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Writing for Photographers

March 12, 2017

          I recently read an article by the Onward Global blog called “Writing on Photography: Q & A with Jörg Colberg.”  (https://onwardphoto.org/how-to-write-about-your-photographs-q-a-with-jorg-colberg/) It immediately piqued my curiosity. We photographers are not accustomed to talking about our work, much less writing about it, so I found the article intriguing. When entering a contest or submitting a proposal, we may be asked to write an artist’s or project statement, but seldom do most photographers in my opinion write about their work at the beginning or throughout a project. I was among the ones who did not.

          We’re all familiar with the saying, a picture is worth a thousand words, but what if it’s not..?

          “On the one hand, photographers are maybe the most literal (and conservative) of all artists,” Colberg states, “usually thinking that, for example, that which is depicted in a photograph is its subject. On the other hand, many photographers cannot disassociate what they know about a photograph from what is actually in it. One’s intentions, to pick the most obvious example, are usually not communicated by a photograph. But photographers often assume that everybody else knows what they know...”

          The exhibit of my street photography I had March 2016 highlighted this. As soon as it was hung, I saw a few photos that should not have been included. They didn’t meet the requisite intentions or theme that I was trying to convey. Had I engaged in writing about the work as I was going, I might have recognized that and saved myself the internal embarrassment of not having my shit together as it were.

          “The process of writing about our own photography helps us to clarify our thinking, and this clarity in turn helps our photographic work,” states Colberg. He believes that “ to successfully finish a project the photographer needs to achieve utmost clarity about the work. Without that clarity, s/he will be unable to produce a coherent edit.”

          After reading Colberg’s Onward conversation, I began keeping a journal about the photo projects I was working on, including pasting thumbnails of the individual images along with the descriptions. Over time, it became clear which photos were clustering together by theme or intent and which were ones that, although I liked them, just didn’t fit. Unfortunately, it’s often an emotional attachment to a photo that causes us to keep it whether it fits the project or not. Writing about the images also helped me redefine the work if it veered onto a path that I had not originally intended or anticipated. The journal enabled me describe the work so I can convey a project’s theme to someone else when writing an artist statement or project description.  And, I’ve since used this process for whittling my street photos into a coherent edit should I be lucky enough to have that body of work exhibited elsewhere.

In closing, Colberg offers this advice:

  • DON’T assume your audience knows what you know.
    Be aware that the photographer’s intentions are usually not obvious to viewers.
  • DO focus on what is actually in the pictures.
    When it comes to disentangling the real substance from the mess of our own assumptions, writing is the right tool for the job.
  • DON’T use jargon.
    Always use words that non-experts can understand.
  • DO convey your passion.
    Our writing should strive to make people care about our photos.
  • DON’T expect everyone to care.
    100,000 “likes” on Facebook should not be your measure of success.
  • DO read things you truly enjoy.
    It is necessary to read in order to write, so find some reading material you really like.

          Jörg Colberg is a photographer, professor of photography, and writer. His popular online magazine Conscientious features photobook reviews, profiles of individual photographers, and essays on photography. He is one of the review instructors for ONWARD Global Courses, where Japanese photographers learn how to develop a strong body of work over one year.