Write what you know.
What does Google turn up for this sentence? Various attributions — Twain and Hemingway most frequently — none of them validated. Various takes on its meaning. Various opinions on whether it’s good or terrible advice for would-be writers.
Inexplicably, what doesn’t turn up — unless it’s several pages down — is my memory of a mid-term exam in political philosophy a lifetime ago. Nor does any discussion of how this advice relates to photography, likely because it hasn’t been written yet. Let’s rectify that now.
The place? Prescott ON.
The scene? The St. Lawrence riverfront.
The day? Gray.
As I walk along said riverfront with an old friend, I take a few phone-photos. I have no plan: These are spur-of-the-moment images of things that catch my eye.
When I edit them, I see things I didn’t see on my phone’s screen.
I see how featureless the sky really was. (Should I go back on a blue-sky day? Maybe during a storm?)
I see extraneous and distracting bits at the edges that don’t crop out well, at least not in a standard photo size. (Should I go back and pay more attention to framing?)
Mostly, I see, as I have before, that great shots are a function of access, planning, and time, and the greatest of these is access. Access allows me to redo shots on a better day or with a better camera. To identify and fix framing errors. To spend the time to get the perfect angle of the light, the perfect action set-up, and still be home for supper.
Although exotic-to-me locales and subjects can be more enticing, the close-to-home ones can yield better photos. It’s certainly easier to get good photos — good technically — where I have the chance to try again.
So, should I just photograph what I know? No. Technical proficiency aside, there’s a place for the happy accident: the subject caught in passing. There’s a place for the unfamiliar: the thing that is novel-to-me but that local residents have long since stopped seeing.
More than that, photos help me remember what I’ve seen.
We write to taste life twice.
– Anaïs Nin
But to taste it twice, verbally or photographically, I have to taste it the first time. So, finally, there’s a place for using photography to help me see and appreciate what’s in front of me.
Not every shot has to be great. It’s enough that every subject is. If I see it.