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.