What is Most Important for a Photographer? [Vision Wins--Over Pork Bellies--Everytime...]

I get more questions via email and social channels than I could answer in a lifetime, but occasionally one jumps out at me as incredibly worthwhile to share. The answer to this question is important, and my response is below. Chime in and let me know what you think:

“What’s more important as a photographer… to remove yourself from the photograph, or to make the photograph about you as a photographer?”
-from photographer Jay McLaughlin

In order to make the most successful, effective (read: insightful, moving, impactful, beautiful, etc) image, the photographer must be “present” in the image. Simply put, this is crucial–perhaps MOST important for any shooter– you should strive to make a photograph that no one else in the world can make. And the primary mode of being able to do this is to infuse your personal vision to the image. Period, whether it’s reportage, fine art, or a fashion shoot. Doing otherwise is creating a commodity – something that anyone, or an “other” can make– that can be bought or sold like a pork belly or a barrel of oil.

Making such a photo that no one else can make can take many forms–technical excellence is a part of that–but at it’s essence is the need to reflect a mood that only you can capture or evoke, based on your access, your knowledge, your interpersonal skills or otherwise. So you absolutely must put your fingerprints on the shot. It’s not “about” you (sic), but you are clearly present…

Thanks Jay for the evocative question. Readers please chime in below if you feel inspired, otherwise go make that photo that no one else can make.

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77 Responses to What is Most Important for a Photographer? [Vision Wins--Over Pork Bellies--Everytime...]

  1. Jenika January 2, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    Thanks for this post – I completely agree. I’ve been saying for awhile that if you are in the business of selling ‘photographs’ then you’re going to be out of business very quickly. You have to sell something else – a vision, an experience, a style, a lifestyle, whatever. Not a commodity that can be created by anyone. You hit the nail on the head Chase, thanks.

    • Jed May 6, 2014 at 9:32 pm #

      Aren’t we all oak trees? Look deeply at how actively they are alive-leaves, roots, osmosis, evaporation, carbon , oxygen, on-and-on….think of how gorgeous and dynamic the photographs of all this oak-tree-ness is….yet, in terms of outward appearances the life of an oak tree is relatively boring, static, not much of a photo. How can we remove ourselves from the photo when we are the ones taking it? Maybe Rumi could-but when we try to be something other than the oak tree we are, we miss all the creative life ring stacked upon ring we can settle into capturng.

  2. Kristi Chappell January 2, 2012 at 11:35 am #

    Good question and even better answer. I could not agree with you more!

  3. brian January 2, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    there’s nothing left to add. I agree 100 percent . The purpose of art is to express yourself. Tell your point of view. Without that, art would be repetitive and pointless.

  4. Shakamikal Webber January 2, 2012 at 11:40 am #

    As a up and coming shooter I can relate well with the question I couldn’t, are more. This is a question that I also wanted an answer to, I was feeling like I was doing something wrong when I was thinking to make my photo my brand by making the photo look good to me. Thank for the words of advise and if you ever find yourself in Bavaria, Germany give me a shout.

  5. ruvi January 2, 2012 at 11:46 am #

    The way I see it…the photographer must (& will inevitably) be present but the camera should be invisible.

  6. Phillip January 2, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    Right on, Chase! God put a little of Himself into each of us and that is the ability to create. Why dopy or reproduce if your thing is to capture images? An image begins with imagination. Add a little heart and passion – pour yourself into it – and what you capture will not just be another picture, it will be art.

    I appreciate how you push us to imagine and create!

  7. Bikini Bond January 2, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    If you have to ask that question…you need to reevaluate your stance as an artist.

    • Jenika January 2, 2012 at 7:47 pm #

      Historically, tons of artists have believed that the work came “through” them, but it was not theirs – their job was to get out of the way and allow the art to come from the divine. The way we think about art now as a manifestation of our own vision is quite a shift. It’s a fair question to wrestle with, and an interesting one at that.

      Incidentally, Elizabeth Gilbert recently gave an interesting talk on creativity – worth a watch to see her weave the contrast between artist-centered and divine-centered art: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=86x-u-tz0MA

    • Rob January 2, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

      Not all of us are born as artists – I, for one, am on a journey to try and discover what being an ‘artist’ means to me and what sort of ‘artist’ I have in me. In other words, my ‘stance’ as an artist is still being shaped. So I don’t think it’s fair to assume that just because Jay or anyone else has asked that question that they need to reevuate their stance as an artist. By having the courage to ask the question (many people don’t have that courage) Jay has elicited some valuable advice from a well known photog that hopefully will assist many new artists on their journey.

      • Jay McLaughin January 3, 2012 at 6:49 am #

        I think it’s important as an artist that we question the world around us in order to find the answers in our work

  8. Erin January 2, 2012 at 11:54 am #

    For myself, there is no way to take ME out of the image making process, but for others, the answer doesnt come down to a simple yes or no. I am a photography student and in my history of photography classes and concept classes, I have learned about famous photogs (whose names frustratingly escape me now) who believed that the photographer absolutely must remove themselves from the image making process and still others who believed they had no choice in the matter and were automatically removed from the image making process because the process itself was mechanical and not artistic at all.

    I believe its impossible to completely remove the photographer from the image. Even if he/she used a robot to set up the shot and press the shutter, the photographer still controls the robot. The photographer still says what goes where, where to place the camera and what settings to use on the camera to take the picture. But maybe the question here goes deeper than that. Perhaps your reader is asking if they should develop a style and incorporate that into their imagery. If that is the case, the answer is very clearly yes.

    Love the question. Thank you for deciding to share it.

  9. France January 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Agree. I’ve always felt that every shot a photographer takes, if from the heart, is in some way a self portrait.

  10. Gregory Tavares January 2, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    We as artists must not let our art and souls fall victim to the “pork belly” image machines. Making junk images that sell for a few dollars may seem like a good idea to make easy money but it is not. As photographers our brand is ourselves be a BMW not a Yugo. Have your name stand for something infuse you vision and your uniqueness into all that you do in 2012. Have a great year and amaze yourself with your work this year.

  11. Sergiu January 2, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    Thanks again! You know how to send out the message.Happy new year all!

  12. duder January 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Only some people have the ability and the courage to think for themselves. Others just follow and copy. That is why there is a lot of mediocre art out there. While I shoot for the world. I shoot for myself. The photography process is magical, be it a still or motion. the ability to capture that moment is what really makes you different. The photo can be worth a thousand words but if you miss that moment you miss the point. Practice makes perfect

  13. May January 2, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    Client’s input is very important, however as a photographer I need to feel that the work I’m doing is “ME”.

  14. Juan Reese Anderson January 2, 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    There are all kinds of reasons to photograph. From the individual photographer’s style viewpoint the self within image is the true core of originality. If the message comes back to you every time you look at one of your photographs then it has some of you in it. Chase, you inspire me.

    Juan

  15. gusti shadeeg January 2, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    yup… I agree with all…. for me its all about Being and Becoming… Salute and Fully Respect

  16. Damien Lovegrove January 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm #

    Great question – fabulous response.

  17. Greg Beams January 2, 2012 at 4:22 pm #

    Chase,
    Love the blog, the site and your work. Distinction here. In creating an image that is unique to me and what I see, how I see it, how it impacts me and how I present that to others – on that question I completely agree that infusing the image with our vision is the essence of what we do as a photographer.

    But I also read the original question as “should we” physically insert ourselves into a situation that we are otherwise not a part of so that the subject is not only reacting to what is happening around them, but they are also reacting to us, our cameras, etc.

    I answer that question with a resounding “it depends”. There are times when I don’t think its as productive to get so close that I am a part of the action and at those times I prefer to shoot from a distance and capture the authenticity of what is happening. Then there are other times when I have to be close in order to get a decent image and I accept the impacts to the situation of that closeness.

    Whether we are physically interacting with the scene we are capturing or are outside of that interaction, we should still be imprinting each of our images with our vision and what moved us to capture that image in the first place in a way that is unique to us.

  18. Eduardo Suastegui January 2, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

    Well said. Now comes the hard part: how do you get that unique vision no one else has? How do you know that _you_ are unique enough to the point where if you infuse yourself into your photograph, no one else will be able to create anything like it? Truth is, saying that you must infuse yourself into your work so that it stands alone, and actually having work that stands on its own because it reflects a unique _you_ are not automatically connected. One must develop a lot as a photographer to truly reach that point, and even then, the threat of the look-alike is ever-present.

    Someone wise once said “There’s nothing new under the sun.” That’s a tough one to beat.

    • Jenika January 2, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9. You make a very good point.

      Handel may have influenced Mozart – at the same time, no one would say Mozart is a Handel look-alike. He created something new for his time. Such interesting questions, I don’t have the answers either :-) But fun to consider.

  19. Robert Schultze January 2, 2012 at 7:51 pm #

    I recently returned to my home in the midwest after only returning for funerals and surgeries aka bad things. I really had no desire to go back due to the negative vision that had now been painted in my mind, but my family needed me for the holidays. After being around for a few days I decided to go and photograph all the places I went to when I was younger, the places that stood out in my mind. Granted, most of them had been closed down or had changed to new businesses, but I have never seen another body of work go after this type of subject matter at least not in the way that was personal to me. And taking the photographs really made me see the beauty in change, despite hard times and things not always going my way. Anyway, your post made me realize that it’s not just what we do for clients or people that view our work that makes it important, it’s what we do for ourselves as well.

    Thanks Chase, I’m a big fan.

    • kuhler February 11, 2012 at 11:29 pm #

      interesting concept to photograph our past from the viewpoint of the present. gets me thinking…

  20. Tim Roper January 2, 2012 at 9:03 pm #

    I disagree to some extent. I’ve always thought paintings and drawings are definitely mostly about the artist–the brush strokes, the color mixing, the re-arranging of objects and perspective, the abstraction…and on and on.

    With photography, it’s still about the photographer’s choices to some extent, but it’s also more about the model or subject, probably because of its extreme “realism.” The photographer’s absolutely still there, but has to step aside a bit and let the subject take center stage. Not that it’s any easier, though. Being a great people photographer means first seeing unique things about the unique person in front of the lens, and than capturing it in a personal way.

  21. Geir January 3, 2012 at 12:07 am #

    I just wonder who’s question this answers: The 1% who are really put there to do all things new, or the 99% who no matter what they do will capture an image that you have to look hard to see your “thumbnail” on? To me this is an artificial question for anyone who don’t aspire to be a pro: My take would be: See what you see, capture what you want to capture, let others worry about your thumbnail. This “vision” thing is a high wall to climb.

  22. Shai Levy January 3, 2012 at 2:11 am #

    very interesting and crucial topic indeed. but I really think it is matter of what the artist is about to tell. there are many ways to convey different many stories. I do not believe in emphasizing my point of view as an artist as a rule. observation can be done through different levels of “presence”.

  23. stanchung January 3, 2012 at 5:31 am #

    Most clients who hires you wants you for the work you’ve produced or just want you to surprise them.

    Some photographers like to work collaboratively in art direction, wardrobe, make up etc & putting enough of your ‘DNA’ in it is important.

    Some are just there to record and great ones find a way to makes theirs special through technique.

  24. Jay McLaughin January 3, 2012 at 6:44 am #

    It’s interesting reading the comments to Chase’s point. This is a question I’ve been pondering for quite some time, so it’s always nice to see different viewpoints, which is why I thought I’d get Chase’s opinion.

    Anyway, here’s my take…

    http://blog.jaymclaughlin.co.uk/2012/01/its-not-about-you-its-all-about-you.html

  25. Kevin Blackburn January 3, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    Say what needs to be said, I like it. If the artist is not part of the wor he is doing then why do it and why did that client hire you to do it. My guess is because youput some of yourself in every shot thats what makes your work yours and special.

  26. DanielKphoto January 3, 2012 at 10:19 am #

    I agree 100%, your photos have to be by you and only by you. They’re only interesting if no one else can take them.

  27. Tola Seng January 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    The truth of the matter, is that you can never remove yourself from the equation. Photography, like any art (and life in general), is simply a medium with which you can express yourself.

    Perhaps this is a question of style (do I want my photograph to appear like I’m simply documenting it vs add my specific flare to it)? Or obligation (the client’s vision or the photographer’s)?

    Because the only way you can “remove yourself from the photograph” is to NOT take any photographs at all.

    • shai January 5, 2012 at 10:17 am #

      plus 1 for this! I also think it boils down to style. I just can’t really imagine me having to think about what’s making this specific work or photo “mine” or exclusive to my unique view. it’s really a confusing way to approach. but that could also be yet another tool, and very individual in this sense.

      I find the debate very interesting either way!

  28. Josh Mitchell January 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm #

    I’d agree with this. I mean you can never really remove yourself from any work of art. Anything created can be linked back to it’s creator.

  29. Mathieu January 4, 2012 at 7:50 am #

    Right on.

  30. jimgerlach January 4, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Chase, always inspiring and actionable, I just read an interview with Stephen Shore regarding artistic vision that provides some nuance to the discussion. “Some photographers have vision, and other photographers have a vision. In other words, some photographer’s work is about seeing, while other photographers have a particular vision.”

  31. Corporate Photographer January 5, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

    Your creativity and your vision needs to be in your images. The great photographers have this and you can tell their work without seeing their name under the photo.

  32. Aaron @ Become A Photographer January 6, 2012 at 4:43 am #

    Great discussion here. Chase, you are spot on. It’s about our vision – and how we see things differently from the next photographer – who may very well be standing in the same place as us with the same camera. What makes our photo different from his or hers? Our unique take on the world. No one can replicate that if it is truly unique.

  33. Kristina Juarbe January 6, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

    Awesome! I agree 100%

  34. Mandy January 9, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Exactly, that’s what makes photography so great – Us – and individual…

  35. Karissa Miranda Carlson January 19, 2012 at 3:25 pm #

    Completely agree… we are each unique in the way we see the world…so why waste our time trying to replicate another photographer’s photos, instead of focusing on being the best photographer WE can be. Well said.

  36. Jon Wollenhaupt January 23, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    Being removed from your subject matter implies the charge of voyeurism – like the photographer who drops in on a culture he/she has no connection with in order to visually pick-pocket exotic cultural moments. How then does a photographer authentically connect with his/her subject matter in a way that is not an act of exploitation? How does an authentic connection with subject matter manifest visually in the photograph? I struggle with this notion on a daily basis.

  37. The Shades of Grey | Elal January 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Wow that makes me think, huh? I’d love to have my own line of photos with my own feel without literally adding myself in the picture. That would be something I am in the quest to discover!

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  39. kuhler February 11, 2012 at 11:22 pm #

    we are the ones framing the scene before us, so it is imperative that we express ourselves through the image. how else could several photographers cover the same event,subject or landscape and produce entirely different images? If i as an artist could not express myself, certainly photography as a medium would entirely lose it’s appeal.

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