“Don’t write about what you have done but what you have learned.”
As I started my first week of photography on the Isle of Skye the words of my supervisor were ringing in my ears. It is not good enough to describe my practice, what is important is the critical reflection that follows from it, and the subsequent learning about the process and outcomes.
I have decided to write a reflective piece at the end of each week as part of a learning process in itself, to improve my thinking and writing, and also to inform the next week’s practice in the field. So, what did I learn this week?
I am generally pleased with my first week’s work. It is two months since I completed the Autumn Impressions Collection on Skye. As far as this last week is concerned, I did as I had planned and visited the loch for five days at the same time – 8am. The images have provided me with insights into how the loch changes from day to day and how the combination of the movement of the reeds, the light, and the weather conditions influence the patterns and reflections that occur. It has also caused me to think about my previous practice and the extent to which I have influenced the outcome by the choices I have made about when I choose to do my work and on what basis.
I outlined my task as follows:
“My task on Skye is to capture the Island’s ephemeral hiddenness, the being of the object and reveal the essence of an Island that most people never see.”
Given how bad the weather conditions were, I can be certain that very few people witnessed the scenes that I did – I only met one person through the whole week and a handful of cars passed by. But was I successful in capturing the ephemeral hiddenness? When I processed the images, I had taken each day, I started to see a pattern emerge of those that I believe had met my brief. Most of them were effective because of a difference in light – it might be a flash of light on the reeds, on the water, or something that was reflected in the water.
Some of them provided a sense of the fragility and vulnerability of reeds as a metaphor for the Island more generally.
Some hinted at a life below the surface of the loch and others, through a combination of conditions became an image that was more than a sum of its parts. It was not just an image of reeds or water but a glimpse of the being beyond.
An aspect of my research process is to write a journal while out in the field. This includes but is not restricted to the field conditions, describing what I see and recording technical notes about choice of equipment and approach and challenges that might arise. As I started writing my daily blogs, I began to realise that my ability to write in a compelling and interesting way about my experience in the field is not well-developed. While I have spent a lifetime writing factual accounts – through studying history at university, working as a police photographer and writing business papers and reports – I have not engaged in what I might call creative writing since childhood. I am interested to improve this aspect of my work. I believe the words I have at my disposal that might describe the scene I am looking at or how I am feeling are limited. I plan to read and analyse the work of some of the great writers of the natural world including Nan Shepherd and Robert Macfarlane and identify how and in what ways their writing is successful.
The revelation this week relates to the research method I have used hitherto and is significant for my future practice. I believe I have identified a fundamental flaw in my practice to date.
Although it sounds obvious, I have reduced and sought to control the circumstances and conditions when I might glimpse the ephemeral hiddenness of Skye. My practice has been to seek out times, when in my opinion I have ‘good’ light or optimum conditions. This would normally mean a changeable day when the weather conditions include sun, rain, snow and wind. While the conditions might be right for me, they might not represent a time when I am most likely to witness the revealing of Skye. Perhaps it is the case, that when more people are looking, it is less likely to occur – certainly Heidegger believed that the more you look the less likely that being will be glimpsed. And maybe, when Skye produces the most extreme and challenging weather conditions that not only is this the essence of an Island I wish to depict, but also just the time when my chance of capturing a glimpse is most likely.
I speak about climate rather than weather, and I speak about isolation and vulnerability but when these elements of the real Skye are revealed I am not there. It seems obvious but it has taken a week of working in all weathers and conditions for me to realise the error of my ways. I have been attempting to control Skye rather than allowing Skye to take control. I speak about Skye revealing itself to me but in practice I have not given her the space to do so.
I have much more to learn in this respect, but it will be interesting to see how my reflections change as I continue to work at prescribed times each day and week rather than dictating when to be out in the field on the basis of my assessment. I need to return the control back to the Island instead of trying to control it – control is a conscious act which is not consistent with a revelation in a sub-conscious moment.
So, for me the big learning point is this: I have come to appreciate that seeking the ephemeral hiddenness is about awareness as opposed to deliberate intention. Being open to the Being of Skye might appear to be a challenge when the wind is howling and the rain pounding down. However, what is striking is that the visual appeal of the island itself withdraws when the weather is inhospitable, the gorgeous scenery disappears behind the murkiness and the gloom, the colours are lost in the grey of the weather and what is left to awareness is the essence of Skye. Indeed, this week’s practice has led me to a greater understanding of the problem of withdrawal of being, behind the veil of presence. Heidegger and Derrida are, in their different ways looming larger and larger in my thinking. Heidegger for his insights into withdrawal and Derrida for his practice. He eschewed the presence of the text, he ignored the meaning as given and tried to probe behind the words and between the lines seeking “. . . the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed ((Derrida 1998) p.14)”. Maybe, that is what I am doing with my camera.
Derrida, J. (1998). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.