Anonymous, Vague, Undefined

If a photograph spells everything out for you, then as a viewer, there is no room for your own interpretation.

As photographers, we all want to convey a point of view. If we have several photographers at the same location, it is fair to assume that each one wishes to convey their own story. Their own point of view of the same landscape.


Which leads on to my argument today.

If each photographer wishes to convey his own interpretation of the landscape, then surely it’s fair to assume that any viewers of your work may wish to have ‘room’ or ‘scope’ to create their own interpretation of what you shot?

The answer is clearly yes, because even if you wish to convey a particular point of view, you can’t control how other people think. You can just invite them to think along the lines you were hoping for, but even then, you will find that everyone will see different things in your photographs. I know this for sure, because I’ve had 9 years of people telling me all sorts of things about my photographs.

To create work in the hope that others will see exactly what you saw, is impossible. So you better get used to the fact that others see what they want to see.

And if this is true, then why should we be so specific with our work? What I mean is - if everyone is going to interpret your work in a multitude of ways, why bother trying to be specific? Why not instead, deliberately make photographs that are so vague, that you are deliberately inviting others to interpret them?

Let’s look at an analogy of this.

In the movie industry we can boil images down to two types of film:

  1. One where there is no room for interpretation. They explain the plot to you and force you to see it their way.

  2. One where there is no explanation. No actor at the end of the film explaining to you what happened, and why it happened. You are left completely, deliberately in the dark.

Point 2 : these are my favourite films. I am left to wonder, to try to piece together what happened and to reach my own conclusions.

I think these kinds of films are much much more engaging, and thought provoking.

So if that is true with movies, surely it is the same for photographs? I think so.

Often I find participants on workshops trying to emphasise something - they want to make a particular aspect of the landscape stronger. This is fine. I accept this. But sometimes the elements in the landscape we want to emphasise are already clearly visible. It’s just that we lack the confidence to realise any viewer of our work can ‘get it’. So we tent to try to spell these aspects out to them.

I think photographs where you’re not quite sure where the dividing lines are, where earth meets sky, where night ends and day begins are compelling. They invite me to form my own opinion because the photographer has clearly hidden any intention. You have nothing but your own thoughts to decide what the photograph is all about.

That is why, I think I love to work with snow and black deserts. They often hide aspects of the landscape that explain where we are, what it is we are looking at. With snow, it is easy to dissolve the line between sky and ground. To force the viewer to see their own horizon, or to assume there is none.

Foggy days are perfect for this. Anything that invites confusion, or for the viewer to work harder at figuring out what is going on, is, in my book, a great thing.