Some thoughts on creating "must get" photographs in a time when images are thrown at us en-masse.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The Road Not Taken, By Robert Frost.
It's one of the most well known poem's in the world. However, this also makes it one of the most misunderstood poems in the world. Most people, when reading Frost's poem to the left, assume it's about the concept of bucking trends; about going your own way; about being an individual; about going against the crowd. In actuality, it is indeed about those things, but it's also very much about nervousness around choosing direction. It's also about hindsight, and about how we'll always simultaneously appreciate where we've gone but also regret the lost opportunities in our lives.
Photography is very often a game of lost opportunities. How often do we say, "It's ok, I'll shoot it another time" or "it's too early to get up for that sunrise photograph"? It's also very often a game of endurance in seeing through long-term creative endeavours. It's also (somewhat unfortunately) a game of emulation of others' work -- to create a version of an iconic photograph in order to feel successful, a sense of achievement, or satisfied. No matter the angle from which you choose to look at the medium, there's a clear choice -- which road do you take?
I've been thinking a lot lately about how this all relates to our work as photographers -- specifically things like one-off, must-get, or bucket-list photographs, and how these contribute to creating meaningful work. I also wonder about how the urge to get out there and photograph plays off against the urge to photograph something impactful and meaningful. Just getting out there and photographing these one-off images often is a good learning and technical exercise, and keeps your craft in tune -- it can even be therapeutic -- but the images created in this manner are almost always easily forgettable. Forgettable not because it's a bad image, but because the content doesn't engage us as viewers. It doesn't make us think, or challenge us.
Recently, I've faced the choice to go out and photograph a sunset because it's beautiful... but I choose not to go out because I think, "Meh, it's just another sunset". And I often regret it. And I'm often nervous about choosing to either shoot or not shoot because that leaves me in a place where I'm either just photographing for the sake of it (without a vision for what I'm creating) or I'm just not trying to think about more meaningful work that I could be out photographing instead.
If you think about popular images that you're seeing online today... you'll notice common subjects amongst them. The Milky Way. The Northern Lights. Slot Canyons with dust in the air. Rocks moving across the desert floor leaving trails behind them. Silky smooth waterfalls in lush, green forests. You don't have to look far to see them either; there are entire websites geared entirely towards the most stereotypical images bubbling to the top. There are some exceptions to these claims here, but often there's very little emotion in most of these kinds of images. Nor do they challenge us, as a viewer. At this point in time, we've seen so many of these images that we can all visualise any of them in our minds. And if we do happen to see a photograph shared online of such subjects, even if the location, weather, or subject is different, physically they're often so similar that it's almost as though we've actually already seen it.
I feel like there is a need in photography today to go and photograph these "OMG must shoot it" images, and put them out into the world as quickly as possible. For some reason, this kind of work has been put up on a pedestal and is being defined as great photography. How can it be great art if it's possible to reproduce it so readily and easily? How can it be great art if it doesn't make us think?
Photography has become so ubiquitous, so much so that it is turning what used to be an endurance event against ourselves into a sprint race against everyone else.
It has become human nature to not only consume content in the blink of an eye, but also to create and share content at the same pace. I've heard it referred to as "an avalanche of images". I've heard it referred to as "the democratisation of photography". I've heard it referred to as computers throwing up (ok, I might be paraphrasing that one a little bit...) Everyone is a photographer. Everyone has a camera on them all the time (be it dSLR or smartphone). We all have the ability to share and consume content instantly. And it's becoming toxic to the medium. We're subconsciously being forced away from pushing ourselves to create thoughtful work because it's so easily accessible to just create anything.
Does this mean, by virtue of so many people photographing so often, there can be no more original content?
Does this mean, that even if original content is created, it won't be given appropriate time to appreciate it?
Does this mean, creators should choose to always think about blazing the road not taken?
I think the obvious answer to these questions is "no", because this means there's an even greater need for unique work amongst all the images online -- a signal amongst the noise. But, I think that there's definitely a yes-and-no component to it, because there is always downside to always taking your work and yourself so seriously. By putting pressure on yourself to be always creating something "that will change the world", you're stifling chances to both have fun with your craft, as well as chances to serendipitously see something that may trigger an idea worth pursuing on a grander scale than just another sunset.
The thing is, creating the one off images is actually really fun. You get to go and visit some place that is wonderfully beautiful or interesting, and come back with an image that is technically great. And that's a wonderful thing -- especially for people who are new to photography or who are looking to learn new techniques, or those who want to travel to far away places to make photographs. However, I think there's becoming a need for a balance between getting out there just because you love doing what you're doing, and putting in the hard work to create a body of work that is impactful beyond simply the "wow, this is beautiful" reactions that are forgotten so quickly in the void of the Internet.
Like the proverbial musician on the street, singing their heart out because they just love it so much, I believe at some point each and every one of us who picked up a camera and thought, I want this to be part of my life, initially thought so because they loved the feeling of making a great image. Because they loved the act of creating something. Simply because it was fun, relaxing, or ________, it didn't matter - each and every one of us loved making photographs. Somewhere along the way that's gotten lost and traded in for producing images geared more towards courting accolades instead of pursuing authentic work that is true to our respective visions.
Today's online world is not preventing new and original content from being created - today's photographers are.
The well-trodden road can be one that is indeed alluring because there's an obvious appeal to a large audience. The people who have changed the world were the crazy ones; the ones who went a different road. I'm sure there were regrets and some hindsight appreciations for what sacrifices those choices incurred, but the work they achieved stems from their love and passion, and simply cannot be ignored.
While making time for the one-off images can be important and should continue, as photographers we owe it to those who came before us in the medium - Leiter, Allard, Cartier-Bresson, Burtynsky, Salgado, Evans, just to name a few - to both find time to keep pursuing the kind of work that causes the audience to think, to remember, and to feel.