I just listened to an interview with acclaimed street photographer Valérie Jardin that was conducted on the podcast “Photography Radio”. Valérie is passionate about teaching and was recounting experiences she has had doing instruction with students on location in Paris. One of the things she focused on was the idea of taking photographs with intention, and it sparked a connection I have seen over and over again within the Stoic tradition.
“No action should be undertaken without aim, or other than in conformity with a principle affirming the art of life.”Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 4, 2
Valérie was specifically talking about photographers who shoot everything that moves (or doesn’t) and end up with 10,000 photos hoping that there will be a few gems in the mix, rather than the photographers who are more critical of a scene and shoot selectively, looking for specific images before they are willing to click the shutter.
The seed of her thought centered on the idea that her students should make sure that they were taking pictures with an goal in mind. Every time the shutter goes off it will make a picture, but the meaning and success of that picture depend entirely on what the photographer was trying to capture.
What I find fascinating when hearing other photographers talk about their work, is what they were thinking when they attempted the shot. Shooting without a plan may result in some shots that seem great, but could the photographer describe why they took the shot, or replicate it later on with a different subject? On the other hand, a photo that might not immediately seem interesting could take on extra layers of meaning when someone hears the story behind it. It may be true that a good photo speaks for itself, but different images speak to different people, and there is no one set of standards for success. In fact, how can we even judge success if we don’t know what the goal was in the first place?
“Do not take any action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives.”Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 3, 5
We spent a lot of time during critique session while I was studying graphic design talking about whether or not an image was successful. It was forbidden to us words like “nice” or “like” as in, “its nice” or “I like it, good work”. None of those comments are helpful when trying to decipher what worked and what didn’t work when creating an image. If you are trying to highlight the mood of the piece, or the shapes that the shadows create, or bring out the contrast of textures, then we can talk about success, because those things are pretty easy to see. In fact there is no such thing as success in a piece that was created without a motive, because the idea of success depends entirely on having a target to shoot at.
Beyond talking about the single image, framing the conversation in success and intention will often lead us to future iterations and solutions. If the textures weren’t clear enough it will be easy to try a different mixture of settings and try again. If the shape of the shadows doesn’t balance well in the frame then we can shift position and look for a new composition. If the images are successful it will likely trigger thoughts about what other subjects might benefit from the same technique, which will lead to further photos and more exploration.
This translates well beyond photography. For me I have recently begun questioning the intention behind my use of Instagram. I’m not quite sure why I have been posting there, and now that it is in my mind I will likely decide to give it up unless I can figure out the value it is generating. In this case it is a question of time being used up that I could be putting somewhere else.
More critically I find myself struggling to be intentional with my parenting. The feeling that I have been in the same room with my kids and not truly present with them stings very badly when I notice it happening.
I find that being intentional doesn’t only serve me when it is trained on the most important aspects of my life, or the creative pursuits. The act of being in the moment and being thoughtful in one’s actions starts a virtuous cycle. When I am the best version of myself and take this to the mind-numbing task of responding to work emails it becomes clear. If I am able to take an extra moment and read between the lines of the email to formulate a more thoughtful answer that addresses something the sender meant to ask but didn’t quite know how to word, then I have a deeper sense of pride in my work. Feeling good about how I handled that particular task usually means I am less anxious about the next task on my list, and I find myself more able to be in the present.
In comparison, if I am blowing through the inbox just shooting for inbox 0, then I usually approach the next task of my life in the same mindset, not focusing, just trying to get through it so that I can get to the end of the day. At which point I often look around and wonder why I thought that was the goal.
“Concentrate on the subject or the act in question, on principle or meaning. You deserve what you are going through. You would rather become good tomorrow than be good today.”Marcus Auralius, Meditations, Book 8, 22
This isn’t to say that each moment need be one of extreme revelation and insight. Better to be awake and thoughtful about the choices we are making, however, then to find ourselves awake later down the road not knowing how we got there.
Photography Radio Podcast: Interview with Valérie Jardin, December 15, 2019.