Could anything stop you shooting?
I’m doing a bit of research into Ernst Haas at the moment for a course essay I have to write, and I’ve been reading through some quotes from him, like this one:
“Ask yourself about the source of your artistic longings. Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing? How strong is it? Would you do it if it were forbidden? Illegal, punishable? Every work of art has its necessity, find out your very own. Ask yourself if you would do it if nobody would ever see it, if you would never be compensated for it, if nobody ever wanted it. If you come to a clear ‘yes’ in spite of it, then go ahead and don’t doubt it anymore.”
Whew! This made me think a bit. I’ve always said photography is necessary to me in a very fundamental way, but I’ve never asked myself these sorts of questions.
Would I take photos if it were forbidden, illegal, punishable? I’m really not very brave in that sense, so to tell the truth I’d probably find another outlet for my creativity that didn’t put me in that position. The fact that it was illegal or forbidden wouldn’t stop me if I knew for sure I wouldn’t be caught, but I don’t think I’d risk my life, or even punishment, for it.
But there are many, many people who have risked their lives for photography. I know of two photographers, Henryk Ross and Mendel Grossman, both of whom lived in the Jewish ghetto in Lodz during the Nazi regime and who daily risked severe punishment or death in order to record the inhumanities that were taking place there. (You can find their stories on the links above.) And in more contemporary times, Tim Hetherington was recently killed in Libya while working there as a photojournalist – just one of many photographers who have died in war zones over the years. It seems to me, though, that the documentation of events or the message they wanted to communicate was as important – probably more so – than the act of photography itself. Photography happened to be their chosen medium for this, but I don’t think they’d have risked their lives to take flower macros.
I think a couple of Haas’ other questions are more telling. ‘Why is it so necessary that you want to do your thing?’ It’s tempting here to start a long biographical rambling about how I came to photography, but I’ll try and spare you by keeping it to essentials. Briefly, I was very creative as a young child but I was discouraged from exploring this and by my early teens I had stopped drawing, painting, writing, and most other things. What didn’t stop was the yearning to create, and as a grown-up I looked for many years for some way of fulfilling it. I dabbled in a lot of different things but it was only when I came to photography that I felt I’d found what I’d been looking for all those years. One reason for this is that I actually had some talent for it – something that I was dismally lacking in other media. All the same, if something were to happen that stopped me taking photographs, I know I’d find some other, satisfying, way of being creative. Photography does feel very necessary to me, and I’m passionate about it, but mainly because it fulfills a more basic need of giving me an outlet in which to express myself and I know there are other things that could do the same. I love writing as much as I love photography, for example, although it doesn’t satisfy the part of me that needs to create something visual. What is over-poweringly strong is the need to create, even if it’s only satisfied by cooking or putting interesting clothes colour combinations together.
Would I do it if nobody ever saw it, or I wasn’t compensated for it, or nobody wanted it? Well I can answer the middle one with certainty – I’m only minimally compensated for it and I still do it! The other two are more difficult. I know it’s important to me that I share what I do with other people, and of course I love it – who wouldn’t? – when people say they like my pictures. There’s no doubt it helps to keep me motivated, and I’d only see that as a problem if I stopped doing what I liked and started trying to please everyone else.
But there’s more to it than that. Knowing my images will be viewed and sometimes enjoyed, gives me a purpose for taking them – otherwise they would just languish sadly on my hard drive. I’ve always wanted what I create or learn to be for other people too; I doubt many of us could produce into a void for very long. I also believe that photos should be viewed and enjoyed. I find it really sad when I read about someone like Vivian Maier, who took such wonderful photos but which were never seen by anyone until after she died. (Now, there was someone who took photos without caring if they were ever viewed.)
I’m really not sure how I’d feel if no-one saw or wanted my photos. It would certainly be less rewarding, but I think I might still do it. Recently I came across some bits of writing I did many years ago, including some poetry. No-one has ever seen these except me, but I wrote them to express myself at a time when I needed to externalize what was going on inside me. It doesn’t bother me that no-one is likely ever to see these, so it may be that I’d feel the same way about my photos. I can’t be sure. Even so, these bits of writing only happened sporadically, and I sense I’d have written more, and more often, if they’d had some kind of purpose outside of myself. I think it would be the same with photography.
It’s an interesting question because art history is strewn with artists who weren’t accepted in their time and whose work few people wanted – the obvious one is Van Gogh, and he kept going regardless, though I wonder if he would/could have done without the brother who so totally believed in him. Even an enthusiastic audience of one can be enough to make it worthwhile. Although art is about self-expression, I think it’s also about communication and communication requires an audience.
I think what comes through to me clearly is that photography is my strongly preferred choice when it comes to visual self-expression and being creative, but that if I didn’t have it for some reason, then I’d find another outlet. Would it give me the same pleasure? I really don’t know, but I think it could.
Although I’m a huge fan of Haas, I think he might be coming on a little strong here; as far as I know he was never in a situation where photography was life or death, and he was successful with his photography at a very early stage, with many public accolades and prizes awarded to him. He never had to encounter these questions in reality, and I wonder how he would have reacted if he had.