The Need for Calm

February 17, 2023  •  1 Comment

If you’re wondering why I’ve neglected this blog for a couple of weeks, the answer is that things have been fairly chaotic here as they always are at the beginning of a new year.  As most readers will know, I’m currently studying for a photographic degree via distance learning, which is definitely a marathon rather than a sprint.  The course is structured to run over several years rather than the 3 or 4 year full-time equivalents that ‘bricks and mortar’ universities offer.  While this might seem like a drag, which is in fact the reaction from most people when I tell them how long each unit is, I actually find that it has many benefits.  The first is the obvious one: I can fit it around everything else that goes on in daily life.  I’m no longer working a 9 to 5 job, but that doesn’t mean that things are quiet; life has the habit of getting in the way at times.  The second benefit is far more important though, in that it offers the opportunity to take time to learn and evolve as a photographer.  Studying largely by myself, I can delve into much more detail on any genre or practice that interests me than I would be able to if I was attending classes every day.  

There are disadvantages too, which I won’t bore you with beyond talking about the reason why the first two months of every year are chaotically busy.  It’s assessment time again.  What this means is that having completed a course module within the allotted time, the work needs to be prepared to be formally assessed at one of three ‘events’ during the year.  Owing to the timing of when I started the degree, mine always falls in line with spring assessment, which is held in March.  In practice, assessment is a fairly straightforward process, involving selecting work that represents what I’ve learned, ensuring that all feedback and reflection has been accounted for and general admin.  What it means emotionally is a different story.  The killer questions that I ask myself are “have I done enough?” and “is the work good enough?”.  As the deadline looms, there are always difficult decisions to make about the work like sacrificing one or two favourite images or pieces of work if they don’t create the right impression with the assessors, for example.  Eventually, after lots of stress and affected sleep, the submission is complete and everything goes quiet.  It is in this quiet time that I now find myself in reflective mood. 

Wood for the Trees, R Fletcher (2021)

This past year has been a creative challenge for a number of reasons.  The main one being that as the course progresses, the work becomes more engaging and as a result, more challenging.  It should naturally be harder, right?  I don’t think I was prepared for the amount of research I would need to do in order to understand the key concepts, nor did do a particularly good job of managing the time spent on it.   When it came to the main project for the unit, I chose a subject that both fascinates and horrifies me in equal measure, the modern phenomenon of internet trolling.  While I was aware of how corrosive this behaviour could be, it wasn’t until the research and planning stage of the project that it started to get under my skin.  At first glance, the characteristics of the average troll were socially isolated, often lonely people, who saw the lives and opinions of others to be in such contrast to their own, that they felt the need to protest in some way.  I’ve talked before about the trolls who attack charities for the way they spend money, the decisions they make around who or what they support, how much their CEO gets paid etc…etc. When I first saw this appalling behaviour, I thought I’d seen it all but I was wrong, of course.  There are plenty of well-known cases of cyber trolling being so bad that the victim self-harms or, worse still, takes their own lives.  While researching the subject, I wondered how these awful perpetrators slept at night, knowing the damage they were doing.  Then it dawned on me that they are actually insulated from the effects of their actions.  The anonymity of the internet gives everyone the opportunity to offer an opinion or comment in whatever way they like, citing ‘free speech’ as the excuse for their behaviour, however abhorrent.  The continued rise of the low editorial value, right-wing media outlets that rage about the erosion of free speech, makes it even easier for trolls to disregard the impact on their victims because of some sense of entitlement.  Even after wading through a great deal of this unpleasantness, the most shocking realisation was yet to come; everyone is a troll in the making.  Unlike my first assumptions, the troll isn’t some societal outcast at all.  Instead, their kind of behaviour can surface when any person is undergoing personal stress, prolonged isolation from people or feeling the loss of what is familiar to them, however small or insignificant.  A friend of mine was telling me recently of a neighbour who couldn’t be nicer in person face to face, helpful and kind etc, but when they went on social media, they turned into an angry racist bigot.  They were apparently unaware when triggered by something they didn’t like online, that their comments were being read by people who actually knew them.  The result was a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character that my friend now consciously avoids whenever possible.  Given the problems that have surrounded us in the world this past few years, it’s hardly surprising that trolling is increasing as a mechanism for letting off steam.  While I understand this, all I knew was that my already challenging photographic series now had a sinister side to it, which was tricky to navigate.  I also found the research very emotionally damaging, which I think came through in the final series.  

Why am I discussing this here?  Well, since the unit completed, I’ve sought to find some measure of calm before the next course starts in a week or so.   I’ve spent some time taking photographs, thinking of new ideas for series and generally getting my creative head together.  I’ve also had to respond to some ongoing health concerns by completely overhauling my diet, which has helped me relax and given me more energy.  Training for my 12km swim in the summer has also intensified, which also seems to help. What I’m getting at here, is that there are much healthier ways of finding calm than ranting on the internet, particularly at the detriment of others.  We’ve all heard the mantra “be kind to yourself”, but I wonder how many of us actually do just that.  Finding another outlet for our frustration or anxiety can only be a good thing.  

How do you find calm?  Let me know in the comments.

If you haven’t seen my series Modern Monsters, you can find it here:

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Insightful blog, and it chimes with my recent thoughts on social media. I'm trying to wean myself off it. Twitter suddenly became easy to stay away from when my third party app stopped working. I've not been active on FB for some time, although keep the account as there's a family group there. Not on any other social apart from LinkedIn, if that counts. I've started signing up for various newsletters instead.

I feel like I've shut the door on a massive argument, and it helps give some perspective.
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