An ever-increasing group of photographers and artists—and I count myself among them— believe that the arts are essential to a healthy society. Images can reflect a culture back on itself, offer hope and inspiration, highlight the myriad forms of injustice and inequality, and reflect both the sublime elements of nature as well as the rapid degradation of the environment.
In the eyes of many, within this broken world, using photography only for self-enrichment is not enough. Rather, photographers can concurrently find personal fulfillment and embody social responsibility through an active involvement with their community and surroundings. Instead of the paradigm of the isolated artist seeking personal enlightenment, admiration, and individual accomplishment, we could strive to find a new model for the twenty-first century, that of engaged photography.
Suzi Gablick writes in TheReenchantmentofArt: “Exalted individualism…is hardly a creative response to the needs of the planet at this time, which demand complex and sensitive forms of interaction and linking.… I believe there is a new, evolving relationship between personal creativity and social responsibility, as old modernist patterns of alienation and confrontation give way to new ones of mutualism and the development of an active and practical dialogue with the environment.”
The power of the camera extends in two directions: inward and outward. It teaches us to pay attention and be aware of the intersection between our inner life and outer conditions.
As our vision and skill grow as photographers, our awareness and consciousness expand outward to encompass both self and other. The photographer behind the lens and the society that has shaped them cannot be separated; they are deeply intertwined. The individual dynamics of the artist—their internal terrain, psychological development, and sympathies and antipathies— can fuel one’s image-making. The search for awareness helps others on the same path. Likewise, the photographer’s genuine and deeply felt perceptions of the world earned by hard experience and through one’s unique circumstances can teach, inform, and incite others to look at and even act on some of our collective challenges.
Teaching art, by definition, reaches deep into individuals and opens them to a certain kind of self-knowing—a discovery of their authentic voice or vision—and encourages an expansive engagement with outer life. I find myself often facing the question of which world to explore in the classroom, the inner or outer. A good number of people come to classes mostly to learn the techniques and language of photography. Yet all are touched in some way by each other’s creative efforts. I find myself needing to walk a fine line between functioning as a facilitator, bringing them into greater touch with their inner life, and, at the same time, to encourage a careful and rich observation of the world itself. When I forget one side, the inner or the outer, which happens frequently, I feel somehow that something is missing, that I am not offering people what they really need. In those moments, I feel the stirrings of remorse.
Over time, students begin to have an inner measure, from which they can identify whether their work rings true, that their observations are made with wholeness, richness, and integrity. Images made with meticulous truthfulness to one’s own experience can lead to an opening to the wisdom of the heart. When this measure begins to make itself known, we have the beginnings of art that has the capacity to deeply touch both the maker and the viewer. From time to time, we find this kind of magic in classroom moments when a collective energy descends into the room that opens our feelings in a new way.
Whether you are an Instagram aficionado or are publishing and exhibiting your photographs in traditional venues, consider making images that move beyond merely displaying your skills and seeking likes. Ask the question: what can help? What kind of images will illuminate the kind of world we want for our children and the future?
Delve deeply into your own experience; photograph from who you are. Engage the world richly and honestly; learn to see what is. In your own community and within your own life, there are undoubtedly many pressing issues and intractable conditions that could benefit from your attentive engagement with a camera. There is a rare beauty in disarming candor. Do not shirk from revealing your community and the world to itself: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Understand that your camera is a powerful tool for both expanding awareness and initiating positive social change.
Robert Adams makes the observation in his book, Art Can Help: “It is the responsibility of artists to pay attention to the world, pleasant or otherwise, and help us live respectfully in it.
Artists do this by keeping their curiosity and moral sense alive, and by sharing with us their gift for metaphor. Often, this means finding similarities between observable fact and inner experience.…
In this way, art encourages us to gratitude and engagement, and is of both personal and civic consequence.”
Book excerpt from The Mindful Photographer: Awake in the World with a Camera, Rocky Nook, 2021