Our Photos, Ourselves

Fair Warning: It's been a long time since one of those non-lighting-centered photo rants. And to be fair, it is a Friday (TGIF).

About 25 years ago, upon admiring a photo shot by photojournalist Russell Price, a reporter said to him, "That's a great shot."

To which Price responded, "Yes, it is."

If the name Russell Price doesn't ring a bell, that may because he is in fact a fictional character from a movie. But the brief exchange marked a turning point in the way that I thought about my own pictures from very early in my career as a photojournalist.

It also neatly wraps up one of the biggest differences in mindset between amateurs and long-time pros. And understanding this mindset can help you become a better shooter.

More (and a fast-growing stream of great comments and links) after the jump.

The movie is "Under Fire," a 1983 flick set in Nicaragua about a photojournalist who gets too close to the story while covering the overthrow of Samosa. The movie is pretty good, save a romance triangle that cheeses it up a bit.

But it's practically career porn for an aspiring young photojournalist. Which is exactly what I was becoming in 1983. Nick Nolte trots around the globe, Nikons and Leica in hand, shooting away and trying to change the world. The resulting pictures freeze, onscreen, in black and white as he shoots.

High marks for whoever trained Nolte to act like a shooter -- and to Nolte for picking up so many little mannerisms and camera handling techniques. The only tech problems are mostly centered around swapping in telephoto freeze-shots some of the times when he was shown shooting with a 24mm wideangle.

But what can Russell Price teach us about photography?

When I first heard the exchange, ("That's a great shot." - "Yes, it is.") I thought, "Wow, what an arrogant jerk."

But he wasn't being an arrogant jerk. It is not as if he was agreeing with a person who thought he was talented or dashing or witty. He was merely agreeing with a person's opinion of a photo he happened to take.

If he thought the photo sucked, and someone said so, he would have likely agreed with them in the same nonchalant way. That is because he had learned to separate himself from his photos.

That's a huge step for a photographer to take, and one that many amateurs never make. Honestly, very few young pros are at that point, either. But those folks who have been shooting for 20 or more years are very likely to have surgically separated their egos from their photographs.

Why is this important? Because for people who have not done this, the "Love Me, Love My Pictures" thing is always keeping them from making objective judgements about their photography.

We get so much pleasure from a great shot (and so much displeasure from a crappy one) that it is very hard to separate ourselves from our photos. Which is a shame, really, because it hopelessly clouds our judgment.

If you feel that you are still in the mindset that a picture is better simply because you took it, try to look at your own photos as if someone else took them when you make your judgements. And judge other peoples' photos by the standard of what you would think of them if you would have taken them.

Don't feel bad if this is difficult. Some long-time pros still can get very emotionally attached to their photos. Which can be a real problem in team-coverage situations in which one of the photographers also has to act as the group's picture editor.

In addition to better photo judgement (or at least, more objective photo judgement) as a benefit of separating yourself from your photos, there is a more tangible upside: You get a more stable compass point.

If you can be easily swayed by what the other people in the room think of your shots (good or bad) you begin to be less of a thinking photographer, and more of a weather vane. This inhibits your growth as a photographer and will almost certainly preclude you from developing a strong personal style.

In the end, which is a more satisfying photo to have taken -- a photo which you love, but everyone else doesn't get? Or a photo that you consider to be a miss, but everyone else loves?

Changing your opinion of the latter to join the others for a quick ego fix may be gratifying. But sticking with your gut (despite the views of others) yields far greater long-term rewards.

Here's another thought: If you are a photographer who blogs (or even if you're not) putting your thoughts down in written form can add a lot of clarity to your understanding of your emotional attachments to your photos.

If you want to experience the life of a "been-there, done-that conflict photographer," for a couple hours, you could do far worse than to pick up a copy of "Under Fire" (or Netflix it here).

Fortunately, the movie is old enough for the DVD to have made its way to the bargain bin. Pass the popcorn and another roll of Tri-X, please.

Warning: The marketing folks cheese up the love triangle subplot thing even more in the trailer than in the movie. The movie is actually pretty intelligently done, and a good look inside the mind of a talented (but far from perfect) photojournalist. Not to mention an imploding political situation.


Have you seen Under Fire? What did you think? Sound off in the comments.

And let us know your thoughts on separating yourself from your photos, whether you are only now just considering it, are in the process of doing it, or well past it.

More rants:

:: When Are You Gonna Learn? ::
:: Strive For Layers of Interest ::
:: The Lighting Journey: Where are You? ::

:: Under Fire DVD (Amazon: $12.99, NTSC) ::


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Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

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Anonymous Jonathan Adams said...

Ready to Play name that Camera. The last part of the trailer....the audio portion you can hear a camera advance....what camera is it.

(great post to make you think....a few of your from came out as form.)

January 03, 2008 11:51 PM  
Anonymous Pamela Vasquez said...

David...I have only started trying to seperate myself recently. You are right...it is very hard, but imperative. I often feel so proud of my pictures, post them on flickr and notice there were hits but know comments....then I get a little deflated. I started to look at them more objectively since that happened, again, a couple of months ago.

Thanks for the reminder though...and for validating what I myself was thinking. :) P.S. Will get the movie..have never seen it.

January 04, 2008 12:21 AM  
Anonymous tony said...


Just an FYI, "under fire" is loosely, I say VERY loosely based on the actual video taped murder of photojournalist Bill Stewart in Managua, in the waning days of Somozas regime. It's very reminiscent of Nolte's photo sequence of Gene Hackmans murder towards the end of Under Fire.

I have visited Nicaragua on several occasions, and I've visited the monument that was erected in Bill Stewarts memory.

Yes, it is "porn" for a young photojournalist, but it came at the expense of an actual journalists life. You as a journalist can appreciate that sacrifice.
I'm only a few years behind you age wise, but I prefer "Salvador" with James Woods as my photojournalism "porn" of choice.

January 04, 2008 12:26 AM  
Blogger Photo Nut said...

The shutter sounds like a "motor driven" Nikon F.

January 04, 2008 12:34 AM  
Anonymous christopher of definitiveimages.net said...

david!.... I was hanging to every word hoping you'd supply answers to questions that I been personally conflicted with lately. but you blew early and wrapped up with a movie clip. more? please?

January 04, 2008 12:37 AM  
OpenID actionfoto said...


Here is an interesting article on the Bill Stewart murder in Managua, which is what Under Fire is Loosely based on.


January 04, 2008 12:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Daniel says:

I love it when you do these rants! If I rate your technical and lighting lessons a 9 or 10 out of ten, I rate the rants priceless!

Reading these I learn more about the philosophy, thought process and mindset of a good photographer (something we all aspiring to become). These could be applied more broadly to life issues.

I think I felt a lot of emotions waiting for my instructor to critique my final photos and I can admit that if he looked down on my pictures I would've felt pretty bombed out!

I also detect that in my feelings from the type of comments I get on my photos on Flickr.

Please do more of these rants! I find them enlightening!


January 04, 2008 12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

prepare for a long queue for this at netflix.

strobist is like the oprah winfrey book club of flash photography.

January 04, 2008 12:45 AM  
Anonymous LeChuck said...

I often hate what I do. What does that mean? :)

January 04, 2008 12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Talk about cheese factor of the preview.

Watch "War Photographer." Also, I've heard that "The Devil Came on Horseback" is good. It's on my netflix list.

January 04, 2008 12:53 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

"I don't take sides, I take pictures"

Love it!

January 04, 2008 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Jason Phillips said...

Aye, I saw the movie in one of my photography classes.

He got too close to the "freedom fighters" whose cause he agreed with. In the process of photographing these people that he cared so much for he unknowingly gave their identity away and were hunted down by the bad guys.

The scene that stood out for me was when he was taking the portrait of the leader of the freedom fighters. He didn't have any equipment with him other than his camera and light meter. The Strobist theme of making a photo work with the equipment you have was evident to me.

January 04, 2008 1:11 AM  
OpenID Ben said...

I've been a casual reader here for some time (and I love the site by the way), by I was so impressed with this post that I had to chime in and agree. The true pros I've worked never have to remind you 10 times per conversation that they are phographers. They just areNor do they attach themselves too closely to their work. Doesn't mean they don't love it, but they are pro enough to separate their sense of identity from their work. It's something I'm striving for all the time in my own work.

Thanks for the great reminder.


January 04, 2008 1:14 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

I usually take the same approach to my photographs that I've taken to interpersonal relationships for most of my life. The way I see it, if you like me, then I'll gladly welcome you into my life, but if you hate me, that's fine. Your opinion is your own. I will of course accept and consider reasons for the latter.

Its the same idea with my photographs. I know when one is good or when one sucks, and I don't take it personally when I here comments along those lines. I simply use the comments to improve my work.

January 04, 2008 1:34 AM  
Blogger Josh said...

I'm not sure if I have seperated my ego from my images. I have photos which a lot of people like and I don't. Then there are those photos I've taken that others don't seem to even see, but I feel are my best work.

I think the connection I have to my images is what drives me though. Not to please others, but to create something that totally expresses how I felt at the time, or something I saw that no one else has. It's almost like torture at times though. It is so much easier to go up on a mountain top or the valley during sunset and photograph something "pretty". Instead of searching for something, or waiting for the right moment, hoping an idea will come to me, or that I'll be at the right place at the right time.

I've come to the conclusion that I take pictures to keep me sane. I don't care what people say about them... I've heard so much lip service over the years that compliments mean very little unless they come from someone I respect artistically.

I did ask myself a strange question after watching the Twilight Zone marathon over new years. If everyone else on the planet disappeared, would I still take pictures? With no one else to see them, how would it affect me?

So not sure if I'm where I should be, I think if your trying to become a professional photojournalist the goals might be different. My only goal is to stay sane, I take pictures because I have to (and drawing takes too long).

January 04, 2008 1:41 AM  
Anonymous Karl said...

OK, so my ego has bonded via nanotechnology to the molecules in my photos. I admire that you have moved past this phase, but have you also done so with your writing? :-)

"Because for people who have not done this, the 'Love Me, Love My [Writing]' thing is always keeping you them making objective judgements about their [writing]."

I assume you meant "always keeping them from making objective judgments about their photography."

At least you had me reading with enough care to spot it. Which matters more, content or grammar? I'll go with content.

Keep up the good work. Oh, and if you want the SPOY to attract more people to the site (as if every living photographer hasn't made one unique visit per month), try announcing the contest at the beginning of the year.

January 04, 2008 1:46 AM  
Blogger PositivePaul said...

I'm not sure whether or not I agree or disagree with this sentiment. Let me explain...

On the one hand, I can see that as a professional photographer whose life is consumed by making images and making a living from those images, you really do need to seperate yourself from your photographs. There are many times when an editor or client would select a photo that you, as a photographer, would scratch your head at, and you'd be equally baffled why they wouldn't buy/select a picture you thought fit perfectly what they were going after. Building this photographer-photograph separation would be very important.

However, a photographer whose income isn't solely generated by his/her works, but rather whose love for photography and creating images drives his/her images moreso than the realistic need for earning their keep through their skill probably doesn't need to have this seperation as clear. Certainly in this case, there's likely to be a little bit more of an emotional connection between the photographer and his/her work (who, in many cases, is much more free to set the course for his/her photography assignments). And I wouldn't say that's a bad thing.

I consider myself much more in the latter category, although that doesn't mean that I haven't needed the reality check myself. In fact, it's precisely that I consciously tried to make more of a separation by submitting my photographs for sincere critique that I feel I'm becoming a better photographer.

I haven't had a lot of "action" on my Flickr submissions, but on Photosig -- another web site that is more geared towards photography critique -- I've received some of the healthiest doses of reality to this date. I've also learned how to look deeper into a photograph and to see things a lot differently -- and have learned to try to dig deeper into understanding why I'm attached to a concept or style or group of photographs that I'm creating that I find pleasing yet others don't. I've learned a lot by putting a lot of effort into writing more in-depth critiques (i.e. trying to put into words my subconscious reaction, and explaining more than basic design/technical stuff) -- which, in turn, helps me make a more healthy connection to my own images.

So, well, maybe I'm just confused. I will say, though, that I'm definitely more encouraged when someone other than my mom or a relative or friend gives me some good, solid constructive criticism -- whether positive or negative. At first, when I received some serious negative vibes in an extremely helpful adverse critique, I was a bit stirred emotionally. Now, however, I'm grateful for a good grilling from someone who writes a fair analysis/commentary on my image, and equally grateful when someone I have a lot of respect for connects with and sees an image in a lot of the same positive vibes that I do...

January 04, 2008 2:35 AM  
Blogger David said...


Oh, no, no, thank you.. I am quite aware that my writing sucks.

(Thanks for the catch -- fixed)

January 04, 2008 2:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved that film and was also inspired by it as a lad. Although, obviously, I was much younger than you when I saw it! ;-)
Picture editing is a very chalenging part of ever day for me but I have got it down. i flice the pictures up on a slideshow with fotostation and fly through them selecting dud pics on first reaction. I sometimes just flick through again but usually just delete them straight away. then do a second edit just to make sure usually being left with 10-15 frames per (normall) assignment. Then take a little more care selecting 1,2 and 3 for submission. the whole process takes no more than 10mins.
Yesterday, compiling the review of 2007photos, the 3 photogs used the same process to select through all of the chosen frames and doing the first edit. we will then edit again from the pool. Oh, and by the way, we are making a lighting video which as well as being fun (we hope) will have some specialy shot lighting setups and the review photos. Keep you eyes pealed.

David Berman

January 04, 2008 2:59 AM  
Anonymous Nick The Click said...

I think movies are a good vehicle if done properly to present a narrative but there really is no substitution for the real thing. One of the top five images that rocked my brain when I was getting into photography was LARRY Price's shot of the Liberian firing squads. the story of how he repackaged the film into a unopened looking brick of Tri-x was truly amazing. I think as a suggestion maybe you could supplement some of your younger readers with some historical references, say like Bill Burke's "I want to Take picture" or anything by Don McCullen. Those are my 2 favs along with Larry Price. Might as well go with the real thing.Sincerely, SRE

January 04, 2008 3:02 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Great post! I noticed it's one of the free movies on "On Demand" from Comcast... at least here in Cen Cal. I'll have to watch it this weekend!

January 04, 2008 3:22 AM  
Blogger Ivan Makarov said...

David -

For starters, I don't know if I agree with the categorization of amateur vs long-time pro. You seem to present it as opposite sides of the spectrum. As you know, 72% of us here according to your poll earn little or no income through photography, and the next appropriate question would be how many of us would like to make a jump to a full-time pro, but I may assume that many of us, myself included, have no desire to become full-time pro.

I tend to think of it in terms of "photo snapper" vs an artist. And as may see from various examples (early Ansel Adams, Joey Harrington, etc), you don't need a lot of experience to create the kind of photography that is art.

For an artist, a work of art is part of his/her soul. If I feel I have part of my soul in my work, I am satisfied despite what others think. However, part of the purpose of my work is to communicate with others, and if I'm constantly failing to do it well, I would try to adjust my work that it does communicate to others. As human beings, we want to communicate, and photography enables us with more means to do that. If we don't ever care about response from others, we'll never learn, we'll struggle to improve without needed feedback, and we'll for sure never make any money with our work.

Deep down inside we all follow to the rules of photography, rules of art, rules of communication (heck, your web-site is full of rules that can enable people in their craft) in order to communicate. Otherwise, why would we ever show our photos to anyone? Why would we post pictures online? Why would we ever want our images to get published, get recognized, etc? It's our urge, and I don't think we need to ignore it or fight it. If it becomes an obsession and all we care is the external recognition, then we have a problem. Again, art should come from within.

I'll finish with a quote from Ansel that perhaps will serve as a good summary of what I was trying to say:

"Either the photograph speaks to a viewer or it does not. I cannot demand that anyone receive from the image just what was in my visualization at the time of exposure. I believe that if I am able to express what I saw and felt , the image will contain qualities that may provide a basis for imaginative response by the viewer."

January 04, 2008 3:36 AM  
Blogger Olivier H said...

Very interesting note. It made me think for a while.

Started a thread on DPS forums about this matter here : http://digital-photography-school.com/forum/showthread.php?p=85217 and linked to the note.

January 04, 2008 3:41 AM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Regarding the Trivia question about the motor driven Nikon F sound in the trailer...
If I burn an entire roll of film in my F4, at max FPS, taking pictures of nothing, just to hear the sweet sound it makes, that doesn't make me a bad person, right? I only did it once, I swear :-)
Rant on, David, and thanks as always for something to think about!

January 04, 2008 3:42 AM  
Blogger scott_kryptfilms said...

Thanks David!!! I've been looking for a good popcorn flick lately - especially one based on photography!!! The only one I've really been satisfied with in the past (from a photojournalistic standpoint) was the movie "City of God"

If any of you haven't seen it I highly recommend it!!! Even the film's imagery is photographically inspiring!

January 04, 2008 3:56 AM  
Blogger mtreinik said...

Please add in the post that the comments contain some nasty spoilers.

January 04, 2008 4:12 AM  
Blogger M Hunt said...

A really interesting read David. Thanks!

By co-incidence, I was going through three drums of slides last night, selecting the not-utterly-horrid from the horrid.

When I tried to rope my wife into the exercise she replied that much of it was up to me surely. Admittedly, the television was probably more interesting, but since I am trying to improve my photography from "Ohh, what a nice view!" into something more likely satisfy a viewer, I'd hoped that by including her in the exercise I'd get more feedback on why certain images worked and what did not. Whilst I am happy to be objective about my photography (90% of it sucks), once I've kept the images that I want because they personally remind me of what I did in Belize in 1996, to develop myself further I surely I need to a) challenge myself my photographing things I would not normally consider and b) find out what actually works for other people and how do they see/understand an interesting picture. Without this, and especially without (b) I think I'll end up with converting miles of film into stuff that might be OK to me, but dross to everyone else.

So, for 'seperation to work' surely we need an audience who is also willing to be honest about the pictures, otherwise, the appempt at seperation is blunted because it is being done throught our eyes again?

Or do I need more caffeine?

January 04, 2008 4:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my humble opinion, seperating your art from your personality doesnt make sense. So, i tend to disagree with the first half of the post.

But the last paragraph, makes more then sense:

"Changing your opinion of the latter to join the others for a quick ego fix may be gratifying. But sticking with your gut (despite the views of others) yields far greater long-term rewards."

Opinions of others :-)

January 04, 2008 5:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great site which draws me back everytime I jump on a computer.

There is an English TV series called 'Shooting the Past' that is an excellent show about an old photo library being shut down. Classic characters and great story. It was lent to me by an older lady at my work who knew I liked taking photos so my expectations were low but I have to say it was fantastic & while your buying your cheap DVD's have a look for this.

January 04, 2008 5:36 AM  
Blogger Bob Walters said...

What's up with the film cannister that periodically spins through the frame? It says "ASA 35-20 DIN".

Shouldn't it say something like either 35-16 or perhaps 80-20?

January 04, 2008 5:52 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Well, I am an amateur. Just noticed, that if I have a reason to lable an image as good, that one makes it better than others. If I have more than one reason, even better...

I think thats it what makes a pro. He has its reasons why to choose one image over the other. Thats why they can make money out of it, because the judgement what to show and what not to show is based on reasons, not on feelings someone else would never share. We don't love all the same person -- same with images.

To bring this to the limits, the pro has its reasons already while shooting. Reading the strobist, I got closer to that because it brings something in that can only be changed while shooting: light. You can not change it in any post process. I love that challange of that creative process.

Nevertheless, I still post images I love and sometimes for no other reason. I am an amateur, however.

NSFW: http://www.thomastamora.de/

January 04, 2008 5:57 AM  
Blogger Bob Walters said...

If you like photography oriented films, have a look at BLOWUP, Michelangelo Antonioni's first English language film from 1966.

David Hemmings is a Nikon shooter who accidentally photographs what looks like a murder. Includes Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, and one of the early "supermodels" with one name, Veraushka.

Music by the Yardbirds (Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page ) and Lovin' Spoonfull (John Sebastian).

Watch out for obscure references to Bob Dylan's death and an appearance by Monti Python's Michael Palin.

January 04, 2008 6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salvador is the film that did it for me and made me choose the career path of (war) photo journalist. I have shot several major incidents (gulf war 1, kosovo, rwanda, beirut...) and I still get a rush from reporting what goes on and showing people the real face of war and conflicts.

I think it depends on which type of photographs you take whether you can separate yourself from them or not. I imagine that as a fashion photographer it is a lot easier to separate yourself from a picture taken of a handbag than it is for a war photographer to separate him or herself from a picture of lets say a child which was shot. Not because one type of photography is more worthy than others but because of the context it was taken in.

For most of my pictures i can still remember the situation i was in, the people i was with and the conditions i took it under. I think as a photo journalist you are part of the picture by definition because you were in the environment and interacted with it, which makes it more difficult to separate yourself from it.

Films like under fire and salvador, create a very "romantic" image of photo journalists.They portray what people imagine the life of being a war reporter to be like. To an extent a lot of the film is or was real, but things have changed so much. Over the past decade doing this job, well pretty much since the first gulf war i have seen an important change in this profession. I think "war" reporting has become more "controlled" and polished for lack of a better world because of the way news and photographs are (mis)treated these days.

Newspapers and magazines used to have a bigger independence in their choice of pictures and editors sometimes stood up for their beliefs and published stories and images which they thought mattered in the context of society and history. Nowadays advertisers, share holders and lobby groups decide to a large extent what gets published on the front cover of our press. Some people will disagree with me on this one, but if you know how papers are run these days you know what I mean.

These days as a war correspondent you need to go through a set of health and safety training, survival training, "combat" training and physical aptitude tests to be allowed to be "embedded" with troops and report what goes on. If you are not embedded or accredited by the military you are often regarded as unwelcome or worse, spying for the other side.

The times of picking up your camera bag, phoning a couple of contacts in the area, getting on a plane and reporting on events as they unfold are virtually over ... which is a shame.


January 04, 2008 6:42 AM  
Blogger John said...

Yep it sounds like a Nikon Motor drive, but my question in the photo at the top of the article by David, is that a Nikon 500mm Cat lens on his camera? I haven't seen one of those in a while. I used to have one and it made very interesting reflections in the lens, little donut looking reflections due to how the lens was... and if I remeber correctly it was an F8.....

John Stone

January 04, 2008 7:07 AM  
Blogger stuart said...

Wow, what a great rant to start the year with. I think an equally important and related point is to not fall in love with an image from looking at it on the LCD! I know I've done a quick scan, thought I saw something I really liked, or disliked, and then was disappointed when actually working with the image.

I think I fall more into the camp with LeChuck, that is I look at my own work, and it never seems to me to be as good as the work of others, and I struggle with that -- even when there is a great deal of positive feedback. I have to hope that I'm better than I think I am, but there is no way that I'm as good as my friends and associates think I am.

So I too am on the path to say a lousy photograph doesn't make me a lousy photographer, or even a lousy person!

Please keep up the great work, I've subscribed to strobist and its a check it out everyday kind of place.!


January 04, 2008 9:18 AM  
Anonymous sixteenfeet said...

Amen! This should be required reading for anyone who even thinks they might want to be a photojournalist. By far, the hardest thing to do is divorce yourself from your photos and it is probably one of the most important because today the editors may kill you with a crop or by not running one of your pictures and tomorrow they may laud you by running one six columns. Again, Amen!

January 04, 2008 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting to take a step back and look at your own images. I recently found some from a few years ago that at the time I just was amazed by, they are nothing more than what I would call a snapshot but at the time I had grown very attached to them. I am probably my hardest critic. I always find something to improve upon with my images. I don't know if that is good or bad but I feel like there is always more to learn. Yes I do nail it every once in a while but more times than not there is room for improvement. I shoot mainly sports so a lot of the aspects of the shot are out of my control but thanks to your help, Dave, I am stretching myself and attempting to move out of my comfort zone and make photographs in situations I can control and work to improve with each and every shot. Maybe some day I will be a grown up and be the photographer I know I can be.

January 04, 2008 10:15 AM  
Anonymous McDuff said...

The previous post about the difficulty of separating oneself from one's photos in fashion vs war reminded me of a Banksy piece on the media I think is appropriate here:


January 04, 2008 10:45 AM  
Anonymous cmh said...

For those interested in the experience of photojournalists covering war zones, there was a fascinating documentary that aired on the CBC here in Canada called "Beyond Words". I believe there was a TV documentary, but what I heard was a radio version and it was fabulous.

There is a website for the film where you can view the film (and associated gallery of the featured photographers) and a CD of the radio documentary available.

January 04, 2008 10:47 AM  
Blogger Will Kronk said...

I usually don't do that until after they're processed and finished and I can look at the final product. I know I sound arrogant to my friends, but when they're browsing my photos and mention, "That's an awesome pic." I usually just say something along the lines of, "Yeah, I know." A lot of times I'll get a bad look or a snide comment, but I only carry my best with me to show off. It's not like I put the garbage shots in there for people to laugh at. I just need to start doing this more while I'm taking pictures. I don't think until I started learning about lighting that I've really had any shots that just jump out at me from the little 2.5" LCD on the back of my camera.

That's a plus of an iPhone. It's kind of like a personal portfolio that goes where ever I do.

January 04, 2008 10:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found this post (as many evidently did too) amazing.

Ian made a comment that struck a chord, although I don't quite agree with his conclusion: As somebody behind a camera with a finger on the shutter release, you're either an artist or a snapper.

Now, as far as I understood him, his conclusion was that your soul gets tied up with the picture, and so you loose that objectivity.

I'd like to cordially disagree with that conclusion. I have an amazing artist friend, who has recently taken the jump to full time art. His one comment about his work was that it took him about 20 years to be able to look at his paintings and say (honestly), "That can be looked at by others!". Not that they weren't good paintings. He didn't suddenly overnight "get talent". What he did get then was the idea that this investment of soul wasn't the same as who he was. It was merely "how he was".

And that gave him the courage to run his first exhibition - a resounding success, which was nice, but he could have taken the failure too.

And that's what I think David means. Not that the photographic artist hasn't invested some of their soul into the image they've made, but rather that the artist is aware of their worth beyond that of the image. Their "who" transcends their "how", and this means that tomorrows picture will develop (intended pun, sorry) from today's but only partly due to other peoples like or dislike. Their own impression of the picture will steer them more than mere "hearsay".

And, to finish off this rather long comment; No, I'm not quite there yet. It still does hurt when I don't get the result I expect.


January 04, 2008 10:54 AM  
Blogger Paul Treacy said...

Salvador for me too. But I love Under Fire also and have always loved Nick Nolte. I always marveled at how good he was at handling the cameras and how he carried himself. I've seen the movie several times but even though the love triangle thing was a little cheesy, it was somewhat believable in that often times in intense situations like this, friendships and relationships become very strong. There's a level of trust that can develop between people and even dependence that doesn't necessarily happen in regular life. But in dangerous situations like conflict zones, when people are living moment to moment, some powerful human instincts kick in that wouldn't ordinarily and the need for physical intimacy is one of them. In moment to moment survival mode, one tends to put off thoughts of consequences 'till much later.

I've been a shooter since 1992. Never covered conflict zones but have been in intense situations similar to this from time to time.


January 04, 2008 11:41 AM  
Blogger ptpix said...

wow, what a blast from the past. I am not going to read all 38 comments right now, but let's just say I also have a soft spot for this movie.
I was a war photog and a paratrooper. When I went to school at RIT I minored in an ethics class. I had to write a paper about professional and personal ethics portrayed in movies. I chose this movie. he faces MANY professinal ethical crossroads in this movie. the corny love triangle you refer to is really just a mirrored ethical dilemma to the problems he is facing in his professional life. so while the make out scenes can run long, the idea of the love triangle, the fact that he goes with his friends girl, mirror the photojournalism's ethics he is willing to break often in the movie. He faces a choice of following the ethics of his profession or using his skill to help a cause he comes to believe in. Would you have chosen differently?
anyway, yes the movie is awesome and I watch it when I can.


January 04, 2008 11:43 AM  
Blogger Jan Klier said...

Great post. My reaction is a bit longer than fits in here, so I've posted it on my blog: Photos, what you think of them, and what others think of them.

January 04, 2008 12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Never seen it, but I'll check it out.

January 04, 2008 12:08 PM  
Blogger patrickeden said...

Hello David
Yes I agree "Under Fire" is a good film, it is in similar vein to Peter Weir's "The Year of living Dangerously" But I have to agree with other posts about "Salavador" which I think is better. A piece of trivia Antonioni's "Blowup" has been mentioned, Don McCullin did all the black and white pics for this film.

January 04, 2008 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Kirk said...

Well, you did it. I've been reading your posts since two weeks after you started... lurking silently, refusing to even participate in polls. But now, you've touched a topic that is integral to the reasons why I only lurk.

I've been shooting since 1969, and all of it is amateur, strictly speaking, since I earn very little money from my photos. My ego is inextricably locked up in my shots... but my identity is not.

That is, my photos ARE me.. but I am not my photos. In the past, I participated in several online bulletin boards, enduring some immensely strange criticism, in the hopes that someone could possibly give me ONE gem that might strike my brain cells, to make my photography better, FOR ME.

I shoot photos because I love them... I love to capture light, mood, Art, if you will. I do not shoot them for anyone else, although if someone likes them, great, glad they see what I was trying to show. If not, well, too bad, so sad, get on with life. I've also seen a few people who purposefully posted photos taken by masters of photography (Henri Cartier-Bresson comes to mind) to garner knee jerk criticisms. It was eye-opening, to say the least, to see comments about the Rule of Thirds, or other compositional critique aimed at a famous shot.

Not everyone 'gets' my photos, and thank goodness for that... if it were otherwise, I'd become paranoid about pandering to the lowest common denominator. However, the reason I rarely share my photos online anymore, is simply because far too many people are locked into the 'rules' of photography. Imagine the character of Cartier-Bresson's shooting, limited strictly by the rules of composition! I claim no equality with ol' Hank, except that I've learned where I can break such rules and get away with it. I'm still learning, too.

I believe some part of me is wrapped up in every single photo I take, including the ones I delete... because I am flawed, I take flawed photos, too. As I have grown older, I've found the number of flawed shots decreases, although I am not sure if that is due to me improving, or lowering my standards(heh).

I believe every shooter, not just photojournalists, have egos in relation to their photos. If we didn't, why keep shooting? But, we don't wrap our lives around the critiques of others. We might change something, because a constructive comment actually pierces the dim fog of perception, and challenging your perception is rarely a bad thing. Egos are also not bad things... even if my photos do not appeal to the vast majority of humanity, I'm still going to press the shutter button.

Criticism does not diminish me, or my photos... but it can be worthwhile criticism, if it jars me into thinking a different way about what I am shooting. My sense of self does not derive from other's opinions, but I certainly know that other people's opinions can help... even if they do not like what I have done.

Divorcing myself, separating me from my photos? Never! By the same token, I don't take criticism as a personal affront to my artistic ability, either. Picasso once said, at the age of 90 plus years, that he was thinking of changing his style, because he wanted to challenge himself, not art critics. In the end, the only eye that matters, is mine.

January 04, 2008 12:44 PM  
Blogger Ernie Rice said...

I love that movie. It also made me want to be a photographer. :) I mean, he just made it look so cool. And Salvador is also a great one.

I sometimes still get attached to photos, but I don't think I felt my photos were better just because I shot them, they were just different.

As to someone who asked what cameras Nolte was using, I think they were Nikon F2's with motor drives. I don't remember him taking the bottom plate off the camera to load film and I think the bottom came off the F.

January 04, 2008 1:35 PM  
Blogger ogalthorpe said...

Publicly I think all my stuff sucks. But when someone sez something of mine sucks, I want them to justify it. Knobby's been busting my chops a little bit on that front.

Oh... and yo mamma's so fat her senior portrait is still being developed.

January 04, 2008 1:48 PM  
Anonymous DanB said...

Wow, Kirk looks a likely winner of 2008's 'Strobist longest comment of the year' ;)

Here's a short one … where are Russell Price's pocket wizards?! Someone should have told him about off-camera flash …

January 04, 2008 1:59 PM  
Anonymous Nick the Click said...

What about Dan Eldon's work? Would anyone consider him a photojournalist? He certainly inspired Walter Ioos, didn't he?

January 04, 2008 3:01 PM  
Blogger Darren Whitley said...

Oh, geez. The amateurs...

Look and listen a bit... amateur is a label and it's not precise.

What defines a professional from an amateur isn't really whether you make money from photography. It's polish, effort, desire and sacrifice just to name a few traits.

Are your photos finished when you present them? Did you inconvenience yourself to take the photo by either moving closer, rising at an early hour or invaded someone's "safe zone." Is it your desire to improve, do your best work or are you content?

If you're content and lazy, you're an amateur. We all have our moments.

Following up on the actual dialogue of the film... Those of us who take photos professionally know a good photo just as many others. However, a professional doesn't have a lot of time to dwell on success. If you dwell on your success too much, you're in danger of stagnation and won't find a way to improve. Good professionals are always striving for a bit more perfection regardless of how excellent there last work may have been.

In other words, "What have you done for me lately?"

January 04, 2008 4:48 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

@ Pamela(about views but no comments)

yeah im at the stage now where im glad to see views and if there are no comments atleast the person checked it out in the big view instead of passing it by on the thumbnail. Yeah i only receive a few comments i think i can count them on one hand out of all my photos put together. But it doesnt phase me one bit i like the photos i take and if someone else likes them too cool. But either way i will still like it because i like it.
I worry more about if im trying a particular style did i nail it technically.

January 04, 2008 5:18 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

I just added the movie to my netflix que.

Great topic about separating yourself from your pictures to create some objectivity about what is a good photo. One of the things my photography prof in college tried to emphasize was just this. I had a real hard time doing this at first. The first time my prof criticized one of my exposures I had a moment of panic. I grew out of it quickly though.

January 04, 2008 5:29 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy Charles said...

If you've been shooting for 15 years and you don't inherently know what "great" looks like, you're either deceiving yourself, or you will never understand, and you probably aren't successful.

Personally, resisting satisfaction with my own work is the engine for growth. I often cringe when perusing the archive - often not because the shots look bad - but rather because I recognize how much better they could be.

Each shoot is at once a shot at "greatness" and a learning experience.

January 04, 2008 6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My art director pretty much hates every shot I've ever taken so I've long seperated myself from my pictures. Designers...what a funny bunch.

January 04, 2008 6:13 PM  
Blogger jasphoto said...

two things:
1. I find if I also seperate the time I shot something and the time I edit (decide if I like it) I work much better. 2 weeks to a month works best.
2. I also liked "Shooter" David Hume Kennerly "wrote and produced the TV movie based on his book of the same name, about combat photographers in Vietnam. It won an Emmy for outstanding cinematography." - I'd love to find a DVD of it.

January 04, 2008 8:29 PM  
Anonymous Robert Longhitano said...

I was in art school at the time that movie came out, I even cut a class to go see it. It seems you and I had the same fellings about this film. Being young and dumb I would of done anything to cover a war.

The technical advisor for "Under Fire" was Matthew Naythons. A few months after the film came out I went to a round table discussion at the International Center of Photography in NYC on war photography. As you recall it was hot time for combat photographers and the speakers were Matthew, Susan Meiselas and James Nachtwey. It was quite an experience being at a small gathering while they showed their slides and talked about their work.

January 04, 2008 8:57 PM  
Anonymous pmiska said...

I have to thank my high school art teacher for forcing us to be as objective as possible about our art.

However, my personal struggle is to try and keep that personal critical review limited to a fair, objective review. It is easy to become your own worst critic, which can be just as crippling to artistic growth as loving your own work unconditionally.

I imagine as a photojournalist, the detachment is critical in two ways... One, you are shooting every day, and there are a lot of people reading the news that can be "armchair editors" that will rip your work to pieces (kinda like people in an internet forum) Two, you have to detach from the subject matter. If you got wrapped up with every subject, it would be very hard to get anything done!

I don't think it is an issue of amature vs. pro, but more of the defining line between mature and immature photogs...

nice post, sadly I doubt the local video store will have under fire in stock!

January 04, 2008 10:44 PM  
Blogger Keith said...

The news clip of the murder of Bill Stewart is on YouTube by the way:


January 04, 2008 11:45 PM  
Anonymous Will B said...

I also like the movie Spy Game, where Brad Pitt plays a CIA operative undercover as a photojournalist in war torn Beirut. A little less emphasis on the PJ, but some of the same technique of the stills.

January 05, 2008 12:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"'It's a strange feeling because I know I will never take another photograph that's as good as this - not as long as I live. When I look at my photograph of Kim and my photograph of Paris Hilton, I think they are both good pictures, in their way. I suppose the big difference is that I grew to love Kim, whereas… well, frankly, I don't give a damn about Paris Hilton.'"

That's a comment by Nick Ut in a very interesting article (found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml;jsessionid=2L1D0QCM4LXQPQFIQMGSFGGAVCBQWIV0?xml=/arts/2007/12/30/svportraits130.xml&page=1

Nick Ut was the guy who took that photo of the girl (Kim) running from the Napalm in Vietnam.

What is interesting about this comment as far as the "rant" by David is concerned is not that Nick is unaware of the "greatness quotient" of his pictures, but what ties a photo to his person. It's what happened/happens to the personal Nick as a result of the picture.

Joe (again)

January 05, 2008 1:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My personal numero uno pro role model in Hollywood fiction was John Malkovitch in "Killing Fields"...If I remember it correctly, his character even loaded his camera!

January 05, 2008 3:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well for a non-lighting specific post, this is sure getting a lot of responses.

For me it's simple - havn't taken a shot I love yet. Others have said this and that, but all I see are flaws, imperfections and could have been betters.

Funny old game, isn't it?

Tony Smith

January 05, 2008 5:27 AM  
Blogger ibslim said...

I just watched the Movie WarPhotographer. It is about war correspondant James Nachtway. It blew me away. I would highly recommend it for every photographer to watch. I'd love to see David review this important film.

January 05, 2008 10:55 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Watched it last night. Good movie and inspiration to just keep shooting! Don't know if I would take a picture of a dead guy for a story though.

January 05, 2008 2:47 PM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

"Under Fire" is available on Comcast OnDemand for free right now, at least in the San Francisco bay area. For those who don't want to wait for Netflix to sort out a sudden backlog of five thousand orders for a movie they only have two copies of :-)

January 05, 2008 3:36 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

I am old enough to be as enthralled with the movie as you were. I was in Grade 11-12 and was thinking I wanted to be a PJ. Eventually I went to the commercial route but still LOVE PJ.

As for the Zen part of the article, I know some of the press guys here in Winnipeg. One of them has been shooting amazingly and consistently for 25-30 years and is STILL the nicest guy you'll ever meet.

Kids fresh out of school talk to him on the side lines and he's always approachable and you haven't a clue how varied and amazing his career has been. Gotta respect that!

January 05, 2008 3:50 PM  
Blogger Carl and Becky Christensen said...

This is an important concept in one's development as a photographer. I personally can relate to the "Love me and my photos". I shudder sometimes as I go back and look at what I thought was great even 6 months ago.


January 05, 2008 6:01 PM  
Blogger Chrissy said...


I'm an amateur photographer just starting out. With the little knowledge that I have about photography, I get completely overwhelmed with questions. My mentor referred me to your site, and I'm so glad he did. Great information, great advice, and great rants! I'm so glad I saw this post. I'll definitely be taking your advice on trying to separate myself from my photos. Hard to do, but incredibly worth it.
Thank you!!

January 05, 2008 6:10 PM  
Anonymous scootyp said...

horrible trailer, decent movie, smart man to shoot with nikon.


January 06, 2008 12:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The artist's inspiration comes into being somewhere in the deepest recesses of his "I". It cannot be dictated by external, 'business' considerations. It is bound to be related to his psyche and his conscience; it springs from the totality of his world-view. If it is anything less, then it is doomed from the outset to be artistically void and sterile. It is perfectly possible to be a professional director or a professional writer and not be an artist: merely a sort of executor of other people's ideas.
True artistic inspiration is always a torment for the artist, almost to the point of endangering his life. Its realisation is tantamount to a physical feat. This is the way it has always been, despite the popular misconception that pretty well all we do is tell stories that are as old as the world, appearing in front of the public like old grannies with scarves on our heads and our knitting in our hands to tell them all sorts of tales to keep them amused. The tale may be entertaining or enthralling, but will do only one thing for the audience: help them pass the time in idle chatter.
The artist has no right to an idea to which he is not socially committed, or the realisation of which could involve a dichotomy between his professional activity and the rest of his life. In our personal lives we perform actions, as honourable or dishonourable people. We accept that an honourable action may bring pressure down on us, or even bring us into conflict with our milieu. Why are we not prepared for the trouble that can ensue from our professional activities? Why are we afraid of being called to task when we embark on a film? Why do we start by taking out an insurance that the picture will be as innocuous as it is meaningless? Is it not because we want to receive instant renumeration for our work in the form of cash and comfort? One can only be staggered by the hubris of modern artists if we compare them , say, to the humble builders of Chartres Cathedral whose names are not even known. The artist ought to be distinguished by selfless devotion to duty; but we forgot that a long time ago." - from Sculpting In Time, by Andrey Tarkovsky

January 06, 2008 5:35 AM  
Anonymous A Canary in the coal mine, said...

Great Movie. Much better than Salvador with James Wood. Nolte played the movie as if he a photographer not an actor trying to be a photographer. It was for most parts, very believable.

January 06, 2008 1:38 PM  
Anonymous anonymous wannabe artist said...

David, a proof of the Tarkovsky quote: remuneration as opposed to renumeration

January 06, 2008 4:41 PM  
Blogger James J. Lee said...

David, excellent post. This is one of the first things I learned at WKU's PJ program. We called it "divorcing yourself from your own image." That's what all those class critiques are about and why we learn to bring someone objective to our portfolio and story edits. I find that one of the things that most young shooters have a hard time accepting is that no one cares how difficult or how much went into making the image. Or, especially, why the ideal image could not be made. It's the image and how it contributes to the story that counts. There's just no room for ego or excuses when it comes to judging our own work. Thanks for the "rant."

January 06, 2008 9:45 PM  
Anonymous Sean said...

As luck would have it it this movie was on cable Sunday, not 2 days after your comments. I was workth watching again as it had been a while since I last saw it.

January 07, 2008 10:46 AM  
Blogger Keith Taylor Photography said...

David thanks for the great post. This is something I struggled a lot with in school. Having a instructor say, "Get this f*#King s**T out of my face" about a photo that you put your heart into... well it just has a way of sucking the life out of you. Some of the photo's I did as a student are the ones that I feel most attached to now it seems. I put sooo much of myself into them.

Now that I am making my living at it... well I have learned to just try and stay consistent. As in not letting my boss pump me up and make me feel good when I do something he loves, yet not let him get me down when I do something he hates. I just gotta try to not let MYSELF get caught up in HIS ups and downs.I might very well be miserable with my job if I did.

Another thing I have had to learn, is to just say thank you when somebody compliments my photographs that I think could be or could have been so much better. I wanna start pointing out what I think could be better... but a (great) instructor of mine taught me that this is like telling somebody that they are wrong after they have paid you a compliment. Nobody likes to be told they are wrong... especially when it is about their own subjective opinion.

Once again... thanks for the great post. I think knowing how to deal with the emotional ups and downs that go along with this business can be just as important as lighting and such.

January 07, 2008 1:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no problem responding to, and accepting, genuine compliments. But the one that throws me is, "Gee, your camera sure takes good pictures!"

Yeah, all by itself. It's fully automatic. I don't even have to show up.

January 08, 2008 12:08 AM  
Anonymous Nito Of Norway said...

Thank you for posting this review so to speak. I have been looking for this film for years actually. I've seached the web for all kinds of words related to what I remembered about this film. I was young when I saw it, parts of it atleast cause I remember my father placing a hand over my eyes when it got to ugly on screnn. As you said; This is porn for an aspiring photographer and I couldn't agree more. I was very young when I saw it and it singed into my brain, and made its mark on me. This was even before I had touched a camera. My father was a photographer though so it's likely that I was influenced by him over the years, to end up where I am today; Guarding my camera second to my heart. Thanks for the post

January 08, 2008 2:19 AM  
Blogger Patrick Eden said...

I have just got a copy of "Under Fire" I have forgotten quite how good it is. There is a very nice touch of authenticity which you digi guys probably will not realise. In the close ups of Nolte shooting with his motorised Nikons you can see the rewind turret going round which proves there is film in the camera, very neat.

January 08, 2008 2:14 PM  
Blogger Brad Shearer said...

I think going along with this is the fact that I don't shoot for myself and neither do you

I really don’t shoot for myself, and I agree with Brooks Jensen when he says that shooting only for your self can be used as an excuse. What we do when we make a photograph is become an artist. Stand up and be proud to be an artist, don’t cower in the corner and be afraid to fail. Art is for other people, it’s not for the artist. If it were only for ourselves we wouldn’t need to take a photograph, we could just maintain that image in our minds eye. Instead we do take that photograph with the whole intent on other people seeing it, and the hope that they appreciate it and find the same qualities in the image that made us take it in the first place.

January 09, 2008 4:44 PM  
Blogger Nimai Wong said...

Wow. That was an excellent post. This is something that has been a conflict in me for a while now (a year or so, not that long I guess!)

The question continually comes to me, "why do I shoot?" I am not a professional, it is not a living. Personally, I struggle with being pressured creatively. Maybe that is immaturity, I don't know. But that is my "excuse" for not pursuing a career of it.

My older work gets so much more praise then what I've been doing in the last year or so. It is frustrating sometimes, yet, I always ask myself who the audience is. Do I really care--should I care what these people think? Really, we should care about what the people whose work we admire think (if we can get them to look at our work!) At least, this is what it usually comes to for me.

This post definitely clarified some things for me.

'You become less of a thinking photographer and more of a weather vane.' Whoa that is strong. How can someone have a personal style if they are swayed so easily by what just anyone thinks? This surely would "inhibit your growth.."

It's a tremendously difficult thing to do.. to not go in the direction that would give us the approval or praise of the majority.

January 12, 2008 4:57 AM  
Blogger Trancept said...

@Bob : BlowUp is a very strange film...

They are other great films about photography I have enjoyed :
- Harrison's Flowers (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0216799/)
- City of God (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0317248/)
- War Photographer (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0309061/)
- Pecker (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0126604/)
I put Salvador on my list of film to view...

"separating myself from my photos ?" I try to do it and that's difficult.

January 16, 2008 10:17 AM  
Blogger kailden said...

This comment is late, but, your article reminds me of the japanese martial arts concept 'Shu Ha Ri', which describes the levels of learning involved in becoming a master. At first, you learn the fundamentals and are bounded by the rules. Then, you learn when/how to break the rules. Finally, you transcend the rules, and in this case, it means not having to categorize in terms of fundamentals at all.
Bruce Lee said:

Before I studied the art, a punch was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

After I studied the art, a punch is no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick.

Now that I understand the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick

February 08, 2008 4:45 AM  
Anonymous web designer said...

nice post

January 20, 2009 1:49 AM  
Anonymous Joy said...

I enjoyed reading the post.

March 12, 2009 6:14 PM  

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