Be Yourself and Forget Yourself


In photo workshops that I teach I often talk about the necessity to give of yourself in the photographic process. This is most evident in photographing people when you try to establish a report between you and whoever you are photographing. In the meeting between the two of you, you need not only be a photographer, but a human being as well. Take the photograph above. In order to capture the photograph of the young Nuer woman from South-Sudan I needed to establish contact and some sort of trust with her. I had to show myself as the person I am and in some way or another give something back to her in this encounter – making it an exchange between human beings. However, also for at landscape photograph to feel genuine you need to put yourself completely into the process. Otherwise it will most likely become an uninspiring and characterless photo.

So on one hand it’s absolutely essential to be yourself and put yourself into the photographic process – if you want to create captivating images and images that radiate your photographic voice. If not, the photos you take will become nothing but a depiction of whatever you have in front of the camera. They will not be of much interest for anyone but yourself.

On the other hand, though, a photo is usually not about you (well, if it’s not a selfie or a self-portrait, of course). Thus, it shouldn’t accentuate you and become more about the photographer than whatever is being photographed. Your intent with the photograph is not – or shouldn’t be – showing off yourself, but conveying a message or telling a story through the subject you choose to photograph. In other words, in the photographic process, there is a balance between being yourself and concealing yourself. This is not something that is unique for photography, however. When you think about it, it’s really just like any story being told. A good and well articulated storyteller makes the story more interesting for the audience, but the story is still not about the storyteller himself or herself.

The renowned and late photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said in an interview given in the 70’s that: «You have to forget yourself. You have to be yourself and you have to forget yourself so that the image comes much stronger — what you want by getting involved completely in what you are doing and not thinking. Ideas are very dangerous. You must think all the time, but when you photograph, you aren’t trying to push a point or prove something. You don’t prove anything. It comes by itself.»

Cartier-Bresson’s statement is another way of articulating this balance of being present and at the same time holding back yourself from the spotlight. Or – as he said; to get completely involved and not thinking. It’s a difficult balance, as it’s very easy to commit to one or the other, but not both at the same time. You have to exert yourself and tell the story the way only you can tell it – and in so doing making it a unique story. At the same time you have to pull yourself out of the story and not become self-conscious, so that it doesn’t become a story about you and for example your successful photography (or attempt to be successful). In a way you need to invest your emotions into the process, but not brag about it. Does this make sense?

In the same interview Henri Cartier-Bresson said: «What is important for a photographer is involvement. It’s not a propaganda means, photography, but it’s a way of shouting what you feel. It’s like the difference between a tract for propaganda and a novel. Well, the novel has to go through all the channel of the nerves, the imagination, and it’s much more powerful than something you look at and throw away. If a theme is developed and goes into a novel, there is much more subtlety; it goes much deeper.»

Photography should radiate emotions but not become propaganda for yourself – to paraphrase Cartier-Bresson once again. How is it possible? I think each of us have to find our own way of balancing these conflicting approaches to photography. What do you think about this? Is it a balance at all? Or I am just making it up? If not – how do you navigate this balance?

By the way; the two quotes were taken from an interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson, published on Lens Blog by New York Times about two years ago. The interview was called «There are no maybes» and was a follow-up of a first interview called Living and Looking. The story behind the interview is interesting in and of itself. They were done by Sheila Turner-Seed in 1971 but never published or broadcasted to the public. Only about 30 after her death did her daughter come across the tapes of the interview with Cartier-Bresson. It was then subsequently published on NY Times Lens Blog.


86 thoughts on “Be Yourself and Forget Yourself

  1. To be completely involved but not thinking is not easy to do. One must have a lot of prior knowledge under your belt before you can do this. Same in drawing. When it all comes together and it works – that is something to smile about.

  2. Superb article Otto. Some difficult concepts to grasp and employ for photographers starting out I think but something that comes and develops with time I believe. To work on basic technical knowledge so that the exposure trinity is second nature is a huge step on the way to achieving this I think. I was lucky, being a keen SLR photographer in my early teens, when I picked up my DSLR three years ago, this essential skill was already second nature.

    1. I think you are quite right in that finding this balance I am talking about is easier when you know your exposure trinity – as you called it – by heart. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Adrian.

  3. Hi Otto. You are a natural nurturer, and wonderfully encouraging in the art of taking pictures. I became interested in photography late in the game, where new equipment, technology, and high tech photo processing were all thrown at me at once. I’m still trying to sort it out, and while the dust is settling I’m beginning to find myself in terms of becoming a photographer. I don’t think I make it about myself, but I do become very self conscious when I’m out and about behind the lens. The emphasis that is placed on achieving the perfect, sharp, sparkly image is overwhelming. Your post is another good lesson in the importance of relaxing and finding flow. If I could apply the art of balance I’ve found in my life to photography, I’d be in much better shape! My goal is to be able to simply capture a beautiful scene that moved me, and translate those emotions through my photograph. Working on it! Thank you for inspiring, and a happy week to you.

    1. The more you photograph the more the technical part of picture capturing becomes second hand and more like a reflex. And then it’s much easier to relax and just be able to capture you emotions, translated through images. Thank your for a very thoughtful comment and for sharing your experience, Elisa.

      1. Thank you for your support, Otto. Also, I failed to mention the striking portrait you took of the South-Sudanese woman. Your shot captures not only her beauty, but of the slight uncertainty of having her picture taken by a stranger. It’s really quite wonderful!

  4. Bellissimo articolo Otto. Io non sono brava con i ritratti, ma di una cosa sono sicura, fare le foto mi deve divertire, altrimenti diventano scatti senza anima, freddi!! Forse chi guarda le mie foto non percepisce nulla a livello emozionale, ma spero comunque di riuscire a trasmettere emozioni, come ne ho provate io nel fare la foto!!
    Un caro saluto, Pat

    1. Sono d’accordo con te, scattare foto dovrebbe essere divertente. E credo che quando si investe le vostre emozioni nel processo fotografico, le tue foto saranno trasmettere quelle emozioni. Grazie per aver condiviso i tuoi pensieri, Patrizia.

  5. What a very thoughtful and insightful post – I love the idea of a photograph ultimately being an exchange between human beings, and I’d really love to learn to have the emotional confidence to take such intimate portraits of people, so thank you again for the inspiration to keep trying 🙂

  6. Sanna och tänkvärda ord, som vanligt…och ett underbart porträtt som säger mer än tusen ord:)
    Hoppas att du har en fin vår, varhelst på vårt klot du än befinner dig!

  7. You have clearly succeeded here Otto as your picture really does tell a story – a face so beautiful, questioning, expressing her emotions….to you and your lens. It’s a great picture – one I would be very proud of.

  8. Your post came at a good time, Otto. I’m in the process of figuring out how much of myself I need to reveal in the book I’m writing. Conclusion: as much as the balance allows. How do we know instinctively when to take a step back or push forward? I believe in the balance you describe and in the ideas proposed by Henri Cartier-Bresson. This balance is something we need to find for ourselves through trial and error. However, I would argue that the best impacts are made in subtle ways. I went out for sashimi yesterday and the flavours in Japanese cooking are extremely subtle, but no less impactful. I think books, like photography, have the power to grip you with one line or one look. It’s just a matter of finding that line or that look.

    1. I think you are right, subtlety has a very strong impact – except of course in a Hollywood world where anything subtle wouldn’t survive for long. And, yes, this balance between holding back and showing yourself is something that each of us have to find out ourselves. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Millie.

  9. I like seeing a lot of stuff that is new to my experience, especially photos and artwork that the artist themselves are most content with their outcome. The photo of the Nuer woman looks great!

  10. You always show such respect for people and you tell stories from other cultures with appreciation for individuals and communities. To me, that is how you get out of the way and forget yourself. You have strong technical skill, but that might interfere if you didn’t see something of real quality in each person you photograph. I think that is an important lesson I have learned form you, Otto. Your portraiture always radiates emotion! You’ve shared a very important message here, I think, Otto!

  11. Funny, in regard to showing ones self off in photos (being a non-portrait taker, so landscapes, etc), I actually DO try to show myself off…well the feeling I get anyway. It’s what I think about when I take photos and especially the post processing. Maybe that’s the wrong approach, dunno.

      1. I like the way you put that because it’s what I look for in photos specifically. What feeling does it give me is what I ask myself. I do have a little show off in me. Shocking I know. 😛

  12. Wise words for photography and for living. I see it and hear it in conversations that ask people about their lives rather than tell them all about “me me me”.Lovely photo.

  13. Oh how I admire this ability to be yourself and to retreat from the scene simultaneously. Really, it’s the being yourself part that I’m sure cramps my style. Just yesterday I had the opportunity to take a striking image of a local Himalayan man who is reopening his restaurant after a tragic fire. He knows me. He likes me and is happy that I take an interest in his success. He invited me into his not-quite-ready and rather sterile looking restaurant. I envisioned am image of him before one of the ladders that stand like perfect props. The image I got, however, was bland, uninspired, and sad. Of course, I’m sure it doesn’t help that I bark out that I really don’t know what I’m doing, please bear with me. Sheesh. I wish I could have caught the smile of welcome that graced his face when he saw me outside with my camera. Instead I got a mug shot that I went home with.

    1. I think you may be a little hard on yourself. For me it sounds like a tough environment to capture a great image. On the other hand if you weren’t happy with the result, there is only one way to get it; keep photographing. 🙂

  14. Very thoughtful article, and it seems that the photographs (and especially series of photographs) that resonate well with me come from photographers who do have a great sense of becoming one with the surroundings (be it nature/landscapes or with the culture and people). It allows the lens to capture a bit of the authentic smiles, movements and spirit of the place. Great portrait to lead into this, as you’ve captured it all.

    1. I like the idea of becoming one the surroundings. I think that very well describe how I approach my subjects and the photographic process. Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Randall.

  15. Interesting read as always Otto, thanks for the proposal.
    So the point is the balance. Not easy, the image should be at least a little bit unbalanced to give emotion in my opinion. But if too much unbalanced it doesn’t work, again no emotion.
    As Millie Ho says trial and error. Which means working harder 🙂 not only in taking photos but in learning how to be relaxed and committed in the same time…
    PS: I still have to think about…

    1. Yes, it’s hard work. But that’s part of the fun isn’t it? If it were all easy, why even bother. So, yes, find the balance that works for each of us. Thank you for your comment, Robert.

  16. Great article Otto – and very timely considering the recent ‘predicament’ I was in (and may post about).
    The strap line on my website pretty much sums up my approach to photography; I like to take time to feel what I’m seeing before raising my camera. So for me that is about losing myself in the moment – the balance you speak of, where I need to reveal myself, comes in my post production where I recapture that feeling and try to put myself into the final image.

    1. This is what is so fascinating about discussing issues around photography like this. We all have our different approaches and so much we can learn from each other. Thank you for sharing your experience, Noeline.

  17. Very fair recovery About HC bresson !! be you! but also make you forget for more natural to the other – we must sometimes a great complicity with the subject, the photographed character – beautiful shot, I love

  18. At være sig selv og samtidig glemme sig selv….. Jeg tror og håber jeg lykkes med dette når jeg “ude” i verden.
    Jeg var Jordan i sidste uge – og satte mig bl. a. det mål at forsøge at portrættere nogle af de mennesker, jeg mødte. Da jeg læste din artikel her slog det mig, at dine ord egentlig dækker fint hvad jeg havde som ambition på denne tur. Men lige nu er jeg tilbage på arbejdet og hverdagen – men håber snart at få tid til at vise billeder fra denne rejse…….

  19. When I went to see the film about Vivian Maier I learnt that she was a very solitary person but to make her great fotos she had to enter into contact with the people she took pictures of. Exactly the way you describe it here. You say that a photographer has to make the picture the way only he can do it, he has to be involved with all his heart to tell a story but he has to understand that he is not the main character in the story. I really enjoyed reading about your thoughts, Otto, and a like the picture of the lady on top, who looks right at me, very much. Thank you and very best reagrds.:)

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