What I see depends on what I bring

At one level, a photograph is a simple thing – it’s just an image. But, at another level it’s a whole different ball game. What I see in a photograph depends on what bring – in terms of my previous experiences and how I probably am feeling at that point in time. Some photographs by their raw emotional content have the power to seemingly transcend the immediate context – they almost forcibly grab you and shake you up. Those photographs, as far as I am concerned, are rare. I can think of a lot of good photographs, but not many that have that powerful emotional pull.

Often, a photograph creates a strong emotional response in me due to the story that goes with it. This is one of the reasons that I like reading documentary work, as it provides a contextual backdrop to more fully understand the image. However, some stories just bore me as I am not interested in them. Whilst others, due to my experiences, beliefs and interests are much more stimulating. Darcy Padilla’s The Julie Project (Now called Family Love) is a very powerful story which gripped me.

This got me thinking recently about my own work. Like most people (I presume), I shoot with a particular idea in mind of how I would like the audience to respond to my work – do they ‘get’ the message that I am seeking to communicate? I have no idea really, unless I talk to people or provide an explanatory text. But, when I do that I have already sought to shape their views and opinions about the work. What might be a more interesting angle to explore is that of not providing an explanatory context, etc. to the work – just putting the images out there and let the viewer make their own minds up about the work. What expectations do they bring and does the work match it in any way?

I like the idea of using the ambiguity in the ‘space’ between my intention for the work and the audience’s expectations as a possible point of exploration. I can try to influence what people think. However, because I don’t know, nor can I know, their previous histories or immediate context, I can’t actually control what they think.

I guess the next thing to do is to explore this idea in a little more depth, and shoot some work or look at the work I have done to build something that reflects this concept.




Vision in photography

Photography is a funny old thing really, for the most part you have no idea who took a photograph. The photographic process is very impersonal. Particularly nowadays, you just press a button and ‘ta da’ there’s a picture on the LCD screen. There are a few photographers, like Anders Petersen, whose work is strongly recognisable. Jacob Aue Sobol is another photographer who has a strong and identifiable body of work. They utilise techniques and create content that (at least when you know of them) make you quickly think ‘that’s Petersen’. I can’t say that for a lot of photographers. Even the great Cartier-Bresson, I recognise his work because it is so famous. But, it doesn’t have the same unique marker that Petersen’s has.

Whilst my work will never be that unique, I do like the idea of making it much more ‘mine’. As I was driving to work today (it’s a long drive, about an hour and a half), I was thinking about how I would help one of my daughters to understand what photography is as opposed to ‘snap shots’. Really, I was thinking about how should understand photography. The viewpoint in my mind was to “make the work personal and allow it to show others how you see the world”. When I look at photographs, half the time I am interested in the world view of the photographer as much as the images. It’s their personal and emotional take on the things that happen in life which is the most interesting part. I really couldn’t care a lot of the time whether an image is sharp, well composed or technically perfect – I am much more interested in the emotional reaction it is attempting to evoke in me.

The work of Eugene Smith, such as his ‘country doctor’ work, is a great example of the power to evoke a sense of time, place and emotion. Smith is, for me, one of the great photographers precisely because of his ability to create emotional images so brilliantly.

In recent times, I have become interested in connecting images together to gain a sense of narrative, rather than the single image. I do love the single image stuff, but my interest nowadays is mostly about trying to create a more nuanced view of a topic than before. Following my ‘advice to my daughter’ the point is to create a view of what a subject means to me, rather than a supposedly more neutral or objective view.

So when I shoot at Swanage, what I am really saying is ‘what does this place mean to me?’ rather than a more straight document covering the typical parts of the town and beach. The first approach becomes a process of discovery of my experience of the place, whilst the second approach is more flat and boring to me in that my subjective experience is muted in the work. I have been shooting consciously with the second mindset, but unconsciously with the first. So to harmonise things, it makes sense to firmly locate my project work in the ‘what does this place mean to me’ sphere, not only because it makes things more personally interesting but also because it feels much more congruent with me.

This photograph taken from our shoot there this weekend is a move in the right direction. I will post up some of my thoughts about the recent trip soon.