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Out of Darkness: a creative epiphany in the desert

Alister Benn FRPS describes his life-changing experiences with photography

From the series Out of Darkness 

The ways in which photography can energise and inspire are as boundless as the art form itself. Every so often, though, the creative process can change lives. 

Out of Darkness is the debut photo book from Alister Benn FRPS which builds upon his successful RPS Fellowship submission. In its pages, the photographer candidly explains how his time spent photographing in the Gobi Desert was a “complete creative epiphany” which “began to rewrite the story of my life”. 

When Benn was 19, his father died. In the 30 years that followed, Benn experienced severe panic attacks and periods of deep depression. His first foray to the Gobi came in 2017, setting in motion what would become one of his landmark projects.  

The Gobi – itself a place of great flux, with temperatures that can change by as much as 35°C in 24 hours – stands as a place of metaphor. The images use geometry, contrast and mood to represent Benn’s anxiety and mental health, and have, as a by-product, offered Benn new perspectives on life. 

Here, Benn discusses the project and shares a selection of images from the book.

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From the series Out of Darkness 

When did the name Out of Darkness come to you, and how did it inform the creative process? 

The title came quite a long time after the events in the Gobi Desert, and I did have a different working title for the project right up until February 2021. 

The more I worked on the images and reflected on the process, their significance in the improvement of my mental health became hugely apparent. Out of Darkness came to me while running a soggy trail near my home in the west of Scotland. When we stop thinking, ideas come to the surface.

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From the series Out of Darkness 

What has the emotional journey of making this book been like for you? 

I believe in constant change and evolution, our creativity providing a platform for our emotional growth and development. It is the core of my teaching and writing. The whole process of building our company Expressive Photography has come from this project and the various epiphanies I have had over the past six years since stepping into the desert in January 2017. 

For too long men have been emotionally closed, putting on a brave face and having to bottle up whole avenues of their potential articulation. I enjoy being open and that has allowed me to work with people who need help to rationalise their own suffering. This is the most rewarding aspect of my current work. 

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From the series Out of Darkness

What do you wish you had known at the outset of this project? 

As this is my first printed book, I did enter the project with a certain naivety, but I enjoy spontaneous creativity and not knowing certain things meant just doing what I wanted. I guess the costs involved of making a high-end book at a time of soaring inflation would be the key consideration. 

At some stage after we launched the pre-sale, I actually stopped thinking about the financial aspect entirely and I’m now just immersed in bringing the best quality product to market without worrying about making any money from it. The message is important and for me it has been so significant in changing my life. All I aim to do is to try and positively impact others with the work. 

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From the series Out of Darkness 

Talk us through the specific technical and creative process of one image in particular. 

One of the earliest realisations I had in the desert was why I would point my camera at certain things and not others. The relationships between luminosity, contrast, colour, geometry and atmosphere really stood out to me. Later, I joined the dots and noticed these arrangements could be articulated, or changed in processing, thus changing their emotional articulation. I coined the term ‘intuitive aesthetics’ and have enjoyed exploring those avenues.  

The key area is the processing of the mid tones, as the overall brightness of these are a significant emotional trigger. In this image, the general brightness and warmth of the mid tones allow the sinuous geometry to play out in a very relaxed way. It is hard to see this image as anything other than calming, or optimistic. Conversely, the darker images feel different due to the attributes of the mid tones.  

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From the series Out of Darkness 

How have your interactions with the RPS, as a member and Fellow, shaped your photography? 

My key relationship with the RPS has been with [landscape photographer] Joe Cornish HonFRPS and he graciously agreed to write one of the two forewords for the book. [William Neill wrote the other.] I have long admired Joe – we have had enlightening conversations, and share a passion for nature and being out there. The Fellowship was exciting and illuminating, and really helped me to focus in on the relationship between the subject and its emotional fingerprint. There are no explicit metaphors in landscape photography, we take this into the field with us.  

What’s next? 

Running a landscape photography business is about six full-time jobs, being creative is just one. Producing online content and marketing take up a lot of our time, and Covid lockdowns hit our workshop business hard. In 2023 I look forward to finally releasing the book, but more than that getting back into the landscape with small groups. I run a subscription forum and continuing to grow that and adding further value is a rewarding focus.  

Mostly, I want to add value to our art and the people who choose to express themselves with a camera. Having strong mental health is one of our most valuable assets and I absolutely believe creativity and expression play a huge role in that. 

All images by Alister Benn FRPS. Find more work by him on Instagram. Out of Darkness will be published early in 2023 and can be pre-ordered here