Have You Done This Before?

That’s a good question to ask of a surgeon before an operation. It’s usually also a good question to ask of a financial counselor, an electrician, or the pilot of a chartered aircraft. But there are occasions when the question is the last or only resort of a potential employer who has little or no idea of what they’d like to see accomplished. It vacuums all the creative imagination out of the room and replaces it with the certain monotony of an assembly line.

I’m very fortunate to fill my working life with projects of my own choosing, and not dependent upon the whims of clients. Occasionally I take on commissions, but only when they promise some real challenge, where I can sharpen my skills as an artist and perhaps use some of the processes it adduces to add to my creative portfolios. I love the look on a client’s face, which says “How exciting. I didn’t think of that!”

I have a secret fantasy life. It has revolved around music, great Western classical music, and I’ve lived in that Walter Mitty state since my boyhood. As a child, I could sing all the parts of at least half a dozen grand operas entirely from memory, and as a teenager used a baton, given me by Maestro Dimitri Mitropoulos, to conduct air symphonies daily. Having lost that baton many years ago, I’ve replaced it with a lacquered Japanese chopstick to lead orchestras from Chicago to Berlin, often on the same day, and with barely any rehearsal. Once, at a schools concert by the Symphony Orchestra in my native Cape Town, the conductor, Edward Dunn, summoned me onstage to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Italian Caprice, which, he said, I knew as well as he did. While it took an effort to keep my knocking knees from drowning out the tympani, I also learned the true meaning of benign megalomania. Later, when I became a student, then a professor, of international relations, it was not a great leap for me to believe that the world's greatest peacemakers are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

I have continued to this day my envy, not of Presidents and Prime Ministers, but of great orchestral conductors. As other parts of my body age, my hearing seems to have become more acute, as well as far more educated. I once surprised a conductor friend by telling him that the only distinction between his conducting and mine was half a second. He anticipated the orchestra by a quarter second, and I followed the orchestra by the other quarter.


As an artist and writer, one of my “mentors” remains 19th century scholar Walter Horatio Pater, Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford. He wrote: “All art aspires to the condition of music.”

A few months ago, I was approached by the leader of a classical music ensemble, and asked to photograph the individual musicians as well as the group as a whole in performance. The previous photographs that had been done of them reminded me of the music club in a college yearbook, and the group, lined up from left to right, formally dressed, holding their instruments at rest, reminded me of pictures I’ve seen on the society or events page of a local newspaper. Except for the nature of the instruments, they could as well have been unusually well dressed photographers holding cameras, or the graduating class of a medical school, holding their stethoscopes. What seemed so deeply missing was a sense of relationship, of complementarity, of harmony, of the small, significant signals that pass among musicians in full flight. The poetry – indeed, the musicality – was missing. But, before I could say anything, the leader asked me the question that is endlessly repeated by the most pedestrian of human resources bureaucrats: “Have you done this before?” That truly caught me by surprise, as it is so clearly the wrong question. I’m quite used to variations of “What can you do for us?” or “What ideas can we pursue together?” That would give me the opportunity to consider creative options, and compose scenarios, activities whose challenge I relish.

Well, as I said, I’m pretty independent, and have no interest in mug shots. If you’re looking for imaginative work, asking unimaginative questions isn’t likely to get the result you’d prefer. So, although I’ve fantasized about photographing the Berlin Philharmonic in rehearsal, I’ve never done that. However, as its conductor and I have a mutual friend, that could, perhaps, be arranged.

When I wrote back to the leader of the ensemble, I said no. But I added that, although I had never photographed burned out buildings before, “Vulcan’s Craft,” my portfolio on the aftermath of the catastrophic 1991 East Bay Fire earned me an exhibition in the Mills College Art Museum and a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain; and although I had never photographed death camps before, my book Liberating the Ghosts (LensWork Publishing) won awards from the American Library Association and the New York Public Library, as well as exhibitions on both coasts. It was a cover story in the Photographic Journal of the RPS.

If Boeing wants product pictures of their magnificent aircraft, they should find an industrial photographer who’ll give them fine results. But, if they want someone to help them create intimate visions of the romance of flight, and its importance in our daily lives, I’d be willing to think it out with them. My number is in the directory.

My nostalgia is for the future. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Resolve to be always beginning - to be a beginner.” With that recommendation in mind, I love the challenge of trying to render with my eyes the magnificence that enters my ears. The struggle to aspire to the condition of music continues.


Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.


Well said. It is sad that so many have come to expect factory line results, not realizing we all have unique experiences and needs that change. Joni Mitchell once complained that we wouldn't ask Van Gogh to paint Starry Night again, yet they would request songs of her as they would a juke box.

What a beautiful website. I am excited to discover more of your voice and your vision.

"Have You Done This Before?" begins in praise of not repeating oneself but then goes on to describe your career wielding a chopstick, in which you repeat not only yourself but the conductor. You are not making the music, you are responding to it physically, i.e. you are dancing. My own opinions about how creativity works lead me to believe that this process of incorporating musical ideas into your Walter-Mitty "dance" must somehow influence your photographic work, which is indeed creative and eschews self-imitation.

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