I've spent and continue to spend a lot of time finding pictures around my home here in East Central Indiana, which, as anyone who's been here can tell you, is not always an easy task. One result of this is, of course, my book, Close to Home: Finding Great Photographs in Your Own Back Yard. In it, I attempt to help others see what I see: that great photography exists everywhere if you only look for them. One of the things I discuss in the book is the difficulty we all have overcoming the familiarity of a place. This familiarity can cause us to gloss over many photographic opportunities which, to us, seem mundane and boring. However, I recently came across something that I think can help you to make that shift in your mind and allow you to see beyond the familiar.
In her book, Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity, author Liz Wells talks about space vs. place. She writes:
"The act of naming is the act of taming. In Western culture, describing space as desert, or wilderness, or planet, represents potential comprehensibility and cues scientific and philosophical inquiry. By naming, I mean both the terming of the space and, for example, wilderness, and the naming of such a space as, for example, Antarctica. Naming turns space into place. Once named we no longer view somewhere as unknowable—although as yet relatively little may be known. Likewise, of course, familiar places are those that have come to seem 'known'. " (Emphasis mine.)
What this means, of course, is that we perceive the places around us as familiar because we think of them as named. The park, the street, the city—as well as Davis Park, 57th Street, and Paris. I would go a step further and say that we name places even on a smaller scale, again because we crave familiarity. Davis Park becomes "the kids' park" and Joe's Sports Bar becomes "the guys' hangout", all because we feel more comfortable in places we've named and personalized and it makes it easier to recognize them.
This works against us as photographers. We lose the ability to look beyond these labels to what a place or a thing actually is in order to truly see it. Many of the best photographs show us universal truths in specific moments or places, and in order to see them, I think we need to let go of our familiarity. We need to return to thinking of a place as simply a space—a pub that represents many other bars around the world, a city street that looks like a lot of streets in a large city, a man walking along a river that can represent any man or any river. Using your subjects as symbols for a commonality we share can raise your work above simply pretty pictures.
The history of photography abounds with such symbols. A photograph of a woman and her children, down on their luck, becomes an iconic representation of hardship during the Great Depression in the US. A portrait of a girl with bright green eyes and a burning stare shows the determination of the refugees from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. These are photographs of specific people in specific places, but we recognize them as representations of the universal human condition. The photographers who made them spent a lot of time in the places where they took these photographs, but they did not forget how to see the familiar as universal.
The flip side to this—and this is the paradox—is that you need your familiarity with these places as well, in order to capture what other photographers will miss. Your familiarity will not only gain you access to scenes others may not, it's also a gateway to the feelings you have about a subject or place. In the end, you have to balance your closeness to your subject with your photographer's eye that sees things as they really are… or could be.
It's a difficult balance to achieve and one I think we will constantly work at over the course of our lives. Our perceptions will change. Our ideas of what is universal may change, but consistently questioning what it is you're actually photographing and why will help you to make better photographs in the long run.