Among the first words I said at an exclusive little photography workshop on the east coast last year were: “I don’t give a sh*t about your photographs.” They were not my best-chosen words ever. But I got their attention, and that’s always half the battle. The other half of the battle was trying to convince them I wasn’t a jerk and they hadn’t wasted their money coming all that way to listen to me. What I meant was, “I care so much more about you, the photographer, than any one technique you might learn or any specific image you might make this weekend.” I probably should have led with that.
Somewhere in the back of my head was a thought I was having a hard time expressing. Let me try again:
The real work of making photographs is not exposing and focusing your image well. That stuff is the price of admission. It is assumed. That’s just learning to use a camera and it’s not mastery, just a necessary first step. High school photography students nail that in one semester.
The real work, the labour of years, is in learning to tell a story, learning to cram a heart-full of emotion or a brain full ideas into our impossibly limited little frames. It’s in learning not to focus a lens but to focus attention. Learning to expose our souls, not just a negative. Learning composition, and how to play with balance, tension, line, shape, colour, selection of moment and gesture.
Add to that the ability to create a body of work, to make a great print, to wrestle with your creative process daily, and having the humility and determination to do it over and over again. It is learning to speak with a very specific kind of language to the people that read our images, and say things that matter.
It is connecting and engaging and worrying more about inspiring than being inspired. It is in understanding emotional range more than dynamic range. It is being open and receptive and patient. It’s not about the camera or the settings; it’s about the photographer. The most powerful tool of your craft is not your gear. It’s you.
This week I released The Photographic Story, How to Use Storytelling to Make More Powerful Photographs. If you’re at the point in your craft where you’re hungering for something more than “Nice capture, man” from the people who experience your work, this digital book and its companion video might be a great next step.
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