Using the power of your voice in your photography

Artist, Franko B

I used to be a news junkie. I’d get up, switch on the news and go about my morning listening to the worst of what was happening in the world today. Natural disasters, injustices, crime… you know! Until one day I realised that this constant feed of the worst of the world was, guess what, making me feel miserable.

More and more, people are discovering that our increasingly negative and inflammatory 24 hour news cycles affect how we feel about the rest of our day and the rest of our world. Being shown the worst of humanity on a daily basis makes it harder to see the positive parts of human existence. And yet! On the flip side, looking at Facebook – with its manicured and curated versions of people’s lives, usually only showing the best of what’s happening to people we know and love – also makes us feel depressed!

Why could this be? Perhaps because neither the constant bad news of the news or the ‘my life is amazing’ world of Facebook is about truth. And it makes us pay attention to the wrong things. On the news side – it’s paying attention to everything that is wrong in the world. On Facebook – it’s how everyone’s life is better/happier/more fun that yours. Neither is good.

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For me consciously deciding what to pay attention to really makes a difference to my day and how I feel about the world around me. And this is where I started thinking about how this idea links to photography.

What we as photographers choose to pay attention to and what we then choose to photograph makes a tremendous impact on the general conversation around us. And increasingly so – whether it’s posting a photo of your family smiling and happy on Facebook, moments before it descends into a chaotic argument (why don’t people post photos of that! Like these, awesomely funny) – or it’s being a witness to other important human connections and conditions.

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Writer, John Berger

Actively choosing what to pay attention to is the next step in the ‘art of seeing’. Seeing is vital, it is a process of opening up your powers of perception and it is the most important thing you can do as a photographer. Think of it this way – your brain processes millions of pieces of visual information per minute, but you only see a few hundred. Once you train your eye to stop being so helpful and actually let you notice more of what is around you, then you have so many more things to photograph in interesting ways. Because what you are now seeing in your environment is different from what you usually see.

But here is the next stage. What will you pay attention to and how will you do that?

Images have tremendous power and they help to shape how we think about situations, people, entire countries even.

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Cop holding young man’s fake gun

Who and how we choose to photograph makes an impact in the world – in however minor a way you think it does, because it sends a little ripple out, adding to the ripple of everyone else’s perceptions.

We as photographers have the ability to transform people’s perceptions of a situation or a person or a group of people. It’s a tremendous power.

Use your voice. Whether that is to photograph yourself and represent yourself – or people who are marginalised, to share the power of beauty or to observe the wonders of just being human.

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Boys, excited, learning

It’s the Beautiful Body Project – showing ‘truthful images of women and their lives.’ I love their The Bodies of Mothers book

It’s this photo of a black boy hugging a white policeman during the protests in Ferguson – showing that there is never just one story, there’s never one experience or one thing we should be paying attention to. I like what the photographer Johnny Nguyen said about that photo:

“I had a gut feeling there was something special about Devonte, so I stayed at the scene. Before I knew it, Sgt. Barnum was speaking to Devonte. That’s when I got the powerful image of them hugging. From there, I knew I had something special. Something that I wanted the world to see. A powerful message I wanted to communicate. As a photographer, you always have to trust your gut – your intuition. It’s your best tool.”

Intuition is always your best friend. Use it.

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Bob and Joy

It’s my wonderful friend Cara’s project Everyday Boston that is a platform for the people of Boston to tell their own stories (away from the news-driven bias of the media) and build connections in a city famously divided.

My way of using my voice is to find beauty in everything I come across and to try and reveal a truth about the people I meet. To me that is my contribution. To hopefully move people in some small way to help people connect more with the world around them. Not only because it’s a very enriching way to live, but if you are more connected to what’s around you then you are more likely to take care of what exists.

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For me this concept of what I choose to pay attention to is always relevant for my work, even in places like Paris that are on the surface just beautiful and chic. But really it’s a complex city full of issues and challenges like any other city. For me what I noticed in my six months photographing Paris above and beyond the beautiful views were:

  • The graffiti that is everywhere
  • The abundant dog poo and human urine that was manically washed away every morning by an old fashioned but rigorous cleaning system
  • The segregated communities – where my family and I stayed, in Barbès-Rochechouart, it was a community of mostly West and North African residents. Walk a block over, and it suddenly became very white.

And though I didn’t make these the central themes of my project – I am not a documentary photographer nor a photojournalist – those observations are there in my work. I am always looking and making a choice of what to pay attention to.

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Cleaning up the party, Paris

It also connects to the project that I am working on at the moment – Istanbul at Dawn. It’s me not listening to or looking at other people’s perceptions of this city but going in and experiencing the city for myself. And telling as many of the stories that I discover from my own perceptions.

I have loved the few months that I have already spent in Istanbul. I am overwhelmed by the friendliness I’ve encountered and the curiosity about my story and my situation. I have fallen in love with the history that pervades the city, the food that is so close to the food that my Greek mother cooked as we grew up, the beauty of the hills and the cantankerous weather that invades the city, making it feel like you are standing on a small rock in the middle of the ocean.

All of these things about myself and my history intermingle with how I see and photograph. But I am always aware of what arises within me when I take photos and push myself to see more. To pay attention to anything I might be missing (or what everyone else is!)

And so this month I’d like to encourage you to think about what you are choosing to pay attention to when you photograph, and how you choose to represent the subjects you are choosing.

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I know this is quite nebulous challenge,  but it’s a very powerful process to think – what am I choosing to photograph and why? How will I represent this subject and why? Will I try and dig a little deeper into the person, the situation or the place I am photographing? Will I move through fear or apathy and try to see things a little differently? Will I move beyond my own stereotypes and preconceptions (we all have them) to let the subject live and breathe beyond my subjective gaze?

It’s photographing strangers not just from afar but maybe chatting to them first, hearing their stories (like activist photographer Ruddy Roye I talked about in my Photographing Strangers blog), or observing them for that bit longer that you see more of who they are.

And this is not about being a photojournalist at all. Every photographer regardless of their subject is ‘creating’ an image, creating a perception. And so it’s something we should all be involved in – regardless of if we are photographing flowers, landscapes, people or our family.

It’s a really beautiful thing to take photos and it’s wonderful to choose to be actively engaged in the world – using your voice and shaping perception.

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This might be something you don’t think beginners need to think about. But I would say this is relevant for everyone. It’s for anyone who takes photos and shows them to the world – either sharing them by social media or to friends.

And really the most important thing about all this is that it’s about focusing on connecting – rather than disconnecting. Using the power and the licence you have as a photographer and a human being to make more connections in this world for you and those who see your work – and not less.

So the next time you are out taking photos just ask yourself – what, why and how will you be photographing today?

I would love to know what you think – and how you choose what to photograph.

Happy photographing,

Anthony and Diana

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