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.