I’m in Melbourne right now – my first time to Australia, and my 50th country. I’m speaking at the Nikon AIPP, an incredible convention filled with some wonderful people. Yesterday I gave the keynote address that opened the conference; it’s a fearful task to inspire people at 8:30am. It was a presentation I’ve been obsessing over for a couple weeks and it was good to stretch myself, to risk, to wrestle with the fear again. It’s too easy in the creative life to find the little pockets of ease and comfort and hide out there. This article comes out of that presentation.
A couple years ago the number being floated around about photographs on the internet was this: 1.8 billion images a day were being shared on social media channels. All of them showing us what every minute corner of the world looks like. It is safe to say that there is little – if anything at all – that remains to be shown. Do a Google search for any conceivable thing, place, or person and there’s a good chance you’ll get more images than you can use. This used to be the job of photographers, particularly the so-called professionals: to illustrate. To show the world what it looked like.
In order to show the world what it looked like the photographer had to use a rather technical means, had to understand the physics, the chemistry, the optics. Owning and using the gear required was not easy. This was the means by which the photographer accomplished his craft and remained relevant. And that, for generations was the task of most photographers – to use complicated gear to show the world what it looked like.
Can you see where this is heading? Something only has value when it’s needed. When it’s scarce. And you can say neither about the use of the camera nor the need for more illustrative images of a world in which 2 billion photographs are shared, not to mention the ones not shared, every day. Before you despair or rush to the ramparts to defend this craft, let me say that I believe more than ever in the value and need for photographs. It just isn’t where it once was, in illustration.
The extraordinary opportunity now available to photographers is not illustration but interpretation. Of course there have been photographers for the entire short history of the craft that have done this, transcended craft and made art, showing the world not only what it looked like, but what it felt like, and – to some degree – what meaning could be found there. But they have been fewer. We need them now more than ever.
This is where we will find relevance. The world already knows what it looks like. It has seen itself from every angle. What it needs now, more than ever is to see itself in new ways. Ways that give it hope. Ways that don’t let us flinch and look away when we see the bits we don’t like. Ways that show us, also, the beauty. Ways that engage us and stir our imaginations. We need photographers now to stop seeing their cameras as their tools. They aren’t. The tools of a photographer are the tools of visual language, just as the true tool of the writer is not the keyboard but the words themselves, all of them combinations of the same 26 letters. The magic of the writer comes not in her ability to pound the keys but to form words and sentences that say something, that transport us, that stir imagination, that light a flame in our heart. It is not that they can write something, it’s that they have something to say.
Our photographs may be worth a thousand words, they might not be worth the paper upon which the words are written: what matters is what is said. So why are photographers so late to pick up on this? Well, for one, they aren’t. Not all of them. We have a rich history of people, both men and women that have used the camera with such courage. But for what is arguably the vast majority of photographers it is this: it takes guts to put yourself out there. It takes risk. It takes having an opinion in the first place and it takes an attention to the soul of things that is so much harder than just learning the Zone system. Our history is full of voices telling us to shoot not what it looks like but what it feels like. It’s time we paid even more heed to these voices.
It’s very, very noisy out there. The noise is only getting worse. And the only way to cut through that noise is with signal: with something to say. And the more human that thing is, the more it will connect, because that humanity and connection is the rarest of commodities. Our calling, as my friend John Paul Caponigro reminded me recently in an article he wrote on Abstraction is so much more than craft: “there is a world of difference between focusing a lens and focusing attention.” To do this we need to experience the word deeply, to live and love deeply, to commit to something, to open our eyes so wide it hurts. Vision, as Jonathon Swift reminded us, is the ability to see what is invisible to others. The calling of the photographer is to see the invisible and to show it to the world, and those are the things we see not with our eyes so much as with our heart.
I don’t know how you’re going to do it, the “how” has been the struggle of every artist for as long as art has stirred in the human heart and imagination. But I do know that for most of us, if we want to be heard, we need to find a way to dig a little deeper, we need to expose our hearts and souls more than we expose our film or sensor. We can’t show the world what it feels like until we feel the world deeply ourselves and have the courage to share that. That is how we cut through the noise. That’s how we remain relevant. The world knows what it looks like. It’s time to go deeper.
Share this Post, Share the Love.