What’s a camera without a story?
I found my place behind the camera in a yearbook classroom in Oklahoma. I applied to be a yearbook staff member my freshman year of high school and was accepted to be part of the sports section. This was no ordinary yearbook, if I do say so myself. Ours was pushing 500 pages and was released at the start of the following year, because the length of the school year was not enough time to complete it. We wrote feature stories, carried out a design theme and photographed every school event, game and class for a school of about 2,800 students.
We were young writers and photographers. The first two weeks of the school year consisted of learning camera settings and how to use Indesign. Once we were let loose with a camera hanging from our necks, we spread out into the hallways looking for something worth photographing. There was one piece of equipment every one of us was itching to get our hands on. The Canon 70–200mm f/2.8 telephoto lens. Among all the shorter focal lengths and high f stops, this lens stood out to us. We lovingly named this lens “Big Mama,” because she was larger and heavier than all our other equipment, but also because she did all the heavy lifting for making a good photograph. Our teacher, Mrs. Morgan had an infamous sentiment within the four walls of the yearbook room: “It’s not about the equipment.” She would repeat these words in frustration in response to our excuses for coming back to class with poorly crafted photos. She would repeat this whenever she’d find two of us debating on whose event deserved Big Mama most. But, she’d also repeat these words to inspire us to see past our viewfinders and find the stories we were actually telling.
When I first started making photos, I liked it when my photos looked like a fancy camera took them more than I cared to pay attention to the quality of the storytelling in the image. Big Mama provided shallow depths of field and could capture moments across the football field, so to me that was enough to count a photo as a good one.
It wasn’t until I was in college, learning from brilliant professors, where I finally understood Mrs. Morgan’s words. I was taught that it really is all about the story. In photo classes the professor would say, if the story isn’t a visual one then write it with words. The point being that to rely on the price tag of your camera equipment as the reason people should have their eyes on your work is on par with being a bad photographer. Don’t be so tied to your own agenda of making a photo purely pretty for pretty’s sake without substance.
Peter Adams, a portrait and reportage photographer, said “A camera didn’t make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.”
In my short 28 years on this planet, I’ve seen technology progress exponentially. I got my first film camera when I was 7 years old and now refrigerators can take pictures. When iphone cameras increased in quality, became more accessible and, most significantly, found their place in everyone’s pockets, I definitely made jokes. They were jokes to hide my insecurities about having spent thousands of dollars on an education in photojournalism in a world where everyone and their dog is a professional photographer. I, once again, heard Mrs. Morgan’s words, but this time in a new light. It still isn’t about the equipment. It’s about the story. Yes, everyone has access to a camera, but not everyone has the patience and vision to notice a story unfolding.
The incredibly talented photographer, Annie Leibovitz, often talks about how equipment can tie a photographer down, leaving them unable to pivot and unable to see. “You can have what you think is the best equipment, and it doesn’t help if you can’t see. It takes years to understand how to see. It just takes doing it over and over and over. One of the reasons I’m still doing it is I love to do it. I love to look.”
We are in a time where kids are in their bedrooms, with their phones propped up against a stack of books, recording video, posting it online and getting millions of views. People care about their stories. Beautifully shot movies and television shows get produced everyday, but if people don’t care about the plot or the characters, they don’t get viewed. People care about stories.
“The camera sees more than the eye, so why not make use of it?” — Edward Weston, landscape and still life photographer.