Elastic Encounter
                   Some thoughts

This essay was written late at night, accompanied by my Cat, Tora, resting her face on my arm. In a way, this slowed my writing and made my thoughts clearer. This work is not an attempt to disrupt the reader’s perception of photography, but a method of clearing my thoughts. Furthermore, it explores rethinking photographic practice after a year of play. 

When we think about photography - we often think about what is left behind - the photograph. These images take their place on our walls, screens, books, and buildings. While writing this text in my 1 AM study, I am surrounded by them. They give us access to people we haven’t seen in a while, places we have never seen, and curiosities we wish to explore. As a teacher, I have often discussed the attributes of a good photograph. I explained the notion of the punctum while not even understanding it myself completely. Although fascinated by the concept: a wound inflicted on the viewer by a small detail unintended by the trained eye, this idea has, however, shifted for me in the last year. How has making the image changed me and the subject depicted? I have tried to mutate my photographic practice in the previous year, and I have realized that the more I photograph, the less it seems to be about photographs. Although this thought may seem paradoxical and paralyzing (may I add, often was), it shapes a new practice unfolding within my work. 

As a maker, my interest in photographing others was never far off. The first photographs I took were of people, more specifically my family. They are in the drawer beneath my desk and show an untrained boy looking at others. The angles, as well as the unusual compositions, reveal that I was still a child. The photographs themselves have replaced my memory, for I was way too young to remember. My family let me point the camera at them and fire away. I don’t use the term “fire” lightly; in that aspect, I started to follow Sontag. The camera, in retrospect, has often looked like a weapon in my hands. The one with the camera holds the power. I have photographed countless people without ever thinking about their experiences. I focused on the image, not them. I have to admit now - that I was wrong. I was, in fact, blind to the act of photographing—the intricate powers in play, the possible dialogue that unfolds between camera, maker, and subject. The way bodies move and interact in a given space with a camera present. All this went by unnoticed. 

In order to shift the focus from the photograph to the act of photographing, I made alterations to the camera; the weapon. The goal was to induce dialogue, investigate powershifts and observe how bodies behave during photographic practice. I achieved these concepts by designing what I now call the Heart Camera. This system can only photograph while the photographer and subject are connected via sensors and the camera only fires when their heartbeats cross or beat simultaneously. I have often been asked: Why specifically a Heart Camera? I believe, it was this growing fascination with what was happening internally, below the surface—a way to look beyond what we see or observe. We have a visceral reaction to emotion; the camera would pick on that and see the invisible. It would expose the power shifts and force me and my subjects to depend on each other. I couldn’t photograph alone; we were both complicit in a new game. The camera is placed in the middle, free to take and point. The game of looking has changed into waiting, where we try to connect for one hour. Because the camera has become a shared commodity, we were both equally photographers and subjects. All this was captured by video-camera to be re-watched by both of us as part of the experience. 

There were moments when power would shift, where insecurity took over. Strangely, when this project started, I watched my food, went to the gym, worried about my hair. I suddenly realized that this camera alters how I behave when I turn into an object of interest. I had forgotten this as a photographer. The camera clicked ever so often; with some, it never fired. We talked, we hugged, we undressed, we played games, we sang, we danced. We did all that because of the camera and to get our bodies in tune. The photograph was often forgotten. Although not always consciously; in the back of our minds, we silently waited for this camera to awaken and capture that moment that would signify our meeting. It was never enough. The photograph gives only a fraction of the experience. To discover more, I tried to search in the video recordings for other images. They all failed as if they didn’t mean anything. The photograph was a byproduct of an experience that I longed to share. I compare this to the images of Robert Barry with his ‘Inert Gas series’. A series of images that, by the casual observer, look like landscapes, but as their title reveals, are a series of gases released at specific locations. This highly conceptual work has taught us that the photograph may not show a complete reality; it may, in fact, never have shown such truth. Where the photographs themselves don’t capture the events that happened while making them, the moment of making the photograph is often not captured. The photos can’t show you the wounds inflicted on myself or my subject from the events lived. The photographs are only traces of many that are left behind. 

We behave differently in front of a camera; we can see it daily in the streets. For example, when we tuck-in our shirt and plaster on a fake smile in front of a school photographer, or the moment you notice a traffic camera and don’t dare to walk over during a red light. In the case of the Heart Camera, it demanded a space for intimacy. This act of intimacy was heightened by a world held captive by COVID-19. We were isolated from each other; a simple hug out of kindness was regarded as a crime. Within the walls of a studio, I felt connected with someone else. Instead of technology pushing bodies further from each other, it brought us together. We were trying to fit a screen, to feel the warmth of someone else. A technology that enables us not to polarize but to find more humanity. The photographic practice transformed from a machine that produces images to a device that induces dialogue; a trait it already possesses, but I failed to see in my first years encountering it. The next question is: How can I translate this experience into a body of work in a subsequent attempt to change what photography can contribute in a world overruled by technology? A world where more often than not, we photograph to experience, but in this case, the experience becomes unphotographable. 

Joery Erna