May 29, 2009 · 8 comments

4-130-21  stock photo of Tibet, Monk circumambulating Labrang Monastery, Xiahe

Every photographer at some point in their career asks themselves “Why am I doing this?”. It is an excellent question and one which warrants careful thought. Everywhere we are surrounded by images – images on the packages of products we buy, in magazines we read, on billboards we drive by, on television and websites, on our living room walls and bedside dressers, in our wallets even on our clothing. As photographers, we produce all these images. Yet often the experience of the viewer is far removed our original perception of the subject. This leads in a roundabout way to the question I often ask on location as a travel photographer, “Why am I taking this picture?”

It is a humbling experience to stand before a subject, a person, building or landscape, in a foreign country, camera in hand, and propose to make an image. Thinking of the vast number of images already in circulation, the billion shots of the Eiffel Tower, the flowers and sunsets, happy children and earnest peasant farmers, it is easy to get jaded. “What can I say that is useful? What does this subject have to say? How do I see what is in front of me?”

Harvard economist Umair Haque calls for a new constructive capitalism to focus more on “create authentic, meaningful value”. For the photographer this means seeking to make images that mean something, images that make a contribution to the world, that illuminate in some way. For me as a travel photographer that means images that reflect and carry the values I see in travel – respect for other cultures, learning to be a guest, broadening one’s horizons, developing a capacity for wonder, seeing beyond oneself and learning from the Other.

So how do you make meaningful authentic photographs? The American photographer Minor White said “No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.” It might sound presumptuous, but it helps to cultivate a sense that there might be something else going on when one is is photographing, whether it is being aware of “the decisive moment”, or consciously emptying oneself, trying to stand aside and let the subject present itself in its own right.

For a photographer this practice can be part of a counteraction against the flood of images, the posed models and generic business handshakes that surround us. And it can be part of a transition beyond generic travel shots, the billion-and-first Eiffel tower shot etc., to an authenticity that is rare but life-enhancing. In this world of commodity images it is a goal worth striving for.

If you have experiences of the search for authenticity in your own photography, please add your comments below.

Note: You can see and extended video presentation by Umair Haque here. More on Minor White on Encarta and here

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  • flowersphotographs

    Rob Armstrong's pictures have appeared in publications such as Birds & Blooms Magazine and the Jackson Hole Explorer Magazine (including the current 2009 cover photo).
    flowers photographs

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  • Thanks Jacques, that's what I was getting at – developing one's photography more as a voice than a product .

    The Brazilian Highlands family sounds interesting. You should add a link to your website.

    For another good example of a travel photographer with a voice check out PDN winner Matthieu Paley at

  • jungle1jack

    “For me as a travel photographer that means images that reflect and carry the values I see in travel – respect for other cultures, learning to be a guest, broadening one’s horizons, developing a capacity for wonder, seeing beyond oneself and learning from the Other”. This is exactly what I am trying – trying, perhaps not succeeding – to do. In the past I would stay days with Indians in the forest of Venezuela until they trusted me and forgot about me before taking my first picture. And now, among rural people of the Brazilian Highlands, I spend more time chatting, having a beer (which I bring in a stryrofoam case), whatever, than taking pictures. I am almost part of a local peasant/cowboy family, but so far I have taken very few pictures. When an opportunity arises my camera is ready, but not hanging from my neck (I missed some pictures that way, the situation having changed by the time I got my camera). Yes, respecting the cultures and the environment are fundamental. My commercial market being primarily textbooks this has an additional value, making this approach to picture even more relevant. I am not trying to display myself in my photography.
    Jacques Jangoux

  • blueplanetphoto

    David, great post. I wrote something like this on my blog a while back discussing the increased automation involved in the “process” of photography and how it can take the heart out of the creation of a photograph if taken too far and is another step removing the photographer from the emotional, personal, context of the photo.

    Your post addresses another aspect, which I think is related to the monetizing aspect of photography. With competition ramping up every day and more people entering into the photo marketplace, it's easy to get caught up in production for production's sake and thinking about the end product instead of exploring what's right in front of us. Speed over contemplation and vision, efficiency over heart and soul. My blog entry was a call to return to the “art of photography” by slowing down, reassessing the automated processes we're using and removing those that take us further away from the connectedness we should feel to our subject.

    By slowing down and getting back to the “basics”, photographers will be able to increase their awareness, become more involved in their subject, and create better, more relevant, and unique images setting themselves apart from the tidal wave of similars shot by the horde.

  • Asking “why am I taking this picture? ” is not about the photographer but about the subject. What is there here that is of interest here, what is engaging and particular, what is there that is unique, what is the essence of this experience from which an image will come?

    It is thus a practise to help focus attention and see clearly.

    You're right, it's not about the end-viewer, but nonetheless a good image has to “ring true.”

  • Questioning “what” we shoot is a required step in the process, obvious to all of us every time we use a camera to make an image.

    But questioning “why” is far rarer; why? Perhaps we interpret questioning “why” as a form of self-doubt, and we feel we're not allowed to share our doubts over our abilities and our directions; perhaps it's an extension of the rareness and difficulty of living an “examined life” (and no, not all photographers / artists live an examined life); perhaps it's because we always pack our cameras but we often don't pack our vision; perhaps it's because we fool ourselves into thinking authentic = new, forgetting that the two are not intertwined, and failing to own up to the fact that creating something truly new is incredibly rare.

    Is it too selfish to merely say “I am taking this because I want to, for me and me alone”? Must we create images that make a contribution to a world outside our own? And can we create great, authentic, meaningful images if we attempt to shoot for viewers rather than ourselves?

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