For my capstone, Picture Story, this week we had some assigned readings. We've continued our reading on Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird," which is actually a book about writing but is still very applicable to photography. At first, I thought the chapters we were assigned this week — "School Lunches" & "Polaroids" were a bit less applicable to photography . But then I got to thinking. Lamott first writes about how she uses an exercise about writing about your school lunches as a kid. This exercise, she says, is interesting because the writer will remember details that he or she did not think were important before. And things will start to really come into focus about something from your childhood you never really thought about.
Lamott explores these things — such as the fact that grape jelly was the best jelly, hands down. And how apricot jelly was the absolute worst, only second to the icky raspberry jelly, with all of its seeds (funny, because I used to love grape jelly and now I can't stand the stuff and now only really like raspberry jelly). Lamott provides a sample of her writings about school lunches, which explores what one's brown bagged lunch actually means — she explores how it is a representation of how OK your family is. As she writes about that, she remembers a boy standing along the fence at recess, with scuffed shoes and a trumpet case — probably an outsider with not-so great school lunches. And this boy along the fence becomes an important character that Lamott will use later on when she actually writes something real.
I think this chapter, "School Lunches," is applicable in a few ways. First of all, I think the idea of photo exercises is important (these exercises are also outlined in the chapter "Polaroids," but I did not resonate as much with that chapter). I think when one goes out to shoot, especially on assignment, he or she can get bogged down by "the shot" — the front page picture, the expected single or the photo story. This is similar to how a writer can get bogged down with the idea of the elusive novel, the long piece ahead of them. For photographers, I think it's important to explore the edges of an event, what's on the perimeter of what's to be expected — it may not be journalistic, it may not run in the paper, but it's fun. And you may find someone completely unrelated to whatever you're covering at that point, as you "play around" while shooting. And they just may be an interesting character that develops into a story.
I also thought the point of "School Lunches" was that we should focus on things we care about. Every one, growing up, had their favorite part of a school lunch — whether it was school-provided or homemade. For me, my favorite lunch was the school-provided Chicken Patty Day, which was every Wednesday. This lunch always featured, without a doubt, a chicken patty, mashed potatoes with white gravy, peas, a dinner roll with butter and a carton of white 2% milk (OK, sometimes it was corn instead of peas, but I digress). I remember every part of this lunch was integral to its delicious-ness, and I would always eat it the exact same way. I would sit down, cut my chicken patty into bite size pieces and dip it into obnoxious amounts of ketchup. Then, my peas would be swirled in with the mashed potatoes, which I would then dip my butter-laden dinner roll in. Then, it would be washed down with the cardboard-flavored 2% milk. Looking back, I probably would not eat that food now, or even get that excited about it (we know those aren't real mashed potatoes), but to me, it was my favorite day — Chicken Patty Day, hump day, Wednesday — and I looked forward to its mundane-ness and routine-ness.
So, Chicken Patty Day was important to me. And that's what I would write about. But someone else might remember their favorite type of yogurt their mom put in their school lunch — which makes me think of the girl who sat at my table who only everate yogurt, which I didn't even realize until I graduated and found out she had an eating disorder. And exploring what we think is important, or what's affected us in the past, based on who we were surrounded by as children and growing up, will lead us to better stories. Because if we care about something, we'll be more passionate about it, which will drive our stories (photo or otherwise) to be that much better.
This reading was a great pair to the Hurn & Jay article "Selecting a Subject," which explores the same idea that a photographer must choose a subject (as in, topic, not a person) that he or she cares deeply about. The two authors go on to reflect past work, which they decided was trying too hard to photograph like other famous photographers. The authors assert that once one approaches a subject that one can be immersed in, the passion will drive the photographer to develop a style and take his or her best pictures.
I think this fact that is explored in this article — doing personal, passionate work — was something that it took me a long time to figure out. And it also too me a long time to figure out how to stop photographing like the photographers I admire — the Danes, the LUCEO team, etc. When I first got to Denmark, I went crazy and photographed as I thought the Danes did — stylized, blurry, high-contrast, out-of-focus. And although I still apply these types of things to my work, though they've still inspired me, I find that if I connect with my subjects and really care about it, I don't have to try to have a style — it just comes naturally. And I think that's something that's really hard to learn, but once you realize it, it just works.