An Unexpected Key to Photography, part 1 of X

Last week I posted a link to this article on Facebook and it has been on my mind ever since. It originally appeared on Medium here. In it Severin Matusek discusses the advice that renowned documentary photographer Sebastiao Salgado gives to an aspiring photographer. Basically Salgado's advice boils down to becoming knowledgeable about the world, specifically the subject matter you want to photograph. As Matusek points out, this is quite different to the advice one usually hears - "shoot more" or "practice" or "study the masters."

Now, I wholeheartedly agree with these standard tropes of photographic learning. Nothing substitutes for experience, and practice is the only way to really learn the technical craft of photography. I would venture to say that enough shooting can make up for a lack of formal training. And I wish more photographers studied masters of the craft and knew the history of the medium because there is a lot to be learned. But Salgado goes a step further, suggesting that a photographer is best served not by studying photography itself, but by studying the subject matter he or she wants to photograph. 

This is not as simple as it sounds. Most of us are attracted to photography because we love photography itself. Whether it is the gear, the technical aspects of the craft that provide the hook, or the personal creative outlet that using camera to create images can provide, whatever one's individual motivation, it is usually rooted primarily in photographic practice itself. Salgado suggests that the photographic process is really secondary to a more basic understanding of our subject matter.

To be clear, that is not to say that the photographic process is unimportant. Having complete control of the photographic techniques at one's disposal is essential to most successful photography. How to achieve a proper exposure, and manipulating the components that combine to make that exposure to create the effect you want; knowing the different types of tools and how to use them; understanding concepts like depth of field and reciprocity; compositional rules such as the rule of thirds and leading lines; or how to pose and/or frame a subject - that is just a small taste of what goes into making a photograph, and it can be a lot to keep under your control in the midst of a hectic shooting situation!

But the truth is, each of these things can be learned by anyone and mastered with a bit of practice. I see a lot of technically great photographs, but many inspire little beyond the initial "wow factor" of a technical accomplishment. The knowledge required to know how to create a photographic image is relatively simple compared to the more abstract skills involved in knowing what to photograph, choosing the time and place to make the image, and having a reason to do so. Once you've mastered the craft, then what? Should we aspire to use those skills in service of something greater? 

If you said yes to that question, this is where Salgado's advice comes into play. To understand the world in a way that lets you take that technical know-how and use it to create something that comes from within oneself but speaks to all of us: that should be the goal. And one way to do that is to study. Beyond photographic history and techniques, study the subject matter that you want to photograph; study the forces at work in human societies - economics, psychology, politics; and even study other arts like storytelling or music. All of these things can help you find strategies to use in your image making that will be deeper than simply taking a picture. Learning enriches you as a person, giving insight into other humans, developing an understanding of what is important, and teaching how to communicate, which is after all the end game for any form of media.

I would love to hear your thought on this topic in the comments below.