Cameras as Permission Objects

I’ve aways liked to think my photography teaching and my art practice are nicely interweaved. When I teaching photography I’m showing people how to use a tool to create pieces of visual art. What they then do with that tool is entirely up to them, but the fundamentals of the tool are universal. I also show them what I call “compositional tricks”, simple things like the rule of thirds which can radically improve their photos. This all leads, within the confines of a beginners course, to thinking about photographs not as reflecting reality but as evoking an idea or a feeling through the arrangement of shapes and colours in a rectangle. In other words I take them to the edge of thinking about art but don’t push them if all they want to do is take nice holiday photos. But sometimes they take the bait, and that makes me happy.

On Saturday I ran a beginners workshop at a horse riding school where some members had clubbed together to hire me for the day. It was a very different environment but I effectively did my usual course, adapted to a five hour afternoon. Feedback was good and I left happy. And then today this appeared in my stream.

I’ll excerpt the key bit.

Permission Objects & Photo School Birmingham

I can’t even remember the context of the rest of the conversation, but Pete explained that a friend of his (Nikki Pugh) uses ‘Permission Objects’ in order to help people ‘get into character’ within a theatre/performance setting. A ‘permission object’ could be anything – when you are wearing this hat you have ‘permission’ to be as grumpy as you like, when you are holding the umbrella you have permission to dance like a ballerina.

Having or wearing the object allows us to bypass our inbuilt human instinct to avoid feeling uncomfortable. It appeases that feeling of ‘being other than ourselves’ or feeling self conscious when stepping outside societal norms, thus promoting a ‘safety’ and freedom to wholly commit to the experience. With a clearly defined ‘start and end’ point, (while you have the permission object) our brain has an ‘acceptable reason’ for being or doing ‘other’.

The camera acts as a form of permission object. It encourages us to see the world differently, to walk slower or sit still, crouch down, look up, crawl through mud, stand on chairs; whatever we need to do to ‘get the shot’. The very nature of photography is to adjust our viewpoint, change our perception, to find order or observe chaos to better tell a story.

It encourages us to ‘see’ other people as objects of beauty, of interest, shape and form instead of feeling frustrated or intimidated by them. It challenges us to tell the story of how we perceive the world, to have the confidence to decide and highlight what’s important, by our own unique choice of focus. We can concentrate on the capture and the share of how a something moved us, how it made us feel, in that moment; trap it in amber.

Somewhat amusingly I’ve been struggling to articulate Nikki’s permission object concept in relation to cameras for a while now and just drop it in to classes occasionally to try it for size, so to see it emerge in this form was delightful. It’s exactly the sort of thing I encourage on the photo walks and want to explore with cameraphones and other ubiquitous image-making devices.

Significantly, taking my camera out with me forces me back ‘into the moment’. For me, the camera as my permission object leads me back into the state of being I want to be in – The Now. It funnels me into seeing what is, instead of worrying about what might be. It affords me ‘permission’ to enjoy the complex experience of life as a human, to truly see and appreciate colour and texture from an almost macro perspective, when life feels too huge.