Changing Your Photography (or I hope David Bowie didn't die because of me)

Ch-ch-ch-ch changes. Changing your photography is not to be feared. Following a recent health scare and serious surgery to excise a huge tumour from my body, I had to wait for the results of the biopsy on this new part of me which had been removed. The wait was ten days. These were probably the longest ten days of my life so far. During this time I had to face several real concerns and possible scenarios, some of them were definitely not good. Deep, self-existentialist thought and a forced renewed acceptance of one’s own mortality were an unusual way to spend Christmas, but yet strangely not an entirely unfitting mindset with which to face a new year. Perspective. Priorities. Penance. When the day finally rolled around, I had to keep it moving and try to bury the worst feelings deep down in my stomach with all the old time gathered there. The news you get from doctors at such moments can be delivered giftwrapped in mercy or left like a soggy note on the door informing you of a package that couldn’t be delivered, requiring further pursuit of happiness on your part to collect. I don’t know if it’s just Thai doctors per se but the words come from their mouths in such a nonchalant manner. They can hit you like bullets from a rusty old Cambodian revolver in a cheap Thai hit, straight in the abdomen. There are rare moments when I almost wish that I didn’t speak Thai and it was all just noise, I would only then understand the English that people tried to carefully put together for my benefit during such situations and ignorance would be bliss. After he had finished checking on my large, healing wound (as I pretended to be much less worried than I really was), the doctor proceeded to tell me that the lab results had shown the tumour to be benign. The relief is hard to describe but in the words of Shelley  “I have drunken deep of joy, and I will taste no other wine tonight’, I think I can relate. Then I found out that Bowie died of cancer on the same day. I have since wondered if the universe had decided that it came down to him or me, and given me the nod. If so, I feel that a terrible mistake might have been made, but it’s like telling the waitress in the restaurant that they forgot to include the coffee on the bill.  Sure, you feel a little bit bad but sometimes you catch a break and there’s no time for the guilt fairies…keep it moving. So, in the spirit of the late Mr. Jones, and in order to justify my recent luck, I think I’ll be mixing it up a bit and reinventing my approach from now on.


There’s been something of a photographic trend on the web in recent times to champion the simple approach in terms of less equipment and a fixed style of work. I’ve read countless sorts of articles and posts all over the shop along such lines and I have often followed the advice to ‘stick with one thing, one lens, one camera, one vision’ or other such invariable factor of choice. Less is more, you know the kind of thing. There’s definitely a benefit to that, especially if you are new to photography or looking to get back to basics but I think there’s a lot to be said for variety. Ah, beautiful Bangkok. Shooting a Polaroid of a traffic jam in the rain on a Monday, 120 colour film intense orange tropical sunrise over the city skyline on a Wednesday and rangefinder black and white film noir for the weekend sir.


Mr. Bowie didn’t always get it right, but he kept on trying new things and kept it rolling along with new ideas and fresh style. I think that it’s almost become considered somehow ‘wrong’ by many to play around and experiment with consistently changing up your photography, be it equipment, format or style. This seems to be a paradigm shift of late. People can be quite evangelical about it as though to impose upon you how you are somehow ‘not getting’ the foundation to their self-perceived Zen picture making mantra. There’s definitely a dogma to it. I had previously been more affected by this kind of thinking than I had perhaps been aware of. I belittled myself at the idea of going out with more than one lens on my person. As though I was letting myself down by having a second focal length option. Another classic quandary for me is how much of a big deal it often seems in my head to carry colour and black and white film at the same time. It’s almost like some kind of cardinal sin in my mind, quite ridiculous really. I have decided to be less bothered about such irrationality and have some fun trying out new directions in my photography. I will try things that I haven’t tried before and take some chances.


Bowie inspired chance taking in photography. Take a look at what the late Duffy did for the iconic ‘Aladdin Insane’ lightning bolt across the face series. They were just incredible; ludicrously expensive dye transfer reproductions from colour transparencies on plates custom made in Switzerland. Seriously? Then there’s Masayoshi Sukita’s re-imagining of Heckel’s ‘idiot’ as a hero via Bowie and his hands.  Like a lot of the best ideas, it was simple and deceptively obvious. A look later copied by contemporaries of the era on their album covers too. As for his most long standing photographer, Bowie said “Mick sees me the way I see myself”, imagine the changes that the good Mister Rock had to keep up with, more like he probably went through them himself.


I need to catch a wind of change myself. I often feel that I’m chasing something I can’t quite keep up with in my work. On rare occasions, I get just close enough to whatever it is I’m looking for in the Bangkok negatives hanging up to dry that I feel briefly kept in that place I want to be. Yet no sooner am I in it, than it loses its appeal and I question myself as to what I’m doing there in the first place. What is it with my work? It’s maddeningly on and off.  When you do eventually get settled in a nice spot with your photography, it can become stale overnight without warning. I used to be blissfully happy shooting at one place in Bangkok; I shot one project there alone which took me five years. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.  I felt it to be akin to a river in a Hemingway story. It just kept on giving and feeling so right. Now the place bores me, it feels trite, unwelcoming and infertile…more like a dried up Euphrates.  I can’t believe the difference but I have to accept that it must be a difference within me. I know the location is still good.  I find it easy to get stuck in such a fashion. At times like this, the best way out is always through. The way through this is to make like Bowie and change. We don’t like change, knowing how (and more importantly of course, knowing when) is not always obvious to us. It can be scary and confusing and we will often go to great lengths to avoid it. I think this is why the art of photography represents a challenge to people from the very beginning.  Perhaps it also pervades our photographic lives over the long haul.  Don’t fear it, embrace it. ‘I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring’, I’m with you David…I’m with you.