The Search for Meaning

If you want more meaningful photographs, you first have to know what is meaningful to you.

You cannot achieve meaningful work by chasing someone else’s interests.

I last year I had the opportunity to work on an assignment in Nepal. I spent 3 days filming a video project there and then spent 3 days in Kathmandu, exploring and photographing for my personal work.

As I was there wandering and photographing, and later at home when I was sorting though the photos and editing the collection down to something that has meaning for me. I have realized something important about habits I have created.

As I wandered Kathmandu and Bhaktapur, I found myself unconsciously taking photos that deep down I knew were not my best work and would be discarded in the end. In the beginning, when I arrive in a new place I find myself taking lots of photos to break the ice and start my eye wandering. David Duchemin would call these sketch images I suppose. But the reality is they end up being easy compositions with no meaning. While they may be ok photos they have little or no depth or meaning and in the end they are rejected and deleted.

I have struggled for quite a while with defining a meaningful focus or my work. It is only over the last couple years that I have really been able to really identify the things that make photography meaningful to me.

I value and find meaning in creating images that capture an authentic window in to cultures and images that celebrate the beauty and value of people.

As I look back over the catalog of photos of the years when I felt like I was lacking direction I can see the beginnings of a pattern. The images that I have kept and that still resonate with me fit into one of those two categories, celebration of authentic culture and celebration of the value of each person.

For years I tried to photograph everything I saw that caught my eye and was frustrated when so much of my work lacked meaning and ended up in the trash can. While I wish that I could have figured out what I know now about what I value sooner, I realize that it probably wasn’t possible.

The reality is that finding this meaning in my work is a product of countless hours spent making photographs and learning to edit each days work down to what is meaningful to me. Each day, each week, each year adds clarity to my understanding of what I value.

While I still take a large number of “sketch images” destined to hit the editing room floor, I now find that they help me find my focus sooner when I am on assignment or exploring a new place on my own time.

When I was younger I spent a lot of time trying to make images similar to other photographers I admired. I felt that if I could make similar images then I would achieve the recognition I desired. What I was really doing was trying on styles of work to see if they fit. They were not mine, they were borrowed, second hand ideas that the world had already seen.

For years I created things that I thought mattered to the world around me before I tried to create things that mattered to me. Lately I have been realizing that in order for any of my work to have meaning to other people it first has to resonate deeply with me. I have to produce work that I find meaningful before others will find it meaningful.

For me that means I will keep making photographs as a way of unearthing more of what I find meaningful. Each memory card filled with images that will mostly get discarded helps me understand what I find meaningful a little more.

So if you are a photographer, writer, painter, really an artist of any kind my advice is this.

You cannot achieve meaningful work by chasing someone else’s interests.

If you want to create more meaningful work, you first have to know what is meaningful to you, and the only way to really understand what is meaningful to you is to create more work.

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