It’s Okay Not to Understand, But It’s Better to Communicate

As photographers we are communicators. How well we communicate is a matter of what we are trying to communicate. I would also add that our ability to communicate is also reliant upon how well we understand what we want others to understand. It is not a requirement of anyone to understand everything, but it is the responsibility of the communicator and the receiver to at least make an effort to do so.

“And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin.’”

Bob Dylan: A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall. 1963

I consider this to be a simple and common sense approach to the concept of communication, and yet for some reason writing about photography so often seems to head off into another direction. I am not just speaking of academic or ‘art’ speak in this context, although, both can sometimes feel as if they have no intention of communicating anything other than a desire to confuse through a cascade of language. What I am addressing is the inability of the photographer to explain the ‘why’ behind a body of work.

I think this is most often the case because the photographer themselves may not have given this enough thought and consideration before commencing a project.

Now, I know that many photographers prefer to not have a focused destination for a body of work, and prefer instead to roll with the punches, and allow a project to find its own pace, purpose and trajectory. On that journey they may well find an understanding of why they are engaged with the work, but in my experience this process can also lead to confusion. When multiple rabbits holes are available the temptation to explore them can be irresistible with a resultant loss of focus on what you are doing, and why you are doing it. The result can be a multitude of unfinished projects that never come to fruition leading to frustration and disappointment.

If the work does come to a conclusion, perhaps online, in print or within an exhibition context the need for an explanation of the ‘why’ behind the work will become a necessary element of the finished artefact. A context for the work will need to be supplied, and the more succinct, and clear that context is the more likely it will be that the work will be understood.

Too often I read text accompanying images that seems to have no relationship with the photographs being shown.

This can be as a result of a process that places an over importance of writing context before the work has been made or as a need for a context to be grafted on to a body of work that never had one. Either way the pressure to explain the unexplainable or the non-understood ensures a disconnect between the photographers intentions and the audiences engagement for, and with the work.

I prefer to work backwards. To have a set destination for the work and an outlined journey for it to take. I ensure that I understand what I am doing, and why, but remain open to the work, and my intentions to evolve. I leave space for change built on a spine of intention. This may not work for everyone of course.

Like Bob Dylan I want to know my song well before I start singing and I want to ensure that I know it really well before I present it to an audience.

Now I ain’t lookin’ to compete with you.
Beat on, cheat on, mistreat you,
Simplify you, classify you,
Deny, defy, mystify you.”

Bob Dylan: All I Really Want to Do. 1964

My intention as a communicator is to communicate, not to confuse or alienate the viewer or a potential audience. To do so would be to make work with an agenda of exclusivity and that makes no sense when telling stories designed to be shared. To do this I need to understand my work, and be able to convey that understanding simple and effectively. I wonder how many photographers feel the same?

Dr. Grant Scott is the 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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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