Which approach to making pictures is better?

Among the threads in recent comments to this blog are a few suggestions that journalistic photography should simply show what happened, that photojournalism should only be about the subject, that if the photographer’s voice is apparent in the photograph, then it’s a failed photograph.

In other words, simple, straightforward photographs that have a clear and simple goal of showing what happened are what newspaper and other journalistic photographers should strive for. In this way of thinking, there is little difference in how individual photographers make pictures, the photograph will be interesting if the subject is interesting.

In working with photographers, I’ve always tried to achieve that subject-driven clarity while striving for complex images that reflect an informed perception that is unique to the photographer. Complexity doesn’t mean that images have to have scores of elements and layers, though many compelling images do. Rather, by complexity, I mean that what the photographer conveys has depth, meaning, connectivity, relevance, universality, elicits a response ... because of the combination of the subject matter and the unique way the image was made.

The photograph as an expression of the person who made the image is the goal and equal element of story telling. Holding our image-making to the same standard as an artist is the ideal. Making pictures that people want to publish and put on their walls is the grail. 

You could try to see these perspectives as either black or white, one or the other. In truth, photographers fall somewhere on a sliding scale with extremes at either end and every variation in between. On one extreme is the subject-based approach,without the photographer’s imprint. On the other is an approach that values subject matter but brings the photographer’s voice as an equal element. You probably fall somewhere in between, intentionally or not.

The key thing is that neither side of the middle is right; neither is wrong.

I remember hearing Bill Clinton say something similar of the differences between Republicans and Democrats - they’re clearly different but you can’t say one is right over the other. They’re just different.

Having spent nearly four years in a completely Republican environment - The White House - and having worked at publications staffed mostly by people who vote for Democrats, I understand the political divide as well as I do the differences in photographic schools of thought.

In the political realm, the two perspectives are clear and show up in predictable ways. We register to vote for one or the other party; politicians have an R or a D after their names, for the most part. But in the photographic realm, the differing opinions show up in less obvious ways.

Knowing where photographers land on the perspective now and which way they strive for helps when talking about photography and when helping photographers grow their work. If you prefer to make your pictures primarily about the subject, then you’ll have to find your way to interesting subjects and create a compelling story line to make engaging pictures.

If you prefer the path that focuses as much on the making of the image as the subject matter, then the burden on subject matter is no less but learning how to see uniquely is an additional pursuit.

Reaching ever deeper into your potential is the goal, either way. And I can certainly help with that.

How do you avoid making a cliché?

Worth seeing: Vince Musi Taming The Wild