I’ve largely kept up with my self promise from a few months ago to shoot pictures every day. I shoot when I feel energetic and when I’m tired. I even shot a bunch of dull photos in a hotel room in Khulna, Bangladesh while I was sick. Those I’ll never show to anyone because they’re terrible — but at least I kept the practice up.
This is about practice in the technical parts of making a photo — even more it’s about finding things to photograph even when I’m not “inspired.”
Yesterday I woke up in Bangkok so tired that I couldn’t bring myself to get in people’s faces with a camera. So instead I shot small details around Chinatown.
Just thinking about shooting pictures everyday and having something to look for and shoot made me start to think about a question asked to me by my friends Justin and Nick. “What are you trying to say?”
What am I trying to say?
The most basic statement my snapshots can make is I was here or this happened or I saw this.
One of the criticisms I got when I started working with a photo teacher in 2014 was that my photos were often just postcards. They were pictures that could be shot every day, pictures that showed a place and it’s beauty but didn’t show anything unique. There’s little point, my teacher argued, to shooting a picture that can be shot every day. Those two shots above of Chinatown are absolutely postcards.
One of my early challenges was to shoot anti-postcards. Things that don’t happen every day and are ironic, funny, or show a scene a way not usually seen. Below is an anti-postcard from Cambodia. How often do you see a beautifully set table with a cow staring from behind it? Almost never — so it was worth capturing.
One downside of only capturing anti-postcards is that they can lead to excessive irony in photos. I’ll always be on the lookout for the unusual, the strange, and the perverse. To me at least this leads to an overall negative view of the world — always seeking out what’s unusual or off about what I experience — and so I grew not to like it.
Positive vs Negative Statements
A final thought is that just collecting small bits of empirical evidence like this about a culture only goes so far. Do I want a collection of images of sad people using telephones?
Do I think that the statement “Technology can make us unhappy?” is a valuable one to make? I’d much rather make claims about solutions, show people solutions, than claims about problems.
Making negative statements about society isn’t quite irony, but it is close. I don’t feel that it’s constructive. I think people are aware enough of the problems in our society and are seeking solutions now. That brings to mind another quote from David Foster Wallace.
“Irony and cynicism were just what the U.S. hypocrisy of the fifties and sixties called for. That’s what made the early postmodernists great artists. The great thing about irony is that it splits things apart, gets up above them so we can see the flaws and hypocrisies and duplicates. The virtuous always triumph? Ward Cleaver is the prototypical fifties father? “Sure.” Sarcasm, parody, absurdism and irony are great ways to strip off stuff’s mask and show the unpleasant reality behind it. The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? Irony’s useful for debunking illusions, but most of the illusion-debunking in the U.S. has now been done and redone. Once everybody knows that equality of opportunity is bunk and Mike Brady’s bunk and Just Say No is bunk, now what do we do? All we seem to want to do is keep ridiculing the stuff. Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.” - David Foster Wallace
Returning to the sad girl on a phone: I don’t know her and I don’t know why she’s sad. Maybe she just got ripped off, robbed, or found out a family member has cancer. I’m uncomfortable continuing to make pictures that either don’t say something positive or have a deeper, concrete, and non-ironic meaning.
Some other statements showing up in my photos, statements also made by many other people, are “We are destroying the environment.”, “Consumerism and technology can make us unhappy.” and “Religion (or the world) can be beautiful.”
I like these statements a bit more than anti-postcards because they have some power for good in the world. Done right, a photo that makes a statement which we can act on seems to me to be much more valuable than an absurd photo.
Some examples of pictures with these themes are below. It’s a good time to say that don’t really like telling people exactly these photos mean to me because I don’t always feel qualified to make blanket statements. These photos are just small pieces of evidence that I’ve gathered.
The Challenges of Shooting Abroad
A challenge with making more meaningful statements about life abroad is that I don’t know the culture. The longer I’m in Asia the more obvious it gets that there are things I’ll never understand.
I could learn the language, live in a city for years, and never be able to make the same cultural statements about any foreign country as I could about home.
That’s not to say it’s not worth trying. A lot of my friends do a fantastic job at documenting life abroad and exploring issues that residents of a given country aren’t documenting themselves1.
Returning to the USA
Next week I’m flying back to the United States for an extended visit. Other than a one week visit for my brother’s wedding I haven’t been back to the United States in a year and a half.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the statements I make develop once I’m back in my own culture. It feels difficult and a bit wrong to make bold statements about culture in foreign countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and Bangladesh because I’m not intimately familiar with aspects of the culture and don’t have enough people to tell me when I’m wrong.
Appendix: Growing Photo Essays
One more piece about photography is that as I’m gathering more and more photos — sometimes a dozen decent pictures a day — it’s getting complicated to show them one at a time. It’s also hard to edit photos into a meaningful series.
Growing from a single strong photo to many photos exploring a topic is the biggest challenge for me now. Maybe it is for you too. I’d imagine many people hit this wall around one year into shooting full time. You have a hundred photos — far more than are worth showing as singles — and you want to find a way to display many of them at once.
At photo festivals a slideshow with music seems to be the default medium for many photographers to show their work. At the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia last November the photographers gathered together at night to watch slideshows with music from dozens of different photo essays created the previous year.
I have no practice at all editing a series of photos to be show in a slideshow like this, my closest work is editing photos into a two-by-two grid as seen in this previous blog post. It’s good practice for laying out a book one day, and good practice for arranging photos that aren’t necessarily strong on their own.
- It’s not that foreigners are necessarily any better at photography than residents of a country — Bangladesh and Indonesia are known for having phenomenal local photographers — as far as I can tell it’s mostly about foreigners having an easier time getting content to foreign news outlets and having enough money to attempt a capital intensive career like photo journalism. [return]