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What’s Really Missing from Your Photographs?

01 cover apple store glass step

Ever felt that your images are missing a certain je-ne-sais-quoi? I remember when I was a proud young shooter, I showed my images to my photography 101 teacher, ready for him to crown me the next best photographer he’s ever seen (Hey I was young). He looked at them, and politely said “They are coming along”.

What. The. Heck dude!? I looked at him in disbelief. I tried some Jedi mind tricks on him; trying to juice some positive note out of him. After a while, it was evident he didn’t want to offend me, I tried pressing him a last time and he gave me the same answer…that my photos were coming along. After thanking him I went my own way, still fooling myself that my stuff I was amazing.

Truth is, he was right, I felt there was something missing from my photographs, I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I knew it. I could see it in other’s images but not mine. I knew my technical photography, I knew the subtleties of composition, I was a graphic designer after all, but there was something that eluded me in photography and I couldn’t figure out what…until something terrible happened.

RRrrrring! A few years ago, I got a call from my aunt, she asked me to call my brother. Apparently my mom had some health issues. I was cool about it, my mom was a cancer survivor, and she sometimes failed here and there, having seizure but never anything major. I dialled my brother promptly.

Yo man! Heard there’s something wrong with mom, what’s up? I asked, ready for the news that she had a seizure episode or something.

He quickly blurted out three words in a rage. I heard the three words I was always afraid of hearing. She. Is. Dead…………. I dreaded hearing those words for years, ever since I knew she had cancer when I was 10.

I remember going to her room hundreds of times, just making sure that her belly was going up and down, meaning she was breathing, still alive. Mental preparedness didn’t mean jack in that moment. She survived cancer, but the Haitian earthquake claimed her.

Palm tree 1
Typical image before my mom passed away

Way to go brother to break the news, right, right? But I’m digressing. So, why am I telling you this? Well, after the storm calmed a bit, eventually, it dawned on me: I never made any photographs of her.

Before my mother went back to Haiti, she was in the US, but instead of spending time making photos of her, I chose instead to take pictures of buildings and flowers. I then understood something a little too late: My photographs didn’t mean anything to me. I shot because I saw other people shooting (thanks internet!), not because I cared for what I was doing. That “thing” I was missing? It was simple: connection. Connection to my work. I could have made a photograph of my mother that showed how much I loved her, how much I cared. A photograph that only I could have made, but I kept shooting things I didn’t care about.

02 haiti wedding

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not putting down making photos of flowers and buildings, I’m only saying to be emotionally connected with what you are doing. If you find yourself into photos of flowers and whatnot, by all means do it! Many photographers did, especially later in their life. You have to find your connection to your work. If you think that many landscape photographers fall short of Ansel Adam’s work, it’s really not because he had somehow special gear, it’s because he had a strong, borderline religious connection with Yosemite National Park, he came alive when he was there. Most modern landscape photographers are only interested in the physical landscape, Ansel was interested on making images that recreated the sense of awe and majesty that he felt.

It’s not the technical, the gear, the sharpness that will make you a better photographer. It’s your connection to your work. That’s the magic that no one can replicate. So what’s really missing from your photography? You. Nothing more and nothing less. So far we can’t just plug our brains into another’s to transfer the feelings and emotions we are feeling inside, but can hardly express with words. The closest thing we have to transferring our emotions directly is photography (or art in general), so why spend our time shooting things we don’t care about in the first place?

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You can’t fake connection, shooting something that doesn’t mean anything to you will show in the work. What we feel while looking at a photograph is proportional to what the photographer felt when making it…..the big idea is that connection transcends the photograph.

When someone looks at your images, do they see something distinctively you or do they see yet another photographer? It might be easy to get likes by shooting what is expected of a photographer, but it’s much more rewarding to be yourself and connected to your work as a photographer. Trust me, been there, done that!

Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

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Olivier Duong
Olivier Duong

is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.

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