Photography and Trust



As a photographer, you won’t get around bringing your desire to photography, just as a viewer you do the same thing. You have no choice. As I have argued before, photography must fail if that desire is denied. But desire does not automatically create good photography. An equally crucial factor is trust. As a photographer, you have to trust your photographs. You have to trust that they say what you want them to say. Or more accurately, you have to realize that your subconscious mind is bringing more things to photography than your conscious mind might realize. (more)

If a photographer mistrusts her or his photographs, a gap seems to appear - the gap between that which the photographer wants to express, and that which the photographers perceives as expressed. Attempts to bridge that gap almost always involve artistic overcompensation: The photographer will over-apply her or his craft, for example by applying way too many Photoshop filters, by dodging and burning the crap out of a photograph in the darkroom, by using so-called toy cameras, or by relying on archaic photographic processes. A good photograph doesn’t need those gimmicks.

Put another way, any of those techniques will become invisible if you have a good photograph. They only appear as a gimmick when they are used to overcompensate for a lack of artistic self confidence: You don’t trust your photographs, you don’t trust that your viewers will see what you want them to see. So you apply what you think of as your craft.

Even though we’re dealing with a slightly different context here, this is why commercial photography (and parts of editorial photography) is (are) so horrible: Their makers (which here includes not just the photographers, but also the people who pay for it and the people hired to Photoshop the hell out of the source images) don’t trust the audience. As a consequence - confronted with increasingly artificial looking photography - the audience increasingly mistrusts photography. It’s a vicious circle. Given that large parts of commercial photography already looks as if everything was made out of plastic it shudders me to imagine what things will look like in ten years. I’m tempted to think that at some stage the androids that are currently being built in places like Japan (to take care of the elderly, say) will become the only “people” happy with this type of photography - bringing us into a world straight out of a Philip K. Dick novel.

Commercial photography aside, trust is a tough issue. There are billions of photographs online (in reality any person has access only to a very small fraction of them), and the question often becomes how one can have any faith in one’s photographs if there are so many others already out there (you might have noticed: I just called it faith, instead of trust - pick the word that comes closer to what you feel). For me, the answer has always been very simple. It comes in the form of a question: What does it matter if other people take photographs? What do other people’s photographs have to do with your own photographs?

Again, this seems to come down to trust: Only if you don’t have trust in your photographs, if you don’t have the faith that your photography expresses what you want it to express, only then can you be bothered by other people’s photographs. After all, as a photographer there is only one person that can express what you want to express, and that’s you. If you don’t have the faith that you can do that, then you might think that someone else can do it, that someone else can take a photograph that expresses what you want to express.

I can think of all kinds of areas where a person could indeed express another person’s ideas or thinking - but none of those areas have anything to do with art: A medical diagnosis, a scientific theory, a political slogan, … But I yet have to come across two novels by two different authors that express the same idea in the exact same way. I yet have to come across two songs by two different composers that express the same feeling in the exact same way.

Mistrust in one’s photography can manifest itself in many different way. I already mentioned overusing craft. But there are other things you can do: You can give your photographs overly descriptive titles. You can write exasperatingly long and convoluted statements. You can produce edits that have way too many photographs in them.

Many of these problems have their equivalents in the photobook-making world. If you don’t trust your photographs, if you don’t trust your audience to see and to make discoveries, you will bridge every gap you perceive, thus choking your work, making discovery impossible. This is why working with an editor is invaluable: A good editor sees what is in your pictures without mistrusting them. So she or he will be able to produce an edit that lets the work breathe, an edit that has the gaps in just the right space so that the viewer will be able to make all those little leaps of imagination - thus not only letting your work shine, but also enabling discovery beyond that which you think there is to be discovered.

When speaking about photography, trust and desire cannot be completely disconnected. I haven’t fully figured out what that connection is. But I think we can learn something from the following example. If you take a snapshot on vacation, there is a very clear desire: To preserve a moment and to share it with other people. But there is also trust. The frequent noises and discussions about a supposed crisis in photography notwithstanding, people outside of the narrow circles of fine-art photography don’t really have any trust issues with their vacation photographs. On the flight home, people don’t seem to be fretting over whether or not their holiday snapshots show themselves sufficiently happy. Instead, they simply trust their photographs.

image: vernacular photograph, from the author’s collection