My 2017 eureka moment – photography as a language

This was triggered by a request on the OCA Photography Level 1 Facebook group for people to post their 12 favourite shots of the year. I did this last year and so I first looked back on my 2015 set and thought, yeah, that’s still a pretty good bunch of photos. Then I pored over the images I’ve produced this year while I’ve been studying full-time on two Level 2 courses and after a while realised something:

I don’t think I’ve produced 12 great standalone images this year.

At first I was a little taken aback; I’m supposed to be getting better as time goes on, right? Then I looked back over my assignments in 2016, plus my work on ongoing personal projects, and came to my second realisation:

I’m proud of my project-based work that I’ve produced this year.

These two realisations together led to my third:

I’ve been moving away from trying to make inherently interesting images and towards using photography to ‘say something‘.

The work that I’m most proud of this year needs its own context to be appreciated (even by me). The images tend not to ‘work’ so well as standalone images.

This is a double-edged realisation!

  • On one hand, it’s good that I’m learning how to use photography as a communication medium and not just a purely visual aesthetic one
  • On the other, I do feel like I should be able to do this without losing sight of what makes a good standalone photograph. It feels like the balance is a little off, like I’ve lost something…

I need to find the balance…

Photography as a language

All of this reminded me of a post I did a couple of years ago based around a David Alan Harvey quote that I will repeat the salient points of here (my own emphasis), as it was a turning point in my understanding of the medium:

You must have something to ‘say’. You must be brutally honest with yourself about this. […] Today, with everyone being able to easily make technically perfect photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an ‘author’. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship. […]

Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, and something almost ‘literary’ to contribute to ‘the discussion’, today’s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity.

Photography is now clearly a language. As with any language, knowing how to spell and write a grammatically correct ‘sentence’ is, of course, necessary. But, more importantly, today’s emerging photographers now must be ‘visual wordsmiths’ with either a clear didactic or an esoteric imperitive. Be a poet, not a technical ‘writer’.” (Harvey 2008)

I understood the theory of this notion at the time of writing that blog post in 2014, but it’s only now that I’m starting to feel like I’m learning how to put it into practice, albeit still rather clumsily.

At the time of the earlier blog post I made two observations:

  1. The possibilities of using photography for capturing something beyond ‘pretty pictures’ [have] opened up in front of me, and this is quite exciting;
  2. The realisation that I’m not yet sure that I have much interesting to ‘say’, and this is quite dispiriting!

So I reckon today I started feeling more comfortable that I’m getting there with point 2 :-)

The writing analogy

I like the analogy with written/verbal language and so will stretch it a little to close off this post:

  • Some good writers can come up with great, self-contained one-liners
    • funny, wise, concise, simple, insightful
    • jokes, sound bites, slogans, catchphrases
  • Some good writers can tell a fantastic story
    • with interesting characters, plot twists, growth, development, moral messages
  • Great writers use language to not just produce great stories…
    • …but also to fill them with quotable paragraphs, sentences and words

I want to find a better balance between the standalone image and the project – the pithy quote and the novel…!

An interesting insight. I hope that when December 2017 comes round, I will have a dozen images that both fit into their respective project contexts and stand alone as striking images!

Sources (accessed 05/12/2016) (accessed 05/12/2016)


6 thoughts on “My 2017 eureka moment – photography as a language

  1. Holly Woodward 05 December 2016 / 18:36

    Great post, Rob. It’s interesting to see how our work changes over time, isn’t it?


    • Rob Townsend 05 December 2016 / 21:32

      Indeed! Even if sometimes it feels like a few steps forward accompanied by a step back…


  2. Anne Bryson 05 December 2016 / 21:28

    For whatever reason I always manage to relate what you say in your posts back to something that I am thinking about or feeling and I find it really reassuring that you are now starting to find that balance between stand alone and project images.
    I am currently working on documentary part 2, ploughing through surrealists who considered themselves to be authors rather than photogaphers and the way you have explained it this in your post helps me to fit this into place. I am also struggling with the requirements of assingment 2 where I need a concept or theme but 8 stand alone images within that and at the moment I seem to be able to produce 1 but not both. I am hoping that a little further down the line it will all start to make sense as it is doing for you.


    • Rob Townsend 05 December 2016 / 21:37

      Thanks, Anne. Although I’d say I’m identifying the need for the balance rather than actually finding it yet! :-/

      I found Documentary Assignment 2 hard work at first but by the end I recognised it as something of a turning point with regards to this ‘authorship’ concept… it felt odd at first to engineer specific shots for a ‘documentary photography’ assignment but it taught me how to steer images to make the points you want to make. In the end it was one of the more satisfying of the (many!) assignments I’ve done this year… Good luck with yours.


    • Rob Townsend 06 December 2016 / 08:18

      Ha, yes, kind of. I just need to practice my scales a little. La la la la LA!


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