Balinese men at a cockfight
Balinese men at a cockfight

Nostalgia has no relevance in the forthcoming observation. My comments, instead, are entirely based on photographs taken thirty years ago. I find these long-forgotten images to have a look and feel seldom seen any more. Whether this is good or bad is a subjective point of view. If living in the past keeps one from advancing in the future so be it. However, living without a knowledge of history only keeps the wheels spinning in place and makes a person unwise.

Please note that these images depict the use of animals for man’s enjoyment which many of you may find offensive. I will say (if I may interject a personal belief) that whether or not we agree with the practices of others we are not given the right to judge. When traveling I am intrigued by the cultures and ways of others. I photograph them when given permission and I leave feeling enriched by having my vision of the world expanded. Whether or not it is part of my beliefs is not in the equation.

Moving on.

prayers and offerings in Bali

Film is seldom used these days except by the best fine art photographers. And even many of them have succumbed to the ease and advantages of working with digital cameras. That includes me though I am not in the realm of a top fine art artist. While the quality of digital is surely as good as film whether working in 35mm DSLR or in medium or large format there is something about digital that strikes me as being too perfect, and too much the same.

I look at the work being done today and find certain elements, whether it’s grain, grittiness or a truer representation of the subject, that I mostly saw in the days of film. This point is well illustrated in these images of a Balinese cockfight made in 1980. The camera was a Nikon FM. A simple camera with not a single bell or whistle to its name. Everything about it was manual. One needed to cock the shutter, set the shutter speed and aperture, focus and then press the shutter release button. Then start all over. The lens was probably a Nikkor 35mm f/2.0, oh, and there was no LCD screen to preview or review your shot.

Balinese man at cockfight Balinese man with rooster Balinese man with fighting cock

However what gives these images there own unique look is the film. In this case it was High Speed Ektachrome 400, which I shot at ASA 800 and pushed one stop in the processing. A roll of film gave you no more than 36 tries to compose and capture the ‘moment’. This was a key element in making you work slower, more deliberate and to pay close attention to your subject.

man with narcotic beetle nuts
attaching a sharp blade to the foot of a fighting cock

I find that these images do not look like anything shot today but are equally as good, from a visual, content and artistic point of view as anything being done today. Having a variety of films to choose from, each one with its peculiar characteristics, allowed for a number of ways in which images could be interpreted. Now only Photoshop gives one that ability. I agree that is progress but, I feel, at the expense of many wonderful elements that gave character to the shot. We have become overly desensitized to reality and rarely speak of “content” and instead dwell on pixels, resolution, focus speeds, vibration reduction, high dynamic range and other technical jargon that have little to do with the content of the image. This is the product of digital and not the product of loosing film.

Balinese men at a cockfight
Balinese men betting on a cockfight

Something else to observe in these images: No one is really paying attention to the photographer. Imagine today, after every click of the shutter the photographer would be looking at the camera’s LCD screen to examine exposure and whatever else they deem important enough to stop observing the surroundings. How are they thus able to become an intimate observer and not the observed? Photographers are obsessed with shooting, looking and showing off. It’s the workflow of digital and it ruins the moment for so many, not to mention the picture. They remain an outsider and never truly get the opportunity to become one with their subject and environment. But more importantly perhaps, is that they miss the opportunity to learn the lessons their subjects offer.

Balinese men at a cockfight

There are, of course, many journalist and documentarist working digitally and creating incredible bodies of work and many know the art of becoming one with their subject. But I’m afraid many photographers, both pros and amateurs, have lost touch with their subject and their photographs because of the way they use digital cameras and how that influences the way they work.

I am not promoting the return to film, only its virtues that should not be forgotten. If you’ve never worked with a fully manual, non auto focus camera shooting several rolls of different types of films you may just want to give it a try. You will be surprised how differently you work and interact with your subject and how much you’ll learn about lighting, exposure, depth of field, being deliberate and slow and becoming nothing more than an observer of this fascinating world.

Cockfight in Bali

One last thing: When you place your film on a light table and discover a gem you will feel a rush that no longer exist in a digital world. That’s a fact!

cockfight in Bali, Indonesia