Taking Your Work Seriously

So often, photography seems easy. We take pictures when we are having a good time. The thought process is simply recognizing a happy moment and pulling out a camera to document it. However, that's just taking pictures. It isn't photography.

Photography is work. It's the process of seeing the world around you in an objective fashion. It's noticing light. It's noticing composition. It's noticing people in their interactions, and in the expression of their range of emotions. It's looking for a moment when these things come together in a meaningful moment.

David Alan Harvey is right when he says all photography is autobiographical. To make a meaningful image means bringing yourself to that moment. You have to bring what you are to a moment to be able to recognize it, frame it, and capture it.

Accordingly, being a good photographer means being an interesting and interested person. It means understanding the relevance of things around you. It means having the empathy to appreciate the interactions and relationships that you observe. It means you're familiar with the social issues which make what you see meaningful to others. This is all extremely hard work, and usually very mentally exhausting.

Just as with any good art, a good photograph should reveal the photographer as well as the subject. Subject matter, composition, and even exposure reveal the photographer's purpose in making the image. This is easy to see, for example, in Peter Turnley's work. His approach to what he chooses to photograph is revealing of his own views of the world. His photographs are powerful because many people can empathize with his views.

The moments you choose to capture are likewise revealing of you. They show your interests, as well as your relationship to your subjects. Your images show whether you have respect, interest, and empathy. The emotional sensitivity of the documentary photographer stands in stark contrast to the fleeting interest of the street photographer. Both have their purpose and place, and both reveal the photographer's perspective on the people around him or her.

Photography can be dangerous. The care with which you approach your subject, and the moment you choose to capture, says volumes about what you think and who you are.

A crisis moment for me early in my photojournalism career was covering a missing child. Along with most of the local media, I was at the family's farm while a search was being made of the surrounding area. While I was there, the child was discovered in a pond. He had drowned. Every photographer but me rushed to the family to capture the grieving parents. That was not a moment I was willing to capture. My feelings about death and privacy were at odds with my views as a journalist. Instead, I took a photograph of the man who had found the child. He was sitting in a field, being comforted by other searchers.

Right or wrong, what I brought to that moment was my viewpoint about death and the living. The family's suffering was understandable—they had lost a child. The suffering of this man, however, was unbelievably painful. His efforts to find the child alive had resulted in his gruesome, face-to-face confrontation with death. While the family had a place to put their grief, where could this man put his?

What we choose to photograph is not insignificant. We have an obligation not only to bring ourselves to the images we make, but to be the eyes of those not present. Empathy is the watchword, but sometimes it's better to walk away from an opportunity when the story we can tell isn't true to who we are.