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Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

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  • Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

    When I chanced upon this grandmother and her two little girls in a village called Paradise, I had an epiphany of sorts. Paradise is actually a dilapidated coastal village on stilts in Cebu. Cebu is the second largest city in the Philippines, and the people of Paradise are obviously from the lower rungs of Cebu society. To name their village Paradise was probably a statement they were making to the world, that even though their homes were not in a posh area, it is still home sweet home to them. Their houses were clean. There was no odour even though rubbish was strewn on the tidal sea bed underneath their floors. The people in Paradise were very friendly, and didn’t seem to mind us wandering along their rickety bamboo passageways and shooting pictures there.

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    Her toothless grin was the first thing that caught my attention. I instinctively raised my camera to shoot her picture, but didn’t take the shot, because a picture of a toothless grandmother is not the kind of pictures that I would wish to be associated with me. That would be of the same genre as those unknowing street shooters, going out into the streets with their long telephoto lenses, to shoot crippled beggars, the homeless, and the destitute, and then call their photos street photography. I wonder what would be their intent when they do that.

    My epiphany occurred when I saw a picture of the singer Madonna on the grandmother’s tee shirt. I was instantly reminded of Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages a Road Map of Life, which I read three times in my tumultuous twenties, and which I recommend highly to anyone who wants to understand the predictable cycle of life we all go through. Sheehy wrote about the challenges, and pitfalls, and typical characteristics within each period in our lives that we have to pass, which we can anticipate and be prepared for, so that we can handle each passage with ease. Sheehy’s treatise jives well with the work of others like Maslow, who wrote about the Ladder of Needs. But I digress.

    Here in front of me was Passages personified. There were two young children there, in the First Stage of their Passage through Life, when every child is totally dependent on their mothers and fathers for their survival and upbringing. And then there was the grandmother, all toothless, emaciated, with sunken collarbones, and vulnerable, in the last stage of life, where in Asian society, especially among the poor, we revert to being dependent again, this time not on our long gone parents, but on our own grown up children, for food, shelter and support. Most of us on that PMPE to Cebu when this photo was shot, would be in that part of the life cycle where we are parents ourselves, having to care for our children, and our own parents, while having to cope with the challenges of our own passages through our twenties, thirties, forties and fifties.

    Sheehy pointed out that there are common characteristics of each Passage or periods in our lives that we need to understand, so that we are better able to deal with them. And motherhood for working women especially, has some very special and trying characteristics. Ask any working mother. Their answers will essentially be the same. But the mother of these children was not present, so I couldn’t shoot a picture that would span three generations which would fit perfectly with my epiphany. That is, not until I saw Madonna on the grandmother’s tee shirt. Aha !. Here was Gail Sheehy’s Passages complete. To me Madonna represented the missing mother in my epiphany, although there are at least 3 passages or stages within that period of our lives from our twenties to our fifties. For example, well heeled Datuks in their fifties, with twenty something trophy second wives, are in that stage of their lives where they need to reassure themselves that their manhood is still intact, and that they can still score with the twenty somethings. Sadly they overlook the fact that it is not their dicks that these young ladies are after, but their money instead. Sheehy says you find that out when you are in your sixties, while paying hefty alimony to your just divorced trophy wife because you can no longer cope with their sexual appetite, and the rate at which she is spending your money. Your sixties is also the stage where its you and not your wife that's now saying,"Not tonight honey....I have a terrible backache...." So she goes out and romances your driver, or goes out playing mahjong with other young second wives in a similar situation. If you've read Gail Sheehy in your twenties, you'll know the signs, and you wont buy the cow when you realize that its just cheaper, and less problematic all round, to simply just buy the milk. OK. I lied. Sheehy didn't say all that. I did, and I'm past the halfway mark to my seventies, and my worry is that lately, even my point and shoot - that's my camera, in case anybody is thinking I'm talking about my dick - is seemingly extraordinarily heavy. Now please don't misread me. I'm not advocating anything. I'm simply talking about my epiphany, and thinking to myself, how lucky I am to be simply a poor pensioner, and not Datuk K .....

    But again I digress....

    What I wanted to say was, Madonna on the toothless grandmother's tee shirt provided the justification for me to shoot my epiphany. And the visual flow I tried to create was a waveform based on age, starting from a viewer’s first visual attractant or focal point, which has to be the grandmother’s one tooth face at the front most plane, then down to Madonna on her chest, upwards and backwards to the child with one eye in the rear plane, then coming back mid-plane, to the child with the Davie Crockett hat, and finally coming to rest on that seemingly larger than life glass with the spoon in it, at the bottom right corner of the frame in the front. You see, human faces are very powerful focal points in a photo. And the eyes, whether those of humans or animals, will be the first points in a photo, and indeed in real life, that we instinctively look at. Evolution has has hard wired our brains to look at the eyes first, for survival, to determine if the other living thing is a friend or foe, so that we can pump ourselves up, to run or fight. To be a good photographer you have to be conscious of these things that we don't normally think about. You have to be aware that you need to use these sorts of allegories in your frame to imply depth and create visual flow in your photo, which after all, is simply something 2 dimensional trying to represent real life scenes which are actually muilti-dimensional.

    Very often, it’s a complex flow that only a practiced eye can instantly see because this type of visual flow has depth, giving the composition an almost 3-D effect. I was very conscious of this visual flow and the different elements within my frame when I was pre-visualizing the shot. And that’s the essential difference between a snapshot, and photos shot by a sensitive photographer, something which I try to make participants of our PhotoSafaris aware of. Lectures in a classroom and reading books can inform you of this essential awareness that you have to nurture and develop. But nothing beats being there on location, and having it pointed out to you in real time, that will make the point stick.

    Here’s the visual flow I was trying to create in my picture.

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    Henri Cartier Bresson had the uncanny ability to intuitively and instinctively see these relationships in a potential photo situation without even having to consciously think about it. Apart from this, he had the amazing gift about knowing when exactly to hit the shutter release button, which he calls the Decisive Moment. His famous photo Rue Mouffetard (below) is one of his greatest photographs. The smirk on the face of the boy carrying the two magnum of wine as he passes the young girls speaks a thousand words without saying a single one. Bresson hit the shutter at the precise moment when the boy had passed the gigling girls, and the smirk had lighted his face. Henry had anticipated the event. He had previsualized the picture and he had positioned himself where he stood to get the depth that he wanted in the picture, his Leica pre-set to the appropriate hyperfocal distance. Having visualized and pre composed his picture, he just waited for his actors to walk into the scene, and simply shot the picture when everything he anticipated fell into place. That is how great photos are shot by the masters. Its all about pre-visualization, about composing by anticipating the movement of your actors, and MYA to check out the best perspectives.

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    My only regret with my own photo is that I didn’t MMA fast enough (those who’ve attended our PhotoSafari Workshops will know what MMA and MYA is), to shoot a frame from a slightly higher perspective, so that I could have captured a more complete face of the child at the back. But then had I moved to change my perspective, the toothless grandmother’s mouth would have been closed, and the unrepeatable decisive moment would have passed. Her open mouth showing that solitary tooth was my pathetic version of Bresson’s Decisive Moment. So this time for me, as it always has been, photographic perfection was not to be. My picture is flawed by my own standards and I will keep trying. As balm for the soul, I tell myself its probably OK, because the Masters have shown us that sometimes the decisive moment overrides other nice-to-haves......

    But even as it is, this picture has valuable lessons for all who want to improve. You have to have a pre-defined concept of what exactly it is that you are trying to capture. I had a distinct Visual Flow that I was trying to engineer. I had a story to tell, and I have eye contact with at least one of my subjects. I even tried to place the eye of that little girl with the Davie Crocket’s hat, on one of the four golden points in the frame. So the lesson is important even though the photo may only be 90% of what I had wanted.

    I have rambled on a bit about this picture which is quite special to me personally. My message is, if you want your picture to be special, even if it’s only special to you, you have to have something special and significant in it that you have pre-visualized, and after visualizing, that you have arranged the visual flow in a deliberate manner by MYA and selecting the most appropriate viewpoint or perspective. This will become the “Aha” factor when one of your viewers gets your intent and meaning. And one day, when you progress to become one of Malaysia’s great and famous photographers, those art critiques will no doubt find something in your picture, and make it something special, that probably even you yourself didn’t intend or know about when you shot that picture. Such is the trimmings of greatness.

    To understand and appreciate intent, and visual flow, and frame dynamics, and epiphanies, and what was in the minds of some of the great masters when they shot some of their more powerful photos, Google Pete Turner’s Rolling Ball, Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, Henri Cartier Bresson’s Rue Mouffetard, Ansel Adams Monolith, and my own name sake Yousuf Karsh’s Winston Churchill. They tell fascinating stories about the intent behind their great pictures. Better still, iPad owners should go and watch six free podcasts titled The Naked Photo on your iPad. I guarantee you’ll take a step jump in your difficult journey from snap shooter and wannabe photographer, into someone who thinks and pre visualizes the final photo before hitting the shutter button, and is very clear exactly what it is you are trying to capture.

    By the way, to those who haven't attended any of our PMPEs, MYA is Move your S, and MMA is Move My S. Zoom lenses breed laziness and zooming doesn’t change perspective. But primes, apart from being far superior optically, will force you to MYA to search for a better perspective.

    If you've read this far, you're on the right track. Come and join us on one of our PhotoSafaris to see a real step jump in your photos.
    Last edited by digitalartist; 08-08-2011, 07:43 AM.
    Yusuf Hashim
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  • #2
    Re: Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

    A thought-provoking article which I enjoyed reading.

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    • #3
      Re: Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

      Interesting.
      [URL="http://www.jasonbeyond.com"]www.jasonbeyond.com[/URL]

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      • #4
        Re: Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

        Yusuf,
        Great write-up. I am impressed not only about the photography but your writing skills. Always enjoy reading your writings.

        Chee Kong.

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        • #5
          Re: Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

          Reading your article is always an epiphany to me.
          Thanks for sharing DA.
          WYSIWYG..

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          • #6
            Re: Passages An Epiphany of Sorts

            Originally posted by wongckmal View Post
            Yusuf,
            Great write-up. I am impressed not only about the photography but your writing skills. Always enjoy reading your writings.

            Chee Kong.
            Thanks Chee Kong, Jason, blur33, andphotogenie. I was doing the Cebu Coffee Table book and this is one of the pictures in it. I was simply writing the caption for this picture in the book for the benefit of our PMPE alumni, and it went on and on and on, and when I stopped, I realized it was too long to be a caption. So I cut and pasted it here instead, just to bore other PMers with it. Glad you like it but now I have to summarize this thesis into a caption of less than a hundred words for the book. Such is the folly of an old long winded goat ....
            Yusuf Hashim
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