What makes a photo “Profound”?

Photo Credit: Johnny Miller / Thomson Reuters Foundation

The immediacy of photographs is something that has always lent an intrinsic magic to the medium. With one snap — one fraction of a second — the image is captured.

We take, immediately. We share, immediately. We can forget, immediately.

So what makes some photos linger, dallying in the waiting room of our minds?

Photo Credit: Henri Cartier-Bresson

To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis. — HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON

It’s the complex and inscrutable calculus of how to create something that “sticks” which is what I’m interested in. What lessons can we learn from the great masters? What disappointments face us, talentless mimics, in aping true inspiration? How to recognize a true moment, a real moment, without forcing it? And above all else, how to stay true to your art? What’s your vision? How is it different than a snapshot?

I have never flown over a community twice. The images for Unequal Scenes were all shot on the fly, once-over, and then left. There simply isn’t enough time, and perhaps common sense dictates, that you must keep moving. To linger is to invite attention. Airplanes and satellites may not be noticed while taking mapping photos, but a drone can be heard. In the frontier days of drone photography in which we are in, I want to avoid any semblance of harassment or discomfort. Much like a film crew shutting down a busy road, I need to work fast to minimize my impact on the community.

How then, can the images from that project contain so much power? Aren’t they just “snapshots”?

Photo Credit: Johnny Miller / Unequal Scenes

War photography, street photography, and many other forms of photography are dynamic arts, or, art that depicts dynamic movement. Preparation, positioning, and practice mean that often times the person needs only to be in the right place, at the right time.

With documentary photography, trust must be gained, time spent, angles carefully considered. A great many photos may be taken that are distilled to an essence of just a few. The photographer may sit for hours, days, or weeks, understanding customs, drinking tea, playing with children. Lies may be told to gain access, crises of conscious may be had in order to gain trust.

Who gets to decide which is better? Which images resonate? Which images are “professional”, “iconic”, even “memorable”?

Which are ethical, and which are forgettable?

“Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear.”― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

I think good photographers, and good humans, realize that truth is all around us. Profundity is all around us. Beauty suffuses the air we breathe. It might not always come in beautiful forms…and of course can be sharpened into relief by despair. But our task is to be present and honest. That is what makes us beautiful people.

There is a famous scene from the movie “American Beauty” where a plastic bag blows in the wind. One of the characters films the plastic bag with a video camera, discussing it afterwards with his friend.

“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever.”

Lao Tzu and Cartier-Bresson, then, are both right, in that we require ourselves to interpret that world. It will not come to us without work, without inquiry. It will not come after a certain amount of time, or after a certain amount of tributes. It is a state of grace. Some people are born with it, others get lucky and find it. I’d like to think you can also work at it, get better at it, and of course, share your discoveries with the world.