Be Thou My Vision
One of my favourite Van Morrison songs is his cover of the Irish hymn, Be Thou My Vision. I love it as a hymn, as a meditation, as a reminder – whatever your faith – that vision ought to be bigger than us. Vision, despite what my over-use of the word might imply, is no magic thing. It’s not something that most of us can put a finger on, and it sure as heck isn’t something you can just pull out of your back pocket, screw to the front of your lens and shoot through to take the lousy out of your image.
Vision is bigger than that. It’s everything you think and feel and bring to your photograph. It’s your worldview, your experiences, your likes, dislikes, and your passion for those weird macrame owls, all rolled into one. You do not bring or not bring your vision to a scene – it brings you. It is you. That’s what gives your images the potential to be one of a kind, unique expressions of how you see the world. Vision is what you see and how you see it. And there’s but one of you on this planet. Nikon or Canon? Seriously? Who gives a damn? If you’re a photographer – and by that I mean you HAVE to shoot – if you don’t shoot, like the psalmist your bones would turn to wax and melt – then you could use an iPhone camera, or an old 110 point and shoot. Your vision is the asset that people should most be curious about, not your preferred focal length.
Whether we recognize that vision, whether our craft is equal to the task of expressing that vision, now those are the real questions. That’s why I am so hung up on the question Why. I don’t care which camera you use, I care why you use it, what you have to say to me. When I’m at home I don’t look at other images of India or places I’ve just been. I look at work that shows me something I don’t usually see, images that say “Did you see this?” and to which I can reply honestly, “I never have.” Show me more. Like this one. Or this one. Or this one. If I want to hear the same stories I myself tell visually, I can look at my own images. These open my eyes a little wider to the world I don’t already see. They engage me. Not once did it cross my mind to ask How they took them. If I’m distracted by the technique or the medium, the story’s not doing its job. I should be distracted by the photographs, not from them, in the same way that the writer of the hymn is essentially saying to God – distract me from all these distractions.
Vision is everything. Most damning of a photograph would be, not that someone doesn’t like it, but that they’re indifferent to it. A cliche. Something shot over and over and over again in the same way that others have shot it. Nothing new. Nothing unique. Nothing worth the exclamation mark at the end of, “Hey look at this!”
You have vision, sure as you have an opinion. Maybe we should move to another metaphor, another series of words. Afterall, using the term vision as metaphor for visual perception is not terribly clever. Perhaps we should go straight to it and call it what it is – opinion, thought, viewpoint (oops, another visual reference.) Ok, hang it all, I’m going back to the obvious stuff, heck I’m just going to restate it in different words. Don’t show me what you see. Show me how you see it.