Believe It or Not

January 26, 2023  •  1 Comment

The past week has seen me reach an important milestone, apparently.  Bizarrely, it appeared more important to other people than to me, but it is a special feeling to know how many people care about you.  The milestone in question was my 50th birthday.  As usual, I had no idea how to mark this seemingly momentous occasion, because I’m not a stereotypical party animal and I lack the patience to organise anything that resembles one.  As with previous decades, I’d elected instead to do something low key and in the case of the day itself, something different.  After several failed attempts at booking, I managed to get onto a care and rehabilitation course for my one of my favourite wild animals, Erinaceus Europaeus, better known as the European Hedgehog.   Those who know me well, will be aware of my obsession with these little creatures, caring for a number in my garden and working with local rescues etc.  This course was going to teach me everything I needed to know about their basic medical needs for the next time I found one unwell or injured; I can tell you that for such a seemingly simple animal, there is a great deal to learn.  Although aimed at everyone from ‘well-intentioned do-gooders’ like me to veterinary professionals, the course was also a useful source of information to debunk myths surrounding the humble hog.   As with all subjects it seems, there is a great deal of bad information out there, which for some reason permeates into the general public’s thinking and soon becomes gospel.  They don’t have to have any basis in medical science, nor in some cases any simple common sense.  The best example given by the course tutor was somebody that confidently claimed on social media that “if you feed hedgehogs fish-flavoured cat food, they develop a taste for it and will subsequently take all the goldfish from your ponds”.  We all found the notion of an animal that lacks real intelligence (being purely instinctive) identifying a flavour, associating it with another creature, observing where to find them, and teaching itself to fish, absolutely hilarious.  It is of course total nonsense.  Hedgehogs don’t generally like the flavour of fishy cat food and will often leave it in search of something more in line with its natural diet of insects or invertebrates.  If you put it out for them, it’ll likely still be there in the morning unless next door’s cat fancied it.  

I got to thinking about these nuggets of pure fiction that we encounter every day.  How did we get to the stage where everyone with a strong opinion on a subject can potentially remain unchallenged enough for people to buy into it?  It would be easy to blame social media for this phenomenon as this is where the majority of these things crop up these days.  Having just completed a piece of work about internet trolls, I’ve been shocked at the prevelance of ‘you’re wrong and I’m right’ attitudes that are aggressively published for all to see.   Some people take these trolls on, but most simply ignore them.  However, this isn’t a new phenomenon unique to the digital world.  Newspaper media, television and radio all have platforms that offer the audience the opportunity to take part in a debate or voice an opinion.   The difference for me is the scale and accountability between the platforms.  For example, if an opinion is presented on Question Time, the programme’s time constraints and the stewardship of the presenter, adds some control over any debate that arises.  The discussion concludes and everyone moves on.  However, the same things don’t exist online.  If the consensus of views grows sufficiently, and has a glimmer of credibility about it, some form of mythology can become established.  Another example in the hedgehog world is around the predation by badgers pushing their numbers to the brink of extinction.  Not only are there fewer badgers in the UK than hedgehogs, but the latter is actually considered a stable population across the European region, so the idea of extinction is wildly inaccurate despite their decline in the UK.   I mention this example, because until the course I attended and some subsequent research, I believed every word myself.  

The same established ‘ideas’ exist in the world of photography.  I was listening to an interview with Nan Goldin recently about how she wasn’t accepted within the photography establishment in her early years.  Goldin’s famous work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, was severely criticised for being poor quality, badly lit, composed etc., because of her prioritisation of her subject over the technical aspects of the medium.  She freely admits to not being interested in camera gear (or the people who obsess over it), calls herself an artist rather than a photographer and confessed that it wasn’t until the 1990s that she learned about the different qualities of light.  We can see this in The Ballad images, which largely use flash to achieve exposure and emphasis large blocks of colour because that suited her vision at the time.   Many years after the establishment rejection, The Ballad is one of the most revered photography books of all time, because the style of the images supports intimate narratives about the artist and her close relationships with her friends.   Similar issues surrounded Julia Margaret Cameron and her unconventional way of representing her portrait subjects over 100 years ago.  Both women were subjected to judgement by the male-dominated art world, but that doesn’t completely explain their experience.  They worked differently to other people, which took a while to penetrate the ‘rules’ that had developed as the medium evolved.  Even now, photography is subject to lots of ‘rules’ and established ideas that almost determine whether the viewing public rate an image or not.  For example, there are plenty of Instagram ‘hacks’ that promise to make our phone images better, but in actual fact they are making them more like the other successful photographs on that platform.    Is this necessarily a bad thing?  Of course not.  The internet has provided us with a huge repository of learning material, which helps us improve our photographic practice.  What I’m saying is that I don’t accept that there are rules in photography.  For example, including a foreground subject in landscape makes it a more interesting picture than an empty vista.  It gives the eye something to ‘notice’, perhaps in the way it contrasts with its surroundings or to establish a sense of scale.  However, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, there are different creative ideas around landscape and how it is represented in art.  Doggedly placing structures or objects in the foreground of a picture tends towards the picturesque, neither emphasising the beauty or danger (sublime) quality of the ‘view’.  So, sometimes rules steer us into a particular style of image that is widely accepted by the viewing public, when that might not be what we originally intended.  Again, this isn’t a judgement.  I recently selected some landscapes from my collection to show a beginner and was dismayed to see that they all followed the picturesque composition style, rule of thirds, leading lines…blah blah.   I look at them now with the benefit of further learning and realise that they don’t convey what I was trying to represent about the scene in front of me.  When I ask people why they shoot a landscape with their phone, the answer is usually “because it was beautiful”.  I see a lot of these epiphany images on social media, and they generally grab the scene as quickly as possible, without emphasising the thing that appealed to them in the first place.  Composition ‘rules’ then, help us construct the image but it’s more important is asking ourselves ‘what am I trying to say here?’  If the answer is light, then make the light the dominant element, if it’s the calm sea in the foreground, work with that instead. 

NYC 2020. All about the people rather than the composition

In my opinion, the real evolution in photographic art is when artists ignore the rules. It could be Francesca Woodman’s or Lee Friedlander’s unconventional self-portraiture, where the artists placed themselves half out of frame or reflected in a mirrored surface, or the New Topgraphics movements highlight of the impact of manmade on the natural world.  Whatever your motivation for creating, don’t believe everything you read (including this, of course) or what is thought to be established practice, particularly if it interferes with your idea.  Just try to use your camera to reveal what you want to show to the viewer and beware the confident expert who tells you that you are wrong.  Now, I’m off to buy some organic vegetable catfood…hedgehogs like that, don’t they?


I enjoyed that Richard thank you for taking the time to post something like this. I think it not only applies to Photography but in a lot of aspects of life. Challenge the status quo or you’ll never get better :)
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