When I take a photograph, it’s all about what my eye is drawn to when I look at a scene. In the mountains, I can’t help but stare in wonder at the strange aesthetic land where landscape and clouds intermingle. If I were standing above that ridgeline, I would of course think I was surrounded by fog. Some distance from the mountain, it is clear that a large cloud is pouring over the hillside, like custard over a christmas pudding.
It’s a little like the first time I flew in a plane as a small child and was amazed to discover that planes could fly, not only through clouds, but above them too! Before this I hadn’t known that clouds had tops to them as well. I’d thought they went all the way up – although I’m not sure where I thought they stopped. When they started bumping into the moon, perhaps?
I often wonder if children raised among these hills express such surprise that clouds and fog are one and the same. To me, fog was a just one kind of weather on a particular kind of day – and no more related to those things in the sky than a puddle is to the rain. To children growing up on the sides of mountains though, it must always always be self evident that a foggy day is just a very cloudy day…
It’s great when we see something pretty or inspiring and we figure out how we might capture that image to keep it, share it or create something that lives outside of ourselves, maybe even as a piece of art. Conveying feeling is important. Sharing a moment or an experience is vital to our sense of human connection. What we are really building is empathy.
So taking a photograph which portrays something which represents a not so pretty experience, but rather a moment which is indelibly disturbing, requires something more than just pointing the camera and something deeper and darker than just making a pretty picture.
For me this is summed up best in the poem ‘War Photographer’ by Carol Ann Duffy:
In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.
Taking this photograph and even being in this location was difficult for me and my intention was to convey that discomfort and give a sense of things being ‘not quite right’.
The room in the photograph was the single room stone hut of an elderly nun, who lived here for many years in seclusion on the remote holy island of Bardsey and eventually was taken off the island. The reason why is evident on the walls in pained scrapings, that have since been painted over and the tiny hut re-purposed as a chapel.
I have written about my experience of visiting this small chapel with its anguished etchings hidden beneath the whitewashed walls, but my words cannot begin to convey my own horror at seeing the evidence of the hours, days, weeks and years she spent scratching into stone and the seeming holiness of that harsh ascetic life. Surely no belief system could be worth that!
I have delayed looking at the photographs I took during this trip. Indeed I have resisted using my camera altogether. I knew that looking at my pictures would take me back to my trip and my own harsh and hollow realisations made while I was there. Far from being a spiritual retreat, this visit was a short sentence in my own personal hell. Health problems, loneliness, being away from the smallest comforts of home and the distracting relief of books, television, the Internet, family and friends – all contributed to my own dark teatime of the soul. The trip ended, but my feelings of emptiness endured. Rather than being a spiritual pilgrimage, this journey was a loss of the last vestiges of faith for me – something that I must now slowly come to terms with.
At the time, taking this photograph seemed wrong. I used the fish eye lens because I was wide-eyed and agog at the suffering these walls bore witness to. It was shocking and confusing, and, unlike the war photographer in the poem, I was unable to fly away or return home due to the storm that prevented the boat from sailing. Whatever I found in that room stayed with me. Paraphrasing the T-shirt slogan: I went to this place looking for God, but all I got was this photo.
The bright purple scarf around the ‘shoulders’ of the crucifix and the crown of thorns that appeared to form a face, seemed to make the cross represent a human shape. How had I not seen this before? This iconic structure did not represent an ancient instrument of torture – it represents the body itself. It is depicted as where the suffering happens. And the sacrifice. Yet it is the mind that really experiences pain – and that part is not depicted here. Except, I realised as I looked around me, in the scratchings on the walls: a tortured mind. And in this case the torturer was also the tortured; this was self-inflicted pain! There is no one to blame, apart perhaps from a belief system that seems to gloss over, or even revel in, torture.
This modernistic shrine to pain made the suffering all too tangible and real, whether that be the torture and death – of either a god or a man, depending on your view – or the solitary, penitent life of an elderly nun and the pained mind that drove her hand to scratch into these walls in this small harsh cell. And this wasn’t a one off. Countless wars have been fought over these beliefs and are still being fought. Such stark reality in such a tiny place.
I decided to take away these cheery colours in post process because the reality was too pretty, trying to hide the cruelty behind something calm and righteous and holy. The poem compares the red of the dark room to the blood of the war zone and yet in this room all is clean and painted over. Wholy whitewash, Batman!
Suddenly the island I love so much seemed to be a place of self-denial and punishment. I wanted this quality in the photograph I took away from there. Since first visiting, I have always adored the beauty and peace of the island, but in this small room I came face to face with the suffering of human existence and the price we humans pay for our consciousness. We each choose to act or to look away – like closing the Sunday supplements and going to the pub in the poem – or in my case returning to happy vacationing.
Both my mind and my hand resisted the invitation to bang a nail into that cross as some kind of cosmic exchange of my sins for another’s pain, however long ago, whether he was a god or just a man. I would rather hang on to my sins. Saying that is probably a sin in itself. But doing nothing is too much to bear. Taking the photograph was all I could do. Contributing to the ‘spools of suffering’ as I try to bear witness to what lies hidden beneath the white paint. I know there are people who would rather I didn’t write this and that I didn’t take the picture. I believe the story needs telling.
We can look away and pretend that all we see is white paint. We can bear witness like the war photographer. We can be devoted to our beliefs. We can deny ourselves to the point of madness like the nun. We can punish ourselves. We can punish others. We can have compassion. We can alleviate suffering. We can be kind to others. We can be kind to ourselves. We can try to make a difference. We can try to look away. We can find a million different ways to pass the time or to make a point or to be creative.
We can even take photographs…
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if what we do is important or not. It’s all transient.
“All flesh is grass.” -Isaiah 40:6
‘Violent Color’ by Kat Kingsley-Hughes (Flickr)
Whenever I think about photographing Parys Mountain, my mind is always infused with the expectation of color.
The metal minerals leaching out of the rocks in this ancient coppermine create a mind-bending range of fabulous hues. So I prepare myself for a riot of color!
But every time I arrive at Parys Mountain and begin walking through this landscape, I am invariably shocked, not only by the color of the place, but by my own reaction to the space as a whole. The island of Anglesey is such a small place! And Parys Mountain is one small part of that small island and the very existence of this impossibly vast space casts my perception into a vortex of logic-defying shapes and distances, rendered in a skin of eye-popping color and surreal peculiarity.
At once I am transported through time to being a small child, standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, marvelling at such a vast, incredible space. Of course I had read the guide books and seen photographs so knew what to expect at the end of my family’s trans-American journey. But, experiencing the place was another matter! Decades later, the experience is still etched into my mind. That day as I watched the landscape change with the fading light and the awed daytime hush of a solar eclipse, I lost a button from my favourite sweater over the side of the canyon, and for the first time in my life I realised that this object was unlikely to be recovered by anyone ever again. As I stood there, alarmed by the sudden darkness, I felt dizzy and sick. I became suddenly existentially aware of the great chasm at my feet, the vast distances before me, the incomprehensible expanse of geological time that had created this marvel of sediment and erosion, and the unlikelihood that my little red button would ever be seen by human eye again.
That feeling was burned into my memory, and it is this emotion that washes over me like a dizzying tidal wave, every time I venture into the Parys Mountain site. Like a microcosm of my childhood journey, Parys Mountain never ceases to blow my mind.
Like the distorted mirrors at a funfair, its bright incongruous colors dance unfathomably before me. I am tricked by the strange shapes and mounds of discarded rocks that seem to mimic yet are almost an exact opposite of the Grand Canyon, where nature has carved out shapes from vast slabs of rock; Parys Mountain was carved by man. Yet the greatest distortion is in its strange combination of color and space that somehow appear vast, creating a continual visual confusion of distance and logic, making the eye dance and the focus contort.
This feeling was what I wanted to capture!!
In order to recreate this off-kilter sense in my photograph ‘Violent Color’, I set out to reverse the logic of distance and definition, and instead force the eye to search for a focal point. I had seen many tilt-shift landscape photos that appeared to make large expanses appear small, creating a sense of toytown spaces with the forced perspective of a model village.
In order to try to recreate what happens when I stand at the edge of this vast-nonvast space, I wanted to reverse this effect and make the relatively small instead appear vast.
Without a tilt-shift lens at my disposal however, I needed to create this effect in post.
To begin with I set out to take a photo that was pretty much front to back sharp focus. I chose to take the photo at F13, primarily because it was a windy day and, as I was using my camera hand-held, a photo at F22 would need too long an exposure to avoid camera shake.
With the shot in the can, I then created the tilt shift effect in Adobe Lightroom by superimposing two graduated filters, pulled in from opposite sides at the top and bottom of the picture to alter brightness, contrast and, most importantly, sharpness in order to create a sense of opposing levels of blur, and leave a plane of sharpness which draws in and confuses the eye.
‘Violent Color’ shot was my first attempt at this. I will go back to Parys Mountain and have another go, hopefully next time with a tilt shift lens.
In the meantime, I am pleased with my photo as it says what I wanted it to say: that it is as strange and confusing for me to stand on the edge at Parys Mountain, as it was for a child standing on tiptoes on the edge of that vast geological wonder, her eyes searching the chasm for one last sight of a lost button and feeling all the pressures of time and space suddenly upon her.