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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

How can you envision photographic respect?

In my last post I talked about showing your photographic subjects respect. And I wrote a bit about tuning in to your own feelings about a photographic subject to help you determine how to show not only your subject respect, but also your own feelings. I thought I should add a little postcript because a lot of talk about photographic vision concentrates on finding your own personal inner way of seeing. By necessity the way you envision a photograph will come from within you and help set you apart from other photographers. We're all individuals and obviously see the world in different ways.

But a lot of those theories don't really point to what I was alluding to - which is that the subject of your photographs deserve just as much respect as your inner vision. After all you could find yourself in some tropical paradise and take a whole bunch of abstract pictures of grains of sand, overexposed pictures of cocktail glasses and landscapes with tilted horizons (because you couldn't think of any other way to make the picture interesting!). And all those would be valid interpretations of how you felt. But would they be showing respect to your subject?

I would err on the side of saying no. That they would appeal as fine art to people who shared your sensibilities, but that true respect for your photographic subject involves thinking about how other people interpret the pictures as well. And by other people I don't necessarily mean photographers.

I live a cloistered life. The vast majority of my friends are photographers. All of them are passionate, some of them pros, some of them amateurs. They all love their photography. And they love their tech-speak and gadgets. But only a very few of them would I trust to a conversation about the merits of a picture in terms of respecting the subject. They can all point to the fact that I should have had more depth of field in this picture, or avoided the lamp post coming out of the subject's head in that one. But sometimes they miss the mark when it comes to talking about the impact of the subject itself. For those opinions I tend to prefer people who have no interest in photography whatsoever.

Because those people wouldn't know an f-stop from a bus stop they can only focus on what's in the picture itself. And they're a great guage for telling you whether your images are hitting the mark or not. So keeping them in mind is one of the first things you can think about when you're trying to show respect to your subject. Would a non-photographer find this an interesting image? Would they be more interested in the subject of the picture or the how (or why) I took it?

Another way of getting that inspiration is to think less about yourself and more about the legacy your pictures will leave. With travel photography one of the first inspirations is 'I will never be in this place again so I'd better take a lovely shot'. That might be all the motivation you need to get up before dawn to capture a landscape in beautiful light. But if it isn't take the focus away from you for a minute.

Imagine that the landscape you want to photograph is due to be strip-mined. Turned into a quarry for the minerals beneath it. And you will be the last photographer ever to capture it. Indeed, depending on the ability of your pictures to move people you might even be able to save it from the mining. Now would that be inspiration enough for you to do more than show up at midday and grab a quick snap? You see how taking the emphasis away from you and putting it on the subject helps provide you with inspiration?

Imagine a beautiful building is about to be demolished. You're there in the afternoon and it's facing east. If you knew that in a couple of days it would be rubble would you be more inclined to come back in the morning when the first rays of sunrise hit it?

With travel portrait photography one of my greatest sources of inspiration is imagining the look on the subject's face when I show them the picture. Do you think they'll be happy with a high-contrast snapshot taken out in the midday sun showing all their wrinkles? Do you think they'd be thrilled if you take the time to move them into softer light and really create a beautiful portrait?

Imagine how happy they'll be when they see the LCD. Imagine how thrilled they'll be if you send them a print. Imagine that it might be the only photograph of themselves that they will ever own. That their children will ever have to remember them by when they're gone. Their one legacy to the world after they depart. In many parts of the world this is by no means a stretch of the imagination.

Don't you think that in all of the above cases you owe it to your subjects to be the best photographer you can be? Without a doubt photographic vision is hugely important. It's the reason we spend so much time concentrating on it and refining it in an effort to remain true to ourselves and (if professional) differentiate ourselves from our colleagues. But just as important in what we do as travel and nature photographers is to consider the importance of paying respect to our subjects. For without them we're just overexposed pictures of blurry grains of sand on a beach. We might appeal to the artsy set and satisfying our inner vision but are we paying enough attention to what our subjects would want?

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