Must I Photograph?

| April 7, 2016

Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all— ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. ~Rainer Maria Rilke

A couple of years ago someone asked whether I would still make photographs if I believed that nobody will ever see them. I recalled the question after seeing John Maloof’s excellent documentary Finding Vivian Maier. Although not a common question, what surprised me most about it was the realization that the answer was not as simple as I instinctively believed it to be.

Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman posited that most of the decisions we make are instinctive and ensue out of the workings of what he termed, System-1, which is responsible for the fast, unconscious, and seemingly effortless way in which we come up with answers to simple, intuitive, questions. However, Kahneman also demonstrated that such instinctive answers are often wrong. When more complex situations arise we engage what he termed, System-2, which requires conscious thought and an investment of cognitive effort in order to analyze; to weigh possibilities, experiences and knowledge; and to apply reason in order to come up with a considered answer. My System-1 response was a very confident “yes, of course I would photograph no matter what;” it just seemed like the appropriate thing for a professional photographer to feel. But before I made a statement to that fact, I immediately began to consider ways of explaining why that is the case. After short contemplation I realized that the answer, in fact, is “no.” Placing myself in that scenario, I had to admit that photography seemed quite futile and unnecessary. I then asked myself if the same is true for writing—my other creative passion—and was surprised yet again to conclude that, in fact, I very likely will write, even if I was absolutely certain that nobody will ever read my musings.

I realized that photography and writing serve complementary, albeit different, roles for me. Most importantly, photography is my way of communicating outwardly, of “saying” things to other people. Writing, on the other hand, often helps me sort out my own thoughts in very useful ways, independent of whether anyone other than me would ever read them. I believe that this dichotomy has to do with introversion. I am never very comfortable communicating directly and verbally with people (and this has little to do with whether I am “good” or “bad” at it). In a photograph I am able to express much more nuanced and intimate things about who I am without the awkwardness and anxiety of saying the “wrong” thing, and without worrying about body language and appearance, etc. Put another way, photography allows me to share with others those things I find most worthy about my experiences, and in a way that fits well with my personality; but in the absence of others, the only thing that goes away is the need to communicate. My experiences remain rewarding, important and meaningful, and are not at all diminished if they remain private.

Writing is helpful to me in reigning in the many threads that constantly occupy my mind, some of which, upon closer and more conscious contemplation, turn out to be unproductive or unimportant, at times even ominous and discouraging. In writing, I am able to distill those things that are most important, separate them from the concerns of the moment, and examine them with some objectivity. Being prone to anxiety at times, writing helps liberate me to act and to say things with greater confidence, knowing that I considered their veracity and importance, and can defend my choices.

Writing also allows me to crystalize ideas and concepts, and to identify connections between disparate experiences, knowledge and ideas, leading to revelations that I later may attempt to express in photographs. So, although not immediately obvious to me when asked, I believe that my photography often is an outward expression of things realized by way of writing and contemplation; but rarely, if ever, the other way around.

In Deep Conversation

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

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  1. Must I photograph? Too good not to share | Ed Lehming Photography | April 7, 2016
  1. Thomas Rink says:

    I’m wondering whether the same things can be expressed using written or spoken language as can be expressed by a photograph? When I take a picture, it’s mostly due to some immediate impression of a thing I see or experience. I found that it is hard for me to write down what the impression and the resulting picture is about. So perhaps written language and visual language are complementary in what they can express?

  2. Peter Higdon says:

    I am quite the opposite. I would definitely continue to take photographs even if nobody, not even myself, ever viewed them. The process of taking a photograph makes me stop and really look at a scene, and helps cement the scene in memory. By and large, I remember things that I photograph, and forget things I don’t; as a bonus the image itself later acts as an aide-memoire. My photographs are a form of diary. Writing could never fulfill that function for me.

    In response to Thomas Rink, I certainly believe that words and pictures are complementary and are especially powerful when used in that way. When I capture the quizzical expression on the face of my pet labrador, I get an image full of some many nuances it could never be adequately described in words. On the other hand, there is often a whole raft of connotations around the photograph that add to the enjoyment of the image, but can only be expressed in writing. For me, the pairing is at its potent when the writing moves on from the image, and could be described as a parallel view. ‘Elmet’ by Fay Godwin and Ted Hughes springs immediately to mind.

  3. Jeremy says:

    There’s a YouTube video called painting in the dark that briefly touches on this subject in regards to Van Gogh’s life. Might be worth the short watch for some.

    Wonderful post as always, I’ve come to look forward to reading your entries as much as anything in life and I’m glad it sounds as though you’ll always continue to write.