Sometimes it is difficult for me to look back at the photographs I created early in my career. The shots are all technically strong, but there is something missing. That missing element can be defined as vision. In this article, I will detail my journey in understanding the need to incorporate this crucial element into my art.
In the early days of my photography career, I became accustomed to being assigned the subjects and scenes I was photographing. My clients were record labels and music magazines and they knew the shots they wanted when they hired me. While they seldom gave me a written shot list, I understood the specific shots they wanted. If I were photographing a new artist who would be signing his contract that day, the label wanted a shot of him signing the contract, a shot of him looking up while signing, and a trade shot of the artist standing alongside the key figures from the label. Although the label would not ask for a solo shot of the artist I would usually take that shot as well because I knew I could sell that image through a stock photo agency. This was my approach to working for clients for many years and it never occurred to me that the way I photographed this type of event was in any way lacking.
One of my favorite gigs that I was assigned to photograph regularly was a feature where I would follow a hip-hop artist for a full day and document the things they did. I would find myself shooting in a variety of locations such as a jewelry shop, a restaurant, a radio station, a recording studio, and even the artist’s home. Since the locations were visually interesting and the artists were always stylish, the photos were consistently strong. I viewed my role as a photographer as being the person who would document what was taking place without interfering in what was occurring. Today, I realize that I often did not convey enough of my vision in my photo coverage.
About a decade ago, I became exposed to photographer, David duChemin. He believes, gear is good but vision is better. He is the author of several books that challenge photographers to think about why they are taking a particular photograph. He asks us to examine what we are saying about ourselves and the world around us when we make images. Think of your vision as being the way you view the world. As a photographer, your vision must be expressed in your photography.
Before being exposed to David’s writings, my main concern was to capture images that an editor or a client would be pleased with. Over the years, I began to realize my job as a photographer is not to simply document scenes, but to instead make a statement about that scene. By selecting a specific lens, using a non-standard shutter speed, or experimenting with different ways of composing a scene, we can provide a subtle commentary about that scene. Imagine you were assigned to photograph a concert in a small club that was 90% empty. You could use a wide-angle lens to show the artist onstage and you could include a view of the empty seats in the venue. This shot would give the impression the artist is not very popular. Or, you could use a long lens to show only the artist and you might give the impression that the artist is a superstar. I had always been aware of the composition options available to me, but before studying David’s teachings, it had not occurred to me how important it was for me to think about what message I wanted to communicate with my images.
Today, rather than try to simply document a scene, I aim to provide insight into that scene. If I offer nothing more than documenting something, then there is no need to hire me over another photographer. In a time when it is easier than ever to operate a camera, your clients must understand that you offer more than the ability to operate that camera.
One of the first photographers I ever encountered who understood how to communicate her vision was not a professional photographer. Her name was June Ambrose and she was a fashion stylist who dressed artists and models in music videos. I was hired to take BTS images at these videos. I would watch her take pictures with her phone and I was fascinated by what she chose to photograph. June’s focus was on fashion. She photographed full-length portraits to showcase the fashionable attire the artist was wearing. She photographed details like belt buckles, watches, and rings. She paid attention to things that I had neither noticed nor cared about.
The images she produced were very different from the ones that I produced. Unlike me, she wasn’t tasked with creating a volume of photographs that would document the entire process of making the video. Instead, she had the freedom to photograph whatever interested her. Her photography conveyed the message that the fashion elements in this video are on point.
Over time, music videos became the place where I first began to explore my vision. Because I was often on set for 10 hours or more, there was plenty of downtime. I was able to ask myself, “What is it that I find interesting here on set?” During downtime, I would talk with the video girls and extras and I would capture portraits of them. On more than one occasion I would bring a ring light and conduct a mini photo session without even asking the production company for permission. In time I found a magazine that would buy these photographs. This may have been the first time I was actually being paid for my vision and not just my technical ability to operate a camera.
I understand why David says gear is better than vision, but gear played an important role in my development as a photographer. When I was the house photographer for BET’s 106 & Park television show, I used two Nikon D3s bodies to capture the shots that BET required. My mental shot list for each episode included at least 20 different types of images that I needed to capture. Because I was photographing 5 shows per week, I could find a rhythm and reliably produce the shots I needed to capture each day. I began using the Leica M9 to capture scenes that were interesting to me. These shots might be anything from an audience member cheering, to a quiet moment of an artist talking with a friend.
Where BET needed a clean photograph of the artist taken against a white wall, I wanted to capture a more interesting of the artist doing something backstage. Each day, I would turn in the Leica images along with the Nikon images, but BET rarely used the Leica images as prominently as they did the Nikon images. However, when I show a portfolio of images from 106 & Park it consists of about 80% Leica images. The Leica images are the ones that best express my vision.
While it was a journey for me to understand the importance of vision in my photography you may be already expressing yourself fully. If you do not have clients asking for specific shots and your photography is self-driven, you may already have a good handle on the concept of vision. But, if you are a professional photographer who shoots a genre that is clearly defined — such as senior portraiture or headshots, there may be an opportunity for you to communicate something more with your photography than you are currently communicating. Doing so may not result in any additional income for you in the short term, but it might help you create a new body of work. Using a different camera for these personal shots might benefit you. When I shoot headshots, my camera is mounted on a tripod. If I were to use a handheld different camera to capture shots from a different shooting location I could produce photographs that are different from what my client is expecting. There’s no telling where these images may lead. Allow yourself to explore. Allow yourself to wander. Begin by asking yourself, “What do I find most interesting about the scene in front of me?” Or, “What do I think about this scene in front of me?” Then, use your camera to help your audience understand those questions.