Don’t Talk To Me About Photography! The Chicken and The Egg

I say this quite a lot. Especially when talking to students thinking about studying photography. Does that sound strange? Let me explain. I am not that interested in photography, the technical aspects, the camera aspects, the process aspects and the idea that it exists as a way to create ‘good’ photographs. I am interested in stories. I am interested in people who use the medium to document their lives and the lives of others. I am interested in images that educate, challenge and inspire me. The idea of a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photograph does not exist for me.

This led me to thinking, what is most important? The story or the photograph. I openly mused upon this thought with some of my students, and one of them suggested that this is a chicken and the egg situation. I was thinking the same thing. Which comes first? The chicken or the egg, the photograph or the story? Let’s think about that.

Without a story what or who are you going to photograph? More importantly why are you going to make photographs? What is the end game? That story may be a personal instigation based upon your life experience or it may be a personal desire to tell the stories of others. It doesn’t matter where the story comes from or what the story is, as long as it works for you, it gives you an expectation of outcome. Every story has an ending, in this case the chicken is in place and the egg will come.

Without the story, however sketchy it may be, the making of photographs is based upon creating a pleasing singular image. In this case photography becomes the egg. A pleasing outcome that lacks the narrative instigation to support the creation of further images. The next image will instead be based on a subjective aesthetic decision; that of the photographer that created it. That’s fine if you have no intention of building a photographic practice for yourself, I like eggs, but I know that once I have eaten one, finding the next one will require me to go in search of another. With a chicken I know that another one will soon be with me.

This may sound like an over-stretched metaphor and maybe it is, but I hope you can see where I am going with this.

The reason why I don’t want to talk about photography is not because I am not interested in the medium as a visual communicative tool, but that I am more interest in people, subjects, events, perspectives, history, experience and all of these aspects that form stories.

Now, you could argue that without the egg we would not have the chicken and to do so would be valid and question my suggestion here, but in doing so you would be raising an age-old argument that has never been resolved. However, to argue that photography does not require an inquisitive nature of its practitioners is a more difficult premise to put forward. That inquisitive nature is what leads us to our stories.

It is our very engagement with life that leads us to create visual narratives that communicate with others and fulfil our personal dreams, themes and schemes. Photographic inspiration does not come from a desire to fit within a ‘category tag’ such as landscape, portrait, still-life, documentary etc., etc. It comes from lives lived. So please don’t talk to me about photography, speak to me about who you are, what you have done, what is important to you and what you want to do, those are the true inspirations for the true photographer.

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 (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? is available now

© Grant Scott 2020

Image: Jonathan Pearson, (Flickr/Creative Commons)

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