Making good connections

Technical knowledge in some form – at least on a basic level – should sit at the core of your photography practice, in my opinion. Do you know about shutter speed? Aperture? ISO? But the funny thing is, if you answered yes to even just one of those, then you’re pretty much good to go. Seriously.

So if it’s not technical prowess, then what is it? A bit cliché, I know, but it’s all about the connections.

There are a lot of really talented photographers, and there are even more photographers. I’m a photographer in Berlin. So are thousands of other people. Sure, different photographers have specific styles or types of photography in which they specialize. But there’s a ton of overlap between individual photographers that all excel in the same area/s.

(Enter the next cliché)

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” It’s true of many vocations, but I think especially true in the world of freelance photography. You don’t even necessarily need to know the person who’s hiring you, but it sure helps if you know a person who knows that person.

So my advice? Meet (relevant) people whenever and wherever you can, and be a nice person in the process. Don’t be afraid to make it known that you’re a photographer. That way, when someone is looking for a photographer, you can already be in the top of their mind and at least have a chance at being considered for the commission/job/project.

The imitation game, or, On Selling Out

I wouldn’t say you should completely scrap your own vision, but in my experience, you need to “sell out” to a certain extent if you want to keep up with the game. People like what they’ve seen before, what they’re familiar with. People like trends. Everything today is connected, and to stay relevant you need to tap into that interconnectedness.

So how does one follow a trend, you ask? Here’s an “in-depth” guide:

Step 1: Inform yourself: follow photographers you look up to /vibe with on Instagram, along with giant reposting accounts, and see what they’re doing and what they’re posting.

Step 2: Take a specific trend you find. Something that you notice recurring across multiple accounts. Now imitate it, but with your own fresh take. Or in other words, just shoot what you’d shoot anyway and work in the trend somehow.

Step 3: When the trend becomes irrelevant, get out of there and go back to Step 1.

If you’re looking to go more in the direction of artistic/independent photography, then you might have to work a bit harder at forging your own path, and keep expectations low in terms of recognition for your efforts, since your work might never catch on or become widely known. That’s when it’s most important to learn how to be satisfied with your work.

Trends are like the gentrification of originality in photography

Please, don’t take this as me being overly cynical. It’s simply my observation on originality in photography, specifically in the age of Instagram. But in a weird way, the way trends currently work is kind of like gentrification.

In the classic example of gentrification, struggling artists put up shop in a less desirable neighborhood because it’s cheaper there. Then, after a decade or so, once the artists have adequately fertilized the soil, the investors swoop in to buy up properties, make renovations, attract the young and cool (read: wealthy) crowd, and in effect, kick out the people who helped build up the neighborhood in the first place (along with all of its original inhabitants).

The analogy to trends in photography is fairly direct, albeit on a compressed timeline: an individual photographer, or a group of photographers – typically more artistically-oriented – begins playing with a certain technique, style, aesthetic, or whatever. This approach gains traction, and before you know it we’ve got a trend on our hands, ripe for the picking. Generally at this point, large companies and/or more commercially-oriented photographers take notice, the trend spreads like wildfire, and the original creators leave the trend behind and move on to greener pastures.

The beauty/horror of it all is that no one can really claim a trend. Obviously someone somewhere started it, but with so much interconnectivity thanks to Instagram/the Internet these days, it’s usually difficult to pinpoint where it actually began. And even if you think you’ve found the source of the latest trend, there’s probably an even earlier origin story that served as inspiration. After all, nothing is really new or original in photography.

Nothing is new or original

A bit nihilistic maybe, I know. For real, though, at this point in history it’s just a numbers game. Once you get to the point of having multiple-billions of humans running around on the planet (we’ve been there for a while), how can anything possibly have not been done before?

Obviously this applies to photography as much as anything else, and I think it’s becoming even more pronounced for two widely-known reasons.

First, billions of people now have cameras, even if just simple ones on the back of their phones.

Second, the Internet has enabled photo sharing platforms to flourish. Instagram alone has well over one billion active monthly users at this point.

Give billions of people with cameras the opportunity to see photos taken by billions of other people, and it’s not hard to figure out what will happen in terms of idea exchange. I’m not saying that it’s inherently a bad thing; on the contrary, I think the future of humanity depends on collaboration between everyone everywhere. It’s just that it does kind of kill the romantic notion of something original being created.

So I think the best thing is to just accept the fact that nothing is really new or original. Like really deep down, come to terms with it. It should actually help to take off a lot of pressure to create some crazy new thing, leaving space to instead acknowledge what exists and create something iterative from there.

“When it rains, it pours.”

The old saying holds true in the life of a freelance photographer. She or he is also subject to that age-old cyclical flow from famine to plenty and back again, as much as any human in days gone by.

As such is the case, take what you can get when it’s raining and do your best with it, and store up for the drought that might be lurking just around the corner. Don’t get cocky when things are going well, and don’t get discouraged when you’re waiting for the next job. Ideally, both the frequency and duration of dry spells will decrease as your career progresses. And if you’re lucky enough to reach that point, please don’t take it for granted.

P.S. I’m writing this between rainy seasons, with the advice for myself as much as for anyone else.

How to be satisfied with your work

You can try to chase down clients.
You can try to chase down fame.

But at the end of the day, if you succeed with either of those two routes to “success” in photography, you’re only trapping yourself. You’ll subsequently be at the mercy of clients, or a fickle fanbase. You might have money, or fame, or both – but you lose control of your own daily choices and, in effect, your life.

The only way to truly be satisfied with your work is to do what you want to do when you want to do it, and do it first and foremost for yourself. If something more comes of it, or if you get paid for it, or if other people like it, then great. And if not, well, hey – at least you spent time doing something you like doing and honing your craft while you were at it.

The paradox of objectivity and subjectivity in photography

For a photograph to exist, a moment in time had to exist to be captured. Of course, a photograph can be manipulated to have details added or subtracted, or its properties can be altered and adjusted to make the image look or feel a certain way. But photography as a practice is rooted in reality, and therefore it can be said that photography is objective. You can confidently point to a photograph and say, “This is the way it was.”

Paradoxically, though, photography is also extremely subjective. Who or what do you take a photo of? At what time? From which angle? Which details do you include in the frame, or exclude from it? What kind of camera do you use? Lens? Lighting? Photoshop and Lightroom aside, a photograph might show the way things were within the frame at one specific moment in time, but it can never communicate a complete picture of what was going on. A series might begin to fill in some of the gaps that a single photograph leaves, but even a series or a book will be edited to take the viewer in a certain direction, ultimately creating a type of selective reality that the photographer wants the viewer to experience visually.

In summary: photography portrays brief moments of objective historical reality, albeit through the inherently subjective viewpoint of the photographer. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with this, but it does need to be acknowledged and kept in mind, and in the end embraced by photographers who want to create powerful imagery.

It’s a nice photograph, but it doesn’t really say anything

It doesn’t really say anything or It doesn’t tell a story are phrases I’ve heard many people say as they’re critiquing photos, typically as justification as to why a photograph shouldn’t be used in a certain context. At best, such a phrase is a polite way for a person to express genuine dislike of a photograph even though he or she cannot at the time fully enunciate the reasons for such dislike. At worst, it can be used as a cop-out to dismiss a photograph without going through a critical discussion or evaluation of the photograph in question.

Some photographs require more context than others in order for the viewer to extract meaning, and it could certainly be argued that such photographs are less useful in specific commercial use-cases. The opposite statement is also true: photographs that require less context for the viewer to extract meaning can be more useful for specific commercial use-cases. Put simply, different situations require different photographs, and in that way, some photographs are “better” than others.

The bottom line, though, is that every photograph says something, and to say or think otherwise does a disservice to the practice of photography. A photograph is literally a (very) brief moment in space and time, captured and preserved indefinitely in the form of an image. Some photographers might be more adept at capturing the right moment in time and space, at composing and framing the image, or at providing context for the photograph (or, selling themselves as “storytellers,” of which there certainly are a lot these days — but that’s for another day), but it’s impossible to deny the story behind a photograph — you just have to be willing to listen in the first place.

Take the above photograph. It’s a good example of a throwaway photograph that nevertheless has a few stories to tell. One is the generic story that the photograph conveys without any context other than the image itself. Most people can probably relate to the image portrayed here: a dog running along a beach. Anyone who has ever seen a dog at the beach will know the scene: a happy dog darting rapidly back and forth along the water’s edge — so rapidly, in fact, that the dog is completely out of focus in this particular image. Such a blatant technical imperfection would normally detract from a photograph, but in this case, the subject being out of focus can actually be seen to add to the story, as it accurately conveys the idea of the dog entering the frame for only a split second before exiting, causing the mistake on the part of the photographer.

A second story would be more specific, intimate, and personal, and it requires a firsthand account from the photographer’s perspective. In this case, that was me, and I could tell you many more background details about how this photograph came to be, adding layers to its story in the process – the drive across the Upper Peninsula, stopping to see old growth pine forests and eat pasties along the way, the family and their dog that we met at the edge of Lake Michigan. Naturally, such details are likely to be more useful in artistic or personal contexts than they are for commercial use, but that shouldn’t reduce their significance. Photography will always contain an element of personal narrative and memory. After all, it is people that make photographs.

So before you say, this photo doesn’t really say anything and move on, first make sure that you’re truly listening.

Understanding a Photograph

Lately, I’ve been reading through the book Understanding a Photograph by John Berger.

The title of the book is both accurate and deceiving. Mr. Berger does, in fact, address a number of photographs. However, the compilation of his various writings — while centered around photography — in reality represent deep and thoughtful ponderings over wide-ranging topics (primarily, social/political issues, and predominantly from a moderately left-leaning, intellectualist point-of-view).

Because it’s more philosophical than technical in nature, the book has really stimulated thought of my own, as well as quite a bit of self-reflection regarding my own photographic pursuits. I’m not going to write a full review (I haven’t even finished the book yet), but I do plan on writing some of my own thoughts now that I’ve been “inspired.” Stay tuned.

Special thanks to Devan Grimsrud for buying Understanding a Photograph for me.