Invent the World

Ortodokse kristne ankommer Medhane Alem katedralen for å be julemorgen

I have written about this many a time: If you want to captivate viewers with your photos, you have to invest yourself in the photos you take and in the whole photographic process. It’s paramount that you feel the photo is necessary for yourself to capture, that whatever you are capturing you have to capture. It may sound strange and quite intangible, but without your feelings and sensitivity invested in the photo you take, it will never become a photo that will interest others. It may look nice, it may be well compose, it may be lit beautifully, it may have some strong content, but without yourself present in the photo you take, it’s never going to become a meaningful photo—for others.

If you don’t care about the photo you take, from the bottom of your heart, why do think others would or should?

I, for one, have many a time been guilty of just taking a photo because it looks like a photo worth taking. You know, you learn from photo books, from peers, from discussions on internet or in camera clubs what a good photo is suppose to be. And you start looking for those kinds photos. You see photos in terms of «perfect» compositions, in terms of gorgeous light, in terms of beautiful graphics or even in terms of what you think is interesting content. However, if you aren’t able to invest yourself, your feelings, your commitment, your enthusiasm, in whatever you are shooting, it becomes merrily an exercise. Instead of being honest with yourself in the photographic process, showing your face so to speak, you enter into what could be called an intellectual game. You reproduce what you think others would like, where instead they want to see what you like.

Photographers who do invest themselves in the photos they take know exactly what I am talking about here. But those photographers who still haven’t gotten to that place often have a hard time grasping the meaning. I know because I have been there myself, thinking this all appears so fuzzy and convoluted. Sure, on some level it does sound nice and snug; but what does it actually mean—to invest yourself and your emotions? This is one of the hardest parts to convey to participants in my workshops that are still tied up in a believe system based on visual rules and what they think is a good photo.

In the book The Photographer’s Playbook, the photographer Ken Schles (as one out many writers in the book) maybe comes up with one of the best descriptions of what it means to invest yourself in your photos. He writes: «Take me on journey as best you know how. Investigate the things that trouble you or show me who you love. Tell me what you think you know or are discovering for the first time. Most important, show me what you have seen as you have seen it. Invent the world for me. Reveal the nature of your curiosity. Go forth and be as convincing and compelling as possible. Muster your best argument. Go deep and go with conviction. Show your renderings in a way that I may be convinced of your vision and so that no other rendering would be as convincing or as compelling in their place. Show me your images so they enter my consciousness and I may dream your ideas anew. Change me and change yourself through your discoveries. And do this without artifice or pretension. Do it simply in a way that I can clearly hear your voice and know the power of your mind through the choices you present in the practice your have chosen to share.»

I have mentioned the The Photographer’s Playbook in previous post. It’s a book published by Aperture, subtitled 307 Assignments and Ideas. It’s a book I truly recommend for photographers looking for inspiration.

Facts about the photo: It was taken with a Panasonic Lumix LX7 with a 4.7 mm zoom setting (the equivalent of a 24 mm full frame lens). Shutter speed: 1/80 of a second. Aperture: f/1.4. The photo was processed in Lightroom and Photoshop.

80 thoughts on “Invent the World

  1. I have to translate this in to a different art form where its presented in these terms.

    ‘You are not speaking in words but in thought. Its not how the thought moves you its how it moves the audience.’

      1. Thought provoking post, thanks! I have no idea how to do this with photography but I suspect I can start to apply older criticism to see the errors I am making and the stage I am at with photography.

        “Its not about getting lost on some electric stream of thought.”

        1. One way to apply this to photography is by choose subject that matters to you, that catches your interest before compositions, light and so on. And then figure out what it is about the subject that triggers your interest. Thank you for commenting, Jeb.

  2. So very true. It’s all about the passion and purpose behind the art, whether it’s photography or writing. Great post.

  3. Most of us aim to do this but somehow this thought slips away. Thanks for this important and inspiring reminder.

  4. A wonderful post. Great long-lasting impression making images often convey the photographer’s investment of feelings towards the human subjects or scenes observed. Even if the viewer projects his or her own feelings onto the image, visual storytelling reveals captured moments that have an inner life. I always take the photograph I want to make, and hope that others will “see” what motivated me to click the shutter. Time and again, regular viewers of my images will tell me that they never would have noticed what I placed in my frame, even if we had been standing alongside each other at the exact moment I took the picture.

  5. Otto, you have expressed this so well, and is probably true for all creative endeavors. I think it is a combination of craft and creativity. You have to shoot enough to learn the craft while still pursuing the elusive moment, and eventually those many images will start to reveal the attachment to or passion for a certain story or idea. Sometimes it takes a while, and a lot of experimentation, to find that inside/outside connection, but in the end, all creative work is the act of revealing ourselves while we attempt to reveal the world to others. Perhaps all art is biographical?

    1. You say this much than I do. It is about the inside/outside connection, and, yes, it can take some time before we get there—just like mastering the craft itself. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Lynn.

  6. so, so true. and i believe it is a truth that crosses through all art forms. it is definitely true in painting. it’s an intangible confidence that somehow becomes visible. if the artist believes in what he or she is expressing, there will be power for the viewer. there will be an invitation for others to join the journey.

  7. “It may sound strange and quite intangible, but without your feelings and sensitivity invested in the photo you take, it will never become a photo that will interest others”…

    So well said… I couldn´t agree more… Artistic sensibility is necessarily a construction that exceeds the individual point of view… Empathy is essential, at least if you want your visions to go beyond your own eyes and perceptions…
    Great post, dear Otto… sending best wishes. Happy week. Aquileana 😀

  8. A thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I have seen this demonstrated in other peoples photos and yet don’t always have that inner perception myself when I am taking a photograph. Now I will try – thank you!

  9. Great sentiments that apply to everything that we do in life. Still, our inner investment in any creative effort takes a sincere commitment. Playing is part of it, but personal enrichment comes from a passion, and then using that passion in the creative process.

  10. I add my sentiments to the feelings already expressed as Indeed, first and foremost the need to take the shot has to come from your inner feelings..and the rest will follow.

  11. It is always a joy and an adventure to read your posts, Otto. And the reflective thinking you make us use…thank you for being there. In my nature photos I do invest my soul…but there are many photos taken just because the scenery is beautiful to me. Sometimes the photo is taken because I see it will be spectacular, and sometimes the photo is taken for me to remember the place or the situation. But then – I am no photographer…only a person who loves to take photographs. And sometimes that just might be enough.

    1. There is nothing wrong with reacting to beauty—let me just point out that. If it stirs emotions in you, it’s a good starting point for any creative endeavour. If you are a person who loves to take photos, there is nothing “only” about that. 🙂

  12. Otto, your first paragraph is brilliant. So true. And, honestly, there is nothing better than getting pulled into a shot that has that kind of impact on you, the photographer. As I read the opening lines to your post, the feeling of those moments and the images of the resulting shots surged up. To seek that feeling becomes a compulsion for a photographer. When I experience it, I’m not even thinking about the future viewer. I’m pulled into the lens and as if in a meditative state, I become completely absorbed in the fleeting moment, and my drive to capture it and get it right – “right” being the truth of what I am feeling at that moment. Thanks for expressing it so well.

    1. You express this moment of being in flow so lovely. I often call this feeling as being in a tunnel, where nothing matters than the encounter you describe. It’s a wonderful feeling when it happens. Thank you for sharing your experience, Mary.

  13. Your thoughts are something for me to always remember. As someone else mentioned, when I get pulled into a scene and just know that this is not to be missed, I take the photo and know it is me, and my creative muse, presenting the magic to photograph.

  14. I’m glad you keep trying to drive this concept home. It is so difficult to remember in the heat of the moment…Or, hmmm, what IS that heat of the moment? Now I’m really thinking.

  15. I love this “You reproduce what you think others would like, where instead they want to see what you like.”.

    By the way, I am wondering you invested your time to get the the picture in this post to include the man walking in the background too? The man in the background also play major part of this picture as much as the man in front!

  16. I have found that some of my favorite photos have been captured when I am on vacation or away from home and relaxed. Just reading this post brought to mind some of “my favorites” that are just files I keep and occasionally look at with pleasure–I really don’t know what else to do with them, but they are special to me. Thank you for continuing to remind me of these guiding principles.

  17. Hi Otto, I love that you’ve taken on this challenging concept in your terrific post. In the thousands of images one takes, it is really a handful that fit into this concept, I think. An image that captures a moment that speaks to the photographer in all those ways is a magical result which, in addition to the image will have elements that are intangible and subjective. Reminds me of a favorite Ansel Adams quote about a great photograph fully expressing what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed. Pretty deep indeed.

    1. I think you are right in that it’s only a few pictures that really stands out of anyone’s production through a year. I think it was same Ansel Adams you are referring to who said he was content if he was able to created something like 10 good pictures a year (I can’t remember the exact number, but it was small).

  18. Excellent post Otto! It is all about putting your heart into your photo! By the way, I am enjoying your online workshop!

  19. A very inspirational article. I just ordered The Photographer’s Playbook. I love that quote by one of the authors. You always know how to write a thought-provoking post. 🙂

  20. I believe your key comment is ‘It’s paramount that you feel the photo is necessary for yourself to capture,’ With this in mind the most productive question is probably ‘Why do I want to capture this image?’ If we can answer this question satisfactorily and with conviction the first hurdle will have been overcome and will have generated the energy for the next stage.

  21. You’ve made a couple of points that really interested me, because they can be “flipped,” and still be true. The first was your comment that “without your feelings and sensitivity invested in the photo you take, it will never become a photo that will interest others.” It’s also true that, if our feelings and sensitivities are invested in our photos, certain images that are somewhat lacking technically may still draw a response from those who see them.

    The other comment that gave me pause was your point that “you learn from photo books, from peers, from discussions on internet or in camera clubs what a good photo is suppose to be. And you start looking for those kinds photos…. However, if you aren’t able to invest yourself, your feelings, your commitment, your enthusiasm, in whatever you are shooting, it becomes merely an exercise.”

    One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had is watching the development of a photographer whose photos always delighted me. They were vibrant, filled wtih life, and interesting details about the world in which the photographer lived. They were so good, in fact, that the person became “interested in photography,” and began reading articles and books, learning “rules,” and trying to develop the same techniques as the best photographers.

    Over time, the quality of the photographer’s images has changed radically. It’s always seemed to me that technique was supplanting heart to such a degree that the images were becoming lifeless. Of course the techniques, the craft, are important. But if I have to be lacking in either technique or heart, I’ll take a lack of technique every time.

    1. I agree, technique without heart is nothing but emptiness. And as you point out, photos can evoked interest and captivate an audience when feelings are visually present even without “proper” technique. Of course, if you know your craft you have more strings to play on, so I think craftsmanship is important, but only as a means to an end.

  22. I live this every day with my illustration and photography, and that Ken Schles quote is right on the money.

    There are the assignments that people hire me to do, which may have me only partly invested mentally and emotionally, and then there are the art projects that I conceive myself and remain totally committed to. There is a difference.

    I still get told by others that I should shoot this, draw that and paint the other; I talking about things that no one is even hiring me to create. People get frustrated with me when I calmly or silently just ignore their weli intended suggestions. They must think me a snot. I really don’t mean to discredit their ideas. Some are good but the ones I already have in my head, and I am dying to express in my own way are the once that really have me invested.

    1. Suggestions are always something to consider, because they can add a new dimension to your art. But in the end, you are the artist, and you need to make you own choices. I am 100 percent with you on that. And, like you, most photographer make money with projects that are not really engaging us, like a personal project would do.

  23. Great post, Otto. And I completely agree with everything you say here. I also feel there is this risk of getting obsessed with the medium and that’s when technique starts to matter a little more than expression. Personally, I like to ditch the camera and distance myself from the medium every now and then. I love to go about simply having conversations with people who would otherwise have been my photographic subjects. This continues till there is a strong urge to pick up the camera once again.The focus is then inevitably on expressing what’s inside the mind, technique takes a slight backseat and the results are closer to what you wanted to convey.

    1. PS: Goes without saying, this photograph is a pretty good example of what you’ve written in here 🙂 The strong ‘connect’ you’ve established in the image wouldn’t have been possible without you being deeply interested in the subject matter. Great work!

    2. I think more people (included myself) should do as you do. The photographic process is not only about taking images, but the experience of engagement. And by laying down the camera every often, we learn to focus more on the experience itself, which we then can use when actually photographing. Thank you for your poignant point of view, Uday.

  24. I have really appreciated your words and advice here above, which have gone under my skin and, which are, according to me,difficult to put into practice. So, when taking a picture, we also have to feel the story of the person we are photographing, so that we can show/teach to others a real story, not written in a book, but by means of a foto. It’s not enough to undestand this process intellectually but it has to be done with all our senses! Thank you very much, Otto and have a good day. Martina

    1. Good point. All good story telling is about more than intellectually convey it, but making emotional connections and use the heart to convey the story. Thank you for your great comment, Martina.

  25. A very interesting post to read Otto. Wise words as always! When I taught a group of photographers recently I sent them off without their cameras to much protest but I wanted the group to feel the landscape before they even began to consider photographing it. It’s such an essential part of taking a good photograph. I really do think the camera gets in the way of a good photograph sometimes.

  26. In an art class many years ago the elderly art teacher said to me ‘Always paint what you love!’ I think this is that same for photography. If you have a strong attraction and an enthusiasm for what you’re about to photograph then it’ll probably be a good picture.
    Great blog Otto, I like your thoughts 🙂

    1. You are right. Any artist, no matter the medium, should also work from his or her heart. As you say, the result will be better. If you don’t follow your heart, nobody else is going to care. Thank you for your comment, Jude.

  27. This is an important philosophical look at photography from the photographer’s perspective: you can go through the motions and capture what you think the masses will like, or you can find what it is you love about the scene and become enraptured with the process. Most great photographers and photos I tend to believe, follow the latter. Great post again Otto ~ wish you a great Sunday.

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