Archive for March 26th, 2009

Critique, Advice and Mentorship

March 26, 2009

The-Wrestler A few days back I came across “Photo Critique” videos on Zack Arias’ Blog (thanks to Matt Brandon). These videos are surprisingly entertaining, they have that reality TV talent show feel to them, but much more substance. The critique is really insightful for those interested in “making it” in the photo industry. Zack is witty and sarcastic, and he’s got a real gift – he is able to say that an image sucks and the “photographer” shouldn’t quit his day job without ever sounding like a condescending asshole.

Besides the entertainment value of Zack’s videos I found something that reminded me of my own photographic path and led to some related thoughts, which I think may be worth sharing.

In one of the critiques Zach talked about his photo-school teacher as a mentor of a sort, he said that the things this teacher taught him still echo in his mind every time he lifts the camera to his eye. To me this is interesting and important stuff.

It’s really helpful to have a mentor at some stage of your career. The way I see it, a mentor is someone who inspires you and puts you on the “right” path, the stuff he/she tells you may be so powerful that it’ll forever change the way you photograph.

I’ve been lucky enough to have come across two such people. Two very different photographers and even more different human beings.

The first is an amazing B&W travel portrait photographer by the name of Eugene H. Johnson. I met Eugene by chance, I saw him taking photos of life by the river in the holy Hindu town of Varanasi. He had an old film camera and was shooting from a tripod, this made me curious enough to approach him and ask “Why?” What transpired was a lengthy conversation which forever changed the way I took photographs of people. Prior to that, I hadn’t planned my shots or consciously spent time with those who I photographed. Hearing Eugene’s poetic tales of interaction with his photographic “subjects” made his way of photographing sound like the most romantic and rewarding thing in the world. After our conversation I felt compelled to see his work online and after seeing the work I realized two things –  Eugene was indeed an incredible photographer and the stuff that I had been shooting was child’s play, too “raw”, too dependent on chance and luck.

I spent less than a couple of hours in person with Eugene, but even a moment with a wise man can amount to a lifetime of thoughts and ideas. Since then our interaction has been rather sparse, though I have received a few encouraging emails from Eugene over the past few years. In one of the later emails he told me that he was following my progress online and had become a fan of my work. I knew that I had progressed a lot since I first met him, but it was very encouraging to have my own opinion “validated” by the person who influenced me so much.

I feel that Eugene planted a seed that would enable my photography to become something bigger and the next mentor has helped me nurture and grow this seed, albeit in a rather unorthodox way. Unlike Eugene, who doesn’t seem to have a cynical bone in his body, this fellow could be the most cynical person I’ve ever met. I won’t even mention his name because I am sure that if he ever reads my blog he’ll have a good cynical laugh at this post, (so, I won’t give him the credit:)). Well, I guess that’s what years of war photography can do to you and that’s what this man did for a large part of his career. These days he seems to be done with war and shoots for Russian National Geographic, as he journeys around the world on his motorcycle.

As was the case with Eugene, I crossed paths with the Russian, motorcycle riding, Nat Geo photographer by chance, in Nepal. I rode there from India and he from Russia, we met in a roadside restaurant in Pokhara. My question “Why do you have that photographic bag?” began our friendship, the ongoing criticism of my photography and the never ending smart-ass comments such as – “Oh, yes this is the sad eyes of a crapping dog photograph, very good.” Such comments can break one’s heart when they are a response to something you consider strong work, or they can make you think – If my image is as strong as I thought it was, then why has the impact not overshadowed any such remarks?

The Russian mentor is old-school. He’s used to dealing with top people in Russian press, they are economic with words and praise. You got a great shot – good, it’s going in the paper and if you didn’t, then; why the hell are you not out there shooting? That’s his approach. No fluffy compliments. But he has also offered me countless bits of photographic wisdom. It’s like Zack says in his video – you hear those words every time you lift the camera to your eye. “This is boring! Get down, shoot from a different angle! What are you trying to say with this photo? You know what it is, I don’t! Show me, make it understandable! What’s really important here? Why are not showing anything about the person you’re shooting! I want to see emotion!”

These two mentors have played a big part in who I am as a photographer. There is no substitute for having a knowledgeable person critically look at your work and give you advice. The way Zach Arias does on his blog and the way those two individuals have done for me. So, in the end I guess I just wanted to share my own experiences. Perhaps the seasoned pros will be reminded of their own mentors from the past, while those who are starting to get serious about their photography may simply run out the door and find a photographic mentor for themselves.

(Above is a mud wrestler from Kolhapur. It’s one of the images that I’ve recently “played around” with in PP.)