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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