On Seeing

Recurring Themes

Ansel Adams, whose breathtaking photographs have become icons of the American West, was a fearsome propagandist for environmentalists. His photographs leave little room for discussion.

One of the greatest American muckraking photographers, Jacob Riis, used his photography in the early 1900s to bring to light an appalling chapter in American history of unregulated child labor and dreadful urban living conditions. His photographs are particularly amazing because he never sacrificed the beauty and humanity of his subjects to tell his story. Never defined by their condition, his subjects are human first; being poor and downtrodden comes second.

Some photographers use the medium to confront fears. Whatever draws photographers to war would take volumes and several knowledgeable psychiatrists to untangle, but my guess is fear is a major contributor. We confront things to break their hold over us. Sometimes we may not even be aware, on a conscious level, of the devils we may be exorcising.

Perhaps you are beginning to see themes in your photographs, but probably only if you've been shooting for awhile. It takes time to amass a collection of photographs and more time to adequately assess your work, but like any self-examination, it is worthwhile and revealing to do so. Talk to any artist and he or she will most likely tell you that certain topics seem to naturally pop up in their work. Writers have shared with me that after writing several stories, they might discover that they are analyzing over and over again, in different stories and in different manners, issues of non-communication in coupled relationships or perhaps lost souls in a materialistic society. Whatever it may be, certain themes recur. The same holds for painters who express their ideas visually. It may be aggression, it may be love, it may be loneliness, but the exploration of issues and ideas is there.

A Collective Voice

The individual image says one thing; collectively, in a photo-essay they can have the power to say more and ever better things.

For almost three decades, I traveled back and forth to Africa, South America and the Caribbean documenting the traditions and culture of people of African descent. When I began my travels in the 1970s, no one, or few people had heard of the African Diaspora. In fact, African people didn't often think collectively then. But in the 1990s, new thoughts began to creep into academia. First scholars whispered about an African Diaspora; in time a full-fledged debate raged. One day hearing all those words flung back and forth, I realized I had the documentation to help put this argument to rest. I began organizing the "finger exercises" I had been accumulating for three decades. I put them into collective categories, such as ancient places, spirituality, sanctuaries, and manners. I made more trips in search of the missing pieces to fill in the harmony and add rhythm to make my symphony. It came together as my fourth book: Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa. I like to think that each of the images in this book is strong on its own, but there is no doubt that the collective voice of all the photographs offers a fuller, richer and more powerful story.

Don't be discouraged if you don't immediately know what it is you want to say with your photographs, and in your photography. Even those of us who think we do, often find it changing. By paying attention to your work and identifying themes that naturally develop, in time you will recognize your inner vision.

First you have to amass a body of work to examine. By learning how to articulate your vision and all the possibilities available to you as you sight through your camera, you will begin to develop an understanding of what you are seeing and shooting. Your eye will become clearer. Your aim surer.

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