On Photography and Joy

My first attempt to explain why I call myself a photographer.

Posted by James Campbell on Tue, Feb 4, 2014
In Essays,
Tags photography

To Begin, What Do I Call Myself Online?

The problem with doing many things is that I have trouble filling in my bio information on social networking sites. Do I say ‘photographer’ even though it is not my day job? Do I say ‘web developer’ even though a lot of the times I am just solving issues for clients and not actually coding? Do I say founder of InstantDC.com and curator of photo exhibitions, even though this is usually once or twice a year? Do I say musician and one-man-band GoldForLions, with singles on iTunes even though I have made about $11 total from all of my efforts? Do I try to say something clever in my profile and avoid the issue of labels altogether?

There is no easy solution, but at 32 years old, I know myself and what I love to do. I love my wife and my four-month-old son. I love to tinker with things, I love to solve problems in creative ways (strange phrase - as opposed to non-creative ways?). I love to create art with technology and showcase technology with art. I love playing guitar and creating music. I enjoy the instant gratification of changing a stylesheet and seeing a webpage change when I hit Command+R.

Maybe the guide to what drives me is this simple statement: what brings me joy is also what challenges me. And also: what brings me joy allows me to challenge myself.

Was I excited about having the opportunity to manage a photo exhibit at FotoweekDC last year? Yes. Did it turn out exactly the way I planned? No. But I am glad I did it because it was very challenging to manage 12 different photography groups and volunteers for an entire week. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work when putting on a large-scale photography exhibition.

Every time I push myself to do something new, I learn new things, meet new people, and gain perspective. This is a positive feedback loop that I use to gain confidence in each new endeavor.

Photography and Developing Your Visual Language

Bear with me as I try to explain what is very hard to put into words: the experience of taking and viewing a photograph.

Photography is an amalgamation of technology, art, and magic. I am eager to go where it takes me. There is always something strange to see around the next corner. Even that same corner at a different time of day or season can be another planet. Every time my eye finds the viewfinder, that rectangular scene is looking back at me. Sometimes the scene mocks me. Sometimes it beckons me. Sometimes it is laughing in the dust. Becoming better at the craft of photography is building a working relationship with what is through the looking-glass.

Our visual intelligence is being trained over time into a new vocabulary made up of colors, shapes, and light. This visual language is pictographic and temporal. A blue square of chipped paint and an organic green pine tree are connected via a gray sky and crooked sidewalk. But tomorrow the chipped paint is fixed, the pine tree is cut, and the sky is now blue. The sidewalk is also fixed. Did the scene change or did the viewer’s perspective in time?

To go further into the challenges of viewing a photo, sometimes a word destroys an entire photographic experience. I stopped titling my photos because I was framing too much for the viewer. If I titled something “Wall on 30th Street” you would be prepared for a wall, but maybe without the title you would have interpreted the scene as a very flat puppy? I stopped writing captions for the same reasons. Words ruin photographs. I am a firm believer in training yourself to see over time in your own way and to avoid words at all costs. My favorite photographers are the ones who are taciturn as they go about their craft. This does not necessarily require them to be introverted, but when they are in the mode of taking photographs, they are creating and cultivating a louder silence.

As you build up your visual vocabulary, you will recognize in other’s photographs attempts to solve similar riddles. Patterns develop overtime as one photographer is influenced by another and you will see how genres of street photos, portrait, and landscape photos evolve. Each decision you make with a photograph does not need explanation. The viewer will either understand or not, or interpret it differently based on their own experiences and own personal vocabularies that they have build up over time according to their place and experience in their own societal bubble.

This is one of the best things about our new picture-taking culture. The societal bubbles are popping. The internet allows you to self-select and curate, but it also allows you to discover something new. It is true that we are being over-saturated with millions of images per day. This, to me, sounds like a problem of lack of curation, something that technology may help solve. The positives to this drowning in images is that we are all building up a strong visual intelligence as both observer and creators of images as we sink slowly to the bottom of this sweet abyss.

So, to get to whether or not to call myself a photographer.

Whew, that was long-winded but I am leaving it as is. Onward: I waffle back and forth between stating that I am a photographer in my profiles. The issue here is what it means to be a photographer. Here is how I define it:

For me, photography is a need. It is a requirement for happiness. It is searching for visual puzzles to solve. It is pushing the mind to the edges of what reality can be into a super-reality of shapes, colors, light and dark. It is the shocking feeling of the banal. It is the juxtaposition of what we have done to the world and what the world has done to us. It is the opportunity to stop time. It is my passion and my art and it continues to surprise me. I define a successful photograph on my own terms and I am my own harshest critic.

My four month old son and my wife bring me so much happiness and have changed me in so many ways I cannot express it in words, but at my core being I still have this need to create things and this will never go away. It is who I am, it is part of my being. It goes beyond ambition, greed, etc. With less free time nowadays, I rely on photography even more to fill this need and I cannot wait to see where this desire takes me next.

Thank you for reading and attempting to understand why I call myself a photographer.