The blog of Tokyo based photographer and photojournalist, Damon Coulter

Non-photography day

There is an interesting discussion (read collection of often hilarious abuse) on lightstalkers at the moment about the idea of non-photography day. This event scheduled for July the 17th this year was dreamed up by a Brighton-based artist Becca Bland (now there`s an unfortunate name) in 2006. She is urging people not to take photographs on that day and instead live the real, unmediated experience. She apparently had a bad experience in Thailand with travelling companions who spent there whole time taking photographs and thinks we are all too addicted to taking images of all and every aspect of our lives.

While I sympathise with her idea that people seem to look at the world through a viewfinder sometimes she is just being plain silly with this day. Photography is not a vice it is one of the worlds most powerful tools for quickly relating an experience to a wider audience: be that holiday snapshots, a fashion image, a portrait or iconic reportage. Let`s look first at her main bugbear: snapshots. Holiday pics ARE memories to be enjoyed. They are often taken as part of the whole experience of being in a place: the swapping of cameras, the pose, the arguing about fingers on lenses. angles and peace signs above heads infront of badly captured sunset; it is these stories that accompany the later show that you listen to, the photos pressed in your fingers just an excuse to tell them. True people sometimes pointlessly point a camera at things but they are not professional they often shoot only one frame and get on with enjoying the experience fully. As for the images that tell us things we wouldn`t otherwise know how can she think such things are unworthy? Even snapshots make the news now, from bombings in London to Abu Ghraib prison. As powerful as they can be it is still the photojournalist`s professional eye that can create images which really changes the world. Think of the image of the nalpalm attack in Vietnam with the little girl running naked down the road by Nick Ut that helped end that war, the 9-11 pictures of James Nachtway that galvanised a nation out of grief, the portrait of Che Guevara by Alberto Corda that made revolution and revolutionaries sexy. 

So by all means leave your camera at home if you wish and look at the world with real eyes. I won`t be, I feel that photography has too much to offer to not allow it to do the job it does so well. I don`t know about you but when I go somewhere I do not spend all my waking hours looking through a lens, even if I am working as a photographer there, no I experience the place, the event, the feeling completely and that I believe helps me take better pictures. I am not probably going to take a picture that shakes the world that day, but who knows? The most amazing thing could happen right in front of me and I`d feel pretty fucking stupid if I didn`t have my camera with me because I wanted to make a point. We often miss great photos at the best of times, let alone choosing a day to do it. Daft. 



6 responses

  1. Have you ever read Camera Obscura? I’ve only skimmed it, but I well remember the idea that photos kill rather than preserve memories. (Actually, maybe it referred to killing the PEOPLE in the photos.) Simply put the problem is that the photo replaces the memory with something that is not real. I really want to read the essay well… but I think the author (brilliantly) re-conceived what photos are all about…

    Anyway, I have more “non-photography” days than I’d like as it is, so no use worrying about the 17th. But I can relate to the person. There are certainly times when I intentionally leave my camera at home to purely enjoy a moment with family and friends.

    This life, at least is temporary, and we are always somewhere in the process of dying. We can’t hold onto anything, but there may be more beautiful ways of letting go that we need to rediscover in this technological age.

    May 9, 2007 at 2:32 pm

  2. Hiya Andy. I know what you mean when you quote that the photo replaces the memory with something that isn`t real. We all have the experience of looking at a snapshot of a place or event or even person that had a profound effect on us and feeling disappointed that that feeling doesn`t come across to who we are showing it to. But what I feel is that disappointment proves that we really experienced the thing, the camera didn`t get in the way, and when we are not worried about the need to impress others with our image we can simply savour the memory it evokes in us privately.
    I too sometimes leave the camera at home to go out and be free with my family and friends, but not as a conscious effort to enjoy the experience more, just because carrying kids and cameras and all the other things is a hassle. I often miss great photo opportunities at such times which is why I bought a compact camera to carry with me at all times.Infact I do feel when we are out photographing that we are more acutely aware of the environment we are in, we judge light, angles, position, we try to get new perspectives and basically more out of the experience. Many times I have been walking alongside a matsuri looking up for a place to get high above it all, a different image to the one from the street; or running around the backstreets looking for a way to get ahead of the action and often meeting interesting people along the way; new experiences that I couldn`t have had if I wasn`t photographing it. My Tattooed man and the old man in Kawasaki on my website were both chance encounters on other photo jobs. I have had countless more that I haven`t photographed too, because to do so would have been wrong. So I experienced them but because of not instead of photography. Yes I sympathise with her idealism but abitarily choosing a day to have “real” experiences is daft. Such days are most of our lives. If something is unusual, amazing or moving it is worth photographing and I do not believe that pointing a camera at it cheapens the experience.

    May 9, 2007 at 10:40 pm

  3. I think ultimately we make choices that affect How we experience reality. I have been looking through my new book, Koudelka, and thoroughly enjoying the work of a man who immersed himself (or still does) in his art/work. Yet it occurs to me that he chose a role — as photographer — to play in the unfolding events around him. He became the one searching for the soul of the moment and documenting that on film. It’s an amazing work. In that choice, though, he put himself behind the camera and separated himself from the other actors on the stage. I guess what I’m saying is that, in my experience at least, it’s very hard to have it both ways. I’m either a player or the photographer, but when I try to be both I end up doing neither very well. I’m always literally wandering away from my family and then trying to find them, for example. During the recent matsuri, I simply disappeared for two hours and then “came back” again. In the end, I’ve found that my preferred mode is to take my camera out by myself and become totally immersed in photography for a day, or (ideally) let my family know and disappear for an hour or so.

    But as I read, it seems like you can do both, and I’m glad you can. That sounds great and I wish I could operate that way more often.

    May 10, 2007 at 1:12 pm

  4. I should add that I DO often go out with my camera just in case. I agree, it’s better than missing the killer shot. But sometimes having a camera results in the wandering off and disappearing mentioned above… I’m “bokei”.

    May 10, 2007 at 1:15 pm

  5. Andy it is hard to do both, you have 3 kids and that means a minimum of four arms to hold them and a camera. A fifth if you want to hold the camera steady!
    I cannot often take photographs when out with my family and do the same as you. Some of the money I`m getting from shots is convincing my wife that this is more than a hobby so she lets me go off and do “my thang” sometimes. But I love actually being with my kids and playing and I am not prepared to miss out on that so I become a happy snapper with them, indulge the ultraman poses they pull; the climbing over me and the all the rest. I take pics for memories on those days, they are not always great art, they are often not actually, they are not even the point, I am having fun but I want to record it anyway because it means something to me.
    The problem I have with Becca Bland and her idea is that she thinks she is the only one to have realised that taking photographs all the time ruins the experience. Everyone knows that which is why no-one I know does it. Not all the time, but sometimes, a lot, we take pics, it is our job, our passion and part of our experience of the day. Whatever day that is: family outing or a photoshoot. I have absolutely no problem with her reasoning and her wish to put down the camera for a day. I do have a problem with her need to turn a personal conviction into an intrusive request on other people`s private lives for no other reason really (probably) than blantant self promotion. Why does it have to be “a day” such things celebrate something worthy or valuable, the nonphotography on the other hand day celebrates nothing. She is an artist that wishes to celebrate non creation on that day, does that not seem strange to you? If she`d just shut up and do it herself rather than turn it into a media event that clebrates her strikingly unoriginal idea I would let her be and so would most of the photogs that are ripping into her on lightstalkers. We also wouldn`t be having this conversation and I wouldn`t be giving her much more publicity than I had planned when I started this topic. 
    Take care, thought I saw you in Hachioji yesterday but I was in a rush to work. Must catch up soon.

    May 10, 2007 at 11:25 pm

  6. You probably did see me. I was sitting in front of Starbucks with a group of people, and then we went to lunch. Too bad we couldn’t connect. One of these days when you’re passing through let me know and maybe we meet there for coffee or lunch.

    May 11, 2007 at 2:16 pm

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