Although I have been in Namibia as recently as September 2015, all my latter visits to the country have been merely ‘in transit’ type encounters. The last time that I toured the territory for the reason of exploring it was in December 2009, when we combined the annual SA Bike Magazine, Namibian Desert Run with an expedition into the Northern reaches of the country. In brief, the desert run took us from the town of Kuruman in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa through to Swakopmund, a beautiful little town on Namibia’s Atlantic seaboard. Having completed a 2500km journey to reach Swakopmund, we took the opportunity to lengthen our stay and take in the lands leading up to the Kunene River. Yet as unique as the experience of riding a motorbike through the desolate landscapes of the Namib Desert was (see a little video of the action here) the trip also featured another ‘first’. The 2009 expedition was the very first journey for my now trusty Canon 7D.
In the months preceding the tour, I had convinced myself of all the reasons that I needed to spend an inordinate amount of money on a hobby. I was certainly going to take better pictures with a 7D; I had to. The Canon 7D is a ‘real’ digital SLR camera, not just a point-and-shoot pretending to be and SLR as was the case with my Sony DSC-H5. I also managed to convince myself that the default 18-55mm kit lens was just not good enough and that the top of the line 15-85mm option was worth every penny. All these persuasions meant that by the time I hit the Namibian sands, I was considerably poorer, but wielding some bleeding edge optics.
So naturally you may ask if I got ‘better’ images and the answer is: probably not. I have spent much time reflecting on the photos, poring through them, critically analysing them, and slowly coming to the realisation that they are rubbish. Sure my developing techniques have improved since 2009, and by addressing the pictures with these refined skills, I can take some of them from happy-snappy status to well-developed-happy-snappy status.
So why is this relevant you may ask? Well, in a few weeks time I am returning to Namibia for the second round with this photographic titan. As a photography destination, Namibia goes toe-to-toe with global heavyweights such as Iceland. It’s a country with enough photographic potential and allure that it attracts countless high-end photography tours annually. But aside from the usual excitement attached to visiting such renowned destinations, my enthusiasm is compounded because the journey will serve as a barometer for progress. In truth, I am going back with a lot of the same gear that I had in 2009 – including the 7D – and thus the photos from this visit will be representative of my development in the art of photography and not merely evidence of evolution in technology.
The primary means by which I intend elevating the quality of my work is by before all else, focusing on capturing ’emotion’. Even as I write this, I must acknowledge that the goal is a rather vague one and that trying to enact it is likely to leave me frustrated. However, I remain determined to at least test this hypothesis since I firmly believe that images that can evoke an emotional response in a viewer are, by default, ‘good’ photos.
One of the techniques I intend employing in this undertaking is to steer clear of the vast sweeping desert vistas for which Namibia is famous. I need to find unique perspectives that elicit the response I’m after. At present, I suggest that an effective method of achieving this is to focus on the ‘intimate landscapes’ that I discussed in a recent post titled Long Lens Landscapes. I don’t hold that using a ‘long’ lens automatically results in evocative images, but I do feel that the use of such equipment must increase the probability of success.
Like most things in life, this long lens routine comes at some cost, and I suggest that this cost is in the ‘story’. A photographer, whose work I follow closely, recently won an award for a sublime image depicting a tree growing out from within a waterfall. The image was indeed captured using a long focal length, and the final product is just brimful with the emotion and beauty of this poor tree’s struggle. Coincidently, the location for the photograph was Ruacana Falls in Northern Namibia but honestly, unless viewers of the image are particularly familiar with the scene, there is little to associate the image with that spot. I maintain that examples such as this one clearly illustrates the divide between travel photography and fine-art photography.
Travel photography is fundamentally about transporting the audience to a location by providing them with compelling images that illustrate what it would be like were they to visit. By contrast, fine-art photography does not make any effort to establish such a connection. A connection may happen by chance, but it is not the intent. The overarching purpose of fine-art photography is to produce aesthetically pleasing and evocative images, with the choice of the subject matter being of lesser importance.
The impact of the divide between travel and fine-art photography on my journey will only manifest when it comes time to publish the work. I am going to Namibia with a fine-art mindset and consequently, it is conceivable that the best photos, the ones that I choose to add to my portfolio, will have no visible connection with Namibia itself. This outcome will stand in stark contrast to the 2009 collection and could cause me, as well as others with interest in this journey, to question my choices. Naturally, I believe in my approach and trust that it will produce photographs to be proud of, but even if it doesn’t, at least, I will return from one of the most photographed regions in the world with more than simply another shot of Deadvlei.
Deadvlei is an iconic Namibian photography location that features dead and blackened trees standing in a dry white pan with red dunes as a backdrop. The scene is photographed by thousands of people annually.