Tuesday 23 March 2021


Sunita had invited registrations for her Shetland concert online. Given these Covid times, this occasion was going to be a YouTube event. The concept was similar to the performance put on some months ago by the Canadian singer/song writer, J.P. Cormier who wanted to do something for Shetland after the cancellation of the Folk Festival in 2020. His memorable evening is still on YouTube for folk to watch. Sunita and her husband have been renovating one of the oldest homes on Unst, the most northerly of Shetland's islands - Hamars at Haroldswick. The concert was to be produced on Unst on Saturday 19 September 20 starting at 7:00pm. Sunita Staneslow plays the harp. The evening was going to be one of traditional music, with the harp accompanied by a fiddle played by Angela Fraser.

J.P. Cormier

The programme started on time, with a colourful countdown. One was surprised at the marvellous sound of the harp with the fiddle. It was nice to hear traditional music, especially the old Unst tunes. One forgets how local music once was, being repeatedly surprised by the regional characteristics of Shetland, how such small areas had specific music, songs, stories, and crafts. Unst was famous for its shawls, so fine that they could be pulled through a wedding ring. Even the crofts within the small regional zones were specialised: some knitted shawls, others gloves, others under garments, all as identified in the census information.

Unst shawl

Throughout the concert, images of Unst were interwoven with the music and the vision of the performing musicians, perhaps to give the occasion some context and character; most of the music is, after all, place specific, so why not show the place that it originated in. At the end of the forty minutes playing, a set of photographs of Unst was presented as a slide show until the 'Hamars & Harp' evening was closed down. We found ourselves on Unst, looking at photographs of Unst, the seas, the skies, the hills, enjoying the traditional fireside game of working out the location of each image as it came up on the screen. Landscape is such a core element of Shetland that folk love the challenge of recognising places which, to those not familiar with the islands, all look the same treeless hills: see - https://voussoirs.blogspot.com/2015/12/remembering-landscape-spirit-of-place.html

What was interesting was the discovery of just how marvellous, how alluring, the images were; how the photographs made one feel about place; how they made one desire it as an ideal: and yet we were there! We were sitting in our lounge chairs with our tablets on our laps, drooling over images of locations just outside, and yet the admiration was as if these places were on the other side of the world. In spite of being there, the photographs stimulated a secret yearning, a desire to experience this wonder that we enjoyed every day - this is the authority of the photograph that creates a dissatisfaction with reality, with the promise of something better; suggesting some elusively attractive ideal.

Once photography was used to inform, to reveal. Consider the iconic Atget images of early Paris, its places and its people; and the Vietnam war, the shocking images that exposed the horrors. Now we are able to 'shop' the images, literally, and change anything into something iconic, wondrous; something to be envied; shaping a new but impossible perfection made available now. It is a 'decorative' strategy that only raises phantom expectations that encourage us to desire, to want to see this wonder everywhere; to expect it. This stance transforms tourism; travelling is no longer the great revelation of discovery; rather it can be described as serial disappointments as the drooled-over, ideal images become 'smelly, dirty' places located in 'messy' regions filled with 'strange' things, people and practices that all fail to offer the secure comforts of the cosy armchair visions created at home by the perused promotional booklets. So it is that tourists are offered a growth in extremes that become increasingly exotic and extreme with time, as if to replicate the 'high' of the photographic viewing; presented perhaps as a diversion, or as a compensation for the despondency and distress of the depression of missing out: see - https://voussoirs.blogspot.com/2020/02/the-mind-of-tourist.html The disappointments are usually expressed with the "Who would have thought that 'x' would be like this?"

We have been brainwashed by the photograph, conditioned in our reading of it. It is a circumstance that is involved in architecture too, similarly generating unrealistic visions that just never are, with images so potent that they are enthused and fussed over, and sought out as ideals to be replicated. One should read Peter Rice’s chapter on photography in An Engineer Imagines – see https://voussoirs.blogspot.com/2017/05/peter-rice-all-about-details.html His is a very important 'insiders' review of the photograph and the architect. The power of the photograph is a serious concern. Our lives are dominated by the photographic image; what fantasies are generated and formulated in our enthusiasm for this technology that is now in everyone’s pocket, available always and immediately? We assume we are the luckiest people ever, having technologies that can store thousands of images as stills or videos on an item smaller than a postage stamp; and we can print or send these shots in a flick and a flash - perpetuating what?

Maybe we need to get back to a pre-photographic world, not for any nostalgic reason, but simply so that we might learn again to experience the world around us with feeling eyes, curious minds, and sensuous bodies; get to know it again, sensing things as they are in their everyday richness, even with a heavy heart, rather than living in a plastic-wrapped fantasy world we are made to want to believe in, seeking constant delight: if only. Photography allows us to see nature only as amazing curiosities, fascinating intrigues that entertain and distract, making us feel comfortable and satisfied while flora and fauna are disappearing every day, extinct forever. The selected, perfect, idealised photographic image has removed every subtly sensitive response, turned it into an indulgence, transforming the world into a spectacle for entertainment, personal enjoyment: “Like!” Photographic competitions only encourage these 'special' ways of seeing too, with awards and praise given to the most stunning, surprisingly stark images.

When might we see a rose again; a leaf? When might hills be truly inspirational once more, instead of stimulating a mindless grab for the camera? Would we ever think of apologising to the cattle killed for our food as the hunter of old did, out of a general respect for our world and the awareness of our actions on it? What engagement do we have with life and its living? Technology has distracted us, turned us into 'clever,' cold, calculating bodies just too keen to play with gadgets, blind to the enchantment of our natural world, and its potential enrichment.

Photography diffuses the struggle to be ordinary, everyday, diminishing this special necessity with false promises of the possibilities of all things grand and glorious that encourage bespoke performance and difference in self-importance - “WOW!” “Look at ME!” - while dismissing all hopes of contentment. It stimulates the single, unforgiving desire to experience only slick, sleek, clean perfection, making even a flower lesser; a landscape a disappointment; turning being there into a depressing let down. In architecture one is encouraged to expect the crisp, spatial voids with carefully placed pieces photographed with framed, angled precision, as an ideal when life is fundamentally messy, ad hoc, full of things unexpected, all as seen by ‘Street View’ eyes that are not selective or stylishly choosy.

With apologies to William Blake:

To see the whole world as a photograph;

To see one's self dwelling heroically.

P.S. Sunita's concert can still be seen on YouTube, along with her other events.

See: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-21/2020-primetime-emmys-awards-red-carpet-virtual-looks/12683922 for the role of photography today. Images like this go global and are flicked through and instantly assessed - liked or disliked - ready to move on to the next envy-inducing 'fix' - see: https://voussoirs.blogspot.com/2018/12/graphics-making-zombies-with-spirit-of.html.