I’m Thinking About What Sara Said

I’ve had the great privilege of tagging along with Eric Kim for the Gulf Photo Plus (GPP) event in Dubai back in 2014 and 2016. GPP is an annual event: the region’s biggest and only photography festival, bringing the world’s best photographers and instructors to Dubai to share their knowledge and experience with the professional and amateur photography community in the Middle East and Africa. I’ve been humbled to learn bits and pieces from an unbelievable roster of GPP teachers. Because Eric is one of the instructors and I’m his glorified help, I have had access to many of the instructors – picking their brains during cab rides, over rooftop cocktails, or at breakfast club.

At the 2016 event, I decided to bring some work to show the photographers. I brought along my Havana project, shot in 2015 and probably the first real set of images in the street photography genre that I was proud and confident to show my peers. I walked around with my little tablet and convinced people like Ed Kashi, Zack Arias, and Steve Simon to have a quick look. I view these people masters at what they do, who are actively involved in storytelling through street and documentary work. They helped make some suggestions on a what photos they thought were the strongest, which photos did not fit in well, and offered sequencing tips – overall it was really positive and their feedback jacked up my confidence levels.

One evening I was enjoying a few drinks on a rooftop bar and I had a conversation with another one of the GPP instructors, Sara Lando. Sara is an incredibly talented creative portrait photographer and one of the most enthusiastic educators I’ve encountered. I’ve known her to be blunt, maybe a bit loud at times, but always somewhat charming. I decided it would be interesting to get some feedback from someone who wasn’t really experienced in street photography. I thought she’d be able to come at it from a fresh perspective. The next 45 minutes we would have on that rooftop would go on to have a profound effect on both me and my work.

Sara’s Disclaimer

Before she dished out the goods, Sara wanted to first disclose that: “even if I think your photos are shit, please know that they are images that I am incapable of taking.” Well that was a relief. I knew whatever was about to be said came from a place of love…or was it anger?…or comedy?…mostly love though. When we started to go through my Havana photos, her response was unlike that of the other photographers. It wasn’t a: “this is great”, “love this one”, “I don’t get this one”, or “I wouldn’t include this one”. She wasn’t telling me her opinion, she was probing deeper into my mind asking me questions like: “why did you take this photo?”, “what are you trying to say with this photo?”, “why were you in Cuba in the first place”, “what is it about Cuba that interests you?”, etc.

It was a non-stop barrage of questions. The line of questioning eventually broke down to one fundamental baseline: what was my purpose or intent when I took these images? Aside from wanting to replicate the work of others that had inspired me, I couldn’t really give a suitable enough of an answer that would satisfy both of our curiosities. I felt my foundation beginning to crack.

Third Best

So at the time, I was seriously thinking of making return trips to Havana to document the changes the city and its people stemming from the renewed hope of closer diplomatic and economic relations (thanks, Obama). I was set on shooting it, as I had, in a panoramic format on film. I hoped that the result would be the love child of Alex Webb, David Alan Harvey, and Josef Koudelka. When Sara pressed further about what my end game was, I told her that I’d like to produce a book in the aesthetic of Alex Webb and David Alan Harvey, both of whom produced amazing bodies of work in Cuba. “So you’d like to spend the next ten years working on this project so that you can produce the third best book on Cuba ever?” Ok, that was huge burn #1. In that moment, it was as if someone grabbed me, shook the shit out of me, then slapped me repeated until I regained consciousness.    

Know Your Audience

She then moved quickly to ask who my audience for the book would be. I told her that I wouldn’t really care if it sold a lot of copies or if people outside of the street/documentary photography community didn’t care for it. As long as it was respected by my peers, then I felt like the book would have been a success. “Neil, you are a fucking idiot! You care so much about gaining the approval from people who couldn’t care less about you; who don’t even know you exist! You know whose opinion I care about most? The three people who supported me from the beginning when I didn’t even know how to take a proper photo.” She made me realize that ultimately, you are shooting for yourself and that there was no point in spending energy to gain the approval from people I didn’t even know. Not to mention my intended ‘audience’ wasn’t really an audience at it – they were people who had no f@!cking clue who I was!

Cover Band

She probed further about why I felt the need to gain approval from people; why I seem to have this massive chip on my shoulder. This is sort of a complicated two part answer. First off, I come from nothing in the literal sense of the word. I was born on a refugee camp. We grew up pretty poor. I grew up constantly trying to fit in to a place where I never really felt I belonged. Even after graduating and securing a ‘normal’ stable job I wanted to show my traditional Asian-values family that I could succeed doing something unconventional. I’ve worked hard my whole life trying to prove people wrong – whether it is being able to have a career outside the norm or shooting a jump shot in someone’s face on the basketball court because they didn’t think I could play.

Secondly, I told her candidly that I thought that there were millions of photographers in this world that were more popular than me, made more money, and had much larger followings. I said bluntly that a lot of them produce work that I found mediocre and that in a one-on-one scenario, I would hand them their ass. She interrupted me and said simply: “No you wouldn’t. Neil, I think you’re a really talented photographer and obviously you know all the technical aspects of photography. But right now – you’re just a really good cover band.” Ok, that was huge burn #2.

Again, it really came down to purpose and intent. I was competent enough to make images that weren’t rubbish, but I did so without purpose. I  would just shoot as much as I could and worry about the narrative later. I often didn’t know why I was creating images or what its purpose really was.

Photography is a Language

“Photography is a language. To most of us it’s a foreign language we are learning how to speak, but even if you are fluent in shutter speed and aperture, even if you know everything about bouncing flash and own the best camera on the market, the thing is if you don’t have something to say, then you’re pretty screwed.”

Just because I know a lot of words and even sentences, it doesn’t necessarily mean I can form them into paragraphs or a book. The book is ultimately the story and to get there you first need to know your words, form sentences, then paragraphs. I had a lot of words and sentences but couldn’t put together a book that made any sense.

You are Already Who You Are

So was I actually screwed as an image maker? Sara would go on to ask more questions about who I was and how that influenced my photography. I honestly never really thought these types of things actually manifested themselves at all in people’s photography. I told her that I’m naturally introverted (even though I can be the loud proactive guy or the centre of attention on occasion). That I prefer quietness and subtlety. From a photography perspective, I told her that one of my problems was that I love to shoot too many different genres and am influenced by photographers spanning the entire spectrum.

And the problem I thought with loving architecture, cityscapes, portraits, street and documentary photography is that nothing I photograph really sticks because it is too random and diverse. “Neil! You don’t even realize it but you are already being influenced by all of that. You are already who you are. I think the best images I’ve seen from your Havana work are the ones that are quieter and subtle. Where things like the space and architecture are central to the photo. Your images are more intimate and relatable when you’re not trying to be someone else.” 

How I’ve Changed Since

There’s no doubt that conversation I had with Sara played an important growth in both my personal and professional work. I think my most important takeaway was that I needed to shoot with more purpose and intent. So no matter if it is for a wedding client, editorial, commercial or something personal, I set out to know what those images are being used for and what the story is that I need to tell through those images. For corporate work, I need to know what the images are being used for and where they are appearing to get a better sense of how to photograph what they need. Even for personal work when I am travelling, I will do research in advance to make a more purposeful effort in capturing what was intended.

Being true to myself has also helped steer me in the right direction. The way that I see things now is that my goal is to create interesting images that I myself would like. For example, I take wedding photos in a style that I would personally like to have when I get married. The fact that others can connect with those images is really the icing on the cake. In a lot of ways I think this realization is so important for a photographer; stop trying to please others and please yourself. Find others that gravitate towards your vision and don’t worry about catering to those who have different tastes. It is impossible to please everyone.

To me, the pursuit of photography is a lifelong work in progress. I feel as though the more I learn, the less I actually know. The only thing I can do to better myself is strive for continuous improvement by adding new tools to my photography toolbox. It’s been great reflecting on such a memorable conversation with Sara and hopefully out of all of this you will have at least something to add to your own toolbox as well.

Note: a special thanks to Jhila Farzaneh whose expert note-taking allowed me to re-visit some of the that night’s conversation. You can also have a look at my Havana project or purchase the zine.

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