The Jewish holiday of Passover (or Pesach) is almost here and with it comes the Seder. That ritualized meal marks the holiday as it prompts the attendees to eat and to ask themselves some important questions. These include important questions of freedom vs. slavery and vengeance vs. empathy. One highlight of the Seder ritual is the asking of the four questions, by the youngest person at the table. Though I have long since given up on being the one to ask those questions, I have been compiling my own list of four questions for photographers. This time of year seemed to be the logical time to share those.
The idea of asking important philosophical questions while enjoying a meal is a testament to the brilliance of the idea of a Seder. (It is arguably my favorite Jewish ritual, along side the end-of-Sabbath service known as Havdalah. What they have in common is that both are highly sensory experiences.) A good Seder has all the pleasures of a great meal with none of the oppressiveness of a formal worship service. (The word Seder comes from the word for order, referring both to how the meal is structured and how the questions are raised as the meal progresses.)
In the Seder ritual, one of the main points is that each and every person in attendance should ask themselves the holiday’s important questions, even if someone else is leading the service. Another unspoken point is that each person should ask themselves these same questions year after year. The idea is that the questions are never “answered.” Rather, simply asking them reminds us what we should be paying attention to (and what things are really not worth worrying about.)
With that in mind, here are the four questions all photographers should regularly ask themselves:
• How do you get the person, place or thing that is in front of the camera onto the film, chip or paper in just the way you want?
This is the starting point for all photographers. Simply put, it means learning to see the same way that a camera sees, which is completely different than how our eyes/brain see. Our eye/brain combination often does an incredible job of controlling contrast, correcting for odd color temperatures and allowing us to focus on only one thing. Seeing like a camera often means thinking less about a photograph’s content and looking at it more in terms of composition, framing, graphics, etc. This is the hardest part of photography, which takes years to develop and like so many things, is a never-ending process. We never “perfect” our seeing but rather we continually improve it.
• Exactly what it is you want to say with your photographs and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?
Once you reach a certain level of competence with the first point, those skills become almost intuitive. The irony is that what took us so long to learn suddenly becomes almost second nature. With these skills in hand, you can move on to making photographs that tell your particular stories, that raise your own questions, that reflect your individual personality. Usually this means fewer subjects photographed in greater depth over a longer period of time. Achieving the first set of skills is certainly rewarding but reaching this next level is exponentially more rewarding. This is also an ongoing quest, with an end that is never “reached.”
• How do you get paid to do what you want to do with your photography?
This is an important question that should be preceded by asking “do I really want to take this thing that I love, photography, and do it on command, for strangers, for money?“ Assuming the answer is yes, the question becomes how do you do that? This usually involves expanding your expertise in areas that have little to do with photography such as marketing, networking, etc. The irony is that the business skills developed out side of your photography practice will be the key to whether you actually make a living as a photographer. The people who pay you to do their photography assume you have the first two “questions” resolved. They first think about hiring you because you appear to know how to get the person, place or thing that is in front of the camera onto the film, chip or paper. They will in fact hire you because your portfolio shows them that you know what it is you want to say with your photographs. They are especially interested in your work in particular, because they see that you can get your photographs to say what they want said in the photographs that you are going to make for them.
• What technology/software/camera gear will keep me focused on what I do best, as I solve these problems?
This is the newest question in my list. It came out of my recent experiences sorting through the myriad of different technologies that are now available in photography. Decades ago there were relatively few technologies to choose from. The major variables when I started out in photography were the camera format, the focal length of the lenses, the choices of film and the various printing papers. Today, there are so many different options that the hardest part, to me, is picking out which ones work best for me, and ignoring all the rest. The upside is that all these new technologies have opened up thousands of exciting approaches to photography and an equally vast array of styles of photographing.
The answers to all of these questions are found studying the images, writings and career paths of other photographers. The real art is looking at the work of many, many different photographers! You end up merging what you learn from others with what you bring yourself, to eventually create a style/approach that is uniquely your own. You should note that these questions apply regardless of what style or type of photography you do, whether portraits, photojournalism, landscapes or nudes.
The annual Seder ritual, with its many questions, makes us better human beings. Similarly, considering these four questions periodically will make you a better photographer.