I’m not a photographer. I use the automatic setting on my camera, I don’t carry batteries with me so my camera dies in a day and I’m not very good at thinking when I take a shot, I just kind of pretend the camera is my eye and hope it works like that.
Basically, you’re not going to see the perfect shot here, but photographs don’t have to be perfect in the technical, artistic sense to carry all the components of a good photograph within them.
Photos start with a memory:
Our favourite photographs are perfect because they’re ours. They call to memory, they bring back a day in a millisecond and sometimes (if the automatic setting on your camera loves you), it’ll even be ‘a good photo’.
Take this one, for example:
It’s not an amazing photo – it’s not mine, either. It’s of my sister and I when we were younger, and whilst it may be a bit blurry, it tells a story. It reminds me how much my sister loved Strawberry Shortcake (featuring here on her tshirt, and the blanket over us – I was probably watching it with her in the photo!), creating a chain reaction of memories that reach back into visions of me tidying my room whilst she danced around to the theme tune, to us playing with Polly Pockets and me encorporating my Pokémon figures into the game, to me at her age watching Angelina Ballerina. It reminds me how much I missed that sofa when it was gone and how different that room looks now. How often people have visited, how far I am now, and how different we’ve all become.
Photos tell a story:
I went on holiday recently, to a type of place I never thought I’d ‘holiday’ to. Iceland. A cold place, a place where I was unfamiliar with the customs, language and geography. I was mainly focussed on telling a geographical tale whilst there, and my photos reflect this. I have photos of terraces, waterfalls, glaciers, debris falls… all manner of landforms I was planning on encorporating into my understanding of geography.
Even though they sound predominantely educational in focus, these photos still call upon my personal history, they still tell a story.
This is the Eyjafjallajökull sub-glacial volcano (a volcano hiding under a thick sheet of ice). In 2010 this volcano erupted, bringing airports in Europe to a standstill due to large amounts of ash being ejected high into the atmosphere (specifically into the jet stream) which carried the ash far away and basically made travel a living hell for a while.
It’s not clear in a photo how much personal relevance a place holds, visiting this place was a significant marker in my education. I had studied this volcano in GCSE and A-Level, I studied it again in university, and standing in front of it felt to me like I was living what I was learning. This photo reminds me of my old teacher, of last-minute exam cramming, of my year 11 trip to Snowdonia.
Now I have new memories to associate with the word ‘Eyjafjallajökull’. Looking for a weird Icelandic seasoning in a gift shop on the road, not realising the path to a waterfall was absolutely frozen and laughing as I cried ‘I think my eyes are freezing’. Iceland is no longer distant from me, no longer only a figment of my exam-related imagination. It’s a place I learnt to navigate, and my photos tell my story in a way my mind will forget.
Photos are personal:
Photos are poetic – no matter how ‘perfect’, no matter how clear. They don’t have to be beautiful or meaningful or even yours to tell a story. They just have to make you remember. It’s why digging the family photos out of the attic is my favouite thing to do when I go home, why I stick photos to my walls, why we give photos as gifts and why professional photographers are so relevant in today’s world.
You can spend hours trying to learn how to use a professional camera, or editing photos to look amazing, and the results will usually be amazing too. They might even be worth something big if you’re lucky. My favourite professional photo is by Stephen Wilkes in an edition of National Geographic (it can also be found on the website, here). It’s a huge, double page spread in the magazine, and is so well-crafted I wanted to buy a huge camera and spend all my time learning how to create shots as amazing as this one.
The people in the shot were edited in, and the panorama is built up with tiny portions of hundreds of thousands of shots to tell the story of this portion of Yosemite National Park over the course of an entire day.
The small details are what take the photography to a new level. The little fires on the mountain sides from campers in tents, the rainbow on the waterfall, the man spinning a child around, the people taking a thousand other photos – it all adds up to something incredible. It tells you how beautiful our planet is, and how many people spend their time just trying to be in it. It tells the story of the 4 million people a year who visit this park, and the countless of others who see the world in an equally beautiful way.
I can’t do that. I have tried to fiddle with exposure settings and various other strangely coded features, but the trusty ‘automatic’ setting seems to do me well so far.
With it I have photographed waterfalls in Iceland:
Messages of kindness in Lanzarote:
A palimpsest of wishes in London:
People I love:
And a crazy number of seas and sunsets (they’re everybody’s favourite, really):
People often worry about going somewhere and forgetting to really ‘see’ the place they’re visiting or the people they’re with, but I worry about the opposite. I worry about forgetting, about telling my story wrong, about not being able to share the memory over and over again. A static shot can tell a thousand stories, can relate to a thousand people, can spread a message far and wide, or it can just be yours.
No matter what meaning you intend to create with your photos, do not throw away your shot. It might just turn out to be perfect in its very own way.