Live Your Photographs


Why is it that some photographers are able to come up with wonderful and engaging pictures even about the smallest trivial details that most of us wouldn’t even consider worth a picture – not only once in a while, but again and again? While others make nice, well composed pictures about important and presumably engaging subjects, but still never manage to engage with their pictures? What is the secret of the profound artistry of the former? The answer of course isn’t a simply list of tricks an upcoming photographer – or any artist for that matter – needs to learn and understand about her trade to excel. It’s a little more complex than that. Still, I don’t really think there are any secrets to the engaging artist, although it’s still a kaleidoscope of characteristics that goes along with artistic excellence.

For one, the photographer who manage to engage us with his pictures, has found his own voice, not by specific techniques or postproduction manipulation, but coming naturally from within – as I wrote in my post A Personal Voice last week. Another feature about the engaging photographer is that she herself is engaged in what she photographs. I think this is something we all need to learn. We need to have interest in what we photograph; we need to feel that our subject is something or someone we can relate to ourselves. What we really need is to want to photograph, not for economic reasons, for fame, for stock, for publishing reasons, for someone else, but because the picture matter to ourselves. The reason? The engaging picture is actually a picture of ourselves. It reflects our own life.

If you feel that your pictures are boring and not engaging, maybe it’s because your life isn’t as exciting as you really want it to be? I repeat again; our pictures reflect of own life. So maybe you need to bring some excitement into you life. Mind you, I am not talking about the grand expedition, being the big adventurer or living la vida loca, but really just living the life that is fulfilling to you. If you thrive with home sweet home, that’s where you will find your pictures, those pictures that will engage all of us, too. Ernest Hemingway once said «In order to write about life, first you must live it!» If you replace the word write with photograph, you will get the equivalent for us photographers. Of course it’s not easy to live up to Hemingway’s way of living the grand life, but that’s not the point. The point really is; if you want to tell something as an artist, you need to live it. You are your photographs – no matter what you actually photograph. If your pictures are boring your life is probably boring, too – for yourself.

That’s where I started out myself. I was good with the technical part of photography. I was good with composing pictures. I had a good eye for light. But I never really engaged anyone with my pictures. It all changed when I started to travel for real, meaning going to countries and places that aren’t made for mass tourism. I started to relate to people on the places I travelled to, and I discovered I enjoyed meeting people. That’s when my pictures switched from beautiful and boring landscape and nature copies to more interesting human stories. And that’s still how it goes. I love photographing people, I love the meeting, I love the interaction, and I love to understand a little bit more about human life. Back then travelling was in many ways just the catalyst, not really a requirement for my engagement. Not any more at least. Today my photos certainly don’t have to be taken in far-away places any more. They might just as well be of my love ones close to me and in my own neighbourhood. It’s not about place – for me – but about people.

75 thoughts on “Live Your Photographs

  1. Good article…agree wholeheartedly….it is not about the head but the heart..not an easy thing to achieve, certainly not if one was to be involved in a professional or competitive world.

  2. Totally agree, Otto….live life, experience it’s ups and downs, and use that experience! And I can be fulfilled by the smaller moments in life these days…

  3. I can’t explain it either Otto. I see the same things that others do, but to me, they’re pretty and when I put it out there, others think so too. Here’s one I did several months ago (you “liked” it already) and the comments agreed that I found beauty even with the leaves down and trees bare. I think passion for the subject also makes a difference, which is what you have here. It’s a great picture of two women having fun and you made it special.


  4. “We need to have interest in what we photograph…” Otherwise, why bother?

    I think of photography as a mode of investigation and exploration, a way of coming to know the world. As a practical matter, I photograph the same subjects time and again, my immediate world. For example, I’ve lived across the Hudson River from Manhattan for the last 15 years (though I’ve only been taking photographs for 10). I find the river and the Manhattan skyline endlessly fascinating, from dawn to dusk and later, all seasons of the year. And the more I shoot it, the more I come to know it, and to see what’s there.

    And there’s the flower bed on 11th street in Hoboken, and the graffiti in Jersey City, and the parks . . . . . All of which I’ve photographed time after time, but I never get tired of these places because they’re always changing.

    1. Your example is just a good point to my writing. When we use photography to explore our world, the images we create will are often captivating for others as well.

  5. I truly believe that you absolutely must have an interest in what you photograph.
    For me, it has to make me FEEL something.
    Great post, otto.
    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Just like the blues; you have to live it. You can make pretty good sounding blues by learning and applying technique but to play real soulful blues it really helps to live it. Coming to intimately understand the experience — without it crushing you, helps you to play the blues.

  7. You are absolutely right, taking pictures of people has a very unique magic. It gives different satisfaction and more engaging with the pictures. I do not primary take pictures of people but I certain go back to look at some that I did often. Those pictures have more impacts on me and I was less concerned of techicality than others.

    1. Even if you had less concern for the technical execution when capturing people, I am sure you used your technical knowledge but more instinctively – which is how it’s best applied. 🙂

  8. Ja du Otto, som vanligt så kan jag stryka under och hålla med i allt du skriver:)
    Det kanske blir lite tråkigt, för ibland vill man ju ha lite motstånd, sätta igång en diskussion…men tyvärr…jag håller med igen och dessutom extra mycket i detta inlägg där du sätter ord på mina egna tankar.
    Hur vi lever och mår avspeglas i allt vi gör och speciellt i det kreativa.
    Du om någon är verkligen “dina bilder”…du sätter ditt eget avtryck vare sig du fotar människor eller natur…precis som det skall vara:)

    1. Det er aldri kjedelig – eller tråkigt – når du skriver en kommentar, selv om jeg også setter pris på en god diskusjon. Mange takk for de vakre ordene dine, Gertie.

  9. Well said Otto! You put it very well and I agree 100% with your view: “What we really need is to want to photograph, not for economic reasons, for fame, for stock, for publishing reasons, for someone else, but because the picture matter to ourselves.”

  10. I couldn’t say whether my photos engage people, i only know they engage ME, lol… my life may be boring, but i like it that way. it didn’t used to be boring and it nearly killed me on a few occasions, now i enjoy my dog and being able to do the dishes. but whether anybody would understand this (i don’t understand it myself) enough to like my photos, i doubt, and fully admit that i take boring photos 🙂

    1. I think how we define boring might be different. 🙂 Otherwise I think the only way to photograph is to do it in such a that it engages yourself as the photographer. We have to be true to ourselves.

  11. My favorite photos are those that truly capture a moment in time, depicting movement or personality or emotion. That’s what I look for over technical or even artistic qualities. When a photo has all three…magic! Great post, Otto!

  12. Personally, if I can get a photo of one of my five small grandchildren’s “soul” once in a while, I’m satisfied. The many thousand photos I have of them shows that it is not an easy task, but possible.

  13. Another wonderful article Otto. It’s like David Alan Harvey has said: “Don’t shoot what it looks like. Shoot what it feels like.”

  14. Great post. Trying to ‘capture what it feels like’ resonates strongly however, it gets to a point, I’m now finding where, without improving some technical skills, I can’t quite capture it. This post inspires me to keep learning, keep photographing. Thank you.

  15. Vero, bisogna sentirle le foto, altrimenti non hanno niente in se stesse, sono vuote, sono piatte, sono monotone. Se ciò che viene fotografato non suscita interesse nel fotografo, non verrà mai una bella foto, ma un semplice scatto!!!
    Ultimamente non trovo per niente interessante quello che fotografo, forse perché troppo presa da altri impegni che non mi danno modo e tempo di sentirmi rilassata e di conseguenza venire attratta istintivamente da qualche cosa che poi devo fotografare altrimenti sento che mi manca qualche cosa. Spero che questa sensazione torni in me presto!!
    Saluti, Patrizia

    1. Penso che avete bisogno di essere pasient, Patrizia. Tutti noi abbiamo questa magia, di volta in volta, la sensazione che ci sono in esecuzione sul vuoto. Il rimedio è in parte per rilassarsi – come tu dici te stesso – e in parte per continuare a scattare anche quando non avete voglia. Alla fine il vecchio impegno e l’entusiasmo tornerà. Mantenere lo spirito alto, Patrizia!

  16. You make a very important point in saying that this is something we can learn. The technical necessity of photography needs the spirit and soul as well ~ intertwined it is possible to capture the life you see and feel in front of the lens. Great post Otto!

    1. Thank you, Randall. And what you call the technical necessity is really quite simple to learn – even if it can be as advances as you want it to be. The hard part is really to infuse the spirit and soul into photography.

  17. Very thought provoking, Otto! I feel like I’m definitely in the camp of not experiencing exciting and engaging photos. I think they’re nice, but that’s far different. I’ll have to think more about what you’ve shared here. I’m interested in seeing what I might change to bring about a shift in my photographic perspective! 🙂 I love the photo that you have included in this post!

    1. The essence of what I write here is really very simply: Photograph what you love – and photograph you life as it is. The rest is experience and, yes, some hard work. 🙂

  18. I share your point of view !! very beautiful natural shot
    But here the possibility of photo portraits is reduced by the legal right to picture !!

  19. Another excellent article and it’s so obvious that you are engaged in your work and have found your own voice and it speaks loudly in all your beautiful images!

  20. I very much like the quotation from Hemingway. It reminds me of another, from Henry David Thoreau: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    And, yes: engagement with our subjects is critical. How can we engage our viewers or readers, if we ourselves are not engaged? When I began writing, I was advised, “Write what you know.” I’ve come to see the limits of that approach. Now, I prefer to write what I love. Falling in love with the world, over and over again, is the one thing necessary for every artist.

  21. Agree with you Otto. The much discussed ‘essence’ of a photograph is pretty much a reflection of the intensity of the photographer’s relationship with her subject.

  22. I like Paula’s early comment “it is not about the head but the heart” – for me that sums up ‘good’ photography, or any other art for that matter.
    Your point “We need to have interest in what we photograph” made me laugh to myself and think about the implications of the fact that I don’t photograph people! 😀

  23. Nice write Otto. I find that the portraits I find most engaging are those where the subject is expressing their relationship with the photographer and you, as the viewer, are suddenly a part of that relationship by virtues of seeing the photograph.

  24. What a beautiful post with a great message! Thank you for sharing from deep within your heart.

  25. Otto, thank you for stopping by my humble blog 🙂 I just wanted to say that i have found your reflexions about photography very insightful and inspiring! Specially this one and the one about personal voice, both subjets that i’m thinking about and want to develop in this year. Thanks for sharing this!

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