Completely out of the blue my photography changed forever at 6.30am on August 12th 2012. While on a photo workshop in Vietnam I took a photograph that changed everything.
Looking back, it’s baffling how it happened and why it took so long for me to move from taking snaps to being a photographer. We’re talking a period of years too embarrassing to number.
Over the preceding years I’d managed to use some of the finest gear to amass a large number of very boring travel pictures. So boring I’ve trashed all but a very small number.
So what changed?
My photographs started to show more considered design, had more interesting subject matter, were stronger from a narrative point of view and began to be processed in a way that reinforced these improvements.
Why the change happened I can’t say for sure. I think it had to do with the fact I was on a dedicated photography holiday with a friend. We were photographing intensively from dawn until dark. We’d further intensified things by booking on a photo workshop so were being challenged to think more about what we were doing. Maybe this intensity just pushed me through a door.
In the four years since, I’ve tried to maintain that intensity. I gave up my job, attended workshops, connected with many photographers locally and virtually, founded an international photography collective (f50collective.com) and began travelling the world photographing. (Not to mention creating this blog to share my thoughts on my journey with photography).
This intensified engagement has taught me some lessons (and continues to do so). Maybe they’re particular to me as an individual but, I’ll share a few in case they resonate with you or help you with your journey.
First, my growth as a photographer is unpredictable. Significant insights or improvements occur sporadically. I’ve studied a lot of books on the history of photography over the years and so find I now gain more insight and inspiration from other art forms (especially music and painting). I guess the lesson is you never know where you’ll find inspiration; all you can do is keep exposing yourself in a broad range of work by others.
Second, I’ve learned that making good photographs isn’t really to do with technical competence, it’s much more about what you’re feeling at the time. If there is an emotional connection to the subject the images are always better. You can’t summon feeling on demand and so have to endure phases when the photographs are competent but less interesting.
Finally, it always helps to photograph with purpose. Every photographer I know goes out with an open mind ready to capture unexpected opportunities but, most also go out knowing what they intend to photograph too. This may be images for an ongoing documentary project, a particular theme (smokers, couples, reflections, shadows, etc.), or a specific location. In addition, I’ve increasingly come to understand purpose relates to why we are photographing. What is the intended use of the photographs down the line?
It’s a personal journey and your lessons may be very different. I’d love to hear them in the comments below.
Oh yeah… The photograph that I took on that fateful day in Vietnam back in 2012? It was this one:
Images and words © John Meehan 2016
Terrific shot, BTW.
Thanks Ian. Regards, John
i am an absolute beginner to photography, but i have been writing poetry for a long time. my poetic philosophy (for want of a better word) is all about seeing, about pointing out the world. i happen to live in a unique place for an English fella, which informs & gives purpose to what i see as it isn’t well known & full of visual allure. so photography once i’d overcome my quibbles with it as an art form or not (the answer to which i have no care for now) it seemed a perfect match to my poetic philosophy of charting experience through sense, channeled into a poem. it has become a good aesthetic addition to my blog, to have a decent standard of image to accompany a poem. therefore, i couldn’t agree more than having purpose makes the whole act of making a photo much more meaningful.
another great post. great to see someone taking great photos & offering good solid thought on the process.
Thanks Dan. Some things just go well together I guess – I know many photographer’s who play guitar for instance. In poetry, Larkin is known for his use of photography. ICYMI, see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Importance-Elsewhere-Philip-Larkins-Photographs/dp/0711236313/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478776628&sr=1-1&keywords=Larkin+photography
i know all about Larkin & his love of photography, but thanks all the same, a funny man Larkin, something about his laconic tone; as an Englishman i get the drone of Larkin. i play guitar too, & a bit of Korean flute, some banjo, i can find my way around any stringed instrument if forced to.
I like what you said that “If there is an emotional connection to the subject the images are always better.”
The photograph is captivating. Does it have a name or title?
Thanks Liz. The photograph is known as ‘The Ice Man’ because he is the ice maker in the village. He’s lived his whole life in that village and only left once to visit the nearby town (and then only because a photographer took him to show him). Best, John
I think I still miss that decisive moment, sometimes it feels so close but i’ve always known something had to change, I numbed it by rejecting job offers, distinctly drawing the line between my profession and my hobby and then things started to diverge in a way that I no longer know myself, my profession has took toll on my passions and dreams, in a way that I understood that life is not to be separated. I am glad you found your changing moment, I am trying to stir it…
Thanks Cornelia. I see we share a love of India. I really enjoyed your article on photographing there. Wonderful images! Best, John
Thank you so much for your appreciation of my article and my images of India, it means a lot to me. I truly fell in love with India on my first trip this year.
It’s easy to understand why you would fall in love with India!
Excellent post! Feelings are everything in photography, you can express a lot through them 🙂
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