How connecting with the person behind the image gives us much more of an appreciation for the photographs they make.
As an experienced photography “judge” on the camera club circuit, I was recently referred to someone seeking advice about her photography. My instinct was not to say anything immediate about the photographs she sent me. How would you approach it?
In her words: “… my friend convinced me that I might have some ability for taking photographs, which has led to a wish to educate myself to some degree. I have never had formal training and haven’t a clue how to start.”
When I critique pictures for clubs I am giving an instant appraisal about the technical and expressive quality, but I am not able to know anything of the photographer; hence my general aversion to judges’ comments that try to get inside the photographer’s head (despite the benefits of empathy), and my determination to give a personal response that is grounded in my own interpretation.
But when this opportunity arose to give a personal critique, I felt I had to know more. Therefore I started by asking some questions: “What it is that excites you about the world, gets your emotions running or ‘juices flowing’? Can you relate that to what you like making photographs of?”
Her response was more than enthusiastic. She wrote: “… in no particular order: Experiencing new things excites me, anything from travelling the world … to having a baby, loving relationships, being out in the countryside, reading a good book, achieving a sense of balance in my life, meeting interesting people, creating (anything), meditative exercise (yoga, swimming), great food and wine.“I sensed someone who is very connected with the world, who appreciates the experience of every moment.
She went on to say: “When I take photographs it is mainly to satisfy the need in me to create something. I want my photographs to be beautiful and balanced. The hard part is trying to explain what I find beautiful and balanced. I don’t know that I can do it. I love colourful photographs or photos that invoke some emotion in me. I am also incredibly impatient, so my photographs are all brief moments in time. There is not a lot of planned thought behind it. I see something I like, then I try and find the most interesting but balanced view of what I am looking at. ”
Her response gave me a buzz, because her obvious zest for life will take her 90% of the way to being a fine photographer.
I meet many enthusiast photographers whose interest in photography is for its own sake, and hence have no real emotional investment in the subjects that they capture. Their images are often mundane or emotionally still, even if technically excellent. However, anyone with a love of life will connect with the world around them in a meaningful way – and be able to reveal that through photography. It is a powerful medium.
I believe that the best photography comes from the heart, from within us somewhere at a sub-conscious level, and in that sense it reveals much of who we are. This photographer said that she wanted her photographs to be beautiful and balanced, and as she seeks that in life, so she is already bringing some of her soul to the creative process. Explaining what it means to be beautiful and balanced is unnecessary if the photographs reveal it.
The author Julia Cameron describes art as “an act of tuning in … as though all the stories, painting, music, performances in the world live just under the surface of our normal consciousness.” When we are in the present moment, open and spontaneous, so images often reveal themselves to us when we are least expecting them. The harder we look, the less we see.
With an insight into the person and the heart behind the images then, I felt that I could appreciate them more deeply, taking the time to appreciate her style for what it is.
I am glad I followed my instincts, for it revealed to me how there is even more scope for critical appraisal and coaching than I thought possible, leaving far behind the formulaic and very limited approach of most club judging. It was a true privilege. And how disappointing that the only appraisals most amateur photographers receive are single-image comments in the camera club competition.
To conclude then; what is the soul that drives your photography, and how would you feel to receive an appraisal that appreciated you as well as the image?
… Ken Scott