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  • Vanessa Harper-Mathews

On 'On Photography'

As a photographer, I have always seen myself as more than just a casual observer of the world; I am an explorer of conversations with the present, a visual archeologist uncovering connections to the past and a fortune hunter traversing place and time for ephemeral fragments of the future that exist in both the urban and natural landscapes. It is a journey of the mind sometimes, more than anything else.


I find myself seeking out patterns in the cities and landscapes, their history and their architecture and the everyday activity, looking for details that go unobserved by most. Being a creative explorer means delving deep into the soul of the city. I wander through the labyrinth of streets, finding peace in my mind amidst the chaos of a finding myself in a new place. It is a task of sense making I apply myself to. The urban landscape is a symphony of colors, shapes, and emotions. The towering and cluttered buildings reflect the aspirations of humanity, while the narrow alleyways whisper stories of the past. It's a constant dance between old and new, tradition and modernity, and my camera becomes my partner in this exploration, capturing fleeting moments of urban life that unravels the city's true identity in my mind. The images are a product of that cognitive reconciliation.


I also seek a state of mind in nature, where I can appreciate the grand designs that exist beyond human constructs.


In each setting, I find beauty in engaging with different perspectives. In the city, it's about spotting the overlooked and finding art in the mundane. A rain-slicked alleyway transforms into a shimmering canvas, capturing the reflection of neon lights like strokes of paint on a surreal masterpiece. I am drawn to street art, where urban artists leave their mark, expressing their emotions and narratives on the city's walls, adding a layer of complexity to its character.

In the landscape, beauty lies in the vastness and the details alike. A panorama of an ancient gorge can take my breath away, but so can an intricate pattern on a single stone . I search for patterns and textures, light and shadows, as the changing elements of nature create new compositions every moment.


I realize that being a photographer and an explorer is not just about documenting what I see but also about connecting with the subjects and their stories. The people I meet in the city, each with their unique struggles and dreams, become an integral part of the urban landscape. Similarly, the wildlife and the resilient flora in the landscape symbolize the harmony that nature strives to achieve, despite the challenges it faces from human activity.


As I navigate between bustling cities and diverse landscapes, I learn to appreciate the beauty in contrasts. The dynamic energy of the city juxtaposed against the calm serenity of nature creates a reconciling harmony in my mind. These experiences broaden my horizons and nourish my creativity, as each new location I visit expands my understanding of myself & the humility of my existence in time and space.


Alongside Roland Barthe’s Camera Lucida and Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning with Desire-The Conception of Photography, One of my top 3 favourite piece of writing, on my profession is Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’. One of my lecturers during my Masters of Documentary Photography once said to me if you haven’t read Sontag’s work at least three times, you’re not serious about photography, and that if you think being a serious photographer is about just making images, then you’re not.


I have most definitely read it more than three times over many years, and I keep returning to it again and again, each re-read provides a new lesson, new insights. It had a significant influence on my early work, which focused on social collective memory and it continues to inform my photographic practice to this day.


The main theme of this iconic work explores the profound impact of photography on society and its role in shaping our perception of the world. Published in 1977, this seminal work delves into the philosophical, ethical, and psychological implications of photography as an art form and a medium of communication.


One of the central arguments in the book is that photography has transformed the way we experience reality and understand the world around us. Sontag contends that photographs have become a dominant form of modern communication, influencing how we remember, learn, and relate to others. Through its ability to freeze moments in time, photography has the power to shape collective memory and even alter historical narratives.


Sontag also explores the tension between photography's potential for truth-telling and its capacity for manipulation. While photographs can serve as objective records of events, they can also be easily staged or edited to convey specific messages or evoke particular emotions. This raises ethical questions about the responsibility of photographers and the media in presenting an accurate representation of events and people. Particularly more so now in the Information Age and with the advent of AI, than ever before.


The book also delves into the psychological effects of photography on both the photographer and the subject. Sontag examines how the act of taking pictures can distance the photographer from the actual experience, turning life into a series of photo opportunities. On the other hand, being the subject of a photograph can be empowering, but it can also strip away a person's privacy and autonomy.


Throughout "On Photography," Sontag scrutinizes the obsession with capturing images, particularly in a world inundated with visual representations. She questions whether the constant pursuit of taking photographs detracts from genuine human interactions and experiences, and whether it has created a culture of voyeurism.


In essence, "On Photography" provokes readers to reflect on the transformative power of images in our lives and the consequences of living in a visually saturated society. It encourages a critical examination of the role of photography in shaping our understanding of reality, memory, and identity, making it a thought-provoking exploration of the complex relationship between the medium and the modern world. So if you love making pictures, perhaps consider thinking about photography as being so much more than just that-making pictures. It might just change the way you see your world, and make you a better photographer.

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