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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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