“Some photographers think that by taking pictures of human misery, they are addressing a serious problem. I do not think that misery is more profound than happiness.”
How Does it Relate to Photography?
This quote speaks to something I’ve felt ever since I got into photography. For many people, there’s an idea that human misery, despair and other negative feelings make for a more powerful and important photograph.
This is understandable considering these types of photos usually attract the most attention and awards, but does that mean they’re more important?
Open the newspaper or turn on the news, it’s all about tragedy and crime. Negativity taps into emotions more easily. This can be a good thing when it’s bringing needed attention to something important, but in photography, sometimes it can be captured just for the sake of grabbing attention. When looking at a photo like this, are we reacting to real human emotions or is much of it just shock?
Emotion or Shock
Shock is the easiest way to get a reaction or interest in anything, not just news and photography. From jokes to television to facebook comments, add some shock value and you have something that grabs attention. This doesn’t make it truly more powerful, though, in my opinion. Capturing something positive probably won’t gain you many awards, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be just as powerful.
For me, I don’t always want to see the negative side of life. While this world and life is full of negativity, it’s also full of positivity. Even in the darkest places, there’s happiness, laughter and joy.
Day-to-day life brings us those day-to-day things that bring us all happiness. Much of the time, we take it for granted until we don’t have it. Capturing those gifts of daily life can be just as important as the negative stuff.
Is Negativity Easier to Capture?
Many times, when capturing negative situations and emotions, it can be easier to make a photo that people respond to. A person crying, an angry expression, conflict, war, etc. If a scene includes any of these situations or subjects, by just aiming and clicking, you’re bound to capture a photo that gets viewers reacting.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have laughter, joy, smiles, scenes of happiness, etc. Aim and snap a photo of this and you might get comments like “cliche,” “boring,” or “cute.” It’s difficult to capture positivity without going into those categories. There’s a fine line when dealing with positive situations.
Negativity can give a feeling of hard reality, while positivity can come off as fake. So you have to really capture it authentically.
How to Apply it to Your Photography
When capturing negativity, there are things you have to worry about, like a feeling of exploitation. With a photo capturing positivity, you have to worry about even more things, though.
You want it to look genuine and authentic. A smile or laughter can easily bring feelings of posed or “cute” if it’s not captured well, and at the right moment. Even if you capture the moment completely candid, it has to feel that way too. We’re accustomed to equating smiles with posing because that’s what most people do when they know a photo is being taken. Even if a person isn’t happy, they’re going to act like it for the camera. Positive situations and emotions can easily come off like a magazine ad or family photo. You have to overcome this.
One way is to make it as candid as possible. Catch the scene at its most authentic. Real laughs and smiles have a different look than fake ones because the person isn’t being self-conscious about it. You can try to capture a real scene, with different elements spaced apart and people in natural, or even awkward, positions. Maybe someone in motion or doing something. All of these things go against the look of posing together, and can make the scene feel more real.
You also have to be careful that the photo doesn’t come off as too cute. Photos of puppies, kittens and babies might get “likes” on flickr, but most won’t be taken seriously in photography. Positivity and happiness doesn’t have to look cute. It has to look like real life.
Timing is usually the most important part of capturing a positive moment. It has to be at its most authentic. Feeling the scene and atmosphere, spending time within it, and trusting your instincts can help you accomplish this.
Happiness is Found Everywhere
One thing I’ve noticed from traveling is that simple happiness is found everywhere, in seemingly equal parts. Outside of the absolute worst conditions, you don’t notice more happiness in a “nicer” place than you do in a worse one. To me, this is a beautiful part of life and something that connects us all. We adapt to our conditions and experience the same basic emotions. Sometimes happiness seems even more abundant in areas with less. When you don’t have much, you tend not to want much. And many times find joy out of the simple things in life. Or in the most important things in life, like family, friends and relationships.
Where to look?
On the plus side, while it might be more difficult to capture positivity well, you can usually find it more easily. Happiness happens everywhere. You can look for parks, squares, or any events going on. These places bring people together, which tends to bring happiness and positive scenes. You can look in neighborhoods that bring you closer to the locals. Places where people are more comfortable and at ease, where life is away from work, and where children play outside. Explore and look for people together, talking and hanging out. Positive scenes are just waiting to unfold.
The positive can be cool too
I’ve caught myself not taking a photo because it doesn’t feel edgy enough. Being turned off because a scene might be too positive seems to be common among street photographers. But do we only want to see photos on the darker side? As Leiter said, “I don’t thing misery is more profound than happiness.” Capturing positivity well might be a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth taking.
What do you think about capturing happiness and positivity in photograph? Is it less important than the negative and what difficulties do you find with it? Tell me in the comments below. And if you have any favorite quotes for photography, be sure to comment them too!