The Light Narrative of a Dark and Rainy Day

Photography is a broad spectrum of activity. At first, it appears to be a simple way of recording an image, a scene, or a person. Photography is an activity that we need, and embrace as part of the passage of life so that our memories of today make sense in comparison to the past.

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.”

Susan Sontag, On Photography.

Recording what we see is a basic human need. We do it all the time, even non-photographers are recording each event that occurs in the course of their days.

Some of us use the memory of the brain to keep ideas, we order them and use them to build understanding of an experience. Many, today, can’t resist the easy options of a mobile-phone shot each time somebody enters a room.

Photos are supporting our memories more and more.

We are attempting to keep an idea in the form of an image, a disclosure of a happened event.

Visual thinkers are drawn to images made by others. It can be an inspiring experience to look at the work of a master painter, a great photographer, or a graphic designer. Often creating a feeling that we want to become involved in the process that the artist has used. Something about the ego, it grasps at things, and desires to become a part of something to further establish its identity.

Possibly, we grasp at these images, made by others, when we see that the process of photography is a reliable method of keeping moments that are passing us by.

Susan Sontag’s idea that the painter constructs, and the photographer discloses, is an important statement; we would be quick to trust a photograph of a past event, though a painting depicting an event of 50 years ago, or yesterday, would have been constructed through the opinion and eyes of the painter, her abilities to show us her honest view is always in question, yet we are quick to trust the machine which captures a fleeting moment.

The photographer who spends time in the rain photographing people, is clicking at the button, watching, seeing and keeping moments of interest. Unfortunately, many people believe the old saying, “the camera never lies”.

I went out into the rain with my camera, I was hoping to follow the intentions that I’d already established of photographing small corners, people disappearing around corners, people appearing from small doorways. This sort of thinking helps a photographer to work with a focused set of emotions, and therefore react to situations more quickly. That’s how a photographer gets the shot.

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Bahnhof Potsdamer Platz, Photo: Sean P. Durham, 2019

Walking through the streets of a big city, a camera in the hand, and intentions well thought out, can create a feeling of trepidation in a photographer.

I was already seeking out every nook and cranny, investigating the smallest opening in a wall, every time I saw a fence with a board missing, I’d look through it to spy out an interesting builder’s landscape or just a big hole in the ground that might offer a little magic for my camera lens.

The area I was in was very crowded, tourists and locals mixing in with each other. The architecture of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is a “must see”, for many visitors, including local people who have put off visiting the sights for years.

Then it began to rain. The grey tarmac turned dark and reflected the tall structures across the streets, colourfully clothed people became offset against the grey glassy structures which dripped and streamed water onto the street.

My attention turned to people, running for shelter, splashing through the wet amongst the flocks of umbrellas that spread open across the street. The clicking and whooshing sound of a half-dozen umbrellas opening is an intriguing sound, heavy traffic adding to the whining and watery sounds on tarmac.

Pools of water, colourful umbrellas and soaked figures standing on their own reflections, all of this drew my attention away from nooks and crannies and I set out to gets some interesting shots of wet people.

I began to feel that what I had now seen was more important than the plan I had made. What people are doing is more vital to our memories than a hole in a fence that looks out onto an empty wasteland.

I felt the trepidation rise in me, that shivering monster, which can create inhibitions in a photographer and will only lead to failure to take a shot. This, leading to regret for a good photographer, a street photographer must work without worry and concern about the reactions of the subject.

I started taking shots. My camera set for low light and fast moving objects, me attempting to get a good position, a place which would offer cover from drowning my camera and soaking my lens.

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Wet Day on the Square, Berlin. Image : Sean P. Durham 2019

The only way to overcome the fear of pointing a camera at a stranger, is to point the camera and take a shot, then another. Doing this causes the mind to focus on the process, there’s no worthy result in pointing and mindlessly shooting at passers-by.

After several shots, I stopped and took a look at the first results. Too dark, or much too light, all the colour blown out of the frame after I looked up and tried a shot of the edge of a tall building. When I adjusted the camera settings I could tell that my thoughts were shifting into a “get the shot”, mode. This means that I don’t care what people think anymore. I trust myself to be respectful of other people’s privacy, I have no interest in barging into another’s world and disrupting their Friday afternoon.

Photographing scenes with an attitude that it could all turn into a mess, is better than expecting too much from yourself. The camera, your ability to adjust according to the light, finding angles to stand in that offer a new perspective every few minutes, at least offers the possibility of a good outcome. Maybe, you get a shot or two that will always mean something to you and others who view you photos.

Too much self imposed pressure for the best shot of the week will lead to tension and, probably, missed opportunities.

We tend to include fear into many of our activities in life, it accompanies us throughout. Most of the time we either battle against it, deny it, or fall to floor in a horrible wrestling match that we feel we will never win. This can give us the feeling that we are the only ones who deal with the problems that fear creates.

Feeling fear becomes so ‘everyday’ for us, we learn to work with it, accept its presence, inevitably, in our lives as a constant emotion that is just part of being human.

As I took my photographs, in a rainy public place, my mind focusing but being jolted occasionally by a fear of going too far with a stranger, I realised how self-centred fear is. I lift the camera to take a shot of a stranger walking along, they are looking ahead, minding their own business or speaking to a person along side them, I point, frame and get a shot, I realise that their face has turned towards me, they are thinking something, a frown appears and their eyes become suspicious. My fear jumps and I feel as if I have just done something terribly wrong.

I look at the photo in my camera and am quite pleased. I got the shot before they noticed me, they were still chatting, their gestures were natural and relaxed. Just what I wanted, they’d cut-a-figure as they skipped through the rain.

“to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
Susan Sontag, On Photography

It’s when I think about those feelings of trepidation that rise in myself, I know that it’s our human being-ness that means that we will always feel fear. We will overcome our fears, peel them back and discard them, then find a new fear that could only be felt after first stepping up to a new mental level of living without the last fear that we wrestled with for so long.

Healthy people are always in the activity of searching for a new idea, a different method of doing, hoping to find a better way of living — searching for a little peace and quiet by organising our lives in a way so that we know what will happen next.

Our search for a framed version of life where we can sit back and relax, watch as our plans fall into place, and feel secure about all existence can’t happen to us. Our searching will always open up and disclose new circumstances that are challenging to us.

When I take a photograph, I frame the shot. I frame it because I know that it will help to make it understandable to people who look at it later. It is a small piece of my experience in another person’s narrative, I am attempting to capture it and disclose something about it with the ability to see correctly, make judgements about what is important to keep in the frame. I have been lucky enough to have come across it on my street photography outing, so I take the shot, hoping that it will be what I thought it was.

After the shot was taken and the fear of being an invader arose, the person in the photo stared at me, the frown could have been disapproval, confusion, or some feeling that I couldn’t ever guess at. But their frown told me that they too experienced a slight fear at my presence on the street. I thought it was just me being there and pointing a camera at them, they could never know if I took the photo or not, I tend to pan around a lot, point and look but not shoot, searching for a good motif, or an odd street experience, it is what you do when you are taking photos in public.

Taking photos on the street is an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, the results differ, it depends on your mood when going out, your desire to experiment and where you are, dealing with people in public is always rife with fears on both sides. People are defensive and seek to have a peaceful experience as they splash along in the rain, or drive their car through city traffic.

Image: Sean P. Durham, Berlin 2019

Everybody who is in a public place has to conduct themselves in a civil manner, even photographers, vendors, and street musicians are bound by the norms of society and the laws.

As I think about fear while taking photographs, mistakenly believing it be unique to photographers, I realise that when people are in a public place that is very busy and full with traffic, street vendors , rain splashing around the pavement, they are feeling fear and dealing with fear by feigning ignorance of their environment. Rush past without looking, and get to where you’re going.

Over busy people tend to be busy people due to a habitual need to move onto the next thing, they have little time for now, the present. They miss things in everyday life that photographers and artists look for all of the time, artists are always searching for something to investigate, to discover and see if it’s useful to people, they bring these things to people, hoping that they will also look at them, that they will stop for a moment and consider what it is that they are looking at and appreciate it’s inherent value as an experience, a part of the narrative of life.

It may be relevant to their own thoughts, to their journey to work or it may one day serve as a reminder of something that they have valued and forgotten.

Photography can disclose small events along the pathways of life, and often the subjects and the photographer can’t be sure how interesting or useful the photo taken will turn out to be. A wedding, a family meeting, a major event, people bumbling along a street in the rain, can be looked back upon with fresh thoughts and new knowledge about what happened.

A photo of an empty space, even, will offer an opportunity to identify and feel something about the place. The person looking at the photo may have been there once, experienced something personal in that space and is left with the need to revisit it through the photo.

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“Säule” (Pillar) Image: Sean P. Durham, Berlin 2019

In a world that has now become filled with images, many snapped off in a moment of glee, not much thought put into them, some photos taken with deliberation and planning, we can hope that one day, when we look back at this time and enjoy sifting through the stacks of virtual files that are available on the internet, we will find something that will help us to piece together a meaningful narrative to our lives together on this planet.

Written by

Berlin Notes — Writing about the Creative Art of Living http://seandurham.eu

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