I recently came across a bit of advice from the American photographer Ami Vitale which I thought was so profound in its simplicity that I stared at the words for about a minute in wonderment. Essentially she said: look behind you. Then, elaborating a little, she explained that often we are so focused on looking where we are going that we fail to see the same space from another – and easily gained – perspective.
Her words chimed instantly with me. I started to think back over the countless times I’ve traipsed through streets scanning almost everything in my line of sight, always moving forward with a kind of mulish determination to see the next thing, or get to the next street or place. And though such behaviour has largely served me well and resulted in the bulk of pictures that I’ve taken, I was reminded by Ms Vitale’s words of the few occasions when I had retraced my steps, or later walked a particular route in its reverse direction – only to discover some surprising detail or fresh perspective. Maximising your experience of place in this way, and thereby widening the scope of shooting opportunites, seems an obvious thing to do. Yet I suspect most photographers – like me – only benefit from looking back or turning around through happenstance or pure luck. Which is another way of saying that it’s not a practice that we consciously include in our repertoire of techniques for shooting in the field.
Since encountering the advice I’ve now begun to school myself in the necessity of turning around when shooting in any and every location. I still sometimes forget to do it, but generally I manage to give myself a mental kick in the pants and turn around to see what’s happening behind me. And it certainly can pay dividends.
By way of illustration here are two pictures from recent trips that would not exist had I not encountered Ami Vitale’s wise words and afterwards made a conscious effort to check out what was going on behind me:
While focusing on the crowds of people flooding across the Charles Bridge in Prague I turned around for a moment to see a flurry of tourists directly behind me eagerly touching a small brass effigy of St John of Nepomuk. It’s quite a ritual, apparently. I moved in as close as I could and took this shot.
Here, in Lisbon, I’d set up a shot of the Alfama district skyline at dusk and was waiting patiently for the light to drop – when I turned around to see a party of people about 30 metres away jiving to hits from the 1940s. I quickly whipped the camera off the tripod and spent the next five minutes shooting a scene that was an absolute pleasure to witness.
So next time you’re out shooting remember to turn around. Who knows? You might not miss the greatest shot you’ll ever take.