My first class of Documentary Photography at ICP was held in Times Square. The teacher gave us an assignment, use your shortest lens, get close to people and shoot. (Remember Robert Capa? “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”).Don’t be afraid he said,you need to learn how to approach strangers, you need to understand how to use your tools. The camera and yourself. Open yourself to people if you want to get close to them, to be trusted, to be able to do the pictures you want to do.
Always respect who you are photographing.
Be passionate about what you are photographing, about your project, otherwise you will stop.
It was damn freezing that night in New York. Times Square was empty compared to usual days. I walked around for some minutes and the cold immediately reached my bones, my fingers couldn’t set the camera anymore, my feet were a single block of ice, hurting like hell. I was intimidated by the city, by those few unfriendly faces. Somehow, I found myself wearing the shyest version of me. I gave it a try. And a second one. I just couldn’t see anything interesting.
After a while, the battery of my camera died. I had no spare ones.
I just wished to go home. And so did I.
In front of a hot cup of tea, I decided that I had to try again the following day. Wearing an extra layer to feel less cold. And so did I.
At the following class, we had to show our photos and get feedbacks. I was embarrassed. My photos were awful, I didn’t want to, but I had to show them anyhow.
The teacher asked me, did you enjoy taking these photos? Did Times Square inspire you?
There was no need to answer. A smirk appeared upon my face, my lips stretched to the right.
That episode took the wind out of my sails for a while. I thought I was not good enough to become a photographer. And maybe not good enough to become a scientist too. What was I doing in New York studying photography, when the only thing I was supposed to do was to finish my PhD?
Surprisingly, after few weeks, I was running around the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, the campus of Columbia University where I was working, taking pictures to professors, researchers, technicians, to weird machines, instruments and data archives. I was talking to renowned scientists and walking the corridors that had seen important developments in climate science. I wasn’t intimidated nor worried. I was having great fun.
Brendan, leading the Tree Ring Lab, told me about his nights at the lab, sometimes during the weekend, spent cleaning his tree cores with sandpaper, listening to music and having a little drink.
Each tree ring corresponds to a specific year and its width is connected to the climate of that year. This allows dendrochronologists to understand the climate of the past for the area where the tree has grown.
To prepare tree rings for analysis, there is a long and hard manual work, which involve the use of sandpaper, glue, jigsaw. The lab looked like a carpenter workshop.
Do you like to do it, Brendan? This is a lot of work!
If I like it? Fabio, I love it! And started mimicking the sanding of a core with his hand and making the sound with his mouth, tsch, tsch, tsch, it’s like meditation, I love it.
Jesse, in the Geochemistry building, was running analysis on a mass spectrometer. With those weird and complicated machines, they analyze with high precision the components present in different kind of samples. It may be a small piece of an ice or a sediment core. Said in very simple words, based on the elements they find and their characteristics, they can understand how the climate on a specific time period was.
Once the analysis is started, someone has to control the process, which can last for many hours, including the night. Jesse took me to his office; he seemed happy to show me that he had a matrass used for resting during the nights spent there.
Isn’t it boring? How do you feel to spend the night here, in the middle of nowhere, alone, I asked.
Sometimes I train, I climb the stairs form the ground floor up to the last! And then, come, he asked me to follow him through a conference room and then out to a terrace facing the Hudson river, having a coffee here in the early morning or watch the sunset, is simply amazing!
I was realizing that there were many interesting stories to uncover, in places where I hadn’t imagined before. That these people, these scientists, these colleagues that often looked intimidating to me and many times seemed to be boring, were actually interesting and fun to spend time with.
This made me think a lot. Of me as a scientist, my relationship with science, my dreams to do a more creative job, my place in the world.
Those days at Lamont made me realize what the two nights in Time Square had taught me. If you can’t align your head, your eye and your heart, citing Cartier-Bresson, you can’t take a photograph. Which is true for anything you want to create, from a photo to a scientific paper.
I was realizing that that journey I had just started, had to do with me as a scientist, with my doubts and fears, with my passions, with my curiosities, my goals and fears of the future. It was a way to learn new things about climate science, an opportunity to look at my job from the outside, to share my experiences with other colleagues, to tell stories using a different perspective and different languages. It had to do with my role as a scientist and as a photographer.
I was getting closer to people, I was passionate about my project, I wasn’t quitting.