I've been working as a photographer for almost 2 years now. And looking back at this time, I can see a number of stages I've grown through.
Each stage is characterised by what I believed is the most important element of great photography. And in this post I decided to analyse them and come to a conclusion on the benefits and dangers of each stage.
1. The "Tech-Gizmo" Stage
I was primarily interested in cameras, lenses and learning everything about light, composition and technical aspects of digital editing.
My ethos was: a great photographer is a well-equipped photographer with superior technical skills. Just let me nail the light and the composition on my latest DSLR with that amazing lens and I'll show you what a great photo looks like!
During shoots, I was primarily paying attention to the numbers on my camera and looking for where the Sun was. When I wasn't preoccupied with those I was probably thinking about which background to put my subject against.
My subjects were largely left to their own devices, apart from some basic input on how to stand and where to look.
2. The "Relating To Subjects" Stage
After a while of that I noticed that some of the best photos I've taken were not necessarily perfectly lit, exposed or composed.
And yet, despite their flaws, they had an ability to captivate and move me. Clearly something else was at play here apart from technique and technology.
I realised that these photos had something else in common - they were taken in moments when me and my subject experienced authentic, fleeting, unguarded moments.
There was something troubling about that, because it meant all my technology and skills I've worked so hard to develop didn't count for much, but I began to explore that idea with gusto.
I began to ask myself - how could I create more of those moments?
What I realised is that it had a lot to do with me. Those photos were taken in moments when I was having fun, when I had my guard down and I was relating to and connecting with, my subjects.
That, in turn, allowed my subjects to do the same.
I began to think more about what it must be like for them to have their photos taken. I was wondering about what they're thinking, feeling and desiring. I began to allow myself to have fun with them.
3. Developing My Voice
I watched a remarkable interview with photographer Chris Orwig recently. Here it is in its entirety - and a word of caution - if you're serious about becoming a better photographer its worth every minute of your time, even though it's quite lengthy:
In the interview Chris asks some poignant questions - if your photography was your voice, what would you be saying to people? Or, to put it more directly: what is important to you in life - and how will you communicate that in your photos?
Those questions really resonated with me. I've been mulling with similar questions in my head for some time, but Chris was able to articulate them a lot better for me.
Sure, I try to create and capture magic moments of families having a great time, but how do I go beyond that? What's beyond taking pretty pictures of families walking on the beach and laughing?
4. The Dangers Of Going Deeper
In our pursuit of making our work deeper, more meaningful and powerful think there's a trap we need to be aware of.
Have you ever been to an art gallery and seen a photo, perhaps, of blue sky? And you see the artists' blurb next to it on a little plate, which reads something like this:
"This work is an exploration of what it means to be a free and harmonic human being in 21st century. The blue colour represents the absence of clutter and simplicity of great living. And the sky itself symbolises the highest state of being, blah, blah, blah…"
Sure, you can try to slap on any meaning on any photo and call it transcendental, but for many the pursuit of depth and abstraction becomes an end in itself. And photography ceases to be about an expression of a cause that's important to the photographer, and becomes about being clever and winning critic's points.
And that's not what I'm talking about here.
So What Is Important To You?
Let's leave photography aside for a moment and ponder on this - if photography was not a part of your life, and you didn't have to work to pay the bills, what would you do with your time?
What would you dedicate your life to?
The scope of this question is huge - largely I'm going to even bigger for you by giving you a hint as to what the next question is - how do you express what's important to you through your photography?
Yes, I'm inviting you to politicise your photography.
What cause do you want it to advance? What do you think the world needs that your photography can provide? As Chris Orwig puts it, what voice do you want to give it?
Perhaps you think that a particular idea just must be spread - are you willing to use your photography as a channel through which you help it take hold?
The default context for up-and-coming photographers is something like this: you're just a guy/girl and the camera is a device which "takes" the photo. There's a lot of emphasis on the camera and very little emphasis on the impact our photography has on the world.
We mostly think about pleasing ourselves by satisfaction we get from taking a great photo.
Here I'm inviting you to flip this equation on its head. That does a number of things. First, it puts the cause you stand for where it belongs - at the centre stage, at thefront. Photography ceases to be about you, but making a difference to other people.
Your ego might like the idea that you're suddenly not just a regular guy/girl, but an activist for a cause (a revolutionary, perhaps!) with a voice. But the reality of it is that you're just channel through which this idea can come to life - which is a much more humbling and rewarding place to be.
And the camera takes the last place (which it should) - it's just a tool of your trade.
So the only question left is - what do you care most deeply about?