We see the world in visual terms and we express ourselves through visual art. Had we wanted to express ourselves with words, we would have become writers, right? And yet, crafting an artist statement or writing about our work in some form, for one reason or the other, is inevitably asked of us.
The good news is that any discomfort or frustration you might have as you write about your photographs is absolutely worth it and, I’d argue, even necessary in order to make work that’s cohesive and powerful.
When we write about our photographs, we’re forced to express what they portray and what compelled us to make them. These two key points are the guiding factors that help us select images from outtakes, sequence our photographs, and title our work—all of which is paramount to how the series is presented and, by extension, received.
Oftentimes, throughout the life of a project, answers to these two questions—what and why—change as a series evolves due to the mysterious ways of the muse. Writing about your work as it develops can be an extremely expeditious way to keep working toward a strong, impactful edit. For various reasons, we can be mistaken about what our images actually show. But when we take the time to write out what we think they show, if that disparity does indeed exist, our writing tells us, and we can start revising either the selection of images, the words we use to describe them or both.
Developing clarity about the overall expression of a body of work also informs us of our personal style. Explaining why we made certain photographs sheds an enormous amount of light on the subjects we choose and the intention we have for using photography as our medium. The fact that we’re not forced to articulate that, because we chose a visual art, means that the answer to this question sometimes does escape us, often without us even knowing.
Writing about our work keeps us close to our photographs. It narrows the gap between our intention for photographing and the results of that intention. It’s a line of communication that keeps the conversation between us and our images going.
While it’s tempting to avoid writing about our photographs, the reason we usually repel the idea is that we are, on some level, aware we can’t articulate the meaning of our images. That’s why just the idea of writing about them feels painful to us, not to mention actually sitting down and doing it. Yet, this is the very thing we need to know in order to keep making powerful work.
Writing about our work as it develops, on our own terms, not only helps our photography progress, it means when we’re asked to write a statement, we already have a draft of ideas to work with. We’ve already worked out some or all of the misperceptions we had, and our formal statement will be all the more trenchant and accurate as a result.
And, the added benefit is that we can talk more easily about our work when people ask us. We have the words. We don’t stumble through the answer or respond with unspecific terms that impart our insecurity or lack of clarity.
Coming up next: How to write your artist statement.