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The art of seeing the world – with and without a camera

Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer who took portraits of displaced and migrant workers during the Great Depression. Her black and white images of men, women and children, which are full of poignancy and emotion, had a major influence on later documentary and journalistic photography. To my mind, Lange was a master observer of people. She is often quoted as saying, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera”. I feel that these words are urging us to become more observant through our pursuit of photography, always on the lookout for interesting subjects, even when we don’t have a camera available to make the most of the opportunity.

Renewing my passion for photography has led me to become more observant. As I have spent more time seeking out beauty in the world around me so that I can capture it in an image, I have begun to recognise and appreciate that beauty, even when I don’t have a camera to hand. This has helped me to ‘be’ rather than always having to ‘do’. It is good to know that this is equally as important in photography as the times when I have my camera and am busy shooting. It is the reflective time, the time that helps me see what is around me in a new way. A direct by-product of becoming more observant is being able to find more photography opportunities, more ways to translate what I see into images so that others can experience the beauty that I see. The secret to this is to try to find new things to photograph, new ways of seeing, new angles from which to shoot that are not what people normally see.

I like the way the trees and buildings outside are reflected in this window, yet the colours inside are eye-catching too.

There are always opportunities for a photograph – we just have to recognise them.

One of the biggest complaints that I have heard from people new to photography, or those just getting back into photography after a lapse, is that they have taken all the usual things and they don’t know what to photograph any more. They have exhausted their locations and don’t know where to go next to shoot the ‘perfect’ photograph. I know, because I have been there! I consider that many of my photographs are boring and not worth showing to anyone, but I have recently realised that this is often due to the fact that I mostly shoot from the viewpoint of a standing adult. Rather than give up on my photographs, I began to adjust my thinking a little and I am making an effort to shoot from different angles and perspectives. I have also taken the advice of more experienced photographers to look for opportunities to make photographs wherever I am. I listened to those who said, “Beauty is all around you – you just have to recognise it”, rather than use the excuse, “there’s nothing to photograph”. I began to look more closely, see more deeply, and move in to see small things rather than look out at the vastness of our world which cannot be captured accurately with my tiny camera sensor anyway. And what I have found is that my excuse is just that, an excuse. The prolific novelist, Jodi Picoult, is quoted as saying,

You can always edit a bad page, you can’t edit a blank page.

So what is this saying? To get out and take photographs – even if they are not great photographs, at least they are photographs and they might be the very photographs that will teach me something important about my craft.

“It is not enough to photograph the obviously picturesque” - Dorothea Lange

I came across this as I walked along a working pier. The object itself could not be described as being picturesque but it does cast a nice shadow and it represents something that I would normally just pass without even noticing it. Yet, this too has its use.

Another spin off of becoming more observant is that I am becoming more confident as a photographer. I am not so focused on getting amazing landscape images anymore and am more focused on finding new angles from which to shoot my images.

Shooting from a lower angle gives a different perspective to the shot.

I am developing my own vision and becoming more accustomed to the learning involved in taking photographs; analysing the images, adjusting some elements, shooting again, analysing again, and so on. It has become an enjoyable process as I become more comfortable pursuing this art form. I have discovered that being myself in my photography – taking the photographs I like, of subjects I engage with - is more important than posting images to gain ‘likes’ on social media. I realise that, while for any of us our photographs may not be photographs that are popular with others, we are who we are, and who we are goes into the art that we make, so we need to be true to that. Our images may be of strange or unusual things, but they are the things we like to shoot, they have meaning to us, and we should be proud to show them. Photographer and writer Kent DuFault says,

When you create a shot, and in looking at it you feel a glow inside, something in that image is part of your ‘art of seeing’.

I read a lot of photography blogs and I appreciate those writers who urge us to get out there and see the world in our own way, to pay attention to what is around us and to make our own images rather than simply imitate the images of others. Each of us sees the world differently. Two people can stand in the same place and see very different things. When we make images of what we see, and share them, we are allowing others into our world and perhaps inspiring someone else to look beyond the obvious and to see differently too.

On a foggy morning in April I was driving along a country road outside Ballinamore in Co. Leitrim when I was drawn to this lakeside. I wanted to capture the atmosphere, the silence of the morning, the feeling of the place before the sun burst through and changed everything. I took these images.

Our photographs have the potential to open up the mind’s eye of our viewer. We can transform the way viewers think of people, a situation, a place. We can introduce them to the heart-breaking beauty of the world - right here on our doorstep – Anthony Epes, photographer and teacher.


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