On Being An Aged Rookie Photographer

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Rizza Cabrera

*Pictured above and below are the first and latest music photos I’ve shot

There was a time when I felt so insecure, so jealous, of the young photographer friends I’ve made last year. The Karen dela Fuentes. The Caloy Enclunas. The Gab Pilis. The Simon Vigans. And the dozens of young amazing photographers who’ll only be even more amazing as they grow older.

I’m 31. I have only a year on my belt. And no, I’m not counting my semi-regular three year stint as a music photographer years ago. I barely made any strides in those days. I’m just now retaking my life from depression. I’m just getting my life on the right track. And I thought that my age would be a hindrance, a massive stutter on my career as a photographer.

A funny thing happened when I dropped the singer-songwriter cap and retook photography last year. People thought I was good. People thought I was, as Bullet Dumas often refers to me whenever he introduces me to people, “a great photographer.” But I never really saw it. I didn’t think I was good. I never thought my photos were worth something to people or the subjects and musicians in the photos.

Even when my photos were used as social networking display pictures or cover photos. Even when my photos were used on an actual CD inlay. Even with all the Shares and the Likes. Even with all the compliments and accolades my photos received. Even when people wanted to hire me. Even when the photos get used on gig e-posters and promotional material. Even when a handful of photographers wanted me to be their mentor. I never quite fully understood why people thought I was a good, or even a “great,” photographer.

A friend remarked on one of my photos that “Puso ko kumuha!” Roughly translated, “Your shots have heart!” I didn’t understand what he meant. I thought he was just being nice. I get uncomfortable when I’m complimented. When the ‘handful of photographers’ I mentioned said that they wanted me to teach them – one even wanted to be my apprentice and follow me and assist me on shoots – I felt like I didn’t deserve it. I didn’t deserve to be “idolized.” Even in my days as a group manager for Fearless Filipino Swifties, I abhorred being looked up to. I thought “why would you look up to me? I’m an old, grumpy, jaded, foul mouthed bastard whose hobbies includes ‘self-loathing’ and ‘extreme misanthropy’?”

But my photos usually got compliments. And I didn’t know why. I have no formal training. I have a basic understanding of photography, but even with that understanding, I still tend to mess with the rules set in place. My photos are underexposed. My photos are too dark. I barely know shit about composition. I have too much unnecessary negative space. I honestly find technicalities too restricting. I shoot what I want. I post-process how I want. I photograph what my mind sees, not what everyone sees and definitely not what I should see.

There’s that word again. “Mind.” Brain. Thoughts. I’ve always seen and felt things differently due to my depression. Much darker. Much gritty. Grim.

Recently, and this is surely due to the newfound clarity my chemically corrected brain has gifted me, I stopped being insecure. I stopped being jealous of the young photographers I’ve met on the frontlines. I realized what made me different from them. I realized what set me apart from them, what advantage I have with my advanced age.

Experience.

No, not photography experience. Experience in general. I’ve been going to gigs since I was a teenager. I’ve seen all the moves musicians make, all the emotions they make on stage. I’ve seen all the faces they wear, the interactions they have with their bandmates and the crowds. I’ve learned to foresee what will happen next. I’ve learned to wait for that, and this is pretty much overused in photography at this point, “the decisive moment.” I’ve learned, as a music fan, to expect what happens in a song – and to prepare for that.

Experience, and something else.

I had an interesting conversation with a Japanese fella named Makoto at Saguijo last Friday. He approached me when I was taking a cigarette break outside and asked if I was shooting for a band or for the venue. We got to talking about all sort of things. I was pretty proud of myself for carrying on a conversation without wanting to run away. Never would have done that pre-medication. Anyway, I shared my then woes about my age. I said that I thought I got the short end of the stick whenever I’m in the field with the other music photographers. He thankfully reminded me what I’d already realized and forgotten, that with my old age comes a much different perspective on things. I’ve seen a lot of this life – too much on most days. I’ve seen the darker side of things. I’ve seen the unpleasant reality of most situations. I may not have lived the way I should have because of my curse, but I’ve learned to use that curse to my advantage, to see the benefits that the curse has for me.

Whether it’s a boon or not, depression did play a pivotal role in my photography. There’s no denying that. It plays a pivotal role in my art – in my songs and what and how I write.

I had another interesting conversation last night – at Route 196 this time – with someone I met through The Paperback Project. He approached me and started a conversation. We talked about mental health and my photography and his music. He said that he wanted to take up photography, but is hesitant because of his colorblindness. I shared with him an article I once read about a colorblind photographer and how, even with his visual impairment, he takes the most magnificent photos I’ve seen.

I noted that our imperfections would make our art vastly different from others – unique. Our imperfections separate us from the rest. That even with physical flaws and mental handicaps, we could still make the most uniquely beautiful art out there. One that can’t be forced. One that can only be felt.

 

Thirty one years with depression, with thirty years of that undiagnosed and untreated. That’s too much. I often wonder how I’ve survived it. How I’m still breathing. How I’m still around to tell these tales. Thousands of times, I’ve wanted to give up. Thousands of times, I’ve contemplated ending it. Thousands of times, I’ve felt like clawing myself out from my own skin. Thirty one years of being broken. Thirty one years of living in darkness of the shadowlands. Thirty one years of being imperfect.

That is what makes me a “great” photographer.

 

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Bullet Dumas
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