It’s What’s Inside That Matters


You know best what triggers you when you are out photographing. It can be light, it can be forms, it can be beautiful landscapes, it can be ugly, rundown buildings, it can be strong, characteristic faces, it can be cityscapes in twilight or it can people jumping in the air. I don’t know what it is for you. For me it’s certainly people living their regular lives in combination with good, natural light. That is what triggers my index finger more than anything else.

But here is a twist of thought: It’s not what’s in front of the camera that matters – it’s what’s behind. Or to be more specific; it’s what’s inside you as a photographer. Now, how is that for a thought?

My point is; any situation, any subject matter, any moment holds infinite possibilities for creating strong and engaging photographs. Maybe – or surely – you don’t always see them, but someone would. Haven’t you come across a photographer who is directing the camera towards something, and when you look around to see what it is, you think by yourself that’s gonna be a boring picture. It’s no picture at all as a matter of fact. Or so you think – at least I have done it numeral times. But I have also been fortunate enough sometimes later to be able to see the final result from something I first thought would never make a decent picture. And I was no less than astonished. The photographer had seen something I was not even able to get a glimpse of. His or her vision had been able to turn that boring subject matter into a photograph that blew me off my ignorance. Maybe the way the photograph was processed after the fact or maybe just by the way it was framed and focused.

I have come to learn that nothing is without photographical potentials. I have seen it again and again. Throughout my photographic career I have attended many a workshop and taught numerous workshops myself, too, and every time I notice attendees of those workshops coming back with photographs from situations no one would think would be worthy a single capture. What more is the photographers are able to show some amazing results. And they all come back with photographs taking in a variety of locations and in a variety of situation.

What has this taught me? First of all not to judgementally write off any photographer I come across shooting something I can’t see the point of photographing. Ignorance and condemnation has never been positive sentiments in any given situation. Secondly I try to expand my own vision; I try to see pictures where I before never thought a picture excited. By that I am forcing myself to go outside of my comfort zone; I try to challenge myself – which is something any artist wanting to develop his or her artistic expression ought to do.

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Photographic Dialectic

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The photographic image has two sides it is necessary to recognize in order to be able to bring out the best of the medium: The outside and the inside. There is always an interacting force between the two, but we, as photographers, aren’t always aware of it during the capturing process. The outside being the visible world we capture with the camera, and the inside being the perceiving and shaping creativity of the photographer. Only when we understand the interaction between the two and understand the necessity to make use of it, are we able to create photography beyond mere reproduction.

Most photographs we take as if the camera was a notebook; we capture something so we are able to memorize the event, we collect memories like a dairy of images to share with friends or family, or just for ourselves. Of course, we still make decisions on composition, what to included within the frame, on perspective and technical settings, but mostly unconsciously. Usually we are not very aware of our own presence in the picture taking process. However, when we want to heighten the photographic expression to more than pure memory collecting or reproduction, we need to be aware of ourselves, what we want to express and, in so doing, find a balance between ourselves and the outside that makes the final image transcend both.

In his book Why Photography Matters, Jerry L. Thompson writes about the interaction between the two sides. He says: «When photography is at its best, I am suggesting […] there exists a balance between the outside and the inside. When photography is at its best, these two elements cooperate as in a dialectic: one side presents a proposition, the other counters it; a new proposition emerges, one also countered in a similar fashion, and on and on as a progressively refined result appears, something neither partner in the dialectic could have produced.»

What Thompson really says is that when we in the photographic process consciously make use of the balance between the outside world and our inside as we perceive the world, the resulting image is of a higher order – or transcending – what either alone could be.

The world exists with infinite possibilities without any hierarchy and without any emotions attached to it or even with any cause and effect. However, when the photographer captures a single event he or she imposes his or her vision upon the world. The photographer makes the elements of the world fit together. He or she creates some kind of order of the world – and attaches emotional values to the event being photographed. That is when photography becomes at its best.

This balance has many names. We talk about the photographer’s vision or we talk about intent; what does the photograph intend with her or his photo. When we start becoming aware of this, we start to negotiate this balance between the outside and the inside – and our photography start to emerge as stronger, more personal and more important.

Are you aware of this dialectic process when you photograph?

Don’t Chase Style

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A personal style is like a signature for any photographer – any artist for that matter. As we at a young age set out on our photographic endeavour this easily becomes a major mantra, and we start searching for our own style. We think we can skew the horizon, and that becomes our style. We think we can make dark and mysterious pictures, and that becomes our style. We think we can increase the colour saturation or do some other post production trick and that becomes our style.

I remember at one point I became very good with my handheld flash, I would even say I became an expert getting the most out of this devise that many photographers otherwise struggle with. Particularly I got very enthusiastic about the result from using open flash. In the end all my picture ended up being shot with open flash. Open flash became my signature – or so I thought back then. But I was only fooling myself. I finally realized that style is not something we force our pictures through, like a filter or some magic transformation, in order for it to become «our» signature. Instead of becoming a signature, it becomes a limitation. When my mantra was open flash, I stop looking for other qualities of light that could be used – and better used in many occasions – in my pictures. My craving for a personal style turned in to a self-inflicted inhibition.

Yes, we can impose various styles on our pictures, and should do so to enhance whatever we try to tell with the pictures. But that isn’t the same as a personal style our an artistic voice. It’s just using tools we have to our disposal. Chasing style in one way or another is never going to give us a personal signature or an artistic voice. There isn’t any quick-fix to the outcome. The artistic voice comes with time, and it comes from within. When we stay honest, authentic and true to ourselves in the way we photograph, over time our voice will crystallize and become apparent. We get a signature that is not depending on various tricks and enhancements, but is by character a reflection of ourselves. With time we develop our vision – we look for certain aspects of life and emotions and graphical qualities that we related to, and this vision again will develop our personal voice. The more conscious we become about our vision, the more clearly our personal style will develop. Style is – put simple – an outcome of becoming aware of our vision.

As for me, open flash has long time ago ceased to be the all-encompassed answer to my lighting needs. As a matter of fact I hardly use flash any more. Today I prefer available light, which is so much more varied and full of depth and tonality than anything I could do with a flash. Nevertheless, available light hasn’t become «my» signature, I still use flash when I think it’s appropriate or when it will enhance the visual expression in my pictures.

Accidental Works of Art

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As obsessed with photography as I have almost always been I have as well always been interested in finding out what makes photography different from any other media or expression of art. I have blogged about it a great many times. It’s partly been looking at how the technical aspect of photography defines its expression, for instance in posts such as The Essential Property of Photography, The Inherent Property of Photography and The Uniqueness of a Gradient. I have also explored the subject on a more principal or philosophical level, such as in the posts The Heart of Photography, What Does It Matter! and At the End of the Rainbow.

But there is at least one more aspect of photography that I find very intriguing. Photography is the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece. You won’t find that in other arts. You cannot make an accidental masterpiece if you are a painter or a sculptor. It’s just not going to happen.

This is simultaneously photography’s great advantage and its Achilles’ heel: It’s the easiest medium in which on some levels to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. With this much said, I think at the same time while photography is the easiest medium to become competent in, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop a distinctive personal vision. It’s the hardest medium in which to separate yourself from all those other people who are doing reasonable good stuff and to find a personal voice, your own vision, and to make something that is truly, memorably yours and not someone else’s. A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve.

The fun part, though, is that even without a distinctive voice, we can all happen to make captivating images, through accidents or incidents or just by pure luck. And, yes, we may even be able to produce a masterpiece. The stimulating outcome is that sometimes those accidental works of art that are capable of engaging beyond the simplest recognition, offer us a new view on our media, give us new ideas and provide us with a fresh approach, that we may utilize next time – and by so doing starting to develop our distinctive voice. It has always amazed me that just when I think there is nothing left to do in photography and that all permutations and possibilities have been exhausted, someone comes along and puts the media to a new use, and makes it his or her own, yanks it out of this kind of amateur status, and makes it as profound and moving as formally interesting as any other medium.

Failure is Good

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Failure is inevitably linked with art – and life for that matter. Well, it’s also linked to success if you think about it. To put it a little harshly; if we don’t experience failures it’s because we don’t live – or we don’t create, when talking about arts. And if we don’t dare to make failure we will never succeed, either.

Life and art is about jumping from an airplane without knowing how a parachute really works, but hoping it will. It’s about taking chances, knowing that often they won’t lead to anything – or at «worst» to failure. I use brackets because failures aren’t necessarily bad. On the contrary; you can use them as stepping stones to learn more, to become better next time, to evolve, to grow. In my post Weakness as Potential Strength I wrote: By figuring out where our weaknesses lie, we can take steps to eliminate them – and thus lift ourselves to a next level.

Not every project we do will survive. As a matter of fact most of them probably won’t. Art is sometimes like putting messages in a bottle and hope that someone will find one of your bottles. And then hope they will write something in return – and that eventually the same bottle will find its way back to you. That’s how art works. You may have to accept that you have to put out hundreds of things for every bottle that wind up coming back.

The analogue of the bottle is taken from a speech given by the author Neil Gaiman when he addressed the class of 2012 at the University of Arts, Philadelphia. One of his points in the speech was that if you don’t break the rules – and thus take the chance of failing – you will not be able to create anything new and original. You won’t find your way as an artist – and you will not have success – whatever that means.

This is how he addressed the new art students (you can find the whole speech here): «When you start out with a career in arts, you have no idea of what you are doing. This is great. People who know what they do, know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not. [By not knowing the rules, you will be able to go beyond them]. And you can. If you don’t know what is impossible, it’s easier to do.»

By not following the rules, though, you are in for some failures. No doubt. It’s of course easy to say one should accept this as part of the creative process. The problems of failure, really, are that you want everything to happen and you want it now. But things go wrong.

When I decided to become a travelling photographer and writer sometime in my twenties I set off through then Soviet Union to Japan and then continued around in Southeast Asia, finally ending up in Nepal. I was travelling for half a year and the plan was to send home articles and stories from wherever I went. The intention was to make a living as I went about. It should have been a success. The articles and photos would make me world famous and the next thing waiting for me was National Geographic.

For some reason editors and the magazines didn’t discover my wonderful talent, though… What did I learn then? I did work that I was proud of. I had half a year of great fun. I lived in the now, in a way I have never done again. I enjoyed every moment of it. And I learn how to travel and get around also when things weren’t necessarily easy – which has been very useful knowledge in my later travels. And I did sell some stories, which eventually took me to where I am today.

The one moment of greatest letdown through the whole trip, came at the end in Nepal. I was trekking alone towards Mount Everest base camp. A couple of days into the trekking, my camera broke down. It was a gorgeous morning. I took one photo of the vast scenery (the one accompanying this post), heard something snap in the camera and that was the last picture I took. Back then there was no camera repair, not even in Kathmandu. What did I learn from this failure? Not ever to travel only with one camera. And also not ever live through the camera. The experience is not by any means less just because you can’t take a photo of it.

If you make mistakes it means you are out there doing something. And the mistakes and failures themselves can be very useful – as in my case. Whatever discipline you are in, you have one thing that is unique, you have the ability to make art. That is a lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.

When we try to avoid failure, it is because of fear. Fear of failure itself. But by so doing, we turn way from all the beauty of art and the intensity of life. In my post Face the Fear I wrote: We all want acceptance and approval for our work, but if the fear for not getting it or the fear of what others might think about our art makes us cater to this fear, we will never find our own voice.

Vision is Beginning

Intent is what brings depth and significance to a photograph. In many ways you can say it’s the lifeline of the photograph – or any work of fine art for that matter. A photograph without intention behind it won’t convey any importance to the viewers either. It might be as beautiful as anything in the world, but we still won’t stay with it for more than a glimpse of time and we won’t remember it if it doesn’t reveal the photographer behind it. A writer without anything to say in his novel, a filmmaker without a story in her movie or a musician without passionate songs, aren’t going to spellbind their audience and will all soon be forgotten. In the end nobody is going to care about their work. So it is with photography and photographers. A photographer who has no intention with his or her photography will most likely bore the viewers – no matter how technical brilliant the work is or how beautiful the composition is. Intention is what brings uniqueness and substance to a photograph.

«Without intent we’re left with accidental photography, and while accidental photography may once in a while generate interesting photographs, it will not generally count as an act of expression any more than hoping that saying random words will result in a sentence that says something meaningful.» Those are the words of David duChemin taken from his eBook The Vision Driven Photographer.

For David duChemin intent is a way to focus on the why instead of the what in the photographic process. It’s all about being clear about why you shoot what you shoot. By having a clear intent you will better be able to express your vision. For David duChemin the photographic vision is just another word for the intent behind the photograph. Vision is everything – without it the final result is dead. duChemin is one of the photographers today who has been most unambiguous about the need for intent in the photographic process – for the photographer to have a vision. He is probably also the one who has best been able to put words to the somewhat abstract idea of vision and the role it plays in photography. It’s not without reason he calls himself a vision driven photographer.

The photographer’s vision is where the photographic process begins – or where it should begin. Unfortunately most photographers – and I willingly admit that I am prone to the same thoughtlessness, too – don’t have a clear thought about their vision, they just never get beyond the technical part of photography or beyond seeing light or composition. «Before our photographs can say what we want them to, and in so-doing to look like we want them to, we need to understand what we want to say, and how we want to say it. That’s vision.» That’s another quote by duChemin.

In order to better understand the vague and abstract idea of vision, David duChemin splits it in two types. He talks about personal vision and photographic vision. The former is something everybody has although we are not always consciously aware of it. It’s our understanding of the world around us and ourselves. It’s what makes you vote for a certain party, it’s what makes to choose to do what you do, it’s what makes you pay attention to what you see, it’s what makes you photograph something and not something else. The personal vision is based on experience and learning, and it changes with time as it grows more depth with ageing. Photographic vision on the other hand is the link between our personal vision and the final photograph. It’s what makes you frame an image in a certain way, it’s what makes you choose a certain lens over another, it’s what makes you photograph from one angle or another. While personal vision is the how you see life, photographic vision is how you see life when the camera is put to the eye.

For some time now I have been pondering over duChemin’s words to make it fit into a more complete understanding of the photographic process. Vision is where it all begins, but then what? How can we bring vision into the rest of the process? The equation I have come up with looks something like this:

Personal vision → Perception → Reflection → Photographic Vision → Manifestation

Your personal vision is where it all starts. It’s what makes you choose to photograph something over something else. It’s the intent, which could be anything from wanting to show injustice in the world to declaring your love for something or someone. As a photographer you then move out into the world with your intent, and as you know, suddenly you see something that catches your attention. That’s the moment of perception. On the street you suddenly see a couple or an action that arouses your photographic interest. Even in the studio the same thing happens, but instead of moving around in the world until something catches your interest, you move the world around you and rearrange it until it feels right. While in that moment of perception, take a bit of time to reflect over the reason why you were stopped by whatever made you stop. Even if it was only light that seemed to arouse you interest, something made you choose this subject matter of that. This is paying conscious attention to your personal vision. Then continue to discern how you best can express this intention by photographic means available to you. This is the part where your photographic vision comes into play. Only then is it time to pull the trigger and continue the photographic process all the way to the final print, the manifestation of your vision.

This all seems like an elaborate process but as a matter of fact the more you get into the habit of paying attention to your vision, the faster the whole process will progress. From something catches you attention, till the camera has captured the subject, in reality it might only take a fraction of a second. The important part is being aware of your intent – or having a conscious vision. Unfortunately most photographers don’t. They see something without being aware of why the subject caught their attention and then start shooting right away. Of course their personal vision still made them react, but they just don’t know why or are not aware of it. The photographic process may look like this:

(Personal vision) → Perception → Manifestation

Do you have a clear intent when you are shooting? Are you a vision driven photographer? Or do you only arbitrarily take snap shots of whatever catches you interest?