Finding Inspiration In the Ordinary
I wanted to do something different on this photowalk. Not the same old dog and pony show that I normally do. It was an ideal time to do that. The weather was overcast, with the temperature seasonally comfortable before the onslaught of the wet season. But then, a hiccup to my enthusiastic idea. When I asked my partner-in-crime what her outfit-of-the-day was, the prognosis became less cheery. Still, I could always be wrong with my initial assessment - with only snaps forwarded from her to work on.
If only I were. The black blazer she had on wouldn’t do. Being a former stylist, I was having some reservations with her ensemble. The silhouette of her long flowing locks matched with the rigidity of her blazer conveyed a top-heavy look. Sensing my disapproval, my partner-in-crime graciously volunteered to pare-off the offending faux-pas. Unfortunately, her spaghetti-string top underneath was somewhat too exposed for the season - and that too wouldn’t do. So reluctantly, we decided to stay with the blazer.
In retrospect, I suppose it was my fault for not arranging this photowalk until the last minute, when my partner-in-crime had already left home. However, there is a reason for that. I don’t have as much free time to schedule photowalks anymore, let alone hatch overreaching comparisons. Because of that, the current staple of photos shared on this blog has fallen into a predictable pattern, with regards to style, location, and gear - all captured on film. In other words, this humble-blog-that-can has grown rather stale.
In any event, I had to make do with what my partner-in-crime had brought along. Because of that, I wasn’t able to embark on my originally more ambitious plan - which will remain nameless for now. As such, I had to figure out how to rehash or rather yet again reinvent my same old dog and pony show. I definitely wanted to venture away from the Leica Store in Causeway Bay. Thus, we decided to explore the adjacent area around the Happy Valley Racecourse - being Hong Kong’s equivalent of Old Trafford for horses.
For those of you who regularly follow this blog, you should already know how unfamiliar I am with my adopted home of Hong Kong. Despite having returned nine years ago, after a lifetime abroad across the bigger pond, I am still that very biased New Yorker at heart, unwilling to explore beyond the confines of my ten block radius - or in the case of Hong Kong, the vicinity of my MTR station. In truth, I had no idea what I would find in that area. For all I know, going there could very well be just a crapshoot, with nothing to show for all the effort.
But, I’m supremely optimistic - or at the very least - too unrealistically naïve to accept the prospect of wasting my time and efforts on a wild goose chase. If I were to follow the teachings of Master Sun Tsu (or Sun Zi), in the Art of War, not knowing the terrain is a recipe for disaster. That said, I have always regarded myself more like a Candide type of person, believing that everything will somehow work out - which usually it does. However, it’s when the desired results doesn’t happen that doubt begins to taint initiative.
When you go out on a photowalk, the conditions are hardly ever ripe for picture perfection. The streets are too crowded... the light too harsh or too dim... or the environmental possibilities too limiting… or just uninspiring. It is when the pickings are slim in photo opportunities that the photographer needs to step up and trust skill and experience to salvage the day. Fact is, there’s always something to photograph. One only needs to go out and be open to what’s out there in order to be positioned for opportunity.
Opportunity can come in all forms - the backdrop of an unremarkable shop inside a shopping arcade flooded with an abundance of natural light, an unexceptional back alley behind a row of restaurants under an overcast sky, or something entirely unexpected just waiting round the corner. Rather by chance, in going the other way at the fork, I found myself a Roman Catholic Church that I didn’t know existed. How serendipitous this find was to my efforts. It’s as if my willingness to surrender rewarded me this opportunity.
Mind you, I wouldn’t exactly call St. Margaret’s a spectacle of divine proportions, let alone a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity. But from the perspective of providing environmental context to my photowalk, discovering it was a very welcomed reprieve from my usual dog and pony show. If nothing else, that much maligned black blazer does fit right into the documentary narrative - as if I had planned to visit this church all along, expecting to hear the words te absolvo ab dubio et absentia inceptum, whispered into my ears.
Of course, none of this photowalk was ever planned. Thus, I was not seeking for absolution from doubt, since I was never too concerned about the prospect of finding nothing of interest to photograph. I mean, why should I? All too often, many of us become too overly consumed with the task at hand, that we never stop to do what we’re really suppose to do. When we are tasked to take a photograph, it is not solely a question of what we are photographing, but also a question of how we’re taking that photo.
But, it’s easy to see why we obsess over what we’re photographing. The world today emphasizes too much on results. Everything we photograph must be epic in scale, if not meaningful in scope. Given the burden of such imposing expectations, it is no wonder why most photographers marginalize the process of documentation in practice. As such, this shortsighted mindset makes us dependent on what we photograph, which then erodes our ability to succeed when there aren’t any environmental crutches to lean on.
When you take a photo with the Sistine Chapel behind the subject, the background is shouldering the burden of scale and scope for the photograph. But, what is one to do when the environmental context is not as grand as a proof of pilgrimage monument, as picturesque as nature’s glory in all its splendid colors, or as significant as a personal milestone? It’s times like these when the photographer’s proficiency and experience are tasked to shoulder the burden in making the ordinary appear visually appealing.
Personally, I believe there is beauty, integrity, and intimacy in the ordinary, And if one frames and composes it with thought, the resulting photograph exhibits a quiet demeanor that makes it visually more inviting than any bucket list cry for attention. But yes, the ordinary can seem exceedingly boring, appear unquestionably trivial, and feel like a complete waste of time to document. So, it is understandable how the mainstream perspective can be unenthusiastically biased against documenting everyday life.
But here’s the catch. If you can only perform when the photo opportunity is significant enough to shoulder the burden of making the documentation visually impactful, then you are probably ill prepared for the ninety-nine percent of the time when there’s no monument, panorama, or milestone to prop-up the resulting photograph. The only way to resolve this shortcoming is by taking a greater initiative to photograph the ordinary. Think of it as practice to overcome doubt in one’s own ability to take photos without visual crutches.
Don’t believe me? This blog is a living testament to personal improvement. Having taken the initiative to go on at least one photowalk per week for almost three years, I’ve essentially excised all doubt in photographing the mundane, the trivial, and the imperfect - especially when my partner-in-crime’s outfit-of-the-day wasn’t what I had anticipated. Fact is, the world is seldom ever as anticipated. So the trick isn’t so much waiting for the right photo opportunity to happen. Rather, it’s more a case of making them happen from nothing.
If you take the initiative to make the photo opportunity happen, you’ll find inspiration in the ordinary. Words to live by, in my case. Had I not, there would be no possible way for me to refresh this blog with new photos each and every week. Maybe the same old dog and pony show isn’t the end of the world. After all, it would confirm my process is working out for this blog… or at least that is what the optimist in me is hoping to be true… that is assuming I am not being unrealistically naïve.
Images have been tweaked in Adobe Lightroom. All images digitized on the Pakon F135 scanner. All images have been cropped in the digitization process.