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|| News Item: Posted 2006-11-16

Preaching to the Choir: Unlearning Photography
By Paul Myers, Brooks Institute of Photography

Photo by Paul Myers

Photo by Paul Myers
As a photojournalist there is a tendency to see photography in everything and everywhere. Everyone is a subject, every life experience a potentially new way of seeing a scene and telling a story. While it is true that this is the case as so many of us feel in our hearts, it can also be overwhelming. The advice is constant: look for stories everywhere in life. Mostly photographers give the advice with a unique twist in relation to their success in the field.

My learning process as a photographer is based on listening to the gifts of these devoted men and women. Yes, I utilize the sponge approach and soak up every word they say. And it can be highly effective; indeed, I owe many steps of my career to the advice of other photographers.

While I don't imagine that I will ever leave this learning method behind, right now there is a twist in the path.

So, what is the next step? Lately I am inclined to evaluate all that contributes to my photography that I have either learned and appreciated or critiqued and avoided as a photographer. Now my goal to unlearn photography so that I might learn photography.

The set of practices, beliefs and life experiences that I have learned are somehow related to photography include...

Researching multiple stories at the same time, covering one community over time, compiling equipment, learning the latest technology, planning vacations where there are disasters or civil unrest, taking leave from a job to work on a project...

Understanding how exposure works, making snoots and flags out of gaffer's tape and cardboard for the next big assignment, knowing all the apertures and shutter speeds and ISOs and how they relate to one another, mastering manual focus and auto-focus, working on color balance, charging batteries...

Taking the time to visit photographic exhibits at every museum within reach, studying art history, scouring every book that has ever been produced on a given subject and then searching further on the internet, learning how to publish images on the web or in a book, cultivating sources over the years, interviewing specialists in the field, creating a clip file, understanding the history of a given topic in relation to other issues that seem unrelated, speaking to the legends in the field and being able to imagine all that they encountered and all they hope the field will become, questioning ethics on a daily basis...`

Photo by Paul Myers

Photo by Paul Myers
Cutting caffeine out of the diet so hands won't shake, becoming a health nut and exercising everyday, planning annual hiking trips, renewing the prescription on eyeglasses, enrolling in a medical insurance program, quitting smoking, attending alcoholic's anonymous, throwing away the crack pipe, sleeping eight hours a night, periodically having a physical at the doctor, cutting toenails and nose hair, practicing safe sex, respecting the boss...

Donating to charity, practicing monogamy, going to church, believing in God, lending a helping hand, volunteering in the community, respecting your elders, starting a book club, registering to vote, enrolling in a 401k program, opening a savings account, settling down, settling for a relationship, having a five year plan, wanting grandchildren, being loyal to your corporation, encountering happiness in your work, buying a house, reporting your taxes on time and honestly, never undercutting another photographer, never stealing another's ideas...

Writing complete captions, always getting names, key wording images, seeing the difference between purple and blue, knowing how to perfectly tone an image, meeting deadlines, exposing for highlights, consistently archiving your work, writing stories to accompany the pictures, cleaning the camera, sending equipment in for periodic assessments, washing the car, wearing the right clothes to an assignment, saying "thank you," dotting the "i"s and crossing the "t"s, never fantasizing, having a press pass, respecting the law, joining professional organizations, entering competitions, being a "nice guy," growing up, entering anger management classes, visiting a psychologist to deal with childhood...

Loving the smell of laundry hung on a line to dry, listening to the wind, watching the corn grow or the leaves change color, calling people back, answering emails in a timely manner, cleaning the office, saying grace before meals, working hard, believing in yourself, pushing yourself beyond your limits, admiring the masters of the field, brushing your teeth, combing your hair, buying new shoes, wearing contact lenses, respecting personal space, seeing a UFO, maintaining status quo, doing it for la causa, putting on a happy face, reading all the assigned reading all the time, finishing an educational degree, raising a family, loving life, loving yourself, having goals, loving to travel, seeing the old with new eyes, walking quietly, perceiving light, quick fingers, scoliosis, perfect posture, eating healthy breakfast cereals...

Making love instead of having sex, everything in moderation, respecting cultures, advocating for social change, fighting for social justice, never making inappropriate jokes, being everything that everyone wants you to be, caring about what other people think, running off in love, breaking down all the emotional walls, attending your children's extracurricular activities, calling friends on their birthdays, eating with a fork, knife and spoon at the dinner table, never having dessert for a meal, giving to beggars on the street, being a defensive driver, never driving when you have had too much to drink, never hooking up at a party just because you can, helping a stranger collect wind blown papers skipping down the street, never wanting anyone other than your life partner, swearing off porn...

Photo by Paul Myers

Photo by Paul Myers
Making a daily practice out of your art, washing your clothes, paying the rent on time, supporting local artists, surfing, spending time at the ocean because you live a block away, waking up to greet the sunrise, cherishing each sunset as the most spectacular of possibilities, going to graduate school to concentrate on a topic you care about, always completing everything you begin, studying your edit, studying unrelated topics to see how the creative process is manifest all around us, being polite, never talking to strangers, breathing, gambling your life savings on red or black, caring about politics...

Not tilting horizons, watching the background, using zoom lenses, never using filters because they might reduce image quality, always putting your equipment carefully away, being respectful of feelings people might have when they are confronted with a camera in their face for the first time, laughing with people and not at them, flossing, changing your underwear daily, drinking alone, snorting glue, running away from conflict, believing the criticism you are given, respecting the opinions of others, not holding a grudge, believing that the customer is always right, having a personal vision, "making it" as a photojournalist, winning a Pulitzer, going to a photography school, studying the technical aspects of photography, loving jazz, writing poetry, protesting war, being a conservative, respecting women's rights, championing the working poor, confronting racism in your community...

Having compassion for your subjects, letting your subject change you, having an open mind, keeping emergency supplies in your house and in the trunk of your car, arriving early and staying late, loving your job, remembering your anniversary, volunteering for work assignments, keeping your cool, playing fair, not spanking your children, always being a wonderful parent, loving small animals, mowing the lawn, mending the fences, giving advice, taking daily walks, reflecting on your life, praying, tipping 20%, watering the plants, recycling, carpooling, taking out the trash, using sun block, knowing someone high up in the business, playing video games, enjoying cooking, massaging your partner's feet for a half hour each morning, hating the scent of patchouli oil, hitchhiking across the country, being born again...

Appreciating all that you have been given in life, smiling at beautiful people, making eye contact when you shake hands, caring about the economy, driving a car that gets great gas mileage, remodeling the house, visiting every continent, filing for divorce, maintaining separate checking accounts, understanding compounding interest, having good public speaking skills, believing in yourself, keeping up on current events, having a personal interest in the story, being an objective photojournalist, understanding the people's truth, being in the right place at the right time, anticipating action, baking cookies for the new neighbors, respecting the environment, believing in global warming, believing that the world is flat, that men have walked on the moon, or that the world is only 6,000 years old, smashing spiders with a shoe...

Photo by Paul Myers

Photo by Paul Myers
Playing practical jokes, having the time of your life, using an internet dating service, marrying for love, believing in angels, acting out of fear, being free of credit debt, getting to work on time, living a simple life, having strong leadership qualities, attending ethics trainings, working at a newspaper, being culturally sensitive, taking one for the team, retaining the rights to your photographs, getting model releases, sticking to the topic at hand, finding the story, mourning the loss of a loved one, being an individualist, pursuing your passion, drawing within the lines, loving your country, connecting the dots, thinking outside the box, recognizing genius, throwing snowballs at passing cars...

Carving pumpkins, doing military service, going out on New Year's Eve, robbing a bank, never taking "no" for an answer, finding your way around roadblocks, compiling a list of top ten favorite movies, being a great conversationalist, being a renaissance person, embracing change, listening to music that no one else listens to, believing in stereotypes, being "self-taught," having a good sense of direction, respecting your parents, having a midlife crisis, using hair care products, committing suicide, dressing your age, speaking in tongues, winning the chili cook-off, living paycheck to paycheck, watching water droplets gather on glass during a rainstorm until they run down the window, taking the path less traveled...

Being a moral person, knowing your family history, speaking another language or three, advocating for world peace, offering a shoulder to cry on, having a daily regime of pushups and sit-ups, supporting the arts, whitening teeth, getting cosmetic surgery, stomping puddles, doing the dishes, living a life of conviction, planning to live until you are 100, looking both ways before you cross the street, always reading the fine print, jumping for joy, acting on principle, having "common sense," working less and playing more, never staring, never picking your nose in public, behaving like a professional...

Skinny dipping at midnight, putting down your favorite pet, working outside of your comfort zone, seeing the light, having a mentor, believing there are no dumb questions, finding true love, giving a shit, wanting to change the world, laughing, dancing, buying fair trade coffee, respecting traditions, following the doctor's orders, driving the speed limit, using a scanner, knowing when to say when, backstabbing your coworkers, taking control of your education, being passive aggressive, listening, "making" instead of "taking," eating an apple a day, saving for a rainy day, practicing what you preach, paying attention to the little details of life, being afraid of failure, facing yourself in the mirror and knowing that you are beautiful, saying "I love you," living a life in balance, trying...

On and on, in and out, with each breath we take the list keeps growing as life rises to greet us...

... And none of this will ever make a single photograph.

Only in the moment of exposure is a photograph made.

The rest is life experience and is not photography.

Life is beautiful. Life's complicating and confusing nature affects a human being and leads to the infinite possibilities of photography. Within these possibilities lies the joy of photography. This is the privileged view of a photographer and specifically a photojournalist, interacting with humanity and asking questions of it on a daily basis with the camera.

But photography, photography is simple.

Photography is photographing.

(Paul Myers is a faculty member of the Visual Journalism Program at Brooks Institute of Photography in Ventura, CA. Prior to his arrival at Brooks, Myers worked for a variety of publications including newspapers in Freeport, IL and Marysville, CA.)

Related Links:
Paul's member page
Paul's personal website

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