“There is hidden beauty everywhere”: An Interview with Joseph Caruana

While working for his D.Phil at Christ Church, Joseph and his camera had become a familiar sight around Oxford. I spoke to him about how his work in astrophysics intersects with his passion for photography, and what motivates him to capture our world in pictures.

oxford_skyline

Where do you find your inspiration for your photos, and do you have any upcoming projects?

Anything could inspire me.  It could be a moment, a film, a piece of music.  If I were to single out one thing, however, I think it would be nature.  It is definitely a big inspiration for me.  To help me flesh out my ideas, I keep a photography notebook; it’s similar to the notebook I use for work, but this one is purely for photography.  I use it to jot down any ideas that come to mind as well as to scribble notes about the technical aspects; basically I work the image in advance.  I think this notebook is the most precious thing I own after my camera; I carry it with me all the time and I put down everything in it.  For example, let us say I’m walking down the street and I spot a photographic opportunity – perhaps there is fleetingly beautiful light shining upon a door, say.  Sometimes it just so happens that you’re not able to take a photo straight away and you miss the opportunity; on such occasions I record the day and time so that I can take the picture at a later date.  Often I also draw a quick sketch to make sure that I have some sort of reference to the original idea, to help me stir the same emotions when I read my scribblings; that way I make it easier upon myself to remember what the original concept was.  Then if I go back and revisit the location on the right day and time, I can try to capture what I missed the first time round.

As for upcoming projects, there are two main ones.  I have just moved to Berlin, so of course I’m still exploring this incredibly dynamic and interesting city.  I’m during that stage where I’m discovering new things every day, so my notebook is quite busy at the moment!  I want to create a portrait of Berlin, so that’s a long-term project that will occupy me for the next three years.  Then there’s another project which has been simmering on the back-burner for a while, but I expect it to move forwards very soon.  It’s actually a short-film project driven primarily by the imagery.  In simple terms, I want it to be raw, real and beautiful.  It has been in the plans for the last couple of years; finally I’m at the stage where I should be able to start filming fairly soon – I’m hoping by the beginning of next year.  I have many other things in mind, but these two projects are definitely my priority at the moment.

Christ Church Door

Does your work in astrophysics influence how, why, and what you photograph?

Before anything else, I should mention that, in fact, it was astronomy that got me into photography in the first place!  I wanted to obtain pictures of celestial objects, so I started out in astrophotography.  I mounted an old, second-hand, manual film SLR camera to my telescope.  Blimey – it was difficult!  I don’t know how many rolls of film went to waste!  But from a technical point of view it really helped to hone my skills, so that was a very useful experience.  Later on I purchased a special, astronomical camera and continued producing astrophotos for a while. Astrophotography can be incredibly challenging, so technically it’s a very instructive process.  But I knew I wanted to try my hand at more “Earthly” photography as well.  So first I spent a couple of years shooting with film, using the trusty, old camera I had.  Then when I had saved enough money I purchased my first digital SLR camera – a Nikon D300.

Milky Way 1

Right, now let me focus on your question; I will consider the how, why and what separately.  My work in science certainly affects how I shoot, yes.  For starters, photography is a perfect example of science and art coming together – it’s a special endeavour where the technical meets the creative.  A background in optics has helped me to get the best out of my lenses.  I’m meticulous in assessing what aperture would give me the sharpest image, for example.  Also, occasionally when I’m planning a photograph, I do a few back-of-the-envelope calculations to work out which lens would be the best for the job.  I can plan in advance and assess what I can cover with a given lens from a particular distance away from a subject.  So you could say that science has made me very methodical in my approach.  When I went to Hawaii to obtain data for my DPhil, for instance, I did not have much time for photography, so I knew that I had to be efficient in my approach.  For that reason I planned everything in advance.  I knew I wanted to have a good album depicting the telescopes at work up on the mountain.  So I used Google Earth to measure distances from potential vantage points to these telescopes, then checked with precision when the rising sun would illuminate the telescopes in the morning. I had a certain perspective in mind for the photos, so this preparatory work allowed me to work out where I had to be and which lens to use.   When I arrived there, I knew which particular photograph to take from which location and at what time of day.  I created a list of photos to take, arranged them in a sequence, and then when I got there I simply moved from one location to the next in the right order, shooting all the pictures I had in mind.  Of course, I don’t always plan images in advance – far from it.  But when circumstances call for that approach, I meticulously prepare everything.

Christ Church Quad

So that was a long reply to address the “how”.  When it comes to the “why”, well, I think astronomy has served to give me a very special perspective on our home planet; I think it has allowed me to appreciate better how beautiful and fragile Earth is, and I just want to be out there capturing it, recording it.  I think it has also ended up affecting my shooting attitude, in a peculiar sort of way.  You see, astronomy makes you view humanity in its bare form – a species amongst many on a fairly insignificant planet.  So, for example, when I used to go to Cornmarket to get candid pictures of people going about their busy lives, I always found myself thinking of the people walking past as, kind of, scurrying ants.  I sort of treated the subjects as if I were an alien being who had just landed on the planet and was trying to understand the behaviour of an interesting species, recording curious moments every now and then.  I know that this probably sounds a bit bizarre, but it really helps to capture something unusual and interesting.  Sometimes I would snap out of this attitude on purpose though.  There are times when your photograph is required to convey that it has clearly been captured by a fellow human being – by a family member, so to speak.  As for the “what”, I don’t think that this has any relation to my work, no.  I tend to shoot anything that I find interesting.

Man by door

Your photos of Oxford are very characterful; what do you look for in a photograph to capture the Oxford ‘essence’? Is this consciously different from when you take photos of Gozo, for example?

I try to blend in, absorb the atmosphere and make sure that I feel part of the setting.  If you are detached from what you are shooting, you will not capture the “essence”, as you call it.  Getting used to a place is not always a good thing because you might end up taking things for granted when you get used to them.  That’s why when I’m visiting a new place, I always make sure that as soon as I get down from the plane, the train or whatever, I have the camera ready at hand.  I want to be able to photograph whatever first captures my attention.  I’ve noticed that when I go back home, for instance, I always take some of my best pictures in the first few days, because during the first few days it’s like I’m rediscovering the place.  Then I start growing used to it again so I have to work harder to find novelty in things.

Christ Church Hall

One of the most striking things I notice about your photos is the incredible use of light, often for extreme contrasts. Do you consider this a central aspect of your photographic style?

Well, to be honest, I simply chase the light. I love beautiful light and strong composition so I simply try to ensure that both are present in my photos.  I don’t consider a photo worth sharing if it doesn’t include both of these qualities, especially the quality of light.  That’s just me.  In that respect I am more attuned to work by, say, David Muench as opposed to Henri Cartier Bresson.  One could say that the former places the importance on the quality of the light, whereas the latter focuses on the subject, shooting in whatever available light there is.  I am definitely obsessed with the quality of light.  So you could say that this forms part of my style.  I simply try to be original and capture something that is compelling and interesting.  I guess my photographs inevitably end up being moulded by my own perspective, and in the process a style emerges.  In that respect, my photography is simply reflecting my own way of seeing life and my surroundings; that’s fairly natural.  But I definitely do not strive for some rigid style that acts like some identifier of my photos; whether that ends up being the case, unconsciously perhaps, is open for discussion by the viewers of my photos.  Very often, people who kindly write to me do refer to my “photographic style”.  I guess this style, whatever it is, might be more obvious to others than to myself.  I just shoot things the way I see them and the way I find them interesting.

Swan

Who are your favourite photographers?

That’s a difficult one.  There are so many!  I have favourite ones for different genres.  I’m just going to quickly name a few who come to mind:  Yousuf Karsh for formal portraiture, Steve McCurry for photojournalistic portraiture, Ansel Adams and Jim Brandenburg for landscapes, Norman Parkinson and Eve Arnold for fashion, W. Eugene Smith, Sebastiao Salgado and James Nachtwey for photojournalism.  Ok, that was really random.  I don’t think I can properly answer this question.  There are simply too many!

Christ Church Fireworks

What cameras do you use?

Currently I’m shooting with two SLR cameras:  a Nikon D800e and a Nikon D300, using an assortment of lenses.  The D800e is a new camera, so I’ve just added it to my bag.  It has a mind-blowing sensor; the detail I can resolve and the dynamic range I can capture with it is simply extraordinary.  I simply love it; I’m surprised by its capabilities every day.  I won’t be causing any controversy by saying that it’s definitely the best sensor in a digital SLR at the moment; it’s unlike anything on the SLR market so far.  Technology has come a long way, but at the end of the day, the camera is simply a tool.  Sure, you need to have good tools to make a decent job even better, but first and foremost you need to know your craft – and you need to chase opportunities all the time.  You know that you are fully immersed in photography when you find yourself ceaselessly asking, “How would I compose this?  Which lens would I use?  Which angle would I go for?” Essentially, your camera becomes a natural extension of your self.  I confess that I simply can’t go outside without having photography at the back of my mind all the time.  And for that reason, you will also find the camera hanging from my shoulder all the time.  To me, photography is a constant struggle to capture stirring moments – and most certainly it’s a never-ending learning experience.  It’s a way of life.

Milky Way Core

Finally, the pictures you’ve selected to share with us – why are these so important to you?

These ones are favourites of mine because they all happen to mean something to me in different ways; it could be a special memory, a transition in my life, or quite simply a beautiful image which I needed to work hard to obtain.  Let me distill this into actual examples.  The photograph showing Tom Quad under a dramatic night sky, for instance, was the last picture I made at Oxford; it also resonates with me – it depicts one of my favourite scenes in Oxford.  The picture showing the Christ Church stairs illuminated by a beam of sunlight was one which I had to work very hard for; I literally spent a whole year and 5 months carrying the camera in hand every time I’d go for lunch in hall, hoping that at some point I would be lucky enough to get enough fog to get the picture I had in mind; it finally happened.  So that one is all about persistence.  Other pictures such as the one with the swan, or the Milky Way setting below the horizon, made it into my list of favourites purely because they capture the beauty that we are surrounded with.  I firmly believe that everywhere you look you’re bound to find something beautiful – you just have to pay close attention.  This is one of my motivating factors in life.  I think the world can indeed be dark and cruel, but there is hidden beauty everywhere in different forms, be it the reflection of order in nature or the smile of a child.  Seeking out this beauty is something that keeps me going.  Staying on the topic of these pictures, I should add that I’m a big critic of my own work; I’m never quite content – in fact I wouldn’t say I’m perfectly happy with more than one, or maybe two, of these pictures.

Child

Leah Broad

All images reproduced for this post are copyrighted by Joseph Caruana. To find out more about Joseph and his work, please visit http://josephcaruana.net/

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