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Photographing Academics and their World

The following is a blog post I put together for the Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Cambridge following a conference I attended as a photographer. The original post was published on their website.

Angus Whitby is a freelance photographer originally from Melbourne, who relocated to Cambridge when his partner was accepted as a PhD candidate at the CRCLC. He recently served as event photographer for the international conference ‘Synergy and Contradiction: How Picturebooks and Picture Books Work’ and has decided to share his experience of the conference, as reflected through his own lens.

I didn’t move to Cambridge for me; I am not an academic. Even after living here for two years, this world still remains rather foreign to me. But I think, two years in, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of what goes into a PhD – and a lot of it is stress. Since we moved here I’ve watched my partner, Madeleine, agonize over her PhD – sleepless nights when she’s too wired from her work that day to sleep straight away; endlessly refreshing her email inboxes as she impatiently awaits to hear back about an abstract she submitted; yet more sleepless nights as she pulls all-nighters because after 10 years of tertiary-level study, she still doesn’t understand how deadlines work.

She’s lucky she’s brilliant. While my understanding of what she does is vague at the best of times, I do know that for the last 10 months she has been working on organising the CRCLC’s recent conference, “Synergy and Contradiction: How Picturebooks and Picture Books Work”, while also working on a broader effort to build the centre’s online presence with a bunch of other passionate over-achievers.

Cue me.

I’m not going to lie – there are a lot of times where as the non-academic partner of an academic-in-training, I feel a little helpless. But working on a conference? Photographing an event? That is a thing that I can do.

While in a sense my life has revolved around the CRCLC since moving to Cambridge, photographing this conference was the first time I really got to experience the centre from the inside. So what I thought I’d do for this post, is show you what that inside looked like to me. The following are some of my highlights from the conference as it appeared to me through the viewfinder of my camera, and what I learned about framing academics.

During the conference I was able to do a little work for the Homerton College Library, and it was nice to see delegates enjoying the exhibition they prepared. The books in some of these cabinets are over a hundred years old; it was really warming to see people connecting with the roots of their field.

Curiouser and Curiouser Exhibition @ Homerton Library

Academics are not children. Doing the hard-hitting work that they do, it would be very easy for them to become disconnected from their subject. And yet, walking around the conference, it was amusing to see how many of these very serious thinkers kept their childhood close, keeping a sense of fun that infused their work and their presentations.

I was assisted in my efforts by this wonderful lady of the North – current PhD candidate Nic Hilton. Walking in and out of rooms and interrupting people’s talks is a little less awkward with a buddy (as is scaling the Homerton Great Hall balcony).

The thing about a conference is, everyone’s always looking in the same direction, and so their view of what is happening in the room is often very similar. As much as I’m trying to capture the speaker and their presentation, sometimes it’s good to point the lens in the opposite direction, and take in the reactions from the crowd.

In the process, I noticed some people taking notes in a more unconventional manner…

As part of the conference, author and illustrator Pam Smy was invited to give a talk in which she shared the creative process behind her novel, Thornhill. The attention to detail that Pam put into her work was amazing. I didn’t need to attend her talk to be impressed with her work, but seeing the pieces Pam crafted and the collection of sketchbooks she brought with her was astounding. She’s also a phenomenal speaker – which is why I spent most of her talk barefoot so as to mitigate any interference from my own clomping about on the hard auditorium floors.

On the subject of talks, obviously my main job at the conference was to capture images of speakers during their presentations, which was a new experience for me and not without its challenges. For example, lighting in the conference venue was varied and inconsistent – both from room to room and over the course of the day. While this effectively ruined some shots, it gave others somewhat of a dynamic edge.

In other instances, the main source of light in the room was the projector, which created some interesting effects on spectacle-clad speakers. With the right image on the screen, however, sometimes the effect can be magic.

While I’m on the subject of glasses – easily my biggest challenge while photographing this event was trying to anticipate the moment when the speaker would look up, and this was compounded if the speaker was wearing glasses. If the speaker is nervous, they’ll tend to just dart their eyes up every now and again before looking back down at the paper. As a result, their eyes become blocked by the top edge of their glasses, so the trick is try and find an angle and a moment where the speaker’s eyes are still visible behind the rims.

Even with academics who are great public speakers, there are still challenges. Faster, more animated speakers can be just as difficult to photograph as those that stare down at their pages. In those instances, the challenge is to find the moments of stillness, of pause, when the face becomes gentle.

If all else fails, even a photo of a speaker looking down, can work providing that it’s the right face, the right expression.

So there you have it! After three days of intense immersion, this is what I learned about photographing academics in their natural habitat. In sharing what I learnt about my partner’s trade, hopefully you’ve learned a little more about mine.

The Centre blog is run by and represents students at the @CRCLC_Cambridge within the @CamEdFac at @Cambridge_Uni.


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