Your Photographic "Why" is Essential in Your Photographic Approach

Landscape in black and white of Petrified Forest in Arizona. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
Landscape in black and white of Petrified Forest in Arizona.

Some Examples of Photographic "Why"

Elena's photographic "why": "For me, underwater photography is a way to educate people who do not practice diving to be more respectful of the fauna and flora of the marine world. "

Steven's photographic "why": "For me, photography is a way to make my friends aware of taking care of the world around us."

Annika’s photographic "why": "I want to encourage people to take an interest in nature. I would like them to understand its fragility through poetic and artistic photos. I would like to share its beauty with others, to show the intimacy of animals and the diversity of their feelings."

Christopher's photographic "why": "Photography allows me to show ordinary things in an extraordinary way. I can thus awaken the consciences of other people to the treasures that are right next door to us."

Each “why” required a lot of introspection from each person. This is one of the objectives of my photography workshops. I encourage each trainee to defines his or her “why” before advancing further, and to understand the reason they chose to practice photography.

What always surprises me is that most photographers want to share, educate, raise awareness, and convey important messages to other people. The photographic “why” often extends beyond the physical beauty of a simple image, by striving to impact the heart of the viewer.

When I hear others telling me their photographic why after three or four days of workshop, I know that I have done what I set out to do. Each one has something in common, which I will explain in the following paragraph.

The Photographic "Why" Transcends Photography

If you want to define a photographic “why” that is strong and will last an exceedingly long time, you must think of something beyond photography.

There is no question of talking about technical matters such as composition, framing, panning, and the use of color or black and white. These are only tools that will help you achieve your goal.

Your photographic why must transcend photography. It goes far beyond simply creating beautiful photographs. It defines a real mission that you must carry out each day in your work.

In the previous examples, you may have noticed that the trainees really wanted to share their experiences with others. It was not just about them. They wanted to establish community with others.

At this point, I hope you have understood that your photographic “why” is a fundamental element in the photographic approach. And yet almost no photographer begins photography with this concept in mind.

The Photographic "Why" Is the First Step of the Photographic Approach

Anyone who starts photography in a serious way should do so by defining a photographic why.

Strange as it may seem, this is never actually realistic. For my part, I waited years even after becoming a professional photographer to define mine.

In hindsight, I realized that most of the photographers who served as references for me did not have one either.

For a long time, I struggled to understand challenges and make the right decisions. In the same way that our values shape our moral system, so does a photographic “why” shape our work.

This is something many people do not understand, and yet it is the first link in the chain of the photographic approach.

After all these years of experience, I finally understood that to be a good photographer, one must ultimately have a photographic “why”.

Yet in the hundreds of magazines and books I have read and studied, I have never found any mention of this fact. They always talk about technical problems and solutions concerning focal lengths, digital sensors, photo lenses, composition rules, field shooting, and photo development. But never the photographic “why”.

You are probably going to ask me whether this concept even matters if it does not exist in the media and literature. The answer is simple. Magazines and books must survive so that those creating them can continue working. To survive, they must sell. And to sell, they must serve what most photographers want. And what do most photographers want? Something to do with technique. Why do they want it? Because they think it is the most important thing. Learning and applying technique involves less critical thinking than searching within oneself to understand the foundational purpose for all photographic activity.

But as I always say during my photo workshops, technique is useless if it is the only consideration of a photographer. If technique alone is the only thing practiced by a creator, then the essence of their work is lacking that special spark. Thus, technique should only serve your photographic why and your photographic approach.

Books and magazines are always centered around current ideas, the “latest and greatest trends.” They rarely consider the long term classical ideas behind photography itself. They attract the viewer with flashy and new ideas but fail to provide a long-lasting foundation on which to construct all of your photographic work. The photographic “why”, which is the first link in a long chain, is the most important founding element of your photographic activity. Never forget that when you are going to define it, it must transcend photography. It must extend beyond one individual image.

Your photographic “why” should define your photographic presence.

Trying to understand one's own photographic “why” requires an enormous amount of introspection and research.

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All you need is a pen, a few sheets of paper, a bit of silence, and some concentration.

How to Define Your Photographic "Why"

At this stage of reading the article, you have certainly understood the importance of defining a strong photographic “why” to create interesting photos.

But how do you do it?

All you need is a pencil and five sheets of paper.

Personally, I always use paper when I have to write and think about ideas. For example, writing this article is no exception to the rule. It is six o'clock in the morning. I am sitting down. I am writing on my pad. The computer does not have that flexibility.

Here is the method I recommend:

  • On the first sheet of paper, list your moral and ethical values.
  • On a second sheet of paper, list the goals you generally pursue in your life.
  • On a third sheet of paper, list all the reasons why you like photography.
  • On a fourth sheet, list all the points of what you want to do with your photographs.
  • Finally, on a fifth sheet, explain what you want to bring to other people with your photographs.

For each sheet, proofread and refine the reasons precisely.

At the end of this proofreading process, you must have one reason per sheet.

All you have to do is put them together with a phrase that will become your photographic “why”.

I invite you to take a few hours to apply this method. It is certainly the most important action you will have done since you began practicing photography.

When you reread the sentence you have constructed, you will see an incredible fact: your photographic “why” reflects an image of your life.

Your Photographic “Why” Should Reflect an Image of Your Life


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