Saturday, September 19

Photographic maturity

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I am immature enough to know that a giant farting cloud elephant is not that interesting to most people and of zero photographic merit other than it exists and was captured in its transience; but I am mature enough to know that I like a window seat on an airplane because looking out helps pass the time, and occasionally you see things like this that give your inner five year old some joy. I also know that it matters not one whit what I shot this with so long as it looked like the intended farting elephant. (Side note: I have been photographing seriously for nearly 20 years now, nine of them as a full time pro. I’ve shot all the things I’ve wanted to shoot, worked with all the people and companies I’ve wanted to, and probably quite a bit beyond – in short, I have the luxury of knowing what I want to do/be/shoot as photographer.)

The journey for every photographer involves a few things:
– Figuring out what it is you want to photograph [motivations]
– Figuring out how you want to present it, or your [style]
– Seeking affirmation
– Not needing affirmation
We’ve discussed the first two items at length here before. We haven’t discussed the last two – and I think it’s about time we did, having firmly felt that I have been sitting in the final category for some time now. Right about after leaving Hasselblad and shifting my primary focus away from the photography industry to watchmaking, actually. It’s no coincidence that once you stop worrying about something, you feel increasingly liberated as to what you can ‘get away with’; it’s the gift and curse that the amateur fails to appreciate compared to the professional. There is fundamentally no need for the amateur to care what anybody but themselves thinks of their own work – yet most do, more intensely than the pro whose paycheck is dependent on client affirmation. Why?

Whilst this is a simplification of sorts, it’s also why 99% of the content online exists: most people are either looking for confirmation that the decisions we made are right – be they creative or technical – or looking for ideas on where to go or what to do next. In both cases, there is a fundamental element of ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I care what other people think so I’ll look’ – and even if you don’t necessarily follow, it’s impossible to escape the subconscious influence this has on one’s decision making. Very, very few people can say they genuinely don’t care what others think; it requires a supremely confident person and strong state of mind to rise above.

Social media has not helped any of this one single bit. There is a strange reward mechanism by which what we post is given summary judgement by random people we don’t know but somehow attribute far too much weight to; they decide if we are worthy of a ‘like’ and somehow that carries a correlation to self-worth. This of course makes no logical sense when couched in these terms; yet it doesn’t stop people from posting. In the last months I’ve repeatedly asked myself why I myself continue – and I can’t find a good answer beyond habit and the need to cultivate some sort of public personality for professional reasons. But it gives me no pleasure to post images on instagram and facebook and read and reply the judgmental or ignorant comments like “wow, what a sharp camera”. It feels like obligation, not enjoyment – and if so, why?

I’ve said this before many times: the amateur really only needs to care about what they themselves honestly think about their work. There is no need to worry about what others think; you are only producing work for yourself. It is probably better not to be distracted by the thoughts of others for this reason: you can experiment in directions you might have been discouraged from before achieving the results you envisioned. The more difficult the vision, the more likely you are to be turned off if you let somebody see and judge before you yourself are ‘finished’ or ‘happy’ with the rend result. The professional only need worry about the opinion of their client, since they’re the ones paying the bills – the rest is merely noise. Even what you personally think is much less relevant since one would hope that the client hired you for a job in line with your strengths rather than just as a randomly commoditized service provider (but then again, you might work in Malaysia).

So what, then, is photographic maturity? How does the mature photographer act?

Beyond knowing whose opinion matters in what situation – I think there’s also the experience factor. You know what images you’ve shot, what images you’re unlikely to repeat, what images you’re drawn to. To some degree this does mean that you land up making the same kinds of images a few times, but it means you can stop yourself from doing something worse, and instead ask yourself how you can do better – or, not care at all, and just shoot the same damn images because you like them. Both are perfectly acceptable approaches of the mature photographer.

You also know that under some situations photography is not appropriate or you have other priorities; you still feel the angst of not being able to shoot, but your eyes still see compositions and you know that you could make the images you want if you were shooting. If you can’t control yourself, you know that composition is independent of hardware and you can use the ubiquitous smartphone to scratch the itch. You also know that a strong composition transcends technical qualities and still ‘holds’ regardless of what you shot it on. You know that sufficiency is real, and most of the time for most uses – certainly self gratification – said smartphone will get the job done.

You may feel better using more specialized/expensive/serious hardware, but you know that all of this is a tool, which is fine; if you can afford and deploy better tools, then who’s to stop you? It’s your money and your creative process. You know that hardware doesn’t make up for creative or skill shortcomings, and you also know when your ability to execute is limited. You accept that what works for you – vision, workflow, hardware – isn’t the same as what works for the next person, and reviews are only valid in the context of the kinds of images the reviewer produces and their similarity to your own. You don’t need to seek external affirmation for any of your choices, but you’re sufficiently cognizant of your own limitations to know when to ask for help.

If I’m honest, reaching this stage of maturity as a photographer – or anything – requires both time and confidence. And it’s not something most people ever get to; it’s something you have to reach by passing through the stages of uncertainty and seeking external affirmation and existential questioning of “why am I doing this” to realize that you can only be happy if you make your best work, and you can only make your best work if it isn’t a compromise. To be better, we have to get into that zen state where we don’t let our uncertainties get in the way. We have to care, but not care too much. Just like compositional balance, there’s a point where you push things a little bit further because your gut says it’ll work…to hell with what anybody else thinks, we make photographs for us. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved

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