The Role of the Artist and Photographer

London, 2014
London, 2014

Continuing my education with “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”, I wanted to share some thoughts I have gleaned from Piero Golia, one of the artists and “tutors” in the book. Here are some of his ideas that stirred my thoughts and creativity, and how I think we can apply these concepts as a photographer.

1. To become a successful artist isn’t a skill, it is a calling

I think one of the biggest things we need to consider when it comes to art and photography is that our work should be a calling, rather than a chore or obligation.

Meaning, you shouldn’t feel obliged to go out and shoot everyday. Rather, you should feel called to go out and shoot everyday.

I think obsession and passion are things that you cannot teach. You are either born with a calling, or you aren’t.

Other things in photography and art can be taught, like technique, approach, tips, and tricks.

But the question you always want to ask yourself is this: “Why do I photograph?”

If you don’t have a reason or an impetus to shoot photography, why are you doing it?

For me, I photograph because it is what helps me better navigate the world. Photography helps me become more aware of my surroundings. Photography helps connect me to other strangers (especially when shooting street photography). Photography helps me live life more vividly, and helps push me outside of my comfort zone.

Don’t think that you should shoot photography, or feel trapped to always be creative and shoot everyday.

Rather, photography should be a “must” – that there is something deep within you in which you must make photographs, or you will feel a part of you wither away.

2. We can’t have a universal definition of beauty

Immanuel Kant wrote that it is impossible to have a universal definition of beauty, and I agree with this idea.

There is no universal way to define what makes a good or memorable photograph. As a viewer of a photograph, we always use our own subjective thoughts, experiences, and interpretations when looking at images.

Of course there are things like composition, framing, exposure– fundamental things which can help structure a photograph.

But whether a photograph is beautiful, powerful, or meaningful? This is something that is out of your control.

What can you do as a photographer?

Well, you can use your heart to create images that feel beautiful to you. You can never 100% control the opinions of others, but you know what kind of images make you happy.

At the end of the day, make photographs that stir emotions in you, and simply hope that others will relate.

3. Geniuses bend reality as much as it bends them

Another concept that Piero Golia shares:

[Kant] also wrote that genius has its own rules, and one cannot dictate these: they bend reality as much as it bends them.”

I think as a photographer (especially as a street photographer), your job isn’t to show reality as it is. Rather, your job is to bend reality and to show your own subjective view of the world.

Also know that when you’re out shooting, the outside world influences and informs you greatly. You can learn a ton from the subjects you photograph.

When it comes to street photography, I love hearing stories, anecdotes, and having conversations with strangers in the streets. Whenever I make a “street portrait”, it is a two-way collaboration. I interact with them and share my personal stories with them (who I am, how I got started in photography, and why I like to make photographs), and they tell me about their experiences. Together, we make images together– rather than me just taking their photograph and moving on.

So think in your photography: how do you bend reality as you make images, and how does reality influence and bend you?

4. Creating art is always a risk

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible).” – Niccolo Machiavelli

Whenever you go out and create art (aka make photographs), you always put yourself at risk.

You put yourself at risk by upsetting or pissing off your subjects, you put yourself at risk by upsetting or pissing off your viewers, you put yourself at risk by upsetting or pissing off yourself (by feeling like you “failed”).

However know that any creative work or endeavor involves risk. And I think it should involve risk.

Risk is what makes us feel on edge, risk is what makes us feel alive, risk is what helps push us outside of our comfort zone.

Nowadays when it comes to street photography, I don’t take a photograph unless it scares me a bit. Whenever I see a scene that makes my heart pump, cold sweats to go down my back, and makes me feel nervous, I know that I must make that photograph.

Whenever I see a person who I want to photograph and might say “no” to me, I take a risk and ask them if I could make their photograph. I do so knowing that they may reject me. But it is better to get rejected than to never try at all.

So how are some other ways you can take more risks in your photography? How can you step outside of your comfort zone? Can you try shooting with a wider-angle lens? Can you try to get closer to your subjects? Can you try to purposefully get rejected from your subjects to build your confidence? Will you take the risk of uploading your images to the internet to be judged (either in a positive or a negative way?)

Push yourself, take those risks. You can never make meaningful art without avoiding danger.

5. The artist has a social duty of creating meaning but also delivering it in a memorable way

Probably one of the best quotes from Piero Golia is this:

“An artist is a choreographer or reality, constantly shifting boundaries, an individual who finds himself with a political investment and social duties, making meaning but also delivering it in a memorable way.”

I think as street photographers, we are always trying to construct meaning from our images. We see random situations, scenes, and people on the streets– and there is a reason why we decide to photograph certain scenes.

Sometimes we try to photograph beautiful moments. Sometimes we try to photograph suffering. Sometimes we try to photograph what we think is worth photographing (we want to show the significance of an event we might have witnessed).

So as a street photographer, we are trying to combine meaning in a memorable way.

How do we make a photograph more memorable?

We might make a photograph more memorable by capturing interesting facial expressions, hand gestures, body language, novel arrangements of subjects/objects, or capturing an interesting scene.

I think we shouldn’t forget that as a street photographer, we have a social duty. We have a social duty to document reality that might have significance in the future. As a street photographer, we are also historians of our neighborhoods, our cities, and our country. Perhaps 100–200 years from now, our future generations may look at our images and marvel at what the world “used to” look like.

You also want your photographs to affect your viewer– to stir something in them. Perhaps you want your photographs to spark a certain memory in your viewer, or you want your photographs to evoke some sort of emotional response from your viewer.

Know that everyone has a “social relationship” to images. Images can never exist in a vacuum– there needs to always be an interpretation from the viewer based on the society he/she grew up in.

6. Transform your viewer into a “witness”

The last concept I want to share is on transforming your viewer into a “witness”, as Piero Golia shares below:

First of all, you need to create art which shares our personal experience, which helps build a narrative for your viewer:

“You don’t necessarily affect the public sphere just because you perform an act in it; you need to connect with the public, share your experience, building a narrative for and with them.

This then transforms a person from being a passive viewer into a more active participant of the scene:

“Once you do this, people will become more than just passive viewers: their memory and narration will represent the next step of the work. In the moment a person sees something, she becomes the custodian of the memory.”

Your viewer then isn’t just a viewer– they are a “witness”. And they aren’t just “docile watchers” – they have their own opinions, thoughts, emotions, and feelings. And your work as an artist can change people and affect the way they live their lives:

Witnesses aren’t just docile watchers. They opine and relate. If the work is good enough, the experience changes people so profoundly that it shapes and colors everything that they see afterwards. This effect then ripples out to others. A witness doesn’t just see, he testifies.””

So think of yourself of an artist and photographer that transforms a passive viewer into an active witness. Photos aren’t just images. Photographs are tools that help transform the worldview of someone who looks at your work.

So what are you trying to do with your photography? What are you trying to say about the world around you? What is your unique viewpoint? What do you have to say? How do you want to change, influence, and inform the thinking of your viewer? How can you transform your viewer from being passive, into an active “witness”? How can you make images that burn themselves into the memory of those who look at them?

Continue learning

If you want to give yourself an art school education for only $25, I highly recommend picking up a copy of “Akademie x Lessons in Art + Life”.

You can also read my previous article: “How to Succeed and Survive as an Artist and Photographer“.

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