Inside this issue
Out of Darkness
Life, art, love, passion
Alister Benn lives on the west of Scotland with his wife, Ann Kristin Lindaas. Together they run Expressive Photography Ltd, which includes a successful YouTube Channel, a private forum for subscribers, and running small group workshops and retreats in Scotland and northern Spain.
Humans are intensely variable, growing very much like a snowflake falling through a winters sky. We each take a subtly different path, shaping us and creating flaws of imperfection as readily as traits of beauty. Humanity is a celebration of diversity and difference; art and creativity should be the ultimate articulation of this heterogeneousness.
Life, art, love, passion; a curious mix of events, experiences, emotions and perspectives. Any time I spend reflecting on these attributes makes me wonder if I haven’t just been making it up all along, taking the path that seemed best, and then living with the consequences. All I can really say for sure is; if we are happy in this moment, then we’re winning, and the results justify the struggles, hardships and heartbreaks.
Until the end of 2016, I am not entirely sure I knew why I was making photographs. I certainly believed I had some skill and aptitude, but the images I made, for the most part, were articulations of the nature of subjects rather than autobiographical.
By then, I had been suffering from crippling anxiety, panic attacks and depression for 30 years. Living under a constant shadow, and although externally happy and successful, the inside of my head was in torment. In January of 2017, I set off into the far west of China for 3 weeks exploring the emptiest place I had ever been; the Gobi desert. The epiphanies I had there, the time to surrender, reflect and reconnecting with my true self, were totally life-changing. It was as if a light had been uncovered, revealing truth, opportunity, insight and passion. It may sound dramatic and exaggerated, but it is certainly the truth.
In the years that followed, I worked on these relationships between mind and matter and developed the 5 triggers principle that I have taught ever since. The attributes of Luminosity, Contrast, Colour, Atmosphere & Geometry; the raw ingredients of the world, and the reasons why we engage with it; the fuel for our fascination. Should you stop and look for a moment at any scene, or any photograph, you will see those attributes pulling your attention, guiding you and having subtle yet profound impact on your emotions and imagination. This was the epiphany I needed to understand not only the landscape but myself. I clearly recognised the moment when I stopped making photographs to say something about the landscape and began unearthing profound insights about myself.
Between January 2017 and March 2019, I visited the Gobi Desert 7 times; each expedition forming, layer upon layer, a greater depth of understanding of the language of the landscape and finding myself in it. The images I made in that time represented a body of work quite unlike anything I had done before, being a mirror of my own inner landscape, creating an emotional resonance that affected me in quite deliberate ways; an emotional spectrum from melancholy to joy. Expressive Photography was born, and I was taking the first steps out of the darkness.
An artist’s life
I have collected art for many decades; first paintings and sculptures, then photography books and fine art prints. I believe in art, its need as a release for our humanity and perspectives, but also to support artists who choose to live their lives for their passions. Making a living as an artist has never been easy, yet we choose to do so, not because it is a choice, it just is, and we must surrender to it, or forever deny it and live a sub-optimal existence, diminished.
I had never considered myself as an artist, for I had not produced any art. Well crafted photographs of places and things didn’t seem to qualify, and the fine art world tends to agree. To them, there is an apparent lack of human values explicit in a landscape, as opposed to street photography, or portraiture. However, as my relationship with the Out of Darkness images evolved, I perceived more human values than the raw subject matter inferred. Of course, it is us who personify the landscape with our human values, and the articulation of heartfelt emotional resonance is real. We feel energised and joyful with bright, airy, sensuous images, and we sense mystery and threat in dark, claustrophobic aesthetics. As we look upon an image or a piece of art, it is us who adds the layers of humanity, and the deeper we are, the less superficial the pieces will appear.
Having said that, I never purposefully set out to create a body of work. There was no genesis of the project, it just evolved smoothly until a point in time when I wanted to make a more unified statement of my message and intent. The art came along through my intuitive relationship with the place, the aesthetics and the articulation of my emotional spectrum.
The Out of Darkness Project
As the relationship between my varying perspectives and the aesthetics of emotional engagement began to dominate my thinking and productivity, I became increasingly confident that it has value beyond merely making photographs of a landscape. Yes, I still make photographs in landscapes, but the subject of the photograph is not the thing my camera is pointing at. I have legitimate concerns that contemporary landscape photography is too heavily focussed on external validation and the phantasmagorical processing so dominant in social media. I worry that the point of being in the landscape with a camera has been lost, and the stress release is being overridden by stress inducers.
Equally, I am not trying to make distinctions between people who photograph landscapes and those that create emotional aesthetics from landscapes; being in nature with a camera is a good thing regardless of your skill, intent, or output.
Although external validation has become increasingly less important to me, in the summer of 2021, I made the decision to apply for a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, as I believed I had something to say with this body of work and wanted some objective assessment of it to exist outside of my own head. I chose 21 images from the greater project and wrote a statement of intent that I felt summarised the purpose and meaning of the work. The feedback that I got through mentorship by the very patient Susan Brown was that to get the panel accepted by the landscape panel, I would need to change the statement of intent to fit in with their brief, which is for the images to say something about the landscape and not just the emotional attributes. I did this simply because the assessment for the landscape fellowship was in October, whereas visual art was not until the spring of 2022. Patience was never one of my virtues.
Thankfully, watching the assessment on zoom from a rental house on the Isles of Shetland was a pleasurable one, and suitably encouraging things were said about the work, and I was awarded the fellowship.
For the book, however, I very much wanted to return to my core creative value: The images are autobiographical, and more than that, the instruction I get from the images gives me a fresh perspective on my own psych. The 132 images in the book are sequenced to represent the entirety of my emotional spectrum. We all know how to feel; our emotions govern our lives, yet it takes severe training to have a healthy relationship with our emotions and not have them lead us on a chaotic ballet through life, like a drunk driver on an icy road. We bottle up emotions, lock them away, form a veneer of armour to protect ourselves from harm, and in so many ways, create a cage for ourselves to limit our exposure to negativity. Yet, the mere act of that locks us up inside our own heads, possibly the most hostile environment of all.
Along with the photographs, I wrote the extensive text, and I maintain the book is as much about the story as the images. I am honoured that both Joe Cornish and William Neill agreed to write forewords for the book, bringing several decades of experience, perspective and insight to their beautiful texts.
Three editions of the book Out of Darkness are currently available in presale. The Standard Edition, which is the book alone, signed for orders during presale. A Deluxe Edition, which comes with a bespoke slipcase and a choice of signed print. Finally, the Collector’s Edition presented in a handmade case, with a folio of 5 signed prints, a behind the scenes booklet and a 25 minute musical composition I made to accompany the images, which thematically follows the evolution of aesthetics.
Everyone I spoke to about producing a book used the words “labour of love,” and that is most certainly true. The price of fine art paper have gone through the roof this year, and the original quote I received to print the book has increased by 30%. We have tried in every way imaginable to make the book to the highest possible standard, and have limited our margins to keep the price of it affordable for as many people as we can. We have even included free international shipping to a few countries, like the USA and some of Europe and the UK. This is not a project about making money, its primary purpose is to try and get my story across; a story that has changed the direction of my life, given me an authentic passion for helping others with their own mental health and to use photography as a positive and developmental tool, rather than something to stroke our fragile ego.
Every one of us has unique insights, attributes and skills. Art can be used to express the entirety of the human condition, both the negative and the positive. I believe whole-heartedly that the landscape can give us insights to our own inner landscape, showing us that it is ok to be us, and not to bend and break to fit into a societal expectation of expression or aesthetics. I will leave you with one question:
How can you express the pain you feel in a landscape photograph if society insists that it has to be pretty, balanced and fits their definition of acceptable?
You can find out more about Alister's book on his website, https://expressive.photography/out-of-darkness-home/.