Moab Photography Symposium: Personalizing Place

| May 3, 2016

As has been the tradition in the last couple of years, the opening keynote presentation at the Moab Photography Symposium is divided equally among all presenters. This year, we each got 8 minutes to introduce ourselves and touch on the event’s theme, which is this: Personalizing Place. This year I had the honor of offering the closing notes. Posted below is my portion of the presentation.


We are here at the Moab Photography Symposium. We are all photographers, and we are in a place that draws photographers from all over the world for its scenic beauty, which is why I think it is important to start with a point that may otherwise be lost in the narrative, which is this: personalizing place is not about photography; it has nothing at all to do with photography and everything to do with making a place personal and meaningful to you. It is only after that, that, if you are a photographer, you should set about expressing your personal relationship in photographs.

What makes a place personal is not the photographs you take from it, but the experiences and moods and lessons you associate with it. You don’t personalize a place on a casual visit or by following directions to a predictable trophy; you personalize it by virtue of having a relationship with it. And like all relationships, the connection is made deeper and more personal over time, and when pursued with an open heart and with the best intentions of seeking to understand the place, and yourself; and with a willingness to be changed and inspired by it, rather than imposing your own sensibilities upon it.

Photographs, or any other expression of this personal relationship, is not what makes the relationship; rather, it is an outcome—a byproduct—of the relationship.

A couple of things reminded me of this recently. One was seeing the documentary, Finding Vivian Maier. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, Maier was a passionate and prolific photographer, but nobody knew about her work, which is superb by any measure, until it was discovered by accident a few years after her death. This reminded me of a question someone asked me a while back, which is this: will I still photograph if nobody saw my images? The truth is that I very likely would not. I photograph primarily as a means of making connections with like-minded people who share my appreciation for these places and these experiences. And if my images were never to be seen, there would be little reason for me to make them.

The other revelation came from a good friend and fellow presenter here at the symposium, Colleen Miniuk-Sperry, who shared with me, as she just did with you [Note: Colleen presented immediately before me and talked about her recent experience paddling through Glen Canyon], her story and realizations about the motivation for pursuing anything that we do: it’s not about whatever product comes out of it, or whatever arbitrary measure of “success” you may accomplish; it’s about having meaningful life experiences.

I have no doubt that Glen Canyon will forever be a “personalized place” for Colleen, and I have many such places, myself. And the value of these very personal and very intense relationships I have had with such places, over many years, will not be diminished one bit if I never photograph them.

So why do I photograph?

I mentioned earlier that photographs, to me, are not the ultimate goal; they are byproducts—and very welcome byproducts—of experiences. These experiences are not diminished if I do not make photographs; but often they are enhanced if I do.

This is because photography, really any form of creative expression, allows me to overlay my own thoughts and feelings onto an experience so that I can share it with others in a personally meaningful way. And there is great value in doing that. For starters, it allows me the freedom to have such experiences as part of my job, which is not something you can say about a lot of other professions.

Photography also allows me to make meaningful connections with people who relate to my work and to my experiences. In fact, I made my best friends in this world, in one way or another, thanks to photography. And I live where I do (and love where I live) thanks to photography.

So I have very good reasons to photograph; but it would be disingenuous of me to say that I do any of it for the sole purpose of making photographs.

The point is that personalizing a place—making it meaningful in some way, and evolving an ongoing relationship with it—can be immensely rewarding, independent of photography or any other thing you choose to do with it. When you have such a relationship with a place, your life is better for it; and if you are creative, no matter what your medium of expression is, your creations will be inspired by it. You will be driven to make images that are not just aesthetic, but also expressive: conveying not just surface appearances, but also something of yourself, and of what makes these places special and meaningful to you. And in my mind, such expressive work makes for more satisfying, and better, art than just a beautiful trophy.

And here’s another thing to keep in mind: to personalize a place does not mean to form a perception of it according to your own sensibilities. Just as often, it means changing your sensibilities under the influence of a meaningful place.

To come to a place with preconceived notions and expectations of what you will get from it, is a very dangerous thing. Because you might actually succeed in accomplishing exactly what you came there to find. And in this so-called success you may not even know that you can fail utterly to discover far greater rewards that you might find otherwise. By this I don’t just mean discovery of things about the place that you did not know were there, but rather discovery of things in, and about, yourself that you did not know you were capable of feeling and that can transform and elevate your life in ways you never knew possible.

I hope you find ways to personalize, and to be personalized by, the beautiful landscape of Moab; but more importantly I hope you find ways of personalizing your own places, whatever they might be.

Thank you for being here, and welcome to the Moab Photography Symposium.

In the Crimson

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an 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.

Comments (3)

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  1. Thanks so much for posting this. It is so helpful to read it, as I do not retain as much from a spoken presentation as I would like. I have a question/comment about personal place. I love the red rock country around Sedona, and the Sonora Desert around Tucson, for example, and these are places that we have visited annually for a number of years. They are also places that attract many other photographers, and thousands of images have been made and published. I try, not always successfully, to make images that reflect my experience with the places, but it is difficult to make something different than what others have also done. Your photographs, for the most part, are from unnamed places on the Colorado Plateau. My question to you is, do you intentionally avoid the frequently visited iconic places (i.e. National Parks) because they are so frequently visited and photographed? Does the presence of so many others preclude you from making these places a personal place, even though they abound with natural beauty? This is something I have thought about, since my circumstances and age make it difficult to get too far off the beaten path, so to speak.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you, Dave! Yes, I do intentionally avoid popular places when pursuing my own work. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean going far off the beaten path, just exploring less visited areas.

  2. Thomas Rink says:

    This is the reason why I mostly photograph places within a 30 minutes drive around my home (which is in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany). I have grown up here; many places resemble those where I played when I was a kid. No travel is required, so frequent visits are not a problem. When I’m in the mood and the conditions are right I’ll just take some pictures before going to work (no customer contact, so my colleagues take it easy when I show up wet and dirty).
    My home ground is by no means scenic, but in my opinion there are photographic opportunities for a lifetime.