Make Me Listen with My Eyes

Can you speak photo?

Many photographers can’t. You look at their images, and they are fine — properly exposed, nicely framed, perfectly lit. But they are boring. They do not speak. They do not convey any message or meaning. They are as flat as a line on the screen of a heart rate monitor attached to a dead man.

Speaking without Words

Universities, schools and private institutes churn out thousands of new photographers every year, having shown them the ins and outs of equipment, lighting and composition. Yet none of these educational facilities seem capable of teaching photographers to speak photography. That is, to create images that speak without words.

<i>Actor Morgan Freeman, photographed by Brett Patterson</i>

Actor Morgan Freeman, photographed by Brett Patterson

Take portrait photographers. Most photographers are content with a facial exposure, showing a face but no character. Some images taken in a photo booth have more feeling and depth than what is produced by many professional photographers. And that is a machine taking pictures.

Why is this? Mostly because the photographer is focused on appearance — not expression, not perception.

Our photography schools are teaching pronunciation rather than meaning. The form takes precedence over the message. The result is bland and boring imagery. Technically perfect, but not the least bit revealing.

When I see a portrait, I want to know more about the person I am seeing. And since I have never met that person, I want to know everything with one photograph.

<i>A tapestry artist and painter, photographed by Michael Robinson</i>

A tapestry artist and painter, photographed by Michael Robinson

Reading People

Studies show that 95 percent of human communication is nonverbal. People communicate every day without words.

This is the language of photography — the unspoken word. And yet, too few photographers are fluent in this language. They might know how to read it, but they don’t know how to write it.

I don’t want to see just faces. I want to read a story, an explanation in that face. I want to read the person in the photograph the same way that I read people in person, the first time I meet them.

I want the photo to tap into my emotions as well as my intellect. I want something elemental about this person to be revealed to me.

This is true beyond portrait photography. It is essential for news, or sports, or even celebrity photography. It is what makes photography so extremely difficult, and yet so compelling.

It is not an instrument to show, but a tool to explain. And if properly handled, it is not only compelling; it is indispensable.

<i>A PricewaterhouseCoopers executive, photographed by Michael Coyne</i>

A PricewaterhouseCoopers executive, photographed by Michael Coyne

Inherently Viral

A good photograph is inherently viral. It communicates something we can relate to — not just on a personal level, but on a community level.

When we discover this kind of photograph, we want our friends, family and acquaintances to discover it, too. We are as proud of the photo as if it were our own. Because we identify with what it reveals and would like others to share the same experience.

But that only works if the image is saying something.

Technique is important for photographers, just as handwriting is for writers. But beautiful handwriting is of little value if the words are empty.

To master the language of photography is to say something of value with your camera. Tell me a story I didn’t know. Make me understand something new. Let me meet someone special.

Make me listen with my eyes.

6 Responses to “Make Me Listen with My Eyes”

  1. interesting and thought-provoking post
    and I could not agree more, portraiture, is to me, the hardest genre of photography to nail, and as someone who shoots a ton of street portraiture I try to capture as much poetry and prose from a subject as possible, I truly want to give the viewer an experience not just an image

  2. Well spoken, Paul.

    A camera is just a pencil, after all.

    Your points get back to the "punctum + studium" in the philosophy of visual communication. In other words...have a point when you click the shutter button. Make meaning.

    Thanks for the article.

  3. This is a great post Paul, thank you for taking the time to write this.


  4. Interesting! I´m giving composition photography classes and we analyse deeply a lot of images.. We need a vocabulary to analise images, we talk a lot about formal elements,emotional and symbolic contexts... The great difficult is to take words to an universe that have a inner language, the language of non-words... 🙂

    great article!

  5. Great post!

    I have a feeling that these photos included here doesnt adhere to the message given. And its interesting because there is no mention of them.

  6. This is a great story and something that makes me think of my future as a portrait photographer. As I slowly move into the career of photography, I learn more each and every day.

    This story reminds me to make sure the photograph is about the person versus a well lit photographs. I find it hard when I am approached by someone that I don't know to make a portrait about them instead of them.

    As for the three images on this post, I think they do tell a story. I gather the executive with the chess piece find enjoyment when he plays chess. The painter tells me she puts her heart into her paintings and art. The hardest one is the one of Morgan Freeman because I am projecting what I know of him from his movies into the portait, but if I didn't know who he was I would say he is a man who has seen a lot in is life and that it has affected him deeply.

    Again, thank you for the post as it helps me move towards who I want to be as a photographer.


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