A little while back, I thought about entering a photo contest, but then thought better of it. I’d never heard of the people running it, the terms were disagreeable, and there was a high fee for entering, which is a priori ridiculous, because if you’re reputable, you’ve already got sponsors to front the money for prizes and that sort of thing.
Not too long after, I went back to the site and saw the winning entry. Immediately, my brain hurt, which tends to happen when I’m confronted by things that make absolutely no sense, and this… Well, listen. There was a writeup of the photographer, their motivation, what they and their photos were about. Those things aren’t somehow bad in and of themselves. If I like someone’s work, after all, I generally want to know more about them. What got them to that point? Who and what influenced them, and what might I learn from them? And what additional context might all of this provide for their great work?
These photos were something else again. Freed of the text, they fell flat. I felt nothing looking at them, and didn’t even get anything out of them on the intellectual level that you’d get from something you understand, and even appreciate, but don’t necessarily like. They had no substance; visually speaking, it was all empty calories, kinda like eating vegetable shortening from the can with a spoon.
I ought not to need an explanation, dissertation or manifesto telling me why the photo works, what I should think of it, or how I should feel about it. If your photo relies on any of those things for its impact, you have failed. For example, consider some of Cindy Sherman or Diane Arbus’s work.* As photographers, they’re as talented as they are polarizing. Neither of them is my cup of tea, but you can tell at a glance what they’re on about, and in some cases their work has an almost visceral impact. Both have also written very perceptively about their art – the what, how and why of what they do – but you could skip the writings and still understand the work.
What this means for us, rather simply, is that it helps to know what you’re doing, and to be able to communicate that clearly in your images. There’s always a place for ambiguity; I’d argue that for some works, it’s the key to their longevity and appeal, with the Mona Lisa being just one of a multitude of examples. However, you ought not to be ambiguous to yourself. If you’re not sure of the how or why of your work, what you intended to say, or at least some of the possible meanings you’d like someone to take away from it, you can’t expect it to be readily apparent to someone else. Consider your audience, their knowledge, frames of reference, and ways of seeing, and then if you find yourself having to explain your work, whether it’s to people who know you, or that you feel really should understand what you’re getting at, then it might be time to reconsider your approach.
*Both sites have images that are NSFW, just so’s you know.