Showing the world differently

The more I think about it, the more I'm coming to the conclusion that a large part of what photography should be about is... showing things differently. I agree - it's hardly a pearl of knowledge - but don't take it as a vague and general observation. Apply it as an idea to your working mindset. Its reasoning explains why we should 'work around the subject', but approaches the idea on different principles, and in a different way.

I remember showing some of my work in Nepal to my friend, who is a well-regarded Nepali photographer. Pictures of monks and monkeys, temples at dawn, beggars and pot-smoking Sadhus. And, after skimming through my pictures (far too quickly for my liking!), his expression clearly said,


I admit to being hurt. To me, my pictures were fresh, they were foreign, and exotic. But not to my friend. Why? Well, it was the equivalent of him showing me a London bus crossing Tower Bridge, which would probably have elicited a shrug from me. Because we've seen it before*.

So while the idea of 'showing the world differently' can easily be misinterpreted - rephrased to 'showing a different world' - it proves the point.**

If something seems new, even the least photo-minded among us cannot help but to take notice, and we take a few pictures. We feel there is something original there, and we will also feel our work deserves credit - even if it's just a snap. We think the subject of the photo is powerful/new/impressive enough to trump other photographic considerations.

But most of the time, it isn't. If those pictures don't 'follow the rules' of good photography, the only reason they're showing the world differently is that they're in a different part of the world. That's all.

So when a friend returns from holiday, you're looking through their pictures and you see some landmark you recognise. If you've actually been to that place, perhaps you've stood on the same point where everyone stands to get the same picture! At this point you'll realise it's not such a good picture after all***.

So. Landmarks and foreign countries. Their freshness gone in this world where everyone has a camera, where the internet contains so many thousands of images of each one, shot from every angle, at all times of day, throughout the seasons. Oh dear. And yet, we see wonderful photographs of well-known places all the time. How? Because they're presented in a new way.

How can you show something differently? Let's stick with the landmarks/tourist theme for a moment. The one time I do take pictures of landmarks is when my family or friends are in front of it. I can relax knowing I'm not expecting to achieve art. I just take the picture as a record of being there. But still, I try to make my family snaps a little different. I still look to consider the background as a photographic subject, rather than as a tourist destination. I still try to get close, fill the frame, work around the subject, consider the composition and lighting etc. Yes, it is still a snap - but one which pays attention to the photographic process. And that's the difference. My different process leads to different pictures. I have avoided the following, familiar scene:

The dad (traditionally the family photographer) stands as distant as possible away from the building. He then goes back further still. His family, now already far from him, are told to move yet further away. Dad then leans backwards, locks his arms straight, camera horizontal (holding it as if it might bite him). The flash fires (although it will probably achieve nothing here), and the shot is timed just before/after impatient passers-by have been permitted to go through this sacred, invisible, photographic umbilical cord betwixt father and family which takes up the thoroughfare. The picture will just about contain the family, who appear tiny in the frame, very central, rather bored. It will also include anyone or anything else who happened to be in view at the time - usually the backs of the (slower) lazily half-ducking passers-by leaving on one side, and the uncertainly waiting ones on the other (who are always looking fixedly at the camera, a little like the evil spirit in "The Grudge"). There will be lots of pavement at the bottom of the shot, and despite dad's valiant efforts, the top of the building will be cut off after all. Brilliant.

How do we experience the world?

Very roughly, most of what most of us experience as we go about our lives each day exists at our own standard eye-level, a few feet away, between the hours of 9am and 7pm. Crucially, yet most obvious, our view (approx 50mm) encompasses all that's in front of us****. So, yes, it is hard to see things in a different way when our experience is so consistent, repetitive, and frequently uninspiring.

With that in mind, many pictures taken within these general limits merely replicate what we are seeing all the time. They tend not to show the world differently. And so they're unlikely to make good pictures.

It follows that to improve our pictures, we have to put the work in. We need to do what others aren't doing. Get up earlier, when the light is different, at a time when most people don't see the world, when there is nobody around. Or we get out there in the rain, when others are warm and dry at home, to catch a landscape as the storm clouds finally break above it. Or we brave cold winds and get down to the seafront and get the waves smashing against the pier.

Or we crouch down, or get up higher. We perhaps get closer. We need to put ourselves in places and situations where we would not usually be. We need to take risks, be bold. When everyone is taking pictures of one thing, we need to turn around, to take the picture they will miss. We need to break away from the everyday, always considering "What if I did this? How would that look? What if I changed my camera settings? How could this look? What if I stood there? What if I used this lens? What if? What if?"

The best example I can think of comes back to landmarks once again. The only time I might consider taking a picture of the Eiffel Tower, say, is perhaps during the World Cup final, when I imagine the vicinity would be spookily quiet (unless they have big screens set up there?). A wide-angle shot showing the structure all on its own in broad daylight - no tourists, nobody around. That would show it differently. Then the strength of the subject would trump all other considerations.

What I'm emphasising is what I keep coming back to in these articles: that to show the world differently we need to put ourselves in a photographic mindset, from the family snaps to the pictures we may take for our photo-competition entries.

On a practical level, trying to show the world differently will usually involve working around the subject.

Because a single, eye-level picture from where we happen to be standing will rarely yield anything good. As I've said before, this first picture is merely the beginning of the process. We then need to get more involved: and we will get more out.


* I remember as a child reading National Geographic one day, and saw these amazing pictures of people with foot-long metal coils around their necks, and plates in their earlobes. Now, similar pictures are all over the internet, easily accessible and not so interesting. But in the same way, I'm sure the subjects of those pictures would likely be blown away if they saw pictures of Morris Men.


**This is why we're all inspired to take pictures on our holidays abroad, but seldom in our home towns. Even when our home town may be a world destination for foreign tourists and their cameras, a seemingly rich resource of photographic possibility. It holds no interest to many of us, because it's everyday. I read an interview with David Bailey (?) where he said that whenever he arrives somewhere, he starts shooting from the moment he leaves the plane, because after a few days it becomes familiar. It's very hard to 'see' when we see the same things all the time. As an aside, stock website Alamy (usually decent images) contained 11, 513 images for the keywords "Tower Bridge" at the time of writing. Flickr had 167,977.


***I never bother taking any pictures of famous landmarks now. If I wanted to get a good picture, I'd buy a postcard. What is the chance that my holiday picture, taken as I pass the Eiffel Tower might be better than that of the photographer who lives there, knows the area and has spent hours - many days, even - trying again and again to get it just right? The statistical probability of this is something like zero point nothing.

**** I gather that the size of the area in front of our eyes which gets our complete attention is only about the size of our thumbnail, held at arm's length: we cannot but filter out much of everything else.