IT ALL CLICKED IN TONGA
From our plane window the ocean below looks calm, dotted with secluded tropical islands surrounded by intricate reef systems. The colours bleed out from the sand creating tie-dye patterns in the deep blue water where already we can see the splashes from whales breaching below. Sometimes it's a bit surreal to stop and think about all of the incredible experiences photography has afforded me and this week will be one of the greatest so far. In fact the next week will again change the course of my photography and I want to take you on this journey.
The group of islands we are in is called Ha'apai in the Kingdom of Tonga and we are truly back in nature. Our hot water is heated in solar bags in the midday sun, our electricity is powered by a tiny generator shared amongst all of us living in Serenity Beaches Resort and internet and phone reception are a distant memory. We have a long tropical beach on the resort side of the island that stretches for kilometres and is bound by a barrier reef that protects the island from the winter winds and waves. Whales breach and play just off the reef and in the distance Hunga Tonga-Hunga a volcano island sits on the horizon framing the evening sunset. This is actual paradise, not the kind you see in travel shows.
In the morning with the sun still low in the sky we are off on the boat 'Triumph' with long time friend and whale expert Erez who runs these trips (Freedivingholidays.com). It's hard to not be excited as we coast along the waters surface surrounded by the small clouds of water vapour in the distance from whales exhaling giant breaths of air. Erez tries to hold our attention as he briefs us about the whales behaviour, about tale slaps, breaches and fin slaps and how we will interact with them so as to create minimal disturbance but honestly whales are breaching just behind him and nothing anyone says can compete with that.
In a small group we slip into the water and whales echo through the ocean. We are next to a mother and her newborn calf. Trying to contain the bubble of joy that is exploding behind our eye sockets we slowly approach. They are incredible, incredible in their size, incredible in their curiosity and incredible in their will to interact with us. Mum sits about 5 meters below the surface and much deeper below is the dark shadow of a male escort. The baby rubs up against mums nose before making the journey to the surface for another breath. A puff of water vapour is blasted into the air before the young whale drops below the surface to hover almost as if she was meditating in the light that dances on her back.
Over the next week we experience tens of encounters, each one different in the environment and characteristics of the interactions. Some energetic and some slow, some in the shallows and some in the deep and with tropical winter in full swing the light, clouds and water texture is constantly changing and evolving too. More and more I find my camera going down with more and more thought put into the images I'm taking. The light, the water, the connection. I look down at the black and white photos on the screen of my camera and it hits me. It's the connection with my subjects that I've been missing in my photography.
As our trip goes on my eyes are wide open, constantly scanning the horizon for the next moment and in the water I'm finding that I'm no longer chasing 'that close-up shot' but instead I'm trying to see what we are all feeling inside. It's a shift from the subject being just an interesting subject to a broader place, a place where the whales, the light and their surroundings all interplay, a place where microseconds can make or break a shot, a place where we all feel a common experience.
I've not met anyone who has come back from Tonga unchanged and I feel like I can put my name on that list. Turning off phones, taking time to listen and being surrounded by good people made me stop and help me see the forest through the trees. I've been photographing for well over a decade now and I've only just had my 'moment'. I look at my photography so differently and understand now that it's more than just a pretty picture. I can more than ever appreciate the simplicity of the taking of an image contrasted spectacularly against the difficulty of knowing what you were trying to achieve in the first place. This is why I think sometimes people (myself included) struggle with the success of certain photographs because we are lulled into the thinking that 'I could have done that' without realising that it's not what the photograph is of but how all of those elements were brought together to make you feel.
I've had the privilege of speaking to many amazing photographers and asking some of the hard questions over the past little while and a really common theme has cropped up; The feeling of disillusionment with their own work. This is a moment I believe that everyone hits as some point, call it writers block. Translated to photography this is a feeling that you're taking fantastic photos but you lack the excitement about them, like the photos have no purpose other than to look pretty. It's a terrible feeling and a real eye opener when it happens but there are some tactics you can use to help change it.
Firstly find or make a story with your images. You don't have to publish the caption but spending a little bit of time writing about your favourite photos can really help to clear the mind and help you understand why you photograph a certain way. Secondly, share your photos in the real world. Secondly, separate 'practicing' from actually photographing and be more conscious of the subject matter you are passionate about. If you like portraiture be sure to have a good talk with your subjects and come up with a goal you want to work towards together. If they are after a broody image get the story as to why and work with your subject, if they want a light, airy and happy image try the same. Knowing their story will help you translate it to an image, it will give your image it's own life and story. If you love landscapes, spend some time researching the area, know a little about it's history, it's weather patterns, the tides and the seasons, it's story. If you like street photography, get out there and know the people who make the city thrive and bustle. Grab a coffee and spend the first part of your photography sessions sitting and observing, chat to a stranger, read the graffiti on the walls, get to know the place. Then, once you have these images take a moment to get some prints done and enter them into an art show. It could be a local Rotary club show, it could be a gallery or it might even simply be putting it on your own walls because sadly social media (for all of its good points) has cheapened the feel of so many brilliant photographs and made them disposable. Shows and exhibitions are not about winning prizes, they are about having a physical product with all of its detail and glory hanging in a physical space that declutters the world and makes you sit and truly appreciate a single image at a time.
Need some help finding your way? Jump on one of my workshops and see the world a little differently 🙂