Mixed Motives

We discussed, briefly, the concept of "amateur" versus "professional," concluding that the diminishment of amateur pursuits is a misunderstanding of what it means to have a creative and artistic impulse. We now turn to the more insidious problem of how the dismissal of the amateur poisons the creative self.

Erich Fromm was, among other things, a social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and humanistic philosopher. He maintained a clinical practice for more than 50 years, and in twenty-seven books he shared the theories he developed based on his observations. In Man for Himself, Fromm explains one of the fundamental impediments to embracing your creative self:

Modern culture is pervaded by a tabu on selfishness. We are taught that to be selfish is sinful and that to love others is virtuous.  . . . The view of man held by [Johannes] Calvin and [Martin] Luther has been of tremendous influence on the development of modern Western society. They laid the foundations for an attitude in which man's own happiness was not considered to be the aim of life but where he became a mean, an adjunct, to ends beyond him[.]

Man for Himself, at 119.

We see and experience Fromm's observations daily: from the promised rewards for a dedication to classroom schooling, the organization of promotion, salary, and bonuses at work, to the duties to family and country—all are imbued with making the self second to the group. Indeed, the Calvinist ideas have gone so far as to punish competing sports teams for "doing too well."

Everywhere we turn, our individual interests are discouraged, if not punished. The result is that only the shrill few express their thoughts, reinforcing the mistaken notion that one's beliefs and opinions are best kept to oneself.

The application of the "no-selfishness" philosophy is very apparent in photography. Photographs reveal what the photographer sees, and there is often a very large gap between photographs taken for oneself (as an expression of a surrealist idea) and photographs we take for others or which we believe others will see. I recently came across a glaring example in a Flickr stream: the photographer was quite good, with an eye for meaningful moments, and the technical skills to make pleasing final images. Except, however, when it came to images of his wife. Those images were flat. Worse than flat, they were lifeless. Arms at her side, a forced smile, a compelled pose. He had dozens of these poor images of his wife, alongside otherwise excellent images. What he revealed was his inability to risk the judgment of his wife by making any image of her other than a socially acceptable passport photo. This is a common problem, especially with our most available subjects—our family and friends.

We are photographers because we are true amateurs: we relate to the world through a camera, and we love the world we see. Unfortunately, our vision is too often obscured or edited by the societal prohibitions against that self expression. Where we perceive a risk of consequence by being judged "selfish," censorship follows, at best diluting—but more often eliminating—the benefits of our observation. Unchecked, we end up conflicted about doing the work we desire, and so instead we do that which we believe others will approve. With the accumulation of a banal body of work showing us that we aren't expressing what we know we see, we eventually lose the will to create. 

The solution is to be an amateur—always. The love of photography as a form of personal expression must be embraced as what it is: a method to allow your mind to emerge over time. No one image is significant unto itself. It's only through creating a body of work that we can discover the patterns of our interests. Art is a deeply personal exploration, and allowing the opinions and influences of others to degrade it is not only a disservice to ourselves, but to others as well. Images are frozen moments in time, but no one moment tells the entirety of our perspective. Accordingly, an individual image, however "unflattering" it may seem, is unimportant in the full story of our perspective. What is important is to continue to capture the moments that taken as a whole show our perspective. That others may not like or appreciate that perspective is not relevant: we are each individuals, and each entitled to every opportunity to fully explore ourselves. 

As Fromm eloquently puts our goal:

Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self. In spending his energy productively he increases his powers, he "burns without being consumed."

Man for Himself at 189.

So share with others your purpose in being a photographer, allow them their reactions and opinions, but do not let your own fear of being "selfish" stop you from engaging in the most important part of being a human: the inquiry into the self. Instead, use your photography to help others see how dynamic is your relationship with the world and you'll have the added bonus of helping them along their path.

Images of a subject over time reveal much more than a single image ever can. The value of photography is in that unique capability—the accumulation of individual moments.