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What You Believe Can Be Bad for Your Photography

It's maybe time to let go of everything you know, take on board new beliefs, and change the course of your photography.

Does what is reported by the media, whether mainstream or otherwise, reflect your worldview? Are the facts that present themselves the same as you believe? Or do you find that when you watch the TV news, or read a paper, or browse websites, that the articles don’t cohere with what you regard as the truth?

Polarization of Our Societies

Of course, the political motivations of all media outlets are biased to one point of view or another. Similarly, their target audiences are at different academic levels. Therefore, if you watch Fox News or read the Daily Mail website, you are unlikely to find The Guardian or The New York Times appealing and vice versa.

Very few people like having their opinions challenged. Consequently, we live in bubbles, surrounding ourselves with those with similar viewpoints, and exposing ourselves to information that only corresponds with our point of view. This is, of course, dangerous. Not accepting that others can have different beliefs and detesting opposing points of view are the cause of every act of hatred and conflict in history.

Guy Fawkes Night in the UK is a celebration of a failed act of violence resulting from an oppression of a minority group that was followed by brutal executions. Is polarization risking us reverting to a time of inhumanity?

What has this got to do with photography? Like any art form, it has a huge element of subjectivity. Whether it is to do with composition, lighting, genre, or even what equipment we buy, you probably believe one thing, and someone will think the opposite. Consequently, if you state an opinion, someone will argue against you. They may be outraged by your assertions, and even make threats to defend their viewpoint.

That, of course, is madness. It's only photography.

How Do You React to Things Your Disagree With

  • Do you like landscape photography? That’s the least academically challenging of all genres. It’s just about making pretty pictures that are easy to like.
     
  • Boudoir photography is seedy. It’s nothing more than soft pornography, aimed at titillating men. It has no artistic merits beyond sexual gratification. Furthermore, it’s demeaning to the models who pose for it. It also encourages the sexualization and abuse of young women.
     
  • As soon as you use the clone tool in Photoshop, you are no longer working on a photograph, it's now digital art.
     
  • What kind of camera do you use? Well, I think that brand is appalling. They are badly made, and the company is solely interested in making money for their shareholders. They deliberately under-engineer their basic models, so people soon outgrow them. Furthermore, they ensure there is built-in obsolescence, which is so bad for the planet.
     
  • Wildlife photography is twee.

I am sure you vehemently disagree with at least one of those statements. Yet, they are beliefs that are held by reasonable people, just as those who disagree with them are most reasonable too. However, whether in favor or against, such beliefs over trivialities like those can be so strongly held that opposing them will be viewed as if they were blasphemy. If people hold such strong feelings about photography, it is little wonder that countries go to war over more serious and weighty matters, such as politics, land ownership, oil, race, and religion.

A composite of three images. Is it still a photograph? Furthermore, is wildlife photography twee?

And that’s where a problem lies, both within photography and in the wider world. Acceptance of opposing views has been lost to polarization. With that polarization has come the assimilation of extremist beliefs into the mainstream. People are convinced that theirs is the only true way. They think that instead of having a reasoned debate and agreeing to disagree, discussion must deteriorate into insult and attacks on the person. Read the comments sections of some articles here, and you will see that is just as much the case in photography as it is with politics and religion.

Being Offensive Is Damaging to Both You and Your Photography

What photographers fail to comprehend is that when they make offensive remarks about others, as opposed to respecting an opinion even if disagreeing with it, then they are damaging their reputation. You can be sure that your employers will see comments you make, as well potential customers, and so too will your friends and relatives.

When I’ve browsed through people’s galleries, sometimes, a style or approach to photography catches my eye. I recently considered approaching one photographer to offer to interview them for an article to help boost their profile. But then, I’ve read the comments they’ve left on some articles and walked away.

I feel I should point out that many offensive or insulting comments that appear both here and on other photography sites are made by people hiding behind false personas. They are internet trolls. They rarely have picture galleries or biographies associated with their account. However, this attempt at anonymity is no real protection as one troll, hiding behind a false Twitter identity, found out to their enormous financial cost. Nevertheless, one should ignore such bile.

A Good Reason to Celebrate Differences

Putting the often rude and offensive comments aside, not accepting others’ points of view is the very strangest attitude for a photographer. It is counter to what we are trying to achieve in our work. How so?

If we want to make our images compelling, and there cannot be many photographers who don’t want to do that, then we want to demonstrate that we observe the world in ways that most people don’t. We see the strange, unusual, and exotic. We find people different to us, doing things that, to our eyes, seem extraordinary. Not only that, but we even take the mundane and find new and exciting ways of showing it to our viewers.

Furthermore, we sometimes highlight those differences by including in our photos a contrasting element that emphasizes the unusual. With our pictures, we celebrate the differences in the world.

Seeing the differences and celebrating them with photography. Kenya is so different from where I live now.


Photography works best when it is showing us points of view very different from our own. So, how can we do that effectively if we cannot accept others' views as valid?

Of course, there are exceptions. When photographing war, violence, cruelty, bigotry, disasters, and destruction, photographers are making an unequivocal statement that what we observed is unacceptable. But that outrage should be reserved for the abhorrent, while differences and diversity should be celebrated.

Negativity Rubs Away Our Creativity

It is widely recognized that our behaviors gravitate towards our dominant thoughts. If we think negatively, then this will invariably be reflected in our personalities and, ultimately, all we create. Yet, if we respect and applaud diversity, broaden our horizons to embrace the different, then not only will that be echoed in others’ attitudes towards us, but will also positively affect our state of mind and, ultimately, in our art.

So, furiously rejecting alternative views does not cohere with the ethos of photography. Furthermore, when you read negativity that is disrespectful of alternative views, you can be sure that they are made by people who will never become great photographers.

History Shows That Diversifying Works

There are plenty of examples of great artists from all fields whose work benefited from diversification: da Vinci, Picasso, Dali, Miro, Mozart, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Linda McCartney, and Don McCullin. Even Ansel Adams didn’t glue himself to solely shooting photos of Yosemite, and Dorothea Lange's best work happened after she digressed from shooting studio portraits.

A Challenge

So, here’s a challenge. Set out to create images of things, places, and people utterly different from what you normally photograph. This could either be within the genre you usually shoot or some completely different topic altogether. Do your research first. Put in as much interest in the new subject as you do with your regular ones. But also try different approaches, such as different lighting, or using a different format of camera. It will be great to see your experimentation in the comments.

Oh, and if you disagree with what I have written here, I will gladly listen to your reasons why.

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14 Comments

Tony Clark's picture

I believe that most successful people are open to new ideas and perspectives. I find that shooting other genre can be a lot of fun and can teach you new techniques and nuisances that can be applied to your usual work.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks Tony, all very true.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Thanks for the comment. I absolutely agree we should have our own opinions, likes and dislikes. Being accepting of others rights to their own beliefs, and disagreeing without hate, but with understanding that diverse opinions, is healthy. Furthermore, we can then learn from others, just as they will learn from us. Sadly, here in the UK, we have just seen the result of that lack of respect for another's opinions. That act of violence will do nothing more than breed further hate and violence from both sides of that divide. The same applies to photography and the harsh way people put across their opinions about the different aspects of the art, such as those you mention. Fantastic though it is, on the scale of importance, photography is a long way down, and it surprises me that people get so wound up about it.

Timothy Roper's picture

Better yet, try other art forms beyond photography. That's where the real creativity is, and you might learn a thing or two.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Yes! There is a huge overlap between all the arts, and appreciating and working with others helps creativity no end. Although, I play guitar very badly and my drawing is even worse, and I am not sure that my photography has helped improve either of them.

kellymckeon's picture

Ivor, I have read this article three times, trying to digest if you’re making absolute statements or not throughout.
In particular, regarding where you stated boudoir photography encourages the sexualization and abuse of young women. You clarified by writing, these are what reasonable people believe and what reasonable people disagree with. Somewhere, that statement was made by someone, and it could be deemed harmful to the profession.

But the statements further down caused me to come to a screeching halt. You headlined that negativity rubs away our creativity. I respectfully disagree Ivor. On the contrary, a large part of our past and present art is of dissent. Many great artists, songwriters, comedians, and photographers have actually created their best work formed from negativity. Either by disagreement, or whatever is disruptive deep within them.

I’m also not clear how your challenge aligns with changing our viewpoints of, as you stated, the polarization of our society. Except maybe to diversify our perspectives.

I will say, I had never heard the term, twee. I had to look that one up. Very British indeed.

Thank you for a thought provoking article.

Jan Holler's picture

You are addressing an important aspect of negativity here. It is also a source of creativity. And finally, we live in a dialectical world. The good cannot be without the bad, the dark cannot be without the light. But it really depends on what one makes of it. If he or she makes something positive out of it that other people see as an inspiration for themselves, then it makes sense. I think that's what Ivor wants to express with his article: only a positive attitude creates art, rejection and denial does not.
(What is reasonable is often in the eye of the beholder.)

Ivor Rackham's picture

Hi Kelly and Jan. Thanks for replying, I'll try to answer as best I can.

Yes, someone made that statement about boudoir photography. (In fact, I heard it a few times from different people.) In my article, I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with that or any of the other statements. I am only saying that those opinions exist.

My point is that they are reasonable people who said that, but they hold a point of view that seems unreasonable to those who disagree with them. If I were to take this argument outside photography, I have a friend whose political beliefs are a long way from mine. We disagree over that, but we still get on as people.

Those who dissent are optimistic about changing the future to something better, so I don't see it as negativity. I absolutely agree with the power of dissent inspiring and influencing art. The point I was probably not making very well was that if we only see the world in an ugly or hateful way, then this will adversely affect our mind. In turn, that detrimentally restricts our ability to create. Which, I think, is pretty much how Jan interpreted what I meant.

Taking your point of comedy as an example, comedians see the dark things happening in the world and, instead of spreading hate and despair, joke about what is happening and make people laugh. Songwriters turn heartbreak into beautiful, mournful ballads instead of diatribes of hate. Doing that is powerful, which is why authoritarians always oppress artists.

Diversifying our perspectives is exactly the point of the challenges. By photographing other genres, it broadens our minds and helps us to appreciate that there is more than one way of seeing the world.

I had to laugh about your comment regarding "twee." Usually, the editors would pick me up on it. I am often asking the American writers to see if turns of phrase or words are understood, my last one was "ramble", which has a different meaning in British English. Vive la difference!

Jan Holler's picture

Great reply, Ivor, thank you.

John Keane's picture

Thank you

Catherine Bowlene's picture

I liked the article, special lols at 'you are no longer working on a photograph, it's now digital art', I had people telling me how old pictures recolored or fixed by some Photoglory aren't real and how Photoshop is a massive scam. My go-to thought is 'You do you' and if someone doesn't like my works or the camera I use or the software I work with they are entitled to their own opinion and I can happily pass by because I'm entitled to mine.

Ivor Rackham's picture

Exactly! Thanks for the super comment, Catherine.

winzehnt gates's picture

The most pointless discussions are about the definition of words. E.g. discussing the question if an image is still a "photograph" after sky replacement is pointless. Different people use words differently. What can and should be discussed, is if the viewer of such an image should be made aware of the sky replacement or not. And, as the article states, there are reasonable people arguing for it as well as there are reasonable people who argue against it.
In an ideal word, we could agree on which pro and contra arguments are valid and we would only differ on how each person weighs these arguments.

Ivor Rackham's picture

That's really interesting, Winzehnt. The philosophy of semantics goes back quite a long way, Aristotle and Plato both looked at the meanings, and it's still a hot topic in philosophy. Personally, I find the disagreements interesting, as it gives some insight into other points of view that I can learn from. For example, you have a different opinion about the discussions about the meanings of words than I do, and, for me, that disagreement is fascinating. Thank you for the great comment.