Interviewed by Richard Muscat Azzopardi, reproduced with his kind permission, originally published in 2012.
One of the most intriguing photographers (even though she won’t call herself that) I have ever met on Google+ is Michelle Robinson, a 43-year-old mother of one who lives in Adelaide, South Australia.
She experiments with many different kinds of photography, editing her pictures mainly on her mobile device, be it an iPhone or an iPad. Her work is always interesting because she refuses to take short-cuts or shoot items which many consider to be ideal candidates for photos (such as flowers or sunsets).
Michelle was born and, originally, educated in Singapore. She then attended The University of Sheffield where she graduated in law but eventually decided she did not want to become a barrister. She returned to Singapore for a few years, working in the banking and finance industry until and eventually left for Australia, where she has lived since 1998.
RMA: When do you find time to shoot and edit photos?
MR: I am a full-time mother of an 11 year-old girl. She has gotten used to me going into a ‘creative fugue’ as I call it. I used to paint and would work on paintings quite intensively for days at a time, just remembering to do all the important things a mother should. Photography has always been a part of my life – so I don’t actually ‘stop’ to photograph per se. I have never had designated times when I photograph – it’s part and parcel of my life. I don’t associate myself with the word “photographer” – in my mind, it implies that I do it for a living and make money out of it, which I don’t. I take photographs, but am not a photographer per se. Much of this has to do with the advent of the digital camera and the number of self-proclaimed ‘professionals’.
RMA: Has your mobile phone helped you or stunted you?
MR: The mobile camera has allowed me to capture more images actually. I actually stopped using a DSLR in 2006 and started only using point-and-shoots. Then in 2010 I abandoned anything closely related to a camera when I started using the iPhone 3 but was only stuck in strange limbo of food as I had not discovered photo apps. It was the start of Google+ that somehow convinced me to pick up my camera again and even buy a new one. With the 366, I have done a lot of mobile camera work – and the one that I am participating in is a creative one and therefore not limited to merely improving photography skills. For me, it’s an exercise with some purpose to be creative everyday, and not merely in an artistic manner – to apply creativity to problem-solving, thinking outside of the box, lateral thinking and paradigm shifting.
RMA: Do you ever wish you could turn pro?
MR: No. I think much of it has to do with my upbringing and the culture I come from (ie Singapore in the 1970s where education and being a professional was paramount – it still is, but there is more scope for artistic pursuits these days). For some reason, the idea of work is not associated with enjoyment or pleasure even though it’s a well-known fact that one should do something that one loves. I once believed that I could be a professional artist, but after I painted my first commission, I didn’t like it because I had to paint, though in my style and my interpretation, what someone else wanted. Also the idea of having to produce a body of work that would sell consistently meant that it had to be pleasing to the general eye. I found that it stopped me from being more sincere in my creativity.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to make it ‘big’ enough for it to be sustainable. I think it’s the same as turning professional in the field of photography. With technology, the playing field has evened out – so the skill level and having to stand out is more heightened. One of the other reasons is also because in a creative sense, I enjoy the freedom to express myself how I wish – so not having to worry about whether a photo sells or whether I am bringing in enough business allows me to be free – I don’t have to be technically perfect or be a Photoshop wizard. In my view, if I ever considered turning professional, I would acquire darkroom skills and actually go backwards in technology and hone the art and craft of being a photographer. I applaud the people who are so passionate as to pursue a career in it – in fact I admire them and respect them a great deal. I think I am too ‘wayward’ in that sense. The creative process in any form is something that keeps me happy and at peace, so I have made the choice to allow myself the freedom.
RMA: What kit do you shoot with on a daily basis?
MR: My kit consists of a camera and my iPhone 4s. I have various point-and-shoots, a Canon 10D, an Olympus PEN E-PL1 and my beloved iPhone 4S. I also have various lenses for the phone but I hardly use them at the moment. Oh, and a camera bag.
RMA: How does shooting and editing on an iPhone impact your creativity?
MR: I think that there are no limitations to creativity – overcoming the so-called ‘limitations’ are part of the creative process. I think the mobile camera has allowed me to be even more creative simply because of the limitations of the hardware – it’s still not a proper camera, so to speak. So when capturing an image, I am constantly problem-solving – it’s not merely a quick snap, although sometimes it seems that way. In terms of creating mobile photographic art, that is another story: the possibilities are infinite especially with all the available apps for iOS. If anything, mobile photography and mobile photographic art or mobile art has allowed me to satisfy being creative without the mess.
RMA: What was the first camera you remember using?
MR: A Minolta in 1977 – and France had much to do with it. The camera was my mother’s and I remember my father giving it to her so that she could bring it along for our trip to France to visit my aunt. My mother didn’t know how to use it and so I just took it from her. I recall very clearly the strict instructions that I could not use up all the exposures. Most of all, I recall having to wait for weeks before we returned to Singapore so that 3 rolls of film could be developed. Perhaps the creative part came in me putting the album together with all sorts of tickets and maps, leaves and twigs.
RMA: If money were no object, what kit would you definitely own today?
MR: If money were no object? Despite being a Canon fan, this is what I’d choose:
- Nikon 1 J1 in white. Because I am a fan of design aesthetics.
- La Sardinia – caviar edition
- Lubitel 166+
- Lomo LC Wide (in fact make that the whole Lomography shop!)
RMA: Which areas of photography do you feel strongest in?
MR: I think I am strongest in composition and timing. Until Google+ arrived I didn’t realise that it was something that people had to learn. I also didn’t realise things like framing, taking photos of strangers and what to photograph were things that people worried about. My weakest area? My inability to articulate technical terms – most of the time I know what I am doing but because I have never actually read anything, I don’t know how to articulate what I want. I just know how to ‘get’ what I want. I am also horrible at landscapes and florals. My excuse is that the emotion it evokes in me is something that I know I cannot capture and do it justice. It’s not for the lack of trying, but like many things, if it’s not something an area you’re passionate about, it’s quite telling in the image
RMA: Do you believe heavy post-production is an art or a curse to photography?
MR: I am quite a purist. I used to say “old fashioned” but really, I think I am a purist. My opinion about post production is somewhat mixed. It would be easier for me to talk about it in 2 general areas: photography with a proper DSLR and mobile photography. On a personal level and purely for me, I don’t cross the lines between the two. For me, a DSLR image will be edited on the desktop and because I am an “iPhone only” or “mobile only” proponent, edits of mobile images are on mobile devices only – i.e. the mobile itself or a tablet. It’s simple – the capabilities of each tool matches the other and to cross them would make the area too grey for me. I am now not fussed if others do it, but I keep them separate.
With a camera, I do very little editing on the desk top. I usually pop the colour and that’s it. Because I actually take so few shots and usually attempt to get it ‘right’ the first time or in 5, I don’t fuss too much – but then, I am not a professional either. As long as all the basic elements are there, I pretty much try to convey what I had seen to make me want to snap in the first place. I have never removed things from an image before. For the most part, if an object can’t be moved, I will move myself. If that is not possible, then depending on the situation, there is a way around it.
So heavy post production to me, especially for the hobbyist, should be the last thing on their minds and really can be a curse. I feel the practise of getting it right is important. The focus should be on improving the skill with the camera far more than editing skills. When I think of the hobbyists who say they have 200 shots to edit from two hours of shooting, in my head, I think: that’s a lot of hard drive space to use up! On top of that, I think of the time that could be used photographing instead of editing!
With mobile photography though, I am happy to rip up a photo and use every single app available out there to create an entire new image or distort it to the point of making it a work of art. I usually spend an average of 30 to 45 minutes on a complex piece.
RMA: Can you tell us something about critical analysis and appreciation of other people’s work?
MR: For the most part, I am attracted to work that gets an emotional response from me – I have to be able to say “I wish I took that!!!” – it then has to move me to the point that my eyes glaze over; or I should be asking “how did they do that?” In my mind, if it doesn’t do that, it’s just another image of another thing. I also have to feel the photographer’s soul in an image. There is nothing more compelling than to be able to feel visually what the other person saw and felt. To me, that photograph and the photographer becomes special. They are in a league of their own.
As for giving critique… I only do so for the people I know are open-minded enough. I make every effort to be constructive – for the most part, I do so only when I can see what their initial intention was and I also give a critique when I feel that they more that they can ‘juice’ out of themselves creatively – i.e. to follow their instincts more or to stretch themselves and take more risks. Because I am generally quite quiet in my viewing, when I do get effusive, people know that I am sincere. I think taking the time to write down how you feel about a photo, especially when you know that person has gone to great lengths to take it and select it to share is a meaningful exchange.
RMA: What do you think of G+ as a platform for photographers?
MR: It used to be good. Until they changed the format. But I cannot complain too much because it made me use a camera again because I have become friends with people who have similar values to mine with regards to photography and creativity. For the photographer, it’s great for them to network and has afforded them an audience that they never would have had before. I think that Google+ has made ‘stars’ out of some pretty average photographers as well. But like everything there are positives to it too. I have come across fellow creatives who actually care about the craft with the tool as opposed to editing. That alone simply made me open my eyes and want to take better photographs all of the time.
RMA: Is there any other social media you use as heavily as G+?
MR: Right now, I enjoy Instagram. I have learnt how to use it wisely and simply put, I only follow people back who have work that evokes emotions. Most of them tend to be pure mobile artists or mobile-only photographers – They tend to post only once a day or sometimes once every couple of days. And with the use of thumbnails, it’s easier to pick out the works that stand out. On EyeEm, it’s the same – I only follow a handful of people. On 500px and 1x, I am a silent viewer. Having a neurological condition means that I cannot scroll on the computer too much – and sometimes, you want to view works silently without having to interact.