Last summer, I decided to meet up with a former co-worker to photograph her on Coney Island. I'm always looking for people to photograph and unfortunately, my social anxiety tends to prevent me from reaching out to strangers and most of the people around me have no interest in having me point a camera toward them so it makes finding human subjects a relatively difficult task.
Even though there wasn't really any awkwardness between us, we weren't really close friends or anything so I wasn't really sure how to approach this shoot. We discussed some vague ideas and she sent me a few photos on the web that she liked so I figured I'd use that as direction. For some reason, I just had this idea in my mind that we would meet up, head to the beach, and I was direct her through some poses or something. What actually transpired, however, was very different from what I had envisioned and it transformed my outlook on photographing people
Perhaps it was because we hadn't seen each other in a while, but when I picked her up, we started chatting and catching up while we drove to the beach. While it started with just some normal small talk, one question led to another and before I knew it, the discussion had suddenly become very heavy and we were just sitting on a bench on the boardwalk for an hour as she opened up about a lot of the things that she was struggling with. Suddenly, I realized that I wasn't so interested in directing her through some standard poses by the waves as I was with trying to somehow encapsulate the emotion that was coming through in that moment. I'm not sure why this felt so important to me, but as we continued to talk, I picked up my camera and started taking photos as I was just sitting next to her on this bench and listening to her.
Eventually, after a good long chat, she was ready to get some sand between her toes and model for me, but as we went through the motions, I couldn't help but feel this emptiness in it. After everything we had just gone through, it all seemed so superficial. I won't say that the photos came out poorly and having an attractive subject goes a long way in that regard, but as I was scrolling through the photos in my Lightroom catalog, I became fixated on this one particular photo that I had taken while she was talking. I'm not going to say that it's a really great photo by most standards. It's certainly not the type of picture you would expect from a beach photo shoot, but to me, it's the most meaningful picture of the shoot—not because of the technical elements of the photo itself, but because it captures genuine emotion. To be honest, when I sent her all of the photos and brought up this photos in particular, she didn't really like it because she thought she looked too sad in it. I'm not sure if she'll ever look back and change her mind about it—I'm sure that the photo represents something very different to her than it does to me—but taking this photo cause something of a paradigm shift in me.
I think that many of us get into photography to take beautiful photos. We look through magazines or social media feeds and see paragons of the industry treating us to aesthetic bliss. We watch videos of photographers conducting fashion shoots with beautiful models or photographers travelling to all manner of exotic locales to capture amazingly beautiful scenery. Beauty is very much at the heart of much of our interest in photography and why wouldn't it be? However, I have come to realize that though I appreciate beautiful aesthetics, I appreciate far more the beautiful moments in our lives. The beautiful moments to me are those slices of life when we briefly shed our curated self image to let others see us as we truly are. They are the moments when we interact with our environment in the most natural way, unconcerned with how we might be perceived. They might not be the most aesthetically pleasing moments, but I think they are the moments that really matter.
For many seasoned photographers (particularly those interested in street or candid photography), this will all probably sound incredibly obvious, but for those who, like myself, are just beginning their photographic journey, in earnest I think it's an important thing to seek out because our artistic voice is not defined by our aesthetic choices, but by our system of values and how they pertain to our photography. Anyone can imitate aesthetics, but only you are privy to what moments you find beautiful. Only you can decide what is worth capturing. Only you are uniquely able, in your own manner, to extract or distill these moments in the photos that you capture. So focus on finding and capturing beautiful moments. The rest will slowly fall into place.