Photography and The Selfish Eye

The viewfinder on a camera only allows for one eye to see through it. Of course a digital camera presents the opportunity of using a screen on which to compose an image, but it is the viewfinder that allows you to completely isolate that image and yourself from its surrounding noise. To make minute adjustments and creative decisions based on inclusion and exclusion with a rectangular frame.

That sense of isolation from the moment of capture defines photographic practice. At its heart it is a solitary medium that encourages a sense of independence. The photographer is a one man band capable of instigating, creating, making, adapting and distributing.

It is a medium suited to the introvert, the non-team player, the solitary determined and the committed, and yet collaboration is essential to professional photography. Collaboration with commissioners, and clients, with creatives, curators, and colleagues.

This can be a challenge for many photographers. Too much for some who choose to reject collaboration perceiving it to require compromises that would weaken their vision. They may be right, but to adopt this approach is to deny the possibility that others may have something to offer of creative value.

There is a balance to be found between respectful collaboration and unhelpful interference. A balance that I believe can be found by embracing a sense of openness to how work can evolve based on the informed experience of others. Clients, art directors, photo editors, assistants, and printers for example who can question work, and bring insight which is hard to find when you are close to the images you create.

I recently wrote that as an art director I would occasionally speak with the person being photographed, and collaborate with the photographer on set to ensure a successful conclusion to a commission. This was met with uproar by a few photographers indignant that any one other than the photographer should attend or get involved in the shoot. To make such a suggestion I believe negates the possibility of learning or benefitting from a creative colleague. It promotes the idea of the selfish eye.

The belief that only the photographer can impact on the finished photograph as they are the only one looking through the viewfinder is true, but it is a belief that relies upon the photographer being an expert image maker, technician and communicator. I have met and know of many photographers who fulfil all of these criteria and more, but I have also met, and heard of many who cannot.

That is not a criticism but it is an observation based on experience. Not all photographers are great conversationalists, not all are technically experienced, and not all understand the intricacies of client politics when fulfilling a brief. It would be ridiculous to expect them to be, we all need input from others to support and improve our ways of working. My suggestion is to avoid the selfish eye by accepting this fact. An eye that is so selfish that it will not allow its partner to see what it sees.

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


  1. Interesting grist for your audience’s mill, Grant, thank you. The belief that only the photographer can impact on the finished photograph as (s)he is the only one looking through the viewfinder may be true, but it is a belief that, in my humble opinion, is based on the need to entrust the photographer with the complete freedom of expression (s)he needs to realize his creative vision. If there’s an art director involved in the exercise, it’s a catalytic collaboration that the photographer would indeed enjoy, no doubt.

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