I spoke at Amazon yesterday in the middle of a whirlwind trip to Seattle. Had a great time, met some amazing people. To all of you who came and were so hospitable, thank you!
For those that didn’t come because, well, ahem, you weren’t invited because you don’t work at the Amazon mothership, this is what I said. Or planned to say before I spent 20 minutes just rambling instead. Use your imagination to insert 20 photographs that are almost entirely unrelated to the talk itself 🙂 These are just notes, so if you’re looking for brilliant writing, move along, there is nothing to see here.
I’ve spent the last 5 years traveling the world photographing the world, its people, their culture, and issues of physical and spiritual hunger. And I’ve been writing. By the time my third book, Vision & Voice, is out I will have released 3 books in just over one year. I’m tired!
But I’ve also been learning. Photographers are by nature observers. You can’t photograph what you first can’t see or experience.
Henri-Cartier Bresson said : Photography is nothing – it’s life that interests me. I resonate strongly with that, and I think my books reflect a similar feeling – that photography is not an end in itself but a means by which we see the world, interact with it, and say to the rest of the world, “look at this!” So in the spirit of that, I offer 5 things I’ve seen over the last 5 years.
1. There is an artist and a geek in all of us. One is the heart, one is the brain, and while they exist in different ways in all of us, one can’t get along without the other. The poet or artist is the passionate, emotional place in all of us. the geek is the one obsessed with email. Or a camera. Or lines of code. And they can live without each other, we are more whole and our work is better when they find balance. As a photographer my craft is tended to by the geek, but my vision is nurtured by the artist, my heart. When both are fully engaged I not only have more to say, with greater passion and urgency, but I have greater skills with which to say it.
2. It is our mistakes that fuel our successes. Our victories are the result of failing, making mistakes, and learning from those. No different with a camera in my hand. We love being safe. Traveling to safe places, taking safe photographs, never venturing too far from the beaten path into risk or experimentation. To grow as an artist, a chef, a writer, a computer programmer, we must learn to listen to the voice that whispers to us – WHAT IF? and be willing to fail and make more mistakes in the pursuit of those possibilities.
3. There is a profound difference between making a living and having a life. The subtitle of VisionMongers is Making a Life and Living in Photography, and it was so-named because the point of photography for those of us that are passionate about it, is not making money, it’s to do what we are passionate about and in so-doing to make enough money to keep doing what we love. The job of the artist, of the human being, is to do what we love and with it to make this world a brighter place, and then to sustain that. For some that might be leveraging skills as a photographer to make that living, but for others it might be working at Starbucks. But make no mistake about it, making a living and making a life are often not the same thing. But they can be.
4. Life is Short, Live with Intention. People get confused when I throw the word VISION around as much as I do, so I’ve taken to switching it out and using the word INTENTION. As photographers we are responsible for every element that finds itself in the frame of our image. If it’s there it’s because you put it there or chose to exclude it. Your vision or intention for the image drives what you include or exclude from the frame. You use a different lens to crop something out, you move here, you move there, you wait for the light to change. You have precious moments in which to do so. And so it is with life. You have a frame in which to tell your story, and a brief moment which in hindsight will seem like no longer than the blink that is 1/60th of a second. You can live with intention and vision and create a story within that frame that will endure, or you can let it happen to you, taking the odd snapshot along the way.
5. Leave the place better than you found it. Much of my commercial work is for groups like World Vision and Save the Children. I got my start in Haiti. But I am not a photojournalist. I show the world as it is, but chose also to show it as I have hope that it will be. My subject is hope. I chose to capture universal human emotions at their best, because strength, joy, hope, dignity, beauty, do not happen in the so-called first-world alone, and man is not defined by the circumstances into which he is born. When I was a kid my mother made me clean up the campsite after our summer weekends camping and I had to pick up cigarette buts and bottle caps that we had not left, but I learned a valuable lesson – leave it better than when you arrived. That is the goal of my photography, and as photography is the means by which I express my deeper values, it is the goal of my life. Whether you have a camera in your hand or not, remember that 20% of the world – that’s us – hoardes more than 80% of the world’s resources and the poor are not only out there in deepest darkest Africa. They are among us, live in the alleys and outskirts of our cities, and closer to home still the poor in heart, the downcast and the broken, live next to us, live with us. Our great poverty is not that we do not share, it’s that we often do not see them at all.
For those of you feeling a little disappointed that I didn’t fill my brief time with photographic wisdom instead of this artsy-fartsy stuff then instead of suggesting that your geek to artist ratio is wildly in need of re-alignment, I offer you this:
Know your craft.
Don’t compare yourself to others.
And don’t get so lost in the f-stops and ISO settings that you miss the point of it all – to discover and express your vision, one frame at a time.
“A better camera won’t do anything for you if you don’t have anything in your head or in your heart” Arnold Newman