Photography and the Politics of Experience

Photo Essays is a series on the Phoblographer where photographers get to candidly speak their mind about a specific subject or project of theirs. Want to submit? Send them to editors@thephoblographer.com.

All images and text by Greg Turner.

I’m an amateur photographer, motivated to try and understand the world and the people who live in it a little better through the medium of photography.

It has taken me a good few years of taking pictures for me to figure out what kind of photographer I am. My father enjoyed photography and like everything else he was interested in, I also wanted to be able to take good pictures. My first camera was a little Konica Pop, so called because the built in flash would ‘pop’ up out of the camera body on a spring loaded hinge. I used to stand for minutes at a time staring through the tiny viewfinder, trying to steady my hand and compose my shot. I naively thought that the longer I waited, the steadier my hand would get and the better my shots would be. They never were. They were always just snaps and so the interest faded a little more each time I got a roll of film back.

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I’ve dabbled several times since in adult life, enjoying bursts of enthusiasm and some creativity but without ever really anchoring myself to a particular genre or theme or purpose. Consequently, after the initial desire to progress and get better had been satisfied, my enthusiasm faded and so did the interest in the subject.

My most recent ‘purple patch’ was stimulated by becoming a father myself and wanting to record the experience of a growing family. Like most men I was again keen to master a technical skill and enamoured by now being in a position to afford the expensive gear you dreamed about as a boy. My enthusiasm was maintained by a sense of progress largely achieved by acquiring more expensive kit. But that sense is just that, a sense. It isn’t real. There comes a point where you either have to anchor yourself creatively and really start to develop or else, like before, accept that the interest will ultimately wane when there’s no more gear to acquire.

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I got to a point last year where I was acutely aware of being on the edge of something more than just enjoying the gear and technical mastery. I’m not sure why or what catalysed this, most likely it was a midlife crisis and a sense that all the creativity I’d had a child had some how evaporated in chasing other things like a well paid corporate job. When the gear and technique stopped feeling like it mattered so much I found myself really looking at the pictures I was taking and trying to figure out if there was any real theme to them, if there was anything I could anchor to. If there was any art. That was when I realised I had to figure out what kind of photographer I really was.

I’m painfully aware that I fall uncomfortably into the category of ‘men of a certain age’. I’m desperately trying not to be a cliché but I realise that irrespective of what I say or do, there’s no getting away from the fact that I’m in actual fact a white, middle class forty something bloke. I’m not sure how my gender, ethnicity or class are even relevant. I suspect it makes it harder to be authentic as after all, each of those characteristics is supposed to confer some sort of advantage in life, or at least denote that whatever the sum of my experiences might have be, they represent something more comfortable or less traumatic than those of many other people.

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So this essay is me trying to be authentic about what kind of photographer I am and why I am that photographer versus any other. And in order to be authentic I have to be honest. This, if you like, is my testimony.

It’s fair to say that my first six years at school were pretty horrific. From the age of four to 12, in what in the UK is classed as ‘primary school education’ I was both literally and metaphorically alone. After the first difficult year, the solution that the school came up with for addressing whatever the problem was (and to be clear that problem was systematic and unrelenting conflict with all of the other kids and the teachers) was to sit me on my own. I did this for five years. But even sat on my own, I was still in conflict with those around me on a daily basis.

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Retrospectively I learned as an adult that I can be quite challenging and dogmatic. This became very apparent in my 20s and while I mellowed in my 30s and finally accepted myself in my forties, whatever underlying defect it was that drove this was also the cause the conflict I experienced as a small boy at Catholic Primary School. My experience probably falls into the category of abuse, though it was strictly emotional, never physical. Indeed, I was always large and strong for my age and so my way of dealing with the abuse was to get violent. I was close to being removed from the school several times but somehow managed to make it through and since then, the experiences have been a defining feature of who I am. It is something I’ve always sought to understand and come to terms and I’ve done this repeatedly at difference points in life. Not because I brood or harbour anger over what happened but because I know that my understanding of it changes over time. Everything is relative to your perspective.

So what has all this got to do with photography?

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Actually I think nothing at all. That’s the point. This isn’t about photography; it’s not about what kind of camera I use, the lens, the f-stop or the lighting. It’s about who I am really. Isn’t it always about that? But to use a photographic metaphor for a moment, I’ve been making sense of who I am more thoroughly in the last few years through the lens of my camera and as a form of therapy it’s been very effective.

The psychologist R. D. Laing, among the books he authored, wrote a short but incredibly compelling work called ‘The Politics of Experience’. In that work, which focuses on the nature of our experience of other people, he wrote the following:

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“I cannot experience your experience. You cannot experience my experience. We are both invisible men. All men are invisible to one another. Experience used to be called The Soul. Experience as invisibility of man to man is at the same time more evident than anything. Only experience is evident. Experience is the only evidence.”

Laing is making an existential argument, saying that because our experiences reside within our own consciousness, and because our own consciousness cannot be experienced by anyone else, we are thus invisible to each other. Our experiences of others are solitary and unique. And yet they are still evidence of who we are.

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Much as I admire and engage with Laing’s argument, the idea that all men are invisible to one another, while true philosophically (and existentially) speaking, isn’t something most people would identify with. It’s certainly not bathed in the warm glow of humanity.

People need to be with other people and to understand them and themselves. If I am to really know someone, I should at least try to know what William James referred to as the three selves; the person I see (and experience), the person as they see themselves and the person as they really are.

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This is the kind of photographer I am. I take pictures of people as much because it gives me the opportunity to engage with other people as I do to make their picture. And the skill and art of my pictures (if indeed there is any, I’m still very unsure) is not the skill of the photographer but the skill of one person’s ability to engage with and understand the humanity of another person.

By engaging, particularly with a stranger, I have the chance to learn something about them and in doing so, I learn something about me and this helps me make sense of who I am. I long since came to terms with what happened to me as a child, and I don’t for one moment feel remotely sorry for myself or angry. But what I do carry with me, is the perpetual need to understand others and myself and I find that photographing people is the most rewarding way I’ve found of doing this.

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In particular I find that shooting Street Portraits, formal portraits of strangers persuaded to pose breaks down this existential barrier between us (and within us). It best captures the essence of what happens when two people meet and there are really six people in the room.

There is the person as they see themselves; how they chose to present themselves to the world when they stepped out of the door that day. And then how they choose to present themselves to the camera. It reveals something about them that we would otherwise not see.

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There is the person that I see in that moment; it forces me to acknowledge the thing that caught my eye and the story that that conveyed to me as interesting; the sense that the sum of their experiences are probably very different to mine and therefore offer me some insight I can benefit from.

And there is the person as they really are; the photograph that everyone else sees and interprets in their own way and what that tells us about our humanity.

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A friend and fellow photographer once said to me that the art in any portrait in in the space between the photographer and the subject; in the questions that that space leaves unanswered and the tension that it creates. These street portraits aim to explore that space from the perspective of the ‘politics of experience’.

For me street portraiture (and portraiture in general) represents the essence of the photographer’s skill and is where we get closest to breaking down the invisibility between us.

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