Every good photograph evokes an emotional response from the viewer.
I’m not the first to say this, far from it, but it is such an important topic I’ll share some thoughts on the subject. I think of photography as a triangle of heart, head, and camera. The heart is a symbol of emotion. Love, a broken heart, and many more expressions use the heart symbol as a way of visually expressing feelings. Heart, or more precisely emotion in the core building block of good photography, the foundation.
To evoke an emotional response from the viewer, the emotion must start with the photographer. A powerful photograph begins inside the photographer. There is always a reason behind making a photograph. Sometimes it is for a friend, or for your job, heck, I sometimes photograph signs on locations so I know where I was. These types of images are not usually powerful photos. Sometimes the scene itself is powerful, emotional, and if … if the photographer feels that emotion and captures it in a powerful manner, it becomes a powerful photograph.
It is a process of transferring the emotion you feel into an image. This takes practice. A whole bunch of practice. In the image below, I was very taken by how hard Nein, the Thai farmer, was working, and how difficult it was to control the hand tractor. To express all this power in front of me, I crouched low with a wide-angle lens almost directly in front of Nein. Nein unaware that I was going to jump out of the way at the last second, is straining to avoid hitting me. It was one the few times Nein lectured me “Keep back” he said, “I can’t control this tractor“. So because of what was happening, and more importantly because of the emotion I was feeling, and how it was captured, the image turned out to a favorite of mine.
In the image below of Lut, a Thai woman farmworker, I was impressed with her dedication and tenacity. She was working in 90-degree heat, dressed in long sleeves and a hat to protect her from the unforgiving Thai sun. Because of the emotion I felt, I moved in close and knelt in the mud to isolate her and make an environmental portrait. How different this image would have been if my emotions had not directed me to kneel in the mud!
The image below was made after a long day photographing in the rice fields. I was tired, the worker was tired. He needed a smoke break and rolled his own cigarette. I saw the smoke and I thought that would help express our feelings of weariness, and what was going on. I transferred my own feelings of needing a break into the image-making process.
A Thai woman planting corn by hand. If you notice the camera angle, I was lying flat. That is part of the empathy, the emotion I feel you need as a photographer. I was part of what was going on, not separate from it. To express that I needed to be on the same level as the woman farmer. The massive amount of time I spend in the fields cultivates trust. That trust, that acceptance, is essential for me to capture these images. It all starts with emotion.
In the last example below of young monks playing, it was a matter of timing and perseverance. The image was made near the end of a long hot uneventful day I spent with the young monks. At the end of the day the boys started playing, then it was just a matter of waiting for the right moment to press the shutter. Their playfulness only lasted a few seconds and then the atmosphere became reserved again. The takeaway here is to hang in there until the end, you never know what will happen.
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