On The Rocks

There is a thought that is attributed to Pablo Picasso: "I am always doing things I can’t do—that’s how I get to do them."

Whether Picasso actually said/ wrote this, I don't know. But it's a principle I do my best to follow.

For example, I recently tried something for the first time...landscape photography. Yeah, I know. That's not exactly a universe-altering decision, but it's something I've never really had much interest in, and more importantly, it's an endeavour that required me to step outside of my comfort zone. Different equipment, different context, different techniques, different thinking, different way of seeing.

stormy coastline, kochi prefecture, japan
My first attempt at landscape photography (License image)

Sure, like most people I've taken snapshots of beautiful scenery I've come across before, but that's not really what I'm talking about. I'm referring to the process of looking past the obvious, envisioning potential beauty, and figuring out how to express it.

The photo above is my first attempt. To seasoned landscape photographers, this image might not be exceptional in any way.

To me though, it represents a success, one of those minor victories in life when months of planning and preparation miraculously pay dividends.

I initially envisioned creating an image like this almost exactly one year ago, when I was in Kochi prefecture in Japan to photograph mating whitespotted bamboo sharks

Kochi prefecture is part of Shikoku, the smallest and least populated of the four main islands that comprise Japan. Kochi is also one of the poorest of the nation's 47 prefectures, a status that some would see as a disadvantage. When I first visited last year though, I saw the upside in this right way...namely, that much of Kochi has not been overdeveloped.

There is a tendency in Japan, as elsewhere, to bulldoze and demolish every last bit of nature in the name of progress. Kochi city is an urban centre, but much of the prefecture is different.

There are still coastlines with no concrete. Rivers that haven't been paved over and uglified. There are birds, insects, amphibians. Life!!!

I was on a mission with the bamboo sharks last year, so I didn't have the requisite time, equipment, or mental preparation to take photographs of anything but the sharks. The photographic potential of the area stuck in my mind though.

As fate would have it, I was fortunate enough to get another opportunity to visit Kochi this year, invited for a photo exhibition and a series of presentations. Though I was occupied for much of my stay, I managed to grab time in between, lugging all sorts of new equipment around, with the hope of capturing and conveying some of the area's natural beauty on pixels.

tony wu photographing kochi prefecture coastline
me, trying to look like a photographer, probably not fooling anyone

I spent a couple of days exploring the coast, going back to areas that I recalled spotting when I drove past last year. In the end, I chose a single beach, just below an overlook known as fushigoe no hana (伏越ノ鼻), pictured above. I scoped the area out several times, noted the tide times, and decided that I'd try to photograph the beach at sunrise, since it faces east.

Sunrise, as it turned out, was at about 05:10, which meant getting up at 04:00 (argh) and trudging out there pre-coffee, pre-anyone-else-sane-being-awake.

I have to be honest. The morning of...I came close to just saying "screw it" and going back to bed, especially since it was dark, chilly, and cloudy. 

I'm happy I summed up enough willpower to haul myself out to the beach that morning though. The skies weren't as nice as I'd hope they be, so I knew right away that the shot I had envisioned wasn't going to happen. But as I looked up and down the beach and watched the progress of the skies, I realised that there was an opportunity to express the rugged beauty of this area...emphasising the wild, the untamed, the unpredictable. The exact opposite of the paved, the developed, the subjugated.

After that morning, I went back two more times. Once late at night to photograph the same beach by moonlight...

fushigoe no hana beach by moonlight
Fushigoe no hana beach in Kochi prefecture by moonlight (License image)

...and one final time the morning of my birthday, the day after a typhoon had passed:

beach sunrise, kochi prefecture, japan
Early AM on my birthday (License image)

There's one other aspect of this experience that I think bears mentioning.

One of the reasons I'm happy about these images is that this particular place, this beach, is not a tourist destination. It is also not a "must do" place for photographers. In fact, I never came across another person while I was there.

It is just an unassuming picturesque area, one that like many others, goes mostly unnoticed, in large part because it hasn't been designated a "must do" in a guidebook or tour map.

What I'm getting at is the concept of originality. 

To me, there's much greater reward (as well as accompanying pain of course) trying something that few people, if any, have attempted before. In the context of landscape photography for example, it would not be at all appealing for me to go stand in the same spot that thousands of other people have stood in before to photograph the same thing they have, in the same manner they have. The challenge is in appreciating the mundane, not copying the already celebrated.

Xerox-ing and doing-things-by-the-book are for mindless office work. Creativity and stepping-outside-boundaries are for photography and all other arts.