To find the joy in the looking, to see details that would otherwise go unnoticed, and to let go of the notion that every photograph has to be beautiful otherwise it’s time and energy wasted – these are what make photography an interesting, mystical, and ultimately joyful profession.
A photographer for over two decades, having covered several wars, embedding with military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Peter Van Agtmael has always been drawn to the narratives behind a photograph and its historical, political, and economical reflections. In his years as a young photography student, he found himself drawn to photos with deeper meaning or significance. Photographs that tell you a lot at first glance and even more if you look closer. Hence, he prefers photojournalism over the more artistic, well-crated types of photographs.
To demonstrate the importance of finding beauty in the most subtle of things, Agtmael went on a photo walk to discuss how the right kind of light, angle, and distance can turn mundane objects into beautiful subjects. But photography, he stressed, is also about letting go. More than the outcome of the photograph, what’s more, important is to look closely and enjoy the process of taking pictures as a way of training one’s eye to see beauty.
Photography is memory
Photographs are universal things. They are essential in remembering important details of one’s life, historical or personal they may be. He creates an annual photo diary where he compiles the pictures he wants to remember the most or the ones with the most significant memories – never mind if they are the best photographs in his gallery – as the journal is foremost about the act of remembering. Doing this journal encourages him to be more mindful of the events – mundane ones such as his niece sleeping or more significant ones such as a loved one’s last days – that are happening all around him. Photographs are not a substitute for memories but are cues to remember these moments.
These photo diaries have also helped him appreciate the process of editing, which is crucial in determining what photography styles he likes, an essential process in crafting an identity as a photographer.
The joy is in the looking
Photography is a constant process of training one’s eyes – of practicing mindfulness, analyzing details in motion, and appreciating the complexity and richness of beauty. The point in all of these, according to Agtmael isn’t to take great pictures. Training a photographer’s eye is all about observing and looking deeply at what you’re seeing. “Just the process of looking closely and trying to appreciate the world around you is enough. And when a picture comes as it always does, it’s a little gift — a reward for the process of looking and the process of being mindful of one’s surroundings and finding beauty in the banal,” Agtmael stressed.
Another component when training one’s eyes is patience. Oftentimes, it’s the uncontrollable things such as certain shades of light or a random passerby that makes an ordinary scene picturesque. So, it always pays to stay committed in the practice of looking and looking closely.
Agtmael’s advice to aspiring photographers
Closing the episode, Agtmael left aspiring photographers reminders and pro tips that will help them appreciate the craft of photography more. The first is to keep an open heart and mind towards people. It’s imperative to have love and forgiveness for people to be able to see through them and the stories they want to tell. Next, he stressed the importance of educating oneself by looking at a lot of photographs to understand what’s possible and to determine what you, as photographer care about and why. He added that once you have figured out what is important to you, you now have to find ways how to visualize it – you have to figure out how you want to present the photo to the world.
The third is the immeasurable value of commitment and dedication. Raw talent goes a long way in this profession but it isn’t enough. Having the drive to continuously learn goes a long way in a field that is as finite and boundless as photography. “Over time, one’s personal form of expression will reveal itself. But that takes time,” he said.
Lastly, he stressed the necessity for resilience. Like writers, photographers could also experience a block that keeps them from doing their work. But this phase, Agtmael reminds them is not going to last forever and that “there always a way through and a way out of it. Ultimately, it is the innocence and joy that brings us into photography in the first place will reassert itself and carry you through and hopefully, with a conviction and a connection that’s even stronger.”
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