When Inner and Outer World Become One

En strålende dag i vinterfjellet
Artists and creative people frequently talk about the experience of losing themselves in the work at hand, being fully in tune with the process, with the heighten sense of being completely focused, being in flow—often emerging hours later as if having been in a trance. I know this from myself, and I also know that whenever I emerge from such a trance like state of mind after having worked hard during a photo session, I have been able to capture some great images. I can’t say which picture is going to stand out at the point of capture—as some photographers immediately are able to—but I know that within the batch of photos from the shoot there is bound to be some goods one. This trance like state of mind, in flow, when I lose myself, is for me the ultimate level of creativity, when everything can happen and I am not bound by my own preconceived ideas or thoughts.

I often compare this with being in a tunnel, where all kinds of unpredictable things can happen. I have now idea what happens in there before I finally emerge onto the other side of the tunnel. I wrote about this in the post “Tunnel Vision” quite some time ago. And it does resemble some of the ideas I wrote about the contemplative approach to photography in the post “Different Perspective” not long ago, in which I stated that contemplative photography in essence is about how to fully connect with the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience.

There is a duality to this process. It’s two worlds coming together – the outside world and our inner world. We perceive and react to what we see, and then bring our inner self and spirit into the equation, almost as if in a dialectic process. In this very concentrated process we focus deeply on a single task, and at the same time something opens, deepens and widens. We are fully absorbed and present to the activity and the moment, to the exclusion of other elements and influences in our lives. But we are also equally attentive to ourselves; our responses, our impulses, and our creative interaction with the medium.

The late and great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has aptly described photographic seeing as having one eye turned outward and one eye turned inward. When the two images converge, that’s the moment for capturing the photograph. In his acclaimed book “The Decisive Moment” he writes: I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between the two worlds – the one inside of us and the one outside of us. As a result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.

Be Yourself and Forget Yourself

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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.

Make the Picture Better!

Eldre mann ser på kvinnene i hjelpeorganisasjonen Paradiso som danser

You are standing there with you camera in your hand. In front of you is something you want to capture a picture of, maybe because is a memorable moment, maybe because is a beautiful panorama, maybe because it’s something that touches your heart, or maybe for a complete different reason. The question then is how can I get the best image out of whatever it is I want to photograph? Today it’s so easy with any camera to just raise it to your eye and let the camera do its thing. Push the button and think no more of it. Most likely the result will be correctly exposed and quite an OK picture.

But what if you want to get more than just an OK picture? If you want to make it into a personal statement? Make it interesting for others that don’t have memories associated with the moment of capture? Then you have to start making conscious decisions, and you have to put more of yourself into the picture capturing process. In so doing it might be useful to split the picture taking up into five different decisive components and look at them separately, assess each of them in order to make them as superior as possible. The five factors you can affect or change when taking a picture are the content, the light, the moment, the graphics and the point of view.

Let me quickly go through them. Content is everything – is something I always teach in my workshops. If the content is boring there is nothing you can do to make a picture interesting. The interesting thing, which I see again and again, is that nothing is really ever too boring to be photographed. What makes the difference is the photographer. If the subject engages the photographer, he or she will always be able to make a telling image out of it. If not – no way! You simply have to connect with your heart as I have talked much about on this blog before.

We all know that photography literally means to paint with light. Light is important; it sets the mood in a picture, creates depth and brings out the beauty in a subject. When you stand there in front of something you want to photograph, think about how it’s possible to improve the light in one way or another. Maybe just turning around to get the light from a different angel, or move the subject to another place with better light, add artificial light – or maybe wait till a better time of the day when for instance the sun is lower on the sky or it’s hidden behind a cloud.

There is always a moment when a picture comes together, when the composition and the content almost mysteriously reaches a higher level. It was the renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who came up with the phrase the decisive moment. He said «it is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which gives that even its proper expression.» It’s easy to detect a moment in sports, for instance when a high jumper lays flat over the bar or when a goal is score in football. But there is always a moment, even in more subtle situations. It could be nothing but a sudden shy smile from a person, some kind of interaction between two people, a reaction, a person crossing into a cityscape. Even in landscape picture taking there are better moments, for instance when the sun is rising or when a rainy day clears up and there is still both rain and a bit of sunshine or when the moon is sweeping the scenery. In other words there are quick moments and there are slow moment – but there is always a better moment.

When I use the word graphics I mean composition, the placement of elements, the perspective, use of depth of field, a slow or a fast shutter speed, etcetera. This very much comes down to the craftsmanship of photography. Sometimes you have all the time in the world to make the graphics come together in the best way, other times you have to react instinctively when the moment comes on you very fast. It’s all about training you eyes to see the potential in all subjects. And it’s always possible to improve a photograph’s graphics. Don’t just go for the first and easy solution. Move around; try out different angels, increase or decrease contrast, work out details in Photoshop.

The last component of the picture capturing process to control, point of view, should probably have been mentioned first. It’s the least tangible of the five, but in a way it goes before the other decisions and forms how you want to put the photograph together. With the point of view in this context I don’t mean perspective, but why you take a picture. What is it that moves you to take it and what is it that you want to convey or tell the viewers with your picture? It is closely connected to content, but in a more conscious way. If you for instance want to show the misery of a homeless person you need to figure out what you really want to say.

Of these five components of the picture capturing process, the ones that have the most impact of how strong a picture is conceived is content and moment. In our workshops we let students bring along their favourite pictures by other photographers. When we go through them we let the students give points to how the photographer have solved the various decisions he or she did with respect to these components. Again and again it turns out it’s content and moment, much to most students surprise. In other words put your emphasize on these, and don’t worry if the technique is not perfect. Nevertheless it’s good practise to evaluate all the components before taking a photograph. You might not be able to improve all of them in a certain situation, but surely you will at least be able to improve one or two in order to make a better and more interesting picture. Think about these five components as a useful tool in the picture making process.

This is something I will talk more about in my upcoming photographic eWorkshop. More info about the workshop will soon follow.