Finding the Message
„Photography is seeing more than what is visible and paint it with light.“
| Rafael Rojas
How do we find our message?
Some weeks ago, I wrote a post about „Finding the Essence“. In there, I argued that the „… essence is therefore a connection of my mind, my heart, my soul with everything around me in a specific moment. It is fluid, and dynamic. It changes interpretation vividly. But the essence is capturing that specific moment.“ If we just accept for a second that such a subjective essence of a place at a specific point in time exists and that a photograph has a meaning, how can we find the essence, meaning and draft it into a message?
There are potentially different methods of “finding” a message. In a top-down framework we define our message. For example, through the intention to create a project about climate change, we create a series of photographs showing how nature suffers from climate change. The impact of these photographs might be bigger the stronger one can perceive the transition from today into tomorrow suffering with nature’s decay. In a bottom-up framework we do not specify a specific message, but wait to be inspired. Thus, we go out with a clear and empty mind that is able to react. Or as Kafka once said “He who seeks does not find, but he who does not seek will be found.” In the following, I’d like to focus on the latter approach.
As Rafael Rojas argues in his excellent eBook on „The Photographic Message“ that in the field, we first have to understand what precisely caught our attention and then why it did so. If we slow down, don’t rush from one pre-visualized image to another trophy shot, just observe nature and listen, chances are that certain elements in nature will start talking to us. In this dialogue, we may see light as an active element in nature emphasizing some objects and downplaying others, we may see forms that are unseen, in harmony, pointing to other objects or walk together with other forms, we may see how different regions in a landscape layer up behind each other, or how specific trees, trunks, or caves nicely frame the heart of a landscape. Chances are however that we only are aware of nature’s language if we are ready for it. Thus, slowing down and opening mind and heart might be the first steps to find your message. I tend to speak of mindshare and heartshare in these situations. Mind- and heartshare also mean that we do not have pre-defined conceptualizations.
Once nature talks and we listen, we can try to identify what we resonate with and why. In the end, photography is more about how we resonate to something else and not about the object itself. Usually, we look at vast, broad landscape that are very noisy. In my mind, I try to zoom into the landscape to get closer to what I resonate with. And zoom even more into it. If I can’t identify it, I zoom back out, move to the side and zoom in again. Very often I tend to react to either light or geometrical forms. Once, I am aware, I’ll try to focus on this specific element. In trying to eliminate all other surrounding objects and slowly adding those who build up a relationship with the focal one I am trying to compose towards my final image.
At this stage, I often have an immediate idea of a working title for that image. All my images have working titles. They may change slightly, but often titles from images that have been captured in mindful moments, preserve their original title. The title however is also a memory emphasizing my feelings in a very specific scene. I am going to write a future post about the importance of working titles.
With this setup in mind, trying to capture the scenery from different vertical (i.e. height) and horizontal (i.e. position) angles, different shutter speeds and apertures, with different exposures and focal points, often gets me into a playful making-the-photograph mentality. Often, we are too easily satisfied with the very first frame, but if we invest more time to the subject, we may discover different other important aspects of it.
Letting some time pass, at home in the studio, a look what I have created and what I wrote down often shapes the message. Usually, I start writing some lines of text to each of my selected photographs. These texts are an important element of each creative process. As such post-conceptualization sets the scene for the editing process itself. In the edit, I’ll try to carefully edit an image in consistency with the message.
Ideally, each photograph passes the time test. If I look back at a photograph after some time, and it seems coherent and harmonious to me, I may have achieved what I have been striving for. If not, I need to do my homework and re-edit the photograph.
In the title photograph, my focal object seems to be the iceberg. However, it is irritating, because the iceberg is blurry. In fact, this photograph is not about the iceberg. My intention was to create a photograph that mirrors the threat we put on nature. The iceberg is blurry, because is it floating and melting over time up until it will be gone. The calm scenery in front of the iceberg through the usage of a long exposure is misleading. The colors emphasize the threat. The textured mountain in the background of the photograph is a metaphor for mother nature having an eye on their children and how we are treating those.
In sum, here is my 10-step process to find your message in photography:
1. Slow down and clear your mind.
2. Mindshare and heartshare.
3. Zoom-into on what resonates.
4. Eliminate the rest.
5. Add what supports the resonance.
6. Give it a working title.
7. Playfully make the photograph.
9. Edit in consistency with the message.
10. Time test.
Very often, the message is not immediately there, but more like a dynamic process. A road trip to my resonance. If I could tell the message for each photograph, I potentially wouldn’t have created it.
Rojas, Rafael. The Photographic Message. 17/9/2019, From: www.essentialseeing.com.