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The little camera that could

Many photographers are obsessed with gear. They love comparing lenses, focal lengths, apertures and all manner of technical specs. But I tend to get overwhelmed trawling through forum after forum of photographers discussing countless features that will no doubt make photos closer, wider or more exciting. While I realise that yes, gear is important, I’d prefer take a leaf out of C.J Chilvers’ great book and blog, A Lesser Photographer, which is one of the best arguments for the minimal-gear approach.

Living and working as a writer and photographer in the Solomon Islands over the past few years, I had the opportunity to travel extensively throughout the 900 islands of the Solomons, which is a fairly remote part of the world. Given how tough a place the Solomons are to get around in, I tried my best to travel lightly – generally just with my camera, one lens (a Nikon 35mm f/1.8)… and always, my Fuji Instax Mini – essentially a modern version of the Polaroid, that produces credit-card size prints.

The majority of the places I visited were to destinations with very little (if any) electricity, nor a functioning postal service. In short: there was very little chance I would be able to provide printed copies of photos to the people I’d met and photographed.

That’s where the instant camera came in. Being able to give someone a photo of themselves – even one as small as a mini Instax print – was, for many people, a pretty special gift. People love having a photo of themselves, their family and friends. And even today, where point-and-shoot cameras or camera phones are readily available in most parts of the world, a printed photograph is far too rare.

And as a general rule, my photos are better because of it. When your subject comes to realise that you genuinely appreciate their time and want to make sure they too have something to show for the experience you’ve had together, they are far more willing to open up. That 5 minutes you would have had with someone becomes 30 minutes, or becomes a conversation about their family, where they grew up, etc. And the photos generally reflect that.

My Instax has often even become a fun little form of entertainment. As the “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” song lyric goes, I’d often find myself doing an awkward version of the chicken dance with a bunch of kids in villages, dancing around to make the image on an instant print colours appear. (Side note: I have no idea if this actually makes a difference…).

With that said, this post is not meant to be a long advertorial for Fuji’s instant cameras. Nor do I don’t want to suggest my travelling with an instant camera is simply a ploy to take better people photos. Far from it. This is more about learning to appreciate the benefits – tangible and intangible – of putting the camera down for a minute and spending more time engaging, listening and get to know the people whose lives we, as photographers, journalists or simply as travellers, have the chance to be a part of.

Take Brenda Pilly, for instance. Brenda (pictured above, second from right and below) has an extraordinary life story. As I documented in my book SOLO (pardon the shameless plug…); in September 1943 Brenda was 10 years old when World War II arrived on her remote island of Mono, which sits near the border of the Solomon Islands group and Bougainille/Papua New Guinea. Japanese troops took control of the island with the plan to use it as a launching pad for a further push south towards Guadalcanal, and eventually, Australia. American and New Zealand troops soon followed to push the Japanese back, and the Battle of Mono began. As a 10 year old girl who’d spent her entire childhood on an island of less than a 1000 people, to be suddenly surrounded by aerial bombings and trench warfare, was as Brenda put it in pidgin, “barava no gud”. Together with her family, Brenda escaped to the opposite side of Mono, where she lived in and out of caves for nearly six months as her island became a warzone. If I hadn’t stopped and sat down with Brenda and her family one afternoon, I would never have learned her incredible story.

Brenda’s story is just one of countless examples of what I learned because I focused less on the image and more on the subject. Despite that relationship between photographer and subject being the bread and butter of what photographers should do, too often we get obsessed with lighting, composition and lenses and forget that the relationship between photographer and subject is very much two-way. Even the language we often use for photography – we ‘take’ photos – demonstrates this. But photography shouldn’t be about ‘taking’; it should be about learning a bit more from each other and sharing in an experience. And the images, if done respectfully, should reflect this.

In closing this little brain-dump, I should clarify that I’m still very much in my infancy when it comes to learning about the craft and art of photography. I like to think I’ve got the technical basics reasonably well sorted, but it’s this stuff – the psychology, the relationships and the thinking behind the art of photography – that I find far more interesting than infinite techno-babble about lenses and apertures.

Because while the rare buzz of looking back at an image and seeing something you’re genuinely proud of is of course a nice feeling, that moment of pure joy when someone that you’ve built a bond with has, in their hands, a printed photo of themselves for the first time in years is, without question, far more satisfying.

Three years on an island

A little over three years ago, I was given what I now understand was a sort of Golden Ticket to an extraordinary experience. Taking a job in the Solomon Islands, a country I knew very little about – beyond the fact that it was north of Australia, and that the Australian and New Zealand military and police had gone in a few years earlier – felt like a scary step, a complete unknown.

My initial few days were hardly the perfect start. Out on a police patrol boat within six hours of being in the country, I was involved in a rescue of 13 people, whose fibreglass boat had sunk in rough seas. Thankfully, all survived, but the faces of those freezing, terrified children is something that still makes me wince whenever I think of that bizarre first afternoon in the Solomons.

And a few days later back in the capital Honiara, I was checking out the shops in my new town, and was put in a headlock by a spakamasta (the pidgin word for a drunk), whose equally-spaka mate then tried to take my wallet. While I pushed them off and got away, it was a bizarre entrance to a country that I was supposed to be calling my home for the next 12 months.

In the end… I’ve stayed in the Solomons for three years, two years longer than I’d planned. Maybe this is the point where those wiser than I will talk about ‘baptism by fire’, etc and talk about the symbolism of those tough first few days. Who knows. All I know is that while that headlock was definitely not a reflection on the warmth and generosity of Solomon Islanders, the rescue of those 13 people was definitely a reflection on the adventure that would lay ahead.

And these past three years have been a pretty extraordinary existence. I worked for two and a half years as the on-staff journalist/photographer for the Australian-led peacekeeping/aid mission known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The job gave me the chance to travel to some of the most remote parts of the Solomons, and throughout the Pacific: to Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati, countries I knew almost nothing about.

Early on I came to realise just how special the opportunity in front of me was. The Solomon Islands are, in many ways, a photographer’s dream. It is beautiful, it’s incredibly diverse, and it is completely unexplored. There are thousands and thousands of stories just waiting to be told. As a result, I’ve carried my camera every day, nearly everywhere I’ve gone, for three years. During these three years I’ve seen some extraordinary things, some truly stunning places, and met some inspiring, genuinely unique people. And (the key reason for somewhat self-indulgent blog post), I’ve been able to photograph a lot of this stuff too.

The result? It’s called SOLO: life in the Solomon Islands.

It is my first book, a 68-page book of my photographs that document of life in the ‘modern’ Solomon Islands, the country that I’ve called home for the past three years. In SOLO I’ve tried to showcase the Solomon Islands that I’ve seen and come to know: as much a tropical paradise in the South Pacific as a country with more than its fair share of problems, where the balance between kastom (tradition) and the realities of modern life often do not sit well together.

Be sure to take a look at the PDF sample (2.2MB) to get a sense of the book, and if you’re keen to get hold of a copy, head on over to PayPal to order a copy and I’ll get it over to you quick-smart.

For those who are keen, there’s also a Facebook page where you can leave your comments, suggestions and ideas for Solomon Islands photography. Or if you’ve got any comments, feel free to leave them below.

So whether you’ve lived in the Solomons your whole life or are just looking to discover a bit more about a special part of the South Pacific, I do really hope you enjoy SOLO, as I can promise you that putting it together has been a pretty wild adventure.