The enchanted, the supernatural, the strange, the impossible. Magic is dictated by something beyond our understanding, which has led to fear and rejection, and also wonder and curiosity among communities and individuals. Witchcraft, for example, has historically been a crime punishable by death, and this still rings true among many countries and faiths around the world. On the other hand, tales of the magical world and fictional stories of characters with magical powers are immensely popular and have received worldwide commercial success. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter, is the best-selling book series in history. If we think of magic as represented by a person, is it a kind soul, or an evil manipulator?
Perhaps magic isn’t something we can fully define or explain. A magical moment, a magical feeling or a magical place, are ideas which might immediately conjure up images and memories that are unique to every individual. Is it something big, or something very small – a sparkle. With the world in lockdown and battling the spread of Covid-19, perhaps what was magical was before isolation, something in the past. Or, perhaps it is noticing things in a new light, considering spirituality or making unexpected connections. But how might you visualise it?
During this time of pause and self-reflection, we reached out to photographers asking them to unpack this theme with an image and accompanying text. For this chapter, we spoke to Patrick Waterhouse, Lua Ribeira, Aishwarya Arumbakkam, Mark Mahaney and Max Miechowski, and here is how they responded.
The former editor-in-chief of Colors Magazine, Waterhouse’s practice blends photography, art and graphic design so as to add layers to the narrative he guides us through with each project. Interested by themes of community, culture and agency, the British photographer’s works are often a result of long-term immersion with the people whose story he is telling and collaborating with. His 2018 book for instance, titled Restricted Images and published by Self Publish Be Happy, was made with the Walpiri people of Central Australia. Waterhouse spent four years with the aboriginal community, who he then asked to alter his photographs with a traditional dot-painting technique.
“Photography and magic have much in common: they can both create the illusion of truth. A photograph is as much about what we don’t see, as what we do.”
“This portrait of a stranger hidden behind a portrait of an icon is part of a new body of work looking at how ideas, ideologies and beliefs change as they spread.
“It was taken late last year in Chongqing, China, not far from Wuhan, when ‘going viral’ meant something else– when it meant nothing more than the lightning-quick spread of an idea online, a turn of phrase suddenly everywhere, a composition that iterated into a million memes – a process which ultimately also documents the way ideas shift through their telling, a reality older than the internet.”
Ribeira is a Spanish photographer based in London, who we first met back in 2017 as one of BJP’s Ones to Watch talents. Since then, she has secured a place as a Magnum Nominee, and has continued to make in-depth projects which delve into cross cultural expression, collaboration and spirituality, whilst always considering and questioning her own position.
“I don’t really like the word ‘magic’, because its meaning is often perceived as something obsolete and the consequence of some kind of ignorance — except for the magicians, that spectacle is something else.”
“I believe there is something essential, a deep human necessity in the symbolic knowledge that used to be provided by the so-called witches, gods and other mythological creations or personifications. But it is hard to speak about those things in a culture where there is little that is sacred anymore, and our reason serves us well to justify the whole confusion of our times.
“This image is not about magic, but about theatre, another way of experiencing higher forms of truth that equip us for joy and suffering.”
Based between Austin, Texas, and Chennai, India, Aishwarya Arumbakkam is a photographer whose work exudes mystery, imagination and story-telling, yet is firmly grounded in cultural narratives and environmental issues. Working in black and white, Arumbakkam uses metaphor and elements of theatre as vehicles through which to question stereotypes, power and morality. Arumbakkam was one of BJP’s Ones to Watch talents last year, and was recently awarded the Magnum Foundation Photography and Social justice Fellowship.
“How do I write about something that defies the logic of thought and escapes the structure of language? Perhaps the knowing of magic lies in recognising it as unknowable. We can only be there, and be open to it.”
“This image was made early last year in a small village called Lama Punji in Jaflong, Bangladesh. I’ve been working there since the last four years on my project ka Dingiei.
“This year, I had to turn back while on my way to Lama Punji because of the Covid-19 situation. Since then, I’ve been simultaneously looking at and looking away from earlier images I made there. I miss being there and hope I can go back soon.”
With a long career in commercial and editorial photography, working for a range of prestigious clients across all industries, Mahaney has only recently completed his first personal monograph, titled Polar Night and published by Trespasser. His eerie, otherworldly landscapes taken in Utqiagvik, Alaska, which is plunged into darkness for three months a year, follow an ambiguous narrative — until we delve deeper and discover Mahaney’s call to act on behalf of climate change.
“I can’t think of anything more magical than light.”
It almost doesn’t need to be expanded upon. Light reveals everything to us. It shapes the world. The science of it boggles the mind. It’s everything and everywhere, but weighs nothing and can never be stored. Light has no mass, yet it affects gravity; the bending of space time. Traveling at the speed of light, you could go around the earth 7.5 times in one second. Light energy travels an infinite distance, and the distance it covers does not depend on its brightness.
“Our eyes can only see light of certain brightness, therefore our eyes perceive the light to be out of sight or to have stopped when we can no longer see it. But, it’s still there.
“It’s purposeful, and it’s spiritual. It often accompanies transcendence, truth, knowledge.
“Photography literally means, ‘writing with light.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, ‘as the eye is the best composer, so light is the first of painters.’
“As creatives, light is our number one tool, the main ingredient or driving force. I’m constantly responding to it, putting it to use. There are moments when I add artificial light, but typically I’m modifying daylight to set the stage. It’s not uncommon for me to cover every window in a room, almost starting from zero, and then I’ll open up slivers or pockets here and there until I’m happy. With my most recent personal project, Polar Night, I documented the northernmost town in the US as it underwent 65 days of total darkness. For that project, darkness was the main subject.
“The image above was taken moments after I read that humans are actually bioluminescent, not unlike fireflies or jellyfish. We literally glow. The light we emit however is 1000 times weaker than our eyes can detect.
“During these dark and uncertain times, as a sort of offshoot of us homeschooling our eight-year-old daughter, she and I have started collaborating on making photographs at home. This image is of us dancing with flashlights in our yard during a 20-second exposure. Our movements are glowing. When she saw the image and she wrapped her head around the mechanics of it, it landed on her as magic.”
Luis Alberto Rodriguez
After a 14-year career as a professional dancer, Luis Alberto Rodriguez understands the potential of the human body better than most. As a photographer, he uses this appreciation to make work that is informed by his past “but not dictated by it,” he says. Employing tension, movement and organic sculptural form he explores community and heritage, but also abstraction and theatrics. His first book, People of the Mud, is published by Loose Joints. With a US-Dominican Republic background, he is currently based in Berlin, and is also one of our Ones to Watch talents from 2019.
“Some say we are souls visiting our bodies for a borrowed amount of time.”
“The skin is the largest organ of our body, as it degenerates, it becomes a map or an archive that can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves.
“In the name of survival, this pandemic has given us little to no option other than to bury away our instinct to physically connect with another. We are living a moment in time where connecting with another body feels like the magical drug that will cure all our woes. Reflecting on the theme of ‘Magic’, words that come to mind are ‘potential’ and ‘inexplicable’.
“This photograph, Jermaine and Marquet In the Rubble, is from my series OTRAMITAD, 2016. My interest with this series was to explore solidarity and dependency between these two subjects bound by the same conditions. Mutually dependent, their bodies achieve an organic whole as they strive to become one.”
Max Miechowsk’s work is rooted in portraiture, with a particular focus on the people he interacts with and meets around his local area in south London. His series, Burgess Park, shot during the hot summer of 2018, has been widely commended for his organic observation and use of light. One of these portraits was selected for the Taylor Wessing Prize and exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery that same year.
“As children, we view the world through a magical lens.”
“Everyday experiences are imbued with possibility and mystery, the world of fables and storybooks still perfectly plausible. At some point we seem to lose that, and then, spurred on by memory and nostalgia, spend much of our lives trying to find it again.
“Last year, in an attempt to rekindle this sense of wonder, I travelled the length of the British East Coast with my camera. This was the setting for many family holidays and some of my earliest memories; fish and chippy dinners, braving the waters of the murky North Sea, and fishing for crabs by the pier. Through freely exploring and making pictures, I discovered that the coast held the same magic I felt when I was young.
“There was a joy in aimlessly navigating the towns and landscapes overlooking the sea, curious as to what I might find next. Like the kid in this image, fishing for crabs, entranced by the water and the mystery of what might be lurking below.”