on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Photographing for Others

If I was the last person on the planet, would I still photograph?

Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US. Website



Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one person consciously, by certain external signs, conveys to others feelings he has experienced, and other people are affected by these feelings and live them over in themselves. ~Leo Tolstoy

In a letter to an aspiring young poet, Rainer Maria Rilke advised, “This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple 'I must,' then build your life according to this necessity … Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.”

If I had to answer Rilke’s question as originally asked, about writing, my answer indeed would be, “I must.” But I can’t say that the same is true for photography. I never felt that I must photograph, and yet I still dedicate a great portion of my life to it. This is because Rilke’s second advice—to say what I see and experience and feel—is eminently more important to me than what medium I use to do so. I did not choose photography for this purpose originally, it just happened to be available to me at the time I realised I wanted to express myself creatively. 

It is easy, sometimes, to accept advice without questioning, on the sole base that it is offered by a figure of authority, or that it sounds important or noble.
If at the same time I was more skilled in painting or in playing the violin than I was in photography, I would likely be a painter or a violinist today. More important, I would still preach the value of self-expression just as passionately.

It is easy, sometimes, to accept advice without questioning, on the sole base that it is offered by a figure of authority, or that it sounds important or noble. None of these qualifications, however, necessitates that the advice is good, true, or even tenable. One such bit of advice often given to photographers is this: “photograph for yourself.” Seemingly simple, wise, and self-evident, it is a motto I promoted to others and claimed for myself for three decades. And then I asked myself whether, if I woke up tomorrow to find a world in which I was the only human being (coincidentally, one of my favourite recurring dreams), I would still photograph. The answer, “not likely,” flashed in my mind instantly, followed by the realisation that it could not be congruent with my claim of photographing for myself. Upon further thought, I realised that, while not entirely false, my claim of photographing for myself was, at best, only partially true.



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