The thing that I struggle most to get people to realize about photography is that it’s about story-telling.
No, not in the sense that we’re illustrating tales that might have intricate plots and which require additional annotations to help the reader visualise the circumstances – although this is indeed one legitimate use of photography – but rather that every photograph is a standalone story in its own right – one which requires no verbal explaination. …or at least it should be.
Being that photographers are of the show-and-tell variety, we often fall into the trap of supplementing our images with lengthy verbal recollections of how, when, where and why they were taken. This is in itself not a sin, but we need to be careful when acquiring this habit, because for some of us it becomes a crutch upon which we lean in order to make people buy into our work.
What’s I’m really getting to is that a good photograph needs no further explanation; it tells the “story” of the scene all by itself. It therefore IS the explanation.
Almost every year I visit the exhibition of the winners in the various categories of the World Wildlife Photographer of the Year. And while I must give the standard of photography the utmost respect and praise, I have to say that each year, while standing in front of 2 or 3 of the dozens of photos on display, I find myself scratching my head in amazement wondering how on earth they came to be declared winners.
My next instinct is usually to then glance at the name of the category to see if perhaps it isn’t something obscure, such as “Domesticated Pets Turned Feral in Derelict Urban Environs as a result of Civil Unrest and/or War, for photographers in the age group 6-13, using disposable cameras”. I’ll do this in the search for a plausible excuse for the standard of the work: perhaps that the category is so obscure that there were only 2 entries world-wide and that the winning shot before me is merely the one that is the least shit.
Nonetheless, a couple of years ago, I found myself at the exhibition reading a very long caption below one such brow-raising image. The photo was of a poorly-exposed, poorly focused, shaky shot of the arse-end of some or other hare as it scampered away – apparently towards its burrow. Or the highway. It could have been a fence …or not. I can’t really remember; it wasn’t that memorable a picture.
In the shot I could just about make out a hole of some sort, but it wasn’t a rabbit-hole – if you know what I mean.
I thought to myself: I just wouldn’t know what to make of this image if I didn’t have a very long and detailed essay which contained words and phrases such as “reflex shot”, “elusive”, “rarely-sighted animal”, and so on.
Left to my own devices, and a bit of photographer’s insight, I could just about make out that what I was looking at was in deed a bit of bunny-bum rapidly leaving the frame.
But thanks to the willingness of the photographer to explain to me what to make of it, I could now go home and tell other people that I had seen an international award-winning photograph of a lesser-spotted Spotted Snow-Hare!
But had I? Put simply: No, I had not. I had simply been talked into believing that I had.
Well… in fact I hadn’t been talked into it. But the judges clearly had, and so too had, I suspect, a good deal of the other people who visited that exhibition that year.
Now don’t get me wrong – you’ll often find me blabbing on about the circumstances surrounding some of my favourite pictures, both those that I’ve taken myself and those of other photographers. But you won’t hear me trying to sell photographs to people, because frankly, if the photograph doesn’t do that itself, then it’s failing as a photograph!
The photographer’s supplemental anecdotal description of the image should neither add to, nor detract from the photograph’s own message.
Personally, instead of talking about my photographs when I show them to other people, I prefer to listen to what the viewers have to say about it for themselves, because this teaches me about how to produce images that contain elements which people recognize and respond to. What they say, and what they don’t say (in other words: what I was expecting to hear, but didn’t) teaches me about both what moves people and what doesn’t. I’ll even go as far as to ask someone what they think of certain elements in the shot. The difference of course being that I, as the photographer, am the one being instructed – not the one instructing.
Only through this process can I learn to produce images which speak for themselves.
Yes, you’ll surely find me yapping on about some of my favourite images from time to time, as I hope would any other enthusiastic photographer, but please understand that when a photographer opens their mouth to talk about their work, it should be as a means of adding to that which they have already presented through the non-verbal part of the story – the photograph itself. The verbal anecdotes, are there to tell the story behind the story – not the story itself.
I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but if it doesn’t then I guess it means that I’ve demonstrated what I’m trying to tell you, because I’m saying that photographers should be better at communicating through pictures than through words!
If ever you find yourself listening to, or reading about a photographer’s explanation of a photograph then ask yourself why they are giving you this verbal information, and if it’s necessary to make you understand the shot. In my humble opinion, if it is necessary, then the photograph is failing.
The work of Photographers should be seen and not heard.