The summer air is warm and slightly humid. The sun is slowly lowering towards the horizon to your left, just far enough out of your view that it’s not seiring a hole in your retina. The birds are chirping and the smell of grass and wildflowers is in the air. There is an old stone fence on both sides of the road that looks to be about a fifth of the height it once stood, grass and moss now grow where dirt once filled the gaps. On your left there is a field where a few cows meander and bails of hay lay drying. To your right there is a field that may have once been grazing land but has since been taken over by wild grass and flowers of varying size, shape, and color. The end…
As I wrote the above paragraph I was envisioning a walk along some back country road in some beautiful French or Italian town. I could almost feel my shirt sticking to my back from the summer humidity as I walked along the road with my camera. It’s safe to say that if I could capture the paragraph above in a photograph I would probably hang it from my wall. It’s also safe to say that the paragraph on it’s own, without the context I’ve given it in my mind, is meaningless to most.
How often do we create images that mean the world to us but fall flat when others see them. I’m guilty. I have one of those images framed next to one of my images that was published in National Geographic. The irony hits me as I write this, I have a meaningful photograph framed next to a meaningless photograph but they are both meaningful to me. In fact, if I lived in a vacuum where everyone had the same world views and experiences I have then they would probably both be quite meaningful.
Fortunately/Unfortunately, we don’t live in a vacuum. The world is filled with photographs like the one I described above. Sole images that are quite beautiful on their own but lack any meaning to more than a few. In a world that is bursting at the seems with photography I feel that the focus needs to shift to creating more meaningful images otherwise what’s the point. If you tune a radio to a beautiful song you’ve got a beautiful song. If you tune a hundred radios to 100 different beautiful songs you’ve got noise. If you create a beautiful image in a world full of equally beautiful images then I’d argue the image is just ordinary. Add meaning to your photography and you’ll stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Creating meaningful photography isn’t difficult. In fact, you already know how to create photography that is meaningful to you. You probably don’t walk around photographing trash on the ground willy-nilly unless something jumps out at you and seems interesting. That’s meaning.
Unremarkably, when you post that meaningful shot of trash on whatever social media network you use it ends up falling flat. Ugh, why can’t people see the same beauty that you do, you ask yourself. First, they don’t have the feelings, emotions, history, or world view you do. Second, you have not shown them the meaning yet, the images have no context.
Take the image above for example, on it’s own it may not be the most meaningful image you have ever seen. Add a series of other related images showing the once serene area being transformed into vacation rentals and golfs courses, the displacement of animals, and man’s propensity to develop everything in site and perhaps the images take on new meaning. It’s up to me, the photographer, to put these images, and sometimes words, together to create a meaning that can be shared amongst others.
Let’s be honest, creating beautiful images for the sake of creating beautiful images gets boring. At some point we all hit that “what’s the point?” moment. In my humble opinion, once we hit this milestone we either find meaning or lose our drive.
The best artists in the world usually have a story to tell. Their work has meaning and sometimes even changes the world. When you talk to and/or read about them their passion boils over and is almost contagious. Rarely does an artist’s work rise to the top with explanations like “I just thought it looked pretty”. Find your meaning, do some soul searching, and create some amazing work.
Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below. You can follow me on Instagram here: @PhotolisticLife. Thanks for reading.