How do we engage with a subject by using a camera? What do I mean by engage? In September I traveled to Uganda to help a friend shoot a documentary (www.frmichaelschildren.com). Since I’ve been back, I’ve talked to individuals and classes about my experience in this country, and the politics, climate, attitudes, people, media, and landscapes I encountered. But what about my “job”? What about that camera that stood between me and the world most of the time? What was it about my experience that was unique because of my position behind and with the camera? Aside from some b-roll, interviews and events recorded for random jobs, this was my first real foray into documentary filmmaking, and my first extended time period, almost three weeks, to dedicate to capturing a world. And I’m curious as to how it all functions, even after the fact, how I can dissect and understand my role in that experience.
In general, I suppose you could say that our team knew what we were going to shoot (interviews, a hit list of significant buildings and events, b-roll), and that that list got tighter and a bit more inspired as the days went on and we grew more aware of the place. But the question of what “I” was going to shoot (and why) always remained. I was working with a Director/Producer who trusted and knew me, so she wasn’t looking over my shoulder every second, she had her own jobs to do. So I knew, that that elusive perfect frame was what I would always be looking for, like finding a quote on a page, or a glance from a crowd. I’m in the right place at the right time, now how do I prove it? How do I even begin to navigate it?
Looking back, I have to say, that at first I felt like a large scale artist, the mural painter, the landscaper, the draftsman, one who silently backs up from the object, looks around, waits, and then steps forward to begin the detailed, solipsistic rendering of a single, but inherently pluralistic object/world. I was in a 360-degree space, with smells, textures, sound, minute and grandiose movements. And from the moment I arrived, my framer had to be turned on, looking for rectangles that wanted to be seen and re-seen, that could continue to live and perhaps would thrive in the 2D space I had to offer.
How do we begin (most likely on the spot, in a hurried moment, people waiting, clocks ticking, light changing, things moving) to figure out what is representative, eye-catching, fascinating. I could end this now by saying it’s all a gut reaction to what I see before me, that gut rooted in experience and training, but that answer bores me, and so, I continue.
The first place for me to start was realizing that my feet were on new soil, that things, although familiar, due to a shared planet, species and hierarchy of needs, were fresh to my eyes, rearranged, under a different part of the sky. Secondly, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a hired photographer AND I’m a photographer anyway. That is to say, yes, I’m here for a reason and have a job to do, but this is also how I think and like to think, I exist in step with my chosen artform, my way of looking at the world. It’s not just a technical professional, or even just my crutch or my therapy for that matter, it’s my normal mode of operation. This “job” however was my ticket to exploration and obsession, deflecting the shyness I might have regarding my camera-like perception and the worries of missing something “real” because i’m behind the camera all the time (yes, that age-old thought).
There I was. I immediately started to absorb and collect the details, warm pebbly reddish clay ground, tinted light bouncing off of brilliant blue painted shutters and walls, dusty running feet, countless broad green banana tree leaves, and friendly, curious eyes, blinking in a sea of rich smooth skintones. All of these parts would certainly find their cameo behind or with my subjects. But what is surfacing as critical in these panoramas? What should I keep my eye on? In a moment, my eyes vaguely answered: subject and subtext, motion and quiet, light and color, texture and depth, graphic structure. Vague, of course, but getting somewhere.
I start to play tag to find the images. My turn first: I spin and tilt and pan waiting to find that certain rectangle in the crowd. Tag, your turn. I stand, eyes away from camera and you illuminate yourself make yourself noticeable in the wide picture. You tag me and I chase after you again.
We’re at a primary school most of the time, walls and gates providing a clear perimeter. I could see that this walled-in community was an incredible production stage, a living set constantly and continually ebbing and flowing. Things match, patterns emerge, the light from an expansive sky with almost no electric competition, is used to this place, it knows what to do. It was staged and playfully hard, outlining its own shot choices for me… but the next day it would be incredibly soft, denying its source and focusing on color, most often the softest pale blue like a light watercolor wash over the entire school.
In this light, I look for things to converge and swell, to make their way towards the camera, for the two eyes to lock… or perhaps I set up a non-dynamic, but attractive frame and I wait for a performance, and perhaps in that limited space, that zoomed in world, the slightest hand gesture, a simple walk from the gate to the playground, can be a powerful dance with the elements, a tipping of emphasis, a surprise and a welcome expectation. In my attempt to explain shooting, I see that it’s all quite personal and poetic, perhaps a bit obvious, until I turn around…
…and I realized that while I was adjusting, assimilating, poising myself to watch, I was being watched right back. Those eyes put a spotlight on my stage, and now I notice that I’m performing too, my eyes squinting, my hands in their right places, tickling the camera, my backside, pushed out, legs often comically holding me up as the 4th and 5th legs of the Greater Tripod. And this, what I looked like, became a part of my role here as well. Whether I was out with the HD “powerful machine” (as noted by one of the teachers), my lightweight Super8 camera or a discreet point and shoot, I often gathered a bit of an audience. They were interested in it, not really in what I was shooting, but what I was doing. I was a dancer in the landscape for them, and they didn’t just want to watch from the audience, they wanted to be on stage with me and help me get my leg up on that barre.
In the single frame...
When I was out with the super 8 camera, I would get caught fumbling around, shooting the dirt, and the students would find it quite humorous. So, as they gathered, I felt increasingly nervous and reached for a way to diffuse this attention. I decided to let the kids shoot, I’d show them how, and let them pass the camera around. They got quite excited and lined up, shouted out, and reached for the camera. After a while, I did notice though that many of them only wanted to look through the viewfinder, to see how i saw. They didn’t even seem to care what the camera was pointed at, rather what it felt like to see that way. To cover one eye, to hold this object, to rotate the hips, to pause and stay steady.
Then what was most remarkable, was that this experience was totally opening up my relationship with the camera. Watching them mimmic what I had been doing was showing me that I wasn’t just there to record pretty pictures. In the much larger picture, backing up further from the mural, I could see that I was there to play the role of the photographer, and that by sharing this activity with them, I would be able to experience more in this space, to focus on be-ing there, which the gift of seeing then merely follows.
Now I’m activated and I have so many thoughts, so many questions: Should I take more chances? Run over to the bunny cage like they did… despite the darkness? What does this camera do? Is it threatening? Is it funny? Is it just so “cool” it doesn’t matter? That the object itself is so precious and fascinating, is that why we want to be captured by it? Being recorded is an engagement with the toy and its owner. The camera as a conversation piece, but in some ways, a “so what?” . . . let’s just see what this can do. Is your image a part of you and must be stolen or given away or is it merely a by-product of the action of a camera, a machine that clicks away because we tell it to? Does the image even exist if we never see it again? Who cares? I’m here now and we’re playing now.
All of this recording is not just a recording, it’s an activity: a public, communal, performative, silly, serious, charming, activity. A nun stands closely, rests her hand on my waist, holds a thorny rose branch out of the way and looks over my shoulder into the viewfinder to watch the framed interview unfold. Primary school children between classes form a large circle so they can pass an old Super 8 camera around with some semblance of order…the giggling circle collapses after 1 minute– after all, we are on a playground.
The documentary crew is asked to dance at the assembly, so the gear goes into trusted hands. A teacher zooms and pans wildly, while also looking quite professional and ernest during his first try as a documentary filmmaker. We played together, we danced together, I watched them in class, they watched me take pictures of them in class. I told them how beautiful everything was, they agreed. I know all of this to be true, thanks to the fact that I was shooting, and not necessarily because of what I shot.
A documentary will come of this and I am very pleased with and excited by its aims and its potential. But I’m also ecstatic to say that I received a gift of great revelation and encouragement from the people I met and worked with in Uganda that will forever effect that way that I shoot.
Oli mukwano gwange.