Recently, I took part in an amazing retreat organised by the industrious Imen McDonnell, you can read about it in her blog. The few days in Connemara were beautiful and the experience made me think a lot about who I am and where I'm going and I sincerely hope Imen organizes a few more of these... perhaps using some of our local talent too.
It will surprise you to find that this is my third attempt at writing this post. I genuinely didn't know how to start it. The first draft was quite intense (I write like that when I feel strong about something). The second draft was more measured... but although I was saying EVERYTHING I wanted to say, it felt wrong... and I wasn't sure why... I talked to Alan a lot about it for a few days, then I spoke to Imen too (who I cannot begin to thank for being so understanding with my crazy feelings and for being ok with what I'm sharing here) and then my blog got hacked and I couldn't get at it... but this post was constantly on my mind...
Today, when I'm finally publishing it, I feel a great sense of relief. It's out there now. I've said my piece and I've come to terms with it. While all I wrote in my first two drafts was true... it felt like bashing something that was, in its whole, good. It also felt like I was leaving all personal responsibility outside the door and I was not ok with it. I was writing from that hollier than holy place we all go to when we have a guilty concious. So, today's final post is, at least, honest and true. It's been written in the hope that my experience enlights someone else out there and with a sense of gratitude to all of those involved in the retreat. Thank you for the company.
The days in Connemara were lovely. When I arrived, everything was as I had imaged it to be: the beautiful surroundings of Ballynahinch Castle helped a lot. The castle's uber charming manager, Patrick O'Flaherty, and Patrick's lovely wife and blogger, the energetic and down to earth Cliodhna Prendergast were at hand to welcome us. Cliodhna even opened her beautiful home so we could have a whole day of workshops there. They were such wonderful hosts and I think if the reputation of Ireland as a tourist destination is left to these two, the island of the thousand welcomes would have nothing to worry about. They made my stay truly magical and it will be a while before I shake the terrible view-from-sitting-room envy I have after seeing their place in Connemara.
The food styling sessions were really interesting. I found the stylist really good, she was approachable, took time to chat with everybody, gave very constructive criticism delivered gently and she was candid. I found it fascinating to hear about the work behind a big cover shoot for a magazine or for an ad campaign. She was very honest and charming and I picked up a lot of ideas from her. I am genuinely glad she was there. Her lovely partner was a calm presence, always willing to help and chat. You could tell they are both used to work with teams.
I was impressed by how much detail and thought went into making us feel welcome; a lovely goodie bag with some super chic and thoughtful gifts for us on arrival, the sumptuous meals on long tables, the drives, the locations... I know Imen went through a lot of trouble and hard work to make this happen and I hope she does another one of these soon. Imen's organisational skills, her impecable taste and her attention to the beautiful detail was second to none and I truly respect the fact that she put herself out there by organising this workshops. I take my hat off to her.
I loved the locations and the activities prepared for the workshops. As I was coming down a very long, slippery, ladder attached to the pier in Roundstone, into a boat that was taking us to Inishlacken island, I felt my bravest ever; when we walked through the castle's autumn forests in the hunt for mushrooms I was content... when I saw the house in the lake and its surroundings I was completely enchanted, finding out my hand-made gallette was picked by a top stylists as the best of the lot and worth a photograph was very flattering...
And yet, I came home unsettled and with a heavy heart. A wierd sense of inadequacy and disillusion in me. After much meditation and pondering about, I realised that this feeling could not be entirely attributed to my experience at the retreat. It's been a long time coming. For months I've been feeling irritated, tired, overworked, undervalued and demotivated. It feels like it does not matter how much work I put into things, I'm never getting anywhere (some people might ask me to man up and get a grip, and they would be right to do so, but that it is easier said than done).
I've been feeling frustrated and angry at seeing a lot of blogs succumbing to the general laziness and group thinking that seems to permiate every other part of printed media. Reguterated press releases, infomercials and general nonsense written on behalf of PR companies and brands for a small amount of money, in exchange of a product sample or an invite to a party. 'Food' blogs with nothing but infomercials. We are the darlings of the PR companies: free advertising in exchange for an invite, a small gift, a mention or a free sample. There seems to be this general feeling (hey I am guilty of this too) that unless you're getting these offers of, let's face it, free work, you're not a sucessfull blogger. The value of our work as bloggers seems to be based on how many freebies we get... nobody seems to care about content any more; blogs, and let's face it a lot of print media too, have become a series of photographs with captions... we've become completely visual with no time/desire to actually read text.
When all these realities were exemplified and amplified by the American Photographer imparting the workshop, all wheels came off my wagon. She did not mince her words and told us how it is in America. We found out what drives the creative process of a professional blogger in the States. Although this was not entirely new to me, It was a shock to hear. I would be a liar if I'd say I don't wish I could get paid to cook and write, but I am not sure I can do it. I am not prepared to become a curator of only the picture perfect moments in my life.
The blogging scene has changed a lot since I first started... I can only imagine how it must be for people here who have been blogging for over 10 years! But despite all my bitching about freebies, etc, compared to what goes on in America, we still have close ties that bound us to certain standards... I wonder how long will we be able to hold on to those.
Most of my creative process starts with a single hungry thought! I don't think about monetary value or about increasing my following... I coudn't help to feel terribly common for sharing my dinners here with you and for calling myself a food blogger... after all, I don't have a five grand camera with a 19 hundred euro lense and loads of vintage food props, including a custom-made white marble kitchen island. If I go by those standards, my recipes and my silly little photos are not worth sharing!
So needless to say that I found the photography end of things challenging, apart from my lack of basic skills, I found very difficult to connect with the photogrpaher. I also found myself really not interested in taking pictures identical to those of others; my food is vibrant and colourful and playful... shooting moody, low light scenes perfectly crafted for maximum buck is ok for a certain type of following, but it's not alright for my blog. My blog is entirely instructional, definitely not for the design concious. At the end of the day most of my modest following is only interested in cooking some good Mexican food.
So the photography end of things was not great for me. I was not there to adore or join a cult, I was there to learn. Talk to me about creative process based on light, composition, feeling, emotion, not on how many dollars per click a picture is going to generate, or what campaigns or agencies pay the most. Most bloggers in Europe make no money, I could count with the fingers of one hand the people there who had an interest in knowing any of that... and then it hit me, for someone so clued into what her following wanted, the photographer had completly misjudged what us, her paying audience, wanted! And then I thought what if this was it?! What if every blogger, writer I follow or admire is just looking at numbers?
The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this perfectly curated persona thing was not for me... carefully placed linens arranged in a certain way, vintage plates and pots, at an idyllic window sill overlooking the sea... it is all too perfect, all too beautiful... definitely not me at all... I am not beautiful like that... I am not perfect... and come to think of it, NOBODY IS!!!!
I enjoyed my time at the retreat. But it opened my eyes to this phenomena of perfectly curated moments. A lot of us follow these curators of moments.... a lot of us base our aspirations and goals on these perfectly curated lives... and the sad part is that such lives are unattainable because they're not real!! These lives are carefully orchestrated beauty thought through to maximize following or profit. It's a marketing ploy to make us want more, emotionless beyond the image... only caring for the numbers. I don't know if I could have taken Diana Kennedy not being as awsome as I had imagined her to be. That would have broken my heart... when I'm done with my blogging/writing, I want someone, even just one person, to feel the way I feel about Diana's work.
Like many of us, I do sucumb to status envy every now and then and I compare my stuff to that of more successful people. It's a rubbish habit I know, but I haven't found a way to kick it off. I'm sure I'm not the only one doing that, so I've been using it as a consolation and disguising it as a drive to improve my blogging skills. Rationalising it like that helps; I am just trying to be better and improve myself, that can't be bad, can it? but wait, it actually IS very, VERY bad!
It drives us to see beauty where there is none and it sets us into a path of inadequacy and torment. The escapism provided by these curated moments is short lived; and then we are left wanting, wishing, aching... it also leaves the curator devoid of any contact with reality (but hey at least he/she is being paid). When I look back at the hashtag of the course, all the photos are very similar... with a few exceptions, all 15 of us ended up taking the same shots, again and again... a real pity when there were so many talented lovies in the group.
I took a lot out of this experience and I am truly grateful I did it. I had a chance to meet old friends and made new ones, I also learned a lot. After a few days back home and in a calmer mood, I realised I took in a lot more than I had originally thought and the experience was totally worth it. Perhaps the biggest lesson I came out with is the certainty of knowing that I don't want to create a perfectly curated persona for myself. Life is imperfect, it is not an eternal series of perfectly curated moments... life is raw emotion: sadness and happiness and all that comes in between and I've decided it's time for me to embrace my offensively imperfect self, be different and stop apologising for it!