Make Some Noise For The Camera

Fuzzhoneys in concert.  Photo by Chris Vella / Storbju
There are moments, often as I’m fighting off tiredness to write a piece, where I find myself wondering why I do this.  There’s no money in it and it is always questionable how many people the articles will reach.  Eventually I remind myself that I do it because of the joy that it gives me; the people that I get to meet and the opportunity to express whatever creative abilities I have.

Still, it is always energising and comforting to find others who are in a similar situation, such as Chris Vella.   As the person behind Storbju.com, his music photography blog with pictures from the local alternative scene, he can appreciate more than many what it means to do such work purely for the love of it.

“What keeps me going is the documentation of the scene, much more than any artistic aspirations.”

“Naturally when it comes to picking which photos to publish I’m careful to opt for the best ones; I certainly wouldn’t publish any photos that I don’t like stylistically.  But the most important thing is to document the musical scene.”

So far, he has been at it for more than six years.  “I set up the blog in 2011.  Before I used to take photos but they were general ones, not purely at musical events.  With the blog I decided to focus more on music.  At the time I had bought some lenses with which I could take better photos in the kind of venues where there’s live music.  Such smaller venues that are not well lit require specific lenses.”  

“I’ve always liked music so it made sense to me to focus on that.”

That love for music might have eased the decision but it also created a problem.  “There is always the dilemma between going simply to enjoy the music and taking photos.  Sometimes I tell myself that I’ll take photos for three songs and then stop.  What usually happens then, is that I start wondering about all the photos that I could have taken if I’d simply had my camera at the ready,”

“What I’m particularly careful about is that I don’t wander in front of people.  Even if I know that a shot would come out better if taken from another angle, I still prefer to stand on the sides of the stage so that I don’t take anything away from those there to enjoy the music.”

That of enjoyment is a recurring theme.  Later Chris admits that “I prefer to take photos when I feel like it.  Most of the gigs I go to I don’t have the camera with me.  When there’s a new venue or a new band then I decide to take the camera.”

“I enjoy all forms of music from live acts to DJ sets,” he continues.  “I prefer shooting live acts as there is more activity that you can capture on camera.”

Limitations tend to drive creativity and, perhaps subconsciously, Chris opted to focus his efforts on this niche because of the challenges it places.  “Lighting is always very particular,” he explains, listing the nature of his work.  “Everywhere I’ve taken photos I’ve come across lighting that was unique.  One rule that I follow is that I don’t use flash because I find that it deadens the photo.”

“I try to keep the ambience the same as how I saw it.  If I take a photo where there’s someone’s face is partially lit but the rest is not, I don’t try to lighten it artificially in post-production.  I’d much rather keep it as it came out.”

“Sometimes the lighting itself forces certain choices.  For instance if the lighting is overwhelmingly in one colour than the photos would be dominated by that colour.  I don’t find any problems with that.”
Brikkuni: launch of Rub Al Khali CD.  Photo by Chris Vella / Storbju

What he does go for is “movement.  I try to capture it as much as possible.”

“I don’t want a static photo; I want the energy to come out.”  

“When you go in you have an idea but then you experiment.  It is not about getting a perfect shot but about going with the flow.  If a singer is constantly moving about then you don’t have any alternative other than getting a photo that is slightly blurry. ”

“Afterwards I don’t do a lot of editing.  I go for continuous shooting so that there are numerous photos of the same moment.  Then I focus on the best eight or ten photos, see how they come out and carry out some light touches.”

“The photos that I enjoy the most are those where the expressions of those in the image comes out.  There is an element of fortune, of being in exactly the right spot.  But you also learn to notice things.”

“You also learn how different people act on stage.  For instance, there are some singers who are very active on stage so you prepare with a wide angle lens.  If another is more expressive I know to focus on the face.”

Chris comes across as extremely self-assured about what he wants to achieve with his photography, as well he should be.  However, whilst he never really had much doubt about his overall artistic vision, there was some initial uncertainty that he had to overcome.


“In the beginning I used to ask the bands whether it was a problem that I take photos but I never found any objections.  Indeed it was the opposite: they want that someone takes photos of them.”

“I either stay on the sides of the stage or else from behind the stage so that I capture images of the crowd.  I try to get photos from different angles.”

“As much as possible I try to include both the crowd and the band, so that there is a mix of both.”

Here experience plays a big role.  “The fact that you go to the venue more than once is a plus, more so that you get to know the lighting than to get a feel of the space.  Being familiar with the lighting helps a lot.  Most venues have a small stage, all are dimly lit but you can get a better handle of how to take photos in those conditions.”

“Space is a problem only if there is a good attendance.  I’ve often been to gigs where there aren’t a lot of people.”

Sadly, this is increasingly becoming the norm.  “I’m noticing that attendance is on the decline which is quite a problem.”

“Demand for live music seems to be decreasing and venues don’t seem to be sustainable any more.  I think that’s the reason why they open up, are strong for a year or two and then start to decline.”

“I enjoy going to new venues,” he reaffirms.  “In a sense I think that I’m documenting these places as much as I am the bands themselves.”

“What I like about smaller venues is the challenge that they offer, not to mention that I’m more equipped for them with the lenses that I have.  Normally more established performers have bigger stages meaning that you are far away from them.”

“I enjoy being close to the stage and to the performers.  There’s a kind of intimacy that is otherwise lost.  I don’t like being away from the stage.  It is as if I’m observing something from far away.” 


His work reinforces his reasoning.  Chris’s photography captures the energy of live music, the peculiarities of the venues that features it and also subtle quirks of those performing.  They make you feel as if you were there; there is a special kind of connection.

All of this comes through in a book of his work published through EDE books.

“I was at a book fair held on the University campus and noticed the photobooks on EDE stands.  I really liked the idea.  To be honest I had never really thought about publishing my work in a book but this concept intrigued me so I approached them.”

“I sent them some examples of my work and they liked them because they want each book to have its own story.”

“We took it from there and I’m very happy with the end result.”

He should be.

Although he claims that it never was an ambition, publishing this book means that there is something less for him to aim for.  What is there to keep him going?

“There was a time when I was the only one in the scene taking photos.  Today there are other people, which is another factor for me.  Before I felt a kind of obligation to take photos; now I know that even mobiles are powerful enough.  They aren’t as good as cameras but at least people take photos and upload them so there is a kind of documentation. Without the impetus to document every single gig because I feel that I have to, I can be more selective, and focus on shooting artists that interest me both sonically and visually.”
  
“Film photography intrigues me and it’s something I’d like to look into in the future, as it presents a different challenge.  I would like to take some courses on developing film photography so I can learn about it and involve myself in the process.” 

If you don't want to miss any of the images that Chris Vella records from the local music scene - and you shouldn't - follow the Storbju page on Facebook.  Through this page you can also purchase the Storbju photobook that is published through Ede Books.

An interview with the Fuzzhoneys, whose photo is at the top of this article, can be found here.

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