A large part of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography curriculum is time devoted to discovering what drives myself and my classmates as photographers. The idea is to dig beneath the surface level "what?" (which would be "I really enjoy taking pictures") and figure out what "why?" While the "what" might direct me what to do with some spare time on a Saturday, we've learned that the "what" won't inform me on how I want to approach taking those pictures; it won't allow me to pursue the right opportunities that may span different genres of work but all have common threads; it won't give any sort of solid ground to stand on and confidently say "This is who I am as a photographer."
For a lot of reasons, including the three listed above, this is the most important part of the program for me. I would call myself an introspective person, but in the times I am reflecting on choices or actions I think I am generally critiquing or regretting (a terrible habit!) rather than carefully analyzing. So over the past three years that I've been pursuing photography, I've never really sat down to look at all my photos and searched for what dots could be connected between them. I've definitely never taken pause while shooting photos and asked myself "What made me just press the shutter button?" Consequently, I have spent three years knowing that I greatly enjoy taking photos but not feeling like I had a sense of direction. I have been standing on a loose, rocky mountain side while mumbling say "This is who I think I am as a photographer."
It's been exciting to dive into these assignments. A recent one in particular was a real challenge that I want to share. We were given the task to find something we really enjoyed shooting. It could be any subject matter, but it had to be able to last for an hour. It so happened that weekend I was shooting photos of a local bike team in Missoula at their last race of the season. I have always loved photos that feature riders and their bike as a subject and really enjoyed the race atmosphere. Two weeks prior, I had shot another one of the races and was so impressed by the team spirit, display of talent, and the humbling effort the kids put in. The catch to the assignment was that we were only allowed to hit the shutter button five times. That was it. Whatever images were created were the ones we had. The evaluation of the photos wasn't based on technicality at all; it was purely about the intent behind the photograph.
I was not expecting it to be as hard as it was. With the rise of digital photography, single frame shooting has almost become obsolete giving way to the shutter vomit and spray-and-pray techniques. After the initial cost for a memory card, you can shoot to your heart's content! So why not fire off 10 photos instead of one? Or 20, or 30? Why not make sure you capture the moment perfectly? It's become such a habit for me to snap off more than one photo of what I'm trying to capture, that I actually deviated from the assignment without realizing it. I had taken my first photo, new that it wasn't perfect, and swung my camera up to fire off a second without even thinking about it when I saw a better facial expression emerge on my subject.
So mistake aside, here are the five images I collected over an hour with explanations of the intent for each one:
| 11:52 AM | : I wanted to capture the moment of someone finishing. Heat-style cross country races can easily become a mental battle between the rider and themselves rather than other cyclists. Over the span of multiple laps, the bikers often become spread out from their original group and can find themselves cold, tired, facing a headwind, and biking alone. I was hoping to try and capture the joy and pride of finishing a race regardless of the standings the rider came in.
| 12:00 PM | : At the base of the course was a pump track and skills course that remained open the whole day for anyone to ride around on. At times, it looked like a bee-hive in there with young kids darting into the fray, pedaling around, then jumping back in. It was so cool to see so many young people having so much fun on bikes and with each other. I knew I wanted to capture that flurry of motion with a slow shutter speed but it was incredibly hard. The pattern of movement around me was constantly changing and with just one photo to do it, it was near impossible to capture that perfect blend of motion and spacing throughout the shot.
| 12:35 PM | : Bikes come in all different colors and designs. From an artistic perspective, it makes for quite a scene to see racks and racks of bikes hung up everywhere. I wandered among the team racks for a while playing with what I saw in the viewfinder to see if I could create more of an abstract shot that played with shape and color. It was my attempt to look at the event through a different perspective.
| 12:45 PM | : I missed the right expression by a split second. This girl had already raced and had pulled all over her male high school teammates that were about to race into a huddle. She gave some long fictional story that was meant to be inspirational for their ride. Not sure how effective it was, but she was incredibly fired up, and that energy I think is what was contagious. Surrounded by teammates, I wanted to try and capture that energy with eyes wide open and mouth yelling.
| 12:46 PM | : Just following the energized story-telling, the team started into a chant where one person was yelling “I’m fired up!” and the team responded “We’re fired up!” as they jumped up and down together. I loved the camaraderie. The energy was palpable. If it had been done right, I think it could be a prime example for all that a photo can capture without words.
All in all I think there was a lot gained from the assignment. It taught me a lot about shooting with intent. While I think it's very important for a photographer to be observational and reactive to what's being observed, it's so important, too, to shoot with intent. When you know what you want to convey, your shooting can then be experimental around conveying that idea to give you the best image possible. It taught me to be less critical. Rather than just looking at the LCD screen and saying "Yep, that sucks, not what what I wanted," writing down the reasoning behind it gave value to the image. It turned more into "It's not perfect, but the idea is there and I can see that. It's not that bad of an image." Most importantly, it gave me some insight into what I look for as a photographer. I don't want the posed, staged shot. While those can certainly be impressive and impactful (like this commercial image by photographer Tyler Stableford that I love) I don't think it's what speaks to me. I want the shot that's in the moment, that's candid, genuine, real, and raw. I want to be a transportation device between the viewer and the moment to put them there peering over the riders' shoulders at the race or seeing that flurry of activity around them.
Ultimately, with images combined and supporting each other, I hope they can tell a story.
If you're a photographer (hobbyist or professional) and are looking for a way to expand your understanding of your personal work, try this challenge out. It's a good one to do. As we were told: don't be critical, be objective. Focus on the larger reason that supports the image rather than the technical failures you might have.
Have fun and happy shooting!