on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Photography as Performance Art

Metaphor making

Alister Benn

Alister and Juanli Sun run Available Light Images Ltd, which specialises in experiential learning using diverse environments to focus on the creativity and unique vision of their participants. When not running trips in Tibet, the Silk Road, SW China, Iceland, Spain and Scotland, the couple live quietly on the Isle of Skye. Facebook

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Two weeks ago I was sat huddled behind a 4x4 in a sandstorm 100 miles from the nearest road having the time of my life. Looking across to one of my best friends and longtime workshop participant, we shared a smile and knew, with certainty, that we were exactly where we wanted to be at that given moment.

Over the course of the two weeks we travelled together in Western China, we talked at great length about philosophy, photography, meanings, motives, expression and our place in it all. I’m forever in his debt for his insightful, gentle and thoughtful input, and the enduring friendship.

Since writing Desert Epiphanies for On Landscape back in April 2017, I’ve returned to the Gobi a further four times. Each visit brings up more revelations, challenges me in ways I never dreamed of, and as I return to our little Glen on the Isle of Skye I am not the same person I was. I’ve written before about our willingness for change, evolution and development, and my work as a landscape photographer is all of those things; it mirrors my life, expression, fears and hopes with crystal clear precision.

Before my first desert trip I had been feeling increasingly down about the whole industry; trudging through a dreary Highland Glen in a sleet storm, seeing some glimmer of a photographic idea and thinking “What’s the point?” “Does this serve any purpose what so ever?” Of course, being an optimist, I’d see through my gloom and the first big epiphany was: “If an image is shared and there’s nobody liking it, does it still have value!?” I smiled at the play on the old tree in the woods philosophy but realised just as quickly that it was important to me, therefore it had huge value - to me.

Hot on the heels of this came my first desert trip and the game changed. I’ve written my psycho-babble for this magazine at length; consciousness cycling, flow states, visual harmonics and the psychological impact of underlying geometry (Read the article Flow States and the Art of Consciousness Cycling). Last year was a roller-coaster of emotional and physical challenges, each week delivering fresh perspectives, renewed vitality and enthusiasm for this glorious art form and my quest to deepen my immersion in it. Then, in August 2017 I hit another wall. The balloon of my awareness began to leak and my emotional state deflated.

Our Autumn workshop season came to my rescue and I was so involved it took me out of myself again and interacting with our clients was as fun and exciting as ever. It’s now clearer to me that as I keep pushing myself to these challenges, eventually I have to stop, allow myself to consolidate and just “be” for a while. Surely even drone honeybees get a day off occasionally!

On a wet Scottish afternoon in November, I was having another deep conversation with the same friend I mentioned in the first paragraph. The mate he’d brought with him was showing me some of his images on an iPad and was talking me through the meaning of all these abstracts from a graveyard. The images were super and I was engaged, but there was a clear difference between what I was seeing/feeling and his ongoing narrative. I recall saying to him “You know I don’t get any of that from these images - the majority of your internal metaphors are lost on me.” At that moment, to the sound of neurones rewiring, I realised that the vocabulary we have to play within photography is extremely limited.



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