A few Saturdays ago I joined one of Pete Ashton’s recent series of Sensory Photo Walks, this one being created in collaboration with SOUNDkitchen. The purpose of Pete’s photo walks is to explore a location and take photos, prompted by Pete’s suggestions on how we might reframe what’s around us. The most recent series of walks have been informed by an extra layer of influence – on mine this was SOUNDkitchen’s Iain Armstrong’s gentle audiophile exercises in how to listen to the world.
I’ve long believed that seeing the world is a layered and inherently inaccurate, lazy and filtered undertaking that tells us as much about the unreliable agents our brains are as it does about what’s actually out there. Fortunately, the process is something that can be derailed, broken down and fine-tuned for our better understanding of the world and our enjoyment of it, if we know what to do. The Photo Walks provide a means to slow the moment of observation down to the point where we notice what we notice, what to do about that and how to adjust it. The audio world is perhaps even less noticeable, routinely filtered out immediately we’ve identified something as a threat, a nuisance or nothing. In September, SOUNDkitchen created a walk for the festival looking at (or listening to) those themes, revealing the many aspects of happens when we choose to listen to something.
What happens when you let one approach lead to the other? Can listening to the world then affect the way you see it?
One aspect of the Photo Walks that I find interesting is the slowing down of the time it takes to frame and take a photo. What seems like a relatively straightforward decision turns out to be fraught with conflicting motives. The first effect I noticed is also echoed in Karen Strunks 4am project: it’s easier to take photographs in a group than solo, particularly so with a leader. Karen’s events take place in the middle of the night, are often locations you can visit anyway but despite that are usually booked out instantly. The value is that you are not undertaking the experience alone. Being freed from the perceived role of outsider (in both Karen and Pete’s events) affords more time to weigh up the location, what it is doing, how you feel about it and what the shot should therefore be. Looking at things becomes the norm, whereas undertaken individually it can appear suspicious or even confrontational. People in the group (which can get quite spread out) are thinking alike, and knowing this can be a consolidating force. They have planted a temporary flag and the lone, unfocussed pedestrian who encounters the school is the awkward newcomer who will cross the road, or apologise for interrupting.
I found being freed of the need to finish a shot quickly, and actively being led by two authorities really allowed some active consideration. How this actually manifests is an individual moment (and my photography is shit) but I found I was doing things I wouldn’t normally do. The opening exercise was a sweeping search of the quality of sounds in a rare wide-open spot in the city centre. Sounds were coming from all directions: nearby skateboarders grinding and clattering, a train zipping by, traffic hum from the city. I listened for the most distant sound and then applied the feeling of perceptive expansion to the visual horizon too. The results stretched the capacity of my compact camera’s zoom function and revealed the kind of hazy pylons, masts and overhead signal gantries beloved of Tarkovsky or Godspeed You Black Emperor. Were they good photos? No. Did it alter my perception of the world? Yes!
Elsewhere I matched sonic rhythms to visual ones and considered the notion of duration in a photograph (by switching to the Fireworks setting in a dark road tunnel). In the car park of the Dog’s Home I looked for visual puns and stoopid jokes.
Towards the end of the walk, I spotted a very narrow aperture between two buildings, several feet deep but perhaps only six inches across. I told the people I was walking with about a movement artist (Vanessa Grasse) who recently has become interested in squeezing into narrow alcoves and hollows in the urban context. Would any of us fit in? I didn’t really expect anyone to try but one adventurous woman was curious enough to shed camera and coat, and shuffle into the gap. I took a photo – we all spotted it was a great photo opportunity. I sensed that it was the instructional walk, the social environment of fellow creatives and the unspoken seizing control of the area that allowed this wonderful moment to happen at my suggestion.
Conclusion: ’Group looking improves the world.’