The Themes of Life Are The Themes of Photography

I am currently in the process of transcribing all of the weekly audio contributions to our A Photographic Life podcast. The contributions by photographers in which they attempt to explain what photography means to them in less than five minutes. The process has been enlightening and I wanted to share my observations with you.

At first glance it seems to be a very simple question but its simplicity of language is deceptive. I have discovered that the reality of such an enquiry is that it forces the photographer to whom it has been addressed to question the very essence of their relationship with a medium that provides them with a creative outlet that is a visual representation of what they think, believe, experience, and wish to convey. It also introduces reflections concerning outcome versus intent, success versus failure and recognition versus anonymity. It is a question that goes deep.

My decision to approach photographers and ask them to answer such a question was based upon a personal desire to explore my relationship with the medium of photography and visual storytelling.

It seemed to be omnipresent throughout my life but I had never questioned that reality. I had never considered what it meant to me. Where had it come from and how had I sustained my passion for photography. I decided that to help me answer my own questions I would reach out to photographers and those associated with photography to see if they could help me reach some understanding through their reflections and experience.

The responses were generous, illuminating and honest. Often raw in their passion, considered in their introspection. Most importantly, themes began to develop, themes of approach, intention and desire. The consistency of these themes surprised me but also reassured me that my understanding of photography had synchronicities with the people whose images I admired and was interested in.

What is clear is that photography to these photographers was life itself. Sometimes all consuming, but not always. 

Storytelling  is a constant foundation for many photographers as is the importance of collaboration. Many reveal a love/hate relationship with the medium, detailing the torment they often feel as part of their photographic process. Others felt the need to place their practice today into the context of their journey, reflecting on those photographers whose words and images informed their own understanding of the medium. Some are up-beat others more melancholic in their presentation, but all are passionate, informed and engaged. Their words force the listener to stop and take stock, they force self-questioning, reconsidering pre-conceived understanding. They make you think.

The themes that have developed through the contributions are I believe the central themes of all our lives.

Family, is repeatedly discussed and reflected upon, as is the memory of family members involvement in initial engagement with photography. The need to discover, explore and learn is also a key theme alongside the desire to communicate not only with a potential audience with those the photographers meet on their journeys. The sense of journey has also been a dominant factor in explanation of different photographers relationship with the medium.

Life as we know is not a straight line, it is a journey we all undertake with one final destination but with no defined route. I suggest that an engagement with photography has similarities to this sense of not knowing, and the transcriptions I am compiling confirm that belief. Repeatedly the photographers speak of its meaning evolving as we evolve as people. Life experience impacts not only on our ability to make images but also the images we make.

Not at any point are technical details mentioned. The ‘How’ of photography is repeatedly relegated in favour of the ‘Why’, and the ‘Why’ is informed, shaped and dictated by the key themes of life.

The photographic life is entwined with the lived experience; they are for many indistinguishable from each other. This can be seen as a negative or positive and this is commented upon. The need for balance is a constant battle for many creatives, not just photographers but if that balance can be achieved the resulting work has an honesty and relevance to the creator that cannot be faked.

The child that asks “What shall I draw?” when faced with a blank piece of paper does not have the life experience required to identify what they want to draw. It is the accumulated life experience that informs the decision making process of the committed photographer.

© Grant Scott 2020

*A book titled What does Photography Mean to You? edited by Grant Scott will be published in 2021.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.


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