Find, Listen and Question: Or How to Learn About Photography and Avoid the Noise…

There are a lot of people with opinions about photography, there are a lot of people passing on opinions about what makes a ‘good’ photograph and there are a lot of people claiming to know how to become a successful photographer. Many of these people are passing on this information for free, whilst others seek to charge. I am not talking about formal education here but the informal kind.

You are no different I hear you cry! You are always speaking and writing about all of these things. Well that is true but it is also untrue. I never speak about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ photographs, to me these are subjective judgements that mean little without the nuance of context being included in any judgement of an image. I do however, speak about what it takes to build a photographic practice, not to be a successful photographer, to make such a promise would be selling snake oil, and success is always in the hand of the pupil not the teacher. I can only point the way, I’m not taking the journey.

I can give this advice based on my experience over the past thirty-five years working with professional photography as a photographer, art director, creative director, curator, editor, and writer. I have experience of what I speak, but I will never give advice on something I have no experience of. I have no issue with saying “I don’t know!”

Much of the noise surrounding photography is created by those who do not. Not all, but much of it. The key to making your way through that noise and to finding the people who know of what they speak is to find those who specifically know what you want to know. To speak to those who have done what you want to do at the highest level. Not self-proclaimed experts but those who have the work that supports their opinions. People who are willing to admit what they don’t know and share the knowledge and experience they do know about.

Once you have found those people, the next step is to listen. Not just hear and dismiss, but to truly listen, however uncomfortable or challenging what you hear maybe.

If you have found the right person to hear from, what you hear will be honest, realistic and appropriate to you. It will be up to you to decide if you want to take it on board but if it comes from experience it would make sense to. However, don’t just accept what you hear, question it.

I often speak about the importance of the question “Why?” It is too me the question that opens the doors to understanding. It is the question you must ask as a photographer of others and yourself. It is not easy to ask or answer, but it must be asked, not just once but repeatedly until a satisfactory response is received. To not have a question is to not be engaged, inquisitive or creative.

None of what I have outlined here is available as a software plug-in or within the body of a £3,000 body of a camera or lens. They are not available within ‘learn quick’ masterclasses or workshops, Facebook promoted opportunities, online courses or Youtube tutorials. They are the noise. Learning takes time and resilience. It takes introspection and tenacity. The noise may not want you to hear that because it doesn’t fit within a business module. But it is the truth.

You can learn about photography within the noise but it will not be the loudest person that you will learn the most from. It will be those who are not trying to sell you something. Those that are happy to be questioned and be challenged. My suggestion to anyone looking to learn more about photography is to find these people, they will not be the obvious person shouting at you to listen to them, but when in life do we ever learn from those types of people?

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? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

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