A Journey - Stripping Back
2016 and the lessons
It's that time of year when millions if not billions reflect on a year past and a year ahead. I always struggle with making new year resolutions because I don't believe in waiting for one day to think and act on the changes I want to see in my life. However, 2016 has been a year of unexpected events for me and has therefore taught me, once again, to consider how life can't easily be planned, controlled and executed and how much is left to some other unknown force at work.
So for the past few days and weeks I have been deep in thought, not for the first time, about the things that really matter. The subjects have been wide and varied covering personal relationships, the business, the social, economic and political affairs of the world, health and happiness and of course desires and outcomes on all those dimensions.
I won't bore you with my thoughts on Brexit, Trump, May or the loss of some very influential people like Bowie or other events and impacts on my life in 2016 but will share my own challenges and of course the obligatory selection of my favourite photos I made in 2016.
As many of you know, I had to go through some major surgery at the start of 2016 to replace part of my jaw that had basically died because of extensive radiotherapy treatment 20 years ago. Ten months on, there are still some issues and I had to undergo further surgery in December and am expecting more surgery again at some point in 2017 and probably more again beyond that. It's no big deal, i know plenty of people who have suffered all manner of illnesses or life impacting changes and show amazing courage, determination and stoicism and they help me to face whatever comes my way with a sense of perspective and gratitude.
What I did have time to reflect on throughout this year is the personal journey i made from being dependant on a source of materiality from a corporate world to provide what I thought made me happy to being dependant on a source materiality from being self employed over the last few years. Materiality to me doesn't mean what i own, have and desire, it is actually the opposite of that concept (more of this later) to me materiality means what are the things that are really important and essential to me.
I grew up in a family that didn't have much, in fact it is fair to say that we lived in poverty, though I now know that even that term is relative when put in the context of outside the UK and considered more globally! However, like for most families, parents and people that feeling of deprivation created a desire at an early stage to escape this trap and do better for myself.
I remember parents telling me that the key to escape the poverty trap was a good education and that would guarantee me a better life (little did they know then about the realities of the millennium and the reality for many ten of thousands of post grads who can't get a decent job on a decent wage let alone the ball and chain of a £30-£50k student loan or be able to find affordable housing. I, as you know from previous blogs in this series decided to try and help change things and fight against the injustices in society.
It took a long time for me escape the entrapment of materiality and in reality it probably took getting cancer to realise that life was so much more than the stuff we desire and acquire. As humans we are wired to be dissatisfied. The bombardment of advertising, social media, peer pressure and so on to have, obtain and aspire to own has always created the division of the haves and have nots. Aspiring to have a "nicer" home, car, holiday, clothes, lifestyle and even friends, means billions of people chase this dream and forget the very basics of real human need. I'm not judging those that wish for a better life but I came to the realisation twenty years ago that no amount of "stuff" would ever be enough.
My youngest is a daily reminder of this still, try as I do to rationalise, educate and teach her perspective she is still learning the art of satisfaction and appreciation and I fear like many parents of young children that I will never find an argument or reason that convinces her in a heartbeat that what she has is already more than enough.
Aspirational norms increase beyond most people's means, yet to be part of the norm we are pressured constantly to strive for that phone, gadget and item of whatever that means we are accepted as successful. This template of success is something that is applauded and blindly adhered to maintain a connection to society and its participants.
Thankfully I am surrounded by like minded people who appreciate, understand and often channel their success through photographic expression. It's a group of people, and ever-growing group, who see and connect to the outdoors and nature and all its beauty. We don't see our planet and its parts as a commodity to be used and discarded for our own enjoyment and benefit. We appreciate it, explore and discover constantly with respect and sense of bewilderment of just how insignificant we all are but with how much responsibility we all have to protect and share its boundless beauty.
Those of you who have attended any of my tuition events will know how much I beat the drum when it comes to simplifying composition and stripping it back to the bare essentials. I have started to blog about what I think are some of the essentials of composition and the understanding of subject and narrative in a new series in 2016. I aim to add more to the series in 2017.
For me stripping back has been an ongoing process for many years now, however with the health issues in 2016 I have come to the realisation that I slowly managed to become an acquirer again without realising it was happening. Accumulating "stuff" to educate and entertain and improve me - justified at the time of course, but when faced with the reality check of your health and life you re-examine those things and of course perspective changes again.
I am not feeling guilty for any acquisitions in 2016 as they were of course justified at the time in the aspiration of education, entertainment and a happier me. However, what I have been guilty of and plan to change in 2017 in the keeping of things I have slowly acquired again over the years.
So the for the past few weeks I have been busily ,and generally unsuccessfully, looking at what I can discard. The emotional attachment we place on objects is bewildering. There are so many sentimental attachments to possessions in all their forms and then justifications we make to ourselves to keep things that might educate us or give us some satisfaction in some way it's hard to let go and think do I really want to give that up?
So in the spirit of cleansing and simplifying I posed a question to myself:
What is the minimum number of things I need?
I resolved that there has to be a balance between need, which of course is minimal, and want which is of course distorted and unnecessary. I started with asking myself what would be the 100 things I owned that I couldn't give up....
That became hard because my camera equipment and "stuff" needed to run the business soon filled up those spots. So I then drew a line around house, car, business and family/home essentials that were not necessarily critical but meant that I could operate and be productive and effective on all fronts. It was pretty scary at how much I could actually give up and just how much money I had spent on "stuff" that in reality I didn't need or just wasn't using.
So without literally doing a garage sale and emptying the contents of my past life, I started a clearing our process (my local Myton Hospice is in daily receipt of items from me at the moment) and have started to really think about what I can give up in 2017 and pass on to others. I don't think I will reduce it down to 100 items or even 500 but my aim is to minimise as much as possible and constantly challenge myself to questions its true value and use.
Not much has changed in reality in the last year. Still single, (she will arrive in my life at some point) no change of house, car or anything significant really but of course health was a big factor for me and I am grateful in many way of what that has made me think about, again!
Apart from minimalsing my life as much as I can, I want to of course feel like my health is more stable and settled and free from having my throat cut three times a year! Business wise, I think it will be as challenging as ever, the demand is there but as always the market is awash with options for the consumer so I will continue to serve clients with my own ways of interpreting subjects, guiding on technical execution, running workshops in a variety of locations and subjects, providing classes and courses for all levels of photographer and mentoring individuals to achieve the levels and improvements they desire for themselves in the next 12 months.
Photographically speaking I will continue with the current personal series of rock and bark formations and I have plans for a couple more new projects in 2017. One is to create a series based entirely from within a small outdoor area that is on my doorstep "my backyard". This feels like it mirrors my current heightened thinking of acknowledging, appreciating and experiencing what is already available. As you know I regularly run workshops in some picturesque locations and always love go backing to each and every one of them with clients. So this project will challenge me to become even more intimate with my own surroundings and attempt to create a series that reflects my relationship to its many forms, shapes, colours and ever changing appearance.
What were the highlights in 2016?
Lots of great things occurred in 2016 including gaining my professional qualification with the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP). In terms of the images I made, I feel my best work was on the bark and rock formation series "within"
At some stage in 2017 I hope to use this series for my Fellowship though I doubt that in itself will mean the end of that project as I still feel it's evolving and I regularly discard earlier images in the series as new ones are created.
I was also very proud to be the featured photographer in On Landscape Magazine in Jul 2016. If you don't know the publication I highly recommend it to any outdoor photography enthusiast. I wouldn't call it mainstream and it will certainly open your thoughts to new ideas and understanding. Article here
Being part of an amazing team and amongst some renowned and very telented photographers at the International Festival of Photography at Sharjah in October was also a great highlight. Whilst running back to back workshops for fours days was pretty gruelling I came away with such a buzz and sense of encouragement that our art cuts across political and cultural boundaries evidenced by the many people I met and exchanged ideas with and enjoyed sharing my own experiences and images with. I'm really looking forward to returning again in 2017.
The Year in Images
An image created from a bit of a group challenge on the workshop - trying to make a composition that worked in a scene that was chaos and complex.
A fab weekend with great company in the lakes. We were being buffeted by 90mph gusts up on Hallin Fell when this was made. My lasting memory of this weekend was James standing face into the wind arms stretched out screaming "I feel alive!" as he was about to be blown off the top of the mountain.
No photo's made in March due to surgery
My first outing following surgery in February. A trip down to Micheldever Woods in Winchester to meet up with the talented Valda Bailey and Doug Chinnery. I went there to shoot bluebells but came away with something far more satisfying.
Back to running workshops and a trip to Northumbria, the first of two there in 2016. This image is selected because of the great company I had and many laughs and often hysterical moments of the group up to their knees in water trying to capture the decisive moments and then the beach salvage adventure and resulting smelly ride home.
No year in Alan's calendar would be complete without the customary Chesterton Windmill image. It's still a favourite local spot of mine and I hope to visit my friend more this year than I did in 2016.
After the debacle of finding a local poppy field to shoot in June only to discover the farmer ploughed the field the night before the workshop I was relieved to get the timing right for the Delphinium meadows this year having missed them last year. This shot was taken late on as the sun just started to dip below the horizon.
August is always a quieter time for workshops and courses with most people on summer vacation so it's a great time for 1-2-1 work and using the longer days to go out on photo walks. This shot came about as part of a discussion and demonstration on a 1-2-1 session. Explaining how the camera can create an illustration of something we can't see with our own eyes and therefore we need to observe shape, texture, tones, colour and contrasts to identify the components in the composition jigsaw,
Another trip to the lakes and another great weekend with an enthusiastic group who all took up the mantle of making silver birch images on our first day there. It's my favourite tree species and always feels like I have a connection to subject when I make images with them.
The end of Sep and early October marked the start of autumn and I had a great time with a group on my Norfolk workshop near Blakeney. This image resulted from one of those typical discussions on how to isolate your subject and create a sense of balance of tranquility using minimal components.
The end of October and early November was a hectic time of running many workshops at Batsford Arboretum. It's always a great time of year to be outdoors and Batsford always provides a great environment for making autumn images. I hope to be running a new series of workshops throughout the year in 2017 at Batsford and other similar locations in Warwickshire so keep an eye out for those listings once they are announced.
This image was one of my personal favourites in 2016. The title is from a song that my departed Dad used to play to me and was played at his funeral so has a special meaning to me. Matt Molloy was an icon to my Dad, he played the flute too and gave me a love of traditional irish folk music.
It felt apt that with the death of David Bowie in January 2016 and many other great people who had some influence on my life that I made this image - It wasn't preconceived, just one of those that appears to you from nowhere yet has so much connection to personal experiences and emotions.
Following more surgery in early December it was a quiet month photographically speaking. However I did manage to get out during the festive break with a group of ten and had a lovely time on a heavy frost bitten hike around the Warwickshire countryside. Whilst there were not iconic mountains, lakes or dramatic seascape scenes, there were plenty of little compositions as we walked across the Lapworth countryside and enjoyed the wonderful winter light and conditions.
Thank you if you took the time to read all this and apologies if you found it all too heavy and deep but for me this time of year always brings out those reflective thoughts and considerations. I hope you all had a great 2016 and are making plans for an even better 2017.
Let's hope we share some of those moments together in 2017 so I wish you all a very happy new year and hope you will join me in spirit or person in making it a year we celebrate recalibrating priorities, direction and our personal journey.