Why Photograph At All? – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 189

This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine

We are all born creative because we are pinned by gravity to the surface of a spinning ball that hangs in space. We have to make sense of this in order to survive and grow. This makes the creative ‘spark’ a necessity not an option.

This spark first found its way into our distant ancestors over 200,000 years ago as they attempted to survive in their environment. Story telling became essential as a way of transferring information. Stories are their/our way of making sense of our condition by bringing abstract attention to the enormity of existence. This process of abstraction and representation is what we now call ‘art’.

Ever since one of our distant ancestors picked up a pebble that bore some resemblance to a human face we have been attempting to bring attention to objects and concepts that describe our experience. Photography is one of the tools we have developed to perform the magic of making something out of nothing or, if you prefer, the bringing of attention for attention’s sake to a point where none existed before.

The drive to describe our experience is as much a facet of humanity as having an opposable thumb and forefinger. We photograph because we must create because we are human. Some of us paint, some write, some construct, some photograph. That we humans choose to do this at all is central to how we place ourselves in the universe. Art is the bringing of attention to something however art is not defined by that process. Art, whether it is photographic or otherwise, is the way we tell ourselves the story of our existence.

Let’s return to that image of a spinning ball. It is a fact that each of us is ephemeral – ‘we are such things as dreams are made of’ as Shakespeare said. But we all have a part to play in the unfolding story of humanity. Space and all its weird quarks, protons and ‘Schroedinger’s Catness’ is in all of us. We are uniquely sensitive beings. Our ‘human’ consciousness is exposed to all this cosmic weirdness and we need to make sense of it – to make order out of chaos – person by person, story by story. Because our experience is unique we each have a unique story to tell – the story of our own short life on Earth. This is, I believe, why I feel such a burning desire to take pictures. I think you take pictures for the same reason – you need to tell your unique story.

I have illustrated this article with three photographs which I think show why I am a photographer. You may hate them or love them – that is not the purpose in printing them here. What I intend is to show three pictures which no one else could ever have taken because these photographs represent my own experience and interaction with the world.

So we come to the crux of the first lesson. Too many photographers rely on the assured style of their various photographic heroes (I am guilty of this sometimes) – it’s almost as if they see the world through imaginary eyes. The point is that one can never be the next Cartier Bresson. He did that already. You are unique – be the first ‘you’ to photograph and show the world how you engage with it. Do this by shooting according to instinct – photograph those things you feel most drawn to and eschew the ‘clever’ and overly wrought. Stick to this principle and you will undoubtedly tell your own story. So from this day on strive to tell future generations (who’s lot it will be to make sense of this spinning ball) your own invaluable story, what is was that – insert your name here – saw, thought and felt.

Lesson 1’s ‘take home’ is – be true to yourself and let your instinct guide your camera.

Next week – Why your camera matters but not in the way you thought it did.

5 thoughts on “Why Photograph At All? – ESSAY FROM BLACK+WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY MAGAZINE 189”

  1. A brilliant argument; one I wish I had learnt ten years ago when I first developed a passion for photography.

    Instead, I let myself get infected with the ‘you must be perfect – like the masters’ syndrome; the result has been a kind of creeping paralysis. I began taking fewer and fewer pictures because I could not be a Cartier-Bresson or an Ansel Adams.It’s a bit late in the year for resolutions, but, I shall attempt to follow your good advice and aim to record ‘my story’, not someone else’s.

    Thank you

    1. It’s very interesting that so many photographers are faced with the same ‘greatness complex’ whilst ignoring the drama of their own existence. Thanks very much for your comment. It’s much appreciated.

  2. Good thoughts well expressed Alex. Little did I know when I began photography in my amateur earnest more than 50 years ago that I would be using the results to, as you put it, tell my story. And you have contributed to that.

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