Ontario Journalist, Writer, Photography & Filmmaker

Where Does the ‘Soul’ Come From?

Not too long ago I wrote a short article on the ills of social media for photographers.  Recently I read an article by photographer Ugo Cei that discussed some of the same problems but went a bit further.  He also decried the sameness of much of what is out there today in the world of photography.  He also lamented the lack of soul in much of what he sees.

In this online world that we live and work in, some of the issue of ‘sameness’ can be traced to the fact that we simply see and have access to so much more photographic content than in the past.  That, obviously, is both good and bad.  It is good in that we get exposed to more inspiring photography and beautiful places.  It is less good in that we discover that many people are taking the same, or very similar pictures.  Why is this?

I think there are a few reasons.  First, by being exposed to so many more places through viewing photography via the Internet we are traveling more and getting to these places ourselves.  Second, with so many photographers running workshops and these workshops going to many of the same places, you are going to see many of the same photos over and over again.

The deeper issue is that of the lack of soul.  What is that?  How can we define if a particular photo has ‘soul’?  I’m not sure, frankly.  But I think I can give an idea of what may lead to a lack of soul.  And it gets back to the idea of sameness.

When we see a beautiful place and we decide we want to go there, and find that spot and take that picture for ourselves, the essence of discovery is lost.  The sense of adventure in finding a new spot or in taking the time to see what else is there on the way to and from that one, desired spot is lost too.

Workshops, as good as some may be, I think also add to a lack of soul.  A dozen or so people following another photographer from place to place, lining up in a row to take, basically, the same shot at the same time is, essentially, assembly-line photography.  The knowledge they may acquire from the workshop leader in composition, lighting, exposure and the like may be invaluable (the quality of that information will depend on the person leading the workshop and may vary greatly) and may aid the workshop participant in getting his/her own soul-filled pictures in the future but not likely during the actual workshop. The technical proficiency of many of these photos may be outstanding; and often is, but the nature of the exercise robs them of that elusive and ethereal soul.

This trend of ‘me too’ photography has been growing in recent years. Certain destinations become ‘hot’, everyone wants to go to these places and workshop instructors take full advantage by offering excursions to these, often exotic, locales. In the late 90s and early 2000s it was the Galapagos Islands. After that, Antarctica was the must-go destination for a few years. More recently, in the 2012 to current day timeframe, it has been Iceland. And all of the images, as technically proficient as many of them are, look the same. There are certain destinations that immediately bring to mind certain scenes. What do you think of when you hear Namibia, for example? I’d be willing to bet two things come to mind: Camel Thorn trees and abandoned houses filled with sand. Hundreds, probably thousands, of people have since traveled to Namibia; alone or with a workshop, and snapped the same basic picture as Frans Lanting.

It may sound as though I’m being harsh on the idea of workshops and I don’t mean to be. With the right instructor they can be a valuable learning experience. But if you are going on a workshop for the photography, then I believe you are going for the wrong reason. Go on a workshop for the experience. Go for the social interaction with others. Go to experience different cultures, languages, food and customs. Go on workshops that allow for a good amount of ‘self directed’ time so you can explore the area outside of the workshop assembly line. I’d suggest not even taking a camera on some of that self directed time so that you can truly try to get a sense of the place. But don’t go for the photography.

Are there other reasons for a lack of ‘soul’ in photography today?  Probably.  I’d be pleased to hear yours.  In the end, I think it largely comes down to that feeling of discovery and the excitement it brings.  That feeling of finding something on your own and examining it from many perspectives, photographing it from different angles and truly exploring it.  It’s not a matter of passion – whatever that may be.  There is no doubt that the workshop participants or people traveling to a spot they’ve seen in someone else’s pictures are passionate.  But the true sense of discovery is missing.

Here’s something that I think can be helpful to a lot of people.  Get out of your comfort zone.  Shoot things you normally don’t.  This will help develop your eye and you will learn to see things you might have missed before.  It will take time and it will take significant effort.  You’ll probably suck at capturing the new subject matter initially.  You may suck at it for a long time.  But if you learn from the mistakes and grow as a photographer, then you’ll be more likely to see other interesting things on the way to that oft-captured spot you saw in so many other people’s shots on the Internet and you are more likely to come back with something different and that is yours and that has soul.  When I first started trying to do street photography the results were truly awful.  Discouragingly so.  But I persevered and I know that the time and effort I’ve put in have improved my eye and I see things I would not have 5 or 6 years ago and it has helped my other photography a great deal.