I had a moment in Italy last month as I walked down cobbled streets looking at reflections in the canals of Venice, raising my camera once in a while to my face, feeling like I was in that state of flow that most creatives feel in their souls like a drug when it comes over them. That moment was a realization that for years the way I saw things as a photographer had become slightly uncalibrated, like I’d been looking at things in a mirror but the mirror had moved slightly off-axis and the things I looked at where not the things I saw. And the things at which I pointed the camera were not always the things I was actually trying to photograph.
My realization was this: too often I’d go out looking for photographs, and it wasn’t working. Something was off. The problem was this: the photographs weren’t there yet. I was looking for something that didn’t exist yet. The best photographs are an intoxicating mix of “Oh my God look at that!” (even when “that” is just a spark of an idea) and all the reactions and experiences to “that” that go on in our imagination before finally coming out into the world in a tangle of creative decisions we make with lenses, exposure, focus, and the geometry of the frame. No wonder, looking for that thing out there in the world before it’s even been made, there have been days when this was harder than it had to be. We have to first have that moment of revelation before we can find a photograph within it.
No, looking for photographs isn’t the point. It never really was, though I spent many hours and days doing so. The point is finding the magic: finding that thing that lights you up inside, that lights a spark in your curiosity, or makes you react in some way. You can get a million photographs in a million other ways, but the photographs that have magic in them, those are the ones that connect with people, and pass on some of the wonder to them. The world doesn’t just need more photographs. It needs more magic.
Magic is not always comfortable. It’s not always shiny and happy. For some photographers that magic is found in the heartbreaking honesty of their work, and of their subjects. For some it’s an unflinching look at our common humanity. I see magic in the work of James Nachtwey, and no one would mistake his work for being cheerful. So don’t mistake me for pushing you to the making of saccharine images. We have too many of those already. I’m just suggesting that if you look for the spark, and let that spark light a fire, you’ll – in the end – find better photographs. Because they’ll mean something. They’ll come from a deeper place and so speak to the deeper places in others.
Forget the word magic if you have to. I’ve already mentioned that “Oh my God, look at that” reaction we have as we move through the world. Find more of That. Wait for more of That.
This approach has freed me to enjoy what I do more now than I have in years. It has removed from my shoulders the burden of “taking photographs,” and replaced it with the freedom to play. To explore. To seek experiences and connections. In a way, and I’m speaking in metaphor here, it’s placed the burden of the finding – and the looking and the hunting- squarely on the shoulders of Life itself. I still need to go out and do my work. I need to show up with open eyes and open heart. But I do not need to find photographs. I just need to be open to the spark, the magic. And free from some of the angst and pressure to perform, it’s amazing how much more I see.
Maybe it’s just words. It could be that I’m just a slow learner, only now finding out what’s been self-evident for others all along. But this realization that my job – my privilege – is to just find (and share) the magic, has been illuminating. My job isn’t, in the strictest sense, to make photographs. It’s to go out and experience life as deeply as I can. Because that’s where the magic is. And if, on those days that the magic is there but I can’t find a way to put it into a photograph, I’ll at least have been there, breathing a little more deeply, looking with wider eyes, and not walking through some astonishing city but never really seeing it because I’ve got my head down looking for something that I haven’t yet made from an experience I haven’t yet had. Find the magic. Because if it doesn’t show up at all, no amount of waving your camera around, and no amount of tricky post-processing, is going to bring it back.
Share the Love, Tell the World.