Jon Anderson is a photographer / writer who divides his time between St. Domingo and New York. He recently became an Alicia Patterson fellow. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to interview Jon, and the interview still ranks among my favorites. Here Jon shares some ideas on how to become a better photographer.
1. Make mistakes, break the rules. While it is all very well to know the rules, it is not a good idea to follow them slavishly. The bandleader Artie Shaw once said, “If you don’t ever make mistakes, you’re not trying. You’re not playing at the edge of your ability.” Making mistakes, or making unorthodox decisions, can open the doors of perception and lead you to new ways of thinking. The shot reproduced here is unusual in that there is no obvious focal center, it is more dispersed and yet the eye’s movement through the composition is controlled by subtle pointers such as the outspread arms and other gestures.
2. Self knowledge is more important than technical knowledge. No amount of rules or photographic technique will convert you into a good photographer if you don’t have something to say. Each photographer has his or her own path to cut through the business, and what works for one may not work for another. Some have a particular talent for narrative work, others for exquisite shots of light and color, others for expressive action. Some develop slowly and others quickly. It can get pretty confusing if you don’t have an emotional and ideological north star to guide you. Your tastes in photography will be a good indication of the kind of photographer you want to be. One thing I strongly recommend is that you educate yourself. Aside from learning technique, learn history, philosophy, languages and literature, and you will have access to more ideas. The themes you choose are a big part of what makes your photography interesting. This shot was a conscious attempt to document a major event in a form that manages to convey a very diffferent feeling from the digital shots that everyone saw from that day. It is informed by a knowledge of history and past conflict and deliberately alludes to previous iconic representations of cataclysmic destruction such as WWII footage of the fire bombing of cities.
3. Know your limits and appreciate them. Miles Davis is a genius who discovered in his early career that he couldn’t play like the virtuouso bebopper Dizzy Gillespie, so he created a style that suited his limitations: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Not to be too facetious about it, but it so happens that I am a small person, and in photo scrimmages I often found it was an advantage that helped me to get the shot. As a result I often naturally adopt perspectives from below.
4. Shoot for posterity. You wont be there to enjoy it, but your pictures will definitely benefit from the high standard you impose on them. You have a choice: you can provide nice safe imagery, in accordance with what Roland Barthes called the “civilised code of perfect illusions,” or you can strive to confront people with an imagery whose reality is inexorable and entirely sets its own terms. In this image the man dying of starvation is shot in almost pure darkness and the usual facial expression is lost. The tilt of the shot, however, gives an off kilter feeling, as if harmony is disrupted and the usual visual norms don’t apply. Plus the small doorway, which admits the only shaft of light, gives the room a claustrophobic feeling of entrapment.
5. Be flexible, explore all formats, don’t give up on film. It is not a question of film vs. digital; it is a matter of exploiting everything in your toolbox according to each tool’s specific virtues. Film is tolerant, comes in many shapes and sizes, and it is solid state. This shot of a cane cutter was overexposed by almost three stops because of faulty aperture blades that got stuck. But it prints clean as a whistle. Moreover, the same shot in color would not be as compelling, because the color just wasn’t there.
6. Do your homework. Lay the groundwork before you travel to a place. Try to learn what you can about a country’s history, society, and customs so you can navigate and create a flexible itinerary. This image portrays a ritual event that happens on a few particular dates during the year, so my arrival had to be timed just right. Getting to this remote site in the mountains required a long journey and proper timing.
7. Trust your intuition; don’t overanalyze. While preparation requires lots of analytic thinking, once you are on the ground shooting, the process should be intuitive and there should be an intimate connection between yourself and the subject which comes about as a result of the time you spend hanging out with people. This picture is the result of a split second intuition about various forms and gestures, about connection and connecting, that managed to capture the feeling of a listless, hot summer day in a slum without portraying that poverty in the usual photojournalistic manner. Daily life among the poor is not only starvation, drunkenness, violence – it has its mundane rituals too, its longueurs, which are perhaps more typical of the actual rhythm of life there. Poverty is boring; even the mongrel dogs here who are in the act of coupling could not be less enthusiastic.
8. Learn the importance of gesture. While many photojournalists are currently opting for atmospheric formal effects, the human beings captured in our photos do not signify their meaning via color and light; they gesticulate. Since photography captures surfaces, human gesture is the means whereby human emotion is made known, it is what hints at the inner meaning. All the better if the various gestures form a geometric pattern that pulls the composition together, as in the case of the three pairs of arms bent in the dance that create a correspondence of feeling and form in the center.
9. Long-term commitment to indepth, deeply heartfelt projects is a good way to break into the business and to produce great work. Digital capture and transmission have perfected the split second instantaneity of photography, but while photography moves ever faster, the world it captures and the stories it strives to create move at a much slower pace. Take the time to capture the slower rhythms of life. Not all stories need be dictated by the focus of the media on acute crisis. One thread running through my current project is the nature of country life in a developing nation. The rituals of daily life here are centuries old and have a completely different pace than that of modern urban life. In order to catch it in all its variety, one must be prepared to spend a lot of time there. Simple things like preparing breakfast, cooking at an old fashioned wood stove, tending the animals, are the source of meanings and symbols that have endured for centuries.
10. Getting access is often nothing more than the ability to make friends. While at one level it might involve having to go through bureaucratic channels in order to arrive at a certain place, the shooting itself wont begin until you can win people´s trust, so ultimately getting access comes down to simple human relationship. The secret is simple: “Like people and let them know it,” as Robert Capa once said. In order to get access to the notoriously secretive hijra community in India, I simply introduced myself and expressed my interest. Love and respect can surmount most social, cultural and linguistic barriers. In this shot two hijras and a dholak drummer who works with them are serenading a family who has just been blessed with a baby boy.