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With the massive flow of photography flooding our everyday lives, how could one even try to stand out from the crowd when doing photographs out there? There is no secret sauce or magic recipe for achieving this, but there are some things that one could develop in order to hack what seems to be the current state of this dimension of the overall visual culture worldwide.
Some common healthy practices are engaging with critique (giving and receiving), consuming photographs in an “away from the screens” mode, and some others like the skills we shared with you folks the other here. But those don’t necessarily translate into creating more meaningful photographs. And why should meaning matter at all? Well, because that’s the real secret behind standing out from the crowd and not.
Despite creating beautiful or grotesque photographs, the aesthetic element is always possible to deliver to the crowd so they can have moving experiences with your photographs. And this, ultimately, makes images meaningful and memorable. Something that sounds pretty logical to desire in a context where everything tastes the same, at least in visual terms.
So, without further-ado, today I want to develop a bit more on the importance of developing social skills that will impact your photographs by making them both more meaningful; and subsequently, more prone to becoming memorable.
Are Social Skills Really Something One Can Develop?
This was a question asked by a student in one of my classes long-time ago. And it wasn’t in a photography lecture but a course on research methodology. And my answer was a clear-cut “yes”. Social skills can be developed, and I’m not referring to transforming oneself into a cool and secure person. No, because if anything, I’m a highly introverted and silent person for sure.
What I mean by developing social skills, is what I understand as being polite and respectful towards the general other. Simply, being human when trying to approach society with curious and documentary eyes. And I’m not only referring to other people, but other cultures and social context too. And even though mastering the art of being a person might seem as something impossible to achieve, it isn’t. For explaining how, I think referencing Aristotle (yes, the philosopher) will make this easier for you to comprehend.
For him, the ultimate goal of a person would be to become virtuous; and in street or social documentary photography, the equivalent of being a virtuous person would be simply to be a socially skilled photographer with the metaphysical attributes that would make her or him someone that other people would, at least, perceive as not-annoying or “pleasing to have around”.
Back to our widely old Greek friend, for him achieving a personhood with the abilities for diffusing tense situations, being able to deliver hard to swallow news in a graceful way is something possible. But that person, should also be able to build certain self-confidence while not being arrogant, being brave but not stupid or reckless and even generous without falling into the sweet abyss of extravaganza.
And that’s a tough one, but as Max Weber would have argued, building an ideal type of a person is helpful, even when knowing that is something only happening in our imagination.
Brought to our contexts, being virtuous will be highly linked with the moral ideas defining our ideal type of person to be. So let’s break it down a little bit. We are not asking you folks to be a perfect person, just try to act like someone that, strategically, would make you get closer to those meaningful moments that deserve being registered with your cameras.
And if you think that I’m inviting you to lie, no. I’m just inviting you to act, to perform, to enter the character of that socially skilled person that will have better access to certain moments and conditions that an arrogant “professional” photographer would never get close to.
Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman would back up this idea but saying that we are all actors performing in an endless play we have decided to call “society”. For him, we would be able to act or perform as a virtuous photographer capable of getting closer to those moments that will make him stand out from the overall photographic scene happening in Instagram, for example. And only when your acting becomes sloppy, your audience will stop believing in your performance, and some tension could burst out. But there’s nothing to worry, these situations, as many others in life, can be mellowed out.
The basic principle behind the complex act of becoming a socially skilled photographer can reduce to the following idea, never be the photographer that you won’t find pleasing to have around. Simple. Every time you feel the urge of taking a photograph of someone, ask yourselves if you would be alright if being that person in front of your lens. And if you feel like not, don’t simply turn your camera off. Ask yourselves “why?” until you land in an answer that will make you feel alright for another photographer to be taking photos of you. And this applies to both the streets and the documentary realms.
The history of photography has given us plenty of examples of how meaningful photographs can become when someone is capable of being patient and sufficiently skilled when engaging with other people. And curiously enough, a lot of these photographers have been women.
Wandering the streets while pursuing meaningful candid shots of people requires not just some level of patience, but also some good social skills. Usually every street photographer understands the beauty of working with gear that craves social proximity. But that won’t be sufficient if you are not capable of transmitting or even acting as that virtuous person that you yourself would like to have around while documenting your life.
A mildly good example would be the following. Thanks to residing in an academic liminal state, I’m both a student and a professor. I’m a PhD student trying to understand how people give symbolic value to certain photographs, and as a professor I have the fortune of teaching about photography, sociology and research methodologies. When playing the role of a student, therefore when performing or acting as a student, I try to be the student that I would love to have in my class. And while playing the role of the professor, I try to get closer to the teacher that I would have loved to have when I was a young photography student (cause pretty much all of them sucked). My current professors are all rare treasures, and I don’t even feel like getting closer to their charisma and genius mentalities.
Achieving those ideal stages is not impossible, but it requires certain practice. Approaching strangers is definitely not an easy task; but with time and practice, it gets easier and easier to achieve. And the best thing any photographer can do is to keep their camera away from their eyes for a while. These help people calm down while getting used to the idea of having you around. And just after a while the act of photography taking becomes less odd or even threatening for people. This is also not a standard, and you’ll feel when your camera can start seeing the light.
Let’s get this Theme Unbiased by Using Some Examples
Here are some great examples of how social skills manifest in the photographer’s back-end while working on the field.
Before documenting the Hutterite community, Laura Wilson had to slowly gain the confidence of these people. It took 14 years for her to gain that sort of access, and as you can see in this video, she is quite a character that anyone would hardly reject having her around.
According to her, she made the trek to Montana a few weeks at a time over the course of 14 years, gaining admiration for the way that these multi-generational families live. For her, these were prosperous farmers and ranchers that impressed her by the highly strength filled working ethic of their family lives. “There’s a kind of shy politeness, a familiarity country people have with each other. That’s one thing that drew me to them.” said Wilson.
Finally, she received the consent from a local pastor to photograph members of the Hutterite community. Toward the end of the project, a woman named Anna Kleinsasser, with whom Wilson had become friends with, said the following about their own photographs
“maybe a soul can be saved by… looking at…the way we dress, our modesty, the kind of life we lead. Maybe they’ll be helped. That would gratify God.“
And even when not being a believer myself, I have to admit that those words are the result of an extremely talented act of developing a virtuous social skill from Wilson’s behalf.
Beyond being known as the mother of Andrew, Luke and Owen Wilson, her name is huge within the photography universe. A similar phenomenon happens to Mexican photographer Guillermo Kahlo who is father to a very popular female painter named…, well you can connect the dots on this one.
Another great example is Tom Stoddart, who in Clementine Malpas’ documentary film Refugee (2016) can be seen documenting the crossing into Europe of refugees arriving into the continent by boat. At first, these are warmly received by humanitarian efforts, but as they get deeper into Europe, the sense of welcoming and hospitality quickly fades. Stoddart accompanies them through the whole journey, and there is something about his character that makes me quickly think about him when explaining the importance of developing social skills.
Last but not least, is Graciela Iturbide. Who also appeared in the magnificent Artist Series from Ted Forbes (dude, please, keep those coming, enough gear talking already…), and in the aforementioned documentary film from 2016 (which you could still find in Netflix if I’m not mistaken).
More than just being a great photographer, she has a huge charisma; same which I’m certain is the thick cause behind her great visual talent. Specifically, I want to reference her documentary work at Juchitán in which she took her most iconic photograph, La Medusa Juchiteca. Documenting the everyday lives of local women at Juchitán, Graciela blended in a fantastic way; and for that moment in time she became a local as well.
Jimmy Nelson also is another great example of what I am referring to. These photographers are just a pinch (and unfairly brief selection) of many others with social skills so developed, that allow them to get close to the people in a seamless and almost hypnotic way. Last but not least, you can experience how important the act of developing social skills is the marvels of the ethnographic research method, which is the fundamental toolbox of anthropology*. So, if you want to find some inspiration about the importance of getting close to people in a respectful and non-invasive way, try reading some books on anthropology too.
* It is true that a lot of the anthropology developed in its early stages has now been found to be quite biased and eurocentric. So please avoid falling into that dangerous mindset in which you as a photographer might find yourself as superior to other people. No, please don’t do that. Knowing about the mistakes from the past is really important so we can avoid making them again.
Wrapping it Up
In brief and short words, social skills can be developed. And is our responsibility as photographers to master and refine them with time. And since in most cases that would require some hard deconstructions of the inner self attitudes, it won’t be an easy task to pull off. But remember that there is a helpful starting point. Simply by following the principle of avoiding to do things that would make you feel uncomfortable, you start gaining the needed momentum for a valuable ability that will translate into making more meaningful photographs from here on. Be patient, and keep shooting!