It’s been a whole two years since we published The Middle of Somewhere by Sam Harris. Sam stayed busy throughout, with a sold out book under his belt, and travels to various photo festivals across the globe. Taking a moment to catch up with him is always refreshing, as Sam consistently gives 110% – to his photography, his audience, and to ceiba. Here he discusses what he’s been up to, why long term projects are fulfilling, and why it’s important to slow down.
The first year after the birth of the book is a whirlwind. Do things settle down in year 2?
Eventually… but for me, not until mid way through the second year.
I expected things to slow down considerably after the first 6 months or so, but the momentum continued for quite a while… I was very fortunate.
Year 2 started with a trip to Auckland Festival of Photography (sponsored by the Australian Consulate) where I gave a presentation about TMoS (The Middle of Somewhere). I also conducted portfolio reviews and ran a workshop. Six weeks later I was in Denmark teaching for a week at DMJX (Danish School of Media & Journalism). Meanwhile back in Australia TMoS received it’s third award!, the AIPP (Australian Institute of Professional Photographers) Book of the Year 2016.
After teaching at DMJX I flew down to Southern Italy for Bitume PhotoFest. TMoS was exhibited large scale in the wonderful outdoor setting of Corte dei Mesagnesi. A month later I was at Encontros da Imagem in Braga, Portugal exhibiting TMoS in the equally special setting of the Medieval Hall at Conselo Univeresidade Do Minho.
So things kept busy… exhibitions always take a lot of energy to get organised. I was delighted with both. Especially with the remarkable/outstanding spaces provided and the large scale prints looked great. I’m always super grateful for these opportunities, for the interest in my work, meeting others, seeing fresh work, sharing ideas… it’s always inspiring and humbling.
Back home, late October 2016 about 18 months after TMoS publication.
There was a point when I started to feel drained. I needed to stop, stay in one place for a while and rest, reflect and rejuvenate. This was that time…
No one really talks about the emptiness that often follows the completion of a long term/ big project. It’s a stark contrast after years of pushing and pushing towards a goal. I already had ideas for what I wanted to work on next but I didn’t have much drive and I felt strangely empty…
First I really needed to switch off and recharge. Balance is important. I wanted time to digest what had happened over the past couple of years… Any creative endeavour is a process and I think an often ignored or underestimated part of that process is down time, reflection, rejuvenation, nourishment… Since social media has taken over our lives I think it’s even more important to emphasis this. There is a constant pressure to produce, share and show… rush to publish, everything is a race, everything is a competition, everyone is always busy… … I’m not sure how healthy that is in the long run.
Spending time off-line and un-plugged are vital for me, whether reading a book, getting back into my somewhat neglected and extremely cathartic vegetable garden, being more present to my family, catching up with friends, spending more time outdoors not on the computer! Cooking something a bit different, watching all those great films I never had time for (ok, that’s on-line 😉 searching out new music (also on-line), walking in nature or taking the time to look at a flower, I mean to really look at it, to smell a flower, to watch the birds busy in the garden, to drink it all in… It’s a process. Inspiration, ideas and ultimately a fresh vision need time. Nourishment.
We invest a huge amount of time and energy into creating a body of work (in my case more than a decade), followed by the most intense period envisioning, organising, editing, designing, re-designing, re-editing and ultimately producing a photobook, followed by a long schedule of festivals, book launches, exhibitions, talks and workshops with a lot of long haul flights and irregular hours… Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great buzz and a lot of fun, getting out there with your work, meeting people, engaging, sharing, learning, and soaking it all up, it’s all great, I love it and I’m super grateful for it all. However, after 17 months of coming and going I felt I needed to take some time. Is time our most precious commodity?
This has actually inspired me to develop a creative retreat program that I want to run annually down here in Balingup. It’s somewhere remote and beautiful, almost off-the-grid, full nature with a lively, creative and eccentric community, deep nourishment for the soul as well as the mind and the body. (stay tuned for more…)
Then there was (still is) the caravan project… we’d got hold of an very old, neglected caravan around the time I started working on the book. The book was done the caravan wasn’t. I’m an ok photographer but not much of a handy man… Somehow, and with guidance from friends that know better than I, the caravan is now renovated and has become Yali’s room.
Are you still photographing your family? What are they up to now?
Yes! Many people have asked me about this on my travels. I don’t see my family work as a project with defined boundaries. It’s very much on-going, it’s my diary, my lifestyle… by now it’s what I do. The only difference really, is, I think that currently I photograph them with less intensity than the final year or two of the book when I was really pushing.
Interestingly, their awareness since publishing TMoS has changed quite a bit. They are now older and have become self-conscious. There are more occasions when I have to respectfully step back, or choose my moments more carefully or maybe switch from a 28mm to a 50mm… As in all walks of life, family life never stays the same, it’s always in flux, always meaningful and beautiful to me…
What are they up to now? Uma will soon turn 18 and has almost finished school! She’s doing great, a straight ‘A’ student, constantly doing homework, striving to do her best. We’re very happy. Her driving test is coming up soon also! Uma is planning on taking a gap year, working for while locally fruit picking, then some travel before University. Yali is 13 now and growing so fast that every other week it seems we need to buy her bigger shoes and clothes! Like Uma, Yali also spends a lot of time reading (when she’s not sneaking off with her phone). Yali also bakes something once a week, so we have a good supply of muffins.
You’re an active father, husband, and member of your community, as well as a full time photographer. What advice do you have for other men out there who are juggling fatherhood with their photography careers?
Short answer… Don’t try this at home… (unless you absolutely have to).
It’s tough to answer because each persons circumstance will be different, the dynamics will be different and it’s the dynamics that we have to work with, react to, be present to and all the while be able to step outside of (photographically) without rocking the boat too much.
Top of the list would have to be an understanding and supportive partner. There never is a right time or best time to make these kind of photos/do this sort of work… it’s a long, slow process, you have to learn to react to any possible photo as and when you see it. For a long while I would say to myself, ‘ah, this scenario will happen again, for sure, I’ll get it next time (and be ready for it)’. Thing is, it won’t happen again, ever. Not as it is right now. That moment, with all its subtle nuances has gone, forever! Everything is fleeting and in constant flux, so the only time is right now! Which often requires a deep understanding and unwavering support from your family, especially when it’s your turn to cook dinner and just as the pan starts to sizzle the late summer sun comes streaming in a window, your daughters start dancing to a song on the radio and all you can see are dancing shadows, arms and legs make ballet shapes, golden sun speckles across skin, wall floor, and the hair glows, flashing backlight and swirling textures… camera, quick? or a burnt or soggy dinner / pissed off wife and kids…? Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t… any time I didn’t, it haunted me so much, ‘the best shot ever’, lost! How hungry are you? How much do you want it? So you have to push yourself and get out of your comfort zone.
Which brings us to the next point… It takes tenacity, vision, patience and unwavering passion. It’s the only way. Family photography, for the most part, is a long-term, slow game. You always have to be mindful of the long arc that comes with time. Narrative. It takes time to build layers. Be prepared/committed to do the time.
All in all it’s a balancing act, recognise when to compromise and when to push. Respect personal space, but sometimes you’ve got to be a little cheeky… Understand it can also be feast and famine, as for some freaky reason many photos seem to come in close concession followed by long ‘drought’ periods… Go with the flow…
Finally if you’re not totally and utterly committed to the long-term vision, the long haul of many years then you should seriously consider doing something else.
The Middle of Somewhere was a long-term project, with you photographing for over a decade. What are the pros of working on something for so long, especially now when people want to do everything faster, bigger, etc?
It can help give a project depth. Some things you just can’t rush…TMoS was a long and slow project. One benefit is I think evident in the transition of time as seen through the aging of my daughters. Two photos that illustrate that nicely running in succession in the book are Uma aged 3 looking out of a large port hole on the Andaman Islands ferry, the following page we see Uma aged 14 collecting the washing form the line at home. It’s also Uma when I started this work and one of the last photos before we published.
Yes it seems that everyone wants to rush to publish these days. The culture of instant gratification that comes from social media, I believe can be extremely harmful; creating a false idea of what making a book is about. People need to remember that you only get to make that book once and you really want to do it right and to the best of your ability. It takes time! If you want depth and substance. There seems to be too much attention on style and not enough on substance. Ultimately it’s the content within that makes a lasting and meaningful photobook.
Do the hard yards, build a strong body of work before you even think about a photobook. Once it’s done, it’s done and you can’t go back. Assuming you want your photobook to be the very best it can be, make a dummy, see how it works, how it flows, shoot some more, make another dummy…
Making dummies (yes, several) is a vital part of the process, . It’s only with a dummy that you begin to get a real idea, the content in sequence, the rhythm, see and feel the work in context and you should also be looking for the weak spots, identify them and go shoot some more… A dummy is not a facsimile of the book-to-be but a sketch of an idea/s. Work in progress. A dummy need not be a sophisticated, accurately stitched and bound object. I’ve made dummies before by simply folding A4 paper and gluing back to back, the imperfect final object has it’s own charm… Of course a ‘final dummy’ will be quite close to the published book as it’s the last dummy, made at the very end of the whole process, after the final sequence edit and page count, just before going to print. That’s a very exciting one!
And finally, what project/s are you working on now, if any?
Apart from on-going domestic photography with my daughters, I am now shifting my energy towards my friends and community (working title ‘Neighbours’).
In many ways they are our extended family and I’ve been photographing them over the years, but now I’m more focused and going in deeper. I don’t want to say too much at this time as I prefer to shoot first and talk about it after, but I’m quite excited with the work so far.
I’m also pretty excited about two new workshops I’m putting together, one on the Photobook Process and the other will be a Creative Retreat here at my home in Balingup for only 4 or maybe 5 people. Photobooks and long-term-project development will be at it’s core as well as unplugged, creative nourishment and (Stay tuned for more, or please feel free to reach out if you’re interested).