I was asked to write a short piece detailing a Parkour perspective on photography, with a personal intro bit tacked on to the start. In case anyone else is interested, here it is.
My name is David Sedgley and I'm a Parkour practitioner. I was a professional Parkour coach for 5 years and have been Chairman of the British Parkour Coaching Association for 7 years. I helped set up the Northern Parkour community back in 2004, and in 2007 developed the UK's first Parkour coaching qualification. Since the BPCA's coaching paradigm shifted in 2010 I've been developing an improved system for teaching and learning Parkour, a task that has taken a lot of time and is still not complete. I've given talks, taught in various circumstances, and at times I am an active participant in online Parkour communities however most of my teaching at the moment takes place in the three regular sessions I attend in Sheffield each week.
My goal is to find a way for everyone who wants to practise Parkour to be able to do so. I am in favour of things that help accomplish this goal, such as discussions, studies and accurate education. I am against anything which makes this task harder, including consumerism, commercial media, competition and all other forms of misinformation.
Parkour is my main interest. It's a great training discipline with clear ideas and principles that makes a huge difference to people's lives. Freerunning is also a good concept, the idea of doing anything if it will help you progress. However it tries to be a lot more subjective and so it is a difficult subject to discuss and explain, beyond the basic concept.
Neither Parkour nor Freerunning really include the idea of experts. Both disciplines emphasise the importance of determining your own path and intrinsic to that is the idea of the highest authority being yourself. I have been practising for more than 10 years and I have learned a lot during that time, but I wouldn't describe myself as a Parkour expert. I have a good understanding of the principles, I can explain and describe many aspects in copious detail, but there is no status associated with that. There is no such thing as a Parkour expert. There are just Parkour practitioners. Each person with their own path containing their own obstacles and their own solutions.
The central idea though of both is the idea of use. They are both only interested in things that can be useful to a person's development. This idea is central to how both disciplines relate to other activities.
Parkour consists of confronting the obstacles that are limiting you and find a way past them. The central idea in Parkour is continual progress. One step leads to another and then to another in a continuous path. Photography on the other hand captures a single moment and separates it from everything around it, before or after. The basic flaw in Parkour photography is that the single moment represented in the photo is essentially something that doesn't exist. There are no gaps in the practise of Parkour, no single moments, just a continuous stream. One of the words that is often thrown about in connection with Parkour is 'flow', the idea of continuous movement without stops or breaks, like water moving over rocks. That describes the practise of Parkour very well, even though individual elements may appear to start and stop. Everything that is done in Parkour is done precisely because it leads on to other things. That's the nature of every training discipline, to do things in order to progress towards other things. Thus a photograph will always fail to capture the essence of Parkour.
It is in the nature of every form of art to take parts of the world and then produce something that is separate to that world. There are many other activities that also seek to produce something separate from the world. Sports, for instance, turn their backs on the need for fitness and play and instead create artificial environments with new rules and goals arbitrarily defined. However Parkour is not one of those activities. In fact, Parkour could be said to be a solution to the problems of such activities. Parkour seeks to get to the heart of solving practical problems by considering just the bare essentials, just what is strictly necessary to get past the difficulty. It considers life in its simplest form, considers only the essential parts, getting rid of anything that provides an unnecessary distraction or added difficulty. By considering only what is useful, by choosing to deal with only the practical, it enables practitioners to accomplish more in practical terms. All energy spent is spent on useful things, leaving more energy for further accompishments. It is an essential part of Parkour's training method, and it does not leave a lot of room for interaction with activities that seek to produce something separate or self-contained. Those practitioners that do try and connect with such activities must inevitably divert energy away from the practise of Parkour. They will have to keep switching between goals and they will lose the clarity of thought and direction that characterises Parkour practitioners. Thus such activities can only ever be a hindrance to the practise of Parkour.
The practice of Parkour does produce unusual sights. From the point of view of a photographer trying to capture interesting sights, Parkour must be a very tempting target. The ideas behind Parkour are not common and they result in equally rare actions. Practitioners appear in places that non-practitioners would not, and do things they would not either. They don't do so for the purpose of making an unusual spectacle, that's just a side-effect of people being themselves, but it creates one nevertheless. Without meaning to, Parkour practitioners can produce a great amount of entertainment for others.
Since Parkour is very visually appealing to the non-practitioner the temptation will always be there to shift the focus from self-development to entertaining others. Humans are social creatures and we benefit a lot from interacting with others, but there are many aspects of society that also have a negative effect on an individual. Parkour emphasises the need for people to follow their own path partly to combat these dangers, which range from being pushed in the wrong direction by someone with a selfish interest, to the near certainty of suffering injuries when your decisions aren't based solely on your own internal evaluations. The practise of Parkour involves just the practitioner and the obstacle, and as soon as something else comes into the equation unnecessary problems occur. It is important for their safety and wellbeing for Parkour practitioners to ignore visual considerations and people and distractions around them. This is not to say that people can't take photographs and videos of practitioners, just that it is important for the practitioners to ignore it.
This leads on to an important point in the nature of photography. When you take a photograph you interact with the thing you're photographing. Unless you do it in such a way that the subject is entirely unaware of you, the very act of taking a photograph of something changes the thing you're photographing. In addition to whatever reasons existed before, a person being photographed is also performing for the purpose of having a photo taken. This change in purpose alters the action itself. Things are done in different ways, and people react differently. This effect is more pronounced where the action is performed primarily for the purpose of the photo, as is the case with the photography here, but it exists every time a photo is taken of a video recorded. Sometimes the efffect is relatively harmless, the extra pressure merely resulting in a few extra tries before they get something right, but sometimes it's an important difference. There are many practitioners, experienced as well as new, who have been injured as a result of repeating something for the camera. Almost all of the practitioners who have delved repeatedly into the world of media have experienced it at one time or another.
The flip side of the start contrast in mindset between a photographer and a Parkour practitioner is that in the end they can perform a useful service in simply showing practitioners how non-practitioenrs view what they do. What photographers choose to take photos of indicates what they consider important and so paying attention to the work of photographers can help practitioners judge how they themselves are viewed. In a way it's a mirroring effect, allowing practitioners to see themselves through the eyes of others. It's not the most important perspective for a Parkour practitioner, but it's also not something to disregard entirely. Ignoring the views of others produces just as many problems as relying on them.
Parkour is clearly not very compatible with photography, however this particular photography project does come very close to sharing a goal with Parkour. The stated purpose of Parkour is to enable a person to get past the obstacles and limits imposed upon them by the outside world, in order to continue to follow their own path through life. When you are used to dealing with difficulties, when you know you can always progress, you feel confident in all situations and the potential for depression disappears. The ability to learn and progress no matter what the situation is the source of true freedom in life. When you're free within yourself you're as free as you can be.
Becoming free is just a matter of experiencing situations which prove that you are free. Getting rid of the outside influences, simply experiencing life without external influences, experiencing being an individual on a regular basis, is all it takes for the realisation to embed itself in all parts of your life. This freedom and simplicity is there in all parts of Parkour, making Parkour a solution to the problem which this photography highlights.
There is less to discuss with regard to freerunning. The idea in Freerunning is to use whatever is useful; to take that which is useful from every activity and use it to develop yourself into a better person. Nothing is compulsory, nothing ruled out. There is clearly room for photography to be beneficial to freerunners however there are no patterns or guidelines within freerunning to compare it to. Photography, like everything else, will be useful for some practitioners and useless for others. It will be useful for those seeking a new perspective. It will be useful for those seeking to work within the media environment. It will be useful for those who wish to fit into the modern cultural norm of documenting every action with photos and videos. It will likely be useful for others. However it will not be useful for everyone, and will likely be just as much of a hindrance to some as it is of benefit to others.
For me, art has drawbacks, not benefits.