“What do you photograph?”

Inevitably, when someone discovers that I’m a photographer, this is their Pavlovian response. It’s a question framed in an expression of utmost earnestness — as if they were asking a medical doctor to state his specialty, or an actor to enumerate the roles they had played. I’ve heard other photographers respond to this inquiry without missing a beat. “Weddings,” they answer. Or, “I’m a corporate photographer.” “I shoot sports,” say others. “Wildlife!”

How do they do this? How do they answer this question so effortlessly? How does anybody photograph only one thing? Photographers even ask this question of each other. If you respond with an answer that’s too broad, or name even more than a single discipline, you’re labelled a dilettante.

“What do you photograph?”

My heart sinks. I know how to answer the question correctly, but I haven’t the correct answer. I photograph what fascinates me; what amuses me; what saddens me. I photograph what I find poignant, aesthetic, horrifying, delightful, beautiful, inspiring, strange, ironic, truthful, exotic, funny, or revealing.

If I’m entertained by human expression, I’ll photograph it. But I don’t label myself a ‘portrait photographer.’

If I see a levitating dog, I’ll photograph it. But I’m not a ‘pet photographer.’

A Device for Levitation

If I find a zen-like tranquility in an everyday object, I’ll photograph it. But I’d never call myself a ‘fine arts photographer.’

“What do you photograph?”

It’s a question the inquisitor wants answered as succinctly as possible. And, for this reason, it’s a question I’ve never answered adequately. “I like to photograph people,” I’ve said on numerous occasions and to unsatisfactory result. It’s certainly true. I do enjoy photographing people — but not to the exclusion of everything else. And how can I reconcile this answer with the fact that a landscape assignment has, to date, been my favorite? I can’t. So why must I declare a specialty when I’ve delivered quality work across many disciplines and enjoyed them all?

“What do you photograph?”

It’s a very specific question, and that question is not “what do you like to photograph?” The question is “what do you photograph?” The implicit meaning of this is, “As a professional, you must have a narrow specialty. What is it?” That’s why an answer as banal as “I like to photograph people,” doesn’t cut it. “Photographing people” is not a job. Wedding photography is a job. Fashion photography is a job. Taking snapshots of babies at Walmart is a job. So when people ask this question, they’re really asking, “Where does the money come from?”

For this reason, I’ve sometimes heard myself answer the question with an even less satisfying response: “I’ll photograph anything my clients ask for.” It’s an answer that directly and truthfully addresses the real question behind the question. Indeed, I will photograph anything people will pay me to photograph. I need to earn a living and, if at all possible, I’d like to earn it with a camera. If a cooking magazine hired me, full-time, to photograph culinary creations for their monthly publications, I would give them the best photographs money could buy. But I still wouldn’t answer, “I’m a food photographer.”

“What do you photograph?”

It’s a question that, if answered to the satisfaction of the inquisitor, would be void of any and all truth. When my camera is in my hand, I have a heightened awareness. I do not shut myself off from anything. I do not narrow my vision to a single discipline. I photograph with my eyes wide open. I am a hunter — hyper-sensitive to geometry and motion, passion and emotion. I see everything… but I can’t photograph everything I see. I can only photograph the smallest subset of the images that bombard me. So the things I choose to photograph are dictated by my own personal principles, emotions, and ideals.

“What do you photograph?”

My soul.

Although I will never dare utter such an affected response to a casual acquaintance, potential employer or industry peer, it is the most honest and complete answer of all. It is, ultimately, what every true photographer photographs, because the photographer’s soul dictates where the lens points, how its settings are chosen, and when the shutter is released.

People in some cultures claim that, with each photo taken of them, they lose a little piece of their soul. But, in actuality, the subject’s soul remains intact. It only seems diminished because it’s been diluted by the addition of the photographer’s soul. It is the photographer who determines the exact moment of capture — the exact expression. And, by the choices they make, photographers impose some of their own biases, beliefs and soul onto the subject.

It matters not whether a photographer is paid to shoot animal, vegetable, or mineral. These are just ‘things’ that a photographer shoots. It matters not whether a photo is for a news magazine, a corporate website, or the art gallery. These are just ‘clients’ for whom a photographer shoots. To define your photography by aligning it with a specific ‘thing’ or a ‘client’ seems, to me, rather soulless.

“What do you photograph?”

It’s a question for which I can write an entire essay for an answer, yet will never be capable of answering to the satisfaction of those who ask it.


©2009 grEGORy simpson
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