Learning to See

Ponsonby Auckland, NZ 2011 (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

Last year I attended an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, showing original works from Arbus, Friedlander, Evans, and Winogrand, among others. I felt as close to royalty as I ever had been, in that moment. It was an inspiration to see the prints, mostly small in size, in person, warts and all.

Currently I am re-reading Winogrand: Figments from the Real World, by John Szarkowski. This may be the fourth time I have issued the book from the Central Library although I always glean fresh new insights each time I read the book. The man himself was warts and all, and he gave us his only self in every picture. Except for the really early work, that is.

Winogrand’s earlier work during the ‘Eisenhower‘ years of the 1950’s was markedly different to the work he would produce only a few years later, post 1961. It was more reserved, more far away, and had it not been for the rest of his oeuvre, I would say it was simply lacking.

I think he was learning how to see. You could say these were his discovery years. I think what drove Winogrand to pursue his way of photography is as fascinating as the photographs themselves. Ultimately he became consumed by it, and towards the end of his life he had lost track of (or perhaps avoided) developing and printing, and simply kept shooting compulsively. He shot over a million frames in his lifetime (pre-digital).

It has taken me over 15 years to learn how to see. Trawling through thousands of my own film negatives and slides in the past couple of weeks, I have come to realize why I am doing what I am doing. I don’t think I knew that until now.

If something you do in this life makes you feel great in every way, then simply do that as often as possible.

There is no substitute.

The Road Ahead

Silverdale, New Zealand 2012 (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

Never look back on the road ahead.

The freedom of not knowing, not planning. Embarking into the unknown.

Cross the paths and lives of other men and women as you discover yourself on the road ahead.

Good days, bad days, it’s all one and the same.

As the sun dies, you make for shelter. The morning shall bring a new frontier.

Some nights are longer, colder, but solitude conditions you for the road ahead.

Take a trip, get away from yourself and embrace the world.

We sail through endless skies
Stars shine like eyes
The black night sighs
The moon in silver trees
Falls down in tears
Light of the night”

– Lyrics from Planet Caravan, by Black Sabbath, 1970

Comparing

Colca Canyon, Peru 2008 (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

English poet, Alexander Pope once said, ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’. I would add a new and less eloquent version of my own, ‘To compare is human’.

The topic of comparing oneself came up in conversation over coffee with a friend yesterday. We agreed that whilst this is not an uncommon impulse, it can quite easily become a trap. Much like the rabbit hole except with murky, swampy waters and a stench of envy.

We are all flawed in this life, that is just a fact of the human condition, however in the glow of Instagram and its various filters, you would not be remiss to think that we all live perfectly wonderful lives and are surrounded by the glow of the sun always. And by we, I mean everyone else but you.

They may be more attractive, have more wealth, more intelligence, and more success than you. You feel that you just don’t measure up to them, and as the feelings of inferiority fester, you fall down the trap and you sink deeper into a state you can’t get out of easily. This is the trap.

In reality, the only person you need to compare yourself to is: yourself.

As a photographer, I look at the work I did ten years ago versus the work I did last week, and that’s the only comparison I make. In fact, these days I am immersed in scanning my own film from the last 15 years of shoots, I have no time to even look at other people’s work (plus, I don’t have Instagram).

If you find Instagram or any other visual social media platform is causing you to feel this way, maybe take a break from it and surround yourself with real people and actual hobbies. Write down what you’re grateful for every morning, my wife just started doing this and it has turned everything from night into day.

Celebrate yourself vs envy someone else.

To compare is human; to choose not to compare is also human.

Beautiful Junk

Newmarket, Auckland NZ 2012 (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

Creativity for me usually starts without an idea, without assumptions or preconceived beliefs. I let everything go and start fresh. I feel my way through something until a pattern emerges. This only starts when I physically start, never in my head.

As I move through the process of creating something, I don’t steer myself in autopilot mode because then I become unaware. One of the hardest things to do, especially when you become more experienced in your craft, is learning how to discover it all over again as if it were the first time.

When you first discover your passion, everything else fades away. It makes you feel everything, and you’re intensely aware of what is going on. It’s a great state of focus coupled with curiosity. You are held in anticipation constantly. I strive for this always.

Consume and digest. Create and discard.

Self discovery, self reflection, beyond the surface, beyond material.

Always create.

Waiting for your Flight

Dallas Fort Worth, Texas Airport, 2017 (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

You wait for your flight and expect it will arrive on time because you simply can’t wait forever, you need to get to your destination. What if, however, the plane never comes? What if suddenly as you’re tracking the arrival, it disappears off the board, or off your phone app? What do you do then?

Maybe you approach the help desk, but they tell you the same old story… it’s running later than usual but they will announce updates soon enough. So you wait a little longer, you may call a friend or your partner and express your frustration, but you keep waiting.

As the hours turn into days, and the days into weeks, you forget how much time is passed because you are preoccupied on other things while you wait. Maybe you meet up with somebody that you haven’t seen for a while, or you check your social media, or catch a movie at the lounge, or maybe all of these things at the same time. You lose track of time and eventually you forget you’re waiting at all.

Years go by, and your life has taken some shape. You have managed to secure some opportunities, make some new friends, develop some new habits, and ultimately grow into a life you didn’t expect, all while waiting for your flight.

Suddenly one day you hear the announcement. The flight you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived and will be boarding soon. You’re conflicted, you don’t know what to think, or how to feel about it, and you struggle to make sense of it all. After all these years you ask yourself, ‘am I still headed to the same place?’

Some things are out of our control, so we make the best of a challenging situation. In time we adapt, we grow, we change, and we refocus, but we always find a way to get where we need to go. Be patient, it will come.

Life Project

Los Angeles 2017 (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

What is the acceptance criteria of your life project?

Do you have prerequisites that need to be met? Is your success measurable?

How much analysis do you conduct before entering a life project?

Are you managing risk, time, and budgets?

What is the level and frequency of your communication with the stakeholders of your life?

If the project is derailing, are you prepared to scrap it if necessary, or do you hold on persistently?

Finally, do you workshop the lessons learned at the completion of a life project? Do you celebrate the wins?

We all manage this life as best as we know how to, and it is certain that we will meet issues at certain phases of it. How we manage and respond to these issues will influence the success or failures of our projects. If we let the feelings of stress overwhelm us, it will skew our decision making abilities. If we become consumed with the granular detail, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture.

Sometimes all we need is a break, a reset, a refresh, a chance to re-align our goals and objectives before sinking more effort and energy into a project that is going off course.

Ask yourself this: what value will I achieve in my life project?

Utopia

Utopian Motel, Taupo, NZ (photo credit: Christian Espinoza)

For most of us, our lives are grounded in the reality of work, family, and commuting. If and when we catch a break, we likely switch on our phones and tune in in to some inconsequential videos, memes, or other people’s posts (like this one!). It’s not exactly a Utopian existence, but then what does that look like?

The notion of Utopia came from Thomas More‘s seminal book of the same name, and talked of a community with an ideal government and hardworking people making good with their time for the well being of themselves and others. So, not the hedonistic, hippy communes that sprouted in the 1960’s, but more of a big brother community that always has their eye on you wherever you go. So in a way, our reality is actually closer to More’s Utopia than we may think! Perhaps Google, FaceBook, and Apple read More as well and decided to create their own Utopia within the confines of their Valley lots, and in turn shaped the landscape of ours too.

We all live in within our own societal constraints, be they political, environmental, or financial. Few of us actually have direct power or control over that, however we all have a mind, and our mind can create many great things. It all stems from an idea, a belief. This can be used as a weapon just as much as an aid, but indeed powerful nonetheless.

Instead of escaping, and switching off, we should attempt to engage ourselves with what is going on inside. Delve deep into ourselves, our mind, our soul, and listen to what it’s saying. That very well could be our utopia in there.

Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”

– Hal Holbrook from Oliver Stone’s Wall Street