The problem with having ambition in any one art form is that you understand what it takes to be great at it. I think I am a good writer, but I would like to be a great writer one day, and I accept that hard as I try it may happen, and it may not. That is ok. It is the trying that is important. I also cook, and I also take photographs, but I know I will never be a great cook, or a great photographer. I don’t have enough technique in either genre; I don’t know enough of the canon – who the great practitioners have been, or who the contemporary wizzes are who push the boundaries.
I don’t have any great ambition in cooking, or in photography, but the problem with having ambition in any one art form is that you understand at least one principle – and that is to always avoid clichés. So hereI am, in Australia, trying to take a few photos of my stay here, and trying desperately not to take yet another photograph of the Sydney Opera House.
It’s harder than you think. The hotel in which I am staying is nestled under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and you just have to crane your neck to see the Opera House sitting there in the bay – this architectural spectacle that you’ve seen on every commercial that advertises Australia, before it fades into a shot of a kangaroo hopping through a dessert landscape. Surely a picture of this famous Opera House has been taken from every angle, and in every rising and fading light. There is nothing new to add. I take out my camera. I put it back.
And then of course there is that problem that besets the modern tourist – the problem of being in a place and not really seeing it, not really experiencing it, because we are so busy taking photographs of it. To take an interesting picture means you have to actually see a place, and to see it means you often have to put away your camera and let the place happen to you. This requires patience, and the ability to engage.
In Sydney, I meet my friend Anna who has been living here for the past 8 years. We take the ferry across to Manly. I want to sit out on the deck and see the harbour as we sail across it, but she wants to stay inside because she says outside can get cold. I do not admit my disappointment but I’m happy to hear her talk about her life in this country without being distracted by the scenery and snapping pictures.
In Manly we walk along the beach and see the surfers in the cold water. Anna says to me, ‘Dem lucky!’ At this time of year, she wouldn’t go into the water, though she tells me she has taken up fishing. It is something she will miss if she leaves Australia – this ability to just get up in the before-light morning,with her fishing gear, and catch something that she will gut and cook later.
On the way back we actually sit out on the deck and Anna takes my camera because, she says, ‘We going to pass the Sydney Opera House! You HAVE to take a picture in front of it. How else you going to prove you was here?’ I allow her to take the picture.