Posted on December 30, 2015
I like to look back at photographs I have taken and make connections. Often I will find them, because even though it feels at the time when I am snapping away, that I am being quite random, I have discovered when I later trawl through my images that I am actually quite purposeful and even economical these days when I photograph, tending to hone in on similar themes and subjects. This is, unfortunately the sacrifice of having less and less time to get out and about, I might add, and when I travel it is never with the sole purpose of immersing myself in the art, rather a side line of stolen moments when I have managed to escape family duties. So, my holiday snaps are just that, really, although hopefully something more than that now as experience has trained my eye in what to look for; like a cat I have become quite good at pouncing on opportune moments, with a child hanging off one arm and wielding a bottle of sunscreen in the other. Often I will take a number of pictures of a space or place which is interesting and then work on them later at home to create something I feel I can be proud of, or even sell. Other times it’s a one-off moment, although these days I favour working with layers over anything else, because it gives me freedom and a kind of complex simplicity which seems to be where I am most content in my creativity.
I am teaching English now and when I teach children how to write I try to reveal it as a practice of layering. There is no neatness to writing really; just like art, it is a messy, but wonderful business. Behind that final draft there are layers and layers of crossing out and re-writing, different coloured pens, feedback and comments, where I have asked them to think about things differently, or to dig deeper and find the layers of meaning. I try to show them that writing, just like art, is not an end product as such, but it is a process. A process of becoming. There is no good or great writer for whom the words just magically transpose onto the page. Good writers will cross out, they will edit ferociously; they will be critical of themselves and they will agonise over every single word until they have hit just the right note. Because good writers know that words, and how we put them across, are important; they have resonance. Nowadays, of course, the word processor often erases the visible marks of the editing process, but even when I write an essay now I end up with six or seven drafts before I get to a final version I am happy with, and when the children are writing I think it is important that they see this. It is vital that they understand that neat does not always equal good content. I ask them to take pride in their work and to take time, but I do not obsess over neatness because I feel it is highly overrated. My own handwriting leaves a lot to be desired and spelling might be a challenge, but it does not mean that I cannot be a good writer. We plan and write together on big flipcharts so that they can see for themselves how this process works: I might go back and change a word or phrasing I did not like; I might underline or highlight repeated words and look in a thesaurus for alternatives, or star in another sentence here and there. It’s a thoughtful process of revision and it is important that children see it as such.
Educators like Ken Robinson have been telling us for many years now that creativity is the most important skill we can foster in our children in order to prepare them for a deeply uncertain future. And if this is true, which I believe it is, then neatness is not a part of that. The world we live in today is a mess. It is complex. It is sad, but we must not attempt to simplify things for our children and belittle their intelligence. There is no matter of black or white any more. As I look out on grey, uncertain skies and hear the wrathful winds lash relentlessly at the chimney, I fear that it won’t be long until those old Victorian bricks give away, but most of all I fear that these storms are hear to stay. We must allow our children to see this whipped up mess that we have created and give them hope that they can navigate the storms more successfully than us. For this is imperative. The world may be a mess; it may be a hopeless shade of grey, but it is a glorious mess.
And now I find, once again, that meandering words have taken me in a direction I did not intend to go on this stormy morning. These are words I did not intend to write, but somehow they have been written. What I wanted to write about were portals, magic and mystery. My two children are endlessly preoccupied with science fiction and other fantastical stories about magical worlds. From Star Wars to Harry Potter, to The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, it seems the battle is always the same: the age old dichotomy of good versus evil (although of course the details vary wonderfully). There is great comfort in these stories too, for them, because, although they usually begin with feet planted firmly in reality, they quickly move into a different realm where fantasies can be played out and indulged in a grand scale, and of course, the children know that good will always overcome evil. This is even more important for them now that they realise that real life is not like this. Our children need great stories like this which provide them with refuge from the grey fog of daily life. As do we, I think.
Often these stories contain some kind of magic portal or entrance which allows humans to access the ‘other world’, like the twister which snatches up Dorothy’s house and dumps it in the glorious, technicolour Oz; the great old wooden wardrobe which houses those wonderfully evocative fur coats through which Edmund, Peter and Lucy fumble to reach the winter wonderland of Narnia; the platform 9 3/4 which boards Harry on his train to Hogwarts; or the famous rabbit hole (and later mirror) which transports Alice to Wonderland. Sometimes they are actual doors or gateways, like the wardrobe, or the door in Monster’s Inc. which allows the monsters to enter children’s bedrooms, but other times they can be a small object, like the magic key which transports Biff and Chip into different time period in the famous phonic adventure stories which those in the UK with young school age children will know and love. These portals or thresholds which provide passage from one world to another are important features of stories like this, because they are physical symbols of transformation and transgression, but also because they allow us humans the possibility of fantasy and of something else wonderful – of hope.
Without realising, I frequently photograph ‘portals’ – usually doors and windows, and I think many photographers do likewise. They are endlessly fascinating, so saturated with symbolic meaning, as well as being visually intriguing. And so my wordy saunter brings me back (not too neatly I hope) to my photographs and travels. This summer I was lucky enough to visit Brazil with my family, a country rich with cultural diversity and with a sheer expanse beyond my capacity of conception. It was not my first visit, and for the second time I was captivated by the dazzling natural beauty of Rio de Janeiro, as well as the impressive mountainous landscape of the countryside dotted with dusty little villages where locals sit on their doorsteps and lazily watch the world go by. Then there are the more touristy, but charming colourful seaside towns along the North East coast. I encountered many appealing doors, windows, and other less traditional gateways on our travels and have many tales I could tell, but looking back at them now makes me wonder about the prospect of exciting adventures to be had beyond the threshold of these portals, and the possibility of stories untold.
Without possibility, there is no hope.
© images and words by Emily Hughes, 2015
Posted on April 22, 2012
So, I’ve been blogging for two weeks now, and after my initial posting frenzy I have decided that I really cannot manage to post every day. The housework is starting to suffer, I can’t find anything, the washing pile is taking on a life of its own, and the children are, well, just hanging off me, literally, at any given opportunity. I get the message: they are starved of attention. I’m feeling bad, and things need to settle down now into a gentle, manageable rhythm – more moderato than presto, let’s say. With that in mind I have decided to limit my posting to three times a week (hopefully quality, not quantity, in the spirit of Friday’s post – see below), and I’m going to aim to do two shorter posts and one longer one each week (but, of course, I reserve the right to completely change my mind about all of that at any point in time).
Anyway, let’s get back to the point of this post which is not really about photography or phenomenology (directly, at least). The title is inspired by this lovely poem Colour Outside the Lines, by Jared Louche:
I was always told to colour inside the lines,
but sometimes lines just confine your mind.
From somewhere far down in the orange deep
I start to see new colours flowering all around me.
Confusion looks like black static-scrapes
on crinkled, white, burned-edge paper scraps.
Sleep’s always coloured deep-ocean green,
rivers of copper tug me through lavender dreams.
Bubblegumblebees swirl from my head
When I’m being silly in bed;
electric red-yellow wasps start to drone
when I’m an angry screaming cyclone.
Thinking hard at doing maths, my head follows
pencil-thin, jagged, rust-red paths.
Shouts are nasty, silver daggers stabbing
Huge policeman’s blue hands grabbing.
Whispers slip out on a crisp, cream strip
with chocolate-brown writing typed across it.
Snores have wide, blazing tiger bands.
Boredom has no colour but fog-grey on wet sand.
Birds chirp chatty, blue paint chips.
Dog barks are cloud-white with dawn-golden sparks.
Trucks rolling by burp grouchy black splashes.
Bicycle bells ring in shaky pink flashes.
Thunder blows a splatter of sickness-green grim,
brushed throughout in a bruised-blue trim.
Boiling kettles make tiny neon-yellow fish that swim.
When I sing a song,
a long string of loud,
rowdy colour explosions
slowly go floating
past my nose and
hilarious horns brightly
pop purple spikes.
Drums’ black splashes and
guitars roar orange-red slashes clash,
blue fuzzy bass feathers fly by and
white flecks of dry piano bone-specks
spatter across the mixing mess.
Glorious, glorious, colourful mess,
But music’s the colour I love the best.
It’s a wonderful, vibrant, symphony of colour. When I read it I think of a child allowed to run wild and just create: sing, paint, make music, dance in all the glorious clashing colours of the rainbow. And don’t we, when our children are little, encourage them to run wild with bright colours, to just be creative without restriction or adhering to form? But then, as they grow up and go to school, something happens and we start expecting them to conform. We start expecting them to be neat; to colour between the lines.
When my son was three he went to pre-school. We were living in Italy at the time. I remember one day his nursery teacher pulled me aside and expressed mild concern at the fact that he struggled to keep his colouring between the lines. She was so kind and looked so earnest about it and I remember nodding my head and trying also to look concerned, but inside I was wondering why on earth this was so important, that my son who was only 3, and just wanted to run around and be wild, should be able to pick up a crayon and colour in a picture without going over the lines. I shrugged my shoulders and assumed that it was some kind of cultural thing and decided not to worry about it. Now that he is 6 and I know much more about the education system, I understand completely why that teacher expressed concern. Of course, colouring is a pre-cursor to writing and we encourage nice neat colouring in schools and nurseries so that children will develop their vital fine motor schools that will allow them to in turn develop nice neat handwriting later on.
Except of course there are some children, like my son, who have no desire to conform, and no interest in learning to colour between the lines. For them, school is a long, hard battle of wills.
Last night, Alex and I had a rare night out in London to have dinner with some old university friends. The red wine was flowing, and as we picked at our tapas we got to chatting about all the extracurricular stuff we were up to. One of us plays lead guitar in a band and does gigs, the other is taking acting classes but has dabbled in singing too, and another is getting involved in her local community, doing a course in permaculture, volunteering in her local amateur theatre group, teaching youth theatre workshops and writing screenplays (she’s a busy girl). Alex is also very much into doing photography, but also painting, and his music (we have about eight guitars in the house, all of which he plays – we joke that they are breeding). And of course I am doing my blog and photography. This is all in our spare time, on top of holding down full-time jobs. (That is apart from me as I work part-time, but I like to think the children and the housework more than make up for the other 60% of my workload.)
We wondered why it was, that at this point in our lives, in our mid 30s, we have started to feel the need to reignite our latent creative urges, which have probably for most of us pretty much lain dormant since at least our free and easy university days if not since early childhood. None of us really do particularly creative jobs for a living, but we all felt the need for some kind of outlet in our spare time (or indeed, perhaps because of this). And we all felt like we had mostly suppressed our creative sides for so long for fear of not being taken seriously, or not being very good, or lack of confidence, or lack of time, or a combination of all of the above. It is quite scary to veer off in another direction and do something new. It takes more than a bit of courage.
It’s almost as though a fresh surge of creativity has welled up from deep inside us at the same time. Yet this time, there is an urgency about it. The lazy arrogance of youth has dissipated and its place there is determination and necessity. There is a sense that this is our last chance to get it all out while we are all still young-ish, and able and full of energy-ish. But it runs deeper than that, too. Many of us at a certain point in our lives realise that maybe we might want to try walking that alternative path that we could have taken, but didn’t for whatever reason. Maybe, like me, your parents or your teachers discouraged you from following more creative subjects at school because they weren’t ‘academic’ enough and were unlikely to secure you a place at a ‘good’ university or give you those elusive ‘opportunites’ to forge a decent, respectable career.
I loved art at school. It was my favourite subject along with English, but I never took art A-level because it was just never really valued as a subject. And people (even teachers) would say, well what are you going to do with art? How crazy is that, really? And how crazy is it that vulnerable, immature 16 year olds who know nothing of the world are forced into making life-limiting decisions like that which will ultimately fashion the path they will take in life. These are the first steps we take in narrowing our choices in life rather than broadening them, and narrowing our minds.
Education is the key factor here, of course. The other day I came across a talk on TED by Sir Ken Robinson (I love TED talks – I have the app on my iPhone and watch them whenever I can snatch twenty minutes here or there) on the subject of how schools kill creativity in our children. His premise is that the global education system stifles creativity in our children in order to prepare them for an ‘ideal’ life of academia. But of course in reality this is not the kind of route that all children would desire to take, or indeed should. Why do we pressurise our children into aiming for a university education, why do we prize that above all else, when a university education doesn’t really get you a job anymore?
We are failing our children because we are not preparing them for an uncertain future, where creativity and the ability to innovate will be the most valued skills we can offer to the job market. For me it is also simply about teaching our children to be true to themselves. This is the key to creating happy, well-rounded, succesful individuals. The speech is fascinating, inspiring, sad and hilarious (I defy you not to laugh out loud at the anecdote about the girl drawing a picture of God). I highly recommend checking it out.
So I will try, (tenuously?) to bring this back to photography. I have actually been thinking about these points a lot with reference to the subject. The photograph I have included today is a picture of one of my son’s drawings. He likes to fill the page to bursting with lots of colour and lots of intricate detail. He often adds bits of torn paper with writing. It’s almost as though he cannot be contained by a piece of A4. There is everything original about this picture – my son conceived it, and coloured it himself, but there is nothing original about the photograph. It is a picture I have stolen from ‘real life’. This is something which I both enjoy and find frustrating about a photograph at the same time: it can’t exist in its own right, and (unlike other art forms) it has to be contained by its own form. I don’t wish to enter into a debate about whether photography can be art (I think unquestionably it can be), but I do question whether it can ever be truly original. You can’t colour outside the lines of a photograph… can you?
And if you can or could, what would that kind of photography look like?
© Emily Hughes and searchingtosee, 2012