What to Photograph?

June 7, 2015

Steve McCurry, who is probably most recognized for his photograph of Sharbat Gula, answers this question toward the end of this article.  That second article is worth reading as it also speaks to Mr. McCurry’s position regarding photography in general.

That which is meaningful, of course, is open to interpretation and that interpretation resides with the photographer.  Even if working under contract, the subject matter must convey some meaning to the photographer-even if that meaning is being able to pay the bills.  A long time ago, Pat Perry, my photographic mentor, said that many photographers cycled through wedding photography as means of financing the photographic work that was truly of interest to the photographer.  Wedding photography held no appeal whatsoever and, fortunately, I had other means by which to pay my bills.

Oregon Ridge Bachelor Boarding House in winter

(C) Copyright 2007 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Still, I foundered as a truly emotional connection to my photographs was mostly lacking.  It was exciting to make my first properly exposed photographs.  Sure, I could make nice photographs of flowers and sunsets and such, but they had no long-term resonance.  Every now and then, I would catch a glimpse of that “beyond the pretty” stirring that a meaningful photograph engenders.  The first occasion was when photographing the remnants of Oregon Ridge Town many years ago.  There was/is a historical connection to a time gone by represented by the remaining shells of the Boarding houses and Manager’s house.  People used to live and work here.  Photography keeps that era alive as the images are  the only means by which to experience that period.  Indeed, the Manager’s house at Oregon Ridge was completely razed years ago and there is no other way to know of its existence-all that is left is a patch of grass.  It is impossible to make the above photograph of one of the Bachelor Boarding houses now, as the building proper does not exist.

 

Bachelor Boarding house foundation in winter

Copyright 2015 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

The above photograph documents what is still standing eight years later.  Oregon Ridge is an ongoing project as each time I go there and make photographs is the last time those buildings will look that way.

 

Trash outside house in Lower 9 Ward three years after Katrina.

Copyright 2008 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

The second occasion came when photographing New Orleans in 2008.  I made two trips there in January and then again in December and have written several blog posts about those experiences.  The destruction in the 9th Ward and other parts of the city came to represent the stark reality of poverty and governmental hubris in the United States.   Those issues, and those images, made a profound impression on me and my photography.  Flowers and sunsets became far less meaningful.   I was teaching a travel photography course at the time and used several of the New Orleans images as teaching points.  It is not surprising that these are the kinds of images that many of the students appeared to not want to see, which was reflected in their comments.  August 29, 2015 will be the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Plastic cup and cigarette butt discarded atop a wall between buildings

Copyright 2015 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

Trash and environmental degradation is mostly what gets my attention now as both of those speak loudly to our culture.  There is deep meaning in the simple act of tossing a cigarette butt or bottle to the ground and that meaning is it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps, more to the point, convenience and immediacy matters more.

With regard to the first meaning, yes, it does matter.  Trash greatly detracts from the aesthetic and says that we do not care about our neighborhoods and natural environment.  To the second, we truly are a throw-away culture.  That includes trash, buildings, and, most importantly, people.

 

Displaced persons New Orleans post Katrina 2008

(C) Copyright 2008 Kevin P. Mick Photography. All rights reserved.

It makes sense to me that some would feel so marginalized by society that it truly does not matter what is done to the immediate environment.  After all, why should there be a buy-in to taking care of the natural and material world if, as an individual person, one feels neglected, or exploited, or worse-not thought of at all?  Being disposable is an idea that becomes magnified throughout communities and populations.  At the other end of the spectrum, some feel greatly entitled to do whatever they want as if it does not matter.  Climate change?  That longer-term issue becomes the sacrificial lamb to the shorter-term goal of power and commerce as least-developed nations and their peoples bear the larger brunt of rising seas, scorching temperatures, and unhealthy glaciers.

What to photograph?  Mr. McCurry is correct:  that which has meaning.  Everyone with a camera has to make that decision.

Take care.

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