang Sangay, and warned that it would designate the next Dalai Lama itself.
In August Sichuan authorities imposed heavy prison sentences on three ethnic Tibetan monks from the Kirti monastery for assisting another monk who self-immolated in protest in March. Ten more Tibetan monks and one nun had self-immolated through mid-November, all expressing their desperation over the lack of religious freedom.
…I am gravely concerned by reports of violence and continuing heightened tensions in Tibetan areas of China, including reports of security forces in Sichuan province opening fire on protesters, killing some and injuring others.
These reports follow the self-immolation of four Tibetans earlier this month, bringing the number of reported self-immolations by Tibetans to 16—mostly monks and former monks, and two nuns—since March 2011…
…these policies include dramatically expanded Chinese government controls on religious life and practice; ongoing “patriotic education” campaigns within monasteries that require monks to denounce the Dalai Lama; the permanent placement of Chinese officials in monasteries; increasingly intensive surveillance, arbitrary detentions and disappearances of Tibetans; and restrictions on and imprisonment of some families and friends of self-immolators…
…We urge Chinese security forces to exercise restraint, and we renew our call to allow access to Tibetan areas of China for journalists, diplomats and other observers. We call on the Chinese government to resume substantive, results-oriented dialogue with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to address the underlying grievances of China’s Tibetan population… READ MORE
moving forward giving back
Photograph © Copyright Christian Bobst. All Rights Reserved.
Just before the holidays I received a stunning 8 x 10 print of a photograph by former Momenta Workshops student Christian Bobst which I had recently purchased for a close friend as a holiday gift from Nuru Project.
The concept of Nuru Project is beautiful and quite simple really, they split the revenue from all their print sales with a number of non-profit partners and photographers alike, a real win-win scenario.
catalyst for social change
Nuru project is a very accessible way to collect photography—print costs start at only $50 USD—while also directly supporting contributing photographers and positive change through non-profits simultaneously. Non-profits receive 50%, photographers receive 25%, and Nuru Project keeps 25% to cover all printing costs, so a full 50% of the sale of a print goes to the non-profit and a full 25% goes to the photographer.
Currently, Nuru Project supports the following non-profit partners which can be chosen to benefit from your purchase:
- Acumen Fund
- Architecture for Humanity
- Malaria No More
- Millennium Promise
- Partners In Health
- Pencils of Promise
opportunity to reciprocate
Not only can documentary photographers and photojournalist support causes they believe in and discuss in their own work through Nuru Project, but collecting quality photography becomes more accessible to the public. Another exciting feature of the Nuru Project concept is that it allows both photographers, collectors and lovers of photography to support a good cause and have ownership of photographs they might not otherwise be able to afford through the traditional fine art marketplace.
There is also a “back story” document which accompanies each photographic print, so you can connect with the photographer’s intent and have documentation of the art and non-profit benefactor as well. Moving forward in this new year, we should all consider ways to give back a little more, while supporting artists and good causes alike in order to achieve more positive impact in our world.