What If I Have Nothing To Say With My Photography? / by Michael Jin

© 2018 Michael Jin. All Rights Reserved.

I was recently listening to Episode #1096 of LensWork Podcast and the host, Brooks Jensen mentioned someone that he knew that had poured so much of his life mastering the craft of taking photos and turning them into beautiful prints. Mind you, this was back in the days of the wet darkroom where creating a print wasn't just a matter of hitting CTRL+P (or CMD+P for you Mac users out there) after doing some edits in Lightroom or Photoshop.

As someone that is still in the early stages of learning how to print in the wet darkroom, I can relate to the frustrations of trying to produce amazing prints. Not only is there a mountain of knowledge to absorb about the different films, papers, chemicals, temperatures, interactions, etc. but there's the physical component that you simply do not have in digital photography. Once you have done all of the tests and determined that you need to expose your paper for 20 seconds, the game is on the moment you hit that timer switch and you need the dexterity and coordination to perform all of your dodges within those 20 seconds. Once you've determined your burning times after that, you need to hit that light and be able to skillfully maneuver your burn cards to hit the areas you want for the duration you want without fucking up the rest of the image that you've gone out of your way to properly expose. Quite frankly, for something that suffers from anxiety such as myself (and takes medication for it), it's pretty stressful because one point of failure can mean that you've just wasted time, paper, and chemistry. There is no UNDO button or History Module that you can go back to. A fuck up effectively means nearly starting over from scratch. Then after all that, you get to developing the paper in the chemistry and I'm sure you can image that's another beast to wrestle with. I think a large part of why I am able to do it is simply because I am, by nature, not a super particular person and for my personal work that I don't intend for others' eyes, I'm OK with a print that isn't meticulously worked to perfection.

As I was listening to Brooks talk about this person—let's just call him Bob—I could empathize with the struggle and what it must feel like to finally master the entire craft to the point where one could produce a pre-visualized result on a consistent basis. Then came the big hit out of nowhere. Brooks talked about how once Bob got to this phase in life, he (Bob) just quit photography completely...

WHAT!? Are you fucking kidding me? That should be where you photography BEGINS, not where it ENDS! Up until that point, you're just dicking around doing the best that you can and trying to get the best results that you can, but isn't it precisely when the barrier of technical mastery is no longer a limitation that you ought to be free to finally bring your vision to life? I guess Brooks felt the way I did upon hearing this and asked Bob why he would choose that point to quit. Bob's response struck me in a way that simply froze me up. Paraphrasing just wouldn't do it justice so I replayed the episode to transcribe this part of the podcast exactly:

"... and I asked him why he had walked away from this craft that he had so exquisitely developed, and he explained to me quite simply that after he had established the skills and the ability to make a print pretty much at will, he realized that he had nothing to say and therefore all of that technological challenge was meaningless..."

FUCK... That's the word that immediately came to my mind. You see, I have a tendency to get so caught up in everything else about photography that I tend to pay little mind to WHY it is I do what I do and WHAT it is that I'm trying to put out into the world. Sure, I have my personal projects that I'm working on and on some level, they do feel a bit contrived if I'm to be honest. Of my projects, the one about Queens is definitely the one that's closest to my heart, but more than anything, my personal projects exist to give me focus as I'm developing my craft rather than serve as something that I feel is contributing to the world in a meaningful way. It has become so easy to walk around searching for interesting scenes, getting lost in the little details of my projects, culling photos, learning new techniques, and buying more books on photography to glean more information from. In short, the complex nature of the craft makes it extremely easy to take a myopic view, focusing on all of the little details, while completely ignoring the greater picture and the question of purpose.

What does my photography say? What do I intend for it to say? What if, after all of this, I find that I have nothing meaningful to say through my photographs? I won't go so far as to say that it has all been meaningless because I am obviously deriving some joy and therapeutic benefits from practicing it. At the same time, however, I do have this desire to create things that speak to people—not in a manipulative way, but in a way that conveys honesty and truth. I'm not sure how capable I am of saying something that hasn't been said a million times before, but I feel that there must be something about my unique human experience that can edify the global discussion in some manner.

Maybe some of this is my own frustration with myself from dealing with depression and whatever the photographer's version of "writer's block" may be. Despite living in one of the great cities of the world—a city that's ever changing and host to millions of untold stories—I have just been very confused and uninspired as of late. I'm still pushing frames, but I haven't felt that spark of excitement when I feel like I've captured something truly special or something that speaks to me. If feels really wrong to be able to live here and struggle like this to find that spark of inspiration. I guess why this story hit me pretty hard. Maybe my inability to find something to say in the midst of all of this is just evidence that I just don't have anything within me worth sharing.

For now, it's something I'm working through and there's at least the continued journey toward mastering the technical elements of the craft that can serve as a motivator while I ruminate on this greater question. I'm hoping to add more photos to the projects on the website by summer's end and I'll also be looking to replace a few of them with what I hope will be stronger images. In the meantime, thanks to the few of you that have seen the website and had encouraging words, it means a lot to me.