Whilst I am happy to share my technical knowledge in this blog, I am acutely aware that such emphasis on technicality simply diverts conversation away from what’s really important in photography.
When I was studying photography at university for one of my projects I was photographing issues around childhood. At the time I was working at a summer camp in America looking after a group of kids so it was a perfect opportunity to explore this subject. I guess at the time I didn’t have a lot of direction and as with a lot of projects I was open to the journey and where that might lead me.
When I returned to the UK and presented the project to my tutor Mark Power I didn’t know that that day would become a hook moment in my life. Mark started talking about some very complicated emotional issues regarding my past. He was totally right, I almost fell off my chair as the walls closed in around me. I really hadn’t welcomed that and certainly wasn’t prepared for it either. I walked out of the tutorial and tried to understand what had just happened. Whilst Mark is a brilliant photographer and an inspirational person he’s certainly no mind reader. Everything was in my photographs he was just astute enough to point it out to me. The big question I was left with was how did all these issues end up there for everybody to see.
So I thought long and hard about this for quite a while and really the answer was quite straight forward. Why does one person look at something that another person would pay no attention to. Something draws your eye because you are interested in it, it’s actually relevant to your life story in some way. It doesn’t matter if it’s something incredibly important and profound or as trivial as a strange looking cloud or a dog playing with a stick. It’s actually our subconscious mind is that is running that whole process, it is constantly filtering and storing things from a world overloaded with information.
Think about it for a second, think of all the memories you have, things you remember from years back or from just yesterday. Happy or sad moments things you saw that you found interesting at the time, they all piece together to form your story and it was your subconscious mind that selected and saved these specific memories from trillions of other things that might have been very relevant to somebody else. Your mind and eyes are a camera actually taking photographs and editing them all the time.
This all seemed so blatantly obvious when I thought about it but I had not really joined the dots before. I hadn’t appreciated the role my subconscious mind played in my photography until it had one day said ‘hello’.
I don’t think I ever really thanked Mark for that, I was a little bit to shocked to have understood at the time that I needed to thank him, but everything change a little bit for me from that day. I now understood that my photography should be a much more fluid and intuitive process because the potential to rely on your subconscious was inspirational but also a little daunting.
What actually struck a point with me was that I needed start understanding myself a bit better. I needed to pause every now and then, to sit down, look at my photographs and to understand what they were telling me about myself.
The question also arose in my mind of how do I train the subconscious me to be a better photographer, to get better at this whole process. This was starting to get pretty deep, can you even do that, should you even try.
My conclusion was that your subconscious is a result of everything you are, everything you have seen and done, everything that you know or want to know, everything that you want to do. What became clear was the importance of developing myself as a human being and doing that by absorbing as much of the world as possible.
What also became clear is that I shouldn’t be afraid of my emotions which was great news as I have always been quite emotional, because having a powerful emotional response to something would in turn manifest itself in my photography.
Think of it this way, if you are going out to photograph a for example group of tribesmen in the middle of nowhere you need to research as much as possible before you go to understand what you can about their lives. You now have a general wiki about them which will get you so far but to go the extra distance you need to learn as much about them as possible them by immersing yourself in as much of their lives as they will allow. You need to do this not just because it will help drive topics of interest to pursue for the story but because you need to allow your subconscious to develop an emotional response, allowing your photography to be intuitive and powerful.
Of course photographic skills, composition, technique etc play a big part here but the real difference between a nice piece of work and a truly great project boils down to how connected and engaged the photographer is.