I have spent a lifetime looking at photographs, a considerable amount of that time making photographs and a part of that time standing next to photographers making photographs. It is that third activity that has given me the most understanding of why photography is so difficult.
There are some images that are burned into my retina, photographs that I wish I had taken. Images such as William Klein’s Gun 1, New York, 1954 or Eugene Smith’s The Battle of Iwo Jima, 1945 or Cartier Bresson’s Seville 1933, all images that I would have liked to have made but could never have done so. They were in the right place at the right time, I wasn’t, but photography is more than place and time. It’s about awareness, seeing, education, language, courage, empathy and commitment. It is about story telling and the personal experience.
I have also spent time in the right place at the right time, standing next to or close to photographers making great images. I have crouched down at their eye line to see what they are seeing, aware of every technical detail that is being employed. I have stepped back to survey a scene, to see what the photographer is not including in the frame, I have looked at polaroids, at tethered screens and looked through the camera to understand the composition of the image being created. And yet I have still been amazed by the finished image.
Despite having seen what the photographer had seen, I had not seen the photograph they were creating as they created it.
The truth is that even if I use the same camera, from the same position, of the same situation I cannot take the same picture. I can take the picture I can take, but that will be different. It is for this reason that I admire the images and the photographers that I do, because they can do something that I can’t, something that I want to do but am unable to achieve. There is no science to this, no easy solution, the only answer in my opinion is to accept that fact and move on.
I cannot get ‘hung-up’ on the fact that I cannot achieve what I see and like in others, I have to be content with what I can do.
The images I have chosen to illustrate this article are all created by men who have had a life experience completely alien to mine. They come from a history that I have read about, but never experienced and it is this life experience that informs the work, just as all of our life experiences inform our photography. It is not about better or worse but different.
Admiring the unattainable can be frustrating and dispiriting so it is important that we understand the benefit that our own lives can bring to our work. We can admire the work of others and learn from it, but we should not compare our work to the work we admire if that reflection produces a negative response.
I have always commissioned photographers who produced work that I cannot, I hang images on my walls by photographers who produce work that I do not and the photographers whose books sit on my shelves are those whose images I admire and return to again and again. However, I am also content with the work I produce. There are many pictures I wish I had taken, but I can live with those that I have, and not feel that I have failed in my photography. It is easy to feel that photography is a competitive environment and in some ways it is, but there is no point in rating your performance against those whose life experience is so different from your own.
We all have stories to tell based on our personal experiences and it is those stories who make us and who we and our photographs are.
Dr. 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, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor 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).
Grant’s 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
So well written, so true and accurate, well said!