Focusing Beyond the Camera
Below is an profile on me written by journalist Brian Byrne
From time to time, life unexpectedly forces us to focus on something new, writes Brian Byrne. The closure of his employer Donnelly Mirrors in 2007 was just such a trigger for Conor Williams. He'd always had an interest in photography, but decided to use his new situation to do something formal about it. He signed on for a degree course in the subject at Griffith College. “I had found myself at an impasse,” he says. “Technically I wasn't too bad, but I felt I needed to learn something more. Like the why of taking a photograph, what I wanted out of a photograph, all that kind of thing fell into place during my studies. It was structured, and I was learning from experts." The course expanded his photographic horizons, showing directions towards which his interest and growing skills could take him. Artistic, documentary, portraiture, and commercial photography, and within each several other options. For his key project he went back to his home Cloughjordan in Tipperary, where there was an initiative of setting up a self-sufficient community. "I decided I wanted to document these people coming into an environment that was not their own. Trying to create a community, which is a phenomenon in itself. Another project I did was a documentary series about retired priests. My uncle was a missionary in Korea and is buried in Dalgan Park, so I had a personal interest." He says an important thing he learned was that whatever camera you have is really just a means to take pictures. "Some of what I do needs a high end camera, but producing a photograph with a camera-phone is equally valid for its purposes, as long as you know what you want to get. My course taught me to look beyond the camera itself and watch out for the picture I wanted to record. I learned also about looking at the audience. Photographs mean different things to different people and you have to be aware of who you're going to be showing it to, and how they're going to react to it." When he completed his degree in 2011 Conor had to try and work out both what he wanted to do, and what he could make a living from. It's not easy building a business at any time, but doing it in photography when everyone with a smartphone has become a daily snapper brings its own challenges. Being self-employed now himself, he became interested in small companies and other sole traders. "You form relationships with people in similar circumstances, so I began doing photography for their websites, their Facebook and Twitter profiles. Even the smallest business quickly finds that after they have put a lot of work into their operation, it's not good enough to simply throw anything on their website that doesn’t show them as professional as they are.” It’s also about using his photo-documentary skills to tell the stories of his clients, and where they’re set in both their general and more specific business communities. "Small business is personal, and when I look at what I have done recently, it all comes back to community. I’ve always been interested in how communities form, how they work and interact. I come from a small community, and I have been living in a relatively small community for the last dozen years or so. This also comes through in my artistic work and my abstract work, trying to get to the heart of the community.” Conor is also setting up courses of his own to teach photography. Coming from a family of teachers, it’s maybe his own way of living part of his heritage. “People are taking many pictures now, but invariably they are frustrated at most of what they get with their smart-phones. The phone today has many of the same functions as a high-end camera, but the principles of photography are the same for both. So what I've learned, I want to pass on to other people. And it all comes down essentially to what do you want to do with any particular photograph, and who are you taking the photograph for?" It's not all about technical perfection, or perfect composition. Sometimes a mood or a gesture or an expression can bring life to a photograph which the viewer can see even if the photographer can't. "If I've done a wedding, for instance, I can easily pick out, say, the ten pictures I think work the best. Then the client sees one of the others, which to my mind might not be very good, and they'll say something like 'you've just caught Uncle Michael exactly as he is'." A photograph is of a moment, but behind its content is a world of life, memories, context and people. The photographer may not know all of it at the time, but the picture will trigger those things for other people. Even if they are strangers to the subject, the clothes, the background, a small item accidentally in the frame has the potential to unlock a lifetime. "We need to be conscious of that when we're taking a photograph. As photographers we are drawn to things out of our own experience, out of things that we know, things that we like ourselves." As a documenter of a person, an event, a business, the photographer will bring his or her skills in communication to drawing out whatever the subject matter is all about, what it means to the client and to those who will view it. "Then I will bring to that the technical elements I've been trained to use." But photography is not all business for Conor. It’s the kind of thing that is both work and passion, and that passion needs to be nurtured from time to time. "Sometimes I like to get off for a while and just go somewhere quiet, where I wouldn't normally be. Just take photographs without pressure, without looking at the back of the camera all the time. Picturing the things that are around me." It’s all about refocusing, really.