The Risk of Guarantees

The recent issue involving the killing of a beloved lion during a $55,000 African safari “hunt” has all but consumed social media for the past week. For the record, I am not against hunting. I used to be a hunter. I think it fulfills some sort of primal instinct within many of us. However, this was not a hunt, it was shopping. A purchase. A guarantee (nobody pays that much money for a chance). It was done with the expressed intent of coming home with an ego-enhancing trophy to be proudly displayed on the wall with the requisite bragging and bravado.

Sound familiar?

Photography has become about trophy hunts. We want guarantees. All too few seem willing to explore, or to take a chance, or to discover. Instead, we want to be taken by the hand and led to our prey: the Moulton barn against the Tetons, cars in Cuba (enough already), noon time slot canyons, midnight milky way, sunrise arches, and sunset mountains.

Why? For the guarantee of a pretty picture to impress our Internet friends. No other reason.

Those of you who read my blog know that this is a common theme. Mindless photography. My pet peeve. When I am asked how someone can improve their photography, my answer is always the same, avoid clichés. Avoid guarantees. Take chances. Be creative. Be different (not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of not being the same).

I encourage you, I implore you, to let go of the dependence on guarantees and to explore.Take chances. Find your voice. Be free.

But most of all, I encourage you to not be so blind by guarantees that you miss the obvious (like a tracking collar, maybe?).

Of Outties and Innies

I have a couple friends in town who are a photojournalists. Newspaper photographers. As many of you know, I spent more than 15 years doing that same job. My friends are good at it. Very good. I wasn’t. Not that I was horrible, mind you, but I lacked the requisite passion to be anything more than average. Adequate.

So, why was that?

Well, at least for me, being a photojournalist (and subsequently a university photographer) meant I was documenting other people’s lives. I was not part of the plot. I was on the outside looking in. A mere spectator peeking through the insulating and protective window of a lens. Relationships with my subjects were, for the most part, fleeting. I got the required photographs and moved on to the next assignment. There and gone. Quick click, thank you Dick!

Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for photojournalists and documentarians. Many have a deep and sincere passion for it and thrive within its limitations and possibilities. They play a crucial role in enlightening our understanding of the world in a way that words could never convey. For them, being on the outside is good. But for me, it simply wasn’t a good fit.

Landscape photography (my brand of it, anyway) is different. I do not feel like a spectator, outsider, or an intruder. I feel welcome and relaxed, and the relationships I develop with my subject matter are long-term and affectionate. I feel as though I am a part of the scene and part of the plot. An integral part, and my presence is not only accepted, it is crucial. I belong. It is that acceptance, that connection, which fuels my passion and, if I may be so bold, elevates my photography beyond the average.

The time I spent in photojournalism was an amazing experience. I covered a couple Super Bowls, an All-Star Baseball game, World Series, Stanley Cup, an airliner crash (less than five miles from my home in Pittsburgh), a major flood, many minor floods, many dozens of accidents, fires, shootings, chases, breaks, sprains and scratches. I made hundreds of portraits, found hundreds of feature photos, and even helped rescue a collapsed firefighter and a dog who almost drowned. Mostly, though, I just covered life. From the outside.

Photojournalism may not have been my calling, but it created a pretty sturdy foundation for finding my passion.

I hope you are fortunate enough to find yours.