I wrote a book called Vision & Voice. This is not about that. This is about the constant stream of questions I hear that all share a similar quest fuelled by a similar desperation. The questions all centre on one recurring desire: the longing to find your voice photographically.
I have tried, in my way, to answer the question creatively, given the myriad places from which so many people begin that quest, and from where they ask the question. I have also, unknowingly, skirted one obvious and uncomfortable answer.
Could it be that so many of us struggle in vain to find our voice because we have nothing meaningful to say?
As I write this I’m coming off a too-ambitious quartet of back-to-back flights from Mafia Island to Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to Dubai to Delhi. I’m tired, and I’m one whisky in to an evening in Delhi that’s been set aside to answer blog questions, write this article, and catch up with things at home after a week of almost non-existent wifi. And so it could be that this comes without my usual finesse. But that’s probably a good thing. Sometimes the more direct approach is the kindest.
What photography needs in order to become more than simply a craft, a means to say things, is – desperately – the things about which we have something to say. Without that we are not artists. We are not poets. We are not storytellers. We are technicians. And no talk of finding our voice will rescue our craft from the uninspiring – and uninspired – role it too often has. All artifice, no art. And no impact. None.
What photography needs is photographers who have a pulpit to stand on, meaningful questions to explore, beauty to reveal, injustice to expose. It needs hearts already moved by some pressing, human, thing. It needs minds set in motion by curiosity and rigour. The megapixels, on this level, are irrelevant. I suspect daVinci never wished he’d used a larger canvas for the Mona Lisa. I doubt Monet ever wished his images were sharper, more literal. Poets don’t ever strive for greater clarity at the expense of beauty or power. Those things become irrelevant in the face of touching hearts and minds with something important.
It’s important to find your voice, to discover the unique way in which you yield the camera. But that’s secondary to this: what do you want to say? What is so important to you that you want to work this craft like a rented mule, over and over again, until it says it right? What’s so important to you that you pass it on to others in your generation with pleading and the desperate hope that they hear you? Is your life so long that you have time to do anything else?
Find that. If you find your voice too, that’s icing. If all you manage, as I so often fear I’m doing, is to stammer and stutter, then do so. But don’t mistake eloquence for relevance. The heart and imagination will take a human story, true, beautiful, raw, and vulnerable, imperfectly expressed, any day over a perfect expression that signifies nothing, that has no spark.
The most important thing in the world to you. Begin there. Tell the deepest, truest, thing you can. The thing that keeps you up at night, drives you to tears, makes you erupt with head-thrown-back laughter. Only then worry about how well you tell it. Until you figure that out, all the talk in the world about megapixels and sharpness and frame rates and bokeh, is just a self-indulgent geek-wank. The heart has never in all the history of poetry or story-telling, given a flying f*ck about the rest.
Voice is a counterfeit, a fraudulent distraction from the one thing that will change your photography, your writing, or any other thing you do with these quickly-passing bays: vision. A way of seeing. A thing to say. Find that. The rest will follow.
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