Creative: Why I Love Documentary Photography

Me looking slightly out of place. Photo AK.

This photograph is several years old now. I came across it while searching for something else. “You will live in one year what the average person lives in ten,” an older, wiser photographer once said to me. It’s true. Yes, things are VERY different now from when I started my career, back in the 1990ish timeframe, and the respect level for people with cameras has faded to almost undetectable,(lots of suspicion and skepticism) but living the photographic life can still be so damn good and so damn interesting. The camera is the excuse. It takes you places, opens doors and can also get you in serious trouble. Especially now when the idea of infringing on rights is second nature here in the good old Land of the Free.(I’ve had issues with police, ATF, Border Patrol and Sheriff’s Department.They make up the rules as they go.)

I think this photograph represents what being a photographer is about. Late sun in your eyes, mayhem around you, but at the center is the quiet eye of the storm. This area of calm is comprised of your experience, your training, your studies and your practice. Until you are in touch with all these things you are almost useless in a spot like this. This doesn’t mean you don’t go, that is after all how you gain the much needed experience, but one day things begin to make sense and you suddenly have visual style and fact to back up your need or desire to be there. You have visual proof of your purpose.

Yesterday I had a conversation with a long-time friend and legendary photographer. We both admitted that we have moved on, so-to-speak, from photography because we had different goals now. I’d rather bike, hike, fish, climb, explore, write, to yoga, play guitar, than make images, and I often complain about not having the time, but the real issue is just that I’d rather be doing other things. My friend and I also joked about living through another age of photography, an age where I used to get paid $1500 per RAW conversion and where my average editorial assignment was multi-day. I look around now and think “I want no part of this.”

But I still carry a camera, love making snapshots and two-minute portraits for my interview series. Documentary photography still lives in my body and mind but it’s no longer the top of the pyramid. If photography IS your top of the pyramid then embrace it, enjoy it and be the best possible photographer you can be. Photography can illuminate a path you would never be able see any other way. I know many people have put the truth of their life on hold to play the online game of “being known,” or being an “influencer,” but this is a short term play. Documentary photography improves with time, ages beautifully and is often not fully realized until decades later, so understand that great work takes time and is influenced by things beyond your control.

Be patient. Forget about everything else and be true to the people in your images. Now go shoot.


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