A couple of months ago I posted an image of a man meditating on the banks of the Ganges in the Tips and Inspiration section. While talking about the image, I mentioned about how I try to avoid clichés and doing what everyone does. There was one comment that brought up a few interesting points. It got me thinking and resulted in this blog post.
This is the comment by Vivian:
Seeing things from a different point of view in a frequently photographed area is good to strive for but it is not a "rule." If this scene spoke to you on a personal or emotional level and it inspired you to photograph it, then that's what really matters. Censoring your eye and walking away because someone might call this a "photographic cliche" or "familiar" would be stifling your inclination.
Firstly, let me begin by saying that this blog post, like everything I write is a personal point of view. I’m not claiming that my way is the only way. In fact, the post is a collection of ideas. I am strongly convinced in the effectiveness of my ideas. I've thought them through. Photography in general is what I’ve dedicated the last 10 years of my life to.
Additionally, as much as I want this blog post to be for everyone, it’s probably not. It’s for those of you who are a little more serious about photography. For those who want to get their images out there into the public domain and who want those images noticed.
It’s become popular to say “Today, everything in photographic is a cliché”. This is highly, highly subjective and I disagree. What is a cliché? You could say that when it comes to photography, clichés are the types of photos or subjects which have been shot to death. In travel photography when I think cliché, I instantly think cormorant fishermen in China, Pacu Jawi buffalo races in Indonesia and eagle hunters in Mongolia. Google these words and you’ll see hundreds of images for each search, or just click the links above.
If we’re talking about more general clichés, some examples that come to mind are – almost anything with the sun (visible in the frame) setting or rising, all kinds of images with maroon-robed monks, local kiddies looking into the camera, smiling and men in turbans smoking. I’ve been very guilty of all these general clichés myself.
So, a cliché in photography is anything that’s overly obvious, lacks originality of idea and has been seen in a similar shape or form countless times. Of course, if you’re new to photography or aren’t very serious about it, you might have never paid attention to all the photography clichés. So, for practical reasons relevant to this post, let’s define a cliché as unoriginal photograph that has been seen countless times by anyone who is a relatively serious photography enthusiast.
Why should you avoid clichés?
For most part, clichéd photos don’t need much creativity to make. Even if they are technically challenging, they’re generally easy pickings in creative terms. You’re not enriching the world of photography with another typical image of those buffalo racers or another shot of the sun setting over the sea.
If you’re more serious about your photography and you’re looking at it as a potential career, you probably want to get your images in front of people who matter – magazine editors, agents, photo buyers etc. There’s are few better ways to get the people who matter to stop taking you seriously than to show them one obviously clichéd photograph after another.
I still remember sending in the photo at the top of this post to my editor at Getty Images. I called him to talk about his selection and at one stage couldn't resist asking “But, why didn’t you choose that image? It’s beautiful!” He was a polite English gentleman and replied “Yes, but it’s the ultimate cliché. We have thousands of these types of images. It’s an unwritten rule not to accept anything of this sort.”
Saving energy, or using it to look for something else
Travel photography can be tiring. Early mornings, long drives/rides, always rushing somewhere, chasing the light. When you know something is incredibly clichéd, and you aren’t hung up on taking the image anyway, you can save your energy by… not bothering to make the image.
Sleep-in at the hotel or cut a walk short and have a drink. I’ve been doing this more and more of late. I ask myself - Do I really need another image of a smiling turbaned man or another shot of a famous city at sunset? If “no” is the answer and time on the road has taken its toll, I’ll usually just chill.
Of course you don’t have to avoid taking photos altogether. If you have boundless energy and the time, look for something else and take different kinds of images. If you know that you’re in a place where you’ll likely just shoot what’s been shot a million times before you, go to a different place. Make a conscious effort to avoid the clichés. Our time anywhere is limited, so – why spend it on shooting what everyone has shot?
Why should you not avoid clichés?
Clichéd photographs are often beautiful. That may very well be the reason why many of them become so common. It’s hard to get tired of beauty. Additionally, sometimes you just want to take that photo regardless of whether you’ve seen it, or something similar before. A sunset on the beach might not be an image for a photo editor to get excited about, but, it is a great memory from your trip. It was for me in the case of the photo at the top of the post.
At times you might start photographing the cliché, but, as you understand the place or the subject better, your cliché might turn into something else. In many cases a clichéd image or a clichéd idea is just a small personal tweak or one creative decision away from being a totally unexpected photograph.
The photo above is of a boatman on the Ganges in Varanasi (yes, I spent a lot of time there). A boatman on the river is one of the most clichéd images a photographer can produce in Varanasi. I made a few of those typical types of images too. Then I made a tweak and photographed the man without showing he's in a boat and rather than frame wide to show the shore, I framed closer and waited for the birds behind him to get airborne and into the frame. In all my research, and I did quite a bit (out of curiosity), I didn't see an image of a boatman of this sort.
Another reason not to completely avoid clichés is because there are cases when an idea might be clichéd, but you might go with it because you see that the photo still has the potential for being strong. Like the photo above. Yes, it's a man in a turban smoking. Nothing original there, but, he's a great character. The light shapes his face nicely and there's a limited colour palette that works really well here. It's not something I'd put in my greatest images collection, but, it's a photograph that deserves to exist.
Finally, some of us need to photograph certain things, even if they are ridiculously clichéd. We need to get them out of our system. When we make those clichéd images, we learn and we better understand the places we visit in a visual sense.
Making it personal, looking deeper
Doing this doesn't automatically mean that your photos will be original. However I’ve found that whenever you approach the subject in a personal manner, when you connect and stick around a few days rather than rush in and out, perhaps even chat to people – then you start to notice little nuance and story-lines that are not obvious right away. This of course highly increases your chances of creating something special.
I’d like to use the images of my friend Asher Svidensky to demonstrate the point. I’ve joked a lot and told him that he follows along and just shoots what everyone else shoots. But, jokes aside, Asher managed to create some wonderful and original images in places where everyone creates the same stuff over and over and over again. He did it by making things personal, looking deeper and eventually finding something that wasn’t obvious.
The first photo is from the place of those over-photographed cormorant fishermen. Asher did shoot them at “work” but, he made some personal connections. The result was the opportunity to shoot this strong portrait of one of the elderly men who actually remembers the fishing life from before (unlike many who do it for show).
While virtually everyone who travels to Mongolia photographs eagle hunters, I’ve never seen a photo on an eagle huntress. It’s very uncommon. Asher found discovered the girl because again, he made some personal connections, spent a fair bit of time in the region and looked deeper.
To self-censor or not to self-censor?
I definitely advocate self-censorship. But, we all need some individual guidelines and let me stress "guidelines", not rules.
As with so many other things in life, for me this sort of photo self-censorship is about finding a balance. So, here are some of my personal self-censorship guidelines:
Don’t bother taking photos that are likely to be clichéd if – I’m tired or if there are other photo opportunities elsewhere.
Take a risk to make a unique photograph instead of going with what’s safe, if what’s safe is a cliché. At the very least, don't get stuck only shooting the safe, clichéd stuff – do it and move on.
Don’t go to places which have been photographed to death, unless I have an idea for a compelling personal angle. No cormorant fishermen, buffalo races, eagle hunters or other places with over-photographed subjects. There's so much more to the world than these places. Why follow other people? My friend Asher is an exception. I included him in this post to show that nothing is ever entirely just "black and white".
Do still take photos even if the idea behind them is not incredibly original, but the subject is great. There are just so many nuances that can still make the image worthwhile. I’ve already used the example of the smoking turbaned man to illustrate this point.
Educate myself on what’s already been done if I’m traveling to a place which has been photographed a lot. Ignorance or not knowing, doesn’t mean you’re more original. It means that you’re ignorant and don’t know.
self-censoring what you show
Considering that ultimately I think it’s not necessary to avoid clichés entirely; should the real, hard censorship then take place after you’ve already made the photographs? I believe so, and, I’m not talking about personal albums or collections of images that are aimed only at family and friends. Though, perhaps they too might be tired of clichés they’ll still love you, even if you subject them to viewing boring images. If they’re real friends, of course.
Self-censorship and editing of your own photos becomes important when you get them out into the public domain. Especially when you claim that you are a serious photographer and you’re saying this to other photographers with a certain level of visual education. I’d say that the importance of this kind of self-censorship and editing is very underrated.
In recent years I've tried to mercilessly self-critique my images before I post them online for the public to see. A big part of my decision behind whether I should post an image or not lies in whether I think it’s too clichéd to put my name next to it. And if I don’t mind it being clichéd, then – is it exceptional enough to subject others to viewing it?
As you see, the topic of clichés is not a straight-forward and simple one. A lot comes down to your personal views on photography and even on life.
The times of amusing audiences with virtually anything are gone. There’s now an abundance of great images from all over the world. There’s also an over-abundance of crappy images.
People are polluting the public domain with recycled, unoriginal crap. I don't want to contribute to that personally. I actually think I've done it enough in the past. The journey however is different for all of us. The path to an amazing and original image can come through conserving energy and consciously shooting something completely different. But, it can also be the result of creating the clichéd images and eventually finding the formula to create something far beyond the predictable.
Spread the word. And join the discussion
I'd love to hear what you think of this blog post. Like it? Hate it? Want more? Have an opinion? Post it in the comments section.