In an age of Instagram filters and ‘check-list’ travel, Sam Parkes’ photography is a breath of fresh air in its humanity whilst simultaneously feeling a little nostalgic. Travelling far and wide, viewing the world from inside out, he lays bare the less-frequently-seen sides of places that are often represented as ‘exotic’ and ‘magical,’ dealing instead with the everyday and the real, and making his viewer think about how we live and what we live for.
His images tell stories. In this interview he tells stories about his images, touching on the subjectivity of art and the mutable beauty of life. It won’t come as a surprise that he wanted to be a writer before he became a photographer.
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Firstly, could you tell the readers a bit about yourself and how you got into photography?
I’ve been traveling alone since I was around 17 years old, zigzagging from place to place, job to job. Most of my early travels were driven by the sheer romance of visiting far flung lands. They had nothing to do with photography. I wanted tigers and mountains. I wanted adventure!
In fact I didn’t even travel with a camera until I was about 26 years old, and even then photography was an after thought. I wince to think of the places I’ve traveled to without a camera! I started taking it more seriously when I was around 28 years old. Since then, photography has been the central thread of my travels through which all other threads interweave.
Have you always had an eye for beauty and complexity? Does it come naturally to you or is it something you have nurtured?
It’s both, but a significant part of it is nature. There is a pronounced sensitivity in my family, I think, visual enchantment being a strong component of that. But that’s not to say that you can’t cultivate it. In fact, it must be cultivated. It’s more a question of unlearning and clearing away all that obfuscates beauty to us. It’s all around us. You need only pick up a shell or a feather or a leaf to see the astonishing beauty and complexity in the natural world. It’s a case of cleansing our perception and honing our senses anew to see through the eye of appreciation and surrender, without judgement or fixed associations. After all, every culture produced poetry before it produced prose, produced highly abstracted painted figures before it produced a square. It’s been there right from the start. For a modern person that’s almost a willful act of rediscovery.
Your photographs present the not-so-frequently-seen sides of places that are often represented as ‘exotic’ and 'magical', like Cuba and India, dealing instead with the raw, the gritty, the everyday. How and why did you decide to focus on this?
‘Exotic’ and ‘magical’ are perspectives, not facts. They appear this way only to an outsider looking in.
Robert Louis Stevenson said, “there are no foreign lands, it is the traveler only who is foreign.” That really resonates with me.
What I love is being somewhere totally unknown to me and finding something that is particular to that place, but also has deeper, universal appeal. I like finding what is both distinct amongst us, and what connects. We are, after all, all cut from the same genetic cloth. What looks like a profound difference is often only surface deep. I believe that if we were to draw a line from that which differentiates us to that which connects it would be a seamless, circular flow, and not a linear distinction. I want to get as close to the beating heart of life as possible, and that means that you must take it all; the joy, the sorrow, the beauty, the cruelty, and shirk nothing.
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There is a stripped-back quality to your work through which the stories are able to tell themselves. Is this your intention? And how did you hone in on this style?
‘Stripped-back’ is a good way of putting it. Photography that truly arrests us is really, above all else, a paring away of all that is extraneous and devitalising. There is a fullness to it. It should have no less than necessary, and no more. It should brim. I can’t claim any conscious intention behind the way I photograph, it’s more like the unfurling of a sail. It was there somehow, it needed evoking, I just had to work out how best to unravel it. I love what Michelangelo said about seeing the Angel in the marble and chiseling until he set him free. There’s a similar sense for me with photography (if you’ll forgive the grandiose comparison!) The image is there or it’s not there, you help bring it about, the key is then in the timing. It’s like seeing a mountain peak through passing clouds. If you weren’t paying attention you’d have missed it. The beauty of it consists entirely in its mutability.
You wanted to be a writer when you were younger, how do you compare telling stories through words with photography?
I think there are very similar qualities to both. Joseph Conrad said that his writing was about wanting to make people “see”. They are both a grasping towards what is ultimately impossible to articulate. At their best they employ rhythm, flow, harmony, balance, proportion, clarity, integrity. That’s not an intellectual checklist, there is no formula or rule, but rather, what is often implicit in writing and images that arrest our attention. It’s this rapprochement of secret affinities — where part relates to part and the whole is a harmonious relation of parts — that amounts to something far greater than the sum of its parts.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said that we should read for the lustre; in terms of photography, it may be a perfectly dutiful report, but if the images don’t hold us aesthetically then it’s merely fact-checking and it doesn’t capture us: it’s photographs with about as much profundity as those for an in-flight safety manual. There’s no gleam to that, there’s no lustre, and I think it’s that gleam that acts as a sort of portal to greater depth, that elliptical quality that is at the heart of both good writing and good photography.
What is your advice for aspiring photographers who want to find their own style or vision?
Have the courage to follow your own particular interests. Forget what is in vogue at this particular moment. That comes and goes. If you’re just trying to keep abreast of current trends, by the very nature of it you’re already behind the curve. Go the path-less travelled. Cut against the grain. What can be drawn out of you and unfurl as your particular potential is of much more value and substance than what following any fad can elicit. It’s ultimately that individual touch, the personal inflections, the idiosyncrasies of someone’s work that is appealing to us. Otherwise you’re in danger of producing perfectly exposed kitsch
You must educate your own sensibilities. It’s important what we look at, what we think about, what we imbibe from the culture around us. You photograph through a prism of all your experiences and knowledge. It’s really about what and how you see. What and how you see is partly a result of what you dispose your attention towards in everyday life. Everything you ingest (“Man shall not live by bread alone”) — what you read, what you listen to, what you watch, who you spend your time with — informs and creates what will become available for you to see. The camera is nothing more than a tool to achieving that.
I should caveat that it also depends on the sort of photography you’re interested in. A good camera is important, of course — different lenses may be necessary depending on the type of photography you pursue (I wouldn’t recommend that you stand close to a crocodile!), but when it comes to photographing people, get in close.
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Your subjects are the people and places you encounter on your travels. How much do you personally interact with these people and places before shooting them? What is that interaction like?
More often than not I am hiding in plain sight. I really enjoy taking candid shots. There’s a real pleasure in being a good marksman in that respect. But I certainly will try and get an inside track if it feels worthwhile. I find that all too often people are incredibly hospitable to the stranger and only too happy to share their life with you. It’s a life affirming pleasure to feel a connection with somebody from a totally different background to yourself (I’d extend that feeling to animals too, even a landscape). Kindness, respect and a genuine openness to another cuts across any potential barrier in communication. It often happens that I’m invited into somebody’s home or on an adventure of their making. It’s a really wonderful occasion when that happens. You’re privileged with a view of things from the inside out.
As your passions for travel and photography are so intertwined, do you ever want to separate one from the other? For example, experience a new place without looking for photography opportunities? Would you ever practice photography in your hometown?
To travel in the way I usually do, it would pain me to not have a camera, there would always be a nagging sense of missed opportunities. A holiday and a trip are distinguished more by time than anything. I would happily take a relaxing holiday and not feel at a loss without a camera! I enjoy that side of travel too, but it would be a different sort of trip entirely. There is always something unappeased and peregrine in me that needs exploration. I want to see what’s around the corner.
It’s a difficult thing to photograph somewhere you’re so familiar with because you’re complacent and you’re not seeing it for what it is. You’re seeing through your personal history of that place. We cannot claim to ‘know’ a place, we know only our experience of a place. In that regard it’s a great chance to try and see it with fresh eyes. Still, I’d rather be in Africa!
What does your editing process involve and what role does it play, to you, in the meaning behind the finished product?
It’s really the final, crucial part. I may take many images over the course of a day and then, come the evening, realise there was only one that was worthwhile. It’s not always possible to capture something exactly as you meant to, especially when it’s on the move, in the moment, unexpected. However good a camera is, it can never mirror exactly what the human eye can see. I want the image to resemble as close to what I saw as possible. Using photo editing software is the second draft, really. It can hopefully redress any mistakes I have made, such as an exposure that isn’t quite right or reviving the fullness to a colour that hasn’t quite come through. I don’t use it to add anything that wasn’t in the original shot, or take something away. I never crop my images. I use it as though it were a pitcher of water poured in circular motion over a dusty mosaic, restoring it to a former glory. It helps me only when there is something there worth polishing.
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You set out to “create something that assumes its audience is smarter than they think they are.” Why is this important to you?
I think we should always aim to lift one another towards a higher plain of vision than the assumed quotidian — to what we believe is greater, deeper, more meaningful. But we needn’t worry about overreaching ourselves — the inevitable gravitational pull of mediocrity and banality that seems to be the de facto setting of mankind will assuredly correct our trajectory! That could sound terribly pompous, but I don’t just want to spoon feed people easy pleasures.
It’s also about respect. I don’t want to be spoken down to. I think that serves no one. We should always be on the cusp of becoming, or as Wordsworth beautifully put it, “something ever more about to be”. I’m aware of the types of images I could take which I know would be popular — with a mixture of comforting familiarity and boredom — but I’m not in the business of trying to ‘sell’ a place to anyone. There’s something depressing about that.
You have said that, “The greater choice of mediocrity there is, the greater our hunger for quality.” I absolutely love this idea. What does quality mean to you, regarding photography?
What I look for is consistency in somebody’s work and a style that is very much their own. Anybody can take the odd lucky image, but can they do it time and again? That to me is a mark of quality. In fact, consistent luck is for me the sign of a good photographer too. It isn’t bestowed upon everybody.
If you really like somebody’s work it involves a kind of surrender to what they are showing you, hopefully it conveys more to you than you can receive by yourself, or it at least corroborates your own intuitions. You are ultimately buying into that person, you are trusting in their judgement — how they photograph, their approach, their character, what they have to say, what they feel is worthy of your attention — it’s all part of it. It’s a categorical error to presume that having better equipment will procure quality. A better camera will create a sharper image of exactly what you’d have photographed before. It’s a superficial fix. What speaks to me is a timeless quality in somebody’s images and that can only come from a clarity within you. It’s you who creates an image, not the camera.
I really like Georgia O’Keefe’s remark about filling a space in a beautiful way. It’s such a simple, but profound idea. I think that’s what it’s about to a large extent. You have a limited space in which to articulate something. How best to fill that space? To put the ‘art’ into everything, to reveal something of interest, to strive for quality is, at the very minimum, a small, but powerful gesture aimed in the right direction.
How do you think social media, especially Instagram, affects travel and travel photography?
Like everything, it has its opposing sides. It’s ultimately the messenger, it’s we who provide the message. In the right hands it could be a wonderful tool, providing insight, beauty and wisdom, a chance to bring your wares to market. Regrettably, I tend to think that the vast majority of it has a more degenerative effect than anything else. Never has so much of so little worth made such substantial claims for our attention. But it comes back to this idea of being prudent and discerning over what we give our time and attention to.
One of the dangers is that it creates ‘check-list’ travel. That can be the death of a place. It fabricates a popularity for the sake of renown and with a terrible irony, begins to hollow out from the inside that which first made it popular. In other words it becomes tourism. I loathe tourism! It’s such a fine balance between wanting to visit a place and destroying it. We all share in that responsibility. Tourism puts a screen between what is in front of your nose and your preconceived ideas of a place, as though the only reason to visit India is to be photographed in front of the Taj Mahal.
Instagram, unfortunately, too easily falls prey to being a numbers game. It has a unique capacity to yield an unmerited garland upon the crass and meretricious. To that I would gently remind you that just because something may not receive wide spread appraisal or commercial success, to not be seduced into thinking that it’s without value, and conversely, that which does, to not assume its value. You need only look at popular culture in general to realise that numbers are rarely an inspiring measure of worth. There’s a lovely line of W.B. Yeats which says, “That only which comes easily can never be a portion of our being. Soon got, soon gone.” I can’t say it better than that.
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You have also said that your process is instinctive. How did you learn to trust your subconscious?
Instinct is our primordial intelligence. We feel before we think. It comes from a much deeper realm than intellect. Albert Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” They must work in tandem, but it’s instinct which sets the agenda. Intellect is incredibly useful, and necessary, but it should not be the immediate faculty from which photography operates. It’s a secondary corrective.
If a photograph is too intellectualised it can become formulaic and it loses something of value, it becomes painting-by-numbers. There’s a timelessness in capturing something spontaneously. You must remain receptive, sensitive and observant and not think too much. Photography is a wonderful discipline for being anchored in the present.
When I feel I know something is about to happen, I trust in the feeling that there’s something here for me. I can’t explain in rational terms what that is, but for the sake of convenience we can call it instinct. I think you have to intuit yourself into that state of receptivity and creativity. I really do believe that inspiration exists in that liminal space between what is and the potential for what could be. It meets you half way somehow. It comes like a fine breeze, from both within and without.
Considering the enormously wide scope of your subject matter, what would you say your photographs of different parts of the world have in common with each other?
Above all else, I’d say they’re occupied with themes of Man and nature — of how we live and what we live for and what it means to exist on this planet — the human condition in other words — our connection with the natural world, often our disconnection from it.
My photographs ultimately say a lot more about me than they do about any place I visit. I make no claims to ‘capture’ a people or place. They’re entirely subjective. I realise that I’m unconsciously drawn to certain themes. J.G. Ballard said, “Deep assignments run through all our lives; there are no coincidences.” I have that feeling all the time when I’m traveling and taking photos, as though things come into being just for me and wouldn’t have come to being unless I was there. That sounds like the worst sort of self aggrandisement possible, but it really feels true to me. You change what’s there, your presence changes what is, like iron filings dancing around a magnet. There’s a certain alchemical transaction taking place, always. The disposition we hold in relation to something co-creates what we may find. J.A. Baker said it perfectly: “I do not believe that honest observation is enough. The emotions and behavior of the watcher are also facts, and they must be truthfully recorded”.
Your work has taken you (or, you have taken your work) to many interesting and beautiful places. Where would you like to go next?
The list is endless, but pushed to give an answer, I’ll say Greenland. I’m pining for wilderness, immense landscapes and prodigious expanses of space. At this point in time especially it feels like a grace beyond measure to travel even a mile from your front door. I’d be grateful for any trip, however small.
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