The Brussels Street Photography Festival (BSPF) interviews Sam Ferris!
Sam Ferris is an Australian photographer who lives in Sydney, Australia. Originally from the suburbs of Melbourne, Sam takes photos in the streets looking for fleeting moments that are often lost in the chaos of the city. Sam Ferris has been a finalist for several international competitions including the Brussels Street Photography Festival in the 2016 International Series category with a superb series from the streets of Sydney titled: “In visible light”.
BSPF: It seems to be all about putting photos together as series. Your series have been featured in several competitions and websites, what is it about a photographic series that attracts you the most? What difference do you find to say with work presented as individual photos?
SM: I have been working in series lately because it’s a way for me to make sense of my pictures. I do admire the skill it takes to make a strong single images that stand alone as interesting, emotive, or humorous – it is, after all, what we all strive for – however, I am also coming to understand how pictures can take on new meanings, become more powerful or resonate for longer within the narrative of a series. And I guess narrative and storytelling have always been important for me because my first love was literature and I now see photography as an extension of that love. I spent ten years in the academic world studying, researching and teaching literature, so it has become engrained. Because of this I use the analogy that the best single images are like perfect sentences, with their careful selection of language and syntactical arrangements, yet, they can’t really communicate a story on their own. In the same way, I feel like the best photographic series – where all those well-compose sentences come together and thematic threads and motifs are interwoven, offering meaning beyond the single word, phrase or page – are comparable short stories.
BSPF: Your latest featured work: “Cover(t)” was selected as a finalist at the StreetFoto San Francisco festival. Can you tell us a bit more about this series?
SF: This short series emerged from the editing process of my In visible light work; where I had a hundred or so 5 x 7 prints arranged all over my walls. Looking at the outtakes, I noticed that I was drawn to photographing certain things in certain ways, one being people whose faces are obscured by some kind of covering. A lot of these pictures were individually quite cliched and didn’t offer much beyond an initial bit of humour or interest. So, I thought about this for a while and played around with these prints and by grouping them and sequencing them. I felt like they became more meaningful to me when arranged together.
I showed the rough set as a bit of fun to some photo friends that I trust and one suggested that perhaps these kinds of pictures reflect my own desire to disappear, to remain ‘covert’ while photographing amidst the ebb and flow of the street – hidden in plain sight. I think she was right and in a way the partially covered faces represent the subjective experience that is at the core of In visible light, that of relocating to Sydney, and with it a sense of isolation and feeling like I was living life from behind some kind of façade. I think that is what comes through for me when I look at the set I put together of StreetFoto San Francisco, but I’m not sure if it’s strong enough yet or if others see it quite the same way. Saying all of that, I doubt I’ll deliberately go out shooting with the purpose of adding to this series and I still consider the pictures part of the wider body of work that is In visible light, so I’m actually not sure what will come of it.
BSPF: The light in Australia is known for being great for photography, especially within the busy streets of cities such as Sydney and Melbourne. What is it about this light that you strikes you the most? How do you cope with overcast days, rain and places with simply other light?
SF: Without a doubt, I’m very fortunate photographically to live in Sydney with incredible the light we have year-round. Whenever the light’s good I feel the compulsion to make pictures. It pours down the city’s streets between buildings, reflects off the expansive glass surfaces and creates areas of strong light and shadow. I find myself drawn to these spots and fascinated by how quickly the light changes minute to minute or differs one week to the next and between the seasons. Photographing in these settings has allowed me to reflect on my perceptions of the world around me and come to see light as a disclosing tool.
Being a full time teacher, I still try to make photos as often as possible but overcast days or days when the light is flat tend to be the ones where I’m catching up on planning lessons, marking and the administration that comes with the job. If I get the opportunity to photograph in dull conditions or in bad weather, I’m often using a flash. In the same way that I photograph attempting to exploit the stark light in Sydney so that it transforms the world, I enjoy using flash to control the light and render things in an expressive fashion. A few years ago I had an extended stay in Berlin and experimented with using a flash a lot. I’ve recently been editing those pictures into a series, some of them personal depicting family life and some street photography, which feels very different to my Sydney work.
BSPF: As a small “guide” for those seeking to create their own photography projects/series, could you tell us how do you come about creating a series? What would be an overall of your process since the conception to the end? Nothing is implicit.
SF: Projects and series come about in many different ways and there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in creating one. It goes without saying that the process of editing, sequencing, meditating upon and consolidating the photographs one makes into a meaningful project takes a long time – sometimes years. My advice to anyone undertaking or contemplating a street photography project would be to take a step back from your work and question the meaning and purpose of the images. You need to ask yourself why your pictures matter and to whom they matter. You have to ask “what do I want to show as opposed to what I want to tell the viewer?” Is it a project about life at a certain time in a particular place; is it a project about you and your experiences, perceptions or ways of seeing; or is it a project about something particular like an emotion, theme or motif? What can you say with your images that other photographers have not/ cannot say themselves and more authentically than you? Where does your idea/ project depart from those which have already portrayed similar subject matter in substantial bodies of photographic work? They’re tough questions, but this is why making a worthwhile project or series is so difficult.
Often projects begin with a clear idea, however, this is something I’ve struggled with and my series In visible light instead came from amassing many thousands of images over the last few years and then using them to interrogate my way of seeing, my experiences, and my emotional response to the world around me. Once I began to see patterns and themes emerge in what I was drawn to photographing, I began to distil the images into a clearer narrative shape that was sequenced to reflect what I wanted to show the viewer. This began with looking at a rough edit of what I considered to be my strongest images and working out what I liked about them. Sometimes it was the subject or moment, sometimes the depth in the composition, sometimes the colours, shapes or symbols in the frame, and more often than not the play of light and shadow. I used these insights then to go back over a broad edit of a few hundred images and tried to find connections between them. To make this process more manageable, I worked with 6X4 prints and spread them out the floor or stuck them to the walls. This allowed visual comparisons between photos and the ability to shuffle them around quickly to play with different combinations and sequences. A few things became clear at this stage – that I wanted the series to evoke the emotional experiences I had in relocating to Sydney, and that I wanted to work from light to dark. After much experimentation, trial and error, frustration and second guessing I had the series narrowed down to 70 images. I then worked with small prints once again, made more cuts and have arrived at an edit for In visible light. We’ll see if I’m still satisfied with it in a few months time.
BSPF: What are the next projects you are working on and what is the motivation behind them? What should the audience expect from you in the next years? Maybe a book or publication?
SF: I have been mocking up maquettes and book dummies for In visible light during the past 5 months or so. I showed one of these on Instagram recently, not thinking much of it, but was surprised by the response it received. I had over 70 messages asking to buy a copy and more still inquiring about it. I even had interest from a publisher, which was a bit surreal. I would like to present the work as a book one day but I’m in no rush. Although I expect the series to never really feel finished and there is indeed room to add or remove pictures from it here and there, I feel like I’ve now assembled the skeleton of the body of work but it will take more time to put flesh on those bones, to inject blood into it, and to breath life into it.
My other major street photography project that I’ve been shooting from 2014 up until this very week depicts passengers disembarking the Manly ferry at Circular Quay. The light is quite special in this location as during certain times of the year there is both direct and reflected light on the terminal and conduit through which commuters are corralled. When a ferry docks, wave after wave of people come streaming through the terminal and I have been trying to photograph the sheer chaos and multitude people caught up in this daily activity. I’ve just completed my first rough edit and have just over 700 images to work through.
BSPF: Where can people find you?
SF: I recently made a website where you can seen more of my projects and a lot of work that isn’t published elsewhere at www.samferris.com.au. Instagram: @ferriswhiskey. Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/ferriswhiskey
To participate in the 2017 Brussels Street Photography Festival contests simply follow: https://www.bspfestival.org/en/contests/. Deadline: August 1st.