Looking through the Eyes of the Photographer
I was wondering the other day about the reasons why we would want to look at photos? Sometimes photography can be so tough that you wonder why you do it in the first place? It costs a lot in terms of time, effort and money and all that you do is share it among millions of others contributing photos to the world-wide web each day. Last I checked was a staggering 1.8 billion photos uploaded daily. Imagine spreading out all these photos and scattering them to the sea, your photo is like a debris floating among the others, lost out at sea and it would be a rare thing that someone is going to pick yours out among the others; they just simply look like a big pile of papers. What is the point? The reason I thought about this is because I too am guilty of scrolling past all the photos in whatever media I am using and sometimes I stopped to look at something interesting for a second or two and I moved on. All that scrolling sometimes makes me wonder whether I am just numbing myself without any purpose. I bet this is what most do nowadays, there is just too much information overload and most of it are meaningless. The more you do this, the more you would like to find that something special; that somebody special who gives meaning to the art they produce rather than just contributing to the noise. Don’t get me wrong, this is not to dissuade you from doing photography, on the contrary it is for you to discover why and what you are doing photography for.
“As I have practiced it, photography produces pleasure by simplicity. I see something special and show it to the camera. A picture is produced. The moment is held until someone sees it. Then it is theirs.”
It is a funny thing the more I think about it. Most people won’t pay a single dime for art in any form if they have a choice and yet it is so irresistible that they would like to consume it as much as possible. Why is that so? It is simple—a world without art is a world without life. All art forms is really about life experiences and expression. If we were to stop and savor every piece of art rather than just mindlessly seeking the ceaseless flow of information, we would discover that the temptation of all art is really about feeding the connection to our soul and emotions. Why do we listen to music or watch a movie or look at an image? Better yet why do some music make us cry or a story becomes so engaging that it touches our heart? We all love a good story that others can tell us through their images, writings, music and movies. We want to experience life through others as a whole body of humanity, thinking of what is possible to others might also be possible for us. It is a necessity to experience that which we are unable to see and experience in our own lives; it is a yearning to break out of our constraining body and feel what the soul feels—it is a yearning to be free.
To some the word passion is overrated. To me it is the difference between how well you can touch another soul. It is especially important if the kind of art you do is in abundance. Moderate passion produces snapshot, insane passion produces masterpiece. It is a simple equation but very difficult to execute in reality. That is the reason why in all manners of discipline, you only get a couple of legendary figures that do their craft so well because they live, eat and breathe the thing they are doing. Life in general consists of many components and everything comes with a price. The dedication to your craft on the legendary level means you have to sacrifice a lot of other things on the side and majority of the people just can’t do it. Some of us have doe-eyed children lugging at our feet expecting us to put the camera down, if you drag the child with your feet, the wife starts coming at you. When you are working towards legendary status in anything, it is a guarantee that life will sent its curve-ball to hold you back. Passion on one end is selfishness and on the other end it can be the most noble and valuable thing you can do for others. How much you would invest in your craft is how much passion you have for it. It is always a choice. Remember the 10,000 hours thing? If you believe in it, you better start clocking if you want to be good at something. Without the passion, 10,000 hours is the most painful thing you can endure.
There is also an important distinction that will greatly affect your photography. Passion stems from the heart and technicalities is the domain of the mind. When the picture becomes all about technicalities, something in it dies. In my realization, I started doing photography simply because I wanted to document and contain the beauty that I see so I can share it with my friends. This interest and desire grew into the passion that made these body of works. As with any crafts, there will be the technical aspects that follows it. Most of us equate technical mastery as having the skills to execute it but this has nothing to do with the passion of doing it in the first place. There is a chance that while pursing technical knowledge and mastery, the purpose and passion is lost, or worse, forgotten. We run a full circle only to forget why we did it in the first place.
It is very easy to get lost in photography. Much of the challenge or lure of photography is that it is easy to pick up but difficult to master. This keeps it fresh and keeps the passion and learning going. Everybody loves a good challenge, if photography can be mastered in a day, we would get bored very easily but the human psyche tends to be lazy and would gravitate towards the path of least resistance. This search for short-cuts results in GAS for example. For those who don’t know, it is an abbreviation for Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It is basically the thinking that by acquiring better gear, you will immediately see an improvement in your photography. I am not saying that gear is not important, all I am saying is that getting entangled in all the technical aspects of the craft might give you good image quality but it has nothing to do with a good image. We all heard the saying that this photographer’s work is good because he has an expensive camera. We are in such an automated world that the car becomes more important than the driver. This brings me to another aspect of the craft—critiques.
Passion stems from the heart and technicalities is the domain of the mind.
In fair honesty, most people who give critiques start with good intentions. The point of all critiques is to hopefully help the artist improve. I am not sure where and when critique started in the history of art and I have my fair share of it ever since the first time I took up art. In universities, we would just pin our work on the white board and let the lecturer tear them to shreds. Honestly, it is stupid. All it does is to make people feel so bad that they have to forget why they ever did it in the first place. It kills passion. The main reason for this is art is subjective. Yes there are some basic rules that constitute a good image and if you agree that art is a way of expression, you are going to find people who agree and disagree with you no matter what you do. I enjoy watching photography critiques but they are pretty much for entertainment, I don’t treat them seriously. If you get more than 2 person on the critique panel, you are going to find that most of the time they end up having differing opinions and that’s just the way it is. A photo might look like gold to some and crap to another. These critiques are more commonly based off technicalities, very rare would it be based on artistry. Remember there can only be one truth, if there are differing opinions, most probably it is not the truth. Looking at your own work through the filter of another eyes is a bad way for self-expression. The work should be through your own eyes and your own emotions, seeking approval is not the way to genuine creativity; it is just a way of seeking fame but if that is what you want, by all means be a crowd-pleaser. Know this though, it is impossible to please everyone and at the end of the day it will definitely lead you down the road of forgetting your passion because it is not why you do it anymore; it becomes what others want you to do. When you follow the masses, your work will pretty much look the same as everybody else who are trying to do the same thing.
A more practical suggestion is to look at the artist’s work that you like. Get to know yourself and the reasons why you like their work. Build up your artistic preferences and keep practicing the craft in your own way. If you do it enough, your own style would eventually emerge. There is no need for critiques to tell you how bad you are. If your work is bad, you would eventually find out for yourself.
I enjoy watching singing competitions such as The Voice of China that is currently trending in Asia. The funny thing is that I keep hearing some competitors say,”music can never be used for competing.” I too believed that art shouldn’t be a competition and I wonder why the participants are there then, since it is a singing competition. I am not so much into the competition thing but I am moved by the stories of the various artist, some who have dedicated and struggled through many years of their lives just so they can perform for a few minutes on stage. People who have come alive and dedicate their lives to their purpose and passion are what touches me, they seems to be in the minority nowadays. Imagine sacrificing so much just so you can perform for others. In a way that is what photographers do, they go through all the tough work so that they can serve up an image for your enjoyment. Another thing that I have noticed currently in the singing industry is that a big part of it is all about singing techniques. When you listen to a lot of pop songs, after a while they tend to sound the same because the techniques are the same. When that happens, you start to miss music from a much earlier time where the singing is basically very straight-forward and filled with raw emotions. It makes you cry without using a lot of techniques. The song simply pierces into your heart and entices you into the story. You experience it simply through the rhythm and lyrics. It feels like the singer didn’t need to try so hard to impress and yet it is impressive. It is like pouring all sorts of sauces into the salad but what you really need are simply the vegetables. Too many ingredients spoils the broth.
So how does this idea affect our photography?
The way I see it is to go back to the basics, the fundamentals of why we click that shutter in the first place. We want to take a picture of something that interest us so much so that we can either relive the memories or share it with someone. Before photography became so popular, thanks to the modern technology of our times, the purpose of the camera is simply to take pictures of our loved ones, our travel experiences or just to document someone’s life. I still remember those instant cameras with a limited number of clicks where every frame is so valuable and the joy of holding the memories in your hand after the film had been processed. It wasn’t about the camera or the techniques those days, it was about the precious moments that will not happen again the way it is. It was about a slice of time in your life. The most valuable thing then is about having a glimpse of someone’s life through the eyes of the photographer—it is about the sharing of experiences. It is not about high ISOs, low-light performance, ultra fast auto-focus and ten-thousands of megapixels. They mean nothing if you cannot produce a picture that contains a wonderful moment for you. I do love gears, which photographer don’t? Just realize that they are tools to play with and they are useless if you don’t go out there and live and capture your experiences. I can use a 2B pencil to sketch a black and white drawing and sometimes it is nice to add some color pencils to the repertoire if you can afford it but ultimately it is still about the image itself. Nobody is going to look at your tool, what everyone craves is the experience—the experience of seeing what you see. This to me is the plain and simple purpose of photography.
So when you look at a picture, I hope that you can see it through the eyes of the photographer. You will learn to appreciate it better.
This is Part 3 of the Photography is Life series, link to Part 1 is here.