The Ups and Downs of Creativity Pt I

Some weeks ago I wrote a series of articles on LinkedIn about the rules, or precepts, of creativity and how I have applied them both in my work as a facilitator but also in my photography.  These rules (as defined by the Open University during my MBA) don’t take equal billing, and indeed remembering all twelve of them can be an effort, but one of my favourites is this:

Connect, and be receptive.

It encourages me to be alert to the world around me; the things I see, read, hear and experience not just as passing sensations, but as opportunities to exploit.  In my training work this enables me to find activities and anecdotes that bring my content to life, however this post, and the one that follows it, are about the ways in which this might influence what I photograph and how.

Since being made redundant last year I have worked occasionally as a film and TV extra, or supporting artist as the industry jargon prefers.  Aside from the economic drivers for doing this, I’ve long been interested in these media, and it allows me to feed my inner diva while I’m not standing at the front of a training room.  More than that though it allows me to see how scenes are shot and lit, so developing my own knowledge as a photographer.

These productions are tightly controlled to prevent press leaks and so on set photography is not allowed (unless you’re a cast member continually taking selfies), and posting details of specific shoots on social media would soon see you dropped by the agencies who get you work.  Understandable, but such a pity when many productions have great costumes and make up.  All the same in the areas off set, you will see us all snapping away with our mobile phones to capture our latest looks.

Most of my work has been on location, but recently I was working on a set built in a studio and so the holding area where we waited was actually still in the studio but beyond the walls of the constructed set; a 1950’s nightclub.  Since the whole space is painted black a large fresnel light had been set up and pointed at a white backdrop to reflect light into the whole space.  Immediately I could see the potential of the way this soft directional light was falling across people’s faces, so I came equipped the following day and began asking my colleagues if I could photograph them.  Needless to say in this situation I had plenty of takers and so I shot a gallery of film noir type images to share with them, taking advantage of the light and the costumes to add to that style.  Someone even took one of me in return.

The images I produced weren’t about my skill with the camera.  They were about my ability to see the opportunity and act on it.  Connecting and being receptive.

Part II gives a less straightforward example!

The Good, The Bad, and The Not So Ugly (Enna I)

It’s shortly after lunchtime in a Sicilian hill town when the predators begin to gather in the otherwise empty streets.

A stiff breeze blows eddies of dust and detritus into neat circular deposits.  A soundtrack by Morricone is required.

The common lizard that hurries in and out of the cracks in the pock-marked wall of the cathedral need have no fear however, even though many of the hunters will be focusing their intention here.  For now though the man with no name rests before the action begins.  Van Cleef strolls nonchalantly.

A smaller group breaks off, largely unnoticed by the majority and makes for richer pickings.  I am one of them, and find myself with serious company.  Some hunt in packs, whilst others operate alone but with more fearsome weaponry than I might muster.  Hired guns among them.

Some adopt a sniper’s eyrie, effective but inflexible for moving prey; others shoot from the hip.

They have come from far and wide in search of rare quarry, but what would bring so many together here?  On a Friday in March?  Though it was my birthday, this wasn’t a photographer’s party.

It was a very different celebration, but one whose nature I won’t reveal.

At least not just yet.

Cibo di Strada (Genoan sustenance!)

In the UK it’s often seen as a sign of someone’s lack of class if they are seen leaving a branch of Gregg’s the bakers munching into a freshly bought pasty straight out of its bag. It’s “chavvy” or common to do so in many people’s eyes, possibly because it is an impossible task to achieve with dignity.

In Genoa a similar act is commonplace, and seemingly not seen as common.

Wherever I go on my Italian travels I try to eat some of the local specialities like cicchetti in Venice, or tortelloni in Bologna.  In Genoa the obvious first choice is trofiette pasta with fresh pesto (so much more vibrant than the jars that sit in supermarkets), but you can hardly snack on that as you walk the Genovan strade.

Luckily there is another Ligurian speciality to fill the gap (and your stomach).  Focaccia.  Now to be fair, this is hardly exotic fare; it’s fairly ubiquitous outside of Italy; I even make it myself on occasion.  In Genoa however you can’t walk more than a few metres in any direction without encountering a focacceria, ensuring that the bread is always at its freshest.  It’s also topped with cheese, tomato, or olives, as well as combinations of these staples.  There is even black focaccia, made with charcoal flour to aid digestion.  I stuck with the traditional ingredients.

Yet neither focaccia nor trofiette al pesto formed the most memorable food experience of my trip.  Again there are plenty of supplier to choose from, but all my research suggested that the place to try farinata was from an old hole in the wall establishment called Antica Sciamadda.  (Sciamadda is a local dialect word meaning “flamed”).

I couldn’t wait to try this chickpea pancake, and so made it one of the fixed points of my first day’s itinerary.  As midday approached I headed down towards the port with my mouth watering.

It was closed.

To be fair it was Sunday.

The following day I was in the vicinity again, and as the day was much colder and wetter than before seeing the yellow light emerging from windows that had been firmly shuttered before was a life saver.  I rushed in and asked for farinata.

They had none… but luckily only because it wasn’t yet ready. I spent the time wisely and ordered a selection of the other deep-fried snacks that they make there and a slice of quiche (torta salata).  This might be street food, but I was glad of the shelter so grabbed one of the few stools at a counter inside which gave me the perfect chance to view the farinata being made.

A thin batter made from chickpea flour, olive oil and seasoning is poured into a huge flat pan which is then manoeuvred into a fierce oven in a compartment alongside the burning wood, so that the heat is conducted along the roof of the oven to cook the pancake.  The pan itself has no handles and so the baker(?) rotates it using long steel poles to ensure an even distribution of heat.  Such a thin flatbread cooks very quickly and the pan is soon withdrawn, but must cool a little before serving.

I was asked how many pieces I wanted.  Having no idea how large they would be I opted for two, which proved the right decision given what I had already consumed.  There was no carefully measured wedge however.  Using what appeared to be a wallpaper scraper the large disc was rapidly carved into smaller pieces and unceremoniously dumped onto a polystyrene plate for me.

No frills, no fuss, but no quibbles from me.  It was just what I needed, even if I didn’t eat it on the street.  I wasn’t the only one!

Women (Habana 55)

Perhaps it was because I wasn’t in a relationship when I went to Havana, but it seemed that many of the people I told about the trip reacted with a knowing smile and exclaimed “Ah, all the Latin beauties”.  Several of these people were women too, although I suspect that Maria, who is Portuguese, was a little biased.

A little obvious?

Personally, I wasn’t looking for romance in Cuba.  A country where the degree of poverty prompts many to turn to prostitution and others to marry foreign visitors purely as a means of escape isn’t a good starting place for a lasting relationship.  Those who go seeking something more casual should be aware that Cuba is also home to a particularly aggressive strain of AIDS.


So when I was joined by René for a chat under the trees of Avenida de los Presidentes the expectations of Latin beauty were far from my mind.  Our conversation covered a number of subjects; food, politics, health, music before he turned to me with that same knowing smile to ask “And what do you think of Cuban women?  Aren’t they just the most beautiful women you’ve seen?”

I gave the expected response, although of course it was a white lie.  Perhaps I just don’t get the attraction of the “Latin” look.  I’m not particularly drawn the La Guitara shape, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure who was and wasn’t Hispanic.  Were those with African features local or visitors?  I certainly wasn’t fooled by the caricature washer woman.

Yes there was beauty to be found in many of the young women there, but that was probably more as a result of their years than any inherent Habanero features.

So I was all set to remain unimpressed, but shortly after René left an elegant woman sat down opposite.  From the white coat across her knees and the manner of her dress I’m assuming she was a medic from the nearby hospital and therefore probably Cuban.

Not my type (which ironically is the true Latin look of an Italian), but still captivating.Havana-29

Purple (Habana 44)

In the tourist traps of Habana Vieja you will almost certainly encounter those who earn a living by having their photographs taken, in most cases because their garish costumes almost parody the historical look that they seek to portray.  If that wasn’t enough to identify these street actors, then they tend to have a laminated permit around their necks which validates their right to demand cash in return for the attention of your lens.

When I spotted this guy, I assumed that the purple was a distortion of a navy police uniform to give him greater impact in pursuit of tourist pesos.  Police uniforms the world over tend to be variations and combinations of blue, black, white and grey.Havana-5

Surely no country would opt for something as gaudy as purple, especially one where the authority of the police is so important, Fidel Castro once stating that,

The war against crime is also a war against the imperialist enemy.

I gave it no more thought and went about my business photographing more purple around the city…

…until I spotted this motorcycle parked on one of the busier stretches of road and my eye caught the rider just beyond it.  Now if she’s another actor, you have to give her credit for the quality of her props!


Man in Havana (Habana 35)

Graham Greene’s farcical black comedy Our Man in Havana predated the revolution, and painted an unflattering picture of the Batista regime, though the real subject for his ridicule was British Intelligence who in the book are fooled into thinking they are receiving details of the development of a secret military base in the mountains.

The following year Castro and his supporters would find those same mountains a safe place to hide and rebuild their forces after a disastrous start to their campaign, and only a couple of years later there was concern over the development of a real military base in what has become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Greene’s protagonist isn’t Cuban however, he’s a British ex-pat who makes his living selling vacuum cleaners.  I didn’t meet any of those to my knowledge, but perhaps this guy is a worthy successor.Havana-18

So what does the real man in Havana look like? It’s difficult to tell, for who is to say which are tourists and which are residents. Those who are outwardly poor are clearly the latter. Is Havana man a Spaniard? An African? A blend of many races?

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I’ll let you make your own decision.