Lessons Learned: The Power of Photography

I’m optimistic about the future of photography in this visually oversaturated world. That’s because I believe in its transformational power. It can transform light and time into something physical. It’s a universal language we all speak, and great photos communicate so much, in an instant, without words or sound.  We think in still images; our memory is formed by them.

The image of the blank piece of paper with the caption “Migrant Mother, Dorothea Lange, 1936” makes my point. There is no image there, but chances are if you’ve seen this iconic picture by Dorothea Lange, of a mother and her two children, you can “see” the picture now.

Can you see the image “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange?

You can spend time with a strong image, lingering and discovering something new each time you view it. My belief in the power of photography to move people was solidified when I  recently came across a small memorial, in Kigali, Rwanda. I was moved by the simple wire-and-clip display of snapshots of victims from the 1994 genocide.

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Images of victims of the genocide, Kigali Memorial Center, Rwanda. © Steve Simon
Images of victims of the genocide, Kigali Memorial Center, Rwanda. © Steve Simon

Photography is a way to record our milestones, often brought out when happy times are upon us or at big events. These were the images on display—images of people we can all relate to during important moments in their lives. For some, the images were the only proof of existence. It was a moving, powerful display, and as a photographer, I made pictures of the pictures as a way to share my experience with others. I learned that it’s not always the grand vista that tells the bigger story.

The Written Component

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”

—Lewis Wickes Hine

I’m of two minds when it comes to artist statements. There’s a reason why people say a picture is worth a thousand words; it’s because the good ones are. Strong images communicate so much, in an instant. If photographers were better able to communicate with words, I’m sure many of us might be writers instead.

But articulating a project in an organized and coherent way can help clarify and focus your vision for a consistent point of view in your work, as well as help form a framework for future shooting. A written project description is also a prerequisite to apply for grants, enter some contests, or look for support for your project.

The images will speak the loudest, but knowing how to describe your project will also help when editing. Nailing down a paragraph or headline can help you keep a tight thread through the story or theme, making sure all photos reflect that headline and let you stay on point.

Having a mission or artist statement for your work helps you keep your point of view consistent, something well worth striving for. Many of the best documentary photographers practicing today belong to the cooperative Magnum, whose original members—Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour—started the cooperative to chronicle the world: important issues, events, and people. Many of today’s Magnum shooters have boiled down their vision into a few words. Here are a few:

Quotes:

“If there’s one theme that connects all my work, I think it’s that of land-lessness; how land makes people into who they are and what happens to them when they lose it and thus lose their identities.”

Larry Towell

“The maximum from me and the maximum from others.”

— Josef Koudelka

“I’m more interested in a photography that is ‘unfinished’—a photography that is suggestive and can trigger a conversation or dialogue. There are pictures that are closed, finished, to which there is no way in.”

— Paolo Pellegrin

“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.”

— Trent Park

“For me, photography has become a way of attempting to make sense of the very strange world that I see around me. I don’t ever expect to achieve that understanding, but the fact that I am trying comforts me.”

— Mikhael Subotzky

If you haven’t come up with your own mission statement yet, take some time and find a quiet place for a brainstorming session with yourself. Jot down the common adjectives that describe what you like to shoot with your camera and why. These words will give you the skeleton of a mission statement, which will evolve over time.

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