Style vs. Intent

My initial ‘serious’ photography years were spent learning my cameras inside and out. I wanted to know everything there was to know about the gear that I owned (and didn’t own for that matter). As time passed however, I reached a sort of technical saturation point – I could operate just about any camera and understood how to get just about any look I wanted. And yet, something was missing.

A while later I stumbled across a YouTube video discussing style versus intent in photography (unfortunately I cannot remember which one it was). The gist of the video was this:

Anyone can, and will, over time, develop a unique photographic style. But style here refers only to the look of one’s photographs, achieved through a certain combination of gear and technical settings.

As an example, if 10 people took a photo of the same subject, you would no doubt end up with 10 very different photos. But they would differ only in style, in terms of how they look. The intention behind these photos would be the same and would, at most, be to illustrate differing photographic styles.

What the video was getting at was that photographic style is inextricably linked to the technical side of photography, to the combinations of gear and settings employed to achieve a certain look. Such a techno-centric link however, means that photographic style is somewhat cold and empty. And photographs which rely on style alone, to command their audience’s attention, are thus also cold and empty.

So what’s missing? You guessed it: intent.

What is the intention of our photos? What is their purpose? Their meaning? Only you can answer these questions for yourself. This is because intent finds you, and not the other way around. “When will it find me?” you might ask. Well, it seems only logical that intent finds us once we have ‘maxed out’ the technical side of our photography.

Everyone starting out in photography is ‘technically’ obsessed. And understandably so. We want to know everything there is to know about our cameras, so that we can achieve the looks (styles) of our photographic heroes. And there is nothing wrong with this. But eventually we need to ‘grow up’ (photographically speaking). And this growing up usually coincides with reaching our technical saturation point.

In other words, now that we have mastered our tools, we need to progress to the ‘next level’ of photography, and start producing work with intention, with purpose, with meaning. Work that has warmth and depth.

However, something curious exists in the current state of photography: Almost all photographic works published these days are stylistically impressive. So impressive in fact, that it would be safe to assume many of these photographers are already masters of their tools. And yet, their works remain empty & cold i.e. void of intent, purpose, or meaning. Why is this?

One explanation may be that it is simply easier. Focusing our attention on style means (conveniently) avoiding any attempts at defining the purpose or meaning of our photographs. Perhaps ease is just a cover up for something bigger i.e. fear. The fear that our photographs may in fact, actually be meaningless. Who wouldn’t want to avoid such acknowledgement of their work? I know I did.

However, once this realization is made, producing new (albeit meaningless) photographs can only be sustained for so long, no matter the strength of our photographic style. And yet, the ‘Masters of Style’ out there continue to produce work void of intent.

What then, could explain this ongoing production of meaningless photographs, by photographers who have seemingly reached their technical saturation points, and who should thus, be producing better, meaningful work?

I think the answer lies in our audience. Those people whose attention our work commands. If we are praised for our meaningless photographs, we will continue making them. The false sense of security that is likes, comments, and followers sustains the production of meaningless work.

But why does our audience not expect more from us? Expect better work from us? Work that is meaningful?

The answer is quite simple: They are themselves void of intent or purpose. Meaningless. Cold. Empty.

What then, does all of this mean for us?

Well, if we want to create photographic work that is strong in its intent, purpose, and meaning, we have to forget our audience altogether, and instead, become our own audience. Being our own audience means we will demand more of ourselves. And the only possible result of this is that we produce better, meaningful photographic work.

And so, I urge all you ‘Masters of Style’ to stop. Take a break. Forget the likes, the comments, the followers – forget the audience. Give yourself the space to ‘grow up’.

CJ : 📸

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