Everyone's got an opinion. Some of us are more passionate about certain subjects than others, some of us complain about the state of the nation and its politics in the privacy of our own home, while others say it out loud and proud. If you're the sort who has a lot of complaints and observations about the world at large but would rather mumble those complaints and observations under your breath rather than start a confrontation, why not make a quiet but profound statement with your camera? Read on to find out how.
It’s all about individual perspective
Like all forms of art, photography is subjective. The way you interpret an individual photograph depends largely on your own personality and your past experiences with the world. So you can capture what you think is a very strong political statement in a photograph, and then be surprised that everyone who views that photograph it doesn't necessarily see it in the same way that you do. So you can be subtle, or you can be blatant—and the choice is entirely yours to make.
But how can you best turn a photo into a statement? Well, the simple answer to that question is to find a subject that you're passionate about. Are you concerned about climate change? The overpopulation of dogs and cats? Childhood leukemia? It doesn't have to be a political issue—you don’t need to pit Republican against Democrat, or Labor against Conservative to create a profound statement with your photography. Your political affiliation doesn't have to have anything to do with your choice of subject matter, as long as it’s something you're passionate about.
Once you’ve chosen your subject, think about how you might be able to capture that subject in a meaningful way. For example, if dog and cat overpopulation is your favorite cause, make an appointment with your local animal shelter and ask if you can be allowed to take photographs of the animals in their cages. Nothing gets into the hearts of animal-loving people quite like beautiful black-and-white images of dogs and cats behind bars. Try to think of how you can express the idea of overpopulation in those images—a cage full of kittens will do this very well all by itself, but try to frame it in such a way that you’re suggesting there may be more kittens than those that appear in the photo. Filling the frame is a great way to accomplish this—when your viewer can’t see the end of all those kittens, he may conclude that there are a lot more than what appears in the image.
Think it through
To get to the heart of the subject, spend some time thinking about what the heart of the subject might be. If your cause is childhood leukemia, for example, there's no way better way to capture how important that subject is than to visit the children's ward of an oncology center and take pictures of kids undergoing cancer treatment. Now, this particular subject (and any other sensitive subject, especially one that involves children) will require some sort of conversation or agreement with the children's parents or the loved ones of the people involved. Depending on what country you're in, this may not always be legally necessary, but in my opinion it is a moral necessity. You simply can't photograph people in a state of vulnerability without obtaining some sort of consent, because to do so is exploitative, even when your intentions are honorable.
One of the great challenges with photographing complex issues is that the average, middle-class, mostly comfortable person may have a difficult time relating to your subjects. So if your subject is homelessness in your city, you need to somehow connect your viewer with your subject in a meaningful way. Think about how most of us confront the issue of homelessness on a daily basis—we look the other direction. No one likes to make eye contact with someone who is in a devastating situation, so if you really want your viewer to feel something, you need to force him to do exactly the opposite of what he does every time he sees a homeless person in the street.
Again, I think it’s important to communicate with your subjects whenever you are using photography to make a statement about that person or the situation he finds himself in—again, it’s somewhat exploitative to photograph a vulnerable person sleeping under a pile of newspapers unless you have his consent to do so, even if your ultimate goal is to make other people aware of the homeless situation in your area. Remember that even though those people are in public and it’s technically legal (in the United States) for you to take a photo of them and use it however you wish, homelessness is often associated with feelings of shame and guilt. It’s very likely that your homeless subject doesn’t want to be a martyr for his cause, or even associated with it. So introduce yourself first, explain what you’re doing and what your goals are, and if your subject doesn’t want to be your subject, politely accept that and look for someone else to photograph.
When you find a willing subject, there’s really no better way to connect him to your viewer than to make eye contact. Have him look straight into the lens, that is, right into your viewer’s eye. And be aware of what his expression says—even a homeless person might be inclined to smile for the camera, and the last thing you want is to imply that he’s happy living on the streets. If you can’t get him to stop posing, simply start a conversation. Ask him about his belongings or where he goes at night, and take periodic photos throughout the conversation. If you can engage him in talking about the subject you’re capturing, you’ll almost certainly end up with a set of photos that’s more representative of the topic and how you feel about it.
Color or black-and-white?
I like to shoot in black-and-white when I'm photographing hot button topics or political issues, for the simple reason that black-and-white is the medium for photojournalism. Of course, that's not as much true today as it was in the past, when newspapers were all printed in black-and-white, but it is historically suggestive of hard-core photojournalism. Another thing I think adds to that sort of gritty and serious look is shooting with a higher ISO—high ISOs can produce noise in your photo, and noise can makes an image seem even more gritty and photojournalistic.
Back of factory on Lowestoft seafront. by Flickr user D John Walker
What to do with your photos
Now, many of the photos we take just end up on our own personal hard drives, in photo albums or digital picture frames. But these photos are meant to be looked at by everyone, not just by the photographer and her family. If you capture a really meaningful set of photos, consider asking your local newspaper if they’d be interested in running it as a photo essay. Depending on where you live this could be a long shot, but you might be surprised to discover that smaller papers regularly purchase freelance material from local photographers, and that your photos are actually in demand. If this sort of publicity doesn’t interest you, consider posting your images in a Flickr account. Search for Flickr groups that feature other photos on the subject, and you’ll immediately be connected with a group of photographers with the same passion as you—and through that group your photos and opinions will reach a larger audience.
You can also display your work through local photography competitions—county fairs almost always include photography exhibits, and that can be a great way to get your photos seen by a larger audience (even those photos that don’t necessarily make a social or political statement). And try small cafes and other local venues—some coffee shops rotate work by local artists on a monthly basis, so keep your eyes open and get yourself on the waiting list at your favorite café/gallery.
MoMA Photo Exhibit by Flickr user Kevin H.
This is definitely a bolder sort of photography—you’re likely to be shooting subjects on a more personal basis, so you’ll need to channel your inward Type-A personality (provided that’s not already your external personality). That means approaching strangers, talking to them and asking permission to photograph them, and that can be a very difficult hurdle to get over, especially if your preferred subjects thus far have been animals and landscapes. But I also think if you can conquer some of your fears you’ll find that these images will be some of your proudest shots, especially if you can get them out to the public. Remember that you don’t need to change everyone’s mind about the subject at hand, but if you can get just a few people thinking, and you can move the hearts and minds of just one or two, then you are making a difference for a subject you’re already passionate about—and all of that without any arguing or confrontation.
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