"When I could look at the horror of Belsen – and think only of a nice photographic composition I knew something had happened to me, and it had to stop." - George Rodger, founding member of Magnum.
I would never compare myself with photographers like George Rodger.
Or, use the unimaginable horror of what happened at concentration camps like Bergen-Belsen as a lesson in photography — but Rodger's statement has both impact and meaning for a shift in the direction of my own work.
As it is for many photographers, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to learning technique.
Whether it is composition, lighting or camera techniques; I’ve read books, watched videos and taken classes. But to what end?
For all the attention that I’ve dedicated to learning technique, I’ve found my photographs have become superficial — perhaps, even, academic exercises.
Here’s an anecdote to help make my point.
I’m currently taking yet another course that will, no doubt, give me that final piece of the puzzle to make my photographs great. Yes, that is thinly veiled sarcasm.
The first task of the course is to print seven of my favourite images and analyze them. I was struggling to pick the photographs so I asked my fiancée which of my photographs she liked the best.
Before she answered I showed her the image below and said it was one of my favourites. Without even a pause she said it was a boring image. She then scrolled through my catalogue to find images I wouldn’t even consider in my top 40, let alone top seven.
I offered her a list of compositional reasons why this image was better; line, repeating elements, light and shadow, colour, rule of thirds. To me, even the act of creating this image made it better; I saw the potential of the scene and waited for the right moment for the subject to move into the light.
But, again, she said it was boring. It didn’t make her feel anything.
It was this idea of an image making the viewer feel something that made me question where I have been heading with my work.
I have missed making photographs that mean something because the light wasn’t perfect, or I didn’t have the right lens or camera. I’ve looked at the back of my camera repeatedly during a shoot to double check insignificant details and missed moments with my subject, all because I was obsessed with technique and creating photographs that ultimately don’t make the viewer feel anything.
Looking at this objectively, I’ve found myself in the trap many photographers fall into where the technique overpowers the heart of the image.
So what, if a photograph has compositional elements coming out the proverbial wazoo? Will that make your viewer care? Not likely.
Many of my photographs have become exercises in proving to the world that I know composition. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. We all need to practice and train our eye to see potential, this only elevates our work beyond the insta-masses.
But when we become so focused on technique and forget to make images that make people feel, well, then we need to forget the rules and shoot with our hearts; we need to make photographs that mean something.
Below is my most recent image from an ongoing project I mentioned in my last post. My intent with the project, titled Dismissed, is to discuss how women are treated by the medical system in Canada. I am still looking for more people to take part in the project and share their stories. Please get in touch if you, or any women you know, would be willing to take part.
I'll leave the description of the photo and project somewhat vague at the moment as the project is still evolving and taking shape.