Seven answers to the first question every photographer must ask themselves.
Werner Hertzog’s epic Cave of Forgotten Dreams explores the paintings of people 30,000 years ago and how they saw value and purpose in visual art. Creativity appears to be a universal and fundamental human instinct. One reviewer commented- the Chauvet people of southern France found meaning in something bigger because anthropos is the ‘upward looking one’ from which we get anthropology, the study of who or what we look up to. Today, photography offers the quickest method for discovering where people find meaning, what intrigues and defines them. Arguably photography its the most ubiquitous form of human creativity in the 21st century. But creativity isn’t necessarily a good thing. The inventor of dynamite realised the destructive legacy of his work and decided to leave a more life-affirming form of creativity. So, Alfred Nobel created global prizes that continue to inspire human flourishing. Will our creativity benefit or inhibit life? Will our work bring hope or cynicism?
Even cynics love being cynical. Consider for a moment the object of your affections. A person, a thing or pleasure? Look at your photographs. What are you drawn to? Is it the subject, the aesthetic, the process or the personal discovery? There is a pleasure in creativity which is addictive and hard to unpick. Love of creating or communicating can be the end in itself. Perhaps love for the subject of your work is the key motivator? Or you love praise as measured in Facebook likes or Guggenheim fellowships? Love is perhaps the strongest motivating factor but its hard to dissect.
Kills cats but is more beneficial to people. We ask questions looking for answers. Some answers will elude us but curiosity is another unshakeable urge. People often love chatting about what they know and showing others what they don’t. But at its best we want to share what we care about and think is good so others may appreciate it too. Curiosity is not the end in itself but the direction to travel in. The proverb writer may have been warning humans against the dangers of curiosity or maybe she was teaching us to look after our cats? Or at least to be prepared to film their hilarious antics for youtube?
The news business has taught me there is something wrong in the world. There is suffering and pain, from political states down to personal relationships. We ask, we create and we think to overcome and adapt the world to make it better. Science tells us entropy is increasing, we will be swallowed by the sun and the universe will burn out to death. But in the meantime we want to make the journey to that heat death a little more enjoyable. Do something good for others, make a change. Photography helps inform, testify and explain our world. Most effectively it acts to change my stupid mind toward something better. Ultimately that is all I have power over- my mind- but even that is a battle!
Photojournalism is a particularly vital strand of photography, the root from which branches grew. Early pioneers documented the world, like realist painters, before creating more expressive and impressionistic styles but it was orginally rooted in record. Photojournalism gives voice to the weak and oppressed, as a unavoidable witness to their leaders and oppressors. Perhaps we are driven to right some wrong, raise a voice of dissent or remember the overlooked. Revenge and retribution are hugely popular motivations for life but so are restoration and redemption. How will we yield the power given to us?
A world-class war correspondent once commented that most journalism students she taught were hoping to be rich and famous. I laughed and thought she was joking. Her face suggested she wished she was. A few do achieve this but most don’t. Is greed good for art or journalism? Personally my worst work has come from hunting money. The images, like the paper they are printed on, are wafer thin and functional, forgettable and superficial. As such the work only connects at a superficial level. But money is very good when I need to pay for a roof, food and the occasion round of golf. Money helps you raise the profile of meaninful work, put on exhibits and keep going! In large quantities it can also bring fame, that fickle and unfaithful fruit tree Nick Drake sang about.
Social networking puts us at the centre of the universe and makes us feel nice. Well for a while, then we are forgotten about and we feel sad. I have seen many use fame to reach a vast audience and lobby for good but others crave it to support a brittle ego. In reality if you want lots of likes put up a new baby pic or a cute kitten or a cloud that looks like Elvis. The problem with fame as a key motivation is the way it will eat away at the photographer’s artistic soul and play to the gallery. When photographers are driven by their own passion (which could rightly be for kittens or clouds) it shows up in their work and the viewer will be swept along in your excitement.
What have I missed?