Thoughts On (My) Photography
"A photograph should be more interesting than the subject and transcend its obviousness."
That's a quotation from photographer Jeffrey Ladd which has been making the rounds in photoland, due in part to the fact that Jörg Colberg highlighted it in a blog post a few weeks ago. It's also something that a reviewer repeated to me (somewhat exasperatedly) during my session with him at the Medium Festival of Photography this past weekend.
I met with twelve people during the portfolio reviews, ranging from museum curators to creative agents to bloggers to gallery owners. I also got the chance to show my photographs to a few dozen others via the open portfolio walk and the Open Show presentations (the latter of which my friend Jonas was kind enough to invite me to take part in). The responses I got ranged from tepid to breathless. Some people found my pictures cute; others found them poignant. One reviewer complimented me on the quietness of the images; another said I needed to give him a reason to care. Several told me that I needed to make the work more universal, while others talked about how relatable the emotions and experiences were that I was trying to convey. One told me that I should study more; another said that I don't need to keep aspiring to the level of the photographers I admire, because I'm already there.
I admit, that last one was (and is) a bit difficult for me to swallow. I don't think of myself as a "real" artist, nor do I think of my work as anything special. Getting back to the quotation I led with, it's always been difficult for me to judge whether or not the pictures I make (or the things I write, or anything I do or think) are obvious, because everything I do is obvious to me. In general, I'm always surprised when anyone wants to talk to me or cares what I say or do. I almost never feel like I belong, or that I or the things I do will be important to anyone besides me.
(I can feel my in-laws rushing to say something nice about me here. I appreciate the sentiment, but I just want to make it clear that I'm not fishing for compliments. How I feel about myself and my work is almost entirely a product of my own insecurities, and is not at all rational. As proof: I crave validation, but receiving it makes me profoundly uncomfortable.)
During the second half of the festival I got to see some amazing lectures from a diverse group of photographers, all of them working in profoundly different ways toward different goals and exploring different themes and subjects. Chris Engman and Soo Kim are doing utterly brilliant work exploring the very nature of photography. Matt Black, Virginia Beahan, and Jess T. Dugan are engaging with important social and political issues in deeply humanist ways. And on the one hand I was genuinely excited to see their work, both as an audience member and in taking away new perspectives as an aspiring artist. But, me being me, it's hard not to look at what they do and be overwhelmed; by comparison, my own photographs and the themes I'm dealing with feel small and obvious and trifling. These are people who are dealing with complex questions about art and the medium of photography, or exploring critical real-world issues like gender, sexuality, the representation of marginalized communities, environmental sustainability, water use, poverty, economic inequality, and international migration. The only things I'm looking at are my relatively comfortable life and the inside of my own mind.
Not everyone who saw my photographs connected with what they saw, but some did, and did so very strongly. I tend to concentrate more on my failures than my successes, and so the fact that some people find my pictures boring or perhaps even self-indulgent makes me question what I'm doing. But the truth is that I'm aiming at a very specific set of emotions and experiences with my photographs, and even if those emotions and experiences might be recognizable, they're not ones that are going to matter to everybody. And that's OK, because I'm not really talking to those people. Moreover, I don't have to be talking to them. I always recognize the legitimacy of specificity in other people's work; I should be willing to do the same with mine.
When people ask me about my motivations in creating my work—as many people did over the course of the four-day festival—I always say that the artists who have most moved me are the ones in whose work I have seen something of myself. Something that I can relate to, that lets me know that someone else is going through the same things I'm going through, and thinking about the same things that I'm thinking about. That those artists, through their work, make me feel a connection to something bigger than myself, and help me feel a little less alone, a little less afraid. I say that this is what I want to do with my own photographs and writing. I think it's time to really live up to that statement, to own it. And that means accepting that I have a right to my own voice, and to believe in what I'm saying.
I still have a lot to learn—I always will—and it will always be important to me to maintain a sense of humility. I don't think I will ever stop being nervous or self-conscious about my work. But I'm coming around to the idea that this stuff of mine has its place in the world, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the future.