What are our photos saying? What is their real subject?
Things have changed a lot since I first started playing with a camera, almost four years ago. I took a lot of bad shots. Felt tired and discouraged. Searched and experimented. Had small breakthroughs. Found myself in the right place at the right moment. Had moments of inspiration. Had tons of time with no inspiration. Had no time.
Then there was the whole rest of life. You know, the life that takes you for a ride that is sometimes slow and boring, some other times crazy and lighting fast.
The distinction between snapshots, postcards and photography is not meant to lecture anybody on what “real” photography is. Everybody photographs what the hell they want. Different subjects and styles makes sense to different people. There’s more than enough lecturing and dogmatism out there. I don’t want to add to it.
However, I think some differences matter. I’ve been around the photography world long enough to have a sense of what good, meaningful photography is. And what it is not.
Snapshots are the fast food of photography. It’s what you usually find on people’s smartphones, but there is also a lot of snapshot photography done with advanced and expensive cameras. There’s nothing wrong with snapshots, my phone is also full of them. They record moments of our lives. What can become annoying, at least for me, is the pretense of doing photographic work and presenting it as such.
If snapshots are a bit like fast food, postcards are like an expensive meal that you cannot really enjoy unless you talk about it to all your friends. It’s the chasing of spectacular places or subjects. It’s the kind of photography that generates countless almost identical shots of the same subjects photographed from the same angle. When I was still on Instagram account, I remember following an account that was posting collages of such similar photos. Depending on your mood, watching these can be either funny or depressing.
It goes without saying that there’s nothing wrong with photographing spectacular places. I wouldn’t have known about many of them without such easy access to postcard photography. Again, what is troubling is the pretense of depth and storytelling when all is offered, in the best case, is good technique. Sharp focus and good color editing are to be appreciated, but they do not replace or compensate for the lack of photographic vision and narrative.
The kind of photography I like (and aspire to do) tends to be personal and honest. Personal means that it’s based on a personal interest, problem, obsession. It’s not reducible to what others have done or to what others expect and like. Honest means that it does not try to pass as something which it’s not, or to take advantage of its subject.
Personal does not mean self-centered. Honest does not mean that we limit our creativity to showing only “what’s really there”. What counts is the photographer’s intention in taking a photograph. Is it meant to promote him or her? Or is it meant to uncover, explore, protect, honor something beyond us?
What are our photos really saying? Is it “look where I am right now”, “look who is posing for me”, or “check out how skillful I am with these highlights and shadows”? Or is it a way of documenting something bigger than ourselves, a way of disappearing in the shadow of a story that is worth telling?
As with everything else in life, things can be done in a way that continuously comes back to us, that is essentially about showcasing and congratulating ourselves. Or they can be done in a way that tries to witness, respect and honor the persons and stories we come across.