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What are you trying to say?

I have been taking photographs in one way or another for 20 years (man, the time has flown by). It wasn’t until 2015 or so that I really took the time to ask myself, “What the hell am I trying to do?”. I should have asked myself that much, much earlier — here’s why:

I believe the desire to create is the subconscious drive to express something in a tangible way. Unfortunately, that something can be very hard to pin down even if you know it exists to begin with. If don’t have a strong pulse on what the something is, that creative drive often becomes sporadic, volatile and haphazard. Most problematic it makes you susceptible to distractions. This is especially troubling for photography as there are no limit to distractions. One can spend endless hours sidetracked by photo gear, post-processing or any other bit of irrelevance. So you focus on the things that promise to help you tell your story — if only you knew what that was

And that’s the rub — once you know what you’re trying to say, so many things start to fall into line.

  • What genre(s) of photography you practice
  • What camera(s) you use
  • What focal length(s) are most appropriate
  • Color or black and white
  • Development of a personal style
  • If photography is even the right medium to begin with
  • and so on…

These things become clearer and more intentional once you know what you’re trying to say. With that minutiae out of the way, you can focus on the real work of creating a body of work

The opposite isn’t fun. I lived it for a long time and now I see it all the time in folks I chat with from time to time. It’s sad because you can really feel their struggle of having something that wants to get out, but can’t. A lot of that struggle manifests in workshops, classes, random photo gear purchases… And much less photographing than you’d expect. 

You can’t buy this answer. No workshop or class will give it to you. Gear absolutely won’t. This is something you have to figure out on your own. Ironically, the one thing that can help — going out and shooting — is what’s often neglected. 

It’s not only the wallet that suffers — the work suffers too. I think most people going through this know on some implicit level (hence the workshops, classes, and more). The work often is all over the place because the person taking the pictures is. 

Knowing what you want to say becomes a north star. It guides and drives your practice. It might be hard to put into words, but at the very least it should click in your head. 

If you’re having a hard time, start broadly; cliché even. Such as:

  • “I’m trying to document the human condition” (How many times have we heard that one?)
  • “I’m trying to capture the day-to-day life of my family”
  • “I’m trying to show the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas”

That’s fine as a start, but most of us have something more substantial and personal to say than the examples above. It’s through the practice of practice — taking photos ad infinitum — that we can start to define our intent. And that’s where things get fun.

At that point, you can start channeling your energy with some purpose and direction. You’ll be better able to choose which photo to take. More importantly, you’ll be able to choose which photo not to take. Your style can start to take shape based on intent and message, not external influences. Lastly, it gives you a better lens through which to critique your work. Your message more material than pure aesthetics by which to judge your photographs. 

Will knowing what you want to say make you take better photos in and of itself? Of course not. All sorts of things play into that; talent, drive, will, time and money. I have a decent idea of what I’m trying to say and I consider myself a long way from where I’d like to be. But I don’t know of a good photographer who doesn’t know what they’re trying to say. So, let’s call is a pre-requisite. Even if you never take a good photo, I still think it’s worth your time to figure out what you’re trying to say. That answer alone will answer so many other questions in your practice. And if nothing else, you’ve scratched that ever-elusive phantom itch.

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