Right, Wrong Thinking and Its Impact on Photography

There are thought patterns or ways of thinking that are liberating and others that are limiting. This is true in all of life, but it also applies to our photography.
The Western World is dominated by absolutism, by a belief in absolute truths, absolute morality and absolutes, like right and wrong. You even get politicians who get away with statements like, ‘You are either with us or against us’, leaving no room for alternatives. It is arguable as to whether these ways of thinking have ever served mankind well, but there is a real issue with these ways of thinking when it comes to photography and art.

So let’s look at how these ways of thinking impact on our photography and/or art. Core to absolutism is the idea of right and wrong, that there is a correct way to do something and an incorrect way. At its extreme, it means that even if you get to a good result, if the way you used to get there is wrong, then it invalidates a good result. Also inherent in this way of thinking is that there can be an authority that determines what is right and wrong. Who is that authority, how do they decide what is right and wrong and will they change their minds at some point? This allows the creation of rules. Photographs and art can then be criticized on the basis of these rules, allowing some photographers/artists to be marginalized on the basis of violating these rules.

This same thinking allows people to justify excluding whole areas of photography or art as not being right, not being real. Hence digital photography is different to ‘real’ photography, digital manipulation is not ok, digital art can be excluded from an art show, etc. A number of recent exchanges on some of the online photography lists illustrate this. One of these was over my review of the Lensbaby 3G, which had some people arguing that it was a huge waste of money and that it SHOULD be done in Photoshop, others arguing it was a good tool and SHOULD be done in camera. The other was a discussion (sometimes violent) over whether the winner of a Landscape Photography competition was a photograph, given that it was a composite of two images (a strong sky had been dropped in). Both discussions were strongly phrased in terms of right and wrong.

A big problem with right/wrong thinking is that it can stop you from improving as a photographer. Say that somehow you have gained the dubious belief that to be ‘right’, a landscape photograph must be sharp from far to near. With that belief, how hard would it be to convince yourself to try some shallow depth of field photography. You may even just tend to delete or throw out images of yours that do not meet up to this criteria, without ever really looking at them to see if any of the ‘work’.

The alternative to absolutism is relativism. Let’s replace the words right and wrong with works or doesn’t work, given a criteria or aim you have. So, in the case of the Lensbaby discussion, it is very reasonable to say it does or does not work for me. Same with the landscape image. If the aim is to produce a strong landscape photograph and combining two images achieves this, then it can be said to work. However if the aim is to produce a strong documentary landscape image, then combining two images shot at different times does not work. Now, there would be some who would argue the word photograph implies documentary in this context. That is not something I would not agree with. I would argue that in a medium where manipulation is so inherent to the medium, as it is in photography, that such a rule smacks of just drawing an arbitrary line in the sand. Another core part of relativism is that the best you can say is that something works or does not work for you. Anything beyond that is arrogant.

A works/doesn’t work approach has huge benefit in terms of your growth as a photographer or artist. Say you try an approach, medium or piece of gear and it does not work for you, in that you can’t get the results out of it you hoped. By removing the value judgment of it being good or bad, you leave open the possibility of retrying it at some point in the future, when your knowledge, experience or change in aesthetics may allow you to then get a working result. It also allows you to concentrate in assessing an image on how it works, again for you. This lets you focus on how the image speaks to you, what emotions it raises and how you read it. This can be a key to helping you get deeper into interpreting photography/art and in assessing your own work. Because you are not assessing from some arbitrary good/bad rules, it allows you to access deeper levels of the work. We all know that sometimes you have to break the rules of composition, etc to make an image work. If you simply follow the rules, you’ll never do this. It also means when you are asked what you think of someone else’s work, you will not be tempted to respond from arbitrary absolutes, but from your personal response to the work. By concentrating on your personal response, and perhaps also listening to other people’s personal response, you can learn a lot about what to include in an image to get the result you want.

The other thing is that as soon as you start talking about using a technique, say, for an extended time because it works, you must also be open to something that ‘works better’. This leads you to an approach that I find immensely growth encouraging of ‘I’ll keep doing this till I find something that works better’. One of the things I love about photography is that there are such a huge, perhaps even infinite, range of approaches, subject matter, ways of executing a shot, etc that you will never run out. Seeking for something that works better is much more logical tha seeking something that is more right.

Now I can imagine the howls of protest to this article. Absolutist ideas run very deep, indeed they are almost foundational to our society. Absolutism also runs rampant in our (a)vocation, photography. Rules of composition, ‘rules’ of what makes a great landscape image, rules of how to use a camera and what things you need to know before you can be considered a ‘real’ photographer. You may not be able to, or even want to change them more widely, but I do recommend that you have a good, hard look at your own thinking about photography and/or art and see if any of the absolutist ideas you have are holding your work back. I think you just may be surprised.

The above scratches the surface of right/wrong compared to works/doesn’t work thinking. I really encourage you to have a look at your own thinking.

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