People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

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“Photography Is A Language”

There’s an excellent blog post [1] on the Magnum Photos website from November 2008, entitled “Wear Good Shoes: Advice to young photographers”. It was collated by Alec Soth, and essentially asks 35 Magnum photographers to answer the same few simple questions, the most interesting one being:

What advice would you give young photographers?

The variety of responses is fascinating, and the whole article (it runs to the equivalent of about 10 pages of print) is a treasure trove of good advice.

David Alan Harvey

David Alan Harvey

There’s one answer from David Alan Harvey that really resonated with me, and has had me thinking about photography in a slightly different way ever since. For that reason I’m going to reproduce it here and explain what it means to me.

“You must have something to ‘say’. You must be brutally honest with yourself about this. Think about history, politics, science, literature, music, film and anthropology. What effects does one discipline have over another? What makes ‘man’ tick?

Today, with everyone being able to easily make technically perfect photographs with a cell phone, you need to be an ‘author’. It is all about authorship, authorship and authorship. Many young photographers come to me and tell me their motivation for being a photographer is to “travel the world” or to “make a name” for themselves. Wrong answers in my opinion. Those are collateral incidentals or perhaps even the disadvantages of being a photographer.

Without having tangible ideas, thoughts, feelings, and something almost ‘literary’ to contribute to ‘the discussion’, today’s photographer will become lost in the sea of mediocrity.

Photography is now clearly a language. As with any language, knowing how to spell and write a grammatically correct ‘sentence’ is, of course, necessary. But, more importantly, today’s emerging photographers now must be ‘visual wordsmiths’ with either a clear didactic or an esoteric imperitive. Be a poet, not a technical ‘writer’. Perhaps more simply put, find a heartfelt personal project. Give yourself the ‘assignment’ you might dream someone would give you.

Please remember, you and only you will control your destiny. Believe it, know it, say it.”

– David Alan Harvey


The phrase that jumped out at me was “Photography is now clearly a language“. When I read this, something clicked (pardon the pun). Anyone with a camera might think they’re a ‘photographer’, but did everyone with a pen (or a typewriter, or a word processor) think they were a ‘writer’, with a command over the language such that they could get across stories, ideas, emotions? Written language can be used as a very simple tool: signs, notices, product descriptions, Facebook status updates – and photographs can be used as a simple tool as well, as anyone with a smartphone knows. But both written and visual languages can be used for a far more interesting purpose: to make people think, to evoke an emotion, to carry a message, an idea.

So you can use the language to say something as simple and visual as: “Doesn’t this sunset/flower/person look pretty/interesting?” or you can use the language to say something about the human condition, generically or specifically. You can make people think about things they may not have previously wanted to, or been able to, think about. That’s potentially quite powerful.

Once I started thinking of photography as a language, two things happened in my head:

  1. The possibilities of using photography for capturing something beyond ‘pretty pictures’ opened up in front of me, and this is quite exciting;
  2. The realisation that I’m not yet sure that I have much interesting to ‘say’, and this is quite dispiriting!


I am however focusing on the former point as much as I can!

I recently saw a quote in a blog post [2] about street photography that is applicable here:

“Embrace disappointment in your photography. Don’t let disappointment discourage you from creating great work. Rather, let your disappointment be an affirmation that you have great taste in photography – and it shows that you are knowledgeable and capable of creating great work. Because if you see the gap between your work and the work of the masters, you can strive to bridge that gap– and hopefully become great one day too.”

– Eric Kim

That’s enough being pretentious, I need a lie down now…

  1. – accessed 13/07/2014
  2. – accessed 13/07/2014