Soul, redux: or, interpretations reflect the audience

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Sophie, the mime: the image resonates and means something to me because I have an emotional connection to the subject, to the setting, and I know the narrative story on either side of the frame. It may resonate with you because you happen to like children, or because the facial emotion is a strong an unambiguous one, or you like monochrome documentary portraiture, or for some other reason. But if it were executed differently, you may feel different about it – but not necessarily or consciously know why. It is up to the photographer to control the unconscious influences in such a way that at least their intended communication is fulfilled, but not in a way that draws attention to itself (and thus breaks that illusion).

After the huge amount of very interesting and thoughtful discussion that ensued in the comments – thank you for your thoughts, everybody – and a few days of settling time, I couldn’t leave the previous article on soul hanging inconclusively. There are few very interesting observations made, higher conclusions that one can draw from the responses here, and further logical leaps from contemplation of one’s own work and raison d’être. Firstly, a clarification though: I’m not looking for a magic formula to ‘inject soul’ into my own work, and I’ll explain why later. I was and am simply seeking to understand why certain images move certain people in a certain way – and if there’s anything one can use there to make a stronger image, given the choice, and providing of course it fits one’s own idea.

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Jazz time.

I believe good photographs can be divided into two camps: the literal and the ambiguous. (There’s a third kind, which you cannot really classify into either because they are lacking something fundamental like a clear subject – these land up as being ambiguous by default, but not intentionally.) From an interpretative/ artistic standpoint, a photograph is perhaps the most literal of all art forms; assuming minimal postprocessing, the translation between reality and finished interpretation is predictable and consistent across all subjects and capture conditions. The resultant image has to obey the laws of physics, after all – and these are generally quite consistent. But then how can we use ambiguity to our advantage to make a stronger image?

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Working the scene: interpretation, timing and storytelling

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Timing is key, but patience is a virtue for every photographer. Very often, we see some rather stunning images of a place we’ve been to before – and wonder how on earth we managed to miss the shot; the reality is even for a static location, there’s at least one factor in play – light – and often more. But I find it often goes beyond that: we ourselves change, and this plays a part in how we perceive the world at any given moment in time. If we’ve only got the opportunity to be in a given location or shoot a certain object once – how can we ensure we at least get a shot we’re happy with, and better yet, something defining?

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The photographer as philosopher, part two

Continued from part one.

Even though these articles might have differing substance to the images, it’s the images that people are drawn to because they contain information that comes in a much more easily digestible form than words; you can look at an image for a few seconds to understand what’s going on, but you can’t do the same with a two-thousand word article. Our brains are just hardwired that way; predators in the jungle didn’t write essays about why they were dangerous; they just looked scary. This dissonance itself is quite dangerous: an increasingly frequent trend I’ve noticed recently is that the pictures don’t always match the words; whether this is laziness on the part of the editor or lack of choice remains unclear; but there’s definitely a growing disparity betweens what the words say, and what the images say – or at least the impression they give. Logically, one would think that the overall message should be consistent: if you’re going for a particular angle, then the images should support the story; if no suitable images can be found, then the angle and story should be altered slightly so that at least the complete article is self-consistent.

I bet many of you saw the opening image in part one and wondered how on earth it related to the title; it’s an example of the dissonance. I’m even more certain that in a few months, one of three things will happen:
1. You’ll remember the article because of the example dissonance between images and words;
2. You’ll remember the pretty bokeh and forget the article;
3. You’ll remember neither.

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The photographer as philosopher, part one

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Some weeks ago, I was exchanging emails with a reader from New Zealand; he threw out an interesting thought which has stuck with me since and definitely bears further examination (and I paraphrase to retain context): Where does the work of a photographer begin and end? Have we partially taken over the job of philosophers to interpret the world?

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