“Going out to take photos?”
“Get any good shots?”
Even though I’m often asked one of these two admittedly innocuous questions, my first reaction is usually puzzlement: Do they know something I don’t? Then I realize that the questioner is looking at the ever-present camera on my shoulder and thinking that today is special, that I’m going out today to specifically capture certain images that I already have in mind. Or that have just returned from doing so, mission accomplished.
“Not really,” I say. Usually I leave it at that, and watch as the puzzlement volleys back into their court.
“But you’re carrying a camera-“
“This is true.”
“Are you not going out to take pictures?”
There’s not much I can honestly say at this point without causing them to look around for escape routes: “Maybe!” or “We’ll see!” or “Ya never know!”
Mostly I just lie, because I realize most people are just making small talk, and dealing with a person who is obviously going out shooting but steadfastly refuses to say so can’t be a pleasant experience.
And I can’t blame them. Photography has in recent years become so wrapped up in itself at the expense of its very purpose that such conversations usually end up going nowhere fast. I also suspect it might be much worse if I were a Real Photographer™.
So many people are looking through the wrong end of the telephoto lens, so to speak. These conversations might continue on to things like “So what camera/lens do you use?” followed by endless listing of specs and the kind of brand loyalty statements usually reserved for sports teams, then moving eventually, perhaps, to “Where/when/what do you shoot?” and almost never “Why do you shoot,” much less “Who are you?” Ironically, mall security and cops tend to be the ones asking this last question, though I’m not sure if they’re really interested in the answer unless it involves letting them arrest me.
Whether it’s out of politeness, caution, social mores, or simply an unspoken fear that one hasn’t even bothered ask oneself these questions, the result is that we rarely actually communicate on this subject. Photographers are often so ill at ease with social navigation that we resort to photography as a primary means of communication. That, of course, doesn’t excuse resorting to a similar amount of shallowness when working in one’s chosen medium.
In a nutshell, who you are determines what you notice, the questions you ask, your doubts and inspirations. All this is constantly changing, and simply saying “I’m going to shoot different photos now” is an oversimplification of that process. You don't see things as they are; you see things as you are. The photography is incidental, more of a result than a cause.
People often express a desire to improve their photography, their desire to take “better” photos; that means taking different photos than the ones they’re taking now. Changing the location or equipment involved will most likely not result in fundamentally different photos; you can’t take different photos until you see different things. And that, in turn, won’t happen until you are different than you are now in some fundamental way. You see the things you see because of the person you happen to be at this moment.
And you are always changing. Some say travel changes a person, some say switching jobs, some say switching partners, some say limitations engender creativity¦when it comes down to it, life changes you constantly, by definition. At some point, some that youness might intersect with photographic expression for an undetermined length of time. Or it might not.
So try not to distract yourself with the superficialities of gear and travel. Photography, as Jay Maisel once wrote, is about everything else. The most vital variable in the mix is you. You are the genesis of your photography; start with that, and everything else will follow.