Photographer's mission to help young get the picture

Wellington writer and artist Gregory O'Brien has written his third book for young people, See What I Can See: New ...
KEVIN STENT/FAIRFAX NZ

Wellington writer and artist Gregory O'Brien has written his third book for young people, See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious.

Gregory O'Brien's latest book, See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious, is an introduction to New Zealand photography, and yet you couldn't call it a textbook.

Filled with glossy pages of exquisite New Zealand photography and O'Brien's storytelling, it falls refreshingly somewhere between the coffee-table, poetry and non-fiction genres.

Gregory O'Brien's latest book See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious.

Gregory O'Brien's latest book See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious.

Rather than a book by an expert teaching his craft, See What I Can See is a conversational celebration of the camera by someone who simply loves and admires photography.

A writer, painter and art curator, O'Brien has already written two multi-award-winning introductions to art for the young and curious – Welcome to the South Seas (2004) and Back and Beyond (2008).

Both won the non-fiction prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young People.

O'Brien felt there was a need for this book for two main reasons: a lack of non-fiction publishing for children in New Zealand, and, while he had skimmed the surface of photography in his previous book, he felt there was a lot more to be said.

"Young people and all members of the public connect to photography very strongly because, apart from being an art form, it's a way of being emotionally close to other people and connecting with others.

"Photography is such a powerful thing in human culture in the last 150 years and it still is, and that includes selfies and Facebook pages and all the kind of photographs that fly around the world on digital media now."

O'Brien says that while he does talk a bit about what makes particular photos work, he did not want the book to be preaching.

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"I'd like to think if someone wasn't interested in photography they'd still get a bit of a kick out of the book."

O'Brien has spent a lot of time with photographers but does not consider himself one.

"But I am in awe of them and love working with them and I learn so much from photographers.

"There's a note at the back of the book that hanging out with photographers you learn how to see the world. So in a sense I looked and I learnt and perhaps that's the spirit in the book too."

Among those featured in the book are Peter Black, Bruce Foster, Marti Friedlander and the late Helena Hughes, to whom the book is dedicated.

See What I Can See does not try to whip a mobile technology-obsessed youth back into the old ways of photography.

"I think [mobile technology] is just a further expansion of the fact the photography is simply everywhere and I don't think these things cancel each other out. People have always done sketches of each other or taken selfies just using a timing device. Selfies aren't new as such. I think you learn how to see the world through camera lenses and that's the same if you're holding up a laptop or a mobile phone.

"I just think an awareness of photography's good and then people start being drawn to it for more reasons. I just want people to be into any kind of photography and see where they end up."

O'Brien says his books are, in a way, a gift to young people. To make them aware of something they might be drawn to later in life.

"I think that great photography is a celebration of being human, even if it's dark, like the photo of the Wahine survivors in the book, it's holding on to reality in all its complexity. Even if photos go into tricky areas, they are a celebration of life.

O'Brien does not believe changing technology will affect how people continue to be drawn to photography.

"When you're a teenager you take photographs because you want you and your friends to be together in an image. If you're a kid, you want to photograph the family pet. There's always an incentive to take photographs, and hopefully this book lets people see how it, to a certain point, moves towards art."

See What I Can See: New Zealand Photography for the Young and Curious (Auckland University Press) is available in book stores from October 19, $34.99

 - Stuff

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