"Who am I and why do I want to take great photographs of people?" Henry Carroll opens his lovely follow-up volume, Read This if You Want to Take Great Photographs of People, with this great philosophical question about the functions of photography. "Answer that," he writes, "and you're well on your way to becoming a great photographer." Carroll's previous book offered excellent tips--including the three I shared previously--but this question has done more for my photography than any tip or piece of equipment.
Carroll's introduction challenges not just conventional wisdom about photography, but our motivation for taking photographs in the first place. Is it enough to say "I want to take photos of my kid because he's cute?" Or, perhaps more honestly, "I want to take photos of my kid so other people will see how cute he is?" Am I taking photos to freeze moments in time, so I'll remember what he looked like at different ages and stages? Am I taking photos so that his dad can keep up with his days? Of course I'm doing all of these things. But Carroll's question has me thinking with a greater purpose. My main aim is not to take beautiful portraits, or to record everything the kid did while his Dad wasn't home, or to preserve key moments for his grown-up self. My aim is to capture how our family has felt during our times together. Terror and eventual impatience in those cozy snowy days in the NICU. Determined frustration over 24-piece jigsaw puzzles. The glee of recognizing a word and knowing what it means. The exhausted relief in a stolen nap on kiddo's bedroom floor.
I'd be lying if I wasn't taking "you have to see this!" photos, or portraits designed for hashtagging. But my larger aim of capturing how our family life feels has made me a more thoughtful photographer, one willing to forego the portrait for macro shots of the ants surrounding crushed goldfish or the post-tantrum calm on the kitchen floor.
By far the most useful benefit of asking "why do I want to take photographs?" is that it helps me answer a related question: "what photos should I delete?" The emotional range of the 15-frame series of kiddo encountering a new toy seems wide and complex to me, but I imagine others--including my son--would ask why I saved the other 14 duplicates. Limiting myself to one great photo per day (or perhaps one great photo per session per day, if I'm on a roll!) helps me focus on the stories I want to tell.