In the Spring of 2017, my thoughts about what and why I photograph haunted me like the looping ding-ding-ding melody of an ice-cream truck melody circling the neighborhood. Flipping through my social-media streams left me feeling frustrated and bored. There were so many images that felt like I had seen them before, providing no new information. I wondered if my photographs were just as banal and flavorless. I wondered if I was adding yet one more soulless voice to the cacophony of technically perfect, but emotionally empty, images around me.
It was a call to action. I needed to take time to reflect on the importance of photography for me. Did I photograph to create visual pleasure or to change the world? Where along this spectrum did my passion lie?
In pursuit of this understanding, I gave myself an assignment to write down my beliefs in photography. I tried to analyze why I photograph and why I look at photographs. I thought about images that make me pause and think, and I thought about scenes that thrill me to observe. I questioned if I was attracted to content presented in an interesting way, or interesting content.
It was a messy process. My beliefs were slow to emerge. At first I wrote whole sentences; too many of them and with overlapping ideas. To pare them down, I took a minimalist approach, evaluating and ranking the value of each idea: “Is it truthful? Is it authentic? Is it essential?” My ideas evolved, advancing one day, regressing the next, but finally settling into a short list of unique concepts which I ordered based on their importance to me.
Tentatively, I put the list to the test. I chose some of my favorite images to see how many of my core concepts were present. I applied the same test to images for which I received some form of external validation. I found both confirming and disconfirming evidence that my newly-expressed principles were truly honest with myself. I discovered that some of my ideals were compatible with what others found interesting and worthy, and others were not. I could not decide if my aspiration was achievable, or if I had set the bar too high. I would need to determine if I could I use this list to guide the creation of new work in addition to the evaluation of existing work. I continued to refine my list and strengthen my affirmations to it.
The next step was to explore how to express these ideas to the world now that I was prepared to profess them as my core defining principles. Could I explain them to others and would they care? I took a two-step process. The first step was to identify a couple of representative examples for each principle. Writing in the first person, I set to describe each image: where I was, why I was there, what I saw, what I tried to capture, what I decided to include or exclude, and generally how the image represented the core principle. The second step was to write a general overview of the principle explaining what it meant, why it was important, and how to determine if it had been achieved. I was able to describe some concepts easily, others came with some difficulties, and still others left me feeling communicatively inept.
The final result was my photography manifesto – my mission statement, proclamation, pronouncement – about how, what, and why I photograph. It was tested and explained in a 98-page book and even included a chapter street photography technique. Even though some of the principles were mature and others embryonic, I was ready to share it with the world. But I still wondered if I was capable to live up to its ideals.
Shortly after I completed my manifesto, I embarked on a two-week journey to Italy, spending time in Palermo and Venice. This was my first full-blown test to determine if I could live up to my own expectations. I walked the streets of Palermo for hours exploring churches, street markets, and historic landmarks. I met locals and talked with other tourists. I experienced surprise, joy, awe, loneliness, and discomfort. In Venice I wandered the twisty alleyways, often times getting lost and never quite finding my desired destination. Tired and disoriented, I rode the vaporetto (waterbus) along the Grand Canal back to my hotel to get my bearings. Through all these mini-adventures, I photographed. Hesitantly at first, asking myself too many times: “Is this image worthy? Does it meet my new standards?” But when I settled down, I found more confidence and conviction than ever. I discovered anew my joy, creativity, and satisfaction in my photography. I returned home with a handsome set of images that I am proudly adding to my portfolio.