through the lens

When I make a photograph, I am literally cropping out the rest of existence — its tension, its chaos, its hunger, its pain. For one small moment, I wall myself into a world of my own creation; a world where things may not make immediate narrative or logical sense, but where everything is in balance. Thin, almost pencil-drawn lines offset wide, flat spaces. The smooth hardness of glass acts as counterweight to the fine hairs of a polyester wig. I don’t have any pretensions of long-term escape. I know when I put the camera down, when I step back from the print, there will be something like an avalanche of smells and voices, car alarms and newspaper headlines, legal obligations and biological concerns.

I will be a part of things again over which I have no control. But for a moment, I have hidden long enough to take a breath.

Tim Lisko

I love this quote. He sums up the act of photography, for me. I’m not a professional, and I’m not even all that comfortable calling myself a photographer. I just love to make pictures. There’s a simplicity to viewing the world through an internal lens. There’s a real beauty to framing a scene just so; to understand the elements of a picture and work out how best to reveal that vision through my camera is a process less technical than instinctual for me.

I get asked sometimes whether photographing an event distracts me from what’s happening at the time. I don’t think it does – I actually think, sometimes, that a camera makes me more mindful of what’s going on in front of me. I recall events not as two-dimensional tableaux, but as dynamic, fired with movement, full of all the senses. A sidelong grin, a hand gesture, the colours of lights. I seal the moment in its entirely into my mind; I access it again through my images. Is it work shooting events? Sure it is. Is it a disadvantage to my overall experience? Absolutely not.

Getting that one great shot is a constant challenge. I take many more frames than I’ll ever need to use, but that one, that perfect one, is elusive. Iconic photos stay in the mind like constant zeitgeistish scenery, and you aim for one. Of course you do. You feel that Corbijn or Cartier-Bresson or Leibovitz looked at their most famous shots and thought, yep, that’s one for the record books. You can’t know either way. Do images stay iconic because they have a higher intrinsic quality than their peers, or do we self-perpetuate images as iconic?

I will probably never know that an image is the one, the most important, the absolute best it could be. Most of us will never be Carter in Rwanda; most of us will never see something that absolutely needs recording, needs to be seen. We just work on and hope that we stumble over that wily quarry at some point in our lives.

I love taking photos. I have that love that Lisko enthuses over in his artist’s statement – grabbing a moment’s peace out of chaos, finding at least one rectangle of world that is your vision and only yours. I love the instinct and the certainty of framing an image. With words, I self-edit and second-guess. With a photo, I’ll only try to change it for the better. It’s a freedom of expression granted by control – I can give of myself in photographs more than in words, because photos are, at the same time, intensely personal and entirely objective. It’s a beautiful contradiction, a beautiful balance. It’s just beautiful.

My photos live here. I’m definitely no Annie Leibovitz.


pulling a boat over a mountain

About nine months ago I did something very foolish, and now I’m just waiting for results.

Unprotected optimism, kids. Not even once.

In recent years, I’ve had a lot of health problems. I’ve suffered from depression for a long time, but about four or five years ago it ramped up from occasionally awful to totally debilitating for long periods. I got through some bits of uni with the help of deadline extensions, accommodating lecturers, and the best counsellor I could have had. In fourth year I started having real problems. I signed up to do a dissertation, then totally cracked up not long before the hand-in date and had to pull out of the year. I tried fourth year again the following academic year but had another breakdown in the spring.

I went on medical leave not long after, and tried to do the work in my own time to be ready to sit the exams.

You can guess how well that one went.

The past year or so has been better. My doctor switched around my meds to the most helpful combination I’ve had yet; I put in serious mental-health-related work; I applied for and was granted disability benefit, allowing me stop worrying about finding and being unable to do full-time work. And I decided to finish this degree for once and for all.

I did warn that this probably included too much optimism.

So in September I confirmed to college that I was going to sit the goddamn exams in May and breakdowns be damned. I don’t think I swore in the emails to my tutor, but I wouldn’t blame him if he did on receiving them. He is seriously great, but I’ve been the most annoying tutee I can imagine. I contacted all my lecturers and got the reading lists, then I bought textbooks. Any resurgence in the Irish economy last autumn was down to me and my dealings in Hodges Figgis. I could build a small house with the stacks of books, paper, and folders in my room – and they’ve probably cost me about as much as that small house would.

Then I looked at the calendar, saw that May was a long way off, and applied myself sort of patchily to work.

Autumn was fine; winter less so. I fell into a bad depression from about the middle of January until the start of March, and woke up out of it to find that I had two months until exams and quite a lot of stuff to do.

The rest is unfortunate history, and anyone who’s had me on Twitter over the last few months has seen the process. Insomnia, blasphemy, the odd midnight anxiety attack, far too big a reliance on tea and Diet Coke to substitute for sleep, and having to find and stream all of this season’s Doctor Who because I kept reading too long and missing it.

I’m being light-hearted, but teaching myself final-year law is probably the craziest thing I’ve ever undertaken. I keep forgetting that it’s a pretty exceptional thing to do and giving out to myself for not reaching the standard that my pre-mental illness self would have wanted. I’m not going to get a 1.1. I’d be happy with any honour, to be honest, but at this point I’ll take what I get. I’m just glad it’s over.

I don’t really know what baseline anxiety is for people without anxiety disorders. My friends say I’m knurd – so far past sober that I need two drinks just to be normal. Even so, I don’t recommend taking on a large and mostly unsupervised project like this. In general, too! Getting through this with my small claim to my sanity intact has required an iron grip on my brain. I did mindfulness therapy last year and, while at the time I thought it was a bit of a waste of time, I think some bits of it stuck. A grounding exercise, reminding myself that I only have to take care of this point in time and not all of the other, dreadfully intimidating, points, was useful.

(The bit of me that thinks it’s codswallop kept pointing out that that current moment was pretty hopeless too, but I mostly managed to keep her mouth shut.)

I sat the exams in the past few weeks, and did mostly okay. There’s only one I’m worried about, but I think that just about hit ‘okay’ too. I’ll know in a few weeks. I had one bit of coursework, which I handed in on time and pretty okay also. I came home from the last exam on Monday, drank a lot of wine, and have been as much asleep as awake ever since. It’s bloody lovely. I’d forgotten how nice books were when I don’t have to memorise them.

I think I’m going to be prouder of this when I know the results. I find it hard to see just getting there as an accomplishment (as I said to a frustrated parent, passing is the point – I could walk into my boyfriend’s college, sit his quantum mechanics exam, and fail it). Still, learning six subjects in a generally self-directed manner, fighting off several mental illnesses, and still having a partner, friends, and family speaking to me at the end of it is pretty good.

I can see that much.

A quick thank-you: you bunch of lovable [space] oddities on the internet have been a wonderful source of support. My Twitter friends and acquaintances have done more than they know to keep me sane(-ish) over this year. The 24-hour revolving pub door of Twitter is a support system and a distraction mechanism all at once. Twitter friends, you are bloody brilliant.

2013: Year of Getting Shit Done. And how.

[2013] exams and a total placeholder of a post

For reasons I’m not going into until the blasted things are over, I’m currently sitting final-year exams. I’m trying not to talk about them all the time, because there’s probably not much more boring than post-mortems of somebody else’s exam papers, or pre-game monologuing about subjects you have never sat**.

I have one down, five to go, and I’ll be done on the 20th of the month. I may be able to persuade myself to write something non-work-related on here before then. If not, this blog will be back properly in about two weeks’ time.

Well, two weeks plus about seventy-two consecutive hours that I’m reserving for sleep.

** because you’re a sensible person and I’m a masochistic idiot.

[2013] stargazers of the world, unite

(2013: the year of Getting Shit Done, and putting back into the world more than we take out of it.)

I love astronomy. I love it even though going outside to stand around a lot is a bit daunting in January, when nights are frosty clear but also, er, frosty. I’m absolutely no expert, but I’ve enjoyed becoming a bit of a backyard stargazer over the last couple of years.

Weapon no.1 in my arsenal: Google SkyMap for Android. I love this app. Auto mode can be iffy – sometimes it works beautifully, sometimes I’ve been left spinning in circles attempting to reset my recalcitrant phone. Manual mode is flawless, however – find a feature whose position you can tell for sure (Jupiter is a good one, often being the brightest object visible) and work from there. On auto you can also search for any night sky object and the app will guide you to it. The Time Travel feature is rather good, and the photo gallery has some spectacular images. The app is free. You have an Android smartphone? Download this. It’s helpful, but it’s also just quite nifty.

No.2: know what you’re looking for. Jodrell Bank Observatory does a rather good guide to astronomical events on a monthly basis. Sky and Telescope does a day-by-day guide from week to week, but their co-ordinates are given for North American viewers. Most things are mappable onto a UK/Ireland sky, though.

No.3: special events. Meteor showers, mostly: the Perseids are the best of the year, in August, and November’s Leonids are great if it’s a ‘storm’ year (this is irregular, however!). Spacedex lists all the showers visible this year and can tell you the peak times for watching out. This year’s major astronomical event will be Comet ISON, near the end of the year. I can’t let myself get too excited about this yet – it may not be as spectacular as we hope, but if it is – yeah, I’m pretty excited.

No.4: a flask of tea. What? It’s cold out there.

No.5: friends. I’m lucky in that my other half is actually a bigger physics nerd than I will ever be, so we have built-in skywatching company. We’ve spent several chilly evenings in the Phoenix Park with Astronomy Ireland, who run lectures and planet-/Moon-watches every month or so. It’s worth keeping an eye on their site to see what they have coming up, and you can also order DVD copies of their past lectures from the site.

No.6: kit. I’m usually just watching with the naked eye, and I’ve taken a few good photos of the Moon with my dSLR and 55-200mm lens. I’m hoping that the 70-300mm I have ordered will be better again. A good friend (and one of my favourite photographers) has recently started using a dSLR and a home telescope to take fabulous deep-sky images – there’s my challenge for the next while! My partner has a decent pair of binoculars, also – and you really don’t need a lot of equipment to start out. We both want to upgrade our kit, but for now what we have works for us. We’ve also been grateful to Astronomy Ireland’s generous members who share their great telescopes at the planetwatch evenings.

No.7: patience, and goodwill, and an ever-present sense of wonder at exactly how incredible the Universe is. This one’s the most important.

In the brilliant words of Lawrence Krauss:

How’s that for spellbinding?

The title of this post comes from my favourite song of 2012, Stargazers of the World, Unite! (A Lovesong for Astronomers) by Duke Special.

Quick edit: I meant to mention the Zooniverse projects, especially Planet4, which is mapping the surface of Mars! Get involved – the site will give you a tutorial, and then set you loose to inspect and classify images from our next-door neighbour.

[2013] Year of Getting Things Done: photography

2013: year of Getting Shit Done. In the spirit of sharing our creative endeavours, here’s a few words about one of my favourite hobbies.

I have just ordered one of these, and I am very pleased:

Tamron AF 70-300mm F4-5.6 Di LD Macro 1:2 Nikon+Motor

Tamron AF 70-300mm F4-5.6 Di LD Macro 1:2 Nikon+Motor

Already thinking of things to do and places to go with it.

I really love photography, but it’s often hard to find good opportunities to go wander with a camera in winter. If it snows, you get the novelty factor of things looking pretty and white. Grey and grey on a grey background, as most Irish winters are, is not so lovely.

Two years ago, when we had several weeks of snow and a fairly solid freeze every day, my boyfriend and I went to Dublin Zoo when everything was still frozen. It was beautiful. The lake was almost entirely ice, and the winter-loving animals – wolves, penguins, snow leopards – were frolicking around with expressions of incredulous enjoyment.

I’d like to try some astrophotography soon – A (boyfriend) has a small telescope and a decent set of binoculars, I have a camera and a tripod: between us, we make one very prepared photographer – and maybe some more wildlife shots. A few years ago I was very into live music photography, but as I currently live outside the city there’s not a lot of that going on.

The next thing I want to invest in is a Flickr pro membership. I’ve been using Flickr for ages and just putting up a few shots here and there, but I’d really like to have the extra capacity that pro allows, in order to do a decent portfolio online.

If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth being broke for… as the saying should have read.

A few of my photos are under this cut.

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