What is it about some photos that makes us really make us stop and take a look? Those photos that make us think? The photos that make us feel?
Before I go on; I’m not even just talking about the “worthy” photos, the ones that end up in National Geographic lists about photographs that changed the world. I mean even a photo that your grandmother took of you at your fifth birthday; you can look at that twenty years later and you can hear everyone’s voices singing happy birthday, you can feel the weak heat coming from the candles, and smell the cake. Photographs are powerful no matter who took them and how.
If you think about how many different images our brains take in and filter through in any given day, it’s a wonder that we are actually able to fully process and engage with any singular image. But some images really do have a unique power. It’s arresting, that sudden stop that you make when you see one. All it takes is that small seed, that tiny tug on the rope that pulls us in. But what is that? And is it the same for all of us?
The truth is I’m not really sure; I’m just as in the dark as you and as a photographer these are questions I ask myself all the time. When I’m shooting, when I’m culling through whatever I’ve shot, when I’m editing, when I’m deciding what to post; what’s foremost in my mind is what is going to be the one thing about each photo that is going to give that tiny pull. You know when you have a magnet, and you hover it over a fridge or something metal? And there’s that point, right on the edge of where the pull only just starts. That’s the feeling I’m looking for.
But I could shoot a hundred images and never feel that personally about any of them. Or I could shoot one image and feel it so strongly and someone else doesn’t feel anything at all. It’s the thing that makes photography so amazing and confusing and frustrating at the same time. We all come to look at different images bringing a lifetime of other images with us. Not only that, we’re bringing every thread from our own individual lives – who we’ve loved, who we’ve lost, what we think, what we know, what we think we know, what we’ve learned, what we’ve forgotten. No two people will look at an image and have that same background framing the meaning of a photograph for them.
As an example, if I take a photo of a person and another person looks at that photo, how they see the subject in that photograph can be dependent on so many different, very personal things. Do they know the person? How does this person make them feel? Have they interacted with them? Have they heard of the person? Does the person remind them of someone else? Someone they loved? Someone who hurt them? Is whatever the subject is doing something universal that we can all relate to? Does the person’s facial expression make us feel joy or discomfort? Is there more than one person in the photo? What does their dynamic suggest about their relationship?
Not only that, but there is a third person in the equation – the photographer. Are they trying to make you see the subject in a certain way? Or is the photo candid, and so it reflects something the photographer doesn’t even really know they themselves feel? This tension is a theme in all art forms; once it is out there, your work never really belongs to you anymore. It is a part of you, in some aspects a deep part of you that you don’t really know, and now suddenly it’s up for interpretation by anyone else.
As scary as that is, that’s actually why you do it though. At least that’s how I see it. I want people to feel something looking at my photography, because I feel so much when I do it. It’s another form of communication, it’s a narrative, it’s an expression, it’s a question, it’s an answer.
And yes, there are some photos that just simply exist. They just are. They don’t offer deeper meaning, they don’t need to be read. They just exist. That photo from your birthday may never make a list in National Geographic but for that time you look at it years down the track it won’t matter, because it means something for you. We need those too. The more we look the better we get at seeing.