Photographic influence

Published by MJR on May 22nd, 2008 in General | 3 Comments »

I’ve been asked a lot to do another “Make this picture” deal. It’s been great and surprising about how much good feedback that drew. Around June-ish, I plan on putting another image on the table for dissection. Promise.

This time, I wanted to touch on something that affects every photographer, intentionally or otherwise. As image makers–and image takers–we see a lot of content. We’re assaulted with the stuff. There’s some that floats our boats and there’s stuff we wouldn’t mind cruising past. But within the group of pictures that impact us is a primal reflex: our photographic influence.

Most every photographer I know has a desk with pristine photobooks sitting there, filled with imagery that reached that part of their mind and soul so as to leave a mark where other photographs failed. There’s Nacthwey’s Inferno, a epic of tragedy that grabs us and leaves us questioning yet inspired. Then there’s Delahaye’s Winterreise, a cold journey through some of the worst parts of post-Soviet Russia. This book has texture, a pace of images that leaves you with a sensation from not only the work, but from the message the photographer was trying to communicate. And there’s Parke’s Dream/Life: dark, surreal, visceral.

This sphere of influence, this inspiration, is a powerful thing. Opinions among photographers are among the strongest, as well they should be. You have to believe in your work or no one else will. But in terms of inspiration, you can tell a lot about the views and style of a photographer.

As we all seek to refine and perfect our photographic vision, along the way are mile-markers and road-stops that rock us back in our seats with awe. We will question technique, approach, all in the hopes of getting into that photographer’s head and seeing how they saw, so as to help us reach a plateau from which we can continue to be the best we can be. At least, that’s how I look at it.

Photography has within it the power to communicate at many levels; emotionally, intellectually, educationally. Here’s some of my photographic influence.

1. Christopher Anderson

HAITI. 2000. Haitians in the boat hold of “Believe In God” en route to Americas. Credit: Christopher Anderson/Magnum, 

This photograph didn’t simply launch my interest into photojournalism’s orbit. This picture, with it’s tightness, it’s sense of being there, made me feel like I wanted to know more. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s not even well lit, but it’s real and in your face. It’s documentation that tells the subject’s story simply and effectively. Out inside those rickety boats on the night’s waves, Anderson was their voice. And if you go out to be someone’s voice to the world, you have to be damn well ready to do a good job.

Anderson’s work from Bethlehem for NG is the best photo essay I’ve seen in a while. Think it won a WPP. Layered, informative, engaging. His work has been a map for my understanding of pursuing stories and the passion needed to complete them in your own way.

2. Joachim Ladefoged

ALBANIA. 1997. Group of boys. Credit: Joachim Ladefoged/VII

In his four years of documentation of Albania, Ladefoged has produced work on a level that has left the images of others in the dust. His level of dedication is a powerful inspiration. I believe he even went there on his own dime, went to places that were uncomfortable and difficult. As a photojournalist, you must remind yourself that when you place yourself in these situations, you must push on. To be within tragedy and back out is a disservice to your subjects, the people whose lives these are. Ladefoged’s poetic sense of composition is just for your eyes. The content is for your heart.

3. Pep Bonet

SIERRA LEONE. 2006. City of Rest rehabilitation project. Credit: Pep Bonet/NOOR

The back-story of Bonet’s career and the content he pursues has influenced my career direction towards an area that I had not considered going. It is all well and good to make pretty pictures, and there’s nothing wrong with a photograph that looks visually stimulating. But Bonet’s portfolio is a rail train: he knows what he wants and how he wants his photographs used and he does it. His work with MSF has added a layer to a field that was once vapid with incorrect portrayals of some of the most dire places in the world. Snapshots from digital cameras of kids crowding around a Westerner is often not the best photographic documentation from crisis areas. His seriousness and professionalism, as well as visual skill, has moved me to do more with my talent and reach a wider audience.

4. Omar Mullick

USA. Boy in masjid. Credit: Omar Mullick

Not only a talented photographer, Mullick is someone who seeks to do things with photography that push the boundaries. He has inspired me to be more and more modest, helpful and thoughtful towards not only my subject matter, but my peers and colleagues. In a field where egos run rampant, I’m fortunate to count him as one of my closest friends, and someone who I have no qualms with saying I am inspired by, both with my camera and as a person.

It’s not enough to simply make a picture. You have to use everything you have, your own talent and skill, and the light and choreography of the event playing out in front of you to tell a story. It is not easy. It is not short. We must be careful who inspires us and what we do with that inspiration. Influences can only do so much, inspire you so far. The rest is up to you.

That camera around your neck isn’t just a box with glass and photosensitive surfaces. It’s a means of communicating; a megaphone for the eyes. We must be careful and fearless.

Now a question: Who influences you?

3 Responses to “Photographic influence”

  1. mahmoud Says:

    May 22nd, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    Mustafah that is really an inspiring collection.

  2. Ronnie Says:

    May 24th, 2008 at 10:34 am

    Just what I needed this morning. I was feeling uninspired lately and this has brought me back. This is an awesome idea, please keep it going!

  3. mustafah Says:

    May 26th, 2008 at 9:50 am

    @ronnie: definitely, dude.

    what are some of your influences?