Who are you, when you’re holding your camera in your hands? You’re likely less distracted, or less anxious. Maybe you’re more aware, or more alive. But now that we are here, looking out over the smoking ruins of a year that has hardly begun, what should we do?
For me, it all started in a friend’s bedroom. He was called Alex, and we went to school together and used to hang around doing nerdy things. One time he showed me how he’d blacked out his bedroom windows, lined up three shallow trays of liquid which could turn your fingers yellow, and hung up a light that filled the room with a steady red glow, as warm as blood. Coming to the final tray, he showed me a sheet of pale paper transformed like a ghost, almost jumping into life, as if pulled from another realm and into this one.
Now in 2022, the headlines, the bombed-out apartments, the famines, the chaos, the sheer villainy of it all, it’s hard for us photographers — we, who feel — not to retreat backward, to withdraw, to remain shrouded and unmoving. But who else is there to directly mark the times that we’re in? Who else at the demonstrations, can transform what happens in the blink of an eye: the people, the feelings, the hope, and the despair?
I don’t want to put down poets, painters, musicians, writers, or artists, but none of them can show you so directly what happened. And because of this, what you as a photographer do and how you respond to the world we live in now is so critical. Perhaps your image will be the one that changes us all, that gives us all the ability to see something new… or perhaps the only person your image-making will change is you, but even if only that, isn’t that enough?
Technology, Change, and Responsibility
These photographs were taken over a few hours, on a couple of days, and I had to change things on the second day. I’d been in a groove, and it had been working, but it wasn’t working anymore. It didn’t feel right, and I started to lose the superpower that my camera gives me. Being a photographer, you’ll know all about that — it’s like you no longer fit the measurements of the world that you find in front of you.
I was using my new Nikon Z9. I’ve been a Nikon shooter since I’ve been a professional; my first job was on an F3 35mm film camera. I’ve been through a few major photographic changes, the first going from manual focus to autofocus — that was a bit rocky. The next was going from film to digital. That was really tough as generally the clients didn’t have a clue and talked nonsense! And the next major change, well, that would be mirrorless, I’d guess.
One of the biggest difficulties in shooting film, especially when it’s a paid job which you’ve got to deliver on, is the gap between what’s in front of you, and the photograph you take of it; that gap of a few hours was, for me, always the scary bit. And I think that’s the revolutionary part of mirrorless: you can actually see the photograph before you’ve even taken it!
Electronic viewfinders are something that have never worked for me, up until now and with the Z9. Taking these pictures, there were many times when I clean forgot that I wasn’t looking through an optical viewfinder, and I always found it shocking when I remembered and realized! There’s no noticeable lag, and the viewfinder is always switched on by the time your eye gets up to it. Even with the camera switched off, if you turn it on as you bring it up to your eye, like a sharpshooter in a western, you can’t catch it out — by the time you get there, it’s there too. I was put off by the Z9’s lower pixel count EVF when compared to the Sony Alpha 1, but it never judders, locks, or blacks out while you shoot, and because I forget that it’s electronic rather than optical, I can’t fault it, resolution or no.
The focus of the Z9 (another mirrorless advantage) astonishes me, it’s almost magic how it can lock on to a person’s eye, and follow them around the frame. Many of these shots are composed differently than they would have been if I’d been shooting a DSLR, just because when the camera can track the subject around the frame, you have so much more choice in how you compose it. That coupled with a live histogram makes the shooting experience of the Z9 so much more efficient for me than with any other camera I’ve used. Now I’ve got the Z9, I won’t be picking up my DSLR again.
But that brings me back to the second day and the difficulties that I was having. It was nothing to do with the camera: the limiting factor was the headspace that I was in (as it usually is). Even if I’d returned to my F3, I wouldn’t have been seeing right, and that was nothing to do with the camera or what was in front of me. The problem was that I’d lost my superpower, I’d lost the special ability that the camera gives me.
In my case, that’s the ability to talk to other people! When I used to shoot weddings, and thank god I don’t anymore — it’s the hardest job in all of photography, am I right wedding photographers? — it used to amaze me that I’d feel like I’d got to know everyone, but if I went to a wedding without my camera, I’d not speak to anyone! It was by coming back to that realization, and connecting with that internal fact, that I was able to put my cape back on and get back to work.
Photography is Critically Important
The world needs us photographers right now. It needs our vision, our care, and our humanity. It needs us to illustrate the mess that we see in front of us, whether that’s the invasion of Ukraine, climate disaster, poverty, violence… take your pick, there’s enough to go around.
It needs each of us to recognize what the camera gives us so that we can do our thing with it. Not because your photograph or my photograph will change everything, but because the photograph which actually will change everything, will have to be one of ours. And not because your photograph or my photograph is going to change other people, but because it will change you, it will change me, and that is the start which all of us need.
About the author: Slater King is a photographer based in London, United Kingdom. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. The photos featured here can also be viewed on King’s website. More from King can also be seen on his Instagram.