“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. So there are artist statements specific to projects and more general ones.
The images will speak the loudest, but knowing how to describe your project can also help when editing. Nailing down a paragraph or headline can encourage you to keep a tight thread through the story or theme, making sure all photos reflect that headline and keeping you on point.
But if you’re completely anti-artist statement you will really enjoy this.
Having a mission or artist statement for your work helps keep your point of view consistent, something worth striving for.
Many of today’s best documentary photographers belong to the cooperative Magnum, whose original members founded it to chronicle the world; covering industry, places of interest, politics and news events, disasters, and conflict. Several Magnum shooters have boiled down their vision into a few words:
“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
“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
“You must feel an affinity for what you are photographing. You must be part of it, and yet remain sufficiently detached to see it objectively. Like watching from the audience a play you already know by heart.” George Rodger
“I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.” Trent Parke
“With photography, I like to create fiction out of reality. I try and do this by taking society’s natural prejudice and giving this a twist.” Martin Parr
“The camera is an excuse to be someplace you otherwise don’t belong. It gives me both a point of connection and a point of separation.” Susan Meiselas
“To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart. It’s a way of life.” Henri Cartier-Bresson
“If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Robert Capa
If you haven’t come up with your own artist statement yet, take some time and find a quiet place for a brainstorming session with yourself. Ask yourself a few questions: Why do you photograph? What are you trying to express?
Is there an overriding common thread in your photographs?
Jot down the common adjectives that describe what you like to shoot with your camera and why. Be totally honest and authentic when choosing your words. These words will give you the skeleton of an artist statement, which will evolve over time.
Keep it in the first person. I have to admit, writing an artist statement is one of the hardest assignments I have given myself. It’s outside my comfort zone—all the more reason to create one.
“I have a superpower to make time stop, forever frozen in moments that whisper a secret or shout a truth. It’s a magic, part meditation, part therapy that lets me dig deep into a confusing world and help make sense of it. I follow my curiosity, seeking understanding and tend to focus on situations far from my reality and people very different from myself.” Steve Simon