As a child the most difficult creative decision that you have to face is what to draw. When faced with that piece of blank paper that challenges your intentions and ability, the choice of subject matter can be crushing, offering too many possibilities to comprehend. The solution? To draw a house, maybe with some grass around it and the sun in the sky. A camera can offer a similar challenge.
What to photograph is as difficult a decision as what to draw. The difference is that you can’t just make up an imaginary domestic scene. The camera not only challenges you aesthetically, but intellectually, it questions your ability to think and do, to commit and succeed with the push of a button. Photography is not easy.
Investment is another pressure. Cameras are not cheap and neither are the associated pieces of kit. Once you have invested in both there is a feeling that you must make the most of your financial outlay. But how and on what?
You can go for a walk and see what you see, photograph your friends and family, document your daily life, your interests and your passions. All good options for the photographer looking to create images that please themselves, but what if you want to take your photography further?
That is going to take a solid foundation of understanding of what you want to do and why you are doing it. I don’t mean an academic foundation, but an intellectual one based on a desire to use your camera to tell stories. The truth of photography is that what to photograph, your subject matter, comes from a desire to tell stories. To document a place, space, object, person or people that you want to explore and share.
A photograph does not come from divine inspiration, but research and inquisitiveness. If you are facing the photo wall, lacking inspiration this is where you need to start. The American photographer Tod Papageorge said that if you want your photography to get better you need to read more. I agree with Tod, but I would also add the need to listen to music, the radio, talking books and podcasts, go to the cinema and theatre, attend talks and visit libraries, galleries and museums with no clear intention. In short, look outside of photography for your photography.
These will give you the inspiration and creative tools you need to chip away at the photo wall that is preventing you from making images that mean something more to you and create a potential audience for the work away from pretty pictures or photographic trickery. It will also support you in defining a personal visual language, stepping away from imitation and too often repeated formulas. Photography is not about investment in kit or the fear of failure. These are the factors that prevent you from making work and are the bricks in the photo wall that feed insecurity and anxiety.
My suggestion is to not worry about what camera you have or the photographs others are making. Look at them, but don’t see them as competition or unachievable heights of attainment. Explore your passions and interests outside of photography to find your subject matter. If you are stuck with your photography, don’t get stressed, have fun, press the button and don’t worry about the outcome. Fail more than you succeed and be happy with that. The truth behind the photography wall is that you had a hand in building it and only you can dismantle it.
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). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 www.donotbendfilm.com. He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.
© Grant Scott 2023