In our earliest years we know a patch of ground in a detail we will never know anywhere again – site of discovery and putting names to things – people and places – working with difference and similitude – favourite places, places to avoid – neighbours and their habits, gestures and stories – textures, smells – also of play, imagination, experiment – finding the best location for doing things – creating worlds under our own control, fantasy landscapes. (Professor Mike Pearson)
Photographers and artists have always found inspiration in their immediate location. There is a concept within Welsh culture called Y Filltir Sgwar (The Square Mile), described above by Professor Mike Pearson. It is the intimate connection between people and their childhood ‘home’ surroundings. Use this ‘sense of place’ as the starting point for your first assignment.
Make a series of six to twelve photographs in response to the concept of ‘The Square Mile’. Use this as an opportunity to take a fresh and experimental look at your surroundings. You may wish to re-trace places you know very well, examining how they might have changed; or, particularly if you’re in a new environment, you may wish to use photography to explore your new surroundings and meet some of the people around you.
You may wish to explore the concept of Y Filltir Sgwar further, or you may deviate from this. You may want to focus on architecture and landscape, or you may prefer to photograph the people who you think have an interesting connection to the square mile within which you currently find yourself. You’ll need to shoot many more than 12 photographs from which to make your final edit. You should try to make your final set of photographs ‘sit’ together as a series. Don’t necessarily think about making a number of individual pictures, but rather a set of photographs that complement one another and collectively communicate your idea. You may wish to title your photographs or write short captions if you feel this is appropriate and would benefit the viewer.
Think of this assignment as a way to introduce yourself to your tutor. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to respond to this brief, as long as you try to push yourself out of your comfort zone in terms of subject matter. Try out new approaches rather than sticking to what you think you’re most successful at.
First impressions and initial response to the brief, and ideation
I have had the chance to explore the concept of ‘One Square Mile’ earlier in my foundation year as well. The previous assignment can be viewed here: (https://archnasingh.blog/category/assignments/assignment-1/)
Having never really had a chance to call a place my home due to my father being in the military, it was always time to move on before we could really settle into a place even. Having thought about this assignment a lot and having had the time to reflect upon the possibilities of what actually was home for me, there were a few things that I have a vivid memory of while growing up. Things that are part of a bygone era now but very much a part of my childhood like old gramophone, Grundig loop-tape audio player, rotating-handle military phone, and a lot of memories of games that we used to play as children, etc. even though none of these things were a part of a place as such, but had a soft spot in my heart. In the absence of a place that I could call my own, these things formed an integral part of my childhood. This is what I thought will be my assignment. I had it all worked out in my head. I waited for my trip to get over so I could visit my parents and get a hold of these treasures, I couldn’t wait to begin my assignment.
With the lockdown being announced in my country with a notice of only four hours, I had to cut back my trip abruptly, rush back to my home in the city from the jungles as airplanes and public transport services were being stopped shortly, reaching back just in time before the lockdown was announced. The lockdown here is quite different from the UK where one can still step out and enjoy one’s surroundings or go for a walk or some fresh air. We, on the other hand, with a huge population and too many people per square feet, are not allowed to even step out of our houses. On 15th April 2020 it was further extended till 3rd May 2020. I had to re-think about my idea as travelling to my parents’ house was now out of question.
I thought of a few ideas initially, that can be found in detail here, (https://archnasinghexpressions.com/2020/04/12/learning-log-lockdown-reflections-about-the-first-assignment/). I was toying with all of these ideas and started to take pictures for each one of them since I couldn’t decide upon any one of them. The excitement of an idea has to be felt from within and somehow I just didn’t feel that for of the first three that I had thought of till now. In the last decade or so, I have been photographing animals, my speciality and interest specifically being big cats, like Tigers, Lions, Leopards, etc. in the jungles of India, Africa and Sri Lanka, so much so that the forests have become my life – I would call it my One Square Mile as that is what comes closest to my calling anything home. As always I am running to them at the first given chance. I wasn’t happy with this lockdown situation. It took me away from what I consider home.
The first few days of the lockdown were strange, as this is the peak time for Indian jungle safaris and the trip that I had planned for almost a year no longer existed. What did happen though was when the harsh sounds of traffic, horns, people and construction stopped, new sounds emerged – the ones that were completely drowned in the cacophony of a city that never seemed to stop – the sweet sounds of the birds. It was beautiful to wake up to them. For the first time in decades, one could actually hear them. Suddenly I discovered that yes, I couldn’t go out but that didn’t mean that I had to give up on photographing wildlife so what if it was of my feathered friends instead of the felines that I usually love to photograph. I was restricted to the balcony and terrace of my house but like an optimistic isolationist, I refused to give up and chose to being close to whatever form of animal life I could find – birds in this case. That gave a new meaning to the concept of One Square Mile and just like that, due to the exceptional circumstances that we all find ourselves in, my balcony and terrace became my new One Square Mile. Details can be found here:
The most important aspect that helped me decide on choosing birds as my theme was the fact that they provided hope – their songs and calls during a time when the entire world suffers – was an immense boost for the morale, a hope for a new beginning and a hope that all will be fine.
Research, reflections and Inspiration
I was a little hesitant about my interpretation of the brief and was not sure if it would be acceptable, so reluctantly I decided to go along with it. Initially, I was unsure if it would be a correct interpretation of the brief, but while researching, Peter Mansell’s assignment of landscape inspired me to analyse the brief my way. I was especially inspired by Roni Horn’s work with nature. Keith Arnatt was fascinated with works of art that are created in the natural landscape but leave no trace of their presence, inspiring his famous series “Self-burial.” Reading this was like a sign from above. This statement struck a chord with me since birds follow the same rule. They quietly make their nests within their environment leaving no impact on the landscape as we humans do. Besides the innumerable learnings that I took from studying all of the other artists, they all taught me one common thing – uniqueness, especially Marc Rees, who blew me away with his spectacular work, and that is what I decided to build up on – uniqueness. What was really interesting and notable was that every artist made me see some connection to what I had in mind and each one of them inspired me to take this work forward and create something more out of it at a later stage. All individual observations and learnings from the various artists are recorded in the research link here:
My Final Assignment
I had to shoot a lot for this assignment to be able to capture what I wanted and when the subject is not in your control you have no choice but to wait for those perfect and desirable moments to happen. While I got different behaviours and some great variety of shots- artistic, funny, aesthetically appealing and so on, I chose to present ‘Bird Vocalisations’ as my final edit, as I have mentioned above, it was the single most important factor that tilted my decision to go with birds as my first assignment – their songs and calls during a time when the entire world is undergoing so much sorrow and suffering, signifies a hope for a new beginning and a belief that all will be fine.
BIRD VOCALISATIONS – THE FINAL EDIT
(Please click on the gallery to view as a slideshow or click on an image to see it full size)
The contact sheets for all the work that was produced for this assignment can be found here:
Technical approach and techniques incorporated
Bird photography, is by no means easy- being a wildlife photographer for more than two decades I can say that with confidence. It’s a totally different ballgame than photographing big cats. The birds are extremely skittish, hard to capture and most of them around my house belong to the category that rarely descend or perch for a long enough time. The other category is who you hear more than you can see. They are also masters of camouflage and it’s difficult to spot them in the dense green foliage. Also the fact that some of them are so tiny that sometimes you don’t even notice them till they take off. Light is very tricky most of the time especially on my terrace – We are already touching 40 degrees Celsius temperature wise and the sun is extremely harsh most of the day. Even in the evening, direction of the sun on my terrace required me to capture most of the images with one stop over exposure, to avoid dark photographs with no detailing. At some place that wouldn’t work either. I had to use a large lens, 800mm, mounted on a tripod mostly, but many of my images are also hand-held with the same lens. I have also used a second lens, 180-400mm with a built in 1.4x converter for any chance bird that came by and I couldn’t quickly remove the 800mm from the tripod for that. These are the two main lenses that I have used for this set of images.
I have adopted few techniques – like over exposing to avoid dark shots, also sometimes I have purposely experimented with that to get a softer look. Another thing is that I have shot on continuous mode, as birds are too quick and to catch their movements you need high speed and continuous mode to allow you better chances to capture the action. I have shot in RAW mode as well as JPEG.
Canon 1DC with 800mm lens
Nikon D5 with 180-400mm (with built-in 1.4x converter)
Strengths and weaknesses
I am fairly happy with the body of work that I have created. I have managed to get good pictures of some birds that are just too difficult to capture. This entailed standing at one place for a few hours every day dedicatedly and that time allowed me with many opportunities to capture the shots I wanted. Of course there is always room for improvement and I feel that I could really do a lot to improve my birds in flight photography and I want to definitely focus on that aspect. Birds in flight, especially the tiny ones, are a challenge and I would like to get some kind of mastery over that.
I tried shooting with shutter priority but because of the tricky light, I found that aperture priority worked best in the environment I was shooting in. Also, because the ambient light was too harsh even at evening time, I sometimes have slightly over-exposed the shots as they appeared dark on the LCD screen. I have corrected that by checking my images periodically on site with the help of a black-out eye-cup.
I strive to get my settings – be it ISO, exposure, speed or temperature correct in the camera itself. I try to do very minimal editing in post. It also means that at times I lose my shots because of correcting my settings on site, but a decision I like to stick with as not only has it improved my photography to a great extent over time but also the time taken to set my camera now barely takes me a few seconds at most.
Thoughts on developing this project in the future
Studying birds is a sizeable task in itself. It’s extremely technical and extensive. As I dedicated most of my time capturing birds in and around my house from the confines of my balcony and terrace, new learning and new ideas started to develop almost immediately. Bird behaviour, food habits, nesting, flying, bird vocalisations – categories started appearing almost instantly, each of which can be a project within itself. Also, this being the nesting season, I had the chance of studying their behaviour while they were busy building their nests and also had the chance of having a Laughing Dove build a nest on my window grill under the canopy – a difficult place to reach and photograph but a great opportunity to study bird behaviour and progress of the chicks. I believe each of these categories can individually be a project in themselves and I am excited to see what more I can add to my collection. What is exciting for me is that being in nature you depend completely on it for light conditions, subject, subject behaviour and surprise elements that one can only experience while photographing animals and that gives me the true thrill of achieving a beautiful image despite the conditions that you might have while shooting them.
The huge data that I have amassed while doing this is definitely not going to end with this assignment – this is just the beginning of a life-long study. Already, this has inspired me to start an Ornithology course from Cornell that I have signed up for. Also, along with the still images, I took videos of behaviour which will look like nothing in an image, like preening, grooming and anting, but are great behaviour to document on film. This could be a start of a simple yet effective film of all the life that is around us, no matter where we are, only if we were to open our eyes and see.
This assignment, being the first one, perhaps did not need as much detailing and investment in time as I did, but for me it has turned out to be the beginning of a lifelong passion to be experimented and done justice to in so many ways. I feel besides a lot of different categories that can be explored, a few, based on the data that I have gathered, are:
- Silhouette shots
- Birds against a concrete backdrop
- Long shots – play of lines, angles, shapes, etc.
- Funny moments
- Decisive moments
- Behavioural shots/films
- Birds in flight
- Birds with food
- Grooming & preening shots
- Different birds on a common perch
- Uncommon behaviour
- Male & Female in one frame
- Mating shots
- The (in)decisive moment