ABS Podcast – Episode 4: Patch For Episodes 1–3

Welcome to a brand new episode of Avian Bone Syndrome Podcast! This is a “patch” episode, tying up a few loose ends from episodes 1–3. In particular, this episode covers lunar eclipses, daguerrotypes, and the filter bubble around you on the Internet.

Don’t forget to “like” the new Facebook page for Avian Bone Syndrome!

Links of interest mentioned in the episode:

ABS Podcast – Episode 3: Privacy Today

Episode 3 of Avian Bone Syndrome Podcast deals with a very complex topic: privacy. In this time and age of always-on network access, the concept of privacy is quite different.
Join me on a journey that starts at an Italian supermarket and leads you to learn about the not-so-obvious ways that big corporations are tracking you online.

ABS Podcast – Episode 2: Photography And Ethics

Here is episode 2 of Avian Bone Syndrome Podcast! Thank you so much to everyone who listened to episode 1 and provided feedback, suggestions and ideas. This is very much a work-in-progress for me from many points of view, but it’s something I’m enjoying quite a bit.

This episode is about photography and ethics: what is the line between photo editing and fraud?

There are no links mentioned in the episode, however you may find these interesting:

ABS Podcast – Episode 1: Eclipses

And so a new podcast is born!

I have no idea where I’ll go with this, nor how often or for how long I will be making it; but for now, enjoy episode 1, all about eclipses!

External links mentioned in the article:

Reflections of a translator

As many of you know, I am slightly obsessed about languages. About a year ago, I began turning such passion into a job, and started working for several translation agencies; I passed exams and interviews, and my work is regularly reviewed for accuracy.

Despite what some people think and claim, it’s not just a matter of reading in one language and writing in another: especially when dealing with legal or technical documents, even a short text can require a substantial amount of research. Of course, over time it becomes easier, as one learns where to look for reliable information, and simply stockpiles commonly used turns of phrases to look up in a pinch.

I have worked on projects big enough, sometimes for huge companies whose products you most likely use or have used—I cannot be any more specific due to non-disclosure agreements I have signed—to realize, first-hand, that translation is way more than that. Each individual project, no matter how big or small, has its own peculiarities. Translating a mobile app for children requires a different approach compared to the technical manual of a safety valve testing rig, for instance, and a certificate of pending charges has very little in common with the product descriptions of an online shop specialized in DJ equipment.

While mistakes can happen, translation is one field in which striving for perfectionism is a very basic requirement. It is true that once the project is delivered, never hearing again from the client is a good sign (it means everything went fine and no revision is required!), but sloppiness is never a good way to start. This is especially true for certified translations, a field I recently started working on.

Knowing that a translation is going to be certified by the agency means that, as a translator, I represent the agency; and the agency is solemnly claiming, to the full extent of the Law, that the translation faithfully matches the original text. Nothing is allowed to go wrong. And this opens up a whole new can of worms for each project: should I use the American date format, with the month before the day, or the European date format, with the day before the month? Should I use the British or the American spelling, if I’m translating into English? What is the best way to rephrase this without drifting too much from the original, while at the same time being fully clear for the reader? And what if something simply does not exist in the countries where the destination language is spoken?

It can be daunting. And it’s a good idea never to feel too confident, for overconfidence is the root cause of catastrophe (“look ma, no hands! look ma, no teeth!”). I was lucky to have wonderful supervisors and coordinators for all the agencies I work with: they guided me as I took my first few steps and encouraged me, putting up with my incredible level of early paranoia. Sometimes I still worry when I pick up a job: the customer may not be clear in her requests, or something may be unreadable if it’s a scan, or I may just have no idea how to translate a specific passage until I research it in detail.

But I always made it work, and it’s very rewarding on many levels. Sometimes I stop and think about what I do, and what it means to me—why I love it so much. Translation is the ultimate tool for communication. When you speak one language, your message has a limited pool of potential recipients: those who understand that language. By translating it into other languages, the pool grows considerably, and your message gets one step closer to being universally understood.

As a translator, I am enabling people to achieve that goal, whatever their message may be. It’s often commercial in nature: press releases, apps, websites. Sometimes, however, it’s not: I have translated texts for charities, for projects that involved or were targeted at kids. I distinctly remember one Sunday morning, when I almost accidentally picked up one such job; I couldn’t stop myself, and left a comment to the customer simply thanking them for what they were doing, and for allowing me to be a small part of it.

And then of course, there’s the other kind of material: the certified documents that end up on the desks of notaries, lawyers, ambassadors. Each one of these, no matter how small or short, make me feel honored, and that’s for a simple reason: because they all tell a story. Sometimes the customer shares a few basic details: “I need this to apply for citizenship”, or “this is for my son’s passport”. Other times I can infer it: a university transcript is the prime sign that the student is packing to work abroad, for instance.

Yet many times, there’s not enough context to tell what it is for, and my imagination runs wild. I wonder why this person with a French last name is requiring his father’s birth certificate to be translated, or what the property mentioned as being for sale looks like, or whether there is any update on the prognosis described in this medical report. I wonder, and imagine, and dream. Like when I was thrown all the way to a hundred and thirty years ago, trying to read the gorgeous but amazingly cryptic cursive of a birth certificate from the 1890s. That was barely thirty years after Italy was united into a single country. That was before the first modern plane flew. That was before the world knew what the Great War was. That was when school was something for the rich, and the common folk couldn’t even sign a certificate because they simply couldn’t read or write. I have no idea why this stuff needed to be translated, or what the customer’s ultimate goal was; I cannot come up with any reason beyond genealogy research.

But at the end of the day, as curious as I am, I do not even want to know. I’m content with knowing that someone’s communication need was fulfilled, and I was the one who enabled them to do so. That’s why I do this.

Photography: a time capsule everyone can contribute to

On this fine Sunday morning, I discovered a website that I’ve immediately fallen in love with. It’s called Vintage Everyday, and its tagline reads “bring back nostalgia and memories”. And it does, oh if it does, although technically it’s not even nostalgia: most of us simply don’t remember those times because we just never lived in them. Still, it’s an unbelievable collection that will keep you browsing for hours.

It contains photos of times past: people dressed in the style of their time, billboards with traditional advertising, cities shaped in ways now alien. It’s mesmerizing, and in a different way from sites collecting pictures of actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood, such as the appropriately named Old HollywoodVintage Everyday is different because it collects images of everyday people and everyday places, not famous movie stars, and in a sense it shows the human side of history. A similar feeling can be had by browsing one’s own family photo albums, but in that case the familiarity of the faces prevents from observing the surrounding elements: when a photo depicts someone you know, you notice them and don’t pay much attention to what’s around them, or even to the details about themselves. Oftentimes people have pointed out things about my own photos of models that I had completely missed, despite having taken and worked on the image for a while.

A few pages into Vintage Everyday, I had an epiphany that I want to share with you. I noticed that at the time these photos were taken, they probably weren’t that special. Certainly in the 1940s having a camera was not an ordinary thing as it is now, as they were harder and more expensive to operate: I have this romantic idea of a photographer being seen if not as a full-fledged artist, at least as someone with a special ability, to speak: you couldn’t just pick up a camera and start shooting. A posed portrait, as many of our own family albums clearly show, was a big deal. However, I’m quite confident that all these pictures at the time were just that, pictures. “Oh look, there’s a photo of a lady walking down a New York street.” “Ah, these kids are playing with a make-believe car.” These images, at the time, must have been relatively uninteresting except to the parties involved.

Fast forward a few decades, and they become treasure troves. History gets in the way and gives these photos a whole new meaning. That lady isn’t just walking in New York City, she is walking confidently in New York City; and the workers in the background, blurred in distance to the point that maybe nobody had noticed them before, are stealing a glance at her while unloading crates of fruit from a truck. Is it the first time they see a woman being that confident? It may very well be: times were a-changing. And those kids playing are blissfully enjoying their own fantasy world, oblivious to the fact that their fathers are fighting a war on the other side of the Atlantic; perhaps that’s why their mothers look at them from the kitchen window, undecided between hope and concern.

At the center — or rather at the side — of everything, always the same thing: a camera and a photographer. That’s how everyday history is documented, with rolls of film by unnamed photographers preserving reality for posterity. Every single photo that was ever taken and that will ever be taken is by its very own definition unique, because at any given moment in time and at any given place in space there is room for only one camera. Every time a shutter fires, life as it is right there and right then is immortalized. Time stops as the image becomes a frail and irreplaceable time capsule.

Even a photo that looks plain or boring at first sight may acquire significance over time. Just look around you: how many things have changed in the last ten years? How many benches have been added or removed, how many shops have changed names, how many buildings have been repainted? And how many times have you seen photos from other countries and felt that even seemingly familiar landscapes were not that familiar after all?

The ubiquity of cameras today means that we can effectively document the changes brought by history, virtually without any effort. That doesn’t mean that it’s become a useless process; on the contrary, it means that we are all empowered and we all should use this ability more often and with more dedication, once we grasp how far-reaching this may be.

Perhaps it’s finally time to stop taking useless selfies and turn the lens towards the world, so that the generations to come will be able to feel the same nostalgia for a time we never lived in as we do when we look at photos from a century ago.

(Image on top: Front Street, Marquette, Michigan, ca. 1909 — From Vintage Everyday)

Of art, dreams and goals

What is art? According to Dictionary.com, “[art is] the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance.” That’s a pretty neat definition. Note the last part: “more than ordinary significance”. That means that the viewer, or listener — or more generally, the recipient of art — has to be influenced and affected by the work, for it to be defined art. If that doesn’t happen, it means that it’s not really art after all.

It’s a very subjective matter, of course. For instance I personally don’t like most of Picasso’s works, but I do find his Guernica quite unsettling. It affects me, so to me it is art.

Some say that you have to be “trained” before you can appreciate some kinds of art. I disagree with that: while it is true that some people may learn to “get” it after being exposed to some theory (I still don’t “like” most of Picasso’s works, but I understand them better now), it’s also true that real art should trigger responses so ancestral not to require any training. But does this make it any easier to produce real art? No, not at all; au contraire, mes amis.

It is extremely difficult to come up with something that makes something happen in the recipient’s soul. Whether it’s a piece of music, or a photograph, or a painting, or  a sculpture, or a theatrical act, or a film, or even a comic book, it is hard, extremely hard, to leave a mark.

My favorite painter of all times, Salvador Dalí, was a master at it. He blended perfect technical skills with deep thoughts that reach anybody. You will have a hard time finding someone who says that Dalí wasn’t that good. You may not like surrealism, or you may not like his subjects, but his works… work. Of course, having some training will make it even more amazing, yet it will be accessible to anybody. You don’t need to know the meaning of the melting watches in The Persistence of Memory to appreciate it, and certainly you don’t need to understand every detail of The Temptation of Anthony to be spooked by it.

Was he trying to leave a mark on people? Most likely. Was he trying to be an artist? No. You cannot decide to be an artist. If you refer to yourself as an artist, take a deep breath and think about it logically: can anybody call themselves an artist? It’s others’ response to one’s work that can potentially turn the author into an artist.

This is why I reject the idea of an “artistic manifesto.” It’s difficult enough to get rid of labels gotten by someone else; why would I want to label myself, and lock myself into such a cage?

When I have an idea for a photo, I ask myself: what kind of feeling do I want to convey with it? What is the best way to approach it, technically and emotionally? More often than not, it’s entirely unrelated to my previous images. I do have my temporary obsessions, no doubt; but I easily go from “industrial” macrophotography to astrophotography to landscapes to portraits to whatever else I feel like working with. All the photos I linked to in the previous sentence have undergone some amount of post-processing, too. If I had locked myself within a “no post-processing” movement, I wouldn’t have managed to publish any of those.

However, many people seem to think that, by merely adhering to an artistic movement or manifesto, or even by simply getting hold of a compact digicam, they become artists. Photography is arguably the most accessible of arts: cameras are cheap nowadays, not much thinking is necessarily required, and the Internet allows for worldwide instant exposure. They start taking pictures, uploading them, sprinkle some allegedly soul-deep titles and descriptions. Is that art? I don’t think so.

I am not saying that one needs an expensive camera to produce photographic art, and indeed I have taken many of my most appreciated photos with a tiny, old Canon A70. Limited equipment certainly introduces forced constraints that may not be worked around, which may actually stimulate creativity: it wasn’t until early 2014 that I got hold of my first stabilized lens, and not having such luxury forced me to learn how to use what I had more effectively. The equipment itself does not define an artist, for better or worse: a big camera won’t make you a real photographer any more than using filters on Instagram will. Would you ever think that a painter is better than another because she has a bigger brush?

For instance, many people ask me for advice about which lens to buy. They will normally have had their basic kit lens for a while and feel ready to expand their gear. That’s perfectly reasonable, but they should already have an idea of what they want to do. They should be asking me: “which lens among these do you think is the most appropriate for what I want to do?” Yet they expect me to give them a direct answer, and when I ask what kind of photography they have in mind, they shrug.

To me that just means one thing: they haven’t reached the point where their craft hits the limit imposed by their equipment, let alone try to overcome it; they just want a new toy, which is absolutely fine as long as they’re being honest with themselves. Most of them simply aren’t. And how can you impress others with what you’re trying to say through a medium like photography if you’re not being honest with yourself about the very approach you take with it? To put it in perspective: what’s the use of an expensive guitar if you’re only playing three chords and can’t be bothered to learn how to replace the strings? How can you expect me to get goosebumps if you’re disguising the sheer desire for a new toy with artistic claims that you don’t even truly endeavor to fulfill?

Too many people focus on the end result, on dreams of fame. The internet is a worldwide stage, and it makes seem easy. But why do we do this? Do we take photos, compose music, paint drawings, write stories for the fame? For the honor? For the money that might or might not come? What is our one, true goal? I would like to hope that we do this because we enjoy the process. The biggest reward should be knowing that someone, somewhere, was moved by what we made. If money and fame come, good. If they don’t, then it’s not the end of the world: we didn’t do it for that. As long as at least one person will tell me they appreciated my images, I’ll keep doing them; not every day, not every week, not every month, for bills ought to be paid and work ought to be done. But I will not quit until I’m sure that nobody ever looks at them anymore: only then I will feel like I’ve failed. I don’t need to be called an artist, in fact that makes me a little uneasy when someone ventures out and does so: it’s such a big word, and I honestly don’t feel like I’m worthy of it. I just want to share what’s on my mind, whether through words or light, with anyone who may be interested.

That is my one, true goal: I want to communicate.

Orwell vs. Huxley: two dystopian worlds, compared

In 2009 Stuart McMillen, famed Australian comic artist, published a drawn rendition of a short passage from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death.

The passage compares the radically different worlds depicted by Orwell in his “1984” and by Aldous Huxley in his “Brave New World.” Both novels show an Earth whose inhabitants have been rendered helpless and brainwashed, and are considered the quintessential dystopian novels. The term Big Brother, after all, was coined by Orwell for his novel. Yet they depict a radically different approach to enslave humankind.

I’ll leave you to the word of Postman and to the wonderful, if not a little spine-chilling, imagery of McMillen.

What Orwell feared where those who would ban books.
What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one would want to read one.

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information.
Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would reduced to passivity and egotism.

Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us.
Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Orwell feared we would become a captive culture.
Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.

As Huxley remarked in “Brave New World Revisited”, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “Failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, people are controlled by inflicting pain.
In “Brave New World”, people are controlled by inflicting pleasure.

In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us.
Huxley feared that that what we love will ruin us.

It is worth noting that Huxley, 26 years after publishing his novel and with World War II having happened in between, wrote an essay entitled “Brave New World Revisited”, in which he analyzes how correct he was in his prior assumptions.

Both novels, and possibly also Huxley’s and Postman’s essays mentioned above, should be — in my humble opinion — read by anybody who has any interest in the future of humanity, even though it might mean having to deal with uncomfortable truths.

Add money to your likes: Flattr’s microdonation system

Many social networks today employ the concept of “favoriting” items: images on Flickr, Instagram and 500px; songs on SoundCloud; videos on YouTube and Vimeo; tweets on Twitter; repositories on GitHub; and so on….

When you “favorite” or “like” something, you’re essentially telling the author that you’d like more of that. Yet, when it comes to creative endeavors, it’s money that makes the difference: not only it helps cover the costs of production, but it also frees up time to produce more. That’s why many of us resort to selling prints, crowdfunding and other ways of raising money.

One of such other ways is Flattr. And it’s G-R-E-A-T.

The idea behind the Sweden-based company is both simple and genius: instead of actively sending money to an author, which can be complex and, in some cases, awkward, you can prepay your Flattr account using pretty much any credit card (in addition to Paypal) and the system does the rest. All you have to do is “connect” your Flattr account to your social network accounts, which usually only takes a couple of clicks for each. This allows Flattr to track your likes and pay creators.

The only slightly more complicated one is Twitter, but it takes just a couple clicks more: since the chirping network changed its terms and conditions, Flattr cannot directly track your favorites. The problem is easily worked around by using SuperFav: just connect it to both Flattr and Twitter, and you’re good to go.

Afterwards, when you favorite or like something on any of the connected social networks, that thing is said to be “flattr’d” by you and the author gets some money from your balance. You don’t have to do anything else, just top up your Flattr funds once in a while and then simply use your social networks as before. Neat, eh?

But it gets better. You can support as many artists as you like, and you don’t pay a cent more than what you want to. You can top up your Flattr funds as much as you want, and then set a monthly budget. At the end of the month, your monthly budget is equally divided between all the artists whose items you favorited or liked. You always know exactly how much you spend.

To make it even clearer: let’s say that you top up €15 and set your monthly balance to €5. During the first month, you “flattr” 5 authors, by liking their contents: each one gets €1. The next month you “flattr” 2 authors: each one gets €2.50. The next month you “flattr” 8 authors: each one gets €0.62. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up; and a little is better than nothing.
(Technically speaking there is a 10% fee that Flattr rightfully retains when paying credit out; but that’s of concern only to creators, not supporters.)

Why sign up as a supporter, you ask? Because you like what authors make and feel that their productions are worth a few cents. It’s great to get thousands of views or dozens of favorites on a photo, or 110,000 views on a video. But if you like those things so much, why not take a step further and buy prints, buy books or, even more simply, Flattr? And of course, you can sign up as a contributor too, so you can both give and receive.

And while you’re at it, give it a try by using the Flattr this button right on this post.

Thanks!

I am a photographer. I am an observer.

These past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about my photography.
As many of you probably know, during the last year I’ve been cooperating with my friend, make-up artist Stefania Di Gregorio, on portraits of models in my home studio. The studio is actually a work in progress itself, as I build it piece by piece as I go.

Taking photos of people is something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I never managed to convince anyone to pose for me before. My origins as a photographer, in any case, are in the field of landscapes and macrophotography.

There is something about macrophotography that always fascinated and attracted me. I don’t have specific high-end equipment for that kind of images: I use basic extension tubes that allow my Sigma 18-200 zoom to focus much closer than normal. This way, I can be as a close as I want to my subject, at the expense of doing everything manually, including forcing the lens to be stopped down; the only help I can count on is assisted metering, which needs to be manually biased anyway.

The whole process is tedious, frustrating, annoying; and yet, it is also exceedingly pleasant at the same time. I have been meaning to write about this for a while, but for the longest time I felt that something eluded me. Then I realized what it was.

Some photographers find comfort into setting everything up; they can create exactly the scene that they want to shoot. In a way they work like abstract painters: they create something that’s not there. It’s their way of telling a story: they are fable tellers, they conjure up a tale and make it real in front of the lens, then play with it in post-process until it’s exactly what they had in mind. There is nothing wrong with it, and it’s an approach that eventually all photographers tinker with. There is indeed a fine line between a setting up staged picture and giving an existing scene a little help.

But staging an image is time-consuming, requires perfection that can only be achieved through long attempts at trial and error, and can be expensive: good equipment certainly is, as I was recently reminded by cheaper alternatives that broke down on me on day one.
Some people build their careers on staging shots. Fashion photographers, for instance, literally do that for a living. Many amateurs also enjoy fiddling with props until they get the shot just right, just for the sheer pleasure of creation.

I am a little different. While I have my own share of fun helping scenes “pop” in my pictures — for instance through the use of off-camera flashes or the like — I am more of an observer.
When I first started playing with digital cameras, over a decade ago, I was strongly against post-processing. You must forgive me here: I was young and, let’s say it, quite stupid. Being against something on the pretense that “straight out of camera” pictures are inherently better is, to say the least, preposterous. When I switched to reflex cameras, and especially to shooting RAW, I realized that post-processing is as important as exposing the scene in the first place. Still, I’m one of those people who would rather spend more time with a camera firing the shutter than with a mouse applying layer masks.

That is it: I am an observer.

When I set out to do macro work, for instance, I spend what to others must seem like an eternity on the same flower, taking countless images of the bugs hovering around it. I don’t even take my eye off the camera’s viewfinder. Everything around me is blackened out, and I am concentrated exclusively on the scene I watch through the lens, forgetful of any awkward position I may be in (I am usually reminded of that by muscle pain that arises a few hours later.)
I take hundreds of pictures. Many will be out of focus or blurry; that’s the price to pay for using cheap equipment: no autofocus, limited depth of field that can’t be easily changed, and so on. Some of the photos will be good to publish, with some little help in post-process, mostly to tweak colors and exposure. I like the challenge.
But that is not the reason I go through all of this. I could get a €400 dedicated macro lens and make it all easier, and eventually I will.

I do it this way because it lets me observe. After a few minutes of looking through the lens and seeing bees dancing over petals, bugs crawling on leaves, caterpillars embracing stems, spiders meticulously knitting webs; after a few minutes of this, I am part of that small, huge universe. I start seeing things that I wouldn’t see otherwise. I’ll notice the patterns, the rhythms, the details, and sometimes even the creatures, that are so small that upon first glance they appeared invisible.
Sometimes I don’t even immediately take the pictures off the memory card. The experience alone is worth it, regardless of whether any image is usable or not.

I recently realized that I do the same thing with landscape photography. In truth, I tend to do this with any kind of photography I am working on. Instead of setting up the scene, I observe it and document it without changing it. My strongest urge is to retain the purity of what’s before my eyes, so that I can capture it as fully as possible. I don’t try to make up a story to tell; rather, I record the story that’s already there. It is not always easy, and indeed at times I think it would be easier to just go ahead and set things up.

This is not to say that I will not try to optimize the results of my work: I often add light as I need, though the ultimate goal of that, for instance, is using the extra light to enhance what’s already there. You need specific light to make whirling puffs of smoke or falling droplets of water show on an image, but that’s where I’ll stop most of the time. Even my post-processing is fairly conservative: I will enhance the imageto match the feelings I was having when I shot it, but I never go too far with changes. Even with people, I’d rather have my models use props at the time of shooting than waste hours in Photoshop. More simply, I’d rather tinker with lenses and equipment to capture the scene than to change it beyond recognition.

I think that my approach to photography matches my personality. I was never the one who wanted to be in the spotlight; I’ve always rather enjoyed being on the sides, looking towards the stage instead of being on it. I feel that my role, as a photographer — and why not, as an all-around reporter — is to describe what’s there instead of making it up. It is just who I am, and what I like to do. I like to provide my viewers with the reality I see, enhanced in a way that I see fit, and have them derive their own version of the story that I wanted to tell. I am not as presumptuous as to think that I will always be able to convey my own emotions into an image, nor that the feelings I have about a scene are the same as those of any of my viewers.

This is, I believe, the beauty of photography. There is no good or wrong way of doing any single thing. Everything is open to choices across all the steps that go from the original emotion to the final image. No two photographers will take the same picture, and that’s what makes this art truly magic.

All I know is that I will keep observing reality and occasionally fiddling with it, to achieve what my ultimate goal is: to bring you stories to enjoy.