One big question among photographers seems to be, “How do I come up with ideas of what to photograph?” At first, I would try to answer this question by forcing some kind of idea for a project, a theme to anchor my photography. I think there is a better approach. It makes more sense to me now to let ideas for projects emerge organically.
Recently, as I went out to walk with my camera, I took several shots, brought them back, looked at them on the computer, and immediately dismissed them as no good. After letting them sit for awhile though, and then coming back to give them a second look, I noticed the suggestion of a theme of sorts among the photographs and realized I had stumbled upon something that interested me — namely, the deterioration of my own town. Now I’m looking to explore the details of that theme through my photography. My plan is to continue photographing areas that are deteriorating and, eventually, work my way into photographing the people of this town who are suffering from it.
I did not force that idea. I didn’t come up with it like, let’s say, “I’m going to do a photography series on “loneliness” and then try to force myself to take photos that fit that pre-determined theme. Instead, I just took the photos and let the common themes in the photos dictate the idea for a project to me.
Is this how the masters worked? Henri Cartier-Bresson? Diane Arbus? Vivian Maier? Garry Winogrand? Elliott Erwitt? Joel Meyerowitz? I don’t know for sure, but I do know that it seems to be working for me.
In the end, I think the key is to find out what works for you. Do you need a pre-determined topic, theme, or idea to get you going, or do you thrive on just letting the photos speak? I think the advantage in the latter lies in the fact that, as a photographer analyzing my own photographs, I am slowing down and taking the time to understand each shot on a deeper level rather than simply falling in love with it (“That’s the photo I took. Aren’t I brilliant?”) and thinking you are complete.
As photographers, we are never complete. We are always growing, always learning, always changing, always seeing things from a different point of view. We have to learn to do the same with our own work. To do that, we have to be willing to divorce ourselves from our parental rights to our photographs and go over them with a fine- toothed comb. We have to be ruthless in our editing, but we also need to be open to possibilities that we hadn’t considered before. I find it hard to do that when I set out trying to stuff things into a pre-conceived idea. I find it much easier to do when the photographs themselves give me the ideas.
Now let’s see if I can practice what I preach.