Nobody Cares About Your Photography

A video post by The Art of Photography expressed a lot of thoughts I’d been mulling around photography. The video is called Nobody Cares About Your Photography. I’d highly recommend watching it, whether you’re a professional, a serious amateur, or even just a fan of photography.

When I posted it on a Facebook group catering to photographers who still enjoy using film, I was surprised that many people seemed to misunderstand what it asks of us–especially since, as I’d noted in my post, film photographers are not great followers of the herd. Many critics in the comments to my post believed that the video creator was unfairly asking us to do something never before seen in photography, or sell our cameras. That is not at all what I hear in this video, and I’d like to briefly explain.

I used this example from my photography. I took the image below in the Drakensberg Mountains (“Dragon Mountains”) here in South Africa. Now this is a pretty picture that used a lot of accumulated skill to achieve. The composition, the choice of film, the choice of shutter speed and aperture, the setting of the focus point, the height of the tripod, the cunning extra bracing against a sapling and weighing down of said tripod were all consciously worked out using what I’d learned over many years.

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It’s pretty. I’m fond of it. But look what happens if I google, “forest stream slow shutter” There are literally thousands of images–some better, some worse–that attempt to do exactly the same thing. We’ve absorbed an idea as photographers that success is to achieve the same beautiful image that many other people have already taken.

Here’s my symmetrical picture of the Taj Mahal. When I look at this, I wonder why I even pressed the shutter. Even some of the pics I took of the Taj to give a “different” view, because I wasn’t unconscious of this issue, probably get taken several to hundreds of times a day.

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Now it’s all very well to say: “Ah. But this is mine. It’s a souvenir of my trip.” But then why even bother learning the skills of photography and investing in expensive gear? If it’s just a souvenir, and you can find better on any google image search, why not just take a few phone snaps?

And here’s where the critics feel cornered. “If I can’t take any original photographs of the Taj Mahal, what do you suggest I photograph? Should I just leave my camera at home?” And the video actually answers that question.

Let’s stop trying to take pictures that are of universal importance. Most of us well never succeed. Even most pros never take anything that will be remembered by the world in general. The alternative is to use your skills to take pictures that are of specific, local importance. Often this means a body of work instead of trying to take that one killer image of an over-famous place, that sells for six and a half million dollars (inexplicably, in my opinion. This is another image of a clichéd subject that is not really rejuvenated by a slight twist. I very much doubt that this image will retain its value).

Projects are key. Projects that will be of lasting importance to people and places that otherwise go poorly documented. The example I used in my Facebook post was documenting your kid’s karate tour. A critic said that that had been done before. That misses the point. People come and go. Unless they’re Brangelina, they very rarely get photographed like the Taj Mahal. A highly skilled photographer can turn their camera to something like that, and it will be valued by all involved for their lifetime and quite likely beyond.

Likewise, a local community, and its buildings and businesses, will go undocumented but for dodgy snapshots on phones that will likely mostly be lost. Look at some of the amazing sequences taken by amateurs featured on The Retronaut. These pictures are important now both as documents and because they looked beyond the limited sight of a snap-shooter. This may not allow for the autopilot shooting of half-dome in Yosemite, but it will be valued long after everyone realises that none of those photographs of Yosemite mean anything after Ansel Adams made the definitive images.

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Photographers a Yosemite. All trying to get exactly the same picture. img src: petapixel.com

A series of images of unusual animal behaviour rather than trying to get the perfect image of that animal. A series of studio lit portraits of show-chickens. Your local hiking area instead of bloody Lake Louise (if I never again see one…). These are things that are beyond a quick google search to find thousands of beautiful images. No one’s asking you to give up photography, or to become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson. Use your skills, as the video says, for things that matter. Things that matter to someone, not everyone. But those over-photographed places and those clichéd images don’t matter to anyone who’s capable of using google image search.

My project isn’t going to be terribly exciting. I simply intend to take a lot of portraits of people I know, as well as I can, using my Pentax 6×7 and one of those beautiful colour negative films that give such magic skin tones (e.g., Portra 160, Fujicolour NPH400) and then make very large, 20″x24″ photographic prints to give to the subject. With luck, a handful of them will be in the possession of great, great grand-children, and great-great grand nephews and nieces as among the best images they have of a long dead relative, taken by a long-dead photographer. By then, the only picture of Half-Dome in Yosemite anyone will care about will still be one by Ansel Adams.

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Moon and Half-Dome by Ansel Adams. img src: tumblr.com
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The Wrong Elephant (part 2)

I warned you in part 1 that I was going to describe my ludicrous brush with death in Corbett National Park back in 2005. The whole thing was so absurd that I shan’t be surprised if you don’t believe me.

So I described how the best way to see wildlife in Corbett is on the back of an elephant. I won’t get into the cruelty issues of which I was largely unaware at the time. But the great thing about game-watching in this style is that most animals will let an elephant get really close before they start feeling skittish. We could get within a few feet of spotted deer, or wild boar without them fleeing.

Now there’s something about India that no one ever seems to talk about. It’s the homeland of a plant that’s been spread world-wide due to its many remarkable properties. That plant is Cannabis indica, and it has as many names as Eskimos allegedly have for snow. One popular one in English is, “weed.” In North India, that’s exactly what it is.

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Not what you usually think of as ‘in the bush’

Cannabis (dagga in South Africa, marijuana in the US) grows alongside every village road in Uttarakhand, and it covers the plains of Corbett National Park about six feet high.

It was through this college day-dream that we were pursuing the tiger that we’d seen from a distance earlier, lazing on the river bank, and giving the other elephant’s riders a spectacular sighting of the world’s greatest land-predator.

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Now the ancient, irascible cow-elephant on which we were perched was parting the sea of cannabis on the trail of the occasional quivering branch, or angry cough.

Dotted around this green ocean were the backs of wild elephants like ships at anchor. They would have been interesting in most situations that don’t involve a two hundred kilogram cat scuttling about just below your feet. One of these fellows though, was apart from the others, and his vicious elephant brain was a smoothie of hormonal derangement.

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The tiger at hand recaptured my attention with a rattling growl about a meter in front of us from deep within the cannabis. Our elephant halted and raised her trunk up to her forehead, sniffing the air in front of us and rumbling deep within her vast chest. But then our mahout turned his head and gave a shout of surprise. That young elephant bull had broken into a run and it’s evil little eyes were locked onto us.

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Time split into tiny slivers. I deduced what was happening. This hormone-addled bastard intended rape–and the subject of its criminal desire was the 54 year old cow on which we were perched. Having some notion of elephantine sexual positions, I realised that his crime would certainly be compounded by multiple homicide. I contemplated jumping down, but my adrenaline charged brain awkwardly reminded me that down was in possession of an infuriated Bengal Tiger hidden in the leaves.

Our mahout was thrashing the old cow trying to get her into a run. But her age, bloody mindedness, and the tiger at her feat made this futile. As I took one last shaking picture of the four ton reaper bearing down on us I thought: “I am going to die, crushed under a sex-crazed elephant in a field of dagga.”

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Had things gone differently, this would have been my last, horrifying photograph

Now was this just an everyday occurrence, blown out of proportion by an unfamiliar foreigner? I shall ever forget our mahout’s eyes bulge with fright as he watched the living steam roller riding a trail of dust towards us. Abandoning his attempt to abuse our elephant into motion, he began desperately clapping his hands and shouting.

Perhaps ten metres from us, the would-be rapist pulled up sharply, gave a pig-like squeal, turned ninety degrees, and trotted away. Years later, when a plane I was on had to land with one engine out, the relief on the face of our pilot as we disembarked reminded me of our mahout’s face that day.

Later we got to see some more of our tiger, but never close enough for a really good picture.

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And it wasn’t just that elephant. Indian wildlife seemed to be way more savage than our African equivalent. It wasn’t the last time we got charged by a hormonal bull-elephant. And in another incident, while travelling by Jeep, we passed a small troop of silver langur monkeys. As we passed by, one shrieked and leapt at the Jeep. I had a confused impression of the simian’s slashing fangs blurring past my head. I was left in little doubt that it would have grabbed on with all four limbs and devoured my face had it not misjudged its assault.

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Raising a new generation of killer simians