Improving the standard of photography in Trinidad & Tobago

Lone tree and sky, Trinidad, 2011. 6×6 Kodak Tri-X Pan film.

If we had to generalise on what we see today in Trinidad photography we could describe it as, “regurgitated, formulaic rut”. Which of course is perfectly fine if one is furnishing work for a particular clientele with specific needs. Creative or more important work like documentary work requires different skills.

Most photographers regurgitate a formula that works. It is the only way to find some modicum of success in the shortest possible time. Therein lies the problem: mastery requires time, sometimes decades of it. If we look back at all the masters of photography it is pretty depressing to note that most of them required years or decades of working in a specific area of photography before they were ever noticed. Some even were not recognised until decades after their deaths.

To accelerate the process modern photographers wisp through thousands of pictures on the internet, pick a style of picture they like and then learn the techniques the photographer used to formulate the picture. Studio photographers take a course or two, learn how to place lights and off they go. But a Richard Avedon they are not.

We have a problem with competition in Trinidad and Tobago. Winning a photography competition in Trinidad with a formulaic, perfectly executed, boringly droll picture that is a facsimile of twenty-two billion other pictures on the internet does incalculable damage to a photographer. It builds an illusory sense of accomplishment that is not truly deserved. It builds a framework for future mediocrity. It is better to have a master tell a photographer that his work is trash, and why it is trash, than to praise and perpetuate mediocrity. Criticism from a gifted photographer forces one to reformulate, to regroup, and to try again. It forces one to grow. Success is not easy. Think this is unreasonable? That would be a mistake. All masters of photography have tales of peers being critical of their respective works which inevitably enabled them to see more clearly how and what they wanted to achieve.

One picture isn’t enough. Distilling a photographer’s worth down to one picture is disheartening and cheapens someone’s achievement over a lifetime. That is indeed how photographers are valued in the developed world: photographers are judged on a body of work. A photographer who takes one striking photograph of Half Dome would be thought a fool to equate himself to Ansel Adams. Yet this kind of attitude seemingly permeates Trinidad photography.

We think photography competitions can still play a role, but let them judge on a body of work, rather than on a single image. Announce the competition theme (if any) a year in advance of the competition deadline for submission. Say twenty to fifty images on a theme per photographer. The theme can be anything: “crime in Trinidad”, or “the colour black”, or “fear”, or “Carnival mentality”, or “sky”. Anything. Then see how creatively the photographers weave their story / body of work. One can have an open category as well for any theme a photographer wants. What does the winner get? Publication of his or her work in a book. Sell it on Amazon. We’ll buy it.

The whole point of this exercise is to ingrain into photographers that important works in photography, which are, in essence, about how we perceive life around us, are an extended accumulated perspective from one person’s view through a lens. Great photographers educate us, they gift us: they gift us with a view of the world that we never saw before, even if it exists right there in front of us every day. They give us their unique perspective.

So if a photographer’s message to us, the viewers, is that he or she knows how to use a graduated filter, or that she can photograph a wide star field with a high ISO camera, or he can use some other gimmick copied from a better photographer on the internet to produce one photograph, we think the respective photographers may have missed the point. Showing off your cool technique is the province of the beginner. Technique is an irrelevance to a master. They learned all of that eons ago. It’s about the story you want to tell.

What is your story? What do you want to say to us in your pictures? What do you want us to think about when we see your pictures? Do you really need to hit us over the head with the hammer of spotlit obviousness? We hope not because right now you’re giving us a migraine.

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