For this week’s edition of The Creative Journey, I’m excited to be featuring Alister Benn. I’ve known Alister for a number of years now and he’s always been someone whose approach towards his craft has both impressed and motivated me. Take one look at his work and you can tell that he is an artist who is confident in his direction. Make sure you check out Alister’s website and Facebook page to keep up to date with his work! I want to say a huge thanks to Alister for taking the time to share his story.
You mention on your website that a corporate international career led you to China in the year 2000 and you ended up spending the next seven years of your life there. Can you tell me a little bit about when you decided to pursue photography as a full-time career? Also, looking back on your journey, were there any misconceptions that you had about landscape photography compared to how you view and value it now?
After meeting my wife in Beijing in 2000, we travelled about quite a bit with my work. It wasn’t until 2004 that we moved back to China full time, and for the next 7 years we lived mostly in the SW province of Yunnan and then Tibet. The decision to become a full-time professional photographer was a gradual thing rather than some grand epiphany. Until 2007 I was primarily a bird photographer, absolutely for the pleasure of doing it. Making the decision to concentrate on landscapes in mid-2007 was the catalyst that committed me to a particular genre and the road to a career. The rest of the shift from corporate to photographer was quite organic, being very gradual and strategised. We’re not Plan B people, therefore a stage came when the change of careers was abrupt and non-reversible. Of course, you have to see a way in which to make a living, but you also have the control to set limits on that lifestyle and cut your cloth accordingly.
I’ve had a camera virtually my whole life but didn’t have any real technical inclination until I got into birds in about 2003. I guess the biggest misconception was that all the images I admired by other photographers actually came out the camera looking like that. As digital RAW files overtook colour slide film as the medium of choice by the majority of the world’s landscape photographers, it became clear that, just as in Ansel Adam’s day, the power of post-production could once more become a dominant creative force.
I was not happy with my work until I learned a degree of technical and creative competence in processing. Instead of spending 200 hours in a dark room dodging and burning, we can do the same within a few hours on the computer. The intent and vision are the same, just the tools have changed.
I place a massive premium on that creative vision and our ability to stamp our personalities on our work through thoughtful post-production. I find the belief that landscape photography should be defined as what the camera captures alone as questionable as saying that painters can only paint what they see, not what they feel.
What were some of the early struggles you faced in your career, do they still exist today, and how have you managed or dealt with them over the years?
Struggle is such an evocative word, but I don’t really see myself as a struggler. My wife Juanli and I are both very down to earth and don’t tend to get in a fuss about situations, we just get on with it and work on changing it from how it is, to how we want it to be. If it’s not within our power to affect that change, we wouldn’t try. All aspects of life come with challenges, obstacles, and opportunities, and our relationships with those things shape our future and our perception of our place in it all. I’m both an optimist and a realist, and maintaining a positive mindset has enabled me to maintain a healthy perspective on “struggles” and seeing them for what they are and consequently my ability to address them.
Setting realistic business goals and objectives was fundamental in reducing the concepts of struggles as well.
I realised some time ago that if you want to make a big money lucrative career out of landscape photography, being a super-talented business person will be of greater value than the ability to create unique and interesting images.
Having come from a corporate background, I understand both how powerful good business practice can be and how devastating stress can be on our health, which for me is the most important thing. My move into the arts as a career was partly to address the reduction of work-related stress. Now we have no stress, or at least very little and we manage our workflow and schedules to continue that management.
Putting that aside, however, I think one of the most common issues these days is the sheer overwhelming volume of images out there in the world and the challenge of rising to a point where your work is actually noticed and valued. All I can do in that regard is make images I love and hopefully, other people will like them too.
Inconsistency and self-doubt seem to be two of the biggest road blocks stopping people from reaching their true potential. Have you ever suffered from those, and if so, how do you push through the periods of time where you’re lacking creative or emotional drive?
I’m a self-taught photographer, and at times on that development journey I have made mistakes or taken creative paths that turned out to be wrong. However, continuing on my theme of how our personalities and characters shape our perceptions of challenges – self-doubt can be managed, as can inconsistency. I can work on an image for 3-4 hours and ask Juanli’s opinion and after a few moments of silence she will ask “Do you think it’s your best work?” Learning to answer that question honestly allows for self-critique and an objective analysis of how close your work comes to your own self-defined bar. I’m a perfectionist and I set a very high bar for myself, in some regards that can set me up for a degree of failure, but as the years have gone by I realise also that I don’t have to hit every single image I make out the park.
There is room in my portfolio for quiet, introspective work, which I don’t believe is judged on the same level as more mainstream images.
It is not possible to be an artist without being heavily invested in the emotional energy it takes to create honest work. It can be very draining and I have had to learn to only process what I consider to be my best work when I’m in the mood to do so. If I’m not feeling like tackling a big, expansive, hand-held, 9-frame, 14mm, pano, exposure-blended and focus-stacked image, I won’t. I’ll work on a simple, single frame long exposure black and white image instead; or I’ll write, or go out and scout locations, or simply go for a walk around the bay and think. That’s the cool thing about this job, you’re always at work, but you get to define the routine and how to prioritise your time. I’m thoughtful and I use a lot of my down time to think about my work, my position in the world among my peers and the direction I want to take. All of this pondering and discussion with Juanli helps to overcome both self-doubt and inconsistency.
As photographic artists we are in a unique position: We experience the moment in the landscape and we produce an image that expresses an essence of mood, emotion, and feeling of that moment, which we can then share with others. The photographer is the only person who can look at the image and compare it to the event and ask the question—“Does this say what I want it to say? Yes, or no?”. If the answer is no, then why send it out there into the world? If we make the simple comparison between visual and written language, does this sentence say what I want it to say, is it consistent with my intention? I can say yes to that, as I am in no doubt.
Photography is the same, we just use images instead of words. It’s not about finding our voices, it’s about deciding what we want to say. Can I use different words in a different order to say the same thing? Yes. Can I use the same words in a different way to say something different? Yes to that too. Equally, is there a definitive version of an image, or can it be changed or tweaked to have a very different impact? Equally yes. I use that limitless palette of opportunity as my motivation. I can say anything I want to say with my images—my varying intentions will dictate the direction and this confidence will breed conviction.
You lived in China for seven years, with a great deal of that time spent exploring the Tibetan region, and then moved to Spain and eventually back to Scotland. Is travel something that has always interested you, and how have new places affected your life and photography?
My father was in the navy and I was fortunate as a kid to get to travel with him on the ship, so by the time I was a teenager I’d already experienced a lot of overseas travel. Birding was another trigger and I used to enjoy going to see unfamiliar birds in interesting places. Obviously with my career, part of my motivation for going overseas in the first place was to continue that exploration and birding. By the time I was travelling professionally, however, a lot of that novelty wore off; 100 long haul flights a year takes it out of you; constant jet-lag, illness, travel stress etc. We now travel a lot less and it is manageable and not unpleasant.
The most profound impact of my life so far has to be coming full circle and moving back to Scotland. I have that same appreciation and wonder for my own back yard that I had as a child, but with the benefit of a lifetime of perspective. My photography is an accumulation of my life’s experience and therefore if I throw myself into my work honestly, then everything I have done shapes who I am and therefore my photography. In short, I usually know what I want to say!
I would add to that, however, that making images in places I know well and have a deep-rooted connection with is very different from shooting on locations I visit for shorter periods of time. I am happy with a spontaneous relationship with a landscape. One really focusses on first impressions and often the superficial. Whereas, the longer one spends in a place, the more likely we are to delve beneath the surface and explore details. It is very important regardless of the two scenarios to delve into the emotional impact that the landscape has on you as a person. This allows even the superficial, literal landscape to be interpreted in an exciting and stimulating way, even if you’re only there once for a few hours.
I’ve followed your work for a number of years now and I’ve always felt a sense of confidence in your creative vision. Can you tell me a little bit about your personal style and have you ever had a hard time staying true to your vision or being influenced by outside sources?
Thanks for that, I appreciate it. My personal style can only be compared to me as a person, it’s not constant. In public, I will always maintain a facade of self-confidence and that may be what you’re picking up on in my work—bold, confident, assertive, emotional, evocative, mysterious; all adjectives we use to describe both people and images. For the third time, I find myself coming back to the same point—deciding what I want to say. If the image says what I want it to, by default it is my personal style. It is easier to stay true to one’s self if you pin emotional honesty as the framework rather than a stylistic “look.”
If I had to condense what I consider to be one aspect of my personal style it would be generally mysterious images, but with some ray of optimistic light there as well; almost like some kind of luminous epiphany—a reward for perseverance.
However, I don’t feel I only have one personal style. I reserve the right to change my mind 🙂
With regard to external influences, I’d be a liar if I said I was immune to those. I can name a whole bunch of photographers I admire and sometimes envy, but that doesn’t mean I want to make my work look like theirs. I admire their vocalisation, manipulation of mood and taking me on visual and emotional journeys. I can be inspired by that and improve my own work in a completely different stylistic direction. I do feel however that we can learn creative methodology from our peers—techniques that can promote a certain emotional impact. Once we learn those artistic “words”, our vocabulary as artists has been magnified and our articulation is enhanced as a result. For example, my own personal processing toolbox is made up of lots of well-known techniques, plus others I have worked out myself. How I mix them up and blend them and more importantly, why, contribute to the look and feel of my work. I believe truly we all stand on the shoulders of giants.
You and your wife lead a number of workshops through your company Available Light Images. What is the most important lesson you try and teach your workshop participants?
This will come as no surprise—INTENTION.
I always try to impress upon our clients the importance of making and processing images with a plan for what they want to say. This is their Intention. If we have a clear idea of what we want to say/achieve, then the level of control we have over the impact that the image will have on viewers will be increased. That intention can be happy, sad, ambiguous, mysterious, tense or an imbalance; regardless of what it is, the intention & impact should not be arbitrary.
Learning methodology to create a predictable and emotional response in others is not difficult, and having the power to alter the mood, depth and three-dimensionality of our images can only be a good thing.
Nowadays, social media is without a doubt the platform that most photographers share their work on. Unfortunately, it seems like the desire for acceptance and recognition can have such a huge impact on photographers and the direction they take while creating their images. What are your thoughts on authenticity and do you think it’s important for people to embrace their own creative vision?
Absolutely, as with most aspects of the internet, there are both positive and negative impacts. To be honest, I try not to judge, as it leads to a negative mindset, which for me isn’t a healthy thing. I was speaking with a very famous landscape photographer last autumn and they were saying they only post images of wide-angled sunrises and sunsets on one popular photo-sharing website because anything else is unappreciated. That’s fine, they understand the platform and adjust their posting habits accordingly, but it doesn’t stop them from making intimate images, or black and white images or telephoto layered landscapes; they just don’t share them on certain sites, but they’re still on their website.
I’m the same. The diversity of content of my own personal portfolio website (alisterbenn.com) is quite different from my other website (availablelightimages.com) or other online portfolios, or social media. They serve different purposes and I make images I want first and foremost and share them on various platforms in accordance with what I feel will most successfully represent me in those markets. This boils down to simple good business practice and efficient marketing.
In terms of my views on authenticity and creative vision; again I try not to judge. Some people are more creative than others. I’ve played guitar for decades and can copy a solo or melody with a high level of competence, but I struggle to create my own. Conversely, I find it very easy to find new compositions, or fresh interpretations, even in places that are very popular. It is not my place to judge someone should they choose to copy or plagiarise another photographer’s work. I believe we should all be answerable to ourselves first and foremost. I have my own line in the sand in terms of authenticity and integrity, one which has come about after many years of contemplation and thought.
As an outdoor photographer, what are some of the ways that your connection with the wilderness influences the decisions you make while creating your images? How do you make sure that the process doesn’t kill the experience?
The experience comes first—otherwise, why be there? I consider it a strength in my teaching that I can empathise with the various stages our clients are in when they come to us. With so much of contemporary photography focussed on drama, expansiveness, majesty, and glory, it can be a disappointment for people when nature refuses to co-operate. I’ve been there, and I used to measure my enjoyment of my time in nature on the success of the images I made—not anymore. I make images now given the conditions I have when I am out there. I am grateful in the knowledge that I can choose to make an image, or not to make an image.
If a scene is telling me to get my camera out of the bag, that’s a good thing. That communication between the landscape and my subconscious can be a scream or a whisper, a graphic stimulus or an emotional one.
I say subconscious because very little of my creativity comes from the consciousness of thought. My best work usually comes when I am not thinking about making photographs, simply being somewhere and experiencing it. That way, the process cannot compete with the event—it’s a win-win situation.
The second element has to be familiarity with your gear and the process of making images. In terms of technical challenges in the field, there are really only two; expose and focus. Everything else is creative; what to shoot, what’s in the frame, what’s out, the relationships, balance, harmony or tension in the composition. One thing I learned from shooting at night at high altitude in the Himalaya was the necessity of gear familiarity and process. With your brain working on 50% Oxygen there is no room for thought. As soon as I gained confidence with the process, I could manage the technical (craft) aspect of photography without thought, allowing subconscious creativity to lead the creative process.
We see it quite often; photographers out in the field unsure of how their equipment works, struggling with the process, and technical adjustments. Having a solid grounding on how your camera works and how to expose and focus are vital to free up your mind for creativity. You cannot have a relationship with a landscape when you’re frustrated, flustered or unprepared in terms of your physicality or equipment. Read the manual, practice at home in the garden or local park, know your gear, understand the core functions. Only then can you have a relationship with a landscape and speak eloquently about that relationship.
What is the biggest leap outside of your comfort zone you’ve ever taken, and how do you push yourself to consistently move forward both creatively and in business?
Honestly, there are simply too many to even begin to isolate. My father passed away when I was 19, and I think for the first time I truly had an idea of my own mortality. Consequently, I’ve always had an adventurous personality and will always take calculated risks in the spirit of experience, discovery and pushing boundaries. Juanli’s background from a rural Chinese upbringing tends to be a little more conservative and she takes the edge off my more crazy aspirations and makes me more grounded!
I’m also quite competitive, even with myself. When I used to do long distance road cycling in China, I’d always try to beat a previous time if I was on a route I’d ridden before—not always healthy! Being driven and very determined keeps me moving forward and I don’t linger on the past.
Work to your strengths with a healthy awareness of your weaknesses, but don’t over-intellectualise the latter.
Juanli and I run our business together and therefore everything is a joint decision, a democracy. However, that devil may care attitude to my own creativity is certainly there and I won’t hold back from taking what may be perceived as creative risks out of fear of criticism or breaking conventions.
If we believe something is valid, honest and worthwhile we’ll do it.
If you had to pick one thing that has influenced you the most as an artist, what would it be and why?
Again, to pick one thing would be disrespectful to the plethora of other things that contribute. All I can say is my whole life has defined who I am; my images represent who I am and therefore everything in my life takes equal credit for my creative vision. On a purely personal level, I have always considered myself as my most valuable asset; my personality and the varying nuances of my moods and perspectives. I’m inquisitive and still retain a very childish exuberance with regards to experiencing the world about me. I guess balancing that naivety with a sometimes cynical view of the current global situation is my creative stimulation.
It’s often easy for people to get tunnel vision when it comes to photography and the pursuit of becoming “successful”. Unfortunately, this can often lead to them ignoring all of the other amazing benefits that come from being a photographer. If you had to pick one thing that photography has provided you with that you consider the most rewarding, what would it be and why?
Success is subjective, yet it is a common reference for people’s self-worth. Juanli and I live in a little white cottage on the North West of the Isle of Skye. When I wake up in the morning and open the blinds I look across a 180-degree landscape of hills and glen. Golden Eagles, Ravens, and Buzzards soar overhead. Sheep busy themselves in the surrounding crofts and Wrens sing with abandon from the copse. The seasons pass slowly and every day is different as the weather changes by the hour. There are two windows in my office; through the double-glazed one I can watch nature, simplicity, and peace. Through the other one on my Mac I interact with the rest of the world; no commuting, noise, distractions or deadlines other than those of my own choosing. That level of fiscal and emotional independence are all that Juanli and I are looking for, but with the caveat that we can add value to our client’s aspirations and goals. That giving mentality is strong in both of us, and when we do leave our little Glen it is rewarding to us that we can share our knowledge and experience with others.
I realise from the above paragraph that superficially some of those things can appear material, which may not necessarily be in the spirit of your question. However, these things are a direct result of my life as a landscape photographer. We choose to live close to nature, in the landscape—the relationship with it is tangible and constant. This career has provided me with a voice and an outlet for my thoughts, philosophy, and images.
I have things to say and I use the template of the landscape as a metaphor for a lifetime of experiences and perspectives.
Pursuing a passion can easily consume a person, leaving them feeling like they don’t have enough hours in a day to accomplish their next goal. How do you balance your photography career with the other areas of your life and how important is that balance?
LOL—Photography pretty much is my life and that’s the way I want it. Working from home, you’re always at work. Juanli and I discuss business over coffee first thing in the morning and she will answer an email in the middle of the night if it is important. However, over the last year or so I’ve really started making time for playing guitar every day; it is a creative and emotional outlet that isn’t work. I’m also getting better at taking time off and doing other things. The cottage has a 1/4 acre garden and I’m discovering the joys of hard labour and the creative aspect of visual design in our little bit of landscape. Every year over the summer I put my camera away and will barely take an image for 3 months. This acts as a creative detox for me and allows me to enter the autumn season feeling fresh and invigorated. It also prevents me from slipping into a repetitive methodology, which in turn leads to repetitive images.
The key to our happiness with our scenario though is that we only really do the things we want to do in this business and therefore it rarely feels like work. Sitting here and writing this has been fun, especially since a cold front has come through this morning and it’s pouring with rain!
Here at Image & Rhythm, we’re all about showcasing like-minded people with the goal of inspiring others to chase their dreams and become more successful photographers. Who would you like to see us interview next and why?
This is certainly one of the most exciting aspects of the internet, the ability for us to reach out across the world and interact with anyone. Some of my best friends are photographers I’ve met through online forums and communities. Other than Guy Tal who you’ve already featured I’d like to recommend three of my very good friends: Marc Adamus, Adam Gibbs and Sean Bashaw, all of whom have had long careers in this business and are wonderful and inspiring people.