It'd been a bad month, I was suffering from photographers block. No amount of pushing myself to make interesting or engaging photographs was helping. As a feature photographer for a newspaper I try to come back from every assignment with engaging photographs. When a new assignment brief arrives I sift through the details and try to simplify it in my mind, and maybe have some thoughts as to how to make a photo.
I don't like to have too many preconceived ideas about how to make an image before arriving on a photo shoot. But lately I'd had a feeling that what was holding me back was the way I plan out ideas for photos. Perhaps I spend too much time thinking and not enough time seeing. As National Geographic Photographer Sam Abell said: “My best work is often almost unconscious and occurs ahead of my ability to understand it.” So this time no preconceived ideas would be brought to the assignment. My mind would be a blank canvas, looking out at the world as my only source of inspiration.
I arrived at the North Pole Christmas Tree Farm in outer Melbourne, the brief was simply to make an arresting image to tie in with a Christmas wrap up. Once a year the Christmas tree farm gets some interest from one media outlet or another. So it was going to be a challenge to make an original image. It was difficult to remove all the images from my head that had been made by other photographers. Not to mention the concepts and ideas that just come to me as a habit. But I had to keep reminding myself that the world in front of my eyes would be my inspiration. I might create an image by manipulating various elements but I would find those elements and the underlying idea only when I had really observed the sights in front of me.
Fabio, the very helpful manager at the farm, wanted to know how he could help. Would I like to make a photo of a family packing a tree into the back of their car, or perhaps selecting a tree? I don't think Fabio quite understood why I just wanted to walk amongst the trees. I photographed of a bird in a tree, and the way the light rimmed the leaves. Nice imagery but it did not really say much about people preparing for Christmas. I saw a family in the distance gathered around a tree that had just been sawn. The father figure picked up the 7ft tree and carried it away from me to the road, three kids running along behind. Then I got a glimpse of the image that would break my drought, the man carrying a tree turned onto the road and his angle changed. For a second the tree and the man became one. It was so fast I almost missed it, but once my mind had realised it I started to laugh out loud. I had seen a walking tree.
The family was packing up fast as I ran towards them, hoping I could recreate that little scene. But I was too far away and a minute later I was admiring the light on the dust left by their quickly disappearing car. Dejected at first, I went back and told my story to Fabio. He happily volunteered to be my subject, and we recreated the scene together.
So what had I learnt about photography? Be observant, respond to what you see happening in front of you. Even if you are going to set-up a photo in the end, start by creating a situation where you can be an observer of life unfolding, and watch closely, especially the small or fleeting things.
Story & Photography By Craig Sillitoe. Craig Sillitoe is a newspaper feature photographer in Melbourne Australia. His blog at Photogrill
, is dedicated to interviewing photographers about making their best images.