Judgment vs. observation

Working with a photographer the other day we were talking about the reluctance to make a group of people he was photographing look stupid. He had problems with some aspects of the people he was photographing, to put it mildly.

I tried to explain the difference between placing your own judgments on a subject versus making an informed observation. The first time I came across this notion was in an anthropology class as an undergraduate. The professor warned that we all bring a specific perspective, a set of prejudices, beliefs, likes, dislikes, etc. to every experience. If we apply our bias to something that falls outside of our realm, then the view is not honest, it’s more a reflection of what we think than it is a reflection of the subject.

Imagine how important it is to honestly render impressions in anthropology. The same can be true in making pictures. Both approaches - expressing your feelings in how you photograph a subject or expressing the essence of a subject without your layer of bias - are valid in different settings. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion about stuff that you’re photographing.)

A simplistic way of explaining is to make a picture of something that is red. The picture you would make from the perspective of “I hate red!” as opposed to the one you would make from the perspective of “This is really red!” would be a lot different. 

In a more journalistic setting, you’d keep most of your opinion out of your pictures; in a more artistic venture, the you is what’s most important.

That doesn’t mean that the you should be absent from journalistic photography. The more informed your impression, your understanding, your rendering of a scene the more likely you are to connect with its essence. And that is the goal, either way.

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