Why I Am A Photographer

Why I Am A Photographer

A casual conversation leads to an interesting question. There I was again. Spouting endless drivel at the beginning of a date. Trying desperately to impress her with my chatter. Listening to her and responding with what I hoped were deep and probing questions that both relayed my interest in her personally and required a significantly lengthy response which would provide me the necessary time to catch my breath and subdue my nerve-induced racing heartbeat.

I kept my cool. Well, at least I think I did. As far as I know, my attempts to embody an admittedly lesser Denzel Washington may simply have come across as a rather dimwitted deer caught in headlights. But still, as with any brave soldier on the field of battle, I carried on.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the topic of conversation lead to our careers. As many artists can likely attest, this can be a bit of a romantic minefield. Especially in a city like Los Angeles where every other person she has met has also likely claimed to be an actor, director, producer, photographer, or artist of some sort. Trying to explain to a lawyer or a business woman why your decision to pursue a living through art is a valid career decision can be tricky at best. Regardless of your level of success, it can be hard to fathom, for someone not artistically inclined, why a grown man would choose a life of uncertainty over stability and the guaranteed monotony of life as the man in the gray flannel suit.
Thankfully, my date for the evening was a fellow artist. So the question of why we chose to spend our lives in the pursuit of artistic excellence was already understood. It’s not even a choice, really. As Billy Crystal once said, “A writer writes. Always.” Whether one makes a living from it, gains fame from it, or simply does it in the privacy of one’s own basement, a true artist has to create. It’s a compulsion. Those of us fortunate enough to receive adequate compensation for said compulsion are the fortunate ones. But even absent any financial incentives, the compulsion would still remain.

Gold star for me. Common interests. The Holy Grail of the first date dinner conversation. The next beat in the love scene that will allow the characters to take their dialogue to the next level. To get to not only the what, but to the why.
The what is only part of the story. The surface sheen that allows us to categorize ourselves, but doesn’t do much to explain our deeper meaning.
Yes. I am a photographer. Specifically, I am a fitness and lifestyle photographer. As I like to say, I create images of amazing people doing amazing things. But why do I do that?
And, yes, I’ve written extensively about the power of finding one’s niche in the market and about why it is important to specialize. These things are incredibly important from a business perspective.

But as I sat there, on a date with beautiful woman, in a situation devoid of any business concern, I got to ask a deeper question. Why do I shoot what I shoot. I could just as easily be a landscape photographer. Or an architectural photographer. It’s not that I’m bad in those areas. They just don’t interest me. So what is it about me, that makes people photography the way I have chosen to spend my life?
If you’ve ever read any of my previous articles, you know that I can lean towards the verbose. So, it should come as no surprise that my dating responses also rarely suffer from a lack of words. And, in true fashion, the only way I knew to go about addressing her question about my choice of subject was to go back to the beginning of my career.

Like most shutterbugs, I began my journey behind the lens at first randomly, and soon after obsessively documenting life around me. With no particular focus in mind, I would simply seek out anything happening in the city, from street fairs to sporting events, show up with my camera and start shooting.
But even in a city as large as Los Angeles, I quickly ran out of interesting things to shoot. How did I solve this problem? Simple. Go somewhere else. With a rekindled interest in exploration and an updated passport photo, I began to travel the world. Italy. Hong Kong. France. Spain.  Anywhere my frequent flyer miles would take me, I was there.
But, as I traveled far and wide and began to cull down the hundreds of thousands of images I had taken everywhere from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to the Great Buddha in Hong Kong, an undeniable trend began to take shape. No matter how beautiful the landscape present in the image, the only thing I seemed to really be interested in were the people in the photograph.
Yes, the Eiffel Tower was amazing. But I was far more interested in the young couple having a picnic in front of it. The Grand Buddha was amazing. But how would having it in the background help to frame the story of the young woman doing prayers on it’s steps?
After a while, I began to crop out the monuments and buildings all together. Who the heck cared about the greatest wonders on Earth when that random guy over there with the reversible fanny pack was so interesting.

Growing quickly bored and somewhat guilt ridden by the practice of stealing shots of strangers during these intimate moments, I soon began to work with actual models. Of course, photographing someone who actually knows they are being photographed is an entirely different experience.
You get to speak to them and interact. Come up with various scenarios together. Direct them into poses and behavior. Create the story you want to tell as opposed to just catching something that is already happening.
As my hobby developed into a career, the amount of collaboration and interpersonal connection only grew deeper and more meaningful. To be able to learn about and study an individual and bring out their story through art became my reason for being. The accessibility is intoxicating. I mean, really, how many other scenarios in real life exist where another human being will be more than willing to let you walk right up to them, stand inches from their face staring at them as if they were an animal in a cage, make judgments about them, and then likely tell them what they can be doing better. And, all the while, not be at all offended or think the situation in the least bit strange!
In no other situation would that be socially acceptable. Yet, I do it every day.
The lens offers me both the invitation and social buffer to have that interaction. It allows me to connect with people on a deeper level. It allows me to learn about them. Interpret them. And help tell their story to the world.
That is the why.
And as miraculous as it may seem, my passionate though long-winded explanation had not, in fact, put my date to sleep. Because, while she had different motivations for her own craft, she understood that the art we choose to create says as much about who we are away from the camera as behind it. Our art is a window into our own souls and our needs as human beings. I take pictures as a way of connecting with other people.
So what about you? Why do you take pictures? And how does that help you further understand yourself and the world around you?

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Thanks for your post, Christopher. Like you I started off as a hobbyist, quickly becoming obsessed with shooting everything and anything without any clear focus. I've just started the transition from hobbyist landscape photographer, to portrait photographer. What's really interesting is I never considered myself a "people" person, but after a couple of classes in which some assignments included shooting people, I was filled a greater sense of satisfaction than any landscape had given me.

Great and insightful article but you left us hanging! Are you still dating your beautiful artist? :-)

Haha. We'll see. Trying to get date number three on the calendar. Fingers crossed :-)