How to Add Words to Pictures

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How do you go tackle writing about your photographs? This question poses possibly the most vexing challenge for most photographers. I keep coming back to it because I write about other people’s pictures, and I listen to or read what photographers say or write about their own work. In some ways, the preceding is going to be a variant of older pieces (you can find them here and here). However, now I feel that I have more clarity about the subject than before.

Very few photographers have experience with writing, or rather with “serious” writing. After all, we all know how to write. But it is one thing to write an email, and it is quite another to write a project statement. Why is that?

If you feel you are unable to write about your work for sure you can talk about it? That ought to be a lot easier. But often, it is not.

If you have a tough time talking about your work, you’re not alone. Many photographers are terrible at talking about their work. You could probably easily remember a case where you were thinking just that. Maybe you attended a talk by someone; or you listened to a photographer attempting to talk about their work on any of those various internet channels that have become very popular ever since the pandemic hit.

Thus, the question changes from how one writes about one’s work or how one talks about it. Instead, it becomes: why are you so bad at talking about your work?

You might find solace in the old excuse that you’re an artist, and as such you’re not a writer or talker. Instead, you aim to express yourself visually. This sounds very good, but — I hate to break it to you — it’s complete bullshit. That’s the first thing you want to do: ditch it. Don’t settle for excuses.

After all, if you can’t talk to other people about your work, how do you make sense of it when it’s you and the pictures? In other words, how do you approach your pictures when you’re in your studio or in front of your computer?

You might have an inborn talent to do that. But the reality is that even if you do that talent is somewhat useless unless you work on it, unless, in other words, you exercise it over and over again — at which stage you’re moving from dealing with talent (which you can’t control) to creating an ability to do something (which you can control).

For example, one of the things I learned about myself is that I’m pretty good at dealing with languages. Learning languages and grasping how they work comes relatively easy to me. Over the years, I have tried learning a number of languages. But in most cases that didn’t go anywhere because talent alone will not learn you a language. You will have to practice over and over again. That involves cramming vocabulary and grammar, listening to what a language sounds like, and trying to speak it. So I have a talent for languages, but I can only speak two because I have been too lazy to do all the work necessary to speak more.

On the other hand, I do not think that I have a talent for writing. I now am able to write reasonably well because I worked on it for many years, a process that entailed writing on a regular basis. Usually, writing is not something that I enjoy doing (I like it better than cramming vocabulary, though). But it’s a useful tool for me to do some of the things that I enjoy doing. For sure, it has given me deeper access to engaging with photography.

Thus, even if you’re a very talented artist, your talent is not going to do much for you if you don’t put in all the other added work. For a photographer that means developing one’s skill set and engaging with the work: giving it that very hard look necessary to understand what it is doing and why the good pictures are better than the bad pictures.

One of the most crucial parts of understanding your work is the following realisation. There is where the work is coming from, and there is what it is about. Unless you’re a conceptual photographer, these two aspects are not necessarily identical. There can be some or considerable overlap, but there also might be no overlap. Understanding these two aspects is the crucial ingredient that will allow you to talk and write about your work.

It’s easy to know where the work is coming from: that’s the set of ideas and thoughts that you had when you started taking pictures. Your ideas and thoughts might have changed while photographing, but for sure you’re aware of that.

It’s a lot more difficult to know what the work is about. After all, how can it even be possible that you take photographs with some idea in mind, but then they somehow speak of something different? The answer is simple. Photography might be a technical medium, but in the hands of a human being the machine might be guided by more than merely the conscious mind.

How do you find out what your work is about? Your photographs will tell you. It’s what’s in the pictures and what’s communicated by the pictures. It is the only thing that someone other than you will have access to when they come across your work.

The overlap between where the work was coming from and what it is about depends on the photographer. Each and every photographer has to find out for her/himself. Inevitably, the process of doing that involves overcoming the resistance to deal with anything other than all the ideas and thoughts one has about one’s work.

The task becomes a little bit easier if you realise that usually it’s not a terrible loss if the work is not only (or possibly not at all) what you thought it was. For every aspect that is lost, another one is gained. But it’s not a zero-sum game, either. You might gain a lot more than you lose, or you might not gain quite as much as you lose. If you think of yourself as a creative person, that’s the price you’ll have to be willing to pay.

There is no creativity if you restrict what you’re doing to what you already know. Creativity arises from everything that comes beyond.

Thus, you will have to sit down with your work and figure this out: where is it coming from, and what is it about? To what extent do these two overlap? And what does the work teach you?

There is that moment when you will realise that your own photographs can teach you something about yourself: this is when as an artist, you’re at your most vulnerable. At the same time, that’s the moment when you also realise how you have just grown as an artist and possibly as a person. It’s the most gratifying aspect of making art.

After you’ve done this work, you can speak about your work a lot more clearly. Knowing what your work is about and where it was coming from makes for great raw material to speak and write about it. This is where it gets interesting for an audience. The audience will be able to see what the work is all about, but they have no access to its maker’s motivations and intentions.

When talking about your work, don’t spend too much time on description. Your viewers aren’t blind and they aren’t idiots, so don’t treat them that way. Also, if there are hidden details, do not explain them or give them away.

At the same time when talking about your work, don’t only talk about your ideas and intentions, in particular if they’re far removed from what the work is actually about. Unless you’re a very gifted storyteller (some of the most famous photographers are successful not because their work is so good but rather because they’re very good at selling it), talking too much about your own inner life will leave viewers puzzled.

Instead, talk about the overlap between what the work is about and where it came from. Inevitably, this means allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of strangers. You can decide beforehand how much you want to reveal. You will have to be comfortable with whatever you reveal. But by revealing something you learned, something that challenged you, something that messed with your mind, you have a unique opportunity to connect with people.

When you talk (or write) about your work, you don’t have to spell out your most private problems. Remember, you are only going to speak about your work, your pictures. But the dichotomy of what it’s about and what you originally set out to do is comparable to a larger dichotomy in our lives: what we know about ourselves and what we allow others to see. We all can relate to how scary it is to reveal something.

When you talk (or write) about your work, do it using the language you feel most comfortable with. One of the biggest problems with writing by photographers is how dreadful it can be. More often than not, photographers attempt to write as pompously as possible. Don’t do that. Talk or write in a manner that feels natural to you. When having the choice between simple and complex speaking or writing, always be on the simple side.

At the end of the day, the words you choose to talk or write about your work are only an addition to it. They help the viewer or reader understand more about you and your pictures. Don’t try to use words to impress people.

Lastly, this all is a matter of practice as well. When working on speaking or writing about your photographs, allow the process to take some time. If your first attempt is a failure, make sure that there are many more failures so you will get to the point at which you’re finally succeeding. Some people are lucky find it easy to talk about their work. If you’re not one of the lucky ones, you’ll have to put in the work.

Ultimately, the person who will benefit the most from you being able to speak and write about your photographs is you. You will understand your work better, and you will have become a better artist. First and foremost, practice speaking about your work for your own growth. Being able to do it in front of an audience is merely a bonus.

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