The difficulty of explaining photography

“You see a book or a body of work and you know you love it, that it is something that resonates with you, but its a real challenge to say why. This is a constant with my parents or family, people who aren’t involved in photography.” — Aaron Schuman

That quote nails down why photography is so fascinating to me, beyond all the painfully fabricated stories of artspeak that descends upon artists’ statements like a fog of war, obfuscating both the purpose and integrity of the photographs that are proffered up as work. And it annoys me, because I’d prefer to look at photographs than wanting them explained to me.

I’ve always believed that the magic, for lack of a better word, of photography, lies in its processes, its many ways of presentation, its ways of presenting a view of the world the photographer sees it, the way it can persuade, and alter or reinforce perceptions. Photography can be subversive, like all other forms of art, and it can be reassuring, or uplifting, or depressing. It can give purpose, or remove it.

All that power, in the form of a two-dimensional image, be it in a physical form (that I obviously prefer) or on a backlit screen, as it so often happen today. Why do we need to cloud all of that with unnecessary words?

I’m not saying captions do not work; they supply context, and most people who aren’t seriously involved in photography almost require that context, or a back story, to appreciate a photograph. In photojournalism, it is a necessity, and adds great value when done well. What I object to is window dressing, when a mediocre photograph is used to illustrate a story that is far more interesting. The photograph is almost an afterthought in such cases, almost peripheral in its application, and downright unnecessary in many cases.

It is difficult enough to explain why you like a photograph, or a body of work, without using too many words that appear to fluff up the work. I’m a fan of keeping things simple. Speaking plainly, writing concisely, and let the viewer immerse themselves in the photographs. That’s my preferred mode of working, and I believe many prefer it that way. Alas, we are all under pressures to produce artists’ statements, explaining our work, when not all photographs need explanations. “Keeping it simple” appears to be a forgotten rule.

I also believe that finding the right words to describe why one likes a photograph is a challenging task, and as photographers, we cannot afford to take this task lightly. It is challenging enough without needing to navigate the fog of war that seems to permeate many artists’ statements these days, and that does not help us elevate photography to be appreciated on a more down-to-earth, everyman level. How much of that contributes to the idea that photography artists are arrogant, snobbish folk with their heads in the clouds, I’m not sure; but I’m quite sure it doesn’t help, either.

Perhaps when we choose to describe our work in the most straightforward manner possible, in the simplest, plainest language we can muster, photography will be as widely appreciated as novels are. But that struggle continues. For me, I’ll just stick to the ten words that the great Bill Pierce once said:

“I saw something wonderful. Let me show it to you.”

Let’s get lost — Haji Lane, Singapore, 2014. © 2014 Callan Tham.

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