Know What to Shoot: Photography That Make Sense
Guest post from Harry Fisch, an award winning photographer. Originally a lawyer and businessman, he has photographically documented and traveled through over 32 countries since 2002.
After years of traveling, he now endeavors to build more lasting relationships with the people of a place. He has come to the conclusion that technique and vision are indispensable tools to a photographer, but that empathy, curiosity, and pleasure found through personal relationships are the determinants which enable photography to transmit so much more than just a post card snapshot.
Know What to Shoot: Photography That Make Sense
I am a travel photographer and I spend a good part of my time photographing rather different places around the world, and their inhabitants. One of the biggest problems that I encounter is deciding what is important, what is going to be the central pin in the story that I want to tell. In portrait work this problem doesn’t exist – The central idea is the person whose portrait is being taken, of course. But often we see photographs in which we don’t know what is really of interest to the photographer, or what it is that they want to show us.
Photographs, before all else, are a choice and a decision to personally interpret what we are seeing, filtered of course by our culture, personal experiences, and our emotions.
“One of the biggest problems that I encounter is deciding what is important, what is going to be the central pin in the story that I want to tell”
The gaze should be directed by the photograph:
And in order to be able to guide the gaze of an onlooker, before all else, we have to learn how to see. Our brains require a certain order and the photographic gaze needs a particular, special order.
When someone looks at a photograph, we look for something to fix their interest on. If they are confronted with a landscape, with characters, they use patterns which are both consciously and unconsciously filtered by their emotions. As we understand and control these emotions, the photographic result will be something more controlled and we can effectively guide the eye of the audience.
A good photographer understand intuitively before taking the photograph how it will be ‘read’ so to speak by the audience, and decides how to tackle the posing of the main character, the geometric lines, the light, and the point of view. All of this comes together to make a unique image.
The central element of the story: ‘The Anchor’ of the photograph:
Not everything should be photographed. Photography is about limiting yourself and deciding what is of interest and what isn’t. And this is the most difficult part of the craft. But what is more complicated still is getting someone else to see our photography the way we want it to be presented, and the emotion that we felt in the moment we took the shot.
“Photography is about limiting yourself and deciding what is of interest and what isn’t.” …… “it is important to decide what is the central element or the ‘anchor’ of your story, and establish a ‘central knot’.”
If you don’t know what interests you, it is difficult to call someone else’s attention to your photo. For this reason it is important to decide what is the central element or the ‘anchor’ of your story, and establish a ‘central knot’.
The ‘anchor’ is the point in the image where the audience is going to center their gaze, from where the whole story is going to take off from. Also, sometimes it’s the place where the audience’s eye will return to after ‘reading’ the photograph.
This ‘anchor’ does not have to be a person; it can be an element of the landscape: the steppes of Mongolia, the Ganges in Varanasi, the Eiffel Tower. And why not a monk in Myanmar, a hairdresser in Delhi, or a boy playing in a park? It can be anything.
The character’s pose and their attitude:
The space which a person occupies within a photograph and their attitude and expression is essential. I am not only talking about physical space, but what they are doing, what is going on around them. Everything else is secondary.
As I am a travel photographer I do not habitually do photography in a studio. The people that I photograph are very rarely posed and it is a complicated process to move them without the magic of the moment disappearing. Poses should be used with great caution in order not to end up with absurd, unnatural looking positions and expressions. What is certain is that in my travels never do I find anything where it is supposed to be. Not the light, nor the people, or the scene. Everything has the strange ability to tend towards chaos. So it is my mission as a photographer to bring order to the chaos.
This makes you work with the light that exists and a few aspects (those that happen to be there in any given moment) that can, difficultly enough, move if they feel like it. This is why it is so important to understand what the position of the central figure, or the ‘hero’ of the image (or heroes if the photo hosts a whole chorus), really is.
“Never do I find anything where it is supposed to be. Not the light, nor the people, or the scene. Everything has the strange ability to tend towards chaos.”
My method for ordering the characters and the scene:
The way in which the characters relate to each other is one of the most fundamental things. In situations which are basically uncontrollable your best allies are patience, calm, and time. You need to understand what is happening in front of you, and to do this you must invest time observing a scene and the movement of the people in it.
After some meditation on the way in which I take photographs, I have come up with six phases for my process:
1. The call of curiosity: Excepting times where I am looking for something special or a specific place, often it’s my own curiosity that is what drives me or makes me take interest in a character or situation that I end up photographing. Then in a few moments I decide I am going to invest my time in a fixed place and start looking for my photograph.
In situations which are basically uncontrollable your best allies are patience, calm, and time.
2. Analyzing the light and the contrast: Once I have decided the area, I move into cautiously analyzing the light; where is it coming from, and to what point, and above all how will the light play off of the characters that are moving around the scene. Is one going to be illuminated and the rest in shadow? Is the light harsh or soft? Am I interested in the counter light? Is the lateral light going to create silhouettes? Etc.
3. The geometric lines: Is there a geometric element that can underline the direction I want the audience’s eye to go in? Is there a pattern evident, and will it interest me if various people are aligned in some way? Are there repetitions of some kind that can form another kind of pattern?
4. Deciding where to put the main character: I make the decision of what point of view I want to adopt like this:
I put myself in the shoes of the audience. I ask myself, how is the photographer related to the character? Is it a descriptive vision?
In the majority of my photographs the way in which this relationship is presented, either the character’s relationship to me or with whatever other object in the photograph, can change the way in which the story is perceived. The person can adopt different roles and positions within the image. They can participate in these ways, to name a few:
- The central Hero of the scene.
- Someone that everything else relates to, like a conduit.
- The person who introduces a landscape or other scene.
- The person who relates directly to the photographer.
Each photographer has a way of relating to the characters and presenting the scene.
5. How the people move: When I find myself in a scene with different characters I take my time to see how they move within said scene. Sometimes, this means observing for an hour or so, then deciding to come back for four consecutive days at different hours to see how the light and movement changed – which is how it happened when I was last photographing in Havana.
6. Deciding the moment: The famous ‘ Decisive Moment’ by Cariter Bresson is much more than just waiting a fraction of a second to push the shutter button on your camera just as a foot stays frozen and suspended in the air…
Only he who has patience and judgment will find ‘his’ decisive moment.
We have all had it happen; in a tenth of a second what we thought was going to be a great work turned in that moment into a trainwreck of a photograph. What a lot of photographers ignore is the prep work for this tenth of a second. It takes often times hours, and in some cases, days of patient observation and waiting.
What is true is important.
There is never only one form of tackling a photograph and each photographer will give more or less importance to any given element of a photo according to their personal interests, experience, or sensibilities. What coincides with all our methods is the most important aspect of travel photography; the interest is sincere, and, there is a genuine curiosity regarding other cultures and walks of life.
The best technique is not regarding our camera but in our spirit.
When the relationship between the photographer and the world is in harmony the photography itself is better and transmits more than any digital or analog machine could ever possibly do by itself.
Harry’s upcoming workshops will take place in India with the Kumbh Mela and a China Photo Tour with some days with the Cormorant fishermen of Guilin.