Sunday, 27 November 2011

Two in one makes three

No, I am not redefining arithmetic.'Two in one makes three' means I am merging two separate posts which I wrote this weekend for my deviantArt journal into one post here. But of course as I do that, I cant help adding, so that what we have is a third, distinct post.

I had the privilege of shooting with Charles yesterday at Mariann Fercsik studio. She is a young photographer with immense talent who opened the studio with the idea of providing young artists with a space to be creative.

Charles and I used the studio yesterday afternoon. Charles approached me via Art Limited - models if you are not on it get there quick, plenty of classy photographers there!
I love Mariann's work, have a look for yourself.
I particularly love the series taken in Hungary, but this woman oozes talent and can make any place look beautiful and anyone look interesting. She only shoots film and her favourite camera is a Hasselblad. Watch out for her, I am sure we will hear more about her.

The shoot with Charles was great fun. I was cheeky and took along my camera with the idea of using it during breaks. I was not sure how Charles would react, but I need not have worried. He welcomed the idea, was interested in my 'baby' and was incredibly generous, insisting I should use one of his films for my portraits. He had brought along his digital camera, his Mamiya and a large format Walker I absolutely adored. And he used them all.

I used to do this quite a lot even before I took up photography, always was very inquisitive, but now I am the kind of model who bombards the photographer with questions on photographic technique. Not everyone's cup of tea, I freely admit. Some like it, some put up with it, some hate it. Charles liked it. He was amazing, I truly enjoyed the shoot. When we moved on to using my camera - I wanted to do self portraits, which I had never tried with this camera, though I did self portraits twice already at DG's studio, with his digital Canon - I still remember the abrasive comment my effort received "Most photographers are interested in other people but self centred and narcissistic as you are you take up photography to take pictures of yourself" I guess this person would never appreciate Cindy Sherman's work!

I realised, after setting the camera up on a tripod, that I did not have a self timer - why did I think I had it? I was convinced my camera had that facility. Nor did I have a cable release. So I had two options: give up or ask Charles to act as my assistant, stand in for me as I focused, then move over and press the shutter release button - without doing anything to the settings - while I posed. He was wonderful and did it! I have not developed the film yet, I hope to do so tomorrow. My first self portrait shot was funny and I cant wait to see it. I had been modelling until then for Charles as I usually do, with confidence and panache. Then as we switched to my camera, after everything was in place, I said to Charles "Now", meaning he could press the shutter release, and as I said so I went very stiff, a flashback on when my father used to take photos of the family and we were all in our places "being photographed" or when in school the photographer came round and took pictures of the class - I still have those photos, all of us positioned by height, with the taller girls at the back, all looking exactly the same, wide eyed, no smiles, and very, very uncomfortable.


We both laughed at that - I am a model, I am used to the camera, but at that moment I slipped into a different persona altogether.

Then as we packed up after finishing the shoot, Mariann burst in and we lingered on to look at her amazing work. As I got ready to leave, she took a cable release from a bag and gave it to me, a small gift to encourage me to continue to take self portraits. I certainly will continue, narcissistic though it may be. Who knows by the time I am seventy I might be as good and as famous as Cindy.

My second dA journal was about a photographic exhibition I chanced on, which is about to close (30th November). Bill Wyman, better known as a Stones band member, has been taking photographs since the 1960s and is well versed in the art and craft of photography.

The exhibition, his first in London, shows a mixture of early work, with images of fellow Stones and other famous rockers and later work , which focuses on nature, with lots of macro images, beautiful and tender.

You can view the photos online, though the watermark somewhat detracts from them, so if you are not in London, and cant make it to the gallery you can still take a peep.
It seems that many musicians take up photography as a hobby, some with greater success than others. By success here I simply mean that some are better than others at mastering the technique, though in some cases it does bring further success, as in 'further limelight'.
Bryan Ferry for example is currently being celebrated as a photographer, with his stunning images of Kate Moss, who he has declared 'an icon of our times, on a par with Marylin' being exhibited at the Michael Kohn Gallery in LA. Ferry does have a personal history with supermodels. Once upon a time it was Jerry Hall who posed for him - he always did dabble in photography and the visual arts, having done a degree in fine arts before founding Roxy Music. Ferry and Hall were an item for a while but she soon dumped him for Mick Jagger, in a notorious split which angered Brian so much he allegedly refused to return Jerry her things for some two years and never spoke to her again. Some people are better at forgiving than others.
So, everyone is/can be a photographer - including me - but not everyone is a famous photographer, nor is everyone famous and a photographer...

(All photos taken by Charles Fennell and modelled by Alex B)

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Impossible people

Photographer: Martina O'Shea

We often hear  about impossible people. A google search will take you to various sites where you will find advice from experts and non-experts about how to deal with 'impossible' people. I even found a site dedicated to body builders with a long rant about deliberate provocation by impossible people and how to deal with it!
I am a bit weary of the label 'impossible' people. To begin with it is all relative. For instance I have been variously described as kind, loving, elegant, beautiful, classy, courteous, intelligent, witty and as the exact opposite, uncourteous, unkind, selfish, shabby, stupid and ignorant - oh yes, I have heard that many times even   from people whom you would  regard as somewhat intellectually challenged - ugly etcetera etcetera. The truth is clearly somewhere in between and I know that it is all, how shall I put it, circumstantial - as in 'dependent on circumstances'. For example some people believe that posing nude is a sign of exhibitionism, others think nothing of it.  To keep it in the modelling world, some photographers (good and bad) will think nude models are "easy" girls, some will not. It all depends on their upbringing and their moral values and these are influenced by many different factors.
But I am digressing. So let's have a look at these 'impossible' people.

One of the things they do is blame. A lot. Here's a simple way to tell, says one site: "if you accept responsibility for your own faults and resolve to improve yourself, it's probably not you. Remember, impossible people 'can do no wrong'"

Impossible people have no flaws! Someone else is always at fault.

Another piece of advice is as follows:

"If you have regular dealings with someone who tries to portray you as the source of all evil, you need to take active steps to maintain a positive self-image. Remind yourself that this person's opinion is not necessarily the truth. Understand that oftentimes, impossible people are particularly "fact-challenged." If the attacks have little basis in raw fact, dismiss them. You can't possibly be as bad as this person would like you to believe you are. Do not defend yourself out loud, however. It will only provoke the impossible person into another tirade.

So who are these impossible people? People who carry a lot of sadness within and desperately need help. Except that if you help them they despise you"

You know what? Let them rot, that's the only solution!

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Monday, 21 November 2011

Who is the victim?

Photographer: Caroline Michael
Someone is very much on my mind, a woman. Let's say I met her at some point during my practice as trainee therapist, I dont want people in this story to be recognised, so I will disguise them thoroughly, creating 'composites'. But the essence of what I am saying is true and the issues I am raising very relevant.
Meet Sheila. She has been , still is,  an occasional street walker. One of her clients is a relatively wealthy businessman  whose hobby is photography.  Sheila adores him. Whereas the others treat her pretty rough, this one  pays for her to pose for him, while she dreams of being a supermodel -  as well as paying for her other services of course, he is definitely after value for money. They have known each other for some years, he is kind to her and gives her gifts of money. She secretly dreams of marrying him, but of course he'd never even consider it.
In her  mid-forties, Sheila looks a lot older than her age. She has a history of drug and alcohol abuse, it's in the family, her brother was addicted to heroin and died a few years ago, she is on crack and anything else that can get her high. She is not able to hold down a regular job and has no qualifications.
Short and  skinny, beautiful is not a word one would use to describe her. She has very short, chunky legs, bad skin and bad teeth and sparse hair that is too blond to be natural.
A poor thing you'd think. Indeed, she might give you that impression and in many ways she is a victim. But then there are things about her that will make you think long and hard about who is a victim of what.
Photographer: Caroline Michael
She has had four children by a different father, of different ethnicities. She was married at some point to a hardworking man but  she could not keep away from drinks and drugs, so he walked out. She was left on her own with three children - he took his - and decided to make good use of them, so she turned the eldest daughter, barely ten at the time, into a child prostitute and  made money out of her. The others were left to their own devices, they would not even go to school.  At night Sheila walked the streets.
It is alleged that she herself sexually abused her children. Whether this is true or not, I can't say. The point is that following several  reports by concerned neighbours and the fact the children were always playing truant, the  children were taken away from her by Social Services and she was not allowed them to see them ever again.
Following a row and police intervention, Sheila was  diagnosed psychotic and sectioned. Her businessman client intervened after some time and got her a place to live. She currently lives off his hand outs as well as social security as also the occasional prostitution.

 Photographer: Steven Beard
 At a day centre which she occasionally attends, she was offered therapy. She was not really interested in it, but went to some sessions perfunctorily. She believes she never did any wrong. When you meet her she is very pleasant, a fun loving, uneducated woman who talks incessantly. But when you realise that this woman did not hesitate to prostitute her own daughter, only a child at the time, you can't help doing a double take.
Maybe she was sexually abused when she was a child, maybe not. I did not have access to her full file, so I never found out.
I dont know what happened to those children, apart from the fact they were taken away. Who knows whether this was the right thing to do. She misses them and no doubt they miss her, despite everything.
Personally I think that women like Sheila should not be allowed to become mothers, they cannot deal with the responsibility. I know this is a very un-PC thing to say, but situations such as this make you wonder.
I brought up my son more or less singlehandedly. All right, I am a professional woman and earn a decent salary and thus I was able to educate him well but things were not always easy and there were times when I had to manage with very little. Today my son is a graduate, has just landed a good job, but more importantly he is a mature and considerate adult. What is the difference between Sheila and me? Her children and mine? Who is the victim in this story? Is there one? Is there someone that should/can be blamed?
I did meet Sheila's pseudo-boyfriend by the way. And you know, somewhat irrationally, all I could feel for him was contempt.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Friday, 18 November 2011

When pets die

Photographer: Neil Huxtable. Own postprocessing
I grew up in the country in a household with pets. My father loved dogs and also loved mynah birds, which he kept in a cage but occasionally would let free in our large kitchen, making sure all doors and windows were shut. He was not too keen on cats but we did have a couple of strays, I was quite fond of them. It did not help that one of the cats, at some point, ate one of the mynah birds! I still remember how angry my father was when it happened. But cats are cats and do what they are meant to do and they cannot help chasing up birds and mice, no more than a tiger can be faulted for being a man eater.
I have always had a weakness for cats, more than for dogs, and always took instantly to them but never had myself any, I found I could not commit to keeping them, never had the space.  I know however how fond one can become of one's pets and how distressing it is when they die.
Today I shall tell you a story, a real one, about a cat that died of cancer...
 When I first moved to London I lived for a short while in a suburb in a cheap flat owned by a middle aged gentleman who lived in the flat below. He had no one else with him, except for his cat, who was seventeen years old. I dont remember the cat's name, it was a very usual cat's name, Bobby or Dennis or some such.
It was not a friendly cat, nor a pretty sight. Deaf and toothless, his hair was coming off in handfuls and he seemed to be covered in dandruff. He had a problem with one of his legs and only used three. He was diabetic and, so the owner told me, senile - he would occasionally growl and scratch things and people, especially his owner, whose hands and arms were visibly marked by the cat's claws.
I tried to make friends with him but he did not seem to care very much, it was the kind of cat that does not trust strangers and was extremely territorial. I did not see much of him, anyway, I was busy coming and going and within a couple of months I found myself more suitable accommodation, closer to the city centre. But I did hear the cat quite a lot, he was rather noisy.

Photographer: DG
I was deeply moved by the way the owner treated this old cat, with a respect and an affection that transcended the boundary between animal and human being. He would hold him, stroke and caress him and tickle him, which the cat apparently loved, and would feed him tid-bits.  The cat was the first thing he would think of when waking up and probably the last thing he saw at night when he went to bed.
I used to pay my rent weekly, in cash,  and I used to go down and knock on his door, usually on a Saturday morning. My landlord would always let me in and offer me a cup of tea. As he made the tea I waited in his shabby living room, very messy and quite dirty, full of books and papers. I did not know what he did for a living and to be honest I did not even care, he seemed to be well spoken and was extremely polite. This was a weekly ritual, I would have been happy to just give him the money and skip the tea - I am Italian, it was only later that I would acquire a taste for tea!  but I went along with it, I was after a receipt, which he always gave me, neatly handwritten. While he made the tea I had a chance to be with the cat. He had his basket by the radiator in the living room, just under the main window.  As he got used to me he allowed me to touch him and I tried to stroke him, I wanted to make friends with him. My landlord  told me that often the cat slept next to him, even though he had his own basket. The bond between them was apparent, it was as if the cat was his child. They even had a similar look, you know what they say about owners and their pets, there was something they shared.
 As I said, I soon moved out and forgot about the gentleman and his cat. Two months after I moved, on a cold November evening, I got a call. It was the gentleman. He asked me politely how I was. I sensed something was not quite right.  I waited for him to speak and he quietly said that his cat had died. Then he did something I did not expect.  He began to cry. My heart really went out to him but all I could do was listen. He told me how the cat had succumbed to cancer, he had taken him to the vet for a check up  but was told the cancer was so advanced there was nothing they could do. And he was offered the option of having the cat put down, which he took. The cat died within minutes of being injected. The poor thing must have been in constant pain and probably this was the reason why he seemed to behave erratically and was occasionally furious. How can animals tell you that they are in pain?
I was reminded of when Dick, my father's favourite dog, was given a heavy dose of Nembutal because he had a terminal illness. My father too was distraught, he did not cry but he was pale and about to be sick.
Photographer: Neil Huxtable. Own postprocessing
So there I was, feeling powerless and unable to say anything that could really make this man feel better. After telling me, he recomposed himself and we ended the call with the mutual promise we'd keep in touch. I never saw him or heard from him again, I never looked for him nor did he look for me.
It's been a very long time ago since this happened.  But somehow every November I briefly remember that cat, I can't help it.  Wherever he is now,  may he rest in peace. Wherever that gentleman is, may he be happy.

(All photos modelled by Alex B)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Warming up and previsualising

Photographer: Adam Hayter Model: me

The idea of warming up is very familiar to anyone that does anything physical, especially dance. In my pole dancing class for example students are not allowed in if they miss the 15 minutes warm up which usually consists of various exercises to get the muscles to loosen up a bit.  In a dance technique class, whatever the technique,  it is all structured very meticulously. As  your muscles get warmer you are ready to attempt more complex actions. The concept of warming up is what underlies Bikram yoga, which uses the extreme heat in order to increase flexibility and literally warm the muscles.
But the warm up is not just physical, it is also a way of preparing yourself. So it is no surprise that art students also engage in a warm up when starting on a drawing. As a life model I am most familiar with it. "Let's start with a few two minutes poses" the tutors tell me, and to the class/workshop participants, they say that the idea is to warm up the hand, to begin to see, just drawing lines without paying attention to detail. It's a warm up leading to a long pose.
I have often done some warming up at the start of a photographic modelling session too, just a few shots to see how the photographer and I got on and to get used to the camera. With a digital camera that is quite easy to do, you have all those shots you can take and also delete, if you are not happy with them.
Photographer: me
But what do you do if your medium is film?
I dont want to get into the habit of trying everything with a digital camera and then use film when I have decided on composition, lighting etc. After all in pre-digital days people did not do that.
How do you do it then? Mine is a genuine question to which I would welcome some answers.
If working with a new model, I need to get her/him comfortable before I start shooting in earnest.  I also need to see what would work best with them, so my instinct would be to look at them carefully. Those who do not have much modelling experience find it unnerving.  A shoot takes me a long time because I am not snapping away, at present I can only work with very patient models. I also find that sometimes only two or three shots are all I am after.
I took my camera when we celebrated my mother's 90th birthday. I had it on a tripod in a corner and I used only a few frames, but throughout I kept on thinking about what I wanted and how best to get it. Everyone is so used to people taking hundreds of photos, they thought I was quite eccentric.
A friend suggested I should read the following article by Ron Bigelow on Previsualisation. I found it very helpful. I remember a photographer friend telling me that when he had a studio and took photos, in pre-digital days, he would never have a film in the camera when he began the shoot, unbeknownst to the model. He would then say "Oh we have done the first roll" and  proceed to load the film into the camera. This was so that the model would warm up and feel more confident in front of the camera. I am tempted to use the same technique...What do you think?

Monday, 14 November 2011

Internet misogyny and comment moderation

Photographer: Manji
Last week The Guardian and the London Evening Standard wrote about internet misogyny. The number of men that seem to vent their hatred of women online through anonymous comments is quite bewildering, according to such reports.
As a model with an online presence I have experienced online misogyny and virulent comments, anyone in my position surely has.
I have received threats and have been the target of vindictiveness. Whoever said that men forgive and let go, whereas women are more likely to plot revenge and harass, is but another misogynist. Reading about the man who put his ex's real address on Craiglist, saying she fantasised about violent sex, confirmed my suspicions. The woman was raped by a guy who read his post, virtually a call to rape her. And that is not vindictiveness, is it?
 Moore's piece in The Guardian resonated with me , however I tend to disagree with her about the issue of commentators' anonymity. I am not quite sure. In my view anonymity is what allows such people to be so hostile.  Comment moderation is necessary, anonymous comments should be rejected.
I no longer allow anonymous comments here and am glad I do not. In pre-internet days if I received a letter I did not like I would bin it, so I do the same the same now for comments that in my view do not add anything to a discussion and are only meant to be derogatory and/or defamatory or rude or both. I also do not publish anything written anonymously.
I know from personal experience that the police do not regard internet threats as serious. I remember, not too long ago, having to beg the police to make someone remove seriously offensive material about me from his internet site. They did act eventually but their first reaction was to tell me that it was not a criminal matter. I find it quite extraordinary that there should be such reluctance to intervene. Let's hope attitudes will change and that online trolling is dealt with as it should.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

I want to model for you

 Photographer: me Model: Melanie
Ever since I started taking photos and expressed an interest in the male nude (though not exclusively, as you can see from the photos accompanying this post) I have been approached by men who want to be photographed nude.
I have had offers from experienced male models, some of them about my age, some a lot younger - this post is not about them, please dont misunderstand. They are genuine models who have much to give, in terms of their experience and their artistic vision. If I have not yet arranged shoots with them  it is because I am involved in a hundred and one things myself and also I am STILL LEARNING. I would like to do justice to their look and their modelling skills, so I am waiting for a while longer before getting started.

This post is not about them but  about a different kind of model, would-be-model, I should say. First there are photographers out there who after taking pictures of nude women for years would now  like to try what it is like if someone takes nude pictures of them . They think a woman would be better at this, they feel too shy to undress and pose for a male photographer - these are  straight men, rather than gay. I find this quite puzzling, women dont usually have any shyness about revealing their nakedness to other women. What is this terrible angst that seems to grab men taking their clothes off before other men?
Photographer: me 
I totally believe their intention is very genuine, but somehow I feel uncertain about working with them. Here is my own anxiety surfacing. They may be quite out of touch with their bodies, which would make it a little awkward for me, at this stage. I also fear that in seeing me doing something that to them would seem like a mistake in handling the camera they would immediately jump in and try to take over the shoot, with suggestions on aperture and shutter speed, which angle I should position the camera etc. And that would not make me happy at all.  This is why I have for now postponed such shoots, even though I felt tempted to arrange a few. I feel I need to be a little more confident in my own technical knowledge to be able to say politely but firmly "I really would like to try this. It is my photo shoot after all and I want to understand why this works/does not work". If you are reading this you will know who you are. No offense please, pretty please. I just need more time, this is what is holding me back.

Then there are the messages sent by men, approaching maturity,  who have never modelled before and want to try modelling as a kind of therapy, to help them overcome their own inhibitions and their lack of confidence about their own attractiveness. In principle this is fine, but I am the wrong photographer for it.  I am learning my craft, making mistakes, experimenting. In order to make someone who feels awkward about their body look good you need to know how to work very competently with light. You need technical expertise. These would-be models would benefit enormously from working with an experienced photographer, either male or female, to whom they would most likely have to pay a fee - and what's wrong with that? Women who have never modelled but would like to try a shoot to boost their confidence do something along these lines, there are a few photographers out there who specialise in this kind of service, I recently discussed Jane Lancashire's work,  so she is one to try. Maybe there is a gap in the market, enterprising photographers should take note.
But no, they come to me, with the idea of doing  a TF shoot.
I will be extremely blunt. I am not interested in that kind of images and that kind of work for now, not for a TF shoot. I want other images in my portfolio. Later, when I feel I can deliver good images, I might take up this line of work, but not now.So I am politely but firmly declining all such offers.

This has made me realise that many men reach middle age and have lots of hang ups about their bodies and their attractiveness, just like women do.  Whereas women do have a support network offered by other women, men probably do not discuss such matters with other men. Please correct me if I am wrong.

I also find the way I am being approached to be quite interesting. I am a mature model, I modelled when I was younger but really started in earnest in my forties - I am talking about my photographic work. I took up modelling, commercial modelling that is, for extra cash. I then got involved in art nude and loved it and did not do it just for the money, though I certainly don't mind being paid a fee. I have approached many photographers, at one point or another  in order to be photographed by them. Some of these photographers may well be my age but it never occurred to me to say I wanted them to take pictures of me because they were my age! yet this is the first thing that these men write i.e. I am asking you because you are in my same age group, so you would understand.

No, I dont understand. It does not work like that, not for me.  For a start I have no anxiety about my body, I  would not be able to model if I did.

Photographer: Adam Hayter. Models: myself and Cole

Earlier I was talking about my would be models  with my analyst, who is a Lacanian. We were discussing the Phallus and the Semblant, and how by taking up photography I am working with a symbolic appropriation of the Phallus. I certainly like the idea of turning the male gaze over its head, see for instance the exhibition put on by Sita Mae, in the Bay area, called "Man as Object: Reversing the gaze",
Something to take up for further discussion in another post.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The quintessential photographic experience

 Photographer: me
Yesterday I had my first tutorial in developing b/w 120 film. Until now my photography has been with colour film, both 120 and 35 mm. I have access to a Colenta processor, I learnt how to use it and this has helped me to get started. But yesterday I was taught how to develop b/w film.  It was awesome! Thank you Ismar!
 I managed to mess it up a little, though my tutor was with me all the time. We have not done yet the bit when you  use the enlarger and all that, I will be attending a workshop next week if the tutor can fit me in, that will be fun - fingers crossed I will join the group.
I guess that making mistakes is inevitable when you do something for the first time, there is so much to remember, so much to take in. To begin with I am using film that has expired and which I was given as the owner of the camera had no use for it (thanks again Solus, you have added to the quality of my life through that gift) - excellent for practice, but expired film can get a bit faded. Then I had an accident with my 6x6 camera back, it suddenly opened when the film was still in use, oh s***! - the hooks had a problem.  That did not help, though hopefully the problem is now fixed.
Of course I had to go and make a mistake when I loaded the film into the tank, I put the cylinder the wrong way up!  I did manage to develop the film, however,  but some frames turned out to be  unusable.
Self portrait at Martin's studio (with Martin's help)
The whole process was quite an experience. I got a little flustered when I could not load the film into the tank that easily, it just seemed to be getting stuck.  I was of course working in complete darkness and for that bit I was on my own, my tutor waited outside. There is an element of pleasure, the French would say jouissance, in having to rely on touch to feel things getting into place, rather than seeing, but it can be disconcerting at first.
Then my tutor joined me in the processing room  and we used the developer and all the other chemicals and went through the whole routine. It took nearly 60 minutes, my iPhone timed it all.  Next time I will have to do this  entirely on my own, without the tutor, I have had my induction, so I am a bit apprehensive.  But he said that after some time it becomes second nature, so I should keep on shooting and developing.
Film photography these days is a hybrid. You do the shoot, develop the film then you scan the negative and use Photoshop to add the finishing touches. Everyone does it like that.
I will do the workshop to learn how to do dark room work but I will do it just to learn about it, I am most unlikely to take it up as a regular practice - for one thing I do not have my own dark room and do not have an enlarger, though I have to say that after announcing that  photography is a pursuit of mine, I got the most generous offers the moment people found out I used film, rather than digital. My optician has offered me enlargers, again for free, he used to be a keen photographer back in Ireland but gave it up ages ago. He still has the equipment though.

Photographer: Solus
Why use film rather than digital if  you end up scanning and treating your film shots like digital ones?  I can only speak for myself. Digital is fantastic but a little too clinical for my taste. It does not give you the same sensual pleasure in handling it, as film does. All your senses are involved in developing a film, when you download the images from your camera's memory card to the computer the process is entirely visual. Yes, I did insert the cylinder the wrong way when using the tank, that was because I was not used to "seeing" with my fingers. But I loved every moment of it.
I remember watching the film The Photograph (2007) by Indonesian director Nan Achnas and I was mesmerised by those images of a large format camera, which appeared in the film (the film is set in a small Indonesian town with an ageing photographer making a living out of taking people's portraits) .
In a few years time colleges will stop teaching photography students how to use film, it will become a very esoteric practice. Fewer and fewer people handle large format now, it has become prohibitively expensive. It is a shame because film, in my view, offers you the quintessential photographic experience.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The art of giving a reference

Photographer: me
References are needed by people for jobs or  to go on courses or to apply for funding and such like. They are a way to check on someone's character, aptitude, and in general, employability and/or trustworthiness as a collaborator.
When someone is asked to give a reference this can indeed be a tricky thing. There is an etiquette of reference giving and I would also say that giving a reference is an art.
As a model I get references from photographers I have worked with and also give references for and to photographers.  Sites like Purestorm, Net-model and Model Mayhem have a whole section for references. Sometimes these references you read on these sites are perfunctory - hardly anyone gives 'public' bad references, everyone is always amazing, if you read the ones that have been left about me you'd think I am the epitome of class and elegance!  However, some of these 'public' references need to be read carefully - the way they are worded will give you a clue as to whether in fact, amidst all that praise, another reality is lurking. When in doubt, one should contact the person that has given the reference to find out more, in private. This is particularly important for models who need to check whether a photographer is a professional person (in attitude and behaviour) or just a GWC.
Bad references however should also be taken cum grano salis. Disgruntled collaborators have been known to give bad references in private to damage the other party's reputation or just for the sake of being nasty - believe me, there are people who are spiteful by nature and who enjoy saying something nasty.

Photographer: me
I remember I once asked a former tutor of mine to write a letter of reference to an educational trust, as I had applied for a small grant. He readily agreed to write the letter for me when I asked him, and I remember having a long conversation with him at his office explaining what I wanted to do and giving him a copy of my project proposal. He had to write the letter and give it to me, in a sealed envelope, to attach to my application form. Some days later  I went along to collect the letter, after making an appointment to meet him,  and something in the way he gave me the envelope stopped me in my tracks. He was affable and even encouraging, saying things such as "I hope you get this, it is such a lovely idea". But something told me that things were not what they seemed to be.
On my way home I did the 'unthinkable'. I opened the envelope and read the letter. The reference was worded in such a way that it was meant to discourage the  committee from  considering my application any further.
I was really angry. Not because he did not believe in my project and my ability to deliver it, that was his prerogative, but because he had agreed to write a letter to support it, only to go behind my back and write a negative reference altogether. Why, I kept on wondering, why be so sneaky? What was the point? He ought to have declined to write the letter. I promptly tore up the reference and asked someone else to do it and I did a good thing, as I got the funding eventually, though not as much as I had asked for.

And I did another 'unthinkable' thing. I confronted this man. I emailed him saying that I had read the reference and would not forward it, thank you very much for writing it. He was furious, apparently I had broken an important rule, that of confidentiality. He never spoke to me after that incident, it's now been nearly fifteen years - mind you, I also left that college in 2002 and never went back.
As part of my day job I have written a great many references for students and former students. My policy is to decline writing a letter of reference if I dont feel I can say something really good about the person. I have also written references as a model. If, as a model, I am asked about a photographer I am not happy with, I now simply say "I dont feel I can recommend this person, my experience has not been positive" And I leave it at that, no details. I have learnt the hard way that it is better not to say any more.
What's the phrase? If you cannot say anything nice, dont say anything at all.
Silence however can  speak volumes.

(More of my own photographic work can be seen here, as also my modelling work)